If you’re a fan of new music, be it “indie-classical” or whatever it’s being labeled this week, then you must check out the music of composer and conductor Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. Phillips’ music, composed and arranged for his ensemble Numinous, a large chamber group (or small orchestra?) of woodwinds, brass, strings, tuned percussion, electric instruments and vocalists, is a complex, finely detailed amalgam of classical, minimalist, South American, Asian, and African American influences, with a distinctive “sound” that is instantly identifiable, yet full of surprises. (You know those descriptive terms “Brahmsian” or “the Mingus effect”? It’s like that.) Phillips’ latest album, Changing Same, due out August 28 on New Amsterdam Records, is perhaps his most autobiographical musical statement to date.
While his previous recordings, Numinous: The Music of Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. and Vipassana include notes that detail the inspiration for his compositions, Changing Same has no notes; just a quote from 1966 by writer, poet and playwright Amiri Baraka (then Le Roi Jones) that describes a “post-black aesthetic,” one that unapologetically digs both the down-home and the downtown, the highfalutin and the funky, the Anglo-centric and the Afro-futuristic, the “what it is” and the “what the hell is goin’ on?” The titles for each of the six movements of Changing Same offer some additional clues . . . “Behold, the Only Thing Greater Than Yourself,” “Miserere,” “Unlimited,” “Alpha Man,” “The Most Beautiful Magic.” The first track, “19,” which can be streamed and purchased here, refers to November 19, 1970, the date of the publication of James Baldwin’s essay, “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis,” Arnold Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, opus 19, from 1911, and the age Phillips began studying music as an undergrad, after two semesters as a bio-chemistry major.
Changing Same is another intriguing chapter in Phillips’ journey, from growing up listening to both Holst and Prince, to conducting Numinous onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a performance of his score for the 1922 silent film The Loves of Pharoah, to producing this latest release. In the following interview, Phillips provides some details about that journey, and explains how his life experience, be it past, future or present-day-craziness, is reflected in the music of Changing Same.
On the back of your new album, there’s a quote by Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) from his 1966 essay, The Changing Same:
“R&B is about emotion, issues purely out of emotion. New Black Music is also about emotion, but from a different place, and finally toward a different end. What these musicians feel is a more complete existence. That is, the digging of everything.”
So, my first question with regard to this quote is, do you dig everything?
Well, of course, I have my standards. [laughs] There are things I like and don’t like.
In that essay, Baraka is explaining the spontaneous compositional processes of the creative improvisational people at that time, and putting them in a continuum of what had come before in terms of black music. He’s saying look, these guys might seem like they’re acting wild and crazy, But really, this “New Black Music” harkens back to earlier music.
When I read the essay, the quote just jumped out at me. I thought it was a perfect encapsulation of what I’m doing or hoping to have happen with my piece. With Changing Same, I wanted to take the cultural and musical things that I grew up with and incorporate them into piece. When I read Baraka’s essay, I thought, yes, I grew up with the black music continuum, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Prince. But I grew up with classical music as well, like Holst, Bach . . . like any other composer, I have a potpourri of influences. Sometimes you can hear these influences very specifically. For example, on the fourth track, “The Most Beautiful Magic,” the initial bass line is actually coming straight from Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
All of that hard work has unfortunately just gotten a lot harder; Their offices are in the Redhook area of New York City, and weren’t dealt kindly with by Hurricane Sandy. As Sarah Kirkland Snider writes on her Facebook page:
Our new New Amsterdam HQ in Red Hook was totaled by Sandy. The water mark is over 4′. We had moved much of the office to higher ground prior to the storm, and elevated everything else, but we still lost all files/paperwork, a hard drive, some furniture, vintage synthesizers and music gear, and most of our CD stock. Our landlord does not have flooding insurance, and our attempts to acquire it before the storm were denied. There is some talk of FEMA helping uninsured Red Hook businesses, but that seems like a long shot. Stunned and heavy-hearted we are.
Truly a catastrophe for a small company like this… Clean-up and picking through has begun, but they’re certainly going to need a lot of help to get back to a point where they can continue the outstanding service they’ve done to new music listeners, performers and composers alike. Nothing is set yet, but at the very least you can “like” their Facebook page to show your support, and to stay aware of any coming requests for help, donations, or benefits.
New Amsterdam is truly a treasure, and we’re absolutely rooting for a comeback.
Time Out New York’sSteve Smith is sparing with the 5-star CD reviews, but he gave his highest score to Drawn Only Once,Due East’sNew Amsterdam release. It features two beguiling multimedia works by John Supko, which feature video, electronics, Due East (Erin Lesser, flute and Greg Beyer, percussion), as well as a number of other instrumentalists and vocalists. These various elements are overlaid in a busy patchwork quilt, sometimes contemplative, at others dizzying: but it’s always a beguiling sound world. Despite the sometimes dense colloquy of events found on Drawn Only Once, the release will likely draw listeners back to fathom its depths in successive hearings.
Lesser and Beyer live in Wisconsin and Illinois, respectively. But on Monday night, they’re bringing Supko’s music to Galapagos Art Space, which will be bathed in the glow of video and the envelopment of surround sound.
Sharing the bill with them is another New Amsterdam artist – Gregory Spears – whose newly released Requiem is his debut CD. This is another disc that’s spent a lot of time in the short stack near my favorite listening spot, ready to be pressed into service for repeated hearings.
Spears combines early music instruments and singers with a 21st century aesthetic sensibility in a contemplation of mortality that eschews both dogmatism and morbidity. Although it’s a far more ambient motivated work than the Fauré Requiem, Spears’ essay in the genre shares a comforting and cautiously affirming demeanor with its predecessor, as well as a sensuousness of sound and intriguing modality that is most fetching.
There’s going to be an album release party tonight at Le Poisson Rouge. Two groups on the New Amsterdam Records roster, NOW Ensemble and the Chiara String Quartet, are celebrating their respective releases.
Chiara are presenting string quartets by Jefferson Friedman, along with remixes thereof by special guest electronica artists Matmos. Meanwhile, NOW Ensemble presents a mixed program of new synthetists pieces by the likes of Judd Greenstein, Sean Friar, and Missy Mazzoli.
Check out Joshua Frankel’s new video Plan of the City below; it will accompany the performance of Greenstein’s Change at the gig.
The new indie classical kids on the block, Newspeak, have just released their first video. David T. Little’s composition sweet light crude, featuring soprano Mellissa Hughes in fine voice and the ensemble grooving up a storm, is ready for your delectation on YouTube.
The piece has been given the “jump cuts and jitter” treatment by videographers Satan’s Pearl Horses.
It’s hard to believe that it has been five years since Hurricane Katrina. The CD release of Ted Hearne’sKatrina Ballads on New Amsterdam Records is a grim reminder that New Orleans still remains a devastated city, one that has yet to recover from the storm, doubtless at least in part due to all manner of official incompetence and governmental neglect. Source recordings that chronicle the previous administration’s bungled handling of the disaster serve as a jumping off point for Hearne’s scathingly satirical, yet often affecting, song cycle.
The record’s out on 8/31, but there’s a release party at Le Poisson Rouge to welcome the album on 8/24 at 7:30 PM. In the meantime, we’ve got a teaser video:
Here’s CBS News’ take on the city’s condition when President Obama visited last year. I’ve also linked some more recent articles from Slate in the comments section below. While Chris Becker’s comments suggest that improvements have been made, it seems like there’s still a lot to do for New Orleans to fully recover. If Hearne’s song cycle can serve as one of many reminders for us to stay the course and continue to rebuild the city, I’m all for it.
Last Friday I finally made it down to the new DUMBO location of Galapagos Art Space to see the release party/performance of Mikel Rouse’s haunting new album Gravity Radio. But let’s back up for a moment before we get to Rouse.
DUMBO, for you non-New Yorkers, is one of the myriad New York City neighborhood abbreviations, like SoHo (South of Houston) or Tribeca (triangle below Canal), and it stands for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass,” which is to say it’s in Brooklyn in the area just south of the Manhattan Bridge. It was one of the first places in Brooklyn that artists moved to find illegal loft space in the 70s after they got priced out of lower Manhattan. (The name “DUMBO” is actually an interesting piece of failed culture jamming–residents hoped that by coining such an unappealing name they could stave off developers.)
Galapagos Art Space is a mixed-genre performance space which used to be in Williamsburg, but when the rent in Williamsburg got too high they worked out a deal that has landed them in a converted industrial space in DUMBO which they were able to entirely remodel to fit their needs and aesthetic. In front of the stage, suspended a few inches above a shallow black reflecting pool and connected by bridges, is a set of circular seating pods with room for several small tables and chairs each. A balcony with additional seating rings the room and provides space for the sound booth. The whole place is done up in red and black and chrome, set against the bare concrete walls of the building. It’s truly a beautiful space. Galapagos has a new booker, and I’m told that they are going to be increasing their classical fare–they’re already hosting the New Amsterdam Records concert series Archipelago (the next show in that series will be this Friday at 7:30pm with vocal group Roomful of Teeth and percussion/flute duo Due East.) To give a sense of how diverse the offerings at Galapagos are, in just the next week they will also be presenting Argentinian music by Emilio Teubal & Fernando Otero, punk/cabaret by Barbez, some sort of music/dance extravaganza called “Out Through Her,” the Main Squeeze accordion orchestra, a production of Hamlet, a burlesque show, Jenny Rocha and her Painted Ladies (which apparently involves music, dance, physical comedy, and theatre), a variety show, and the American Modern Ensemble. Perhaps “diverse” is an overstatement, but that programming certainly covers a lot of the territory of the hipster art universe, and that was just one week of shows.
Galapagos Art Space
That programming potpourri brings us nicely back to Mikel Rouse, whose album Gravity Radio may at first glance seem like a straight-up rock record, but which has deep roots in the classical music and theater traditions as well. Mikel himself is clearly comfortable in the netherworld between pop and classical, moving effortlessly more into one area and then into the other. In 1978 his band Tirez Tirez opened for the Talking Heads in Kansas City; in New York in the 80s when postminimalism’s highly rhythmically and structurally complex offshoot Totalism was emerging, Rouse was at the center of the movement along with composers like Kyle Gann and Michael Gordon. In 1984 he wrote a 12-tone piece called Quick Thrust for a rock quartet, which features dizzying polymeters that somehow seem tightly controlled and completely haywire at the same time. Mikel’s rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic instincts all seem grounded in rock, but he tends to deploy those materials much more like a classical composer than like a popular song writer.
Take “Black Cracker,” which is track three on Gravity Radio. First, almost all popular music in 4/4 time has four-bar phrases, but for Rouse’s lyric that fourth bar is unnecessary and he leaves it out. The whole song is perfectly seamless, and yet because every cycle is one bar shorter than you expect the whole thing feels constantly off-kilter. Then part way through he cuts the tempo of the descending hook “When I’m bored I can’t be bored with you/When I’m blown I can’t be blown in two” by half. After establishing the half-tempo version he brings back the full-tempo version over top of it, making the chorus into a prolation canon. That half-speed hook then becomes background for the next verse. Later an ascending scale adds yet another counterpoint to the mixture, and the whole thing fits together like a puzzle.
The danger of emphasizing these elements of complexity, of course, is the risk of sending the message that complexity is inherently virtuous, or that the complexity in this music somehow “elevates” it above other less complex popular music. Writing in Gramophone, Ken Smith once said that Rouse’s music is evidence that “pop music can sustain serious interest with the right person at the helm”–the implication that most pop music can’t “sustain serious interest” is the kind of thing that tells me the writer doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The complexity in Gravity Radio is interesting and enjoyable, and connects the music to the classical tradition, but ultimately the music has to stand or fall on its surface qualities, and in this case it stands tall. I’ll take a well-crafted Britney Spears tune over a tortured post-serialist brain-dump by a composer who cares more about combinatoriality than musicality any day of the week, and while I haven’t asked him I suspect Mikel Rouse would feel the same way.
If it sounds like I’m avoiding telling you what Gravity Radio is, exactly, the truth is I’m not sure what to call it. It’s part song-cycle, part concept album, part theater piece. It’s a series of thematically and musically related, country-inflected, infectiously memorable rock songs of ambiguous but evocative lyrical content, connected by interludes of spoken recitation of news headlines and fragments of lyrics from the songs delivered in an astonishing newscaster-kunst voice by Veanne Cox. It has something to do with superconductors and gravity waves. It’s abstract and catchy and deep. It’s 52 minutes and 14 seconds long.
The beauty of the internet is that I can just tell you to go here to listen to portions of it and read Mikel Rouse’s description and the lyrics.
The performance at Galapagos was a stripped down version with just guitar, string quartet (members of ACME), Mikel singing, Veanne reciting, and some background sound effects. It worked well even in that format, and the absence of drums and other rock elements showcased how deeply integrated the string arrangements are into the composition. The band fought a little against the acoustics of the space, which had a tendency to muddy up the sound, but overall the performance was tight and intense. Rouse modestly sat among the ensemble rather than standing front and center like a rock frontman. The headlines in the news recitations were updated with recent news, as they will be for each leg of the international tour that begins in January.
Gravity Radio ends with one last set of news reports from which I draw one final observation: Almost any statement is improved by the addition of the phrase “Chuck Norris wins.”
Hilary Hahn doesn’t need much introduction; as one of the leading violinists today, many of you have any number of her recordings or have been lucky enough to catch her in concert.
Usually we put our stars up on some pedestal, always with that remove of the stage between us. But Hilary herself has a different idea of what a star should be up to in between wowing folks at those concerts. She happens to love to talk to people, especially other musicians, and is genuinely interested in what makes them tick. And she loves to share what she hears with us, often using her own trusty laptop to record her interviews. As she says: “Through interviewing, I find out things about people which would never come up in casual conversation: how they work, what their creative processes are, how they view their artistic output, what they value in their professions, and so on. To me, those topics are fascinating.”
Hilary was especially interested in doing a whole series of interviews with contemporary composers; since that’s what s21’s all about we thought “why not hook up?”So here’s the deal: each month Hilary will be visiting with a different composer, posting the interview to her YouTube channel. We’ll let you know as soon as each goes up, give you the first part here and guide you to the place to view the rest. We’re really happy to work with Hilary, and to bring a bit of “real people” to the sometimes too-serious perception of our “art”.
First up, Hilary paid a visit to Judd Greenstein, a composer who’s not only been getting a lot of acclaim for his music, but is also one of the founding forces behind the exciting, young and extremely buzz-worthy New Amsterdam recording label. Hilary and Judd discuss self-presenting, artist-driven labels and the indie classical scene:
Continuing a theme: earlier this week I mentioned a gig by composer Matt McBane’s “not-quite-neo-alt-rock-chamber-folk-etc” ensemble Build. The pattern continues this Sunday at The Stone in NYC (corner of 2nd street and Ave. C, $10), when two more “NQNARCFE” groups show us what they’ve got (is this the true wave of classical music’s future? — composers and performers each with their own group playing clubs? To try both sides of the pie, since our own side’s filling is getting decidedly skimpy?).
At 10pm Victoire takes the stage: “Brooklyn-based band founded by composer Missy Mazzoli (keyboards and compositions, with Olivia De Prato and Andie Springer, violins, Eileen Mack, clarinet, Lorna Krier, keyboards and Eleonore Oppenheim, double bass) has been dubbed an ‘all-star, all-female quintet’ by Time Out New York. This quirky ensemble combines strings, clarinets, keyboards and lo-fi electronics (including samples of sewing machines and answering machine tapes) to create their ‘minimalist, post-rock bliss’.” Their EP has been getting a great reception, and chances are good that you’re going to hear about them far into the future.
Opening the night at 8pm, Odeya Nini stamps her own group with a rather different vibe. As Odeya tells me herself, “...my current work is a bit different – I guess its just a piling up of more experiences, mind tumbles and turns. My music could be categorized as indie chamber / electronic / folk — or simple music for folks to focus and indulge in what they might perceive as cohesive or opaque.”
Odeya “received her BFA in vocal performance from the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music where she studied voice with Theo Bleckmann and composition with Kirk Nurock and Gerry Hemingway. Today her work is characterized by skillful experimentation, integrating improvisation, acoustic composition and electro-acoustic sounds to create thought provoking works of art.”
She’ll be working with her own group of sidekicks : Alex Hills (piano), James Ilgenfritz (bass), Jake Wise (clarinet), Katie Young (bassoon), Elena Moon Park (violin) and Curtis Stewart (violin). This is one of Odeya’s last gigs in NYC before she relocates out West for grad school composition study.
Fresh on the heels of their excellent BoaC Marathon appearance, composer Matt McBane‘s alt-avant chamber-whatever group Build is doing a collaborative concert with another twisted sister, Former-Aussie songstress Greta Gertler. It’s all going down Tuesday, June 23, 2009, 7:00pm at Joe’s Pub (425 Lafayette Street, NYC); tickets are $15.
In addition to performing separately, Greta and Build will join forces in premiering new string arrangements by McBane, for songs from Greta’s forthcoming album “The Universal Thump”. The idea for this collaboration was inspired by Matt and Greta discovering that they were both listed on The Deli Magazine’s NYC Top 20 Orchestral Pop chart. With the knowledge that they were in fact supposedly working in the same genre, and sharing friends and sometime roommates, Greta and Matt decided fate was telling them to get together and do something, and so here it is.
I think this is going to be a decidedly lovely show, well worth catching.