Archive for the “Review” Category

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Some of the most timeless, gripping, modern and surprising music I hear consistently are the vocal works of Renaissance Italian composers and their associated circle – Monteverdi, Gesualdo, the great Madrigalist Luca Marenzio. Saturday night at Miller Theatre I heard music from composers who were new to me – Giovanni Maria Trabaci, Il Fasolo (not Giovanni Battista Fasolo) and Marco Marazzoli – in a revelatory and affecting concert from the great early music ensemble, Le Poème Harmonique, led by Vincent Dumestre.

Why Renaissance music at Sequenza21? First, Miller is as important for their early music programming as they are for their Composer Portraits, and second, they build the connection between the two eras not only abstractly through the two series but through a newer exploration of the past by way of the present. Last season they began a Bach Revisted series that paired early and new music musicians and programs (I saw an excellent concert with Kristian Bezuidenhout playing C.P.E., W.F. and J.S. Bach accompanied by Ensemble Signal, who themselves gave a masterful performance of Michael Gordon’s Weather, and since you can’t have Gordon without Reich and Reich without Bach, there’s nothing to argue ). The series continues this year with concerts that pair Bach with Kaija Saariaho, Reich and Joan Tower.

This fits into the ongoing history of music, where composers continue to write a cappella vocal works. I had a significant dose of them from John Zorn, including a set he explicitly calls “madrigals,” and there’s a good handful of contemporary vocal music built on the work of the ancient pioneers that has not only crossed my desk but been in the news this year. The critical point of all of this is that the old music is for the most part so much more daring, free and innovative than what I hear from contemporary composers, with some notable exceptions.

New vocal music has had a moment this year with Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize award for her Partita, which appears on the debut disc from Roomful of Teeth. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the piece, but not much right about it either. There are contemporaneous vocal compositions that do some of the same things, do them better, and go beyond. Partita is polite music with a few accessories that might appear experimental but that are, in 2013, ordinary things in a composer’s toolbox. The teleology of her texts is shallow and brittle. Spoken words? Berio wrote and adapted far more compelling texts. Phonemes? Kenneth Gaburo’s works are older than Shaw and are still experimental. These tools are also better used in choral works on an excellent new CD of music from composer Kevin Puts. His work doesn’t sound as superficially ‘new’ but he makes richer, deeper and more proficient music with the same elements of text and fragmented vocal sounds.81vsXNBbX2L._SL1500_

His harmonies are also involving, and this matters. Harmony is the essential feature of the history of this music, it’s through the voice that composers created polyphony and counterpoint. But we’re supposed to know so much more today than they did in the 17th century, so why does Gesualdo sound so much fresher and newer than most new vocal music? His harmonic flights of fancy are surprising and effective because he creates a context that is clear, logical and describes the terms he’s working with. There is a fashion in contemporary vocal music of tossing in dissonant or extended chords that, since it’s in opposition to the overall harmonic context, comes off as a self-conscious way of asserting new music bona fides. That is one of the traps that Zorn’s work can fall into.

At edge of the trap but never falling in is a new work from Gregory Brown, Missa Charles Darwin, available in an engrossing recording from New York Polyphony. Brown works with history in two ways, cultivating a refined sense of vocal polyphony while setting Charles Darwin’s writing from On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man and various letters. The harmonic motion is mostly strong and logical, though parts like the “Alleluia” section suffer from jarring modulations. It’s a strong work overall, though, and in particular Brown is the only contemporary composer I can recall who crafts vocal lines that have the same sense of independent harmonic rhythm and expressive freedom that makes the madrigals of Monteverdi and the like so powerful (there’s a fine companion to Brown’s piece, another new recording from New York Polyphony, Times Go By Turns, a collection of works from Byrd, Plummer and Tallis).

It’s enduringly strange to me how the techniques of Monteverdi have been left by the wayside. The combination of voices singing the same text, in counterpoint and rhythmic opposition, is one of the most beautiful and involving sounds in music, across all genres. Add words like:

Veglio, penso, ardo, piango; e chi mi sface
Sempre m’è innanzi per mia dolce pena
Guerra è il mio stato d’ira e di duol piena,
E sol di lei pensando ho qualche pace.

(I watch, brood, burn and weep; and she, my undoing
Is ever before me, causing such sweet sorrow;
Warfare is my state, full of anger and pain,
And only thoughts of her bring me peace)

have immediate personal meaning to us across the centuries. Setting them as Monteverdi did gives them physical urgency and so the Miller Theatre concert was exciting and moving. Le Poème Harmonique, like other early music groups, sees this music as coming from the earth, the groin, not the mind and the heavens, so there is fire and humor. The program was “Combattimenti” which you can hear on this marvelous CD; it included Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. It ended with Marazzoli’s La Fiera di Farfa, an astonishing dramatic parody of Monteverdi. For a while, it’s a dazzling picture of a fair, with hawkers, gawkers and more calling out, arguing, dancing. The parody comes near the end, when a ball breaks out and two gentlemen, friends, begin to fight. It seems in deadly earnest until the loser calls off the coup de grace by singing “Friend, you have won: I forgive you; you forgive me too. Indeed, in such circumstances it is a fine thing to be a base coward.”

In no way was this the experience of gazing quaintly back at the humanism of the past. Dumestre did something remarkable in this concert: there are songs within the larger piece, sung by characters inhabiting the fair, not only the faux-fight “Guera e Mort,” but two remarkable ballads, sung beautifully by tenor Serge Goubioud, “È no ssusciame’n canna (He cannot play a flute)” and “Vurria’addeventare pesce d’or (I’d like to become a golden fish).” In these moments, Dumestre moved the accompaniment from continuo-recitativo style repetitive bass and chord accompaniment, with a modern, vernacular sense of articulation and syncopation. Goubioud moved his voice from throat and head to his chest, and we were hearing popular music, as in-the-moment today as it was 400 hundred years ago. It felt liked the Marazzoli was here to keep us company with the knowledge that he knows our cares and loves and worries, because they are the same ones people have across epochs. The past is never past, the music of all eras speaks to us eternally.

Kozar_OTE_InsertBut it would not if it wasn’t made with imagination and conviction. Those are the essential qualities of Andy Kozar’s remarkable recording On the End … . This is a superb collection of music, all the pieces exploring the possibilities of contemporary notation and instrumental playing. Kozar uses a variety of techniques, including graphic notation, and from the knife’s edge focus of the playing (Kozar plays trumpet and is joined by his colleagues in loadbang, Miranda Cuckson and others) it’s clear that he conveys his ideas to his musicians with precision and power.

The centerpiece is a Mass that has its foundation in the traditional movements and texts yet an expression that is at the cutting edge of creativity. Jeffrey Gavett’s voice croons and spits and shouts the words, through mellifluous lines and extreme intervals, while the instruments respond, sometimes amicably, sometimes antagonistically. There is a moment-to-moment fragmentation but an overall consistency of effect: the unfathomable mystery of death and how to express our incomprehension. Kozar steps outside the clichés of comfort and process, he never ingratiates and always fascinates. Like Le Poème Harmonique’s concert, it makes the past eternally alive, present and important.

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[Ed. note:  Welcome our newest contributor, conductor / percussionist / vocalist / composer Jordan Randall Smith. A Dallas native, Jordan is the Co-founder of the Dallas Festival of Modern Music and the festival’s sister ensemble, Ars Nova Dallas, serving as Conductor and Artistic Director. Jordan’s just moved on to Baltimore to pursue a Doctorate of Musical Arts in orchestral and operatic conducting at the Peabody Conservatory. ]

Last weekend, Opera Hispánica concluded their first festival and third season with Astor Piazzolla‘s María de Buenos Aires, his 1968 tango “operita,” or what might be called chamber opera by the wonkish. However, this Sunday, the chamber was filled not with nobility ancient or contemporary, but with beer and wine, and the people who like to consume them, at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge.  (Although, some opera nobility, including one of Plácido Domingo’s sons, were spotted at the Sunday evening show.)  In truth, the word “opera” is only useful in that it brings to mind how openly this drama defies the classical notion of what opera is supposed to be. Instead of conforming to tradition, it provokes a re-examination of convention. This sort of provocation proved to be the theme for the work and for the night.

With a tango band occupying fully 60 percent of a stage which is already rather limited in dimension, production design was a daunting task expertly fulfilled by Stage Director Beth Greenberg of City Opera fame. Greenberg managed to turn the cramped, uncooperatively spare stage to her advantage, projecting into the space a smokey, claustrophobic Buenos Aires alleyway positively dripping with sinful lust and criminality, where “Hustlers, pimps, and devils appear at every turn,” as Greenberg wrote in the program. And the claustrophobia was palpable. The audience was repeatedly intruded upon by El Duende (ghost poet), a spoken role played by Gerardo Gudiño. The tragic heroine María, performed by Solange Meridinian, also came to a portion of a table in the middle of the audience to penetrate both the 4th wall and the comfort zone of the audience with the surrealist poetry of librettist Horacio Ferrer. In an interview for Sequenza21, Greenberg admitted, “you spend a great deal of time with a work with symbolism as dense as this, you spend time looking for a door in. The poetry is so rich that it can actually at times seem impenetrable, but you look for a door in, and it always rewards you in the end.” The audience was rewarded with the fruit of these artists’ diligence in what came out as a heady mix of musical riches, rhythmic banality, and dramatic density that somehow reached in and grabbed each of us.

Solange Meridinian, Mezzo-Soprano

Solange Meridinian, Mezzo-Soprano

“Forgotten among women,” the text reads, upending the biblical Mary, an archetype this diminutive operita pokes, prods, and ultimately breaks. The text is not purely in spanish but often in a lower class Buenos Aires dialect called Lunfardo, spoken in “the Tango underground,” as Meridinian called it in correspondence with Sequenza21 for this review. The work is rife with religious imagery and references: from the Virgin Mary, to the baby Jesus, to the wicked, the latter which in Ferrer’s and Piazzolla’s world seem often to go through life unpunished. Meanwhile, wide-eyed orphan María pays for her innocence and naiveté with her virginity and her life, set to the unrelentingly sensual rhythm of the dance.

Solange Meridinian, who is herself from Argentina, had been waiting nearly ten years for the right opportunity to finally perform María, and happened to have not one but two chances crop up, the first having been with the Lexington Philharmonic this past February. Meridinian gave a startlingly resonant account of her character, difficult in a work which even embeds its own internal psychoanalysis into the latter scenes. It was doubtless a taxing work for the highly-capable mezzo-soprano, who consistently had to perform in the lowest parts of her already extensive vocal range. She handled each phrase and scene with care and culture, remaining mindful of the tango style. The other musicians and dancers performed excellently, although there was an unpolished instrumental solo in the beginning of the fugue from “Fuga y misterio.” As a whole, the musical ensemble served the drama admirably throughout  the work’s sixteen numbers as a sort of commenting Greek Tango Chorus, even interjecting sensational bandoneónista JP Jofre as an ad hoc cast member during one episode.

At this point, the music and the name of Astor Piazzolla is widely-known among musicians and music-lovers. In recent decades, his music has become something of a crossover sensation in symphony halls, cabarets, and every venue in between. Unfortunately, the popularity of his tango-infused compositions has ironically caused them to often receive unfair dismissal in terms of emotional or musical depth. After a night with María in the hands of Opera Hispánica, the audience left with no such misapprehensions.

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The Core Trio (photo by Jonathan Jindra)

The Core Trio (photo by Jonathan Jindra)

(Houston, TX) The music of the Houston ensemble The Core Trio, featuring Richard Cholakian on drums, Thomas Helton on upright bass, and Seth Paynter on saxophones, is an utterly convincing amalgamation of jazz, free improvisation, heavy metal, electronic sounds, and music from across the Asian continent. Their repertoire includes compositions by Helton and Paynter, as well as arrangements of songs by Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio. They often invite guest musicians to join them in performance, including trumpet players Kris Tiner and Tim Hagans, myself on laptop, and pianist Robert Boston. This Friday, Boston, saxophonists Warren Sneed and Martin Langford, and former Houston Symphony clarinetist Richard Nunemaker will perform with The Core Trio at their CD release party at Houston’s the long-standing jazz venue Cezanne’s.

The Core Trio’s new self-titled CD is welcome document of the high level of musicianship and inventive interplay that defines their sound. The album consists of two extended and completely improvised performances, skillfully captured by engineer Ryan Edwards. Boston, a former Houston musician now based in New York City, joins the trio on the new CD.

On both pieces, the classically-trained Boston casts the music into a further relief. His presence opens up the ensemble sound creating the space each player needs to be heard and to play with conviction.

“When I freely improvise with players on this level, something special happens,” says Boston. “No one feels any pressure to play in any particular style. Everyone is listening and responding to what is happening in the moment. When it’s good, the thoughts don’t get in the way, but there is a logic present that follows its own momentum.”

Richard Cholokian_photo by Veronica Triplett

“It’s very similar to a speaking conversation with someone,” says Cholakian of his experience playing with The Core Trio. “If they (Boston, Helton, Paynter) choose a topic, I will converse with them on that topic. If they don’t, I will converse with them on a topic I choose, the bottom line being, what is my point and will it be heard?”

Cholakian is one of the most creative and dynamic drummers I’ve ever heard. He’s always listening, contrasting or complimenting the contributions of his band mates, and often steering the music into unexpected and unpredictable territory. Eleven or so minutes into the new CD’s second track, where the trio plus Boston explore a textural, musique concrète-like approach to ensemble playing, Cholakian brings the music to a crescendo with an almost primal-sounding drum solo that stops suddenly and startlingly at one point for six seconds of dead silence before returning to its bruising ritual.

Paynter possesses a truly original and honest voice on his instruments, which includes soprano and tenor saxophone, EWI, and lots of gongs. The technique and versatility that makes a great jazz and improvising musician is all there but somehow, his playing never strays into what Helton calls “the trappings of licks or patterns.”

“By learning to play with a defined structure, one can then learn how to venture away to new ones,” says Paynter when describing playing a tune verses freely improvising. “Everything has structure no matter how abstract.”

“As soon as I play a sound, that is the foundation for what comes next regardless if I’m playing a tune or not. Its basic function is structural. I can vary it slightly by subtly changing a rhythm or drastically with a timbre or emotional change. And those are just a couple examples of the variables one can employ.”

Helton concurs that being able to play in a traditional manner will allow a musician to be more musical in their free playing. But “tradition” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “jazz.”

“I get something different out of all the different styles I play,” says Helton, who also plays in the Houston metal band Echo Temple. “Whether it is jazz, classical, metal, country, funk, or whatever, there is some payoff personally, spiritually or musically.”

“With The Core Trio,” says Helton, “I get the most satisfaction, since there is a lot of passion, thought, aggression, finesse, communication. It is sort of the sum of all the things I love in music.”

The Core Trio with special guest Robert Boston perform Friday, February 8, 9 p.m. at Cezanne’s, 4100 Montrose Blvd. $10 cover.

The Core Trio’s self-titled CD is available for purchase Febraury 8 from Thomas Helton’s website, CD Baby, and iTunes.

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Pianist and composer Kris Becker (photo by Bhavin)

Pianist and composer Kris Becker (photo by Bhavin)

(Houston, TX) “Ah! Expression!” That’s the first thing that came out of my mouth when I cued up and heard “Elegy,” the poignant, yet unsentimental first track on Houston-based pianist and composer Kris Becker’s new recording Expansions. Becker is a classically trained pianist and composer with a passion for both 19th century and prog-rock piano and a compositional vision well served by his formidable technique. Like the song says, “Oh, yeah! The boy can play!” But it’s the range of expression in Becker’s playing and writing that ultimately resonates with me.

Real quick, let me explain the name thing. Kris and I are not related, although we are definitely brothers in spirit. We’ve even performed on the same bill, albeit separately, me on laptop cuing and mixing electronic and sample-based sounds to accompany avant-garde films, and Kris on Nord playing both what he calls his “nu-classical” repertoire and rock influenced songs. When I first relocated the Houston, the local press managed to mix the two of us up at least once (my photo appeared above Kris’ name in an ad for a gig with his rock band Frozen Heat). So just to clarify, it’s Kris with a “K,” okay?

Okay. Now back to the music. Expansions features 13 tracks, 11 of them compositions for solo piano. “Covenant” is a feisty dialogue for clarinet (played by Sarunas Jankauskas) and piano, and the title track is a seven and a half minute theme and variations for solo flute beautifully performed by Victoria Hauk.

There’s no question Becker’s formidable (that word again) piano skills have everything to do with generating the compositional material he has shaped into an award-winning, body of work. But there’s heart and soul in the man’s music, not just technical fireworks. His compositions, especially the compositions on Expansions, are intensely programmatic and poetic, a fact one can gather not only from Becker’s liner notes but the expressive and dynamic directions you see in his scores (a couple of my favorites include “scintillating and terrifying” and “twisted”).

Expansions closes with a four-movement monster of a of a piece “Piano Sonata No. 1,” which is dedicated to Becker’s Rice-era piano instructor Robert Roux. Becker appreciated my description of this piece as a “monster,” and told me that in fact that’s how the piece struck him after he first heard it back in its entirety. Several tempo and meter changes, as well as the breadth of expressive demands on the player, sets the piece firmly outside of the camp of this generation’s latest batch of post-minimialists. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. At times, especially in the first movement, I’m reminded of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, though Becker is quick to name check Keith Emerson as he is Chopin and of the usual 19th century long hairs. “Piano Sonata No. 1” deservedly won the 2012 National Federation of Music Clubs Emil and Ruth Beyer Composition Award.

Like any good romantic, Becker is determined to realize his music, his way, maintaining what a friend of mine calls “aesthetic ownership” of a very personal musical vision. Sure, Becker can tear up Mozart and Beethoven, but why play it safe? His drive compels him to a road a little less traveled. It’s a hard road, but many classically trained musicians these days are similarly deciding to forgo the traditional and instead cut their own artistic path. So Kris with a “K” is in good company!

Becker’s Expansions is available now on CD Baby and iTunes.

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Poet and Air Force veteran Lynn Hill performs in Holding It Down
Photo by Marc Millman Photography

The most recent collaboration of composer/pianist Vijay Iyer and poet Mike Ladd, entitled Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project, received its world premiere last week (September 19-22) at The Harlem Stage Gatehouse. This multimedia work, epic in scope, yet poignant in its emotional nuance, is the result of three years of interviewing and collaborating with veterans of color from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Holding It Down also marks the culmination of a trilogy of multimedia works by Iyer and Ladd, the others being Still Life with Commentator (2006) and In What Language (2003). Each of the three works examines a different aspect of post-9/11 America, but all three respond to the fear and injustice brought on by what Iyer and Ladd eloquently describe as the “insidiously racialized Global War on Terror.”

Iyer’s through-composed score consisted mostly of highly sensitive and imaginative settings of the poetry of Ladd and two veterans, Maurice Decaul and Lynn Hill, punctuated by moments of virtuosic improvisation by Iyer and members of the ensemble. The poems (performed by their authors) were moving, powerfully honest artistic responses to war and the challenges of coping with trauma. Tim Brown’s video design contributed an evocative visual counterpoint, and the video interviews, conducted and edited by the project’s director, Patricia McGregor, were particularly well timed and interesting. The ensemble, which consisted of Iyer (piano, laptop), Guillermo E. Brown (vocals, electronics), Liberty Ellman (guitar), Okkyung Lee (cello), and Kassa Overall (percussion), provided an intricate, colorful, and at times surreal musical mindscape. One unforgettable moment was Overall’s gut-wrenchingly beautiful drum solo about two thirds of the way through the piece.

The presentation of a continuous 80-minute piece that brings combines music, poetry, video, and drama is no easy task. Careful attention must be given to the balance and interplay of the various media, and the dramatic flow and experiential continuity. Credit must be given to director Patricia McGregor, who forged the elements of this work into a seamless and deeply moving journey. With the exception of two moments when the balance between the ensemble and voices could have been handled better, the production was basically flawless.

With Holding It Down Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd have offered a model of how artists can present social commentary that is profound yet unsentimental; complex yet focused; provocative yet inviting. While so many multimedia projects these days hurt the genre by dilluting their own impact, Iyer and Ladd have created one in which each medium strengthens the whole. On December 1, 2012, these artists will appear again at The Harlem Stage Gatehouse for a new piece called Sleep Song, in which they will focus on the populace of nations affected by war. Collaborating artists for Sleep Song will include the Iraqi poet Ahmed Abdel Hussein, oudist Ahmet Mukhtar, and guitarist Serge Teyssot Gay.

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If you were having a conversation with fellow music lovers about the great American composers, Carl Ruggles would not be the first person to come to mind. The “Great American Composer” honor is most often bestowed upon Copland, Ives, or even depending on the company you are with, Bernstein.

Courtesy of SONY Music & Other Minds Records

This is not to say, however, that a popularity contest equates to greatness. An equally adept and creative composer, Carl Ruggles produced a small yet intriguing output of pieces for a variety of ensemble types. It is only fair, then, that when recording the complete works of a lesser known composer such as Ruggles, top-tier musicians should be brought in to lead the process. This recording does not disappoint, and the Buffalo Philharmonic, under the leadership of Michael Tilson Thomas, have produced an earnest and committed recording of Ruggles’ entire catalogue.

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Ear To Mind
presents
Pianist Jenny Q. Chai in Recital
Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, NYC
April 19th, 2012

Jenny Q. Chai walked out onstage for the first half of her Carnegie Hall debut in a red and black dress and performed for the first half of that first half a mix of Debussy‘s and György Ligeti‘s piano etudes (Debussy: #’s 3 & 6; Ligeti: #’s 2 & 1, Book I). Despite the huge generation gap between these two, the intertwined listing of Debussy and Ligeti had the two composers’ styles offsetting one another in such a way that an unassuming listener would have thought this was one cycle of pieces from the same composer. Read the rest of this entry »

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NEXUS in SoCal Review 3-3-12The renowned percussion group NEXUS, consisting of Bob Becker, Bill Cahn, Russell Hartenberger and Gary Kvistad made a Southern California appearance Friday night before a noticeably full Samuelson Chapel at California Lutheran University. A bewildering array of xylophones, marimbas, bells, cymbals and drums of every description crowded the stage for the two hour performance. NEXUS has been making contemporary music since 1971 and has been a presence worldwide.

The entire first half of the concert was devoted to the music of Steve Reich, starting with his Music for Pieces of Wood written in 1973. This is performed on tuned wooden claves and is an example of Reich’s process of ‘rhythmic construction’. One player keeps a steady pulse while the others come in at intervals with short patterns that are offset from each other by several beats. The process in Music for Pieces of Wood consists of three sections with patterns of six, four and three beats. The acoustics in the chapel tend toward reflection and there was no trouble hearing the claves, even in the balcony where I was sitting – if anything the sharp crack of the lowest register clave became overwhelming at times, blurring the rhythmic patterns of the process. The finer details in the rhythms were best heard at the lower dynamic levels.

The second piece, Mallet Quartet, is more recent Reich dating from 2009. This was played on two marimbas and two vibraphones. The program notes quote Steve Reich: “The marimbas interlock in canon, also a procedure I have used in many other works. The vibes present the melodic material, first solo then in canon.” A good groove was, in fact, established by the marimbas but at times the sound coming from the vibes overwhelmed the pulse. The slow middle section sounded more coherent and had better definition. The precise playing of NEXUS was almost enough to counterbalance the hall acoustics in the fast outer movements, but dialing back the volume might have produced better results.

The first half of the concert closed with Drumming, a 1971 piece by Reich that was played on a set of carefully tuned bongos. A single steady beat is established by two players and this is built up in complexity as players are added. The precision of NEXUS quickly became evident as the tempo increased and as phasing was introduced into the more complex rhythmic patterns. The higher pitch in the bongo set used here was less affected by the acoustics and the results were gratifying. It was intriguing to watch the players – their arms barely moved below the elbow and the rapid drumming was done almost effortlessly by wrist and hand. This piece has a very African feel and reflects the influences that Reich had absorbed during his 5 week study of drumming in Ghana just prior to composing this piece.

After intermission the second half began with Fra Fra, a piece inspired by the folk rhythms of the FraFra people of West Africa as arranged by NEXUS. A ‘talking drum’ was featured whose pitch could be varied by squeezing the flexible frame surrounding the hour-glass shaped body. Other drums, shakers and panpipes were part of the ensemble – all of which created a strong groove. The panpipes added a melodic touch and sometimes a whistle-like sound that, combined with the strong beat, brought rap music to mind.

Tongues followed, another African-inspired piece arranged by NEXUS, this time from Zimbabwe. Tongues was played on the mbira, an African instrument known better here as a ‘thumb piano’. The mbira produces a soft metallic sound similar to a music box and the peaceful melodies in this piece were a quiet contrast to all the intense drumming that had been heard up to this point. In fact two mbiras were used – the higher Shona mbira and a bass mbira from the Caribbean. These were accompanied by a softly-struck wooden block and a gentle rattle. The overall effect was subtle and serene, a melody that seemed content with its simplicity.

A time of improvisation followed and the only rule was that any player could play anything on any instrument at any time. This seemed a recipe for ear-splitting chaos but improvisation has been a feature of NEXUS concerts for 41 years and the results were impressive. The piece started quietly with various bells, bowls and blocks and developed a sort of zen feel. This morphed into a kind of urban street-scape complete with car alarm. All sorts of items were used: a bunt cake mold was struck and a chair was dragged across the wooden floor of the stage. There was a breath-operated organ that held a long drone, various bird calls and the slow scraping of cymbals. The result was agreeably alien and not strictly percussive – a sort of sonic journey that reminded me of what JC Combs creates. Most interestingly, this piece was greeted by sustained applause from the audience who had clearly connected with the concept.

The concert concluded with a series of ragtime pieces featuring mostly the music of George Hamilton Green, an early 20th century composer for the xylophone. These were expertly played and varied from formal, almost classical-sounding pieces to popular music of that time. A standing ovation followed and an encore of virtuosic xylophone music finished a full evening. That so many people came out to see a contemporary music group and listen to an hour of music by Steve Reich is an encouraging sign for all of us here in SoCal.

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Cory Smythe and Amy X Neuburg; Photos courtesy of Glenn Cornett

Amy X Neuburg/Cory Smythe
Roulette
Brooklyn, NY
Dec. 13, 2011

It’s East Meets West…coast, that is.

On the stage of the old-school charming Roulette in Brooklyn was yet another creatively edgy program, put on this time by the pairing of West-coast avant-cabaret artist Amy X Neuburg and New York’s own pianist-composer, ICE’s Cory Smythe. Presented without an intermission, the show was almost entirely electronic or electro-acoustic in nature (with the exception of a refreshing burst of Fats Waller’s “Handful of Keys” from Mr. Smythe), and most of the pieces were composed and/or arranged by both of them. Read the rest of this entry »

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Barriers between various musical genres continue to be gleefully destroyed by insightful musicians and collectives.  One such divide that has been crumbling over the last few years has been any distinction between “bands” and “chamber groups.”  Beyond the ensembles made up of visually traditional combinations (“string quartets” such as Kronos and Ethel) are more unusual outfits like Clogs, a bassoon-viola-guitar-percussion quartet.

The final, June 10th concert of the 2011 Tribeca New Music Festival featured SWARMIUS, a band from San Diego with an intriguing quartet configuration of violin, saxophone, percussion and laptop/electronics.  Led by composer Joseph Waters (whose nom de band is Jozefius V. Rattus), SWARMIUS succeeds in producing some of the most dynamic, original, and compellingly infectious new music today.  This is testament not only to Waters’ brilliant compositions, but to the formidable prowess of the three instrumentalists: violinist Fiddlus el Gato (aka Felix Olschofka), Saximus (saxophonist Todd Rewoldt) and percussionist Crotalius Redfoot (Joel Bluestone).

Taking place in the intimate confines of The Cell Theatre in Chelsea, the concert opened with Cali Karsimala, which took the rhythms and scales of a Gypsy couple’s dance as a departure point for an extended virtuoso expedition. The piece is highly evocative of its Eastern European and Persian models, but also moves beyond them to suggest energetic dance music of some new, imagined culture.  Olschokfa and Rewoldt managed Waters’ sinewy and rhythmically tricky lines with verve and aplomb, and the timbral aspects of the piece (managed by Waters’ in real time from his laptop) were highly distinctive and memorable.

Drum Ride was another ultra-rhythmic traversal exploiting diverse exotic scales, this time over an almost omnipresent quintuplet ostinato.   Despite its similar stylistic ingredients to Cali Karsimala, it more than managed to distinguish itself as being quite different, with melodic, harmonic and timbral material not at all reminiscent of the previous work.   The only general similarity was that it again suggested ingrained folk music from a culture that doesn’t exist.

The title of the next piece removes the responsibility of the reviewer for providing any descriptive prose. Moonlight Beach Chaconne (The Beach Boys, J.S. Bach and Stevie Wonder Take A Trip To Nigeria, Where They Encounter The Ghost Of Richard Wagner, Impersonating A Shaman) delivers exactly what is promised by the title.  Brilliantly, the result is not a pastiche at all, but an exuberant, multi-layered and at times very affecting synthesis of the idioms referenced in the title.   Chromatic baroque harmony is always in the mix throughout the piece.  What the title doesn’t tell you is that the work is basically a violin concerto, played with both virtuoso mastery and moving lyrical expression by Olschofka.

Dragon was a paean to Japanese video game music.  With many recognizable themes swirling in high-spirited counterpoint, the piece exhibited bounteous imagination and sly humor, bringing the audience to audible laughter at various junctures.  Lucas, the Bringer of Light was a completely different venture—a long and highly variegated tone poem inspired by Waters’ 7 month-old grandson.  Using samples of his grandson’s vocalizations, Waters produced not only a deeply affecting portrait exploring the perceptions and temporality of an infant’s world, but an exploration of the machine-like aspects of human beings.  The timbral universe of Waters’ sounds in this composition were vast but still unified; the structure appropriately and compellingly organic.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXjfVohsHUo[/youtube]

The concert’s finale was Grand Larceny, an enthralling toccata inspired by the fast tempi, timbres and ultra-precision of speed metal.  For this number, the audience was asked to blow police whistles which had been distributed at the beginning of the concert at a climactic juncture, an effect that was both cathartic and hilarious.

In sum, the compositions of Joseph Waters and the musicians SWARMIUS produced a vibrant, highly memorable, gripping and deeply persuasive musical evening at The Cell.  Here’s hoping that they will return to New York with their unique sonic presence very soon.

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