Thursday, March 29, 2018

Bon Iver’s Dance Music

When the email came from Mass MoCA advertising a work in progress by TU Dance and Bon Iver, I bought tickets instantly. I knew they would sell out quickly so a glance at the calendar to see that it was possible for us to get there was all it took for me to click through and seal the deal. I was right about it selling out and I was also right that my wife and daughter would be thrilled when I gave them the tickets as part of their holiday gifts last December.

In the ensuing months, I wondered what, exactly, Justin Vernon’s role would be in the performance. Would he be behind the scenes, triggering and tweaking an electronic score from a laptop? Or onstage, with a guitar and keyboards behind that podium he sometimes uses in concert? Or would he be front of house, at the mixing board, just observing how the dancers interacted with his music and making notes for further improvements? Would it be new music or repurposed tracks from the three Bon Iver albums? Mass MoCA’s marketing led me to believe that he would be active but in my mind I wasn’t expecting a traditional concert. We’re big enough fans that any of the above possibilities would have been satisfying - or at least interesting!

I didn’t take much time to research TU Dance but noted that they're an acclaimed company from Minnesota that seems to have done a great job involving the community in their work. Also, we’ve made many visits to Mass MoCA, including for an excellent Bang On A Can concert, and found their standards to be uniformly high and their vision always forward-thinking. So, I went into the show with both an open mind and high expectations.

The platform for the band before the show.
One question was solved as soon as we entered the theater to take our seat: Bon Iver would be performing live. At the rear of the stage was a raised platform with enough gear on it to make some serious noise. The program also revealed that the band realizing Vernon's music would consist of three other musicians: BJ Burton (electronics), Michael Lewis (bass, keyboards) and JT Bates (drums). As soon as they crossed the stage and began climbing the stairs to their platform, the applause was rapturous. While I could be wrong, it felt like the majority of the audience had been drawn there by the prospect of hearing something new from Bon Iver rather than a native interest in TU Dance or dance in general. As soon as the music started, an electric charge went through the room and my mind raced to catch up with the song, a powerful blast of electronics, slamming drums and throbbing bass lines supporting Vernon's heavenly voice, which has only grown more fascinating over time.

The view from our seats; dancers in white.
The projections were flashing on the wall behind the stage, combining type and imagery, and the dancers came running out, loose limbed, gesturing dramatically, exuding energy and using a series of movements that seemed inspired by vernacular (street?) dance. Their costumes were pretty cool, with plenty of extra fabric to emphasize their moves while not obscuring their toned physiques. But as the night continued, it was clear that that was pretty much all TU Dance had to offer. For this piece at least, choreographer Uri Sands seemed to run out of steam fairly quickly, only giving us variations on the same basic themes using larger and smaller groups of dancers. I couldn't avoid the fear that the Thriller dance might break out at any moment. There was one notable solo, with a dancer who seemed to exist within the rhythms of the music without explicitly following them. At times she seemed to be floating in a cocoon of fluttering fabric for an arresting effect. I don't want to belittle the hard work of the company, but I have to be honest and say that I often forgot to watch the dance, focusing on what was going on with the band on the platform, my eyes naturally drawn by the people producing the music.  

And what music! I felt pinned to my seat by the sheer passion of Vernon’s sound and songs, none of which sounded like a work in progress. The first five songs were especially cohesive and I found myself thinking, if that’s the first half of the next Bon Iver album, it may well be he best thing he’s ever done. The boldness of his most recent album, 22, A Million, was still there but wedded to a more direct rhythmic conception drawing on reggae, funk, R&B and hip hop, (likely a result of collaborating with dancers, so I’ll give them that!) and sounding even more explosive. 

After that opening salvo, Vernon mixed things up a bit. There was one song that started with an almost painfully serrated synth sound before developing into an absorbing collage, and another that was almost purely percussive, with a touch of Afrobeat via Talking Heads. An a cappella gospel number was stunning, putting the grit and unique timbre of Vernon’s voice on display for a jaw dropping performance that almost made me think I was seeing things: how can he just stand there and sing like THAT? Late in the set was an exquisite cover of Leon Russell’s A Song For You that brought the 40-year old tune right up to date and put Vernon in the realm of our finest interpreters like Thom Yorke or Holly Miranda. 

The fact is that there was nothing I didn’t want to hear again, except for a piece near the end with a narration about Jim Crow. To me, Bon Iver’s music is at heart about intimate interpersonal experiences, writ large and turned into universal (and sometimes oblique) epics. If Come Through was supposed to be about politics or racism, this interjection was both heavy-handed and too little, too late. Not all art needs to be woke, even in 2018. 

There was ecstatic applause after every song - at first I wasn’t even sure we were supposed to clap, but quickly didn’t care - and a standing ovation when the band took their bows. As the crowd moved out of the room mostly in stunned silence, a guy asked me what I thought. “This may be some of the best Bon Iver music yet,” I told him and he nodded vigorously. “So you’ve liked their other records?” I affirmed that I had been on board since the beginning, yet had only seen one prior concert, in 2011. That was also an incredible show, I told him, but with a much larger band. One marvel of the music in Come Through is how Vernon managed to simultaneously strip his sound down and beef it up. He agreed with that as well, before expressing doubts about the dance - then it was my turn to agree with him. 

I only took a snippet of video because I wanted to stay in the moment, but you can make up your own mind about the lopsided nature of this collaboration when the finished version of the collaboration is performed in St. Paul in April and Los Angeles in August - if you can scrape up a ticket! Bon Iver is also on tour, and I’ll be curious to see if any of this new music makes it into those shows. I just hope Vernon releases some or all of it soon.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Record Roundup: Electro-Acoustic Explorations

Here are three tantalizing albums that include compositions combining acoustic instruments with electronics, two of which are also solo debuts by a couple of the finest musicians on the new music scene.

Streya - Olivia De Prato I’ve seen Olivia De Prato perform with Missy Mazzoli and she’s the kind of player that stands out in a crowd, dazzling with her utter command of even the most demanding techniques and the sheer expressive verve she puts into the music. Her work with the adventurous Mivos Quartet, which she founded, has also been exemplary. So, I was delighted when word of this solo debut came over the transom and even happier when I saw it was mostly world-premiere recordings of works written in the last decade. 

The opening piece, Ageha.Tokyo, written by Samson Young, could hardly be more spectacular if fireworks shot out of my earbuds while it played. Starting with some tactile, serrated sounds, De Prato enters with defiant notes which gain momentum and then start to soar as the electronics begin rounding out and growing more melodic. The verse of My Favorite Things threatens to burst out but Young keeps it at bay and things are soon back on the aggressive side. Young named the work after one of the largest gay nightclubs in Tokyo and it doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine a beat-driven remix lighting up their dance floor. Young, based in Hong Kong, has a number of intriguing irons in the fire of electronic music and performance art and I’m grateful for this introduction to his world. 

Streya by Victor Lowrie, who plays viola in the Mivos, finds us in more familiar terrain, with De Prato in an angular duet with herself. Circular phrases spin into the ether, replaced by harmonic whistles or sharp strums, as the piece moves toward the anguished romanticism of early Schoenberg. Percorso Insolito is described by Ned Rothenberg as “an adventure in rhythm, space and color,” and it also has a nice meandering, interior quality, like a train of thought that never quite resolves. I know Rothenberg’s work mainly via his earthy sax playing so this was a valuable glimpse of his other interests. 

Taylor Brook’s Wane takes a smart idea - five multi-tracked violins, each in a slightly different tuning - and uses it to spin a kaleidoscopic tale in sound that has as many twists and turns as a good mystery. Rather than a bang-up finish where all is revealed, Brook prefers to leave questions unanswered with a woozy ending that shuffles uncertainly into silence. For more Brook check out the last Mivos album or the TAK Ensemble's Ecstatic Music, which focuses solely on his work. Tanz. Tanz by Reiko Füting is also based on an intellectual construct, in this case a study of the Chaconne from Bach’s D Minor Partita, but maybe only a musicologist would know that from listening. I hear a tightly constricted approach, both in the palette of notes and in the length of the lines, that intrigues due to all it leaves out. The premiere recording of Tanz. Tanz was by Miranda Cuckson on an album of Füting's work released in 2015 called namesErased, which I'm looking forward to investigating.

Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers For Violin closes the album and will undoubtedly leave you wanting more. A distant cousin of her stunning Vespers For A New Dark Age, it has Mazzoli’s characteristically assured electronic textures combined with an incantatory violin part that De Prato brings to life with, as everything here, her wondrous playing and total commitment to the visions of her collaborators. Streya is not only a fantastic debut for De Prato but also an object lesson in how to put together a solo violin record in 2018, from the selection of pieces, to the recording, and even to the artwork - kudos!

For This From That Will Be Filled - Clarice Jensen Like De Prato, cellist Clarice Jensen is known for her role in a group, in her case the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, of which she is also Artistic Director. Somehow in the midst of all the ACME activity, Jensen has managed to assemble this meditative collection, which was originally conceived as an audio-visual performance with artist Jonathan Turner. The album features three works for cello enhanced by effects pedals, other electronics and production, and Turner-produced videos are on the way to add back the visual elements

The first piece, bc, was a collaboration with Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, one of the finest film composers of our time who died suddenly last month at the age of 48. Slow, mysterious, almost in the realm of ambient music, bc is a deeply immersive piece that now provides a fitting receptacle for thinking about Jóhannsson's life and work, so unceremoniously cut short. Michael Harrison, whose last works for cello were written for Maya Beiser, contributes Cello Constellations here, a creation for solo cello, 14 pre-recorded cellos and sine tones. There's a lot of math, science and technology behind the 15-minute composition, but as a listening experience it is captivating, with the background of cellos a lush bed for the sparkling sine tones, which light up the mind like the artificial stars in a planetarium show. While there is no reason to make "use" of this music, it is hard to imagine close listening not leading to a sense of calm, at least until the last three minutes, when Harrison allows tension to mount before a slow fade.

The album ends with the title track, composed by Jensen and taking place over two parts. The first is short and darkly elegant, with multiple droning lines and swirling ostinato phrases. It has a structural thread, almost a narrative thrust that pulls you though. The second part is much longer, over 18 minutes, and has a glacial drama to it, with deep organ-like tones and a gradual sense of opening up. By the last third we are adjacent to Romantic and even Baroque territory, with burnished melodies for solo cello. A tape loop of what may be found sound appears in the background, once again lending a sense of story to the sounds. It seems to end in mid-sentence, only adding to the intrigue. But there is nothing unfinished about Jensen's album, which will be released on April 6th. For This From That Will Be Filled is a clear statement of purpose of what the cello can do in several enhanced environments, with a conception that is never less than fascinating and playing and recording that are always sublime.  

John Cage: Electronic Music For Piano - Tania Chen It's hard to imagine a more Cage-ian approach to this monumental half-century-old work. In typical fashion, Cage's "score" leaves a lot up to the performers but it's still rare for musicians to really take the ball and run with it as Chen and her collaborators have done here. Chen, a pianist and improviser, has made Cage a specialty of hers and has assembled the ideal group of collaborators in guitarist Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth), multi-instrumentalist and author David Toop (known for being in the Flying Lizards and working with Brian Eno, etc.), and electronic musician Jon Leidecker (Negativeland, among other things). But all of these people never worked together. Instead, Chen recorded three versions of the piece as duos with each of them and then, working with producer Gino Robair, "played the duos simultaneously and, using a chance-based system, selected which sound sources were heard over time." Or not heard: this being Cage, leaving silences - sometimes as long as three minutes - is also part of the landscape.

And how does this all add up for the listener in the final result, which is over an hour long? Like a funhouse, but somehow serious, with tones and textures leaping up out of nowhere, sometimes just raw piano, more often heavily treated or combined instruments, guitar feedback or oscilloscope-derived notes. The stop-start-stop arrangement means that it's never an entirely comfortable experience, even after several listens, but who says art should make you comfortable? Occasionally, there will be a section (from 53:15 - 53:47, for example) that is so satisfying on its own that you will wish it went on for longer. Anyone for a remix album? Or should I fire up Garageband and try some cutting and pasting? I have a feeling that Cage, not to mention Chen and her posse, would actually enjoy the idea of this groundbreaking recording becoming further fodder for yet another creative process. Thanks to Chen, we have one more reminder of what a fertile field Cage's mind was and how its fruits can continue instructing us on what music is and how it can be made. For this, if nothing else, we owe Chen a large debt of gratitude.

For more electro-acoustic experiences, check out this nifty playlist put together by New Sounds.

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: On The Cutting Edge
Cage Tudor Rauschenberg MoMA
Collapsing Into Nordic Affect's Raindamage
Record Roundup: Composed, Commemorated And Beyond
Cello For All, Part 2: Michael Nicolas
Missy Mazzoli: Lush Rigor

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Holly Miranda's Exquisite Mutual Horse

Mutual Horse - Holly Miranda How much of yourself do you reveal to others? If you’re an artist, for example, where does the persona that you present in your creations overlap with your innermost self, and how much do you keep hidden? And, does the level of craft you attain over time make it easier to unleash the full breadth of yourself in your music? Holly Miranda’s third album has me contemplating these deep thoughts - and in her case the answer to that last question seems to be an emphatic YES. On her last, self-titled, record (from 2015 and my number one album from that year) I was astonished at the leap her songwriting had taken. While she was always good, I felt she had finally created a set of songs fully equal to her interpretive gifts as a singer.

It’s not that I thought she would never make a better album, it just that I couldn’t imagine what that would sound like. Well, now I know: Mutual Horse represents a coming together of songwriting, arranging, production and, above all, singing, that puts Miranda at the pinnacle of both her art and the art form she operates within. Even my wife, who has always liked Holly without quite being a believer, starting saying things like “Dusty Springfield. Lucinda Williams. Holly Miranda” - and that was just during her first listen. 

Mutual Horse starts out modestly, with a simple melody played on bells over which Miranda sings “I was asleep/I don’t know how long I’d been out,” - giving that last word an edge, just a hint of what’s to come. After a full verse over the bells, she makes good on that promise, dropping the hammer with a huge descending chorus. Then, just as the last echo of Wherever You Are is still resonating, some disconnected sounds arise out of the void, soon exploding into the roadhouse stomp of Golden Spiral, a great showcase for longtime collaborator Maria Eisen’s baritone sax. It absolutely slew the crowd when Miranda opened with it at Union Pool last summer, and while the studio version adds a kaleidoscope of details and dub techniques it does so without sacrificing any of the song's elemental power. 

That one-two punch that opens the album is a good microcosm of the methods behind Mutual Horse, which finds Miranda and producer Florent Barbier crafting widely varied settings for each track, serving the songs with exquisite sensitivity to all their nuances. The results lead to sonic worlds unlike anything we’ve heard from Holly previously. Towers, for example, sounds like a transmission from a dead city radio, with Holly’s distorted vocal murmurs accompanied by Jonathan Ullman’s ticky-tack drumsticks and a drone from Eisen’s sax. Then there’s Mr. Fong's, a glammed-out fantasia that starts with some dark Duane Eddy guitar twang over which Holly sings a line both threatening and absurd: “Thinking of starting a war/Hiding receipts in the underwear drawer,” before sheepishly admitting she’s been “spending too much time at Mr. Fongs.” The chorus, when it eventually comes, is fantastic: a choir of voices (including Shara Nova, AKA My Brightest Diamond) singing “I dream in full color/ But your daylight moves me sideways,” in gloriously odd harmonies. If you follow Miranda’s Instagram, you know she has a wicked sense of humor - it’s wonderful to hear her letting some of that into her music. 

Having doses of surrealism like Mr. Fongs or Golden Spiral, with its donkey parked outside a 7-11, leavens the overall mood of the album, which has plenty of direct hits of emotion in songs like To Be Loved (“Only wanted to love and to be loved” - life goals), All Of The Way, Do You Recall, Let Her Go, which is at least partially informed by the death of her mother in 2018, just a month before the album came out, and others. There are also moments of pure love, like Exquisite, a tribute to her friendship with Kyp Malone of TV On The Radio, which he co-wrote and to which he also lends his quavery tenor. The level of craft displayed by everyone involved keeps all the naked emotions from feeling like oversharing, which should be instructive for some less-skilled artists whose songs feel like Snapchat posts that should have remained private and then allowed to disappear. 

Miranda’s genius with the songs of others is also featured here in the rescue operation she performs on Neil Young’s When Your Lonely Heart Breaks, from his mostly forgotten 1987 album Life. Over a percussion arrangement that's a cross between a samba and a marching band, Miranda delivers Young’s lyrics like an incantation, as if singing them was an act of self-care, willing herself - and us - to survive devastation. The only equivalent I can think of is Gavin Friday’s resurrection of Dylan’s Death Is Not The End, which was buried on Down In The Groove. Making a version of a song that's already beloved is the easy way out; true artists like Friday and Miranda have a different radar when it comes to finding songs to sing.

Finally, a note about Miranda’s singing. It seems like nearly every other song on Mutual Horse has her finding new places in her voice, like the liquid falsetto of On The Radio, or the sheer power of the opening track. But she’s not learning while doing; all of these expressive tools are wielded with command and confidence, allowing the listener to access the feelings behind them without being overwhelmed. Themes of sleep and dreaming have always been present in her music so it might be overly glib to say Holly Miranda seems more fully awake on Mutual Horse than on previous albums. But until her next release, that's what I'm going with. As Lou Reed said in What's Good: "Life's like forever becoming," and Mutual Horse is a magnificent manifestation of Holly Miranda's becoming.

Join me at Park Church Co-Op on March 22nd to celebrate the release of this wonderful album and wish her well before she leaves on a month-long European tour.

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