Saturday, September 18, 2021

Record (And A Concert!) Roundup: On An Island

I may be in the minority, but I'm still not ready to go to indoor concerts. Whether it's in a glorious sweatbox like Market Hotel or the immaculate Merkin Hall, I can't seem to project myself into a space where everyone is sitting or standing together - masked or unmasked. I hope all my favorite artists, whose tour dates flash past in my newsfeed and my inbox, will forgive me. And I hope even more strongly that they get the audiences they deserve! Fortunately, some artists and presenters are being creative and I have so far been to concerts in a cemetery, an orchard, and will tonight experience one from a canoe in the Gowanus. But, most recently I visited a tiny, manufactured "island" in the Hudson River. Words on that below and on a few albums on islands of their own.  

International Contemporary Ensemble: Tyshawn Sorey - Autoschediasms While I can see arguments against them, as a lifelong New Yorker I am a fan of some of the investments made to revitalize the far west side with projects like the High Line. So I was curious about the latest to open, the Little Island, which has replaced Pier 55 on the edge of the Meatpacking District, but I couldn't see any reason to go there, especially with the Delta Variant cropping up everywhere. But then I got an invitation to one of the concerts in NYC Free, a month-long series of events on Little Island that will hopefully become an annual summer institution. How could I resist the opportunity to see the International Contemporary Ensemble in their first live concert since 2020, with Tyshawn Sorey conducting Autoschediasms, his classic work of spontaneous composition? In short, I couldn't, so my daughter and I drove downtown and, after parking at a meter on Gansevoort (it can happen, people!), we walked over to the Little Island. 

Supported by a series of udder-like concrete stems, the place is a fully terraformed two-plus acres, with paths and hills and at least two areas for music performance. There are also food and drink concessions, tables to eat at, and a wide variety of plant life. The night we went (Thursday, August 19th), the place was buzzing, too, with a crowd diverse enough to set an urban planner's heart a-flutter. Was it a little more crowded than we would have liked in some areas? Yes, but most people were wearing masks and we employed a time-honored NYC strategy: keep moving. At least after my daughter had a quick meal of a tasty grilled cheese sandwich and a can of wine, we kept moving. We followed the signs to the Amph, which is a gorgeous amphitheater facing west, and were able to choose seats far from other people, many of whom wanted to sit with a direct view of the river and the sunset to come.

Sorey admires his handiwork

As soon as the musicians assembled and Tyshawn Sorey began eliciting sounds from them with his trademark blend of hand gestures and instructions on a small whiteboard, I noticed the excellent amplified sound coming from the web of speakers above us. It was natural enough for the urban soundtrack to interact with the music, but loud enough so the sounds of the city couldn't become a distraction. As I did the last time I heard this piece - which is never the same twice - I took notes. Here's what I heard:

  • Ghostly wails and guttural noises from Alice Teyssier (flute and voice), joined by Cory Smythe (piano)
  • Cymbals and bells from percussionist Levy Lorenzo, splashy and nautical
  • Dan Lippel down-tunes the E string on his electric guitar and attacks it with an e-bow, drawing fourth deep, burred sounds
  • Mike Lormand's trombone inquires and Rebekah Heller's bassoon answers.
  • An airplane weighs in with white noise from above.
  • Teyssier on bass flute making whoops and whispers, a little comedy from Lormand's muted trombone.
  • Hypnotic groove emerges from Lorenzo's toms and suddenly we’re deep in a jungle, jazzy stabs from the piano.
  • Lippell starts to sparkle but…
  • Everyone STOPS and Smythe goes OFF, then it's back to the groove, Lippel soloing with a furious delicacy.
  • Things start to get frantic. And fragmented.
  • Baton held high, Sorey brings the hammer down and…silence. For a second, anyway, before a new section begins, spacious and abstract, a prop plane commenting from the skies.
  • Increasing angularity from percussion and guitar, brass and woodwinds in their own serene world.
  • Repetitions from the woodblocks join up with a twangy riff from Lippel, then Sorey leads Lorenzo into a percussion solo, funky and virtuosic.
  • Sorey starts micromanaging the percussion with his baton, directing rhythms and moving Lorenzo from instrument to instrument in his massive kit.
  • On to vibes and piano with a smooth underpinning from the woodwind and brass.
  • Lippell stars working his wah-wah and whammy bar, weaving a spell, Teyssier making strange incantations through her flute.
  • Smythe digs deep on the bottom end of the keyboard while Lorenzo gets intimate with his side drum, leaning in, keeping the mallet close to the skin.
  • Woodwind and brass get squirrelly, Smythe building something in the background, until Sorey pulls him to the fore.
  • Things quiet down and break apart, Lippel getting downright nasty.
  • Then we’re back in the ghost space again, Lippel, Smythe and Teyssier leading the way. Heller joins with percussive pops from her bassoon. 
  • Lippell is now using his slide and things get quiet until…an OUTBURST - and then “Goodnight, thanks!” And it’s over. 
Sorey steps down and walks off, followed by the musicians. Spectacular! Everyone should see this engaging, entertaining piece at least once. Even some of the children (those brave parents!) were captivated.

Alarm Will Sound - Tyshawn Sorey: For George Lewis | Autoschediasms Rather than being antithetical to the spontaneous nature of the piece, having recordings of Autoschediasms is actually a delight. At bottom, they confirm the impression that in the end, Sorey's methods are resulting in music - and excellent music, at that - spiky and alluring in equal measure. His collaboration with Alarm Will Sound is as deep as that with the International Contemporary Ensemble. So much so, that you would never know that one of these performances was recorded on Zoom during lockdown. I watched it happen in real time and it's a stunning tribute to the flexible strength of both his conception and the musicians involved. While I somewhat miss the edge-of-the-seat engagement with each musician's reactions to Sorey's directions, that's only because I've seen it happen. However, the two Autoschediasms here are almost bonus tracks to accompany the immaculate world-premiere recording of For George Lewis, a nearly hour-long homage to a towering figure in contemporary composition and one of Sorey's mentors. 

This magnificent piece is the kind of music that compels you to breathe along with it, deep, lingering breaths to entrain with the succession of extended tones and chords from the ensemble. Some of the gravitas of later Messiaen is here, along with Morricone at his most pensive, but the totality of the work is all Sorey. The way the woodwinds and brass link up and then separate, the extraordinary use of the piano's low end, and the immense subtlety of the percussion are just some of the very distinctive touches here. Another is the way he builds drama within a very narrow dynamic range, which is essentially unchanged throughout the piece, toying with your expectations and keeping you riveted throughout. And then, just as the conclusion is drawing near, an ever-so-gentle reference to jazz, with mournful, soaring trumpet, is seamlessly evoked. There is much to discover in this monumental work and I'm grateful for the journey.

Michael Compitello - Unsnared Drum My first listen through this album for solo snare drum went through a few stages. I started skeptically, unsure that it was even a good idea. Then as it launched on the wings of Nina C. Young's remarkably textured, electronically enhanced Heart.Throb (2019), it turned into a high-wire act. Could Compitello really keep up this level of interest on pieces by Hannah Lash, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Tonia Ko? After the resonance and mystery of Young's piece faded, Lash's Start (2018) arrested with its brittle bursts, causing my admiration for her to rise, not to mention my astonishment at Compitello's brilliant technique. Ghost In The Machine (2019), Kirsten's entry, leans into the clanky funk of the drum's possibilities, even calling Michael Blair's work for Tom Waits to mind. Finally, we get Negative Magic (2019) by Ko, which starts as an exploration of the instrument's authority and evolves into an expression of its flexibility. Besides causing a paradigm shift in my view of the snare drum, Compitello's album is just a damned good listen. It's a handsome package, too, in case you still do the whole physical media thing.

Molly Herron + Science Ficta - Through Lines What causes an instrument to fade from view? Presumably, it's because new techniques and technologies make successor instruments "better" at the same job: more expressive, perhaps, while also sometimes being louder and easier to play and maintain. Whatever the reasoning, this album of music for viola da gamba will have you reconsidering that whole notion. Now, a quick read through the Wikipedia entry for this relative of the guitar and ancestor of the cello tells me that it fell out of fashion in the mid-18th century and has had periodic revivals of interest in the late 20th century and early 21st century, mostly around music of the baroque and renaissance era. But Herron is one of the few to simply use the instrument as a basis for new music without any reference to the past, and what a wonderful gift she has given us by doing so. 

Herron is also lucky to have Science Ficta, a viol da gamba trio made up of Loren Ludwig, Zoe Weiss, and Kivie Cahn-Lipman, as her collaborators, as they navigate the music and instruments with aplomb. Now, if you heard Through Lines without knowing what they were playing, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a cello trio, but there is a taut, almost metallic dryness to these sounds that is full of character. The music itself is quietly introspective and songful and occasionally radiates a woody hint of a Nick Drake solo guitar piece. Herron also seems to have a post-modern bent, as in Trill, which takes a Baroque ornament and makes a whole piece out of it. Just one remarkable invention on an album full of them!

Van Stiefel - Spirits Electric guitar wiz Stiefel throws a lot of names into his liner notes for this album of multilayered guitar pieces - Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Glen Campbell - but I would have to add Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno into the mix, thinking of some of the "country and western" tracks on Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, or some of Lanois' pedal steel explorations. This often very chill but dimensional album also slots neatly with recent releases from Corntuth and Jeffrey Silverstein, making me think one of the spirits evoked here is the zeitgeist. But no matter; these intricate pieces, weaving electric guitar, lap steel, piano, and electronics in seamless fashion, can stand fully on their own and will enrich your universe.

Ning Yu & David Bird - Iron Orchid Yu's debut, 2020's Of Being was mightily impressive, but this album, a collaboration with composer David Bird, is a whole other animal. Bird, who first caught my ear on andPlay's wondrous Playlist, is obviously a deep thinker about sound, refusing to accept any limitations on what an instrument can do, in this case the piano, which is pushed to its limits as an object of wood and metal and plastic. Surrounding the sometimes startlingly heavy sonics generated by Yu are not only electronics but recordings collected from the Echo Chamber, an 11-foot tall sculpture created by Bird and Yu with Mark Reigelman that contains a speaker in each of its 56 metal tubes. That's all fascinating to know, but the overall experience of the album is of inventive, mind-expanding electroacoustic soundscapes, some spiky and herky-jerk, like a malfunctioning Terminator taking baby steps, others, like the staggering album-opener Garden, nearly overwhelming oceans of wall-shaking sound. I'm no audio elitist, but that latter quality is only fully realized on my good, old-fashioned component stereo. If there's one nearby, you owe it to yourself - and the dedicated team who made this extraordinary album - to play it there and at high volume.

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  1. Thank you so much for this roundup and for coming to the concert on August 19th. Levy Lorenzo, not Nathan Davis, was the percussionist that evening. Thank you again!

    1. You're very welcome - fixed that detail!

  2. Thanks so much for the kind words! Such an honor to have your ears, and to share the space with such amazing creators and performers!