Bachtrack: “Pianist Kathleen Supové performs Debussy-inspired commissions at Brooklyn’s Roulette” - Meg Wilhoite

March 21, 2013 @ Roulette: Kathleen Supové “Earth To Kathy” // Melvyn Poore + Cort Lippe

New York Times: “Human Sounds, Painful or Haunting – The Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble” Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

January 24, 2013 @ Roulette: Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble // Pheeroan akLaff’s Music of Global Mantras

NYC Jazz-Record: “New York At Night” Kurt Gottschalk

October 11, 2012 @ Roulette: Peter Evans // John Ekchardt

Capital New York: “A Presentation of Work From Radical Composer Robert Ashley Shows An Oeuvre In Flux” Seth Colter Walls

April 25-28, 2012 @ Roulette: Robert Ashley’s THE OLD MAN LIVES IN CONCRETE

Village Voice: “Wadada Leo Smith Throws Himself A Lively Birthday Party At Roulette” K. Leander Williams

December 15-16, 2011 @ Roulette: Leo Smith 70th Birthday Celebration

New York Times: “For a Big Birthday, Leading Three Groups A Night” Nate Chinen
December 15-16, 2011 @ Roulette: Leo Smith 70th Birthday Celebration

All About Jazz: “Dave Douglas, Wadada Leo Smith & Taylor Ho Bynum” Martin Longley
December 15-16, 2011 @ Roulette: Leo Smith 70th Birthday Celebration

NYC Jazz Record: “Concert Review” Russ Musto
February 17, 2011 @ Roulette: Roscoe Mitchell 70th Birthday Celebration

Dark Forces Swing: “Roscoe Mitchell And The Tension Thing” Hank Shteamer
February 17, 2011 @ Roulette: Roscoe Mitchell 70th Birthday Celebration

All About Jazz New York: “Concert Review” Kurt Gottschalk
December 2, 2010 @ Roulette: Muhal Richard Abrams 80th Birthday Celebration

Blog Review: “Concert Review: Jon Gibson and Ralph Gibson; New and Recent Works by Alexandra Gardner” Douglas Detrick
October 21, 2010 @ Roulette: Job Gibson + Ralph Gibson // Alexandra Gardner + Now Ensemble

Just Outsite: “Yasunao Tone/Tomomi Adachi – Roulette, 5/25/10″ Brian Olewnick
May 25, 2010 @ Roulette: Yasunao Tone & Adachi Tomomi

The Big City: “Expect the Unexpected” George Grella
May 25, 2010 @ Roulette: Yasunao Tone & Adachi Tomomi

Bomblog: “Joan La Barbara and Ne(x)tworks at Roulette” Nick Hallett
April 29, 2010 @ Roulette: Joan La Barbara + Ne(x)tworks, “Angels, Demons and Other Muses”

The Big City: “Against The Prevailing Order” George Grella
April 29, 2010 @ Roulette: Joan La Barbara + Ne(x)tworks, “Angels, Demons and Other Muses” // Yael Acher-Modiano + Irina-Kalina Goudeva

Seen and Heard International: “Concert Review” George Grella
March 16, 2010 @ Paula Cooper Gallery:Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble perform Somei Satoh, The Passion; Iannis Xenakis, Mikka, Mikka “S”; and Petr Kotik, There Is Singularly Nothing

Blog: “Just Outside” Brian Olewnick
October 15, 2009 @ Roulette:Daan Vandevalle, Solo Piano Works of Gordon Mumma, and Contemporary Belgian Composers

Capital New York: “A Presentation of Work From Radical Composer Robert Ashley Shows An Oeuvre In Flux” Seth Colter Walls
April 9, 2009 @ Roulette: Teresa McCollough, New Piano Pieces by American Composers

The New York Times: “Layered Dialogues on Effects of Old Age” Steve Smith
January 14-25, 2009 @ LaMama ETC:Robert Ashley, Three Recent Operas

The New York Times: “Burbuling Brook Crossing Rocky Ground” Nate Chinen
October 2, 2008 @ Roulette: Myra Melford Quartet + Henry Threadill’s Zooid + Talujon Percussion Quartet

New York Times: “An Opera Full of Secrets From a Master of the Opaque” –Steve Smith
January 17-21, 2007 @ LaMama ETC:Robert Ashley’s Concrete

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Bachtrack: “Pianist Kathleen Supové performs Debussy-inspired commissions at Brooklyn’s Roulette” – Meg Wilhoite

March 21, 2013 @ Roulette: Kathleen Supové “Earth To Kathy” // Melvyn Poore + Cort Lippe

Possessor of an impeccable touch, pianist Kathleen Supové is one of those compelling performers who truly communicates her unique personality through her playing, as she did at Thursday night’s performance at Roulette in Brooklyn. The concert was one of several related to Supové’s Digital Debussy project, for which she has commissioned new works that draw inspiration in some way from Claude Debussy.

Dedicating her set to the memory of Estie Neuringer (a supporter of new music and “a great lady”), Supové began with Dr. Gradus vs. Rev. Powell by Matt Marks. The piece opened with lovely meandering lines in the piano, and odd, hollow echoing sounds from the accompanying soundtrack. The combination of the toneless, echoing sound, into which brief moments of a drumbeat would emerge, with the alternately touching and triumphant tonal melodies had a somewhat ominous effect.

The première performance of Flaming Pairs by Eric Lyon followed. The only piece on Supové’s program not to include a soundtrack, Lyon describes the concept for his work as “of a curious and playful alien who encounters some music of terrestrial origin”. Accordingly, the arcane texture was filled in by occasional fast and full upward-moving arpeggios, which later in the piece were revealed to be quasi-quotations of Debussy’s Clair de Lune (particularly the arpeggios that happen at about two minutes in and then again at the end).

Next was the lush Barnacles by Lainie Fefferman, which featured continuous trills, tremolos and the like to create a bubbling current of sound. At certain moments Supové would reach inside the piano to pluck or bang with her fist on the lower strings, the latter creating a reverberant wash. All of this was accompanied by a soundtrack that included pre-recorded clips of Supové talking with Fefferman about Debussy.

Taking its title from the essay by Jean Genet, Randall Woolf’s What Remains of a Rembrandt sounded akin to a tone poem, exploring a wide variety of moods and textures during the course of its eighteen or so minutes. Woolf explains that in his search for “some commonality in our deeper selves”, he found that he and Debussy use form in similar ways, “by moving dreamily from one idea to the next, without logical connections.” And so we hear moments like the beginning, in which synthesized strings swell and recede through the speakers while the piano plays a mysterious, crystalline melody, and later on a moment populated by aggressive and rhythmic gestures in the left hand, which is then directly followed by a moment of light glissandi.

Opening the evening’s program was tuba player Melvyn Poore and sound artist Cort Lippe in a set of four original compositions for tuba and electronics. Two of the pieces, written by Poore in the 70s, featured a more straightforward approach to the electronics component, while two pieces from 2009 were more sophisticated in their use of technology. One, Two, Three (1976) and Tubassoon (1979) were both shorter pieces, the former using a delay system to create a layered sound of musical gestures (an impressive exercise in timing), the latter finding some of the tubing removed from the instrument so that microphones could be placed inside the openings (the title refers Poore’s use of a bassoon reed in place of a brass mouthpiece).

In Lippe’s piece, aptly titled Music for Tuba and Computers, the tuba notes triggered various synthesized sounds, simultaneously transforming the sound of the tuba itself. The piece was full of stark contrasts, as timbres that resembled accordions and didgeridoos were bluntly overridden in sharp flashes and violent billows of pure sound effects.

Poore’s Death Be Not Proud was similarly stark in its juxtaposition of tone and effect, as he eerily whispered the poem into his mouthpiece while sudden burst of synth sounds (they reminded me of sci-fi movie spaceships) bounced all around the room via the surrounding four-speaker PA system. By the end, though, we were back to the natural world, as Poore finished the poem to the sound of pattering raindrops.

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New York Times: “Human Sounds, Painful or Haunting: The Ensemble Ekmeles at Roulette in Brooklyn” Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

January 24, 2013 @ Roulette: Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble // Pheeroan akLaff’s Music of Global Mantras

Photo © 2013 Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Within the contemporary-music scene of New York, the vocal ensemble Ekmeles inhabits its own neighborhood on the border between music and linguistics. The name of this ensemble, which is dedicated to music by living composers, refers to the Greek term for notes of indefinite pitch and intervals with complex ratios that destabilize the perfect proportions of harmony theory, elements that in ancient Greece were considered inappropriate for music.

On Thursday evening Ekmeles presented a selection of vocal works by six living American composers at Roulette in Downtown Brooklyn, as part of the Interpretations series, that brought forth sounds from the human body that were at times painful, alienating, startling and haunting, but always fascinating.

Sometimes they were even gorgeous, as in “Shiroi Ishi,” an a cappella work by Ken Ueno. Mr. Ueno is a composer on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, who in his own singing explores and expands the eerie overtones created by techniques like Tuvan throat singing.

Here, too, he drew unusual sonorities from the singers in a setting of his own poem, in Japanese, about a white stone sinking into a moonlit ocean. Quiet sustained chords and shifting harmonies that sometimes brought Gesualdo to mind floated in and out of pitchless vocalizations, ghostly exhalations and percussive consonants.

Consonants took on a life of their own in Aaron Cassidy’s “I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips,” a work that requires extraordinary virtuosity on the part of the vocalist. In an onstage discussion before the concert, Mr. Cassidy spoke of his interest in the “involuntary aspects of speech, which are so very legible,” elements like moans and croaks and stutters. Here it was Jeffrey Gavett who delivered this explosion of meticulously notated sounds.

Bryan Jacobs’s “Do You Need, Do To Me, 18 Me, 18 Mean,” for vocal ensemble and electronics, uses text resulting from the imperfections of voice-recognition software. Mr. Jacobs read the phrase “In the beginning there was light” into it and then continued to read the computer’s successively more garbled understandings back into it. The piece further distorts these texts with high speeds and sharply chiseled rhythmic outbursts; it ends on a note of whispered mystery.

Three fragments from Petrarch formed the text to “Three in, ad abundantiam,” by Evan Johnson, a work so quiet that it hovers at the limits of audibility, requiring singers to create the illusion of notes that have no discernible attack or end. Mary Mackenzie, soprano; Rachel Calloway, mezzo-soprano; and Patrick Fennig, countertenor, brought out its fiercely concentrated, if tiny, doses of emotion.

Two “Orphic Hymns,” by Louis Karchin, represented a more conventional singing style, with elegant vocal lines and skillfully layered harmonies. Two folk songs arranged by the composer Ben Johnston called on the ensemble’s extraordinary sense of pitch with their use of just intonation, a tuning system built on the pure pitch ratios defined by the Greek mathematician Ptolemy: the very opposite of ekmeles.

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NYC Jazz-Record: “New York At Night” Kurt Gottschalk

October 11, 2012 @ Roulette: Peter Evans // John Ekchardt

The Interpretations series brought an inspired first time pairing to Roulette (Oct. 11th) in the form of trumpeter Peter Evans and visiting German bassist John Eckhardt, each playing short solo sets before an exploratory duet. Eckhardt opened with a surprisingly rich arco growl and slowly crawled up the neck, deftly moving between tonal territories (the sounds were too resonant to call them simply “notes”). Each movement of the bow seemed essential: from a full 15 seconds in silence spent building up enough vibration in the bridge for the strings to resonate to a percussive exploration of bow handle between muted strings. Evans similarly explored minutiae, although magnified by the microphone and moving into jet propulsion. He considered and then pushed past the instrument’s sonorities, working it as a sound chamber, a feedback chamber, seeming to give it breath of its own and perhaps not getting to what might be called a melody line or three until the last few minutes of his solo. Their duo began cautiously, Eckhardt traipsing across the bass before settling at the back of the scroll where he matched Evans in a prolonged but broken single note. From there on they stayed in close proximity like a joint monologue. Perhaps it was a part of feeling each other out, playing together for the first time. Perhaps there was a bit of a shared hesitancy, but even if so it was a hesitancy of alarming proficiency, resolving with a wonderfully satisfying sort of walking (and tripping) blues. – Kurt Gottschalk

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Capital New York: “A Presentation of Work From Radical Composer Robert Ashley Shows An Oeuvre In Flux” Seth Colter Walls

April 25-28, 2012 @ Roulette: Robert Ashley’s THE OLD MAN LIVES IN CONCRETE

Robert Ashley by Joanne Savio

Inimitable art has a way of inoculating itself from any critical approach that relies on analogy. Potentially evocative points of reference can seem halfway correct though also not quite right.

When it comes to the radical American composer Robert Ashley, reporters have to try, because his work—by turns dreamy and frustrating—wants to be described (even failingly), the limitations of our aesthetic language be damned.

As part of this necessarily detour-strewn effort, the texts of Ashley’s theatrically conceptual and electronically manipulated chamber operas have been compared to the writing of James Joyce, most clearly because of the stream-of-consciousness fog they drape across any stage wherever they are performed. Instead of a gnarled, astringent modernism, however, there’s a Midwestern sense of calm that persists along the banks of Ashley’s mental tributaries; in his lackadaisical-but-present rhythms, there is an implicit rejection of Continental approaches to complexity and abstraction.

The New Yorker’s Alex Ross has described the sing-speak Ashley vocal style—one employed both by the composer/performer as well as the storied members of his long-running company—as the sound of the “the world’s mellowest rapper.” This is true, even though most of the line breaks pass without offering anything even close to rhyming.

Nothing about this slippery form of “opera” is made easier to define when the composer takes such formal liberties with his own work, over time. Concrete, a work that made its premiere at LaMama in 2007, and saw a revival there in 2009, has now been totally re-imagined as The Old Man Lives in Concrete. Presented at Roulette’s new, gorgeous Brooklyn stage through Saturday night, anyone who saw the previous iterations will recognize precisely how much Ashley has revised the earliest version (which has also been released on C.D.). The answer is a lot—and mostly for the better.

While the original Concrete drew on a conceptual framework of telling the hidden life stories of now-aged gamblers and criminals, promotional materials for The Old Man Lives in Concrete reference instead new arias about “ordinary people who did extraordinary things for which they’ll never be recognized.” It’s a looser concept, one that affords Ashley—who is still the narrator, and who still channels his memories of these stories through a cast of four singers—more thematic ground over which to roam.

The electronic “orchestration,” composed by Ashley and realized with in-performance tweaks by his longtime collaborator Tom Hamilton, has been pared back while also becoming more direct. (There’s less reliance on reverb now.) And while the backing music does not feature the strict pulsation of Ashley’s masterpiece, Perfect Lives, there’s still a tighter sense of mystic groove in this new version ofConcrete, in addition to a distinct palette of sounds reserved for each of its five vocalists (all of whom now speak in sequence, instead of talking over one another, as in the premiere version). That means skittering, gamelan-like timbres supporting singer Joan La Barbara—most recently heard singing John Cage’s songs at Carnegie Hall’s “American Mavericks” festival—and Gregorian chant-like motives that sound as though put through a stark decay filter before allowed to anchor the new solos Ashley has written for Thomas Buckner.

On Wednesday night, two of the new long-form pieces stood out as welcome additions to the Ashley catalog of half-remembered capers besieged by the vicissitudes of memory. (The new additions to the opera are distributed among different performances during this week’s four-night run, ensuring that every night is different. Score another one for Ashley’s resistance to canonizing his own practice.)

In the first of these, Jacqueline Humbert recited an absurdist aria about watching and waiting for Princess Diana’s exit from a charity hospital event, while musing on the difference between British Royals culture and America’s fascination with Donald Trump and the history of the American mob (with a spare thought or two saved for hypotheses about the possible snipers on the roof of the hospital). Bruckner’s closing recitation about a joke that it took 40 years for him to understand—“must be a world record”—drew a succession of belly laughs from the audience, despite never quite finishing in a way you’d expect a multi-decade quest to properly resolve.

The crowd at Roulette on Wednesday reflected Ashley’s gradually expanding demographic fanbase. Though luminaries of the ’70s-era Downtown New York scene—like vocalist Shelley Hirsch and reedist-composer Henry Threadgill—were among the expected sightings at an Ashley premiere, they were joined by a younger set of the city’s avant-gardists who have attended, and also staged new versions, of the composers’ works in recent months. Along with the recent re-publication, by the Dalkey Archive Press, of Ashley’s libretto for Perfect Lives, the mixed-age crowd pointed to the continuation of a development that would have seemed fanciful in the middle of the 2000s: New York is turning into a town that might be developing a language for talking about this composer, completely on his own terms.

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Village Voice: “Wadada Leo Smith Throws Himself A Lively Birthday Party At Roulette” K. Leander Williams

December 15-16, 2011 @ Roulette: Wadada Leo Smith 70th Birthday Celebration

Last year during a pre-concert interview at the Library Of Congress in Washington D.C., composer-trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith got a laugh when he spoke about recruiting bassist John Lindberg. At the time, Smith was in the process of rebuilding his long-running Golden Quartet after the passing of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Malachi Favors; the loss was so formidable, it inspired the trumpeter to use a tactic more moneyball than jazz. “Well, John was the first guy I called,” recounted Smith. “And I did him like they do the baseball and basketball players—took him out to a big restaurant in Chicago. The name had ‘steak house’ or something in it. I talked to him nice… and made sure he had all the steaks he wanted.”

If those shanks of beef set Smith back at all, Lindberg has made up for it by settling into the role of Smith’s MVP. The veteran trumpeter led three surprisingly varied ensembles on Friday, the second evening of a 70th birthday fête that signified Smith’s continued exploration—which at times sounded tensile—as much as it summed his career. Besides Smith’s own clarion elegance, Lindberg’s bass was the one fixture—as chairs were added to accommodate the 21-piece Silver Orchestra, as pianists and drummers were subbed and multiplied (at one point there were three rhythmatists on stage), and as the amped-up electricity of three guitarists and a plugged-in bass squared off with Lindberg, cellist Okkyung Lee and pianist Angelica Sanchez in Smith’s Organic ensemble, the evening’s capper. Throughout the evening Smith spent as much time cueing and conducting as blowing, while Lindberg had a technique for every frisson: some plucking here, some bowing there, a wah-wah pedal when the mix got ultra-thick.

The relentless activity robbed the evening of some of its flow. What it revealed over and over again, however, was the spatial mastery built into Smith’s concept. He spent much of the first set, by the Golden Sextet, padding around the stage while holding up fingers and nodding in the direction of a chosen soloist. The strength of his hand-picked musicians meant that each interlude (like the dynamic discussion between long-time-no-hear vibraphonist Bobby Naughton and drummers Susie Ibarra and Pheeroan ak Laff) would develop its own improvisational gravity. And yet, it was when Smith assumed his playing position—feet together, knees slightly bent, shoulders crouched over them—that the proceedings achieved true focus. Epic force seemed to make its way up from the floor and out through the bell of his trumpet. Perhaps fittingly, the set’s highest point turned out to be a balladic duet between Smith and Lindberg, whose chords complemented the prismatically raw cries of the trumpet.

The rest of the evening continued to function as a feast of inspired solos, despite the fact that the Silver Orchestra set was clearly intended to spotlight Smith’s compositional ability. Though much of the music alternated between prickly modernist bleating and full-ensemble calls somewhere between siren and train whistle, the personality of the compositions were fleshed out by, among others, pianist Yuko Fujiyama, saxist Marty Ehrlich and especially violinist Jennifer Choi, the featured player on “Africana 2.” Later, perhaps in answer to the metal-machine prog ‘n’ roll whipped up by the Organic ensemble, cellist Okkyung Lee pulled off a solo that was a true marvel of dissonant extended techniques. Ak Laff’s big tom-tom groove was thunderingly potent, but between Smith, Lee and Lindberg, it was almost as if acousticism was striking back.

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New York Times: “For a Big Birthday, Leading Three Groups A Night” Nate Chinen

December 15-16, 2011 @ Roulette: Leo Smith 70th Birthday Celebration

Photo by Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Wadada Leo Smith was a force in motion during the early stretch of his concert at Roulette in Brooklyn on Friday night. Stalking the stage, busily directing the output of his Golden Sextet, he gave off an air of restless intent. The exceptions mostly came when he played his trumpet, projecting in a hard, lustrous tone. In those moments he rooted himself: shoulders squared, the bell of his horn pointing either straight ahead or toward the floor. At every juncture he seemed to mean business.

In any case, he wasn’t coasting in advance of his 70th birthday, which the concert — part of a two-day affair organized by Interpretations, the new-music series — was meant to celebrate. Mr. Smith led three groups each night, mixing older pieces with a handful of premieres. On Friday the Golden Sextet pulled an opening shift, followed by his Silver Orchestra and Organic, his funk-centric electric band.

Mr. Smith has long been an active synthesizer of sound and texture. As an early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, he embraced that organization’s dual commitment to composition and improvisation, along with its openness to non-Western forms. One of the groups he led on Thursday was Mbira, an introspectively earthy trio with pipa and drums, which is featured on “Dark Lady of the Sonnets” (Tum), his most recent album.

On Friday the world-music intimations were more a matter of subtext. The concert opened with “Tabligh,” a piece inspired by Sufi music. From the outset it was a study in agitation, with two drummers, Pheeroan akLaff and Susie Ibarra, stirring the pulse in tandem. The first melodic improvising came from Bobby Naughton, a vibraphonist who worked often with Mr. Smith during the 1970s; here he played with four mallets, phrasing succinctly and playing it straight while the groove swarmed and surged.

Mr. Smith stepped in next, playing a few sharp bursts before catching the attention of his pianist, David Virelles, with some emphatic hand gestures. This didn’t get him what he wanted, so he walked over to Mr. Virelles, saying something in his ear. An adjustment was made: The accompaniment shifted from light, shimmering glissandi to something pricklier and more percussive. Mr. Smith still looked unsatisfied.

Much of this set proceeded similarly, never quite achieving a flow. But there were bracing moments, as when both drummers kicked into gear on “South Central L.A. Kulture,” delivering the equivalent of a body blow.

Surprisingly, given the complexity of its task, the Silver Orchestra came across as more focused. Jennifer Choi did soulful, compelling work on a dissonance-haunted violin concerto, “Africana 2.” A handful of improvisers, like the alto saxophonist Marty Ehrlich and the cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, made brief but strong impressions elsewhere.

The orchestra’s centerpiece premiere, “Occupy the World for Life, Liberty and Justice,” began in tense disquiet and peaked in full-scale cacophony, with three drummers in play. Then came a lush, unsettled chord, played by the saxophone section with circular-breathing techniques, and an abrupt cut signaled by Mr. Smith.

After all this, the murky, evil-sounding groove of Organic — a band with three electric guitarists, along with electric and acoustic bass, cello, piano and drums — felt almost like a comfort. Mr. Smith seemed to think so himself. During “Leroy Jenkins’s Air Steps,” from “Heart’s Reflections” (Cuneiform), released this year, he faced the band and let his body sway in tempo. If he looked relaxed, lost in the vibe, it was only for a moment: Another changeup was just ahead.

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All About Jazz: “Dave Douglas, Wadada Leo Smith & Taylor Ho Bynum” Martin Longley

December 15-16, 2011 @ Roulette: Wadada Leo Smith 70th Birthday Celebration

How many birthday cakes can a trumpeter gobble? To celebrate his 70th year, the Interpretations Series presented two nights of new music from Wadada Leo Smith at Brooklyn’s recently transplanted Roulette. This meant three bands each night and a communal cake at the end of each evening. Smith’s actual birthday fell two days after the second gig, so maybe there were more cakes on the way. The first evening’s candles were of the frustratingly fire-hazard kind that spring back into life after being extinguished, with Smith blowing them out through his trumpet, which seemed like a highly appropriate act. The first night’s proceedings were constructed very contrastingly with the second session. Each of the three sets (the Mbira trio, a string quartet with singer Thomas Buckner, and the Golden Quartet) restrained themselves to around thirty minutes apiece, and the show concluded surprisingly early.

This second evening operated at the other extreme. Following an afternoon’s rehearsal of this complex, varied and ambitious music, a sound check was still in progress even as the audience was gathering. The gig began around 30 minutes late, and each set doubled its duration compared to those of the previous evening; it was, after all, a Friday night. Even so, Smith wanted to relax into the experience, to savor the unfolding of what amounted to a lot of freshly penned work. All three ensembles and settings took hold of the audience firmly, and there was no sense of crawling timepieces in the house. The epic evening rolled on by in a consistently engaging fashion.

First off, the Golden Quartet was expanded to a Golden Sextet, with Susie Ibarra joining Pheeroan akLaff on a second drum kit, and vibraphonist Bobby Naughton emerging from decades past to revive his old partnership with Smith. The rapidly ascending young Cuban pianist David Virelles replaced Angelica Sanchez from the previous evening, while John Lindberg was, as ever, on upright bass. Smith’s general body language gave the impression of stern impatience and dissatisfied frustration, as he repeatedly made overt gestures to Virelles, guiding his relationship to the music’s careful evolution. Smith’s manner might have been the result of a certain way that he chooses to display excitement and urgency or, alternatively, he could have been expressing negative sentiments.

During previous performances by this group, his signaling wasn’t so pronounced, making all of this visually distracting, here and during the next two sets. While Smith probably just prefers to seek out the best possible performances, and it might have been better for the audience to close its collective peepers, it was ultimately desirable to forge ahead and concentrate on the sheer aural input.

Rather than approach his horn with a scattershot virtuosity, Smith is more of a post-Miles Davis architectural sculptor; a fulsome, brightly talkative bugler making bold statements in the air. Or down into the depths, as he frequently adopted the Miles-ian stance of pointing his sketches down to the stage floor, painting with confident strokes or decisive trills. Smith is a very different soloist, once his stylistic approach is set beside the aerobatic machine-gun excesses of Dave Douglas and Taylor Ho Bynum (the latter actually lurking within the ranks of Smith’s soon-to-come Silver Orchestra). Lindberg delivered one of the best solos, employing his wah-wah pedal as a pronounced part of its semi-electric voicings. Once again, Smith hovered beside him, almost appearing as though he was calling a halt to Lindberg’s self-expression. The final piece of the sextet set was “South Central L.A. Kulture,” which stood apart from the preceding pieces due to its limber, muscle-toned funk, hinting at the repertoire of Smith’s electric Organic combo, which would close out the concert. The acoustic instrumentation of the Golden Sextet didn’t quite match this tune’s inner nature—a contributing factor to its unpredictable excitement.

The middle set was a repeat performance of “Central Park,” featuring vocalist Thomas Buckner. Premiered in New York City in late 2010, Buckner wasn’t required to completely dominate the piece, as his contribution mostly seemed to inhabit an equal space with the collective instrumentation, occasionally rising above the mass, but never dominating. Smith’s Silver Orchestra also played his “Africana 2″ violin concerto, allowing for a flamboyantly citrus-stringed display by Jennifer Choi, and gave a global premiere of “Occupy The World For Life.” This newest piece was more directly robust than the other two works, doubtless eager to express its message without any digressions. Smith’s writing for a new music lineup successfully combines the tone and structure of a modern classical composer, but with a smoothly integrated free jazz sensibility; there were, after all, three drummers in the ranks. When reeds man Marty Ehrlich took his solos, they were amongst the most gripping and wild-spirited of the night, even more effective for being surrounded by a precisely-formed sonic architecture.

To complete this highly diverse collection, Smith closed out the evening with Organic, his mostly electric combo. Its template could be described as descending from early 1970s Miles Davis fusion and a more earthy, groove-some manifestation of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time. The ingenious lineup featured three simultaneously soloing electric guitars, and electric bass, with Lindberg also remaining, having already revealed his inner electric spirit on the acoustic upright. The deliberate tactic of including acoustic pianist Angelica Sanchez and cellist Okkyung Lee was also calculated to unbalance any sonic complacency, though the latter revealed a harshly amplified ferocity during her arrestingly scything solo stretch. Each guitarist—Michael Gregory, Ben Tyree, Lamar Smith—rose periodically to an ascendant position, providing a highlighted solo, only to recede to allow another’s expression. The music would have had an even greater effect in the closer surroundings of a club, with more brutal amplification, but then maybe the piano/cello extensions would have been subsumed.
As it was, the power of a lower-volume fuzzing still held great authority.

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NYC Jazz Record: “Concert Review” Russ Musto

February 17, 2011 @ Roulette: Roscoe Mitchell 70th Birthday Celebration

In a belated celebration of his 70th birthday (Aug. 4th, 2010), Roscoe Mitchell made an all-too-rare New York appearance at Roulette (Feb. 17th) in which he clearly confirmed that age has in no way mitigated his intense dedication to a very distinctive approach to improvisation that is his own creation. Performing before a packed-to-the-walls audience that included luminary colleagues too numerous to name (with nearly as many disappointed followers spilled out onto Greene Street, unable to enter) Mitchell engaged in two sets that showed why his music is equally enthralling to modern jazz and contemporary classical listeners. Beginning the evening in a duo performance with computer music innovator David Wessel, the saxophonist explored subtle microtonal and timbral variations in an environment of laptop soundscapes. This set the stage for a second set of completely improvised music with an imposing quartet featuring Dave Burrell, Henry Grimes and Tani Tabal. That music unfolded naturally from the first notes of Mitchell’s alto blending harmoniously with Grimes’ bowed bass, with Tabal’s brushes establishing a rhythmic context within which Burrell’s piano roamed freely, alternately offering reinforcement and counterpoint. The music built in intensity with Mitchell’s soprano mining minute tones (mirrored by Grimes’ violin) while his alto filled the room with a robust sound that would climax with long amazing circular-breathed lines that pushed physical limits. (RM)

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Dark Forces Swing: “Roscoe Mitchell And The Tension Thing” Hank Shteamer

February 17, 2011 @ Roulette: Roscoe Mitchell 70th Birthday Celebration
(go to original link/article)

“I went out there and got this tension thing. It was a battle. I had to make the noise and whatever was going on with the audience part of the piece. The music couldn’t move until they respected me, until they realized that I wasn’t going anywhere, and if someone was going it would have had to be them.”—Roscoe Mitchell, from the liner notes to Nonaah (1977)

Roscoe Mitchell faced an unruly crowd in Willisau, Switzerland on August 23, 1976. Thus, as he describes above, he spent the first eight minutes of his performance waging sonic warfare. (Hear for yourself via the two-disc Nessa reissue of this stupefyingly great album.)

Mitchell didn’t have to worry about audience flak last night at his belated 70th-birthday concert at Roulette (TONY preview here). If anything, he was fighting the opposite battle: What’s a lifelong experimentalist to do once their work has been embraced? How does a maverick become a master?

Mitchell’s answer is to never let go of “the tension thing.” If it’s not coming at you from without, impose it. About an hour into last night’s all-improv headlining set—a quartet with Dave Burrell, Henry Grimes and Tani Tabbal, each in excellent, highly engaged form—the music was ready for some punctuation, an exit hatch. Mitchell put down his soprano, adjusted his alto strap, brought the horn to his mouth and the vortex opened: a death-ray of circular-breathed WIND, noise, lava, light, pick your elemental metaphor, his face and neck bubbling as though in a horror-movie mutation scene.

The other players flurried around this writhing column, this straight-out-into infinity blast, and the whole room was fixed, right there. Who knows how long he kept it up? Was it two, three, five minutes? Far less? More? I have no idea. But I was gripped, and judging by the ovation that came when Mitchell signaled the final downbeat shortly afterward, so was everyone else. The coup was that he’d summoned the beast, invited the tension thing in. As Jack Black once said, “Sometimes you have to manufacture Inspirado.”

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All About Jazz New York: “Concert Review” Kurt Gottschalk

December 2, 2010 @ Roulette: Muhal Richard Abrams 80th Birthday Celebration

Muhal Richard Abrams has made a career of not resting on his laurels. As cofounder and spiritual father of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Abrams has spent close to 50 years lobbying for innovative approaches within jazz traditions. Even still, the music he presented for an Interpretations birthday tribute at Roulette Dec. 2nd (Abrams turned 80 in September) could hardly have been predicted. He began the concert with a series of resounding gong crashes, then moved to a decidedly metallic, celestial synthesizer. Adam Rudolph joined in with soft congas, then Tom Hamilton on second synth, all very quietly. Synthesizer experiments have long been a subplot to Abrams’ work, but it’s not something he’s often presented live. The piece built slowly, Abrams playing more pianistic, Rudolph’s percussion growing more rhythmic, Hamilton

eventually falling off into a wavering white noise, before the leader turned to the grand piano and Rudolph picked up a shakuhachi. The second set for the standing-room-only night was closer to expectations, an acoustic group with longtime collaborators Marty Ehrlich (bass clarinet) and Brad Jones (bass), Jay Clayton singing lyrics of spiritual consciousness. More conventional instrumentally, the second half was still markedly subdued, a direction Abrams’ playing has gone in recent years. But overall, the evening was a fine celebration of an artist who continues to look forward. (KG)

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Blog Review: “Concert Review: Jon Gibson and Ralph Gibson; New and Recent Works by Alexandra Gardner” Douglas Detrick

October 21, 2010 @ Roulette: Job Gibson + Ralph Gibson // Alexandra Gardner + Now Ensemble
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At the November 18th concert on the 22nd season of Thomas Buckner’s Interpretations series, Jon Gibson and Ralph Gibson (no relation), both veterans of New York’s art and music scene, played a set featuring video and partly composed, partly improvised music to a full room at Roulette in SoHo. Ralph Gibson’s Typography, often worked with sustained, gently moving close-ups of various characters from different languages and certain familiar objects viewed from unfamiliar angles. His score consisting of a framework of themes, was fleshed out through Jon Gibson’s saxophone improvisation and Ralph Gibson’s guitar loops and effects. Jon Gibson’s One Way documented a journey by car to an unnamed destination and juxtaposed video shot from a moving vehicle and overlayed with stationary shots of similar scenery. The combination brought life to the still trees, and stasis to the moving landscape, giving both an other-worldly quality. Joking often about their shared surname, the two Gibsons played together as if they could have been brothers, as their playing meshed seamlessly with both video works.

The second set of the concert featured three recent electro-acoustic pieces for solo instruments and tape, and a work for New York’s NOW Ensemble by Washington D.C. composer Alexandra Gardner. The three tape pieces, Ónice, performed by Sarah Budde on bass clarinet, Mint Conditioner, a world premiere featuring Logan Coale on double bass and Bloom played by Leigh Stuart on cello, were all beautifully executed pieces in a medium that can often underwhelm due to the technical difficulties of coordinating a live, acoustic instrument with a pre-recorded electronic part. Gardner’s electronic soundscapes incorporated sounds sampled from the instrument featured in each individual piece, then altered and orchestrated them without rendering them unrecognizable. Another important feature of the pieces was a degree of flexibility built in to the pieces, so that the performers needed only to coordinate with certain cues in the taped part, not every note. The result was a refreshing mix of freedom and integration. The tape parts emphasized and expanded on the colors and textures of the live part, giving the performance a broadened, meta-instrument feeling, as if the live instrument extended beyond its normal range of techniques and timbres, almost as if by magic. One drawback to these pieces was a sometimes-inadequate amplification of the live instrument. Mostly the performers were amplified properly, but sometimes were outmatched by the loudest parts of the electronic accompaniment.

Gardner’s piece for the NOW Ensemble, with its characteristic instrumentation of flute, clarinet, electric guitar, piano and double bass, called Now or Never emphasized the interplay of counterpoint and rock-influenced texture at which this group excels. Beginning from simple repeating rhythms, the piece built up to several small peaks before returning to a beginning point to take similar material in a different direction. The piece then reaches a final, spirited climax before fading away. Gardner’s writing in this piece is joyful, and a bit whimsical with some elements of dissonance adding character to the lush, lyrical feeling of the work. Now or Never was a satisfying conclusion to a strong concert overall. -Douglas Detrick

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Just Outsite: “Yasunao Tone/Tomomi Adachi – Roulette, 5/25/10″ Brian Olewnick

May 25, 2010 @ Roulette: Yasunao Tone & Adachi Tomomi
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Tomomi Adachi is a boyish looking fellow, a vocalist/electronicist who specializes in a branch of sound-poetry that often incorporates devices worn on his body and clothes and triggered by his movements. He opened last night’s performance with eight pieces, one by Dadaist Hugo Ball, four 1960s works by sound poet Seiichi Niikuni and three self-composed works.

Ball’s Gadji Beri Bimba, composed of nonsense syllables (adapted by Talking Heads for their “I Zimbra”), was spat out furiously by Adachi, a bit in the manner of a particularly vicious Diamanda Galas excoriation, his voice enhanced electronically, processed via a strap wrapped around one hand. The electronics within that strap, which was used several times last evening, seem to be sensitive to its orientation in space. By choreographing his movements, Adachi can summon a bewildering display of effects, sometimes used to great advantage, sometimes tending toward mere ornamentation. The Ball piece was quite effective, however–brief, tough and to the point.

The four works of concrete poetry by Niikuni were a varied lot, though the first, “Opus Ki”, was quite akin to the Ball, a rapid-fire string of nonsense words (in “Japanese”), here performed acoustically with a sing-song aspect and a percussive tinge. “Second Hand” used no words, only visual elements, incorporating the electronic gear, beginning softly, increasing in volume and complexity along the way, very much a stationary dance piece It was rather fun to attempt to puzzle out the relationships between a given gesture and the sounds that emerged synchronously. “Rain” was, in some ways, the loveliest piece of the evening and a disarmingly simple one. Adachi took the “score”, which I believe consisted of several rows of Chinese characters, held it in front of his face, and, using a forefinger to count, clicked his way down the list, sounding something like a typewriter. Each “click” consisted of from two to four sound elements, which one could hear separately or as a cluster and were repeated virtually identically, down each of perhaps eight rows containing about 24 characters per row. After making his way through the score once, he paused, removed his red shirt, buttoned shirt to reveal a white t-shirt with a large Chinese (maybe Japanese–I’m terrible at this) character and went through the process again, perhaps imparting a slightly different emphasis to the clicks. He then removed the white tee, revealing a blue one, re-donned the red over-shirt, calmly buttoned it up and finished. Very satisfying in an odd way. The Niikuni portion closed with a delightful piece utilizing a homemade instrument, a metal frame looking something like a music stand, strung with rubber bands and other pluckable detritus, all amplified. Adachi stroked and struck the various surfaces, occasionally emitting a soft vocalization. At one point he, à la Rowe, used a small hand-held fan to excite the elastic. Nice work.

Adachi’s own pieces included “Face”, wherein he enunciated, in English, parts of his face, tapping them to generate sound (for example, cheek, head) or otherwise toying with them (holding his nose while saying “nose”, scratching hair, etc.) soon mismatching them humorously, “Sekannoshu” another very quick reading, this time of an ancient poem and the finale, “Voice and Infrared Sensor Shirt”. As indicated by the title, this involved a wired garment which reacted to his every move. Reminded me a bit of Laurie Anderson circa 1985, though of course, more technologically advanced. Still, for all the “wow factor”, the music generated was less than gripping, a bit too much flash for my taste. He ended it well, however, removing the still actively yowling shirt, draping it over his laptop (the shirt “protesting”) and folding it neatly, shutting it up.

An intriguing set, all in all, though I found the “simpler” works more rewarding than the elaborate ones.

While I was certainly more highly anticipating the Yasunao Tone performance, I found it oddly anti-climactic. Tone is a delightful looking gentleman, reminding me of Eddie Prevost (no doubt due, to some extent, to his activity with Group Ongaku in the early 60s) with his gray brush cut and beard and compact physique. The piece was called “MP3 Deviation” and involved degraded mp3 files which (how, I’ve little idea) served to generate further electronic sounds, many of which outside of Tone’s direct control. Source aside, what the listener was presented with was a wall of noise, but noise of a particular character which, to my ears, was all too digital. There’s a certain slithery, smoothly-bumpy (!) aspect that we’re all familiar with from fast-forwarding discs (mp3 files as well, I imagine) and a basic underlying pulse at a similarly recognizable tempo. I tend to vacillate between enjoying the surfaces textures so encountered and losing interest when hearing nothing much of any depth. Tone’s music, when I concentrated fully, struck me this way. It was like peering into a vast, randomly fluctuating electronic process, everything a-glitter but mostly surface, like staring into a “snow” pattern on an old TV. The sounds, complex as they were, seemed to have been scrubbed and sanded clean, all the grit and meat removed.

When I relaxed my concentration a bit and just allowed it to wrap around me, it fared better. There were tiny stutters, small gaps of digital silence, that popped up throughout, rather like happenstance white spaces on a page filled with randomly distributed markings; these were quite welcome. Still, I couldn’t help “relapsing” into a state of attentiveness and when I did, I felt the music needed to be both louder and denser. Tone, behind his, laptop, was continually making apparent adjustments though, save for some subtle rhythmic elements that emerged toward the very end of the work, I couldn’t pick up any overt changes those adjustments might have triggered.

As can often be the case with sound forms that emulate, intentionally or otherwise, natural or mechanical processes, I find that sitting in a venue, listening to it as “art” often detracts from its merits. Had I been wandering around a particle accelerator or the like, turned a corner and been confronted with such a maelstrom, I doubtless would have greatly enjoyed wallowing in it. Perhaps my problem more than Tone’s but it’s the type of piece, at the least, I would have preferred encountering “in the wild”.

(I just wanted to add that one of the small pleasures of going to shows in NYC is sitting in the same audience as people like Robert Ashley…)

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The Big City: “Expect the Unexpected” George Grella

May 25, 2010 @ Roulette: Yasunao Tone & Adachi Tomomi
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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.

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Bomblog: “Joan La Barbara and Ne(x)tworks at Roulette” Nick Hallett

April 29, 2010 @ Roulette: Joan La Barbara + Ne(x)tworks, “Angels, Demons and Other Muses”
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The collection of musicians known across New York’s experimental music community as Ne(x)tworks (they resist the word “ensemble”) convened at SoHo’s Roulette for a performance of star member and preeminent vocalist Joan La Barbara’s new opera-in-progress, Angels, Demons, and other Muses, as part of Thomas Buckner’s Interpretations series. For me to attempt a purely objective review of the work would be futile, as Ne(x)tworks is comprised of too many personal collaborators, friends, and heroes, but, needless to say, the ensemble and its diva lived up to any bloated expectations I had coming into the concert, despite the frustrations of experiencing any such ambitiously designed work of opera in an unfinished and only partially “staged” form. Angels, Demons, and other Muses takes its inspiration from a disparate array of artistic figures–Virginia Woolf, Joseph Cornell, Frank Lloyd Wright–distilling their metaphysical presences into a collection of abstract soundworlds, synthesized with the dramaturgical rigor of a Fluxus loft party.

The audience was seated in concentric circles around four hemispheric performance areas into which the Ne(x)tworkers assembled: director Cornelius Dufallo, Ariana Kim, Kenji Bunch, and Yves Dharamraj (strings); Christopher McIntyre (trombone); Shelley Burgon (harp); Miguel Frasconi (glass instruments); and Stephen Gosling (piano). This suggested a mass celestial body around which La Barbara perpetually orbited, cordless microphone in hand. The music was chiseled out of a shared vocabulary of extended vocal and instrumental sounds: all manner of sighs, clacks, and whispers. Each environment usually consisted of a singular motive which would get passed around the various instruments as semi-improvised counterpoint. Melodic invention was scarce and, when it did appear, seemed forced, a supporting role to the pure exploration of sound and language otherwise uniquely manifested. I quickly lost sight of any intended narrative or psychology of the piece, preferring to indulge in the overall soundworld as pure abstraction exquisitely rendered.

In one of the more dramatic moments, La Barbara combined a swift series of laryngeal blasts with a shifting pattern of consonants articulated at the lips and teeth, which had a kind of speaking-in-tongues quality. Responses from the instruments created a bed of stops and starts, not unlike the sound of a sample-and-hold circuit. Electronic effects added to the pleasingly disorienting effect of the work, made doubly so by the audience’s inability to ever view the ensemble in full. In the only moment of actualized performativity, the instrumentalists circulated amongst the audience, whispering words like “ice,” “ssssnow” and “wasssshhh” into Fedora hats–ersatz speaker cones–placed directly at ear level.

By staying out of the spotlight, La Barbara challenges the idea of how the voice functions within the operatic form. An overarching sense of vocalism pervades the work, though it is shared amongst all the musicians in equilibrium. The players sing using their instruments as much as La Barbara plays her voice, and together they comprise an ensemble cast of characters. The drama is created in the sounds that they make together, partially by accident. What that does and says is extraordinary and yet by doing exclusively this, she also denies herself the ability to personalize and psychologize the subject material in a way that jumps out of the program notes, totally separating visionary program music from hot-blooded opera. Perhaps in a subsequent act of Angels, Demons, and other Muses, La Barbara will detach from the periphery of her galaxy and assume the solar position at its center. I doubt anyone would complain.

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The Big City: “Against The Prevailing Order” George Grella

April 29, 2010 @ Roulette: Joan La Barbara + Ne(x)tworks, “Angels, Demons and Other Muses” // Yael Acher-Modiano + Irina-Kalina Goudeva
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Joan La Barbara presented an opera in progress, Angels, Demons and other Muses, with Ne(x)tworks as part of the Interpretations series at Roulette last week. Her stated goal is to produce an abstract work that conveys the struggle and process of artistic creation. How this will ultimately play out is not clear, as without knowing what might be currently missing from the piece it’s impossible to fairly judge it as a work that succeeds or fails at its goals, but the performance was involving and mysterious, with a sense of time and motion that seem appropriate for the subject and moments of dramatic music. The playing seemed to be about producing a dream state, or revealing one in a way that involved the audience, who were seated around various stations around the floor, surrounding the musician located at each. The score at violinist Cornelius Duffalo’s stand was a mix of instructions, set in a particular sequence, along with a few passages of specifically notated pitches and rhythms – a minor key scale here, a series of sustained notes there. La Barbara, wandering dreamily through the crowd, vocalizing into a hand-held mic, led the musicians through their cues. Her voice was reproduced on a surround sound speaker system, and the sense of her being both right there and everywhere tickled alluringly at the base of the neck.

Opera is drama, and because the experience of people singing their drama is artificial and abstract, interior drama is an ideal field. The interior artistic process is as abstract a human drama there is, perhaps even impossible to convey, and so Angels is a tremendously ambitious and challenging idea, and what was heard hints that it may work. It began with what could pass as an overture, with a crescendo of voice, percussive playing of the piano strings and a lamenting, minor key phrase passed around the strings. An audio file of sounds that could have represented both an interior and exterior environment bridged the piece to a quiet, pixilated part; this all could be heard as an interior journey. The emphasis was on texture and moods, extremely dreamlike, an effective representation of the wandering mind seeking insight. The sounds of the piece — and it is the timbres that mattered most — seemed to be excavated from the recesses of memory and imagination; the ensemble includes bells and a glass harmonica, and those instruments already have a mysterious psychoacoustic power to evoke memories, even false ones, and La Barbara adds some particular features, including the string players blowing into their F-holes and a striking moment when the players put down their instruments and pick up hats. They stage whispered into the crown, opening it up like a plunger mute on a trumpet, and with this technique wandered through the audience, whispering into people’s ears. I thought I could pick out the words ‘nemos’ and ‘fish,’ but perhaps that was my imagination playing tricks with me, which may indeed be the point. It was tantalizing.

After this, the music made a transition to a series of microtonal chords, the returned to the lamenting quality heard at the start. This sounded like a natural ending, a circumscribed expression of the essence of Romantic poetry, but the performance continued for a few more minutes, although with a loss of focus and invention. The structure of the music was best served when it was wandering and developing a landscape, while repetition seemed to add the weight of a frame that didn’t quite fit. The ideas and the music were involving, though, and this is a work that deserves a full performance.

Angels was followed by more dramatic music that worked out ideas of structure and improvisation, an involving and powerful duet performance from flutist Yael Acher-Modiano and Irina-Kalina Goudeva, who danced, sang and played the bass, at times simultaneously. From the first vocalization by Goudeva from behind a curtain, the music and performance went without pause through a series of pieces by Acher-Modiano, Julia Tsenova and Bo Jøger, comprising Two-Walk: A Multi Media Electro-Acoustic Performance. The playing was committed and accomplished, but the music expressed a difficult aesthetic. This was, fundamentally, ritualistic but without the context of known ceremonies to gain some insight into significance and meaning. Goudeva caressed and seduced the bass in a soliloquy, then sang while accompanying herself with bowed and plucked notes.

The ease of her playing was deeply impressive, but what she was playing seemed at a tangent to my experiences and comprehension. Acher walked in slowly from the wings, wearing a catlike mask and playing the flute; that it had a meaning was clear but the meaning itself was opaque. Her sound was frequently processed and in particular stretches she played along with a buzzing, beeping, burbling electronic accompaniment. Both women improvised expressively, seamlessly integrating their playing into the idiomatic structure of each piece. There were familiar sounding elements, especially a bluesy little flute line in Acher’s Audio Mirage, and a repeated fluttery figure she fell back on. Goudeva improvised on her instrument, her voice, and appeared to be making up text and abstract narrative on the spot during Shoshana Shelli (The Flower). But these elements were as disturbing to me as they were attractive and admirable; the flute sound was processed in such a way as to create a timbre that had a strong touch of the unnatural, the bass playing, singing and movement seemed to belong to a culture so alien as to be unearthly. The music was overwhelmingly affecting, but in an almost horrific way for me; I thought of Artaud, Huysmans, and a particular short story by Brian Evenson, which, in it’s combination of inventively baroque language and nightmarish subject, is constantly compelling and frightening in equal measure. An extraordinary performance, but not for everyone.

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Seen and Heard International: “Concert Review” George Grella

March 16, 2010 @ Paula Cooper Gallery:Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble perform Somei Satoh, The Passion; Iannis Xenakis, Mikka, Mikka “S”; and Petr Kotik, There Is Singularly Nothing
(go to original link/article)

Concerts like this one defy the normal means and language of criticism, and I mean this in a positive sense. The music is either so new, like the Satoh world premiere, that the time spent with it has been insufficient to come to more than a cursory understanding of it’s goals and means, or the piece, like Kotik’s, is so unique in it’s style and effect that the normal standards of critical thinking for a work don’t apply. The one relatively familiar piece on the program, the set of solos for violin by Xenakis, was highly unusual in its techniques and purposes.

To start with the familiar, then: in a concert of music that left a powerful and lingering impression, the Xenakis performance had the most immediate grip. It’s hard to believe that these were his first works for solo violin, as they completely demolish any previous idea of how such music could be written and create an entirely new vocabulary. The instrument moves from pitch to pitch, each placed with exactitude in time, by constant glissando; every moment of sound is of a notein constant motion, unsettled, up or down, with longer or shorter stretches of time in which to cover the distance. The combination of creativity and technical challenge is incredible, and the second version adds the additional layer of double stops, some with a held pitch under a glissando, others with glissandi moving in opposite directions simultaneously. Conrad Harris gave a performance that was almost beyond description, playing with technical ease and assurance, producing a huge, buzzing, angry sound out of the violin, much less that of a string instrument and more like someone constantly turning the knob on an oscillator. The sense of physical power, intensity and excitement he expressed was palpable. It was a thrilling, breathtaking performance, a concentrated moment of some of the most astonishing, exciting playing I’ve ever heard.

Satoh’s piece is an equally concentrated portrayal of The Passion, with spare text and accompanying textures. The writing is full of horizontal and vertical space with a tone set by the emotionally stark cello solo that opens the piece. Satoh uses touches of glissando as well, but as a color that actually emphasizes the long, spare lines in the voices and instruments. The pace is deliberately glacial but doesn’t drag. There are sets of extended lines and fragmented minor cadences that he repeats to make the structure, in a similar manner to how Arvo Pärt builds his Passio, but the musical and emotional quality are different. Satoh seems to see this musical setting of The Passion as an opportunity for a kind of ritualized emotional devastation, and the work is very effective in that sense. He gradually builds musical and emotional expression by adding colors and textures; after much deliberate, almost stylized sung dialogue and narration, Pilate’s music for “What is truth?” is lovely. When the chorus calls out for Jesus’ crucifixion, the writing is close to a traditional chorale. The structure is both well-controlled and well-judged, and the singing was notably fine, especially Buckner, an unusual choice of a baritone voice, as Jesus. His tone and phrasing where gently beautiful throughout and the sense of loss felt at the end of the piece, a final plucked note, was I think due as much to his expressive qualities as to the fascinating music.

Kotik’s piece sets a considerable amount of text from Gertrude Stein’s lecture “Composition as Explanation,” and that’s a brilliant choice. Music’s power is conveyed strongly through both repetition and variation of what has come before, and that’s the technical nature of Stein’s style. In a musical setting, the meaning of her words, if they have any, runs a far second to the quality of hearing a chain of recursive and discursive words and sounds. Her text has a particular meaning to Kotik, although I would not bother to try and understand exactly what that is; he clearly hears them a certain way and builds a musical method and structure that conveys a sense of purpose and focused expression. The instruments have long, winding lines, in a minor key, that are themselves as recursive and discursive as the text, and their entrances are ordered not by placement in an overall score but through some more abstract, atemporal structure, a set of ‘traffic’ instructions perhaps. The singers have their own sections of Stein to perform, and the writing for their voices is more varied; the tenor winds around much like the instruments, and has extended sections in the falsetto, while the soprano’s music is highly intervallic, which is unique in this context, and both those parts are clearly demanding. The baritone and alto have music that is a bit quieter, more subdued, very much in the style of the instruments in that it is highly horizontal and maintains a fairly tight range of pitch material, and that perhaps partly explains the noticeably appealing singing from Netherly and Calloway. The colors in the orchestra are dark and grainy, the trumpets muted, bass clarinet replacing the standard instrument, Kotik himself playing as much alto flute as regular flute. He perched on a stool at the end of the ensemble, playing much like a snake charmer, and as the piece went on it became completely mesmerizing, so much so that after the last note sounded the mysteriously powerful and indescribable aesthetic and emotional effects lingered on in the mind in silence, and then out into the street after the applause and the goodnights, and on into the next days and nights, to perhaps exert their power in perpetuity.

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Blog: “Just Outside” Brian Olewnick

October 15, 2009 @ Roulette:Daan Vandevalle, Solo Piano Works of Gordon Mumma, and Contemporary Belgian Composers
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Went to Roulette on Thursday for a set of solo piano works performed by the Belgian pianist, Daan Vandewalle. The program was in large part given over to pieces by Gordon Mumma but also included works by three lesser known (to US audiences, anyway) Belgian composers and closed with a composition by Alvin Curran. The music was part of Thomas Buckner’s Interpretations series that Roulette has hosted for a few years now.

The performance began with Mumma’s “Jardin” (1958-1997). Listeners familiar only with his radical electronic pieces from the 60s and 70s might be quite surprised at the delicate, romantic nature of works like this one. I pick up a good deal of Satie in “Jardin” and, to a lesser extent, in the other works of his presented on this occasion. The opening section here, for instance, has a similar rocking motion, soft low chords offset by high single notes, that you hear in the Gymnopedies but also an air of contemplation one hears in the Ogives. Mumma’s harmonies are different, of course, but not so many steps away. A sense of gentleness is pervasive, sometimes lilting, often pensive. There’s a casual use of repetition, but it’s always fleeting; taking a cue from the title, you can easily visualize a rough-hewn garden, Mumma flitting from flower to flower, weed to weed. As throughout the evening, Vandewalle was superb, evincing an imaginative sense of dynamics, always modulating the touch and volume.

Of the three Belgian composers heard here, Karel Goeyvaerts seems to be the best known and his Litany series are widely performed there. “Litany no. 1″ (1979) began with a heavy, brutal staccato figure that reminded me strongly of Louis Andriessen’s blocky minimalism from around the same period. That basic framework remained in place throughout even as it was added to and subtracted from. I had the mental image of a kind of latticework; as you scanned from left to right it might become almost entirely obscured by lush vegetation at one point but erode away to only a handful of vertices at another. It was quite complex and energetic, Vandewalle’s hands often suspended and quivering before resuming the attack. Its somewhat brutal character grew a bit wearing over the last few minutes and when it abruptly shut down, there was a palpable sense of relief. Impressive, though.

Announcing the three short pieces by Boudewijn Buckinx, the pianist said, “They sound tonal, but they’re not.” Well, they did. Composed as part of a project wherein one was asked to somehow relate the music to Ives’ “Three Pages Sonata” and Schoenberg’s “Opus 23″, they presumably did so though at a level well beyond this listener’s capacity to ascertain. What registered once again–and not for the last time on this night–was Satie, here more in the nature of the Sarabandes, though, in the first piece (“Three Penny Sonata”) with Middle Eastern references thrown in to boot. “Forensic Waltz” indeed had a dance hall character while “Middle Way” possessed a certain bluesiness, languid, soft and nocturnal. All three works were stunningly beautiful. Vandewalle referred to him as the most prolific composer alive. Not sure about that but his homepage shows quite a few. I’m hoping to investigate further.

The first half of the concert closed with Mumma’s “Graftings” (1990-1996), a more severe set of pieces whose nature derives from “the complex timbres of resonating partials”. While more rigorous in a post-serial sense and more like what one might have expected from a composer of Mumma’s generation and affiliations, the music was not very arid at all, largely due once again to the marvelously subtle use of dynamics and touch; whether credit goes to Mumma or Vandewalle I’m not sure. Again, the sheer delicacy and consideration in the array of sounds made for fascinating listening.

Mumma’s “Songs Without Words” began the second set, a series of nine brief compositions, portraits, of various people including Christian Wolff, David Tudor and Jon Barlow. Aside from the odd, loud trill here and there, they were pretty much of a piece: calm, very delicate, fairly tonal ruminations, seemingly set down in an intuitive fashion with no preconceived formula. There was an interesting sameness about them, as though Mumma was saying, “The differences between us are subtle, really not so large.” At several points there was a gorgeous tentativeness in play, the single notes placed with such caution and care, as though the composer was attempting to limn his subject with an impossible degree of exactitude. These were the most transcendent moments of the evening.

Thomas Smetryns was a piano student of Vandewalle and, apparently, an awful one. In desperation, Vandewalle asked the 18-year old to write down some pieces so he could understand his ideas without going through the agony of hearing him trying to play them. The results astonished the teacher, Smetryns having clearly absorbed the concepts of composers from Wolff to Skempton at such a young age. (His site, in Belgian [which is to say, erm, Dutch], can be found here.) Indeed, Skempton was the composer that registered most strongly in the two works, “Brassens” and “Biermann”, played this evening, along with a dash of Rzewski. The first was disarmingly “simple”, with a steady, calm rhythm that was nonetheless surprising, the finely etched melody never going quite where you thought it would. Like Skempton’s wayward son, maybe, very lovely. “Biermann” was darker, with a seesawing pattern of low chords and high, ringing notes but, as with almost all the music heard at this event, with a wonderful delicacy. More and more, I was assigning at least half the credit for this to the pianist.

The final piece on the program was Alvin Curran’s “Inner Cities 5″ and, well, I wish in some ways it hadn’t been included. Part of a massive 4 1/2 hour cycle (which Vandewalle has recorded on a 6-disc set), it began impressively enough with Vandewalle very rapidly attacking the keyboard with the palms of his hands but not actually depressing the keys except, inevitably, accidentally. A wonderful effect, like a restrained Cecil Taylor. Little by little, more keys were sounded until, maybe two or three minutes in, the music abruptly shifted to a wild, maximalist stretch á la Charlemagne Palestine, bubbling and rumbling at a furious pace. I believe the pianist is asked to to negotiate the score in as fast a tempo as possible but the result becomes more of a pyrotechnic display than anything else. The transcendence that Palestine sometimes achieved via similar means was absent. One admired the craft (and endurance!) but left with little of substance.

Apart from that, it was quite a special evening, rehearing the Mumma works in a live context (I’d heard and greatly enjoyed the 2-disc set a few months ago) and being introduced to a couple of composers, Buckinx and Smertrynsm, who I’ll look into further. Anything with Vandewalle will also be the subject of increased interest in the future. I noticed he had some early Feldman pieces in his repertoire; hopefully he comes to include the later ones as well.

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The Big City: “A Little Night Music” George Grella

April 9, 2009 @ Roulette: Teresa McCollough, New Piano Pieces by American Composers
(go to original link/article)

Last Thursday, Roulette once again hosted another Interpretations concert, the penultimate one of the season, this one a recital by pianist Teresa McCollough, accurately subtitled “Playing, Plucking, Pounding: New Music for Piano & Percussion.” Redundant, perhaps, considering that the piano is essentially a percussion instrument, yet it gives a great idea of what I heard.

This was an evening dedicated to the sounds that the piano can produce, especially the inherent resonant sonorities which can be so satisfying to produce and hear, and the concert was a deeply pleasurable and refreshing one. McCollough chose a program that was contemporary and broad in range and which featured some of the best idiomatic piano writing of the past few decades, as well as works which balanced a straightforward expression of an experimental approach.

Most straightforward of all was Gabriela Lena Frank’s two pianos, two percussion arrangement of her ballet El Dia de los Muertos. This is a narrative work set in episodes, and the music ably conveys both story and setting, the opening prelude evoking the kind of western landscape of the imagination familiar from Sergio Leone movies. The work takes great delight in the kind of forceful chordal playing and rhythmic precision that was first expressed in Stravinsky’s Les Noces. It resonates joyfully. This is a recent work by a young composer, another is Noise + Mobile by Sam Pluta, a former student of McCollough’s. Pluta’s piece is for piano with electronic accompaniment, a kind of dialogue between a up-to-the-minute glitchy sound with skittering beats, and an energetic piano part that changes character halfway through the piece into something more introspective, finally drifting off into quiet. The electronics are less interesting than the piano part, which is involving and well-written, and the two don’t seem to have very much to do with each other. Perhaps running the piano through the loudspeakers would integrate the two better, but as it is the work is only a half-success.

Preceding these works in the recital’s second-half was Greed Machine, a work from Alvin Singleton that McCollough has recorded. It’s a duet for piano and vibraphone and reflects Singleton’s personal style, which is elusive, mysterious, hermetic and deeply fascinating. The piece begins with the dramatic gesture of fortissimo chords, but there is space aplenty to appreciate the ringing decay of the sound. In fact, space is a feature of the structure, which generally alternates between a musical statement and the silence in which we may contemplate it. The statements themselves are made with the slightest means; a chord, a short line of notes. Things start and seem to lose their way and, confounded, bring themselves to a halt. This is by design and the results involving, like reading Beckett and realizing there is a way to use language that is both unfamiliar in intent and yet clear in method.

The first half was a real tour-de-force in pianism, with McCollough performing John Adams’ seminal China Gates, George Crumb’s A Little Suite for Christmas AD 1979, and then joined by Michael Boyd for Adams’ Hallelujah Junction. China Gates is one of Adams “juvenile” pieces, like Shaker Loops and even Grand Pianola Music; works that mark his beginnings as a major composer and also ones that may e played well by student musicians. It’s a beautiful and enduring piece, with the shimmering, limpid surface familiar to pulse-pattern Minimalism but also the sense of resonant sound that has been a feature of his work. What also sets it apart is the movement of inner voices, a contrapuntal quality procedure that gives the work a quasi-Medieval flavor. The later work is just as full of resonant sound, but is far more extroverted, complex and challenging to play. The two pianos mix complex cross-rhythms in a rollicking, jazzy dialogue that has an underlying delicacy of both line and mood. There was some roughness in coordination between the two pianists, but they found the footing quickly and played with great verve and command. Along with his considerable craft, Adams has an important ability to convey both extroversion and introversion simultaneously. Hallelujah Junction gives us something that feels like de Chirico’s The Melancholy of Departure, the simultaneous excitement, sadness, apprehension and determination that comes with setting off on some new journey.

Crumb’s piece is a beautiful meditation and a lesson on just what kind of sound can be produced from the piano, in the great experimental tradition that Henry Cowell began. Like Cowell, Crumb is presenting clear ideas in an unfamiliar way. This series of miniatures explores the shimmering overtones that sustained chords can produce, and demonstrates the variety of timbres that can be achieved by damping strings with the hand, plucking and stroking others. It’s is technically accomplished but not a technical work, rather it is exceedingly expressive in the sense that this language of timbres and overtones is the type of delicate, fleeting and nuanced language the can express contemplation of the Giotto frescoes in the Cappella di Scorvegni in Padova. This was perhaps the most impressive performance of the evening; McCollough played the keyboard music of all the pieces with great command, dedication and assured, expressive pianistic skill. The quality she brought to the Little Suite was great taste, a superb ear. The piano string is a cold, tightly wound piece of metal, and any person can pluck it or strike it, unlike the piano keys, with equal sonic results. McCollough is an excellent musician, and with that, she brings the extra measure, which is plucking or striking that string at the moment when it most matters. And the moment when it most matters is that exact moment that her musicianship, thinking and taste has brought the music, and us, to meet.

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The New York Times: “Layered Dialogues on Effects of Old Age” Steve Smith

January 14-25, 2009 @ LaMama ETC:Robert Ashley, Three Recent Operas
(go to original link/article)

Music history is filled with candles that burned bright and fast. Some composers lived too short a life: Mozart and Schubert, Berg and Webern. Others stopped creating after a productive prime, like Rossini and Sibelius. But longevity can have its benefits for those who endure. Think of the extraordinary emotional insight and depth in Verdi’s “Otello” and “Falstaff,” or the vibrant spirit and relative approachability in any number of recent works by Elliott Carter.

Robert Ashley has come into that company with his three latest operas, which are in rotation at La MaMa E.T.C. in the East Village. His idiom of sung-spoken electronic chamber opera remains as idiosyncratic as ever. But like Verdi in his final operas, Mr. Ashley, 78, has become deeply concerned with evoking recognizable human emotions with these latest works, and like Mr. Carter, he has proved willing to open doors by slightly softening a formidable style.

Thinking in terms of longevity is appropriate when considering “Celestial Excursions,” the second opera in Mr. Ashley’s current revival, which was restaged at La MaMa E.T.C. on Saturday night. Created in 2003 at the Hebbel-Theater Berlin and presented at the Kitchen in Chelsea that year, the opera deals with old age and its effects. Marginalization, loneliness, senility and the preservation of dignity are accounted for in a barrage of layered narrative strands and fragments, partly based on conversations Mr. Ashley had with elderly people in Arizona.

Mr. Ashley treats his unnamed characters — portrayed by Jacqueline Humbert, Joan La Barbara, Thomas Buckner and Sam Ashley, his son — with respect and affection. At times he is among their number; elsewhere he is an interrogator in an assisted-living center, trying to impose order upon their wayward statements and impulses. Mr. Ashley does not disguise the unwitting humor in what his characters say, but the laughter here is born of recognition.

In Mr. Ashley’s abstract score, supervised by the sound designer Tom Hamilton, guitar twangs, electric-bass burps and jazzy keyboard figures (improvised by the pianist (Blue) Gene Tyranny) float and ricochet over moody electronic strains. The vocals, though more spoken than sung, frequently allude to the nostalgic strains of old pop songs.

For the current revival Mr. Ashley and David Moodey, who designed the lighting and sets, have streamlined the staging of “Celestial Excursions” to its benefit. Mr. Ashley and his vocalists still deliver their lines like newsreaders seated at tables. But (Blue) Gene Tyranny is no longer part of the scenery.

And the performance artist Joan Jonas, whose constant motion in the original production was distracting, appears in isolated interludes during the work’s final section. Through intentionally awkward actions and a gaze that shifts from commanding to imploring, she poignantly evokes an effortful cling to corporeality.

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The New York Times: “Burbuling Brook Crossing Rocky Ground” Nate Chinen

October 2, 2008 @ Roulette: Myra Melford Quartet + Henry Threadill’s Zooid + Talujon Percussion Quartet
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Henry Threadgill, an alto saxophonist and flutist, and Myra Melford, who plays piano and harmonium, both specialize in a music of passing frictions and artful striations. As composers, they use texture as a destabilizing agent: the center often holds, but not without a bit of resistance. Improvisation flows through their efforts like a stream, widening or constricting to suit the features of an uneven terrain.

Mr. Threadgill and Ms. Melford proved the soundness of these strategies on Thursday night in a powerfully engrossing double bill at Roulette. Each presided over an unusual and graceful ensemble, and each presented new works packed with vivid energies. The program was presented by Interpretations, the new-music concert series celebrating its 20th season; it packed Roulette’s gallerylike performance space beyond capacity.

Mr. Threadgill, 64, has ages of experience in the jazz avant-garde, with a career stretching to the origins of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. His half of the concert featured Zooid, a working group with Liberty Ellman on guitar, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar, Jose Davila on tuba and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums.

The ensemble simultaneously inhabits two extremes of pitch, with its murky bass clef offsetting a piquant high register. And that spirit of contrast applies equally to rhythm. The opener, “Extremely Sweet William,” interposed its abstract acoustic funk with open-form exploration.

A second piece began with Mr. Threadgill’s expressive alto against shimmering cymbals, at a stately pace. Then came a lurching group improvisation, and memorable solo statements by Mr. Davila (blustery) and Mr. Ellman (breezy).

“Fate Cues,” the closer, was a clangorous work commissioned by the Talujon Percussion Quartet, which joined Zooid in performing it. All those woodblocks, cowbells and gongs brought an even stronger sense of multiplicity to Mr. Threadgill’s music, though to some extent it came at the price of clarity.

“I’ve been trying to find a home for it for about a year now,” Mr. Threadgill said of the piece. “Interpretations said they would take us off the streets — and put us together with Myra, which was a perfect combination.”

Ms. Melford illustrated that point herself. At 51, she hails from the generation after Mr. Threadgill’s; she has apprenticed with him, metabolizing his ideas. Stringing together sections of an arresting new suite called “Happy Whistlings,” she enlisted Matana Roberts on alto saxophone, Mary Halvorson on guitar and Harris Eisenstadt on drums. They all played with erudition and drive, in various formations, with parts drifting in and out like visitors to a room.

Ultimately the quartet, variously cagey, fitful, euphonious and spindly, made restlessness feel like a secret discipline. At one point Ms. Melford whispered furtive passages of verse, barely audible and mostly incomprehensible. Apparently that was a secret too.

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New York Times: “An Opera Full of Secrets From a Master of the Opaque” –Steve Smith

January 17-21, 2007 @ LaMama ETC:Robert Ashley’s Concrete

The gambler’s game is one of steely nerves, patience and sometimes sleight of hand. Watch a gambler at the card table, and you might never notice anything out of the ordinary, apart from freakish runs of good fortune. But let a card sharp explain his work, and a different game is revealed.

Robert Ashley, the influential progenitor of a distinctive mode of electronic chamber opera based on American vernacular speech, has known two professional gamblers during his long, eventful life, and both turn up in “Concrete,” his latest work, which opens at La MaMa E.T.C. Annex on Wednesday evening.

Seated in the kitchen of his TriBeCa rehearsal studio, which occupies an entire floor of the converted warehouse where he and his partner, Mimi Johnson, have lived since 1979, Mr. Ashley, 76, recounted how a friend had once revealed a sordid past.

“Now he’s a retired Pan Am pilot,” Mr. Ashley said. “But when I knew him, he was a card sharp. He took me over to his house and said: ‘I’m going to tell you a secret. If something happens to me, I want you to get my wife out of town as soon as possible.’ He shuffled a deck, and I cut it, and he dealt me four aces.” While Mr. Ashley watched, his friend demonstrated the tricks of his trade: invisibly notched cards, switched decks, complicit partners.

“Every ordinary person has secrets about themselves, and some of them are very dramatic secrets,” Mr. Ashley said. “I got interested in the idea of bringing those secrets out: just taking an ordinary person and — if they’d let me — say: ‘When this person was young, he was a smuggler. When this person was young, he was a card sharp.’ It fascinated me that I knew these people. They’re not in prison. They’re all comfortably retired. But they used to be criminals.”

Four old acquaintances have found their way into “Concrete,” all seemingly ordinary people with something risky and perhaps sinister hidden below the surface. Each has become the subject of an extended solo narrative to be delivered by one of Mr. Ashley’s vocalists: Jacqueline Humbert, Joan La Barbara, Sam Ashley and Thomas Buckner, all longtime members of his ensemble. The set design by David Moodey, who has worked with Mr. Ashley since 1999, suggests an otherworldly casino. The performers busy themselves with oversize playing cards when not stepping forward to deliver a solo, the only real stage action in the piece.

Mr. Ashley’s vocalists do not literally portray his friends. Instead they simply relate his stories in the droll, mannered, sometimes hypnotic and always musical speech patterns that characterize his idiom and distinguish it from conventional operatic modes. In five “discussions” that surround the solo sections, the four performers engage in chattering debate on seemingly mundane topics: Why are buildings level if the surface of the planet is curved? Why do so many games — poker being a notable exception — move in a counterclockwise direction?

The discussions — more like chaotic cross-examinations, in which the performers verbally nudge one another aside to finish a thought — are actually the internal dialogues of the first person encountered in the opera’s opening section, “The Old Man Sits in Concrete.” “Is that a title?” one of the four voices asks. “It’s my name,” another responds.

In earlier operas like “Perfect Lives” (1978-80), “Atalanta (Acts of God)” (1982) and “Now Eleanor’s Idea” (1993), Mr. Ashley and the members of his ensemble portrayed distinct characters: Don, Linda, Eleanor, Junior Jr. and so on. Those figures lingered from one work to the next, floating through opaque, hallucinatory plots that alluded to sweeping concepts drawn from world history, religion and metaphysics.

Beginning with “Dust” (1998), Mr. Ashley turned his attention toward the thoughts and concerns of ordinary people, focusing in particular on those at the margins of society. “Dust” featured the rambling observations and reminiscences of homeless people — unnamed but real, Mr. Ashley said. He followed with “Celestial Excursions” (2003), which was based on conversations he had had with elderly people in Arizona.

While “Concrete” might seem to be about criminals who got away with their misdeeds, that perception is a bit of sleight of hand on Mr. Ashley’s part. The subject of the opera is the old man of its introduction. The solo sections are his reminiscences. The discussions depict mundane contemplations that flicker through the restless mind of an aging creative artist whose imagination is unfettered by the demands of full-time employment.

Even without the specificity of the libretto’s references — to Michigan, where Mr. Ashley was born and his compositional career began, and to California and Rome, the sites of noteworthy events in his career — the realization that the old man who sits in concrete is Mr. Ashley is unavoidable. If he does not emphasize the autobiographical dimensions of “Concrete,” neither does he deny them. In describing the basic workings of his libretto he frequently switches between third person and first.

“The old man doesn’t have a day job,” Mr. Ashley said. “He’s retired, and he just sits there and thinks and reads mystery novels. He looks out the window and thinks, ‘Why are the buildings so aligned?’ Or, ‘Why does everything I watch on television, with rare exceptions, go counterclockwise?’ Those kinds of things are what the old man is thinking about, and he’s in a dialogue with himself about whether he’s making any sense.”

To a casual observer the extent to which autobiography plays a role in “Concrete” may seem a departure for Mr. Ashley. But Ms. La Barbara, a versatile new-music specialist who first performed Mr. Ashley’s music in 1974 and became a regular member of his troupe in 1990, described the work as a refinement of an approach that has run throughout his operas.

“When you look at Bob’s stories and go back a bit to the ‘Now Eleanor’ pieces, a lot of people found them totally incomprehensible, talking about Giordano Bruno and the Inquisition and all this stuff,” Ms. La Barbara said. “But essentially the stories are all from Bob’s life, and he’s telling them and retelling them. He’s kept them more closed and hidden in the past, and I think he’s basically taking off more and more of the veils, revealing more as the stories are coming more to the present. The old man who lives in concrete is Bob. And yet what he’s done is take himself out of the piece.”

In more ways than one. While Mr. Ashley took on vocal roles in most of his earlier operas, he abstains in “Concrete,” controlling the electronic accompaniment offstage with the assistance of the sound designer Tom Hamilton, another longtime collaborator. In addition Mr. Ashley provides the singers with an unusually high degree of autonomy this time.

“In the past we had in-ear headphones, and we were getting a line count and beats,” Ms. La Barbara said. “The click tracks, the beats, were on a pitch, and we were assigned a pitch terrain, a territory. It was a way of spreading the voices out, and making a nice kind of texture and spaciousness.”

For “Concrete,” Mr. Ashley has abolished most of those technical strictures. “For the past 15 years I’ve been doing meter: come in on a certain beat, there’s a certain tempo, you have a certain pitch,” he said. “Everything’s like a homework assignment. And I wanted to get away from that. I actually wanted to make an opera that was pure storytelling in song.”

Mr. Ashley’s wish to abdicate control arose partly out of boredom with his usual method, he said. But this liberation also demonstrates his faith in his ensemble, which he likened to the singular collections of idiosyncratic voices united by jazz bandleaders like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.

So strong is Mr. Ashley’s trust in his interpreters that he is taking a calculated risk of his own in “Concrete.” Using a computer program designed for real-time sound design in a performance setting, he will adapt the opera’s electronic orchestration anew every night.

“The singers are entirely free,” he said. “The orchestra that I’m making along with them gives them pitches that they can focus on, in the same technique that I’ve been using for many years.” What is different, he explained, is that the performers won’t know what those pitches are until the evening of the performance.

“I’m trying to match what the singers are doing in terms of the mood for each day,” he said. “If the mood on Thursday is exuberant, then the music should try to track that. If the mood on Friday is somber or meditative, the orchestra should try to track that. That’s what I’m practicing every day.”

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