Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Ocean Music Surfaces

Ocean Music - Troubadour No. 1 I hate keeping secrets, so the fact that Richard Aufrichtig, the captain of Ocean Music, sent me most of these tracks in 2017 has been a source of tension in my life. It’s not that I have to share music to enjoy it - but it helps. I also understand that releasing art out into the world takes courage, especially if you think it’s not quite ready. No matter how many times I told Richard, “Put this out - it's one of the best albums of the year!” he held firm, guided by an internal compass. I should have trusted him, as its final version is better in ways both subtle and obvious. And it is definitely one of the best albums of the year.

I won’t bore you by comparing Troubador No. 1 with an unmastered album I had on repeat two years ago, but I will say that coming up with Blown Open to start the album is a credit to Aufrichtig’s tenacity. I can now hear that it was the missing piece. Starting with his unaccompanied voice, Blown Open arrests instantly with its imagery: “Cold - grass in the summer/Old - classical music/I - used to belong there/I - used to believe it.” Subliminal picked guitar is joined by clarinets, so unexpected and yet so inevitable. The album’s title falls into place: This is a troubadour, a “poet who sets words to music,” yes, but there’s also a connection to the word’s roots in the Medieval French for “to find.” Aufrichtig is on a journey of self-discovery and we are privileged to be invited along for the ride. 

By the end of the song, there’s a bed of electric guitars and a synth has been introduced and dismissed. Blown Open fades into meditative silence, shortly replaced by the wry flute and gentle disco of Paris, a sublime duet with Holly Miranda. Seeing them perform it live was a dream come true and you should count yourself lucky if you were there. There are witty horns and a wailing harmonica, which contains as much regret as the chorus: “Now, I’m going back to Paris.” Just as we rarely feel just one way about anything - especially if you’ve lived a little - Paris is a hybrid song, and a brilliant one at that. 

The title track also grooves, but hypnotically this time, guitars and sax coexisting peacefully as Aufrichtig casts his thoughts to half-remembered incidents, his voice full of warmth and compassion. Blue October Sky is also a retrospective glance: “I lost you in October, like I lost my minor key/And I wish I could remember all the songs you sang for me.” Somewhere, Leonard Cohen is tipping a stylish fedora in acknowledgment. 

One of the things I love about Ocean Music’s songs is that they take their sweet time. This has led to some clueless reactions from those who would pretend to be gatekeepers, i.e. people with popular playlists. One comment Richard shared still haunts me: “You have a beautiful voice but the song takes too long to develop.” Translation: “I am so uncomfortable with myself that I can’t sit within this gorgeous piece of music without constantly wondering when it will change.” It's like criticizing the weather for not dissolving the clouds quickly enough. Just as the clouds will roll out when they roll out, an Ocean Music song moves at its own pace. 

Take Telephone, the fifth song on the album, which follows its midtempo, strummy groove for a full three minutes before the horns come in. Then, after Richard sings, “You with your arms and your hands and your stories that can make me fly,” his guitar starts to squall in a biting, distorted tone, soon joined by a skronking sax that had me wondering if David Murray was on the track (it's actually Stuart Bogie of Antibalas, etc.). Another guitar joins (perhaps the great Josh Kaufman, who also co-produced the album) and everything begins to soar into consonance over vocal harmonies. It is absolutely glorious. Allow it to thrill you before you assume there’s a construct within which it should have existed. 

An Old Dream goes deeper into the mystic, with Aufrichtig accompanying himself on what sounds like an ancient piano. His steady voice calms the odd harmonies from the ailing instrument as he creates scenes both sensual and serene. He ends the album with another dazzling display of his arranging skills, with the finger-picked acoustic of Watchlight limned by organ and what sounds like a Jew’s harp. It also closes the record on an upbeat note, with the troubadour getting ready the hit the road again, sounding hopeful for what the future may hold: “After the show, we can walk around/Buy our tickets down in Chinatown/And we can leave this town, leave this town, leave this town.” But come back soon, Richard - we need to hear what treasures you find on the next leg of your journey. 

P.S. For another angle on Aufrichtig’s very musical mind, subscribe to Fresh Wind, his wonderful Spotify playlist, which he's updating every Monday. 

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Saturday, May 18, 2019

Record Roundup: Electro-Humanism

Early works for prerecorded tape
I can still connect to the feeling of holding the future in my hand when my father handed me a record featuring Helices, a work composed by his old friend Manny Ghent for violin, piano and prerecorded tape. “Of course!" I thought, "Putting acoustic and electronic instruments together is not just for rock music!” Hey, I was young. One thing I didn’t consider, however, was the inequality between instruments that had been developed and perfected over centuries and ones that were only a few decades old.

But I think we can safely say that rapid innovation has fairly well erased any level of sophistication between something made of wood and activated by air or vibration and something that needs software or recorded sound to work. Or at least that’s what these three records would have me believe, all electroacoustic masterpieces that should make a believer out of you as well. 

Rand Steiger/International Contemporary Ensemble - Coalescence Cycle Volume 1: Music for Soloists and Electronics That long title gives you the basics. I could add that there are five pieces here, all except one featuring a single player in combination with audio signal processing. I could throw around terms from Steiger’s liner notes like “virtuosity” and the “intersection of tempered and just intonation,” but in the end, it’s all about sensation and emotion. For the first, there’s the almost tactile nature of the electronic sounds, rich and rounded clouds surrounding clarinet, flute, cello, piano and bassoon, all so perfectly played and recorded that you will feel their physical presence. Miller Puckett, Steiger’s longtime collaborator who writes the software, deserves special mention here, as do the musicians of ICE: Joshua Rubin (clarinet), Claire Chase (flute), Kivie Cahn-Lipman (cello), Jacob Greenberg (piano), and Rebekah Heller (bassoon). 

As for the emotion, Steiger’s command of harmony and melody is so finely calibrated that it seems to have a direct connection to my inner state, allowing me to engage on a visceral level. Translation: these five pieces sound fantastic and make me feel all kinds of ways. Regardless if your experience of processed sound comes from Brian Eno or autotune, I think you will agree. And the best news is that Volume 2, featuring the same techniques applied to larger ensembles, is already in the works. If you can’t wait, make sure to revisit A Menacing Plume, Steiger’s superb album with Talea Ensemble from 2014. 

Daniel Wohl - Etat In 2013, I called Corps Exquis, Wohl’s debut, “jewel-textured and compulsively listenable” while including it in my Top 20. But I was left cold by the follow-up, Holographic, which was accomplished but lacked a certain spark. Not so for Etat, which maybe as close to a pop album as we get from this furiously inventive sonic architect. Y Music and the Calder Quartet are here to expertly actualize the acoustic elements, but Wohl’s most important collaborator this time around might be Ryan Lott, who co-produced Etat with Sae Heum Han, an electronic composer who works under the name mmph. Lott, whose art-rock project, Son Lux, is occasionally radio-adjacent, is wise in the ways of shaping both songs and sounds.

Corps Exquis had already proved that Wohl could combine the organic and synthetic seamlessly, finding a perfect realization for his emotion-laden compositions. Etat finds him delving deeper into modern production techniques and at the same time becoming yet more soulful. Concision is a factor here, too, as each piece is short and self-contained, reminiscent of the classic work of Wohl’s countryman, Erik Satie. There's also some of the epic feel of Vangelis's work for the original Blade Runner - if they make another sequel, Wohl might be the man for the soundtrack. There’s even a "single" in the form of Angel, which features Channy Leaneagh, the vocalist for indie-pop group Poliça. But a track like Melt proves Wohl doesn't need words to get under your skin, which this remarkable album will do immediately when it comes out May 31st. 

Drinker - Fragments The main organic ingredients on this moody song cycle are Aaron Mendelsohn's voice and guitar, which are surrounded by all manner of rich electronic textures, from percussion and handclaps to sleek keyboards and bass. If you've been following closely, you'll note that I've been tracing Mendelsohn's muse since 2013 when I discovered his band Isadora, who were for a time one of NYC's best live bands. While Mendelsohn moved to California after Isadora dissolved, he had already begun collaborating with Ariel Loh, a New York-based electronic composer and producer (Yoke Lore is one of his projects), and they soon formed the group Drinker. Singles have been coming out since 2017, including the excellent Which Way Is South?, but Fragments is their first album.

While California is often associated with sun and sand, Mendelsohn's songwriting is more attuned to its moonlit alter-ego, the LA of Riders On The Storm rather than Good Vibrations. Massive Attack's slightly bruised majesty is also in the mix along with a subtlety that seems drawn from bossa nova. Just watching Mendelsohn's restraint as he sang some of these songs at the album release party a few weeks ago had me thinking of Frank Sinatra's work on the Sinatra/Jobim album, where he had to tone down his brassy quality - and that of the band - in order to find a new mode of expression. Sinatra's imprecations to the trombone player to soften his attack had the musician complaining "If I played any softer, I'd be blowing out the back of my neck." Mendelsohn seems to have achieved that on some of these songs, with Follow, in which he finds new falsetto contours in his voice, a perfect example.

The link between Drinker and Isadora is Mendelsohn's innate melodic talent, an ability to create songs where the music pulls you through the narrative as much as the words. In Loh he has found an ideal collaborator, someone who can push songs into unexpected directions that, after a few listens, seem inevitable. He and Mendelsohn also know when to layer sounds and when to strip everything back to a single instrument, techniques from dub and remix culture that keep the songs feeling fresh even as they become familiar. While Fragments is somewhat austere, it's also suffused with a deep humanity, delivering on electronic pop's promise to combine man (or woman) and machine in a way that adds new dimensions to both. A remarkable debut.

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Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Record Roundup: Poptones

There’s music almost scientifically designed to be popular, with little other reason for being. And then there’s music that uses the techniques of pop music for some form of personal expression. It’s the latter type that moves me and here are three recent albums that exemplify its virtues - and one of them happens to be VERY popular. 

C. Duncan - Health The third album by this Scottish singer-songwriter finds him doubling-down on the more electronic textures of The Midnight Sun, the follow up to Architect, his Mercury Prize nominated debut. While I still love the elegant folk-pop of the first album, which cast an hypnotic spell similar to Fleet Foxes and Radiohead, the gossamer delights of Health are undeniable. While even more synthetic than Architect, the production is richer than Midnight Sun, with a depth and polish to every sound. Plus, the tunes are catchy as heck, with choruses that wend their ways into your life long after the album ends. While Duncan doesn’t employ their lyrical acuity, the intricate bounce of Scritti Politti and the bright swing of Gaucho-era Steely Dan are obvious referents, which only makes me love Health more. This is artful pop music that should be more popular than it is - make it so by listening ASAP. 

Edwyn Collins - Badbea If the words “Scottish singer-songwriter” above didn’t cause the Edwyn Collins synapse to fire in your brain, I recommend a remapping. You could start with Orange Juice, present at the birth of indie with classics like Rip It Up. Or you could fast forward to A Girl Like You, the worldwide smash that has likely kept Collins in a certain comfort, especially after his life and career were interrupted by two nearly fatal strokes in 2005. In the six years since his last album, Collins and his indefatigable wife, Grace Maxwell picked up stakes, moved to the north of Scotland and built a new studio, unearthing some old lyric books in the process. Taking inspiration from his younger self has helped Collins make the most confident and compelling album since his recovery began. Just listen to the wicked fun he has wielding the lowest depths of his baritone during the breakdown of In The Morning, a moody stomper ripe for remixing. Dance music has always been an arrow in his quiver and it’s a delight to hear him employ it again on that song and others, like Glasgow To London, a flashback to the early days of Orange Juice. He also looks back more reflectively in I Guess We Were Young, creating a new folk standard in the process. But in the end, it’s the brash sense of forward motion and sheer gusto makes this album such a joy. If you want some of that in your life, look no further. 

Billie Eilish - When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go? As I mentioned in a recent issue of Off Your Radar, the fact that Eilish once appeared on YouTube with a ukulele caused me to put her in the “to be ignored” file. And I was doing a good job of that until the serious hype around this young singer-songwriter turned into a genuine buzz - then I HAD to listen. And I’m glad I did! What we have here is a protean talent who has put together a batch of electronic and hip hop-inflected pop songs for the ages. Her key collaborator is her brother Finneas O’Connell, who produced the album and filled it with all kinds of unique sounds, creating a canny blend of the organic, acoustic and synthetic. He even makes the ukulele work! 

But the songs are the stars. The fact that her mom said some of them remind her of Kurt Weill gives a sense of the home environment that helped nurture Eilish’s musical interests. And mom is right - there’s a sense of Weimar darkness here that suggests someone who has not only played with fire but been burned more than once. Whether you call Eilish an old soul or just a 17-year-old who feels things more acutely, there is real emotional depth here, especially in songs like the post-goth Bury A Friend or the stark introversion of I Love You. She uses her voice in all kinds of quirky ways, but it somehow avoids feeling mannered, and you soon realize what a rich, expressive instrument she has.

Part of her artistry is the way she keeps those emotions brilliantly at bay with lyrics which can graze a sophistication that Cole Porter would recognize, as in Wish You Were Gay: "To spare my pride/To give your lack of interest an explanation/Don't say I'm not your type/Just say that I'm not your preferred sexual orientation." But even before I discerned what she was singing about, the sheer melodic and sonic interest here grabbed me from the start. When was caught by surprise by You Should See Me In A Crown in an episode of Hanna, I was struck by the extent to which Eilish had quickly colonized my brain, the way the best pop music does. While its hard to figure out where she goes from here, with hundreds of millions of Spotify streams and YouTube views (not to mention a rabid Instagram following, but as long as she keeps it personal and lets Finneas do his thing, I think we'll be hearing from Eilish for a good long time. 

Find tracks from these albums and keep up with what's coming next in this playlist.

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Friday, April 19, 2019

RSD 2019: Bushwick Bound

As my wise friend Alex Smith pointed out last year in Flaming Pablum, his amusing and erudite blog, for the serious music fan, "EVERY DAY is Record Store Day" Or at least it has the potential to be. I know I don't need much of an excuse to visit a music emporium, it's just a matter of finding the time. That said, I do like to hit the streets on this day of worldwide devotion to purchasing music in its physical form, if only to see what other people are doing.

This year, the date of RSD converged not only with a free Saturday, but comes just a few weeks after the opening of a new store in Bushwick, the Brooklyn Record Exchange. I would have been interested in visiting BRE even if hadn’t come with the fine pedigree of Co-Op 87, a fine store in Greenpoint, whose owner Ben Steidl collaborated with the indie label Mexican Summer to make the new spot happen. Also, BRE is located in the same building as Elsewhere, a performance venue I’ve been meaning to get to for some time. Even if I wasn’t going to stay for a show, at least I would lay eyes on the site. 

Another part of my strategy on RSD is to avoid crowds, which I usually do by steering clear of stores that stock the “exclusives” that clog up the pressing plants and later flood eBay with overpriced fetish objects of varying musical interest. Last year, there were more exclusives of interest so I was happy to find a couple at late, lamented Iris in Jersey City. This year, the only thing I was really interested in was Jeff Tweedy's Warmer, a companion to his wonderful 2018 album, Warm. I have a feeling I'll be able to hear it some other way in the near future. Like Iris, BRE opened at noon but would be offering zero exclusives, greatly reducing my chance of encountering throngs of fair-weather vinyl geeks. 
Brooklyn Record Exchange is big, beautiful and perfect for browsing.
My plan worked perfectly. I got to BRE about a half-hour after they opened and ascended the one flight of stairs to find their gorgeous, light-filled space occupied by only a few people - and tons of records along with a shelf or two of videos on DVD, Blu-Ray and VHS. They also had a teeny selection of books and vintage magazines that looked highly curated. After taking in the full layout, I made a beeline for the New Arrivals section, which is where I always go first, especially when I don’t have anything specific in mind. I like the way New Arrivals mixes the genres, starting up an eclectic shuffle play in my mind as I flip through the discs. 

Worth $1.99 a few years ago, it now goes for $30.

My heart sank a little as nearly everything in BRE’s New Arrivals section was $20 or more, with a few at $15 or so. If this was representative of their stock, my budget was going to be put to the test. A copy of The Mack, Willie Hutch's classic Blaxploitation soundtrack, was a perfect illustration of the revaluing of vinyl that's happened over the last decade or so. Over a sticker from Saint Mark's Sounds pricing it at $1.99 there was a new sticker: $30.00. There was also a raft of Iggy Pop/Stooges bootlegs in there, which amused both me and the guy flipping to my right. I said, “Wow, somebody just dumped their whole collection!” “I know,” he said, “It’s wild!” He also agreed when I pointed out that while much of that material is phenomenal, a lot of it has been released many times over so you have to be careful not to buy two of the same concert or studio session. I also spotted a copy of a legit Iggy album, 1979's New Values, which was priced at $20 - I wonder how much my autographed copy would go for? I'm looking forward to revisiting the album for a 40th anniversary write-up for Rock & Roll Globe - coming soon!

The only potential selection I pulled out of New Arrivals was something called The Ornette Coleman Songbook by Jocques & Le Scott on the Theater of the Evolving Arts label. Maybe this one should have evolved a little more as it turned out to be sort of a spoken word album with sparse musical accompaniment, very loosely interpreting some of Coleman's greatest compositions. Not for me - thank goodness for preview turntables! BRE has two of those, by the way, and they're brand new with excellent headphones, always an asset to a store.

Another sign of a good store is staff that's willing to help without judgement, which I observed in action when another shopper approached the counter, holding two albums from the New Arrivals section. One was dubstep classic Untrue by Burial and the other was Halcyon Digest by the long-running indie rock band Deerhunter. I almost couldn't believe my eyes and ears when he held the records high and asked the employee which one he should get. "Yeah, I've literally heard nothing from either of these albums and I'm not sure which one I would like better. Got any advice?" There was a beautiful madness to this approach as sounds from either album are easily accessible on YouTube, Spotify, etc. There was also a turntable mere feet away, so he could've checked them out for himself. Without hesitation, the man from BRE  helped him make up his mind by enquiring about his tastes and giving concise and knowledgeable descriptions of both records. Even though this exchange was incredibly anachronistic, it's also one reason people go to a retailer in the first place.

Suddenly remembered there WAS something specific I was looking for, namely Illusion, the second album by Renaissance, which was also the last one to feature Jim McCarty and Keith Relf of The Yardbirds. I know I could probably find it online, but for now I'm enjoying the chase while I'm still getting to know the first album. No dice at BRE, so I started working my way around the room, going genre by genre, mainly looking in the miscellaneous sections of each letter of the alphabet. I started striking gold in the funk/soul area and pulled out a bunch of records to preview. Fortunately, they were all priced around $5, quelling my earlier fears. I pulled out the one and only album by South Shore Commission since I have a 45 of the "Disco Mix" of their hit Free Man. It's already on Spotify so I slid it back into the rack - but it is a more than solid collection of 70's disco. One I had I high hopes for that didn't make the cut was Deadeye Dick, the 1978 follow-up to CJ & Co.'s killer Devil's Gun album. Like the first, Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore were heavily involved with every aspect from writing to producing, but the magic seemed to have departed, with tempos that were too fast and gimmicky attempts to reproduce their earlier success.

Putting Deadeye Dick back in the reject bin, something another shopper had stuck in there caught my eye. The album cover featured an urban landscape akin to some of my photos (check me out on Instagram) and the title was Surge, a 1977 album by the New York Jazz Quartet. Intrigued, I flipped it over and saw Frank Wess's name, which immediately made my hopes quickly ascend. Ever since I fell in love with Johnny Hartman's version of Jobim's Wave, I've been a huge fan of Wess, especially his flute playing. He's kind of a perpetual underdog as far as the canon goes, which means he has a lot of stuff that's out of print, like Flute Juice, a fantastic 1981 album I picked up last year. The NYJQ album also featured bassist George Mraz and the other players were pianist Roland Hannah, who founded the group, and drummer Richard Pratt. The previews did not steer me wrong - it's an excellent record, with sparkling interplay and two great Wess compositions. The recording is also out of this world, with a sharp, fizzing presence that put the group right in my living room.

The next album I checked was almost surefire: Lee Dorsey's Night People, his last album from 1978. I already knew the almost delicately funky title track and Soul Mine, his canny update of Working In The Coal Mine. All the wax I saw at BRE looked clean so this wasn't so much a condition check but just a chance to confirm my suspicion that with Allen Toussaint behind the boards the rest of the album was at least good. Confirmed! Even though Toussaint occasionally faltered in the 70's, sinking into sappiness, Dorsey always seemed to bring out his best. Further listening has proved Night People to be a great album, a fitting capper to the two-decade career of a unique singer.

Next up was a wild card, something from 1976 called Street People, "a Suite" by The Bob Crewe Generation. I was surprised to see it was on Elektra, as I had known Crewe's disco/funk period from the Hollywood Hot album on 20th Century Records - and Elektra wasn't exactly known for making noise at Studio 54. Turns out Street People grew out of a single by the same name, which came out earlier that year on 20th Century. Whatever the reason for the label switch, Elektra's budget assured that Crewe didn't stint on this orchestral disco album that tells the story of a small town boy who comes to the big city and becomes a target for all kinds of desires. Much of it is mixed by Tom Moulton and the first side goes down so easy that, before I knew it, a BRE employee was tapping me on the shoulder and asking me to free up the turntable for someone else! In the end, while the album does falter a little on Side Two, I can imagine dropping a song like Menage A Trois or the title track at a party and watching people dance like crazy.

Called out of my dance floor reverie, I remembered one other thing I was looking for: Stretch or any of the Scott Walker albums from his "wilderness years." They're going for wildly inflated prices on eBay so I'm hoping to stumble on one here or there. BRE didn't have any of those, but they did have mint condition copies of Tilt and The Drift, going for about $60 each. I picked them up, just to feel the heft of Walker's achievement. Then I put them back and burned my way through BRE's well-stocked Soundtracks section. While I didn't buy the beautiful copy of Route 66 Theme and Other Great TV Themes by Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra, it did remind me of this terrific album, which I have on cassette and look forward to revisiting on Spotify

I cruised through their reggae section, once again reminding myself of the one regret I have in life: that I didn't buy two copies of every Jamaican 12" I could find back in the 70's and 80's. With many of them going for $12 or more, it's a return on investment any hedge fund guru would respect. I found a couple of things to follow up on, mainly Horace Andy and Leroy Sibbles, but nothing that wasn't available to stream.
My three purchases!
I was starting to feel the call of java so I paid for my three albums and headed out, setting the controls for AP Café, which turned out to be a fine coffee destination indeed. Brooklyn Record Exchange has been officially added my mental list of stores to put in rotation and, while it is pretty far on the L train, I could see combining it with a trip to Superior Elevation, another great store. Or maybe the move is to catch a show at Elsewhere and arrive a little early to do some digging. I'm putting Wand's July 5th gig on my calendar - they're playing the Rooftop, which should be a blast!

Bonus Beats
Vintage Vinyl, Fords, NJ - Large? Yes. Legendary? Not so much.

The day after RSD, I found myself on the Rutgers campus (my son was in a Smash Melee tournament - parenting!) so I dialed up nearby stores and ended up at Vintage Vinyl in nearby Fords. It describes itself as "NJ's Legendary Independent Record Store Since 1979," which got me excited. While it is definitely distinguished by its size (massive) I would also say it's a few notches below legendary as a shopping experience. One thing I didn't really appreciate was the sticker on every the sleeve protector of every used record that said something like, "This is near mint. You may inspect at the front counter only." So, no preview turntable, obviously - and they didn't even want to you to look at the record or inner sleeve without adult supervision. One of the perils of their size, I suppose. In the end I almost bought the debut album by The Silkie, a fascinating bit of Liverpool folk-rock, which has The Beatles themselves helping out on a great cover of You've Got To Hide Your Love Away. But at $20 and without a way to try before buying, I slid it back into the rack.

Rare live Scott Walker

Before I was called away by my son who needed a quick pizza infusion, I took a quick look for some Scott Walker and struck gold in the CD's, finding a copy of Live On Air 1968, a fascinating collection of audio from the two pilot episodes of his never-aired BBC-TV show. While the sound is a little rough, it's simply astonishing to hear how incredible his voice sounds live, an endlessly rich baritone that he wielded with complete control over its every nuance. It's also fun to hear his intros, such as when he says: "I'm very pleased to be able to have a gentleman with me tonight that produces all my records, Mr. Johnny Franz. John and I are both sort of musically frustrated people mainly because he's an A&R man at Phillips and he never gets to play piano anymore, and that used to be his living, you see. And I'm extremely lazy so I never work (chuckle). So, it's very frustrating, as you can imagine. On certain nights I go over to his place and we take it out on his poor wife - and it sounds something like this." Then he launches into an immaculate version of I'll Be Around, the Sinatra standard, with sublime piano accompaniment from Franz. Worth the price of admission - and a trip to Vintage Vinyl. 

How has your shopping been going, either on RSD or otherwise?

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Monday, April 15, 2019

Concert Review: Shadows And Hope At Zankel Hall

Programming a concert has many challenges. First of all, it’s commonplace for it to be at least two hours of music, which gives the audience their money’s worth but requires much preparation. If you’re presenting a new piece, that might eat up a disproportionate amount of your rehearsal time. Playing an unfamiliar work might also lead you to want to give the audience some comfort food, in the forms of a warhorse or other frequently performed piece. Fortunately, the American Composers Orchestra did not fall into that trap last Thursday, when they played in Zankel Hall as part of Carnegie Hall’s massive and ambitious festival, Migrations: The Making Of America. But they did struggle a bit to connect works that were musically disparate and resonated with each other only on a strictly cerebral level. But that was the only issue I had with the concert, which was played both immaculately and with a generosity of feeling. 

The first piece was Morton Feldman’s Turfan Fragments (1980) which was inspired by bits of 1,500-year-old knotted carpet from Turkestan and, as such, was designed to be a series of unresolved parts. For a first hearing of this slippery work I was immediately struck by how resolute it was in its very irresolute-ness, as if Feldman was determined that it not come together in a way we expect from an orchestral piece. There were many sonic delights within, however, like the pizzicato section that came about five minutes in. And there may have been no harder working man in New York that night than conductor George Manahan, whose precise baton movements hinted at the challenge Feldman designed for those who dare to assay these “fragments” - a challenge more than met by him and the ACO. 

Next we were treated to a some brief remarks from Gloria Coates, describing how her Symphony No. 1, “Music on Open Strings,” took shape between 1971, when it was commissioned by the Rhinelander Chamber Orchestra, and 1974, when it was completed. She wasn’t able to finish her whole tale of artistic discovery, and it is a gripping story, but it was also well-told by her in the program notes. Coates, who turned 80 last year, was born in Wisconsin but traveled from her home in Germany to witness her piece’s Carnegie Hall debut. It was also my introduction to her work, as she has been in the “I know the name but that’s all” category for some time. Now I'm kicking myself because I know what I've been missing!

I was quickly sucked into the unique sound world she creates, with bows swooping and gliding across strings and sometimes tapping them. Knuckles were also knocked against wood for dramatic effect, just one reason I was on the edge of my seat. Part of the work’s distinctive quality comes from Coates’s idea to have the players re-tune their instruments periodically throughout, which was a great opportunity for the ACO and Manahan to show how well they communicate. A nod of the head from one of the bassists toward the podium was all the conductor needed to know that the musician was ready. Ultimately, the brooding intensity of the piece, which reminded me of Shostakovich at times, was more important than the mechanics of how Coates got there. I’m looking forward to learning more about her catalogue and hope we don’t have to wait for her centenary for it to be celebrated and highlighted in the musical life of NYC. 

Instead of an intermission, there was a panel discussion featuring the collaborators who created the evening’s main event, the New York premiere of Where We Lost Our Shadows (2019). Composer Du Yun was joined by filmmaker Khaled Jarrar, ACO Artistic Director Derek Bermel, and vocalist Ali Sethi. Du Yun talked about how she crafted the work with these specific soloists in mind, instead of casting them later. Having already decided that ragas would be incorporated into the piece, Sethi became a real asset as he guided her through 800 years of music from the Indus region. Sethi also demonstrated some of the basic Qawwali forms he would be using, giving the audience a sneak preview of his wondrous voice. Jarrar described his way of embedding himself with immigrant communities, gaining their trust and getting a view of the extremes of their experiences. Author Didier Fassin, whose book, Life: A Critical User's Manual, informed some of the thinking behind the piece, was also on hand to offer some sobering facts about migrant mortality: It has been on the rise worldwide for decades and many deaths go uncounted with even the names of the dead unknown or unrecorded. 

L-R: Didier Fassin, Ali Sethi, Du Yun, Khaled Jarrar & Derek Bermel
Photo by Jennifer Taylor
According to the program notes, “Where We Lost Our Shadows is a piece for orchestra, video, and soloists that focuses on human migration as a question of perpetual movement and exodus that repeats throughout history, passing on collective and individual traumas and rejuvenations from generation to generation.” That measured explanation barely hinted at the deeply emotional combination of sound and vision that transpired over the half hour of the piece, which literally started with a BANG, struck by percussionist Shayna Dunkelman on an enormous side drum. I know Dunkelman as a member of avant-rock band Xiu Xiu but was unaware of the breadth of her musicianship, which became stunningly apparent during the heart-stopping solo that began the work. 

When the orchestra came in, accompanied by what I believe was an electronic tanpura (Sethi seemed to be holding one during the panel discussion), it was almost a relief from the tension built up by the drums. Sethi began singing in his rich, slightly husky voice, seeming to craft his ancient melodies out of the air with his hand gestures. There was a chaotic darkness on the screen, which eventually gave way to an interview on the streets of Turkey with a family overjoyed because they had just gotten their authorization to travel to Europe, where they would find a new home after leaving Syria. They kept smiling even when saying they had been living in the streets while waiting for their papers. Their sweet, shining faces stood as a testament to the indomitable human spirit - and an indictment of what people do to other people. 

"Where do you sleep?" "In the streets." Photo by Jennifer Taylor.

Helga Davis, the third soloist and an incredible singer and performer, then stood up and unleashed all the pain and sorrow that lay behind those smiles. There was another percussion interlude, even more intricate than the first, and further explorations of Qawwali, leading to a stunning duet between Sethi and Davis. Just as there are no easy answers to the refugee crisis, ...Shadows ended without a sense of closure - it just stopped. The audience caught their breath and then stood for a generous standing ovation. While it’s hard to be entirely sure based on one performance, I feel fairly certain that the music, in which I sensed a new level gravitas for Du Yun, will more than hold its own without the visuals. I urge the powers that be to record it as soon as possible!

You may also enjoy:
Focus On: Contemporary Classical
Three Portraits: Cheung-Trapani-Du Yun
Mata's Bad Romance At The Kitchen

Friday, April 12, 2019

Record Review: Beauty...And Darkness

My First Quarter Report was merely a selection of the music that has caught my ear so far this year. I’ll try to catch you up with more frequent and shorter posts like this one.

Žibuoklė Martinaitytė - In Search Of Lost Beauty... We used to argue about "beauty" in my photo classes at SUNY Purchase, what it meant and whether it was enough to support an image for it to be merely “beautiful.” We may have really been thinking about “prettiness,” worried that if something had not even the hint of an edge we were being visually lazy. These words, of course, aren’t necessarily helpful in coming to any objective description of art - the eye of the beholder, and all that. But when  Martinaitytė talks about “lost beauty” in relation to this piece, what she really seems to be talking about is allowing yourself to slow down enough to truly observe the world around you. She was forced into this heightened awareness by an accident which slowed down her navigation of Paris while she recovered. 

What she saw - a cathedral at her feet, fragmented in small puddles, a tree’s shadow moving on the wall, in parallel with the breezes rustling its master - astonished her so much that she conceived of this ten movement sequence of “audiovisual novellas” written for video, piano trio and electronics. While the work, completed in 2016, has been performed a number of times, this is the first recording. I can’t comment on the visuals (although the excerpts I saw were gorgeous), but I can readily say that the music more than stands on its own and we owe Starkland a debt of thanks for putting it out. 

Throughout the piece, I had to continually remind myself that it was only the members of the FortVio trio - Indrė Baikštytė, piano; Ingrida Rupaitė-Petrikienė, violin; and Povilas Jacunskas, cello - who were performing. This is not only due to the expansive cloud of richly conceived electronics, but also because of the way Martinaitytė scores for the instruments. The piano often emits a low rumble, seeming to barely approach middle-C, while the cello unfurls long lines, sometimes with ghostly harmonics. The violin might squeak out a see-saw riff, soar high above, or churn along with the cello, but together the trio makes a big sound that is fully immersive. 

Somehow, Martinaitytė manages to keep you in a state of suspension for over an hour with only minor adjustments to the formula. Occasionally, she adds vocals to the recorded elements, imparting a spooky, ritualistic quality to the sound world. The sections have names, but I hardly notice when one ends and another begins - the album demands to be listened to in one sitting. One of the most striking things about In Search Of Lost Beauty... is that while it is indeed beautiful, it’s also unapologetically dark, like an intricately crafted Medieval tapestry depicting the martyrdom of a saint. You can’t turn away even if you're slightly afraid of what you might see. Martinaitytė's Lithuanian roots might contribute to her shadowy perspective, but I don't know enough to say for sure. In any case, darkness is just as much in the ear of the beholder as beauty is, so I urge you to listen to this extraordinary piece and let me know what you hear. 

Find an excerpt from this and all the classical albums I'm tracking in 2019 here.

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: Avant Chamber and Orchestral
Record Roundup: Electro-Acoustic Explorations

Thursday, April 04, 2019

2019 First Quarter Report: Concerts

An unpredictable schedule this year meant that every concert I've seen except one has been in the realm of contemporary classical music. But within that, much variety - read on!

No Filler At The Miller I was speaking with Melissa Smey, Executive Director of the Miller Theatre, and she was relating the challenge they're going to have capping off their 30th anniversary next season. A challenge because their programming has been so strong in 2018-19 that it's hard to know how they can top it in 2019-20! From the Du Yun Composer Portrait I saw last November to the three shows I've been to so far this year, they are hitting all the marks - and there's still more to come.

On February 21st, I took in the Wang Lu Composer Portrait, giving me another opportunity to hear Urban Inventory, last performed in New York back in 2016 by Third Sound, who also recorded it on Wang Lu's stunning 2018 debut album. Here, the International Contemporary Ensemble worked their magic on the piece, also playing the witty Childhood Amnesia (2017) and Siren Song (2008), which found Stravinsky barreling into a Chinese opera house and causing quite a commotion. There was also A-PPA-Aratus, a world premiere played by Yarn/Wire and a stunning addition to their repertoire for two pianists and two percussionists. I hope they record this spectacular 21st century poéme mecanique very soon.
Yarn/Wire performing A-PPA-Aratus
Photo by Rob Davidson for Miller Theatre
A week later I was back to see Third Sound themselves, making their Miller debut at one of the theatre's innovative Pop-Up concerts. These are the free shows where the audience sits on the stage and enjoys free beer along with the music. They also usually last just about an hour, so Third Sound, founded in 2015 by composer Patrick Castillo with violinist Karen Kim, cellist Michael Nicolas, pianist Orion Weiss, flautist Sooyun Kim and clarinetist Romie de Langlois, programmed a set that had enough variety to show what they can do while also keeping it concise.

Ingrid Arauco’s Fantasy Quartet was a perfect opener - sparkling, astringent and colorful, it gave many opportunities for the musicians to shine. Next was Music For Four composed by the group’s founder, Patrick Castillo, and inspired by watching his young son at play. It was a piece infused with warmth and joy, making equally canny use of repetition and surprise. Finally, in keeping with their mission to embrace to whole sweep of chamber music, they stormed through Webern’s imaginative reduction of Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie, Op. 9. All of the work’s angst and artfulness was brilliantly exposed by their passionate playing, earning them an enthusiastic ovation. I think they'll be asked back.

My last visit to the Miller was just this past Thursday, when they presented a Composer Portrait of Tyshawn Sorey to a buzzing and packed house. The excitement was more than justified by what followed as were treated to an embarrassment of riches in two sets of music presented seamlessly, without applause or space between works. This was similar to the first half of the Du Yun concert and if anyone else is putting on shows like this I’d love to know about it. Special note should be made of Isabella Byrd's lighting, which helped immeasurable with all the transitions and lent a sense of atmosphere and occasion.

One theme of the night was how to pay homage to your mentors while speaking in your own voice. The first piece, In Memoriam Muhal Richard Abrams (2018), paid tribute to the founder of the AACM with a meditation for violin (Jennifer Curtis) and celesta (Cory Smythe). It was a gorgeous combination of sonorities that both quieted and engaged the mind. Storey’s lyrical gifts were much in evidence as they would be later in the night. The next piece, Ornations (2014) provided a welcome and witty shock to the system as flautist Clair Chase faced off with clarinetist Joshua Rubin. The word “puckish” may be overused when it comes to Chase, but as she danced opposite Rubin, who was anchored in place by his contrabass clarinet, it was impossible not to think of Shakespeare’s sprite. The music matched the mood resulting in tremendous fun that was not without an edge of aggression. The JACK Quartet closed the first half with the NY premiere of Everything Changes, Nothing Changes, a work requiring tremendous concentration as they passed around sustained notes creating an unbroken canvas of sound. I look forward to hearing it again so I can just let it happen without wondering what would happen next. 

Claire Chase faces off with Joshua Rubin in Ornations
Photo by Rob Davidson for Miller Theater
After a brief intermission, Sorey and Chase sat down for an illuminating discussion that amplified some of the material in Lara Pellegrinelli’s superb program notes, chiefly the distinction between hybridity and mobility. Sorey sees the former as a tired trope about "jazz" musicians writing "classical music," "crossing over," etc. Instead of a hybrid composer, he sees himself as a mobile one, able to do what he wants with whatever instrumentation he wants in whatever setting he chooses. Amen. They also reminisced about their first meeting, about a decade ago, a tribute to the tight relationship between composer and musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble. That connection would come in handy in the world premiere presented in the second half of the concert, but first we heard For Harold Budd (2012), a gleaming trio for piano, flute and vibraphone that had Smythe and Chase working with percussionist Levy Lorenzo. It really was beautiful, with some of Budd's painterly qualities, but the brushstrokes were all Sorey's. 

Autoschediasms (2019), a Miller Theatre commission followed. It was scored for "Creative Chamber Orchestra," an ensemble seemingly entirely flexible as the program listed seven musicians to which was then added one more - plus the four members of the JACK. This piece builds on an idea from Butch Morris about "conducted improvisations" that had Sorey leading the group with a series of very specific hand gestures as well as instructions written on a small whiteboard. The players were well-drilled, moving from section to section without hesitating, and the sounds were consistently engaging. My western brain was seeking crescendos, the kind of tension and release we're so conditioned for, but what I heard was more of a continuous tapestry. The effect was a little like listening to a radical remix of a song you never heard before and I'm curious how different it will sound the next time it's performed.
Tyshawn Sorey (right) conducts ICE in Autoschediasms
Photo by Rob Davidson for Miller Theatre
As Autoschediasms was fading out, Chase came to the front of the stage with her flute and Sorey stepped off the podium and sat down at a conventional drum kit so they could play Bertha's Lair (2016), a piece that's become a bit of a signature for the duo. Here came the release, the crescendos and so much more as I was witness to some of the greatest drumming I've ever heard, in the same class as Art Blakey, Tony Williams and Leon Parker. But Sorey went further, nearly into a kind of performance art, as he removed a ride cymbal, put it on the floor tom for some intriguing effects - and then stacked it on the other ride cymbal and kept going from there. This was all while Chase was making an action painting in platinum, playing a piccolo flute and an enormous contrabass flute in addition to her standard concert model. It was the perfect ending to a night that earned Sorey and his collaborators a standing ovation and had the audience buzzing once again.

Tales Of Talea Even if I wasn't a board member, I would try to get to as many shows by the estimable Talea Ensemble as possible. This season they have not only been presenting wonderful music, but have made big strides in opening up important conversations about the role of music in our lives, how music works, and what it means to be part of the "new music" community. Much of those discussions happen at their iNSIDE Out series at The Flea Theater, and the one I attended on February 24th was a perfect example. Called Side By Side, the afternoon began with music for duos, kicked off by Vasko Dukovski (clarinet) and Chris Gross (cello) playing Iannis Xenakis' thorny Charisma (1971), which portrayed the instruments as isolated individuals pursuing their own paths. Catherine Lamb's In Passing / PARALLEL (2008), played by the violins of Emilie-Anne Gendron and Anna Kridler, was more of a joint effort - and a bit of an endurance test - as they passed long lines in a continuous tone that somehow created tension. Hearing them follow it up with some choice Bach, with its dance rhythms and folk melodies, threw everything we had already heard into stark relief. 
Performers & Panel at The Flea Theater
After a brief intermission, we reconvened for a very engaging panel discussion featuring Gross, Marcos Balter, Lauren Ishida, Eun Lee and Victoria Chea - and the audience. As these things are wont to do, perhaps more questions were raised than were answered, but we all left with a lot to think about, including my own musings about how Talea’s identity as a premiere presenter of European avant-garde composers meshed with the need for inclusivity on both sides of the concert stage. 

The next time I caught up with Talea, they were kicking off a residency at The Stone, John Zorn's performance space at The New School. There, we were also treated to more spare sounds, mostly solo works played by Adrian Morejon (bassoon) and Marianne Gythfeldt (clarinet). A link to the Flea concert was a piece by Eun Lee, a brief and action-packed world premiere called Yun (2018) for solo bassoon and played with real flair by Morejon. He also gave first performances of Edward Jacobs' Concentre (2014), filled with a sense of spontaneity, and Triplum (2014) by Filippo Santoro. The last was a trio, with two prerecorded bassoons played off an iPhone, which kept Morejon on his toes in a rhythmic, angular and witty piece. 

Gythfeldt also thrilled in Mikel Kuehn's signature piece Rite of Passage (2014), which had every last sound made by her bass clarinet picked up and manipulated and played back along with her live instrument - fantastic! She also gave a flawless performance of George Aperghis's Simulacre (1991-95) and then joined Morejon for the bouncy groove of Black (2018) by Mark Mellits. If you’re starting to feel FOMO - and you should be - I will point you to Gythfeldt’s marvelous 2018 collection, Only Human, which includes the Kuehn and other intriguing music. 

You can also trigger my own fear of missing out by attending Talea’s Tenth Anniversary celebration on April 20th. I can’t go, but it promises to be a memorable night revisiting many pieces from Talea's past and also presenting the world premiere of Hans Thomalla's Harmoniemusik 1 (2019) and the U.S. premiere of Framing... (2018) by Georg Friedrich Haas.

Switched On At Areté If any world is a small world, it’s the world of contemporary classical. So I was invited to this New York appearance by Boston’s [Switch~ Ensemble] by Zach Sheets, who used to work with Talea as our development and communications person. Something was in the air on February 28th as I had the choice of about eight concerts, but I decided on this one because it brought me to a venue I’ve never entered to hear pieces by unfamiliar composers. Risk, as Captain Kirk told Bones, is what it’s all about. Areté proved to be a small space arrived at through an arcade in a multi-use building in Williamsburg. The vibe is friendly and scrappy but not disorganized - the concert started right on time as the group launched into the electro-acoustic maelstrom of Adrien Trybucki's Infinite Extension (2017), a world premiere of a piece they commissioned. It was a wonderful introduction to their tight ensemble and excellent taste.

The next piece was Sivan Eldar's sleekly mysterious Tarr (2014), almost a series of notated sighs and whispers - and very beautiful. Third was a surrealistic audio collage by Esaias Järnegard called Songs For Antonin (2017), as in Artaud. It was wacky and gripping in equal measure, with bits of an old radio play mixed in. I don't doubt that Järnegard studied with Pierluigi Billone, as it had some of his absurdist spirit. Switch closed the concert with Timothy McCormack's karst survey, a dark journey indeed, which had T.J. Borden grinding at his cello like a Norwegian black metal guitarist. Overall, the concert showed off Switch to excellent effect - I would keep an eye out for the next time they come to your town.

BOAC Takes Off In PCF I try to never miss the People’s Commissioning Fund concerts by Bang On A Can, where their All-Stars present world and U.S. premieres as part of the Ecstatic Music Festival. There are also usually some classics from their repertoire to fill out the night, which this year included a Glenn Branca work they hadn’t performed for 20 years. The new pieces came first, however, beginning with Henry Threadgill's With Or Without Card, fractured and flamboyant, with a throughline that linked Jimmy Giuffre to Ornette Coleman and gave clarinetist Ken Thomson a lot to chew on. Next was Josué Collado Fregoso's lovely, evanescent Joi de Vivre, which put Mariel Roberts' cello and Robert Black's bass in the foreground. Black also blew some minds in the uncanny notated funk of Trevor Weston's Dig It - it somehow managed to avoid being a "crossover" pastiche. More please. This is where the night's theme of "dance music" truly came into focus, an emphasis that continued in Nicole Lizée's Dancist, a delightfully witty work that was accompanied by her fascinatingly messed up film. I would happily watch - and listen - to it again.
Scenes from the BOAC PCF Concert at Merkin Hall
The highlights of the second half were Annie Gosfield's fabulously imaginative - and furiously complex - The Manufacture Of Tangled Ivory (1993), which pushed pianist Vickie Chow to new heights of synthesizer magnificence, and Branca's Movement Within, a microtonal masterpiece that had Merkin Hall throbbing like the Mudd Club on an average Saturday night in 1980. John Schaefer of New Sounds was on hand to introduce each piece and interview the creators and the discussion with guitarist Mark Stewart and producer Adam Cuthbért about the reclamation of Branca's piece was a gripping tale indeed. Let's just say that recreating Branca's samples, which were stored on Zip Discs, was not a task for the faint of heart. But the All-Stars are a brave bunch and the whooping audience was all too eager to follow them wherever they journeyed. Try to be there in 2020!

Marissa Nadler
Coming Together At MoMA PS1 For the third year in a row, the Museum of Modern Art's Long Island City outpost held an incredible two-day festival called Come Together, created in collaboration with Other Music. Just like the first year, it was filled with a label fair, panel discussions, film screenings and live performances. Of the latter, I was able to see Marissa Nadler, whose 2018 album, For My Crimes, was one of the best folk albums of the year. It was short but intense solo performance, with Nadler creating a web of sound, either fingerpicking on an acoustic or looping a 12-string electric. At the center of it all was her gorgeous voice, which had emotional range enough to cover her dark originals and a cover of Fred Neil's bittersweet Just A Little Bit Of Rain. I was happy to see her earning new fans among the diverse crowd.
Negroclash: Prince Language, Duane Harriott and DJ Lindsey
It was chilly outside when we left the VW Dome, but DJ Duane Harriott was spinning so there was no question about how we were going to warm up. He already had the crowd in a Dionysian frenzy when he was joined by Prince Language and DJ Lindsey for a reunion of their collective Negroclash, which first performed at PS1 almost 20 years ago. Even while dancing, it was impossible not to be stunned at their synchronized routine, with each playing a song (and often manipulating it) before ceding the decks to the next DJ for a sumptuous flow of incredible beats, from disco to funk to electro. It was a high-wire act - and highly musical. They ended the set perfectly, too, with Sylvester's classic (You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real, sending us off happy and exhausted into the Queens evening.
Duane Harriott, man at work
And what live music have you enjoyed in 2019?

You may also enjoy:
MATA's Bad Romance At The Kitchen
Bon Iver's Dance Music
Moment Of Palm
Bang-Up World Premieres