Expect the Unexpected

Le Poisson Rouge has been presenting classical chamber and small ensemble music for a couple years now, and doing so with great popular and critical success.  Still, it can be a pleasant surprise to walk down the stairs, through the hallway that might belong in a ‘classic’ whore house, and into the dark, low-ceiling nightclub, find a space at the bar, order a drink and listen to . . . a piano recital.

Keys To The Future, a newish and compact festival of contemporary and new classical piano music, occupied LPR for three nights last month, and it was such an ideal venue that I hope they’ll continue to book the club.  The crowd was avid, the music accompanied by the clinking of glasses and padding of feet (and also what seemed to be a semi-violent argument coming through the closed doors of the adjacent bar area) made the place feel like the environment heard on the Miles Davis “Plugged Nickel” set, a comforting quality connecting the public camaradery of concert-going with a familiar space in memory of hearing a nightclub recording while relaxing at home in a big city on a hot summer night.  There’s an intimacy of the past and present, the real and the imagined, the public and the private that is seductive.

The ambience is nothing without the music, and that was mostly strong, with a very fine acoustic sound in the space, harder but fuller than the usual recital hall.  Since the program is an interesting and learned survey through some familiar and unfamiliar works, the quality and results vary, although the lineup of pianists, organizer Joseph Rubenstein, Tatjana Rankovich, Lisa Moore, Amy Briggs and a dramatic appearance by Marina Lomazov (on the night I attended), was excellent, a testimony to how deep and broad the musical talent in New York City is.

Each musician played a few pieces, Rankovich starting with a beautiful and involving set of Variations on a French Noël, by the tragically short lived Kevin Oldham.  The music flows through many technical variations and emotional moods – introspective, exuberant, confident, pensive – and is wonderfully pianistic in its use of the sonorities, intervals and phrasing that are possible on the instrument.  Oldham developed a sound that combines the Romantic colors of Debussy with the physicality of Shostakovich in an expressive Modernism that never abandons the strongest possibilities of older styles.  Lowell Lieberman’s Gargoyles suffered by following the work.  Like the rest of his music, the piece is technically accomplished and demonstrates the dexterity of the musician, but it never gets beyond the familar and expected gestures; the notes, as enjoyable as they are in passing, never amount to a meaningful set of ideas.

Lisa Moore’s set began with a lovely, Chopinesque Bagatelle from Valentin Silvestrov, then plunged into the demanding Post-Minimalism of Marc Mellits with his Medieval Induction.  His work requires real chops to play, and this piece is often ingenious musically, combing a boogie-woogie left hand with a lovely harmonic progression in the manner of Arvo Pärt.  It suffers from a large scale structure that is a little stiff, and that tries to draw results through simple juxtaposition of sections and seems to short-change the possibilities in the material.  Moore ended the set with a novetly, introduced by the composer Annie Gosfield, Brooklyn, October 5, 1941, which commemorates Mickey Owens’ notorious passed ball in game four of the World Series between the Dodgers and the Yankees.  Ahead by one run in the top of the ninth, the error allowed the inning to continue and led to the Yankees scoring four runs and winning 7-4.  Had the Dodgers won, the Series would have been tied at two games apiece, instead the Yankees went ahead three games to one and won the next and the championship.  To Dodger fans, like Gosfield’s mom, the date is a tragic one.  The telling of this tale is far more interesting than the music, though, which consists of the gimmick of the pianist bashing at the keys and strings, often using baseballs held in her hands.  It’s like silent film music played by an angry, and unimaginative, child.

The evening got back on track with a selection of Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs, played by Amy Briggs.  These are fine pieces, setting a pithy set of goals and achieving them fully and in imaginative and lyrical ways.  They are smart, sophisticed and complex, expressive of an appreciation for child-like qualities without ever condescending to a simplistic idea of what that means.  Terrific light touch from Briggs, and her playing of Magnus Lindberg’s excellent Four Jubilees was just as fine.  Lindberg’s music has been a consistent feature this season, and it deserves attention.  The piano piece has an incisive power, a strength of expression and refinement of means, that set it apart from everything else on the program.  Every moment sounds like he knows exactly what he is doing and means to do just that, and he balances dissonance and consonance in exciting, pleasurable ways.

The program listed performances of two pieces by Lomazov to end the evening, but Joe Rubenstein took the stage to inform us that, due to a mishap, she would not be playing and that he would fill in with two pieces he had played the previous evening, Silvestrov’s Hymne – 2001 and the pianists own Romance No. 4 (celestial).  He was a superb fill-in, the Silvestrov piece as lovely as the first, and the Romance was an involving, finely crafted piece that deliberately related to both the great body of piano music from the Romantic era and on, and to the preceding works on the program.  No one was actually left disappointed, however, since as the audience settled their bills, Lomazov herself bounded onstage for an impromptu and bracingly hectic run-through of Rodion Shchedrin’s Basso Ostinato, which is exactly what the title says it is.

There are other conventional places to hear music, conventional in that they specialize in unconventional music.  Roulette is the host of the perennially strong Interpretations series, which ended the current season with an unusual, fascinating and complex program of two unique musicians/performers who presented physical poetry and the destruction of digital information.  Tomomi Adachi used the instruments of his voice, his body, a computer and out-board devices, a wrist-strap controller and even clothing, including an important t-shirt and his own Infrared Sensor Shirt, to perform musical interpretations of his own texts and poems from Dada figure Hugo Ball and concrete poet Seiichi Niikuni.  Adachi offered brief explanations before each work, then literally put the concept and the words into physical action.  The underlying quality was focussed physical action, Adachi energtic but not exhausting, the electronics responding immediately to his every action, creating a dense yet transparent flow of information.  He modulated the volume and quality of his voice, at times dramatic, at others sing-song, really vocalizing words into sounds.  The concept of this work can be described through examples; Niikuni’s work Rain graphically conveys both the idiogram for the word and the physical quantity, and Adachi performed it by making a clicking droplet sound in his throat while scrolling through each image on the page, pausing partway through to remove his shirt, underneath which was a t-shirt with the same idiogram printed on it.  For Voice, he simultaneously spoke the parts of his face while striking them with his hands in accompaniment.  The final piece, using the Sensor shirt, was phantasmagorical, extremely physical and involving.  While this type of performance is, in the context of general experience, avant-garde, there is a fundamental simplicity to it that reveals the synthetic artifice of most other types of art.  Adachi uses his body to produce expressive results, and even working with the computer there is an immediacy between the cause, his movement, and the effect, a sound, that is as natural as setting one foot in front of the other and feeling the road rise to meet us.  If this is avant-garde, it is the cutting edge of basic humanity and communication that is both pre-verbal and highly, abstractedly, sophisticated.  It was a unique and thrilling experience.

Tone, an original member of Fluxus, works from an opposite extreme, taking mp3 files and degrading them via a software process.  His earlier work with deliberately damaged CDs is attractive and important, his current method means working entirely with digital, binary information and then processing it to some point of disintegration.  He’s working with fascinating ideas about entropy and technology, but the results are not for the weak of ear.  His MP3 Variations is industrial in the extreme.  The trained ear can pick out certain specific features, like a touch of ring modulation or the use of a square wave in a low frequency oscillator, but what is actually going on is obscure.  It’s a screaming, skittering, throbbing landscape of sound along the lines of Merzbow.  He is unmaking something, but we never can tell exactly what the original something is or, if we do hear it at the start of the performance, it is already so chaotic that its unmaking is exceedingly subtle, too much so to fight through the audio of the results.  While the sound is full of fascinating details, and the extended time his process takes creates Cageian moments when the mind’s ear starts to form its own coherence out of the audio, this is process-based art, and with the process so difficult to hear it wears out the ear before it actually ends.

Warm, humid summer nights in New York City are when avant-garde music in unfamiliar places comes to the fore.  These are nights for musical flaneurs, wandering curiously through the landscape until they stumble on something memorable, the kind of nights when fans of avant-garde music are made through the chance discovery of the unexpected.  A great place to wander to is the Issue Project Room, across the Gowanus canal in a still industrial part of Brooklyn.  The Darmstadt 2010 series is there all month, and one of the first concerts was a double-bill of two improvising percussionists, Miguel Frasconi and Z’EV.  Their playing is an interesting contrast in both materials and aesthetic goals.  Materials matter for percussionists, they are making sounds with the fundamental qualities of physical objects.  Frasconi emphasizes glass in familiar and unfamiliar ways.  He plays the glass harmonica virtuosically, with techniques like rubbing the lip of one glass while holding two others in the same hand, which sound in resonance to the one he plays and create complex, sympathetic vibrations, harmonies and melodies.  He also vocalizes while playing the glasses, which creates the eerie and alluring effect of the glass itself growling.  Those are mostly pitched sounds, and he also rubs thick slabs of glass together, drops objects on each other and pushes them around, making sounds of rubbing, rasping, piping, crashing and fluting.  Watching him perform is like watching a scientist at work.  He thinks fast, on his feet, and each moment of sound is interesting and leads to the next moment, with the accumulation of intriguing ideas creating an expressive force.  The hardest thing to do in improvisation is find a place to stop, and Frasconi not only found a satisfying natural end to what he was playing, but immediately and imaginatively elided it into the beginning of a new set of ideas, via dropping a glass sceptre onto a toy piano keyboard.  Out of context, this would be meaningless, but in the context of his sound world, it’s the kind of action that makes sense and dazzles.  His playing may be quiet, but he is an extroverted musician, tossing off ideas with charm and wit, glad to share them with the audience.

Z’EV works with mainly with metal, including tuned, gong-like metal discs and metal containers and beaters.  His instruments are much louder than Frasconi’s.  His language is primarily ryhthm, so his playing is more immediately accessible, laying out pulses on a frame drum while manipulating the sound, playing the gongs for their sonorities but placing the attacks precisely in time.  The music seems more direct and familiar, but the goal is an interior one.  Z’EV is seeking, it seems, a concentrated mystical experience through sound, and there is something highly ritualistic about the way he maneuvers himself along the three sided box of his percussion set.  He starts in the middle, with his back to the audience, and the drumming is incantatory.  His sound and colors seem extroverted – a great, long rumbling that feeds back on itself, the swirling, flinty ratcheting of his metal container, an extraordinary sustained, polychromatic moaning produced by rubbing the head of a mallet against the skin of the frame drum – but they are meant to be heard by things unseen just as much as by the audience, heard by things that perhaps we and Z’EV will never see, but that he trust exists, and so he is exploring the meaning of this mysteries for himself, and asking us to observe his journey.  It is quite gripping, and a joy to see and hear.

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Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.