Saturday, October 26, 2019

Concert Review: JACK In The Crypt

“It’s kind of spooky - but fun!” said a woman to her friend as we took our seats in The Crypt of the Church of the Intercession, beneath the streets of Hamilton Heights. I found it a suitably contemplative space for a concert of music by John Luther Adams but could see her point, with the candles flickering and the memory of having passed a shadowy graveyard on the way from the wine and cheese reception to the performance space. 

Descending Into The Crypt
We were there for another entry in The Crypt Sessions, a series produced by Death Of Classical, which is the brainchild of Andrew Ousley, a voluble impresario who invited us take advantage of the intimate setting to seek communion with the music, with ourselves, and with our fellow audience members. He also mentioned what a treat it was to have the JACK Quartet perform in such a context and I couldn’t agree more - the group’s sense of adventure is only matched by their sheer excellence of technique. And as this is the second time I saw them in a brief span of time, I can happily report that they are as tight and communicative as they were before their lineup changed a few years ago.  

The first work they played, The Wind In High Places, is one with which I am intimately familiar from their 2015 recording, part of a beautiful album of the same name focusing on music by Adams. But right from the opening of the first movement, a four-note phrase of high harmonic notes, I sensed a greater shapeliness to the performance. It was a feeling that remained throughout that wispy first movement and into the second, an extraordinary combination of tinkling glass chimes and bird calls. As these sounds were all made by the two violins, viola, and cello, this could be considered synthetic music of the highest order. The music took shape in the air, aided immeasurably by the warm acoustic of the environment. The third movement inspired me to jot down the phrase “radical consonance” in my notes, so strong and rich was the sense of harmony among the instruments. Structurally speaking, that third movement, and the piece as a whole, felt as solid as the Gothic arches by which we were surrounded. 

JACK Quartet In The Crypt (Photo by Andrew Ousley)
After rapturous applause, the four men got to work on Adams’s String Quartet No. 5, Lines Made By Walking. This was the New York premiere of the piece, which was first played this past August in Fishtail, Montana at Tippet Rise. Death Of Classical didn’t print the movement names or numbers on their minimalist program, but I wondered from the start if Adams would once again use the three-part format that seemed so right in the previous piece. A brief introduction from JACK violinist Austin Wullman let us know that Adams was inspired to create a “sculpture” in sound based on long walks in Wyoming. 

The first movement - which, I learned later, is called Up The Mountain - had a sense of constant ascension with repeating melodic loops seeming to move ever upward. The content of those melodies also struck me as quintessentially American, as if the essence of Aaron Copland was extracted and distilled into an ambient Americana. There was a crescendo of sorts to end the first movement, a bit of a magic trick showing how minimal gestures can create drama. The second movement (Along The Ridges) was elegiac and almost lush. Time felt suspended along its long threads even as it retained a sense of slow forward motion. Down The Mountain, movement three, was just that: "Descent," as I wrote in my notes. It followed a similar architecture as the first movement, including the quickening, almost-crescendo at the end, with lots of eye contact between the players as they brought this new piece home. 

There was a brief pause and then a long, generous and well-deserved ovation. I looked at my watch and it was barely 9:00 PM, a nice bonus on a Monday night. On the way out, I chatted briefly with Wullman and asked him if the greater comfort with The Wind In High Places was a result of having played it many times or just my own impression. He agreed that playing it often had made it more their own, but also put the difference down to “not being under the microscope” of the recording studio. 

While I certainly hope the JACK records this new Adams piece ASAP, that’s as good an argument for attending the Crypt Sessions as any: hearing our finest musicians playing excellent music in an environment that evinces their greatest sense of comfort. In short, it’s a special occasion. The word is out, however, and shows sell out almost instantaneously. So subscribe to the newsletter and be prepared to jump when they announce their next concerts!

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Saturday, October 19, 2019

Record Roundup: String Theories

Plucked, bowed, tapped, strummed, or otherwise perturbed, taut strings, whether made of metal, plastic, or animal fiber, and perhaps attached to a resonant chamber, can be employed for as broad a range of expression as music can contain. The six albums below all have stringed instruments as their focus and represent peak artistic achievements for all involved. There’s also enough variety between them to suit every mood and setting, from challenging extended techniques to deeply meditative explorations into ambient realms. Enough of my yakking, let’s get on with it!

Ben Melsky/Ensemble Dal Niente I’m constantly telling people I love the harp. But it wasn’t until the opening notes of Tomás Gueglio’s After L’Addio/Felt (2014), the solo piece that starts off Melsky’s fascinating new collection, that I felt I was hearing the harp music I needed. Combining dry strums with the sweeping glissando for which the harp is known with brightly plucked notes, Gueglio gives us a sassy overview of the instrument’s reimagined sonic possibilities. The fact that the dry sounds are the result of a new technique of dragging Melsky’s calluses across the strings, speaks to not only a tight connection between composer and performer but also to Melsky’s dedication to his craft. In Alican Camçi’s Perde (2016), Melsky’s harp goes mano a mano with his Ensemble Dal Niente colleague Emma Hospelhorn’s bass flute, his swipes and melodic fragments moving in parallel with her husky whispers and staccato vocalizing. It’s slightly combative and if they never quite agree an invigorating detente is eventually reached. 

Next is Frederick Gifford’s Mobile 2015: Satirise (2015), part of his series of indeterminate pieces, which five agency to the players in how they order the elements during their performance. This one is designed for harp and guitar, played here by Jesse Langen, and finds the players embracing the similarities between their instruments as much as the differences, creating a unified landscape of sound rife with topographical interest. Wang Lu, whose debut portrait album made such a splash last year, contributes the cheekily titled After some remarks by CW on his work (2018), with the CW standing for composer Christian Wolff, one of her inspirations. A dialogue for Katie Schoepflin Jimoh’s clarinet and Melsky’s harp, the piece is a reflective gem. 

Igor Santos’s Anima (2019) is the longest piece here at 13 minutes plus and turns Melsky’s harp into a cog in a machine created by a delightfully witty percussion part played by Kyle Flens. It must be a joy in concert. On-Dit (2014), Eliza Brown’s piece incorporating a short fragment of text by Voltaire, closes the album with dynamic writing for harp accompanied by an hypnotic vocal part sung by soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett. It’s a mysterious yet energizing conclusion to a landmark recording for Melsky’s chosen instrument. I put it alongside Michael Nicolas’s Transitions and Olivia de Prato’s Streya as an exemplar of what a modern collection like this can look like. And speaking of looks, New Focus Recordings has really gone above and beyond with the packaging for this one, giving it a wonderfully handmade feel. If you still buy physical media, put this at the top of your shopping list. 

Pauline Kim Harris - Heroine This album is some kind of miracle. It was an instant hit in my house, too, assuming the status of a classic with stunning rapidity. The fact that it goes down so easy belies the amount of thought and craft, as well as heart and soul, put into it by Harris, a violinist with wide-ranging interests, and her co-composer, Spencer Topel. The first of the two pieces is an ambient exploration of the fourth movement of J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor (BWV 1004). Over more than 40 minutes, Harris and Topel blend live and recorded violin with electronics that at times shimmer and sparkle and at others seem to interrogate the source material. It’s mesmerizing and immersive, with the richness of the experience no doubt aided by Sono Luminus’s exquisite recording. To me, this the ideal use of Bach in the 21st century, especially when it comes to making records. 

The second pieces is equally wonderful, even if the source material, Johannes Ockeghem’s Deo Gratias of around 1497, is less familiar. Harris and Topel take the composer’s medieval canon through what feels like a natural evolution into infinity. One can only imagine what Kubrick would make of this glorious music and what images he would create to accompany it! Just as both Bach and Ockeghem used structural forms to make heavenly music filled with compassion and love, so do Harris and Topel create a sense of warmth and peace out of the application of intellectually rigorous approaches. There’s something healing about Heroine and I recommend listening to it without delay. 

Ashley Bathgate - Sleeping Giant: Ash Anyone who has seen Bathgate perform with the Bang On A Can All-Stars or solo has no doubt been riveted by her total involvement with everything she plays. It goes beyond her sheer virtuosity into what seems to be a mind-meld with the composer's intentions, a quality which comes through very clearly on her second solo album. Like Harris and Topel, Bathgate has found a wonderful way to keep Bach in the present without simply recording his work again. Arising out of a deep collaboration with the composers of the Sleeping Giant collective and inspired by Bach's Cello Suites, this series of six pieces was played in concert for two years (where was I?) before Bathgate made the recording. The result is a triumph for all involved and a better argument for the continuing life of these works in the repertoires of other players could not be imagined. 

Andrew Norman's For Ash opens the album, well-placed as you can hear the fragments of the Prelude of Bach's Fourth Suite coming through like a palimpsest. Chris Cerrone contributes On Being Wrong, which has features gorgeous harmonics and sections of Bathgate accompanied by more and more recordings of herself. There's a bit of darkness and melancholy to Cerrone's writing here as well, widening the emotional landscape of the album. Little Wonder, which composer Timo Andres calls "a madcap gigue," builds upon itself, repeating a line then adding a new phrase (or "cell"), only to go back to the beginning and play it all again, adding yet another cell. There's a woozy playfulness to it that I can imagine Bach enjoying quite a bit - especially after a stein or two of Bock. Jacob Cooper's Ley Lines takes the pedal stop at the end Suite Five's Prelude through a series of repetitions that almost arrives at 10 minutes of pure intensity. Bathgate's commitment to the short phrases, many of them on open strings, is incredible. 

The perfect follow-up to that is Ted Hearne's clever DaVz23BzMHo, which has Bathgate's cello triggering samples from a 1990's commercial, arriving at a lush noir exploration that wouldn't sound out of place in the next Blade Runner film. Robert Honstein's Orison closes Ash on a somber note, long lines stretching off into some unknowably distant inner space. It must be stunning in concert, especially after all that has come before, completing the circle that started with For Ash. That said, any one of these pieces can stand on their own and together they represent an impressive injection of new works for solo cello into the music of our time, a testament to Bathgate's dedication to her craft and to her connections to composers. 

andPlay - playlist There’s so much overlap in NYC’s fecund new music scene that it took me a minute to connect the Hannah Levinson I was watching play Catherine Lamb with Talea Ensemble at Tenri Cultural Center last month with this album, which I already had on repeat at the time. But, yes, this is the same violist, here paired with violinist Maya Bennardo, whom I also know as a member of Hotel Elefant. Though they founded andPlay about seven years ago and have commissioned many works, this is their debut album. The five world-premiere recordings make a perfect statement of the versatility and even power of this combination of instruments. 

Ashkan Behzadi’s Crescita Plastica (2015) opens the album with dramatic swoops and glides, guttural stops and eerie harmonics in a bold statement of purpose. Bezier (2013), the first of two works by David Bird, turns the viola and violin into glitchy simulacra of electronic instruments, with bird-like tones intruding playfully before the real fireworks start. It’s a tour de force and quite a calling card for this composer, who was new to me. Clara Iannota’s Limun (2011) is next, adding a harmonica to the sound world, which provides a drone over which Levinson and Bennardo alternately duel and join forces. Bird’s Apocrypha (2017) further expands things with electronics and brings the album to a stunning close. He is a composer I hope to hear more from soon. Bennardo and Levinson have made such a strong case for this instrumentation that I hardly thought about it, just reveling in all the fantastic sounds, expertly captured by New Focus. I hope andPlay is prepared to be overwhelmed next time they put out a call for scores!

David Bowlin - Bird as Prophet While Bowlin’s name was not immediately familiar, I’ve seen him perform as a founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble many times. Here he has assembled a mostly spectacular selection displaying his dazzling gifts as a soloist, starting with Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms #9 for violin and electronics - still bending minds over 30 years after it was premiered. Kastena, a duo for violin and cello (Katinka Kleijn) by Alexandra Karastoyanova-Hermentin is a rich reminder of the Russian heritage from which she takes inspiration. The title piece by Martin Bresnick, which adds Tony Cho on piano, seems a bit prosaic in this company and doesn’t quite add up over its ten-minute span. George Walker’s Bleu for solo violin is a brief burst of near-romanticism, nicely cuing  up another piece by Karastoyanova-Hermentin. Mari Mamo features Conor Nelson on flute and Ayano Kataoka on percussion alongside Bowlin for an even deeper transmutation of Eastern European folk traditions. Du Yun seems to create her own traditions and Under a tree, an Udātta is one of her most ritualistic works, with its dense violin writing accompanied by recorded Sanskrit chants. Having a version of it recorded by a consummate musician like Bowlin is a real treat, a word that applies to this fine collection as a whole. 

Kronos Quartet - Terry Riley: Sun Rings Fans of both composer and quartet have been waiting for a recording of this celestial suite since it was premiered in 2002. While I can only speculate, I wonder if part of the delay was coming to a rapprochement between the various elements in what is a complex conception to realize in the studio - nearly "rocket science," in fact! Using "space sounds" captured by NASA spacecraft and received on "plasma wave instruments" designed by physicist Don Gurnett, Riley has composed music for quartet and vocal choir (the San Francisco-based ensemble Volti) that, rather than simply following along, interacts with them, perhaps most spectacularly in Venus Upstream. The 72-minute work takes us through a narrative that connects to many of the feelings around humanity's exploration of space, from the pride at our achievement and the danger we faced to get there, to the wonder of the beyond and our astonishment at our own small stature when set against the backdrop of the universe. While it seems less about the astronaut's experience than, say, Apollo by Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Roger Eno, at several places it evokes the starlit darkness of what lies beyond earth's atmosphere. The voice of Alice Walker, speaking after 9/11, saying "One earth, one people, one love" becomes a mantra in the final movement, and one we would all do well to keep front of mind. Sun Rings is full of creative leaps that only Riley would make and it is perfectly acceptable to put all the astrophysics to the side and just enjoy a perfectly realized and transporting work of music by one of our finest (and, though he would probably hate to hear it, most venerable) composers. If you're in the DC area, catch it live on March 13th, 2020 at Washington Performing Arts - I'd get there if I could.

Hear all of these albums in the playlist below and keep up with all the classical music that's caught my ear in 2019 here.

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Thursday, October 03, 2019

Record Roundup: Rock Formations

Rock isn’t dead. It’s all around us, shattered into a million pieces, genres and sub-genres too numerous to list. To give a sense of the kaleidoscopic reality, here are quick takes on seven albums representing some of those different shards.

Jay Som - Anak Ko Melina Duterte, who performs and records as Jay Som, made quite a splash in 2017 with Everybody Works, an exceedingly tuneful pop-rock album which had a slick and shiny surface belying its creation in her home studio. Did I mention she played all the instruments, including guitar, keyboards, bass, drums, accordion, and trumpet? A rare talent, indeed, and she has only doubled down on the pleasure principle on Anak Ko, whether on the Can-inflected twists and turns of If You Want It or the breezy strumming of Superbike. The way the latter song ends in a heavily processed guitar solo is one indication that she doesn’t want to limit herself to the dreamier side of things. Melody, emotion, creativity, it’s all here, and if you’re still holding on to summer, put Anak Ko on repeat. 

Mattiel - Satis Factory I may be late to the table - this is Mattiel Brown’s second album - but, man, am I enjoying this kicky feast. With a surprising deep, declamatory voice that’s nearly a bellow, Mattiel sounds like she’s singing down from on high, from the pulpit in the church of rock & roll. Messianic, that’s the word, as she calls you back to the verities of The Doors, Bessie Smith, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and The Crystals. But with sure, sharp, deeply informed backing from her collaborators Jonah Swilley (guitar), Travis Murphy (bass), and Jordan Manley (drums), this is a collection made for these unsatisfactory times. “Did you expect a guarantee/Working in that satis factory?” Mattiel sings in Millionaire - well, no...but I guarantee you’ll be more than satisfied with this killer collection. 

Tool - Fear Inoculum It’s always interesting when a singular band takes a long hiatus. The question becomes whether all the musical water under the bridge since their last appearance will have any effect on their sound. Steely Dan comes to mind - think about all that happened between 1980’s Gaucho and Two Against Nature in 2000: the rise of hip hop, new worlds of electronic music, both dance-oriented and not, new wave, hair metal, grunge - would any of these movements change Becker and Fagen’s sound? Should they? The answer was a firm “negatory,” and rightly so: no one else gave us what they did so their doubling down on crisp production, swaggering horns and bent lyrics was a welcome relief. So it is with Tool, Fear Inoculum coming out of the gate as the Ur-expression of all that made them great. Longer songs, more repetition, increased creativity by the already mega-inventive percussionist, Danny Carey, more varied singing by Maynard James Keenan. The question is not whether they’re living up to their earlier albums but have they made them obsolete? After all, this is a band whose sound quickly matured from whiny alt-metal to something which nearly redefined song structure and the relationships of the instruments in a rock band, so they don’t really owe us more in the form of grand innovations. But Chocolate Chip Trip into 7empest - with some of Adam Jones’ most stinging guitar - may rank with their greatest one-two punches ever - and how many bands can say that over two decades into their career? One that comes to mind is Killing Joke, now 40 years in - and kudos to Tool for bringing the industrial post-punk legends on tour. Long may both of them reign.

Amyl and the Sniffers - Amyl and the Sniffers Another entry in the ongoing inquiry into what exactly is in the water in Australia, as amped up Amy Taylor and her gang of beautiful losers blast out riffs galore, chugging beats like a runaway train, shouty background vocals, and all the glam-punk tropes that should not take flight as they do here. Sometimes it seems only the force of will gets them airborne, like an oil-drenched seagull, but damned if it doesn't work every time. They've also gone about things the right way - grinding it out on their own for a couple of EP's, starting with 2016's Giddy Up, then hooking up with Ross Orton, who gave a new heft to the Arctic Monkeys on 2013's AM. Orton organized and polished their sound - but only just. There's still plenty of chaos to go around within the confines of their blistering yet catchy songs. This is one band I cannot wait to see in concert.

Bon Iver - i,i There is a distance between the recent performances I’ve seen by Justin Vernon (first at Mass MoCA with TU Dance and then at the 37d03d Festival at Pioneer Works) and his work on this album that took a little getting used to. While not as wide as that of Joy Division’s live work and their records, there is an elemental fire that seems slightly banked here. Then there’s also the fact that Hey, Ma, the first single from i,i, has a melody that feels so well-worn that I was concerned it was a remake of an earlier song. 

But it’s only because Vernon has delivered so much emotional richness and sonic innovation over the years that my expectations run so high in the first place. And there’s plenty of both of them here, on what is the most collectively created album in the Bon Iver discography, and one with far more organic textures than 22, A Million, the last album. The stellar contributions of regular band members like percussionist Sean Carey, saxophonist Mike Lewis, guitarist Andrew Fitzpatrick, and new guitarist Jenn Wasner (of Wye Oak) serve to amplify even the sparely orchestrated moments, giving a sense of muscular weight to even the smallest sounds. This includes Vernon’s voice, an instrument of seemingly unending nuance and perfectly calibrated doses of raw power. It’s him I think of as I welcome these new wonders into my life.

Ex Hex - It’s Real When this band of indie-rock vets, including Mary Timoney (of Helium, Wild Flag, etc.), guitars and vocals, Betsy Wright, bass and vocals, and Laura Harris, drums, put out their first album a few years ago, I enjoyed the stripped down, straightforward rock-for-rock's-sake approach, but only in small doses. This time around, however, they’ve hit the sweet spot over and over - and with dead eyed accuracy. Whether it’s the increased amount of air between the power chords, a little more swing in the rhythm section, or the heightened flamboyance of Timoney’s lead lines, spraying sound around like your hair in a Corvette T-Top going 90, it just sounds like they are having more actual fun, instead of just thinking about it. And you will, too!

Ocean Music - Fan Fiction For Planet Earth This stellar collection showcases the slightly more extroverted side of Richard Aufrichtig, whose Troubadour No. 1, with its quiet majesty and intricate arrangements is my #1 album of 2019 so far. Don’t be fooled by prosaic titles like The Parking Lot Song and The Basement Song - when Aufrichtig and Kevin Schwartzbach's guitars start to soar in the latter you will be lifted. Some of these songs have been around for a while in various evolutions, but here tracks like When I Went To California are at their rhapsodic best. Aufrichtig is always going to make deeply felt, emotionally immersive music and this is his most direct shot to the gut yet. Why wouldn’t you try it?

Tracks from all these albums and many more can be found in this playlist or below. Click the little heart to keep up with what is yet to come - and let me know what I may have missed. 

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