Saturday, September 18, 2021

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

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

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

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

Sorey admires his handiwork

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, September 06, 2021

Record Roundup: Rooms Of Their Own

Each album below creates a self-contained universe and feels like a direct view into the minds and hearts of their creators. All are also musical innovators who put deeply personal explorations solidly in the context of these challenging times. Their artistic and emotional bravery can be inspiration and guidance for us all.

Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever I can't imagine what it's like to create something new when you're not so much an artist as an industry. One way around the pressure is to not think you're making an album, just recording a song here or there, and then get boxed into a corner by a global pandemic, which sidelines the world tour that was going to keep you occupied for the next 18 months. At least that seems to have worked for Eilish, who has beat the odds and followed up her earth-shattering debut with this excellent collection of (mostly) elegant and (mostly) intimate songs. I say "mostly" because when she lets all the tension out on the title track, it comes as an explosion of distortion maybe not heard since the golden age of digital hardcore. But up to that point, she and her brother Finneas, who produced the album, explore various realms of electronic pop, lacing in strains of bossa nova, blues, jazz, disco, in a restrained fashion that occupies the same small space as, say, Colossal Youth by Young Marble Giants. 

While there's no doubt this is the same artist who made When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go, the sense of an artist following her muse is very strong. Eilish has enough stadium anthems already, after all, but it will be interesting to see how quieter songs translate to the necessarily large venues she will be visiting on her tour, when it happens. As for her artistic development, there was a key moment in The World's A Little Blurry, the documentary about her early career, where she and Finneas are in the back of a tour bus trying to record their theme song for No Time To Die, and Finneas is urging her to put a little more power behind her vocal. She complains, saying something to the effect of, "I hate belting." Well, it seems like she protested to much. Besides the title track, there are a number of moments here where she lets it loose, like Oxytocin (which must have Madonna simmering with jealousy), a neo-house nightmare of a song that has her unleashing unearthly wails.

A note about the lyrics. While some have complained that they can't relate to the subject matter of the songs because they touch on Eilish's rapid ascent to stardom and the ensuing fallout...I say not so fast. Take the opening track, Getting Older, which has the line, "The things I once enjoyed, just keep me employed," which could be taken as a world weary plaint about how being famous is such a drag. Maybe there's a kernel of that in there, but it's also a rhyme Cole Porter would grab at, and in the context of a song where she also sings "I've had some trauma, did things I didn't wanna," I have no problem feeling sympathy for that narrator. And in NDA, where she makes a cutting remark about having a potential boyfriend sign a non-disclosure agreement before leaving her house, it would be easy to see that as a "first world problem," when the problem is really with the gossip-industrial complex that put her in that position in the first place. In the end, while there's plenty of hard-won personal experience fueling these songs, these are not journal entries but exercises in creative songwriting.

The sequencing of the album is one of its strengths, with tones, moods, and rhythms sliding into or interacting with each other in ways that pull you from song to song. Not My Responsibility is  the dark heart of the album and the tough inner core Eilish exhibits on that spoken word track about the many judging eyes on her and her body is a remarkable display of self possession - and will likely help many young women around the world. Only the last song, Male Fantasy, is ill-served by the track-list as it can't help feeling like an afterthought following the explosion of the title track. It's a beautiful song, however, with an almost folky quality and, like Your Power, shows off the crystal clarity of Eilish's soprano. It's thrilling to think that she has yet to fully exploit all the qualities of that golden voice.

My biggest concern after the massive success of Eilish's first album was that she and Finneas would be corrupted by success in a way that would taint their self-contained writing and production methods, leading to the use of outside writers, guest features, and other things that would dilute the power of their work. Thankfully that hasn't happened here, but I would note that on the vinyl copy I have, there's no mention of Finneas interpolating Gustav Holst in the intro to Goldwing, and neither is there any credit given for the lush photography (by the remarkably talented Kelia Anne MacCluskey) or the pretty graphic design. Until you can do literally everything yourself, it's a good idea to give credit where it's due. Just a minor point and one that doesn't sully one of the year's best albums.

Anika - Change I never knew how much I needed a record that combined the hauteur of Nico with the distracted pathos of Joy Division until I pressed play on this, Anika's second album in 11 years. That gap is misleading however, as she and Martin Thulin, who made the album with her, also released two albums  as Exploded View (along with Hugo Quezada and Amon Melgarejo) in 2016 and 2018. But I missed those at the time and was hence unaware of Anika's remarkable development as a songwriter and artist since that self-titled debut. Using a backing that often combines a tough rhythm section with synths that soar and squiggle in time-honored post-punk tradition, Anika declaims and sings lyrics that often hold up an all-too clear mirror to our current age of anxiety. This radical honest reaches a terrifying peak on Never Coming Back, a mantric (yet not preachy) chant about all we're erasing from the earth through our inability to stop climate change. That tension makes the title track all the more heartbreaking in its hopefulness. "I think we can change, I think we can change," she sings over and over, almost as if she's trying to convince herself. I know she's made me a believer!

My Tree - Where The Grace Is In 1971, Stevie Wonder planted a flag in the future world of synth pop with Look Around, the opening track from Where I'm Coming From. Now, we get the duo of Caroline Davis (vocals, vocal effects) and Ben ‘Jamal’ Hoffmann (keys, keybass, drum programming, guitars, vocals), who seem to have grasped a thread from that flag and pulled it right up to today. Another thing that outs them as Stevie's progeny is the captivating melodic invention of each song, which Davis sings with a jazzy lightness and flexibility. Hoffman's all-synth backing (right down to the LinnDrum rhythms) shimmers and sparkles, aided by a warm production and occasionally live contributions. Musically, it's a breezy experience, but dig a little deeper and you will find mention of Ahmaud Arbery and the Pulse Night Club shooting. They also dissect the Reagan presidency with some help from a rapper Rico Sisney, but even there they evince the light touch that distinguishes their sound and makes me hit "repeat" - I think you will, too.

(Eli)zabeth Owens - Knock Knock When I included Owens' debut, Coming Of Age, in my Best Of 2018: Rock, Folk, Etc., I closed by saying,
 "I get chills imagining the moment when her ambitions are fully realized." Well that moment came when I sat riveted on my couch as I watched the premiere of the visual album that accompanies this album. Using a dazzling variety of visual styles, Owens and their main collaborator, Oscar Keyes, explore issues of identity, breaking free from negative patterns, and the many ways our internal resilience can pull us through tough situations. The music, much of which was recorded and performed by Owens alone, combines sparking harp, lush piano, or spiky synth with glitchy hints of percussion, creating looping sound beds for their nearly operatic musings, which are unafraid of asking the hard questions. 

"When I was a kid, I thought I'd die young," they sing in Oversoon, "Wave goodbye to everything and everyone/Twenty years go by and I’m still alive…/What to do with all this time?" Often layering their voice to create hypnotic choirs and occasionally touching on prog rock, Owens is charting their own course here. While its easy to imagine fans of Kate Bush or Joanna Newsom coming on board, Owens communications more clearly to my heart than either of them. With this richly imaginative, almost theatrical album, Owens has installed themself yet more firmly in the musical firmament of our time. Catch a rising star today.

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