Friday, May 25, 2018

Outliers, Part 2: Seabuckthorn, David Garland

In Part 1, I covered two albums, one inspired by Greek Tragedy and the other by music history. The two records discussed below have more diffuse antecedents but no less musical impact.

A House With Too Much Fire - Seabuckthorn How vast is the world of music that an artist with this much talent and originality could have flown under my radar for so long? For this is the ninth release by Andy Cartwright under the name Seabuckthorn, which, as I have now learned, is a common shrub known for its nutrient-rich berries. Cartwright’s main instrument is the guitar and he usually plays 12-string acoustic or resonator guitars, often applying a violin bow to create drones. On A House... he has added banjo, clarinet, synthesizer and percussion to the sonic landscape, all of which he deploys with restraint and to great atmospheric effect. I have a lot of catching up to do but as far as I can tell, this is his most sophisticated and varied album thus far.

While there are still echoes of the American Primitive school of guitar, Cartwright is more interested in texture now. He rarely calls attention to his virtuosity in these 10 tracks, which are built up from layers of improvised parts and loops. Submerged Past, for example, starts with a finger-picked pattern that’s soon joined by spidery chords left hanging in the background before morphing into a stately ostinato, around which Cartwright develops more layers of picked and strummed elements with occasional strikes on the bell of a cymbal for emphasis. Gorgeous stuff. The spookier side of Daniel Lanois might be a touchpoint here, along with Ennio Morricone, Popol Vuh and even Tuareg desert blues. But Seabuckthorn really sounds like no one else and I hope this album draws more attention to his rich, organic sound world. A House With Too Much Fire comes out on June 1st - preorder it here. Cartwright lives in the Southern Alps but there is the possibility of New York City performance in the near future. Based on this video from March, I want to be there - how about you?

Verdancy - David Garland Starting in 1987, David Garland hosted Spinning On Air as a radio show on WNYC, quickly becoming a fixture on the airwaves and in the culture of New York City. His eclecticism, depth of knowledge and sheer love of music and creativity made it a must listen and often an unforgettable one. While WNYC cancelled the show in 2015, I'm delighted to report that Garland has revived it as a podcast and, based on the episodes I've heard, he has lost none of his curiosity or eloquence - subscribe here.

Over the years Garland has also been putting out his own music, featuring his wry vocals and sounds as much influenced by folk and rock as by classical music of all centuries. Verdancy,  which came out in March, is his first release in four years and may be his most ambitious project yet. It's essentially four albums worth of music, much of it performed by Garland alone on a daunting number of instruments. There are some intriguing collaborators including Iva Bittová (vocals, violin), Kyle Gann (piano), and Yoko Ono. Garland also handled all the technical aspects of recording, production, mixing and mastering. The artwork is his as well, with design by his wife, Anne Garland. Even if the music wasn't as wonderful as it is, Verdancy would be a landmark effort and an inspiration to independent creative people everywhere.

A central feature of the sound across the 27 tracks is an acoustic guitar modified with electronics by Garland's son Kenji. Apparently Sean Lennon is a fan as Garland borrowed one from him to record Verdancy. The hybrid instrument is "genuinely electro-acoustic" and provides washes of tonally rich chords for Garland to build on with the other instruments, often clarinet, which he plays beautifully. Part of the emotional well Garland draws on here is his move a few years ago out of NYC to the Hudson Valley, giving him an opportunity to commune with the natural world. Many of the songs do have an organic feel, seeming to grow from a kernel of an idea into something elaborate and deeply involving.

There are many highlights throughout the four albums, two of which arose out of collaborations across time. Color Piece, the first song, uses words from a 1964 poem by Ono, which Garland sings over a stately melody in a warmly meditative introduction to the world of Verdancy. Later on, there's Monteverdi's Lamento della Ninfa (The Nymph's Lament), based on a 15th century madrigal, which adapts surprisingly well to Garland's approach. Traveling Doors, a lovely piece for piano, clarinet and electronics, is another perfect point of entry. I could describe more of the beauties that await you but prefer you to discover them for yourself. I will say that out of all the songs here, Dear Golden Deer is the only one I would rather not revisit, as it pushes my personal tolerance for slide whistle past the breaking point. It might be your favorite track - don't let me stop you.

I can't encourage you enough to add David Garland's many virtues to your listening repertoire, whether through the riches of Verdancy or the ongoing inquiry of Spinning On Air. I would suggest both!

You may also enjoy:
Outliers, Part 1: Oracle Hysterical, Thomas Bartlett-Nico Muhly
Words + Music, Part 2: Scott Johnson And Alarm Will Sound
Words + Music, Part 1: Laurie Anderson And Kronos Quartet
Record Roundup: Eclectic Electronics
Record Roundup: On The Cutting Edge

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Tristan Perich’s Divine Violins

A concert doesn’t have to take place in an awe-inspiring setting like the Cathedral Of St. John The Divine to take on a sense of the sacred or ceremonial. But it’s impossible not to feel the weight of occasion when entering one of the world’s largest Gothic churches, even if it remains unfinished 125 years after the first cornerstone was laid. Yet as I walked through the cavernous space on May 9th for the world premiere of Tristan Perich’s Drift Multiply for 50 violins and 50 1-bit speakers I felt sure his work would rise to meet the expectations engendered by the space. 

The concert was part of Red Bull Music Festival, a three-week, city-wide festival of impressive scope. As much as I appreciate what Red Bull is doing, even this lifelong atheist couldn’t help thinking it was slightly incongruous to see coolers of their products for sale in a house of worship. After a moment I decided to embrace the dissonance even if I didn’t want to grab a drink. The last time I was here for a concert was back in 1981, as part of the Kool Jazz Festival - and I don't remember them selling cigarettes! 

The performers back then were jazz drumming legend Max Roach and his percussion ensemble M’Boom, who were joining forces with the World Saxophone Quartet. My recollection is that we were sitting even further from the stage than the anyone would be tonight and that the multiple drums created what felt like enormous cubes of sound that tumbled through the air before hitting the wall behind us and rolling forward again, chased by the white lightning of the four saxophones. It was intense, to say the least. 

Now, the stage was surrounded on three sides by seating and itself covered with the 50 seats needed for Perich’s piece, each with an attendant music stand and another small rod holding a four-inch speaker. Many of the chairs facing the front were taken already so I sat down in the first row at the south side of the stage. I recognized that sitting out of the path of the reverberations would be a different experience, yet still valid or they wouldn’t have put seats there. Perich, known for his One-Bit Symphony and other sonic explorations, is enough of an expert that I felt I would be in good hands no matter what vantage point I had. Also, even 50 violins wouldn’t create the bone-rattling racket of Max Roach & Co., so there would just be less air moving around to begin with. 

Before Perich’s piece was another world premiere by Lesley Flanigan of her own Subtonalities for voice and electronics. She sat at a table with a mic and a few pieces of equipment, which she used to dial in oscillating throbs or to loop her extraordinarily pure soprano - exactly the kind of voice you would expect in this space. I discerned sections - at least four, maybe five - in Subtonalities, a sense of structure that pulled me through. There were echoes of Popol Vuh and Fripp & Eno among the lush textures, her multitracked voice spiraling up towards the ceiling. If the piece felt a little long, that’s most likely due to my anticipation for Perich’s music. I can easily imagine losing myself in Flanigan’s textures in another context without giving a thought to length. I hope I will have that opportunity soon. 

Lesley Flanigan performing Subtonalities
There was a brief intermission and then the 50 violinists took the stage with astonishing ease - they must have practiced! - joined by Doug Perkins, the founder of So Percussion, who would conduct. He raised his baton...and they were off. I was instantly captivated, not only by the sounds, which displayed a high level of invention throughout, but also by observing the cross-section of players arrayed before me. Each one had a slightly different way of holding their instrument and bow and it was also fun to watch what an individual player was doing and try to pick out their contribution to the landscape. There were sections of nearly austere minimalism, with many violinists seeming to play similar figures, while others had an epic sweep, with players making big gestures and the electronics responding with starlit sparkle. 

A fraction of the 50 violinists for Drift Multiply
The entire length of Drift Multiply felt so assured and with frequent moments of sheer wonder that it’s hard to believe this is the first time anyone has ever used this configuration. I’m sure some of that solidity was due to Perkins’s expert time-keeping, a task in which he was aided by digital counters sprinkled through the orchestra. Even though the piece was substantial, I never felt that Perich had used up every last idea. Nor did it ever feel like a stunt. While there is certainly an element of performance or installation art, the whole thing was deeply musical and I hope that logistics don’t get in the way of future performances. There was a video crew and likely audio recording being done as well so I would keep an eye on the Red Bull website to see if they make it available for you to experience at home. Drift Multiply is a triumph of imagination and execution that may just give your living room, or wherever you listen, a touch of the divine. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Outliers, Part 1: Oracle Hysterical, Thomas Bartlett-Nico Muhly

This two-part miniseries will look at four albums that exist within similar Venn diagrams that overlap between contemporary classical, folk, and rock, which is a very interesting neighborhood indeed. 

Hecuba - Oracle Hysterical This group dubs itself “part band, part book club” so you can bet there’s a shelf-load of ideas behind their second album, which is based on the centuries-old Greek tragedy by Euripides. The basic plot, which has Hecuba, the Queen of Troy, descending into murderous madness to avenge the fall of her city and the slaughter of her children, has more than enough story to fill a few albums. This makes the concision of Oracle Hysterical’s nine songs even more impressive. 

The group consists of twin brothers Doug Balliett (double bass, viola da gamba) and Brad Balliett (bassoons), Majel Connery (vocals, keyboards), Elliot Cole (vocals, guitars, keyboards), and Dylan Greene (percussion) and for Hecuba they added Jason Treuting of So Percussion on drum kit. These modest forces are deployed remarkably well, leading to a variety of sounds from art song to folk-rock and from electronica to prog-rock. I even hear a bit of mid-century composed jazz in Bolero and elsewhere, always a welcome sound in my book. Connery wields her operatically-trained voice mostly with restraint so when she really unleashes it’s all the more powerful. Cole’s voice is more limited, almost conversational at times, providing another nice contrast. 

I really hope no one is turned off by the brainy background to Hecuba as the whole album flows and is filled with beauty and adventure. It’s no more challenging a listen than Home At Last, Steely Dan’s glossy take on the Odyssey. There is even a bit of wit, as in the deadpan refrain “Woe is me/woe for my children/Woe for my ancestors,” recited by Cole like a one-man Greek chorus in He Will Close Your Eyes. One analysis of the original by Euripides states that “there is almost no let up in the mood of suffering and anguish” in the play so its probably a good thing that Oracular Hysterical takes a lighter approach to the subject matter. There are certainly moments of darkness, like the spooky way Connery intones the lyrics of Letos Laurel or the fantastical 100 Tongues, which finds her voice chopped up in an aural impression of a shattered psyche. Cole’s mixing and Chris Botta’s electronics and post-production deserve special mention for that and much else on Hecuba. 

Hecuba, a mightily original work that finds Oracle Hysterical hitting their stride at least as much as a band as a book club, comes out on May 11th. Join them to celebrate at National Sawdust on Sunday, May 13th. No need to bear gifts - just buy a ticket

Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music - Thomas Bartlett And Nico Muhly This record also has a rich overlay of ideas that should lead the curious listener in all sorts of fascinating directions. First, there’s the title, which combines the name of one of the 20th century’s greatest vocal artists with a reference to Gamelan music, the Indonesian form that attracted the attention of Pears and his collaborator (and lover) Benjamin Britten. Britten first learned about Gamelan during a fascinating period in the 40’s, when he found himself living in a townhouse on Middagh Street in Brooklyn with the likes of W.H. Auden, Dashiell Hammett and Gypsy Rose Lee. Also in residence was Colin McPhee, a composer and ethnomusicologist who had studied the gamelan extensively while living in Bali. McPhee and Britten recorded his two-piano transcriptions, which made the music accessible to Western ears and performers. Thus Balinese music, which uses an orchestra primarily of bell-like percussion instruments to play repeating clusters of melodic rhythms, became one of the roots of minimalism. 

Whew. We haven’t even listened to the album yet and we’re already deep in the weeds of 20th Century classical music and literature along with one of the central forms of Asian music. But, aside from the three McPhee transcriptions included here this is all just the roadmap Bartlett and Muhly used, not the destination. And who are Bartlett and Muhly? The first, who also operates under the name Doveman, is a pianist, singer and composer who, in addition to his own records, has worked with a wide variety of artists from Sam Amidon and David Byrne to Chocolate Genius and Father John Misty. Muhly studied at Juilliard and worked with Philip Glass and has had a career that can easily be described as meteoric, having already had an opera produced at the Met (with another on the way), among other successes. 

All that doesn’t mean I like everything Bartlett and Muhly have done. Among the tracks I love on the playlist they conveniently assembled of their various activities is plenty of music that strikes me as insular, arch and even smug. But I was too intrigued by the background of Peter Pears to do anything but listen with an open mind. And I’m glad I did, because this is a collection of sounds and songs that envelop the listener in warmth and care, quickly becoming as familiar and comforting as an old blanket or a good friend. 

The McPhee pieces are busier and sharper-edged than the originals, which are gauzy wonders of piano, strings, percussion and electronics over which Bartlett sings in hushed tones lyrics that are full of poetic allusions, aphorisms, and compassionate advice. There is a seamless grace to this music, not doubt enabled by the excellent musicians Muhly and Bartlett have assembled, including Rob Moose and Yuki Numata Resnick (violins), Christina Courtin (viola), Clarice Jensen (cello), Hannah Cohen (harmony vocals), and Chris Thompson (percussion). But the end result is all Bartlett and Muhly, making a case for collaboration being the surest way to bring out individual strengths. By working together and drawing on music and history that fascinates them, they have created something uniquely beautiful that also feels genuinely new. And if this album leads some new listeners back to McPhee and the Gamelan or the marvelous music Britten and Pears created together, so much the better. The album comes out on May 18th and Bartlett and Muhly will be performing it at La Poisson Rouge on May 24th

In Part 2 I’ll be covering two more unique albums. But first, a trip to church with the Red Bull Music Academy. 

Friday, May 04, 2018

MATA's Bad Romance At The Kitchen

This year saw the 20th Anniversary of the MATA Festival, which puts on new music concerts around the city for three weeks every spring. Founded by Philip Glass, Eleanor Sandresky and Lisa Bielawa, Music At The Anthology seeks to promote the work of unaffiliated composers, presenting a highly curated selection drawn from hundreds of entires. Time and circumstance have prevented me from ever attending even one of their shows, although I jealously kept up with reviews and press releases. This year, those same factors made it possible for me to attend one of the concerts at The Kitchen, which had the attention-grabbing name Bad Romance.

It was also my first time at the current location of The  Kitchen, a legendary performance art space last incarnated in SoHo. One of my favorite memories of the astonishing rise of the Beastie Boys was when they played a set there as a hardcore band. Because we were young and snotty, we saw it as a moment of epater le bourgeoisie and we laughed about it for a long time. There was nothing funny about seeing Steve Reich’s Different Trains there, however, although it was equally unforgettable. The new space, a large black box with extremely high ceilings, is certainly flexible enough to put on any show along the continuum mapped by those two concerts. It was also perfect for this MATA concert as several of the pieces we saw had strong theatrical elements.

Piano Six Hands

The first was Aaron Graham’s Old Voltage for piano six hands, which had Miki Sawada and Paul Kerekes on the outside of the bench hammering away like a Conlon Nancarrow piece for player piano while Isabelle O’Connell, sitting in the middle, played lyrical, almost romantic, melodies infused with tango rhythms while delivering a spoken word monologue about "hallucinations, crowds, dances, memories and lovers." The contrast between O'Connell's part and the others was increased by the way Graham has prepared the piano to dull the sound of the upper and lower registers. Beyond the curiosity value, there was power and beauty to spare in the music, which was composed in 2015 and made its American premiere at MATA. 

Jenny Hettne‘s While She Was Dreaming for violin and and tape was also an American premiere. Performed with dazzling confidence by Pauline Kim Harris, its combination of glitchy sonics with a violin part that ranged from dense bursts to folkish simplicity added up to a work I would like to hear again - stat. Hopefully this performance will lead to more of this Swedish composer's work being heard in the city, as it seems to be a fairly rare occurrence. 
Garapic, Rogers & Evans Playing Light-On-Light
Saxophonist Erin Rogers led the performance of her own Light-On-Light, which was a world premiere and commissioned by MATA. It was full of humor and ideas, including the use of saxophones and other items as percussion instruments, gamely played by Matthew Evans and Amy Garapic. Perhaps she was partly inspired by David Van Tieghem, who used his drumsticks to convert literally everything into an instrument. Her own part was full of clicks and breaths, prompting me to ask my friend if he thought anyone else could perform it. He wisely responded that it would depend entirely on the notation, which is true for any set of extended techniques. Either way, it was a wild ride. Rogers's work for guitar and soprano, The Lone Tenement, will be performed twice in New York this month. Make a plan.

Two Pianists Below, Many Samurai Above
The visual element in Chris Perren’s Samurai Loops, conceived as it was for video and two pianos, was among the strongest of the night. The projection took a scene of two friends in mortal combat from Masaki Kobayashi’s 1967 film Samurai Rebellion, at first looping the movements of Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai so they began to resemble dancers instead of warriors. Just as I was settling into that concept, the images exploded into repeating patterns, with dozens of samurai now moving in concert on the screen. Even more dazzling was the rhythmic acuity, as the music matched each clash of the swords. Not so easy, as O'Connell confirmed after the show. While she and Sawada were able to use the electronic sounds to help them stay on track, they couldn't really see the screen while they performed. The music, while adjacent to minimalism, could also be lushly melancholic, with sweeping melodies that interacted well with the macho romance of the imagery. Perren, from Australia, also performs with Nonsemble and Mr. Maps, among other things. Watch Samurai Loops and then explore his world if you're as captivated as I am.

Charlotte Mundy In Basic Black
The second half of the night began with Steven Whiteley’s [      ] [    ] [  ] [ ] [] (yes, that’s the title!) for soprano and electronics. The piece convincingly explored the relationship of syllables and words to gestures and to the sonic environment. Some of the repetitive, quotidian phrases ("Darling you're so...") made me think of Scott Johnson's work using language. It may sound cerebral in a description but this was gripping stuff with a stunning performance by Charlotte Mundy, who embodied her demanding role completely, including some haunting (and virtuoso) laughter. I was already a fan of hers thanks to her great work on Ecstatic Music, the 2016 album by TAK Ensemble so I am glad I had the opportunity to see her on stage. Her website is sorely out of date, but if you follow Ekmeles, the vocal ensemble to which she belongs (or TAK), you're sure to be able to catch her. 

El-Ansary (left) Acknowledges The Applause
The penultimate work was by Bahaa El-Ansary, a young Egyptian composer who has been causing a stir in new music circles. This is not only due to the fact that there are fewer known composers from that region, but also because of the sheer emotional power and command of structure displayed by his work. Nightmare for guitar, violin and viola was a perfect example, with the trio’s forces marshaled with great economy and style. Dan Lippel’s acoustic guitar virtuosity deserves special mention, while Harris on violin and Carrie Frey on viola certainly had no trouble keeping up. As far as I can tell this was the first performance in New York, and only the second in the US, of any work by Al-Ansary. Programmers should explore his website, which is full of striking music, such as Lost, composed for harp and 30 cellos. That's not a combination you see - or hear every day!

Ken Ueno’s ‘Tard, another MATA commission, was wisely placed last on the program. Like Hendrix at Monterey, no one would have wanted to follow it. For this world premiere performance, Ueno was joined by the outgoing Artistic Director of MATA, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Du Yun, on vocals, along with Evans and Garapic on percussion. Each of them had an enormous bass drum, which were visual statements in their own right. Ueno and Du were both wearing whimsical garments (pants on the former and a shirt for the latter) made of multicolored puff balls, which were the only hints of levity in this bleak and searing piece. Unless, that is, unless you count the listing on Ueno's website, which credits him as "non-breather" and Du as "screamer." Those descriptions became clear shortly after Ueno took his place at a table set with a glass bowl filled with water and a small towel.

As soon as Evans and Garapic began wailing on their massive drums, creating an equally massive sound, Ueno bent at his waist and put his face in the bowl of water. He remained there for at least two minutes as Yun vocalized in composed agony. She and the drummers continued when Ueno pulled out of the water and stood silently glaring at the audience with what seemed to be barely controlled fury. The only let up in intensity was when Evans and Garapic switched from the drums to striking metal water bottles together, creating a sound not unlike the cloud chamber bowls David Byrne used in parts of his score for the Catherine Wheel. According to the program notes, presented as an email exchange between Ueno and MATA Executive Director Todd Tarantino, the original conception included contact mics on the bowl and a camera under it so the composer’s submerged face could be projected. Intriguing thoughts (“Hmmm” was Tarantino’s entire response) but it’s hard to imagine those bells and whistles making the work substantially more effective. 
Ueno Glaring, Du Screaming
As seen at The Kitchen, ‘Tard is a brilliantly enigmatic piece that asked more questions than it answered. That title, for one. Was it short for the repulsive neologism “libtard”? Or the scarcely less awful “retard”? Nothing good, that seems certain. And was the rage directed at us? Or a reflection of our own anger? Or just good theater? This was par for the course for an evening filled with works that seemed to explore the firewall where intellect and instinct collide. Kudos to MATA for bringing this important music to light. I can only imagine what I missed over the rest of the festival, not to mention the last 20 years!