(Re)New Amsterdam: an Interview with Doyle Armbrust

As many of you know, during Storm Sandy New Amsterdam Presents and New Amsterdam Records’s headquarters in Red Hook, Brooklyn was decimated by flooding. Ever since, the label’s staff, led by co-directors William Brittelle, Judd Greenstein, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, have been working on rebuilding. Not only have they been concerned with their own business, but the community minded folks at New Amsterdam have also been advocating for aid to help their neighborhood in Red Hook.

New Amsterdam’s plight hasn’t gone unnoticed by the broader new music community. And not just in New York. On December 16th, Chicago musicians are presenting (Re)New Amsterdam (ticket info here), a benefit to raise money for the organization. One of the concert’s organizers, Doyle Armbrust, violist, writer, and curator of the (Un)Familiar Music Series at Chicago’s Empty Bottle, spoke with Sequenza 21 about the show.

Christian Carey: Hi Doyle. Thanks for taking the time to tell us about the upcoming benefit for New Amsterdam Records. How did the idea emerge for musicians to give a concert in Chicago to help out a record label that’s based in Red Hook, Brooklyn?


Doyle Armbrust: The idea for a New Amsterdam fundraiser came from the generous brain of Marcos Balter, whose scores have been recorded on the New Am label. This year, I’ve launched a new-music series, (Un)familiar Music, with the sole purposes of artist advocacy and breaking the new-music scene out of the concert hall setting. With its policies of allowing artists to retain the rights to their music as well as 80% of an album’s proceeds, the philosophies of New Am and (Un)familiar are wonderfully congruous. It was an obvious fit as Marcos and I saw it. Much more important than all of that, though, the Chicago new-music scene is a far more collaborative than competitive one. We believe in this often quixotic and illusory career path, and specifically the music being written today, and when we hear that our colleagues in another state are suffering, our hearts break. I moved back to Chicago after living in Los Angeles and Miami in large part because I missed this compassionate spirit of my home city. I’m grateful that the passionate response by the new-music community here has proved the point for me once again.



CC: How did you go about assembling the artists putting on the show? Which groups are participating?


DA: Once we secured the date with The Empty Bottle, (Un)familiar’s home base, calls and emails went out to just about every new-music ensemble in Chicago…and just about every new-music in ensemble immediately agreed to play. In some cases we have members of ensembles performing solo works, or smaller chamber pieces, due to availability and the size of the venue, but the program is an absolute knockout. Performers include: Abominable Twitch / Access Contemporary Music / Can I Get An Amen / Chicago Q Ensemble / CUBE / Dojo / Eighth Blackbird / Ensemble Dal Niente / Ensemble Vulpine Lupin / Fifth House Ensemble / Fulcrum Point / Gaudete Brass / Grant Wallace Band / Searchl1te / Spektral Quartet / Third Coast Percussion.



CC: Was there a collaborative or thematic aspect to selecting the program? Any highlights among the selections you’d like to preview for us?

DA: When programming (Un)familiar shows, my aim is to have the ensembles perform whatever they are most amped about. Marcos and I have continued that trend here, and I’m happy to report there will be no filler anywhere in this 4-hour show. I can’t possibly pick a most-anticipated entry, because the setlists are so dynamite. That said, as a Beat Furrer fanatic, I’m looking forward to hearing Ensemble Vulpine Lupin (a recent addition to the Chicago family) dig into “Invocation VI” and because this is a Cage year, I can’t wait to see Third Coast Percussion destroy with “Third Construction.”

CC: Any chance that the concert will be recorded?

WFMT will be recording the concert.

CC: What ways would you suggest non-Chicagoans help New Amsterdam and others affected by Storm Sandy?


DA: I wouldn’t presume to tell folks specifically how to donate, but I will say that I did have a wrestling match in my cranium over the often fraught issue of aid. There will always be someone in more dire need of assistance, as there is in the case of now-homeless victims of Sandy. I can also return from a record-buying binge and realize that someone won’t eat today, but I HAD to have that Harry Partch first-pressing. It’s a constant hypocrisy that most of us deal with on a daily basis. In the case of this event, I see an opportunity to help in some small way fellow musicians with whom I share similar artistic struggles. I have resources to magnify that aid, through my series and the generosity of my friends here in Chicago. We can rally together and throw a monster of a concert that people will excitedly pay to come witness. Together, through this incredible music we’ve dedicated our lives to championing, we can effect some tiny degree of relief.



Keeping Jersey Strong: A Hurricane Benefit Comp

For $5 (or more if you’re so inclined) you can purchase Keep Jersey Strong: A Hurricane Benefit Comp from Bandcamp. It includes 53 tracks by area artists, including Real Estate, The Everymen, Cinema Cinema, Nicole Atkins, and more. All of the proceeds go to the American Red Cross’s efforts to help victims of Storm Sandy.

The Unanswered Petition (Save Ives’s House!)

Picture courtesy of (c) Zoe Martlew/Lebrecht Music & Arts

Way back in September, Charles Ives scholar Jan Swafford reported in Slate that the Ives home in Redding, Connecticut, built by the composer and for many years maintained by his family, was up for sale.

As Norman Lebrecht wrote on Monday for his Slipped Disc column on Arts Journal, the house is being eyed by developers and will likely be demolished.

That is, unless someone intervenes and declares it a national landmark; a part of our cultural heritage worth preserving. Getting the attention of a person with clout would help; someone like Connecticut Congressman Jim Himes (119 Cannon House Office Building Washington, D.C. 20515), who represents Redding as part of his congressional district.

Or President Obama.

Below we’ve included an embed of Bernard Lin’s petition on Change.org. It needs more than 900 additional signatures. We’re asking Sequenza 21 readers to consider signing and helping get out the word about the petition via social media, email, etc. in hopes that we can in some small way help in the effort to preserve the Ives house in Redding. If you live in Mr. Himes’s district, please consider sending him a letter too!

If music be the food of sustainability

Mirror Visions Ensemble (Photo: Harold Shapiro).

Tonight at Merkin Hall, the Mirror Visions Ensemble is presenting Concert à la carte. Its first half features food-themed works by American composers, ranging from art songs by Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, William Bolcom, and Martin Hennessy to offerings from Broadway tunesmiths Stephen Schwartz and Cole Porter.

But the second half of the concert is where the concept really kicks in. Mirror Visions has commissioned a new work from composer Richard Pearson Thomas. His cantata know thy farmer sets a number of texts drawn from the menus of Blue Hill at Stone Barns Restaurant. The evening also includes an introduction from Blue Hill’s executive chef  and co-owner Dan Barber.

Will menus from a sustainable cuisine venue provide good lyrics? Well, Pearson Thomas isn’t the first to pore over recipes for musical inspiration. Bernstein’s “Rabbit at Top Speed,” featured on tonight’s program, has long provided a dose of humor on countless vocal recitals. Here’s hoping that sustainable menus will provide some food for thought, and inspired music-making, tonight.

Concert à la carte
Tuesday, November 9, 2010 at 8pm
Merkin Concert Hall – Kaufman Center

Tickets for this event are priced at $25/$15 for students and may be purchased by calling 212-501-3330 or by clicking here.

Mirror Visions Ensemble

Vira Slywotzky, soprano

Scott Murphree, tenor
Jesse Blumberg, baritone


Richard Pearson Thomas, piano
Harumi Rhodes, violin
Alberto Parrini, cello

Ryuichi Sakamoto: New York concert review

Sakamoto plays the piano

Last month, I interviewed Ryuichi Sakamoto for an article that will appear in the next issue of Signal to Noise. On October 18, 2010, I got a chance to hear Sakamoto perform live at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NewYork University. It was the second show in a two month long U.S. concert tour promoting his new US release Playing the Piano/Out of Noise.

In recent years, many entertainers have become more outspoken about the consequences of their jet-setting ways. True, the environmental impact of concert tours, concerns about climate change, and, in turn, advocacy for human rights and fair trade are often associated with big-name pop acts: Bono, Sting, and David Byrne. But it isn’t only artists at the top of the charts who are trying to change their business practices. Sakamoto has become a forthright advocate for these causes as well. His touring schedule is crafted with climate impact in mind. A carbon offset is made to counteract the carbon dioxide emissions from the US tour.

The offset isn’t the only concession made on the tour. During the concert, several pieces are accompanied by projections or incorporate spoken-word recordings. Some of the visuals are abstract art projections – kind of benevolent large-scale screen-savers. But others encourage engagement on particular topics. These invariably reference social issues important to Sakamoto, and range from discussions of the melting of the polar ice caps by Greenland official Karen Filskov to principles for engaging in reconciliation by the Dalai Lama. Still, if rendering opinions on social issues from the concert stage has become a not-uncommon practice, one certainly prefers this kind of subtle insertion of the topic to the polemical speeches some artists make between songs. And there’s an organic component to their presence onstage. Sakamoto incorporates these ideas into his compositions themselves as well: often in a singular and evocative fashion.

One of the most overt examples of this is the piece “Glacier.” The composition appears on Out of Noise and is featured as the opener on many of Sakamoto’s concerts. It incorporates excerpts of field recordings that Sakamoto made while on a trip to Greenland featuring sounds collected while he visited several rapidly melting glaciers. The sounds he recorded are haunting, alternately brittle and percussive shards of cracking ice as well as the flowing sounds of water and howls from biting winds.

Sakamoto’s response to the sounds of Greenland’s glaciers is to play his instrument in an unconventional fashion. He plays inside the piano, using his fingers to elicit scratches, thumps, and plucked strings. Ample amplification and reverb add a cavernous echo to these extended sonorities. When listening to the recording, “Glacier” certainly makes an impression. But seeing Sakamoto play the piece live really brings its message home.

The concert starts in darkness, with glitch electronica and field recordings emanating from onstage speakers, creating an eerie ambience. Sakamoto takes the stage, standing beside one of the two grand pianos that adorn it, illumined by icy projections playing from a screen behind him and a small light on the piano. Playing inside the piano in this dimly lit setting, he is visually accompanied by projected titles that translate a calmly spoken but clearly urgent narrative about the impact of climate change on Greenland’s fragile ecosystem and on the fisherman who eke out a precarious living in the region: a vanishing way of life.

The music could scarcely be further from the public’s perception of Sakamoto, which is guided by Neo Geo fusion pop and hummable film score themes. Doubtless some of the sold-out crowd is taken aback, but they are very responsive to “Glacier:” to both its message and its music.

Glacier, like other socially engaged pieces on the program, manages to communicate without ever overreaching or seeming preachy. Just as Sakamoto is known for restraint and balance in his compositions, his approach to activism is similar in approach: gentle yet potent.

During the concert, Sakamoto presents several other pieces from Out of Noise. If one wonders why the pianist has two grand pianos onstage, the answer is supplied by the evening’s second selection: a new piece called “Hibari.” For “Hibari,” Sakamoto plays one grand piano, while the opposing MIDI grand creates a virtual duet, echoing back some of the music he’s already performed. It’s great fun to watch the keys move seemingly of their own accord, like a player piano. It’s even more fun to listen to the accumulation of repeating layers, over which Sakamoto continues to weave successively more intricate harmonic clusters and diaphanous lines. The overall effect is simultaneously minimalist and post-Impressionist. It’s as if Steve Reich and Oliver Messiaen were given “mash-up” treatment, with a little bit of the score for Silk thrown in for good measure! “In the Red” takes on a more avant-ambient space. The second piano remains silent, but Sakamoto is “accompanied” here by glitch guitar samples supplied by Cornelius and Christian Fennesz.

While there’s plenty of new material on the NY concert, Sakamoto also gives the audience an ample share of older songs. He even reaches back into his Yellow Magic Orchestra catalog, playing an instrumental version of 1979’s “Behind the Mask,” one of the hits from the group’s second album Solid State Survivor. He leaves the original’s vocoder at home, but the lyrics are displayed on the projection screen. This “music minus one” endeavor leaves more room for Sakamoto to craft an elaborately syncopated accompaniment; and the scrolling lyrics encourage more than a few audience members to take their cue to indulge in a little “concert karaoke.”

Spontaneous audience participation and multiple encores featuring Sakamoto’s biggest hits close out the show. But as soon as the houselights go up, we hear a recording of more glitch electronica from Out of Noise; bringing the evening full circle. And so it is with Sakamoto, who’s eager to present his latest creative endeavors, even to his oldest fans. Unlike some ‘dinosaurs of rock’ tours, where the audience grumbles when the concerts contain too many “songs from the new album,” few at NYU seem to mind – the queue for autographs is so long that it extends further than the line for the exits.