Transient
Transient

GEORGE GRELLA: CRITIC-IN-RESIDENCE

You may be wondering what this is all about, what Critic-in-Residence means in general, and what is means at and for Galapagos Art Space in particular. I’ve been asked this question already, even by other critics and professionals in music. My answer to them, and to you, is: we’ll see.

Robert Elmes contacted me with this idea in the fall, completely improvvisamente, as Italians say so evocatively. We talked abut it, and I was intrigued, by both his views on the problems of sustaining artists in a city as expensive and materialistic as New York, and that he didn’t have a definite idea on what the Critic-in-Residence would be, but wanted to give it a try and see where it went. Improvising is what I’ve always been drawn to as a musician, so how could I say now?

Galapagos is many things, depending on what is filling it at the moment. It hosts art shows, burlesque cabaret, circus acts, lectures and, of course, music. It also has a unique model, in that it supports and sustains selected resident artists, and manages to do so through that same flexible, inventive use of the space. It’s not easy, in fact it seems a daunting challenge, but every time I leave an performance and see the line of colorfully dressed people waiting to get into the ‘nightclub’ portion of the evening, I have the feeling that something is working.

So what am I going to be doing? I think I’m going to be evaluating how well this all works, although that will be subject to change, since this is an ongoing experiment. But first, Galapagos gets far less press coverage than their programming and ambitions demand, and their musical programming has become increasingly expansive. While I’ve been happy to run into Alan Kozinn there, more can be done. And that will be my first step, to write about recent musical performances. Let’s see where it takes us.

BIO:

George’s performing experience includes playing jazz, classical and improvised music at CBGB, the original Knitting Factory and Weill Recital Hall. As a composer, he has produced chamber music, opera, electronic music and has created music for dance and cartoons.

He has published music criticism since the mid-1980s, both in print and on the web, and in 2008 founded The Big City, an omnivorous music and culture blog with a devoted following amongst musicians, composers and music writers. Since the beginning of 2011, he has been contributing a weekly column and various features to ClassicalTV.com, and writes frequently for The Brooklyn Rail, Seen and Heard International and Time Out New York. His criticism and analysis includes interviews with Nullsleep, Elliott Carter, New York City Opera’s Artistic Director George Steel, Brooklyn Philharmonic Artistic Director Alan Pierson, and the violinist Hilary Hahn. The second edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music and Musicians will include almost two dozen of his articles, on subjects ranging from Bob Ostertag and David Garland to the conductor William Christie, the Turtle Island String Quartet and the International Contemporary Ensemble. In 2011, he received a grant to cover Petr Kotik’s bi-annual Ostrava Days Festival of New and Experimental music in Ostrava, Czech Republic.

As far he knows, he is the first Critic-in-Residence at a performing venue, at least in Brooklyn.

Mr. Grella's Reviews:

July 2012 Clogs & Loop 2.4.3

Two bands, sharing common elements and members, moving in two different directions. Or rather, one band is moving, the other is standing still. This is actually not the appropriate moment to quote Woody Allen in Annie Hall, talking about how relationships are about sharks, that they have to keep moving forward or they’ll die. Music isn’t like that. It can move forward, but it’s under no obligation. This is a cultural question and a cultural matter. Non-Western music is primarily social, not abstract, and so it preserves itself in something of a gestural and stylistic stasis. The idea of time is different, it’s cyclical, and the rhythms of the seasons and social rituals are maintained.
In the West, the sense of time is linear, inherently connected to the idea of progress as continual material and intellectual advancement. It’s here that music and the visual arts developed abstraction, the work existing on it’s own outside of any social/political/ritualistic aspect. Pop music changed that. The songs are about specific feelings, experiences and moments of time, and since the beginning pop has been tied to subcultures of fashion. Pop is on a loop, fairly closed, recycling ideas each generation in slightly new packages, sometimes skillfully, but without moving the music into much new territory.

Indie-pop was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be about … something. But the songs weren’t about anything they hadn’t been before: girls, boys, fun, alienation, political slogans. The difference was economic, the bands were using digital technology to handle their own distribution and promotion. Somewhere along the way, a few serious minded musicians snuck in, making serious minded music with hints of compositional gravity. It was never real. There were some skillful pastiche’s of rock, hip-hop and afro-beat, some complex meters and structures adapted from prog-rock, some of the calculated eccentricities of David Byrne, all of it just ornamentation. Making inferior versions of O’Delay or Illinoise became a thing, for some reason.
It may strike most, if not all, that it’s premature to write elegiacally about the movement, such as it was, but I have seen it’s death. It’s not that Clogs was bad at Galapagos, they were actually quite fine, they were as Clog-gy as Clogs could be. But the world has turned several times since they first stepped in front of an audience, and they haven’t turned with it. If Clogs was something like Molly Hatchett, that would not be a problem: people want the Hatchett they know from their memories and goddammit that’s what they’re gonna get. But Clogs was supposed to be crafting pop-styled music with a compositional sense. In their first moments, when they sounded new against the backdrop of the world around them, that might have been true, but now, after years of pop musicians trying to write chamber music and composers trying to write groove- and song-based pieces, they sound wan, dissipated.

The problem is in the composing. Having a bassoon at the front of your band doesn’t make it classical, just as using a kazoo doesn’t make you Spike Jones (and too bad, because indie-pop is so generally solipsistically humorless that it makes me long for Jones). Writing music on paper doesn’t make you classical either. Thinking in terms of structure beyond song-form, things in terms of abstraction, complexity, beauty, is a step on the road. Clogs does none of that. They are pretty, and so are flowers. Beethoven is often rough and ragged, Mahler is often ugly. Flowers die off in the heat or the cold, Beethoven and Mahler endure, and the experience of even their harshest moments is beautiful. It may seem unfair to compare Clogs to those composers, but once you start throwing the “classical” word around, the company you keep is not just Satie and Mompou. You’re

in the big leagues, son.

Clogs was four-bar phrases, in four-four time, using maybe four chords. So polite, no rough edges. The protest music, “Shady Gully,” was wistful. What was there to be angry about? Was it that a lovely spot on the Australian coast might be developed? I was unsure, because the music had no capacity to tell me that anyone was upset about anything. If this is all that there is, then there never was anything much at all. It’s not solely the musicians fault, it’s also that of the audiences and the critics. Why does this currently under–40 generation accept so much safe, milquetoast music? Where is the unexpected roughness, abrasion and surprises of life? Why this fetish for lukewarm mediocrity? The critics all along have talked about music but really thought about sales, about who was making money, moving it from one person’s pocket to another. Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Spin, the Village Voice, they chase popularity, on the knife’s-edge of the most worthless kind of cool, the cool of prematurely jaded, diffident kids who’ve never done anything in their lives. It’s pathetic for an adult to chase them around, to try and be relevant on their terms, even worse for adults to look at other adults and measure them on those terms. Clogs is not bad, but they aren’t good. They were never good. They were never even interesting.

Loop 2.4.3 is interesting and uneven, but they’re interesting even when they’re uneven, and they are good at what they do. While the first measure of a Clogs song tells you everything you need to know, the first measure of anything from Loop tells you virtually nothing about what the whole piece is going to be about, much less the next measure. That’s a good thing, as long as you don’t crave sameness and predictability. They also know how to shape things, so even if there are problems in the details – the vocals are usually weak – it’s a pleasure to hear where the music is going. Where Clogs makes denatured folk or children’s music, Loop makes shambling, hybrid prog-rock, and their quality is so unique that even songs you’ve heard a dozen times before are full of new things to hear.

The virtues you can hear on their new American Dreamland CD were on display in their too-short set: lithe rhythms, a confident sense of form that allows them to stretch what their doing in probing ways without breaking anything, the satisfying feeling of a rock band that simply knows how to play. While I wish they would hire a singer with strong pipes, to really push them to a new level, that they can improvise and make supple use of prog-rock clichés, that they can sound so fresh, unique and surprising, makes them welcome. A diet of only exactly what you know, exactly how you know it will be, rots the brain and the soul. Loop 2.4.3 revives it.

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May 2012 Kuniko Plays Reich, Anderson & Roe

Sometimes what matters most about a musical performance is not the tunes and the playing, but how things have come about, and how they could have. This must seem vague, so bear with me a bit.

The two performances I saw at Galapagos this month, percussionist Kuniko Kato playing her arrangements of pieces by Steve Reich, and the piano duo Anderson & Roe playing their arrangements of music ranging from “Billie Jean” to Carmen, and Stravinsky’s own reduction of the score for the Rite of Spring to piano, four-hands. These were both debuts in a way, not first appearances in public by these musicians but events meant to celebrate and promote new recordings.

One evening in between the two, I stood on the observation deck of the Austrian Cultural Forum, looking over West 52nd Street with the composer Bernhard Lang who, like me, has a formative background in jazz. If you found yourself on that street seventy years ago, or Bleeker street twenty years later, you not only had your choice of what to hear within walking distance but literally within earshot, but also your choice of what was new, of musicians and styles that you had never heard before, maybe never heard of, or even dreamed of, before. It seems exciting, and unimaginable now.

Because it is unimaginable now. Where is there anyplace like that any more? Small pockets of Williamsburg and Bushwick, perhaps, but a row of nightclubs and music venues featuring young phenoms and established stars, not only in popular music but the most cutting edge styles — remember that Be-Bop was once the avant-garde — that kind of thing has been priced out of Manhattan. Dumbo as a neighborhood is such a pluperfect example of cutting-edge hipness in consumerism that I half expect to bump into David Brooks any day, gazing in awe and wonder at the lengths to which the cultured bourgeoisie seek to enshrine their own narcissism in real estate. Not that Brooks could offer anything more than his knee-jerk, condescending tut-tutting. To know Dumbo, read J.G. Ballard.

Galapagos, perched on a windy corner, often seems a lonely outpost at night, surrounded by indifferent apartment buildings, with indifferent, silent denizens. Who goes there, who steps out of their building and strolls over to see what’s happening? The Floating Kabarette is a draw, but I mean music shows, out of the ordinary things, the kind of thing where, in a densely populated urban neighborhood, people passing to and fro stop to explore? This is a strange thing about the area. I live in a decidedly non-hip residential neighborhood in Brooklyn, and people are out on the streets all the time, into the evening, but Dumbo in the evening and at night could be a ghost town. But in this eminently walkable city, there is little time and space to wander and be curious, people just can’t afford it, lest the engine of the economy roll them over. Perhaps, too, people are shut in against the incessant, crushing noise of the D train rolling over the Manhattan Bridge, but if so, why are they living there?

It seems the Art Space struggles against this obstacle. Reich is titan of contemporary music and, in a country where composers don’t register on the public consciousness, he is generally popular with sophisticated fans of all sorts of music. Yet Kuniko’s concert was lightly attended, and much of the audience seemed connected to the music through the Consulate General of Japan. This was an excellent concert. The music, “Electric Counterpoint,” “Six Marimbas,” Vermont Counterpoint” and “New York Counterpoint,” with modest and lovely arrangements of Bach and Komitas, speaks for itself, and Kuniko’s craft is superior. Reich’s work lends itself easily to transcription to other instruments, and the pitfall is that it is so easy that the results can be lazy and dull. She has a subtle and imaginative ear for color, and moving the lead voice of the opening movement of “Electric” to steel drums was a gorgeous touch, adding a shimmering, sustained richness as well as a delayed attack that made for a new, ambient quality.

Percussion instruments call for a great apparent physicality in playing than guitars or violins or flutes, and that was visually important in the concert, not only the effort of Kuniko in striking metal and wood with beaters, but her dancing movements. She was filled up with the physicality of Reich’s beat, even as the sonic edge of the musical was gentler, as in the transfer of “New York” from piping clarinets to mellow marimbas. The music is very well known by now, but she made it refreshing. With her own ear and taste she responded to pieces that she clearly feels are beautiful and gave us music-making that took for granted the intellectual success of the composer’s process and craft and gave us the sheer beauty of it, and that’s a considerable thing.

Anderson & Roe do the same thing, responding to music that appeals to them and sharing it with the audience. What makes them special is the expressive verve and personal appeal in their playing. They play classical music, the real stuff, nothing is dumbed down for the audience. Arrangements of “Paranoid Android” are commonplace these days, and that’s because the origina material is so strong. Christopher O’Riley has revealed a lot of the sophisticated harmonic and structural qualities in Radiohead in his solo transcriptions, and using two pianos brings out even more depth in the motion of the harmonies and section to section juxtapositions. And in case you missed it amidst all the gossip and soap opera, Michael Jackson also made a lot of good music, and if you think there’s something wrong with ‘sophisto’ musicians playing “Billie Jean,” then you’re going to have to take it up with me, because when I was in a working band we played it as well. And it’s a good song.

Talking to the audience is good thing too, and if the duo are a little too garrulous at times, it doesn’t detract from their great playing and thinking. They play Stravinsky with fantastic power, and if the composers’ reduction takes away the mesmerizing instrumental colors of his orchestration, it clarifies texture and rhythm, and puts a premium on the pianists’ ability to carve expression and aesthetic focus through dynamics, and the two did so much with that. They have the chops to hit all the notes and to say something about them.

Their unabashed emotional and physical vitality adds a great deal: not only are they masterful players of Astor Piazzolla, which is expected, but they bring out the muscle in music that is, personally, far too sentimental for me, particularly the Rachmaninoff “Vocalese” and the Villa-Lobos “Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5.” The Rachmaninoff was special, not swooning but with a dry strength, and the exquisite cadenza brought them deserved “bravos.” Behind their flair, they are at their best in quieter music, pieces that reveal the fine quality of their musicianship. The arrangement of Carmen is the crowd-pleasing closer, it is well made and will please you as much as the opera does, but the highlights of the evening where the songful, soulful playing of “The Glitt’ring Sun” by Thomas Arne, and an enthralling performance of Schumann’s “Mondnacht,” which I wished would never end, and wished more that it would lay silence over the rattle outside, so that people in windows across the street might, curious, open them to hear something new, something that might draw them out into the night, and by chance wander and discover something new.

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April 20th, 2012 Le Train Bleu Presents: Prison Life

To express my thoughts and feelings about this concert, I need to first write about the past, the accumulated history of ideas and the personal experience of listening, of what sticks in the ears, and, especially, the soul.

It may not be apparent, but the most direct elements of the music from this great evening, the driving beats, tunefulness and swaggering attitude that would have been just as at home on a record by Can, the Clash or Radiohead, were created and exist because of the long past of classical music. The ubiquitous and personal experience of pop music on the post-WWII generations of composers Connect their art to the larger public, but there’s a huge difference between enjoying pop music and making clearly expressive, serious music like Fred Rzewski, Corey Dargel, Jacob TV and Michael Gordon.

The difference has its roots in philosophy and aesthetics, but it manifests itself in the concrete materialism of industrialized music, flash-in-the-pan artists and styles that, no matter how accomplished and enjoyable, can do nothing more than capture one particular emotional expression and cement it in time and memory, with little nuance and no ability to hold together the contradictions and thoughts and feelings that make us human beings. Pop music may be affirming, but it is exceedingly rare that it is truly humanist, that it is sympathetic towards the things that it is not, and that the world of pop music — musicians, critics and fans — is barely aware that any other music exists attests to this.

Embracing humanist values means embracing humanity, and that, beyond all abstract technical achievement, is what classical music does, and has done, and what pop music has yet to develop as a fundamental value. At the core of Prison Life is that set of values, and the musicians’ taste and intelligence that not only put together such an extraordinary program of music, but supported it with great playing, the kind of musicianship that goes beyond hitting the notes and has the players committed to saying something.

Rzewski’s “Coming Together” and “Attica,” here presented as a diptych, are an astonishing prelude to action and a gracefully plangent aftermath. This performance was different than any others I’ve heard live or on record, and what I heard was an historically informed classical approach. Dargel was a great narrator, alternately intense and wistful, while Ransom Wilson gave the playing the kind of smoothly terraced, dramatic direction that is a legacy of classical music. Instead of just drive, anger, threat, the adrenalin of righteousness, that was a sense of beauty and sorrow that was new to my ears. “Attica” is almost invariably narrated, but Dargel sang the part here, again a first for me, and it entirely transformed the work. The piece was more beautiful for it, with a lyrical and pastoral flavor that moved it from the context of post-1960s protest music and into that of Beethoven and Schubert. It sees farther because it stands on the shoulders of giants.

“Grab It!” is a piece for solo tenor saxophone accompanied by an audio track, here on a boom box, assembled from the old Scared Straight documentary. The words and phrases are cut up and reassembled from the original, but the feeling of threat remains. Patrick Posey, dressed as a butch prison guard, strode out onto stage, arrogantly, and gave the piece of the kind physically rollicking performance it demands. There were some titters of nervous amusement over his outfit, but the artful brutality of his playing and the music drove home that this was something to be excited about, and nothing to laugh at.

Dargel’s new “More Last Words From Texas,” five short songs from the last words of prisoners executed in that state, was also brutal. Dargel’s moral aesthetic and his skill as a composer and performer turns these difficult thoughts and feelings into something, again, human. Some of the words reveal the fraught and even repellant hard-edged extremes of behavior, but there is nothing about the worst of us, and the worst of the worst people amongst us, that is anything less than human. The only monsters are in the fantasies of children and adults, it’s just that adults have the unfortunate opportunity to shape societies and governments around imaginary fears. As difficult as it can be, we need to know that it is people that do all these things, the good and the bad, and Dargel’s music is an example of the profound humanization that art can create.

He almost stole the show. But then Le Train Bleu closed with Michael Gordon’s Yo Shakespeare, one of the most important works of music of the last twenty years, and an extremely difficult one to play. It marks a pivot between the final reach of Minimalism and what lies beyond, and it’s pretty much all counterpoint and polyphony, fundamentals of music for six hundred years. The harmonies are as basic as they come, the piece pushes at the confines of time and pulse, the stuttering rhythmic lines and ostinatos laying down different units and different pace, like a three- or four-sided push-me-pull-you. Wilson and the ensemble played with precision and the right kind of tension, but there was nothing tight about them, no struggling to count or hit the right notes. It was, like everything else, played with the power of skill and the accumulated weight of history.

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March 18th, 2012 Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

The only complaint I have about the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s second appearance at Galapagos is pretty much the sames as I had for the first: more music, please!
It’s not much of a complaint, of course, it just means that things went so well that everyone was left wanting more. As a preview of this Saturday’s Carnegie Hall concert, they gave a single set of music from John Adams and Aaron Copland, with Mandolinist Chris Thile improvising along with the band, wetting the appetite for his Mandolin Concerto which will flesh out the bigger program.
The Adams’ was five excerpts from his “John’s Book of Alleged Dances,” for string quartet and some pre-recorded audio accompaniment. This is Adams in his guise of coyness, like “Gnarly Buttons” and his chamber symphonies, and this is the weakest aspect of his musical personality. It balances what can be his winningly naive sincerity and simplicity with a jokiness that both shies away from critical thinking but also flirts with it, as long as it’s complimentary. He uses prepared piano samples to build the kind of machine rhythms that scream “John Cage!,” and vaguely hoe-downish string writing, with lots of open chords, the bow before Copland. The problem with this is it’s neither Cage, nor does it think critically about Copland, who must be dealt with critically (as you’ll see below).

The Orpheus players were sincere, energetic and polished, they believe in the music. In between, Thile improvised, and his playing was masterful. He frequently opened up by playing back some of the core material from the “Dance” that had just been played, developing his own ideas from there. At times he stuck closely to the original material and, since that stuff is limited, backed himself into some corners, a couple of which he couldn’t really get out of except with the trick, possible in dreams, science fiction and improvisation, of simply teleporting himself elsewhere. He’s impressive at building harmonic structures, although he didn’t sell every modulation consistently. Where his playing and thinking really blossomed was when he moved far afield, especially in his last improvisation which began in querulous opposition from Adams and proceeded down a transformative journey from agitation to a very complex and moving sense of resignation and acceptance. Quite extraordinary.

Orpheus gave us Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” suite for chamber orchestra, with no brass, the strings dominating in the bright acoustic of the club. It’s one of the marvels of this country that a gay, Jewish, cosmopolitan composer could create a sound that people think of as the classic musical definition of America. Copland is the American composer, especially for people who don’t listen to music without words and a beat. But does that make him any good? It’s necessary to ask that question, rather than just accept the answer, and it really does depend on perspective and mood. His music is sonically lovely and the superficial affectlessness can at times open up moving emotional responses. Then, at other times, it just sounds like superficial affectlessness, and a pandering plunder of folk culture. Copland is important, and as a composer it’s important for me to engage with his work. But, perhaps because of Thile’s creative, personal musicianship, I was left with the feeling that Copland is a fraud. He produced some viscerally strong modern music, like the “Piano Variations,” then spun away his talent to sell his packaging. I admire the son-of-a-bitch for his great and difficult rhythms — which Orpheus played with great skill, as they did in handling the modulations of tempo — but later in his career, when he delved into structured atonality, he had lost it, and the music is dull and clumsy. Still, the playing was great, the group sold it, and the effect on a packed house of hipsters was palpable. They wanted more, and so did I.

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March 9th, 2012 - Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society with Anti-Social Music

They hate us for our freedoms, they always have and they still do. Sure, there was a time from the fall of 2001, running for perhaps six months, when that hatred was put aside and replaced with a weird combination of sympathy, respect and the hero worship of Rudy Giuliani. I give Rudy credit, as loathsome as he generally is: while Bush the Dauphin was running scared across the country in search of clean underwear, Rudy was getting in front of the television cameras, telling everyone what he knew and keeping his shit together.

But Rudy wasn’t going to be around forever, there was an election that fall that he ultimately couldn’t thwart. And after he left office, New York City became, gradually, what it had always been to the people we’re supposed to have contempt for: a place packed with people who aren’t white, aren’t Christian and aren’t straight. They hate us, those people who came for the 2004 Republican convention and their likes, just for that. Fundamentally they must hate us because New York City is more American in theory and practice than anywhere else in the country, those places where the rubes have the ignorant audacity, encouraged by vicious narcissists like Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and their courtiers, a place where Mammon, the American god, is worshipped with more depth, feeling and devotion, a place where the original European languages of the country, Dutch and Spanish, are part of either the daily record or daily life, and a place where the concepts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are pursued with a vivacious contempt for the authoritarian and anti-American strain that the Puritans brought over and that the scared and the egomaniacal still grip tightly, sweaty palms to hyperventilating bosom.

That’s what I thought throughout the March 9 double-bill at Galapagos, the absolutely apposite pairing of Anti Social Music and Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society. If one of our current Savonarola’s had wandered in from the chill air, to see the stage arrayed with a ramshackle collection of instruments, a bearded and beanied hipster acting as MC, the socially-affirming cacophony of the group. ASM is a new music ensemble that cultivates  much-needed dissonance, rough and uneven form, and the simply musical act of playing music together that is meant to find its way through tribulations, rather than to form itself out of mechanical and repetitive means and development. Titles come and go, and not all the composer’s were identified, but the group, which by now must have a vast repertoire, showed its considerably fluid and jazzy side, the pieces tending towards  more extended duration for them (meaning somewhere between the Minutemen and a Schubert song).

The set opened with cellist Gil Selinger playing Eric Oxhorn’s “Solo for Gil Selinger,” which explicitly starts out like a jazz solo, tossing out notes and phrases, searching for the best material to work with. It’s surprisingly diatonic for an AMS piece, lyrical and a pleasure. The expected raucousness exploded soon after, in “With Pink Splashy Flowers,” and the group started to sound like a big band, with hits of color, lyrical interludes and fascinatingly odd harmonic progressions. There was an interrupted quality to the set at first, the opening pieces were too pithy to support all the breaks for the MC’s introductions, but once the band started into longer form works, and opening up into real grooves and the powerful dark sound that was coming out of so many low instruments (cello, baritone sax, trombone, tuba), the music was exciting and mesmerizing. This was New York City music, the New York City of Fear’s “New York’s Alright if You Like Saxophones,” (I do, Lee, and I like Fear too), the kind of thing that I wish those who hate and fear us could hear, so they might not hate and fear us, or at least, once and fucking for all, leave us alone. We don’t need them.

Because we have Darcy James Argue, who is a New Yorker and not an American citizen, and that’s what I’m talking about. Guns and religion aside, people cling to their culture with desperate hands, trying to possess and commodify something that’s nothing more than an idea. Even with the best intentions, people try to protect and preserve culture by walling it off with artificial restrictions. But culture is a living thing because it is ideas that are in the minds and hearts of people all over the world, and the best way to protect and preserve culture is to propagate it, spread that DNA promiscuously. Thanks to this young Canadian, we have a whole new, and growing, conception about the possibilities of jazz composition and an updating of the stale big-band sound. Maybe that’s what makes him ‘Steampunk,’ he’s taken something relatively old-fashioned and sieved it through techniques of structure, harmony and especially pulse that come from Minimalism, Balkan wedding music, Debussy, Mingus, Gerry Mulligan and George Russell.

He’s also reminding us about one of the greatest things American has ever produced, jazz, so good thing he’s not French, or there would be no guarantee for his safety anywhere outside the metropolitan areas of the ‘liberal enclaves’ more commonly known as cities. Argue has quickly made himself the kind of artist who is beyond the typical review of quality of performance — you expect him to be good and he and his band are never less than terrific — and belongs to the area where the value lies in looking at how he does what he does. He writes like the knowledgeable and skilled contemporary composer he is, while producing music that is nothing but idiomatic jazz. It’s a rare combination.

The pleasure of his set, and it was the kind of driving, physical pleasure that makes you feel like you can sprint out into the street and go running forever, yelling in freedom and joy, was in hearing familiar music that, for the band, has become so deeply ingrained in the way they play that the notes and bar lines have been set aside for the music itself. You can hear their opener, “Zeno,” on their great CD, but I never thought I would hear it with the pulse pulling so strongly and smoothly in two different directions, a thrilling feat of artistry. David T. Little was on hand to hear his piece “Conspiracy Theory,” which the band debuted as part of last year’s Ecstatic Music Festival along with Vijay Iyer’s “Three Fragments.” What a difference a year makes. The music was fresh last year, and now has the power and swagger that comes from knowing and understanding what the stuff is all about.

It’s the praxis of music-making that made Argue’s suite from his larger Brooklyn Babylon, which premiered last fall at BAM, so strong. At the time, Argue asked me if I thought the music would stand on its own, and I thought it would, and now I’m even more convinced. The abstract narrative holds, and the sound of the excerpts, divorced from the stimulation of the animated movie, comes so firmly and creatively out of the engaged tradition of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra that the exploration of humanity vs. the power of political structures is, as sound alone, that much more direct, complex and affecting. There’s something about being a composer, a serious composer, that demands much more than coming up with a nice tune and a good set of chords: a composer has to be able to creatively and effectively control their materials and their ensembles, and Darcy James Argue does this with complete mastery. The best set I’ve heard from the band live.

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1/14/12 – We’re Sittin’ In Galapagos

Charles Ives Marathon Concert, presented by the Brooklyn Art Song Society

On a January afternoon, the Brooklyn Art Song Society brought a marathon concert of Charles Ives114 Songs book to Galapagos. Concerts like this are almost beyond criticism. On the one hand, there is Ives, who wrote many more than 114 songs (the number is the ones he collected personally for publication, hoping the book would be given away free) and is the most important composer in American music, and who still, still is rarely heard in concert halls. So how can one find fault with something that is good by its very existence?

On the other hand, the marathon aspect itself almost obviates criticism: four plus hours of music tends to dull the sense, and one is left with the impression of certain moments in an overall pleasant bed of just hearing songs and singing. The nature of the event meant that there was a revolving cast of singers, some of them more aesthetically and technically comfortable with the material than others — as was the case with the handful of accompanists playing the piano, which itself inevitably drifted out of town, starting with a low D and heading off from there.

114 songs covering even more emotions. The set is a microcosm of Ives complex and contradictory emotions, yawing from sentimental to irreverent, mystical to commonplace, capable imitation Brahms to raucous, explosive Americana. His war songs a typical in this: he hated America’s entry into the First World War, but once the doughboys reached France, he was patriotic and sentimental about their presence and lives. Bass-baritone Robert Osborne’s oracular style was excellent in these, and also Ives’ adaptations of hymn tunes, which were particular humane and moving. He, and some of the other singers, like Deborah van Renterghem, Brandon Snook and Emily Riggs, succeeded or failed in this vastly varied music depending on the style, and perhaps on rehearsal time, as some of the interplay with accompanists Marc Peloquin, Michael Rose, Miori Sugiyama and Michael Brofman souded shaky.

The complete, unadulterated high points of the afternoon were the appearances of a couple of ‘ringers, soprano Mary Nessinger and tenor Paul Sperry. Nessinger is one of the better singers around in late Romantic and 20th century repertoire, and her beautiful, powerful voice came out with an ease of sound and expression that demonstrated her command of both the notes and the meaning of the music. Her set was on an entirely different level than the rest of the performances, and she had some of the finest material to work with as well, including “The Childrens’ Hour,” absolutely superb here, and “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” which is the Rosetta Stone into Ives’ aesthetic.

Sperry is one of the most experienced Ives’ singers alive, and although he is no longer a young man and has lost a lot of his voice, he is an astonishingly confident, inventive and expressive performer. That he came stomping out of the bar, singing and whistling “Memories,” his opener, was the least of his ideas. Not all these songs call for beauty, and a lot of the harmonies and rhythms work against traditional art song singing. But in the hands of Sperry, densely complex and difficult pieces like “The Cage” and “Like a Sick Eagle” sounded exact, supple, lived-in and true to the composer’s intentions. His performance of the cowboy song “Charlie Rutlage,” was a tour de force, deliberately indulging in Ives’ sentimental bullshit in a way that was both sincere and mocking. Where Thomas Hampson, beautifully, emphasizes the virility of the music, Sperry seemed to look back at the great man, loving him but shaking his head ruefully at his faults, the things he should have known better. The few minutes of “Charlie Rutlage” were a universe of the greatness that music can achieve.

Discography

For most of Ives’ music, and all of his songs, start with Naxos

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11/21/11 – Ancient to the Future

New Amsterdam double record release event – Gregory Spears and John Spuko

The ancient and the modern are not so far apart. We don’t get to see the juxtaposition in New York except in the artificial environment of an art museum, where a well-dressed patron can just about brush up against an artifact from a mysterious time and place. But got to a city like Rome, and you see them side by side and on top of each other.

Where we can experience this pairing most frequently is in music. Music is always casting back to the past for renewal and inspiration, especially classical music, which has done this every generation since Bach. The new music that happens around us is often hard to separate from the newness of the times and of sensation, but old ideas have been finding their way into new music more since the end of World War I than in any other extended period in history. Even Steve Reich likes to say that he got his harmony from the 12th century composer Perotin,

That points out a persistent strain that began with Stravinsky, of shading towards a certain leanness, even austerity, along with a sense of rhythmic precision and exactitude. It was showcased at a New Amsterdam release event, on Galapagos’ austere cement stage, surrounded by water, which added an appropriate sense of remoteness. The musicians led by composer Gregory Spears in his Requiem, and the duo Due East, performed music that reaches out to the listener even as it explores internal depths with a sense of meditative and private austerity that belies its era.

Spears’ piece is luminous as well as austere, enthralling and lovely in the manner of Arvo Pärt, but with his own musical language, which features a freer sense of counterpoint and an interest in more complex harmonies. He hints at ideas of Renaissance polyphony, especially in the “Agnus Dei,” but keeps the structures and development effectively succinct, choosing the narrative of sorrow and redemption over the metaphysical seductions of conversion and faith. It is a Requiem both in text and form, working its way from darkness to light, offering respect for the dead and solace to the living.

John Supko’s “Littoral,” which Due East played after intermission, takes the old and the new, stretches them even further away from each other, and then brings them back together via a long form video from Kristine Marx. The music shimmers, twitters, chimes, floats along like a bottle tossed on the lapping waves in the video, before gently bursting into periods of high activity. it’s like listening to a manifestation of the properties of light, waves of sounding containing particles of notes, rhythms and color that act against and react to — and work with — each other. The moments cohere into a rolling, light-footed groove, adding momentum to the pure sonic pleasure of the piece. Where Requiem is concrete, this piece is abstract, yet clearly has the form of a journey as well, though this one seems less from one point or state to another but rather around something, considering it, curious, pondering, before moving on to the next moment, the next surprise. A truly timeless evening of music, in the ancient sense before we became slaves to the clock, and the modern one, where we find our freedom when we can.

watch an excerpt from littoral

Discography

Due East, Drawn Only Once

Gregory Spears, Requiem

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11/20/11 – What you get when an orchestra walks into a bar

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, featuring Gabriel Kahane

If it seems almost old-hat now in New York City to head out at night to a place like Galapagos, sit at a table, order a drink and experience live classical music, then that’s as it should be. The predominant protocol of classical concert-going calls for spiffy dress, silence during the performance and frequent moments of wondering when to applaud, and is it okay to yell and whistle?

It’s not a bad thing to look good and pay attention and respect the music, of course, but the ceremonial and social mysteries are things that keep a lot of people who are interested in classical music but intimidated by the details of the experience out of the concert hall. It’s also ahistorical; concerts prior to the rise of the mass bourgeoisie were long and frequently raucous affairs, with people coming and going, eating and drinking. The cheap seats were in what is now usually the orchestra section — premium prices — and the swells sat in the rising tiers where they could chat, socialize and flirt. So having a drink, chatting with your friends, these are old-fashioned comforts.

It’s really old-hat, and it’s a natural. What’s been missing, though, is more old-hat music. If Matt Haimovitz could make a name for himself by playing the Bach Cello Suites in bars across the country, then audiences at Galapagos and Le Poisson Rouge can handle more of that, the classics on which contemporary music stands. So I was especially intrigued to hear the great Orpheus Chamber Orchestra playing at Galapagos, in my first ‘gig’ as the club’s Critic-in-Residence. Orpheus, working beautifully together without a conductor, is one of the finest orchestras in New York. With that a sense of excitement, I try not to expect any quality in particular, so it was a thrill to find that Orpheus fits Galapagos perfectly, sounding better there than I’ve heard them at Carnegie Hall or up close in rehearsal. Sharing a bill with the singer/songwriter Gabriel Kahane, they seemed more at home in a venue that pours booze and hosts a burlesque cabaret.

Blame it on the music, and also their good taste and musical skill. Orpheus is a small orchestra because they need to work together and hear each other, which means they can fit on a smaller stage and the music they play, suitable for a chamber orchestra, fits in a nightclub. The Hindemith Kammermusk No. 1 was a brilliant choice, and brilliantly played. Hindemith is a composer I usually admire more than I enjoy. So much of his work seems to be demonstrating his considerable craft, knowledge and musicianship, without seeming to be necessary, i.e. something that had to have been put into music, rather than some other medium or form. But on the small stage, Orpheus injected the piece with tremendous life and wit, it sounded like the cabaret piece it is supposed to be, sophisticated and cheeky at the same time. As I’ve thought about the performance, it strikes me that the venue had everything to do with this. I’ve seen the group in Carnegie Hall many times, and the Hindemith would have been too small a work for that large a hall, while in Galapagos the scope of the music fit the size of the stage, and rather than just admire Hindemith, we could really enjoy him, because the musicians were enjoying him so much, and playing his work with such skill and verve.

It was such a success that I’d like to hear them do an entire concert hall program in the space, which could easily handle Haydn, Mozart and earlier Beethoven, Stravinsky, the music of Les Sixes, Paul Moravec’s chamber works and more. Instead, Hindemith was followed by Kahane, with the local premiere of his “Orinoco Sketches” and a showcase for his recent album, Where are the Arms. Kahane is one of the more talented members of the current generation of musicians who are straddling the pop and contemporary classical worlds and, like the rest, he doesn’t have the balance entirely set. He sings, plays guitar and piano, and writes songs, and the last is the key. The “Sketches,” for a singer and chamber group, has strong vocal writing and is expressive, but the orchestra is under-utilized. The forms, structures, harmonies and rhythms could be more complex, and the aesthetic context of classical music means that ideas can be extended, developed out to durations akin to prog-rock, or beyond. There’s a lot of good material that could be played with more, worked at and extended. Instead, the piece comes off as short, enjoyable pop style music with small orchestra accompaniment.

Meaning it’s a lot like Where are the Arms. For this set, where he played all the material from the record but in a different sequence, the stage seemed too small. The disc was one of the best pop records of 2011 and is great, full of expansive sounds and emotions. It’s intimate music that could fill an arena, and Galapagos is just too small for it. Kahane has a lot of charm as a performer, and is a fine singer. The music songs have a sweet, slightly self-conscious sadness about them that was belied by Kahane’s banter from the stage and the general good-natured doings with the orchestra and the audience. Not a bad thing at all, but it had the unexpected effect of avoiding the heart of power in the record.

Not every piece and kind of music is mean for all possible places, and one of the effects of decades of recordings studios as process sites is that a lot of pop records are made for the disc, for the home speakers, for the headphones and ear-buds. They have an implicit intimacy that is tricky to reproduce live. Where are the Arms seems like it would sound best, live, with just Kahane and piano, even in a big room, the musician and instrument forcing a quiet and focussed concentration. Hindemith, on the other hand, who so often seems best for dry, private study is perfect in a nightclub. As is Orpheus. They are reappearing March 18, with Chris Thile.