Tag Archive: indie classical


yMusic at Ecstatic Music Fetival (photo by David Andrako)

I know you’re all probably tired of hearing me go on and on about how much I love yMusic and how, every time I see them, it’s pretty much the greatest thing ever. Unfortunately for those who feel that way, I saw yMusic again last week at the Ecstatic Music Festival. And, once again, it was pretty effing awesome. So, while I take my travel day to think up some new metaphors to describe how much I love yMusic, you can read this interview I did with violist Nadia Sirota for an article that appeared in the Risk and Consequence zine in October of 2011 (it’s on page 30).

It’s a pretty decent interview by my standards. We discuss yMusic’s new album Beautiful Mechanical, as well as their work on My Brightest Diamond’s All Things Will Unwind and the myriad other artists they collaborate with, and how dumb it is when people make declarations like “classical music is dead”. Anyway, here it is: [Read: Beautiful Mechanical: an interview with Nadia Sirota of yMusic]

Sxip Shirey and Angélica Negrón (photo by David Andrako)

In my head, Sxip Shirey‘s house looks like the secret lair of some crazed Orffian pedagogue, strewn about with glockenspiels and melodicas and countless bells and whistles (and I mean actual bells and whistles). And if the stage at Merkin Concert Hall for Tuesday night’s Ecstatic! Music Festival performance—what Sxip Shirey described as “Judd [Greenstein]‘s forced play-date—(featuring Sxip Shirey, Angélica Negrón, Todd Reynolds, Noveller, and Jonny Rodgers) was any indication, my mental image may not actually be that far from reality—the stage packed so tightly with all of the above in addition to various other toys, a music box, five Pyrex bowls, and a toy accordion that there was barely room enough for the performers to tiptoe precariously to their own place among the music-makers.

There were also tuned water glasses. (Did I mention the water glasses?) That’s where Jonny Rodgers (formerly of Shara Worden’s proto-My Brightest Diamond project, Awry) comes in. Benjamin Franklin believed the pure tone of a tuned water glass to be one of the most beautiful sounds imaginable, though I doubt that even Doctor Franklin, when he invented the armonica 250 years ago, could have foreseen its use in tandem with toy accordions, looped violins, and bicycle bells on a stick. But with the glass harp, an instrument Shirey described on the night as “long reverb trails that make intelligent harmonic decisions,” the possibilities are—apparently—endless.

Angélica Negrón and Jonny Rodgers (photo by David Andrako)

With the artists themselves appearing onstage in various collaborative permutations (e.g. Todd Reynolds appearing on Jonny Rodgers’ “Spero/Sparrow” and Face the Music, the Kaufman Center’s in-house youth orchestra on Angélica Negrón’s “El Gran Caleidoscopio”), Sxip Shirey defaulted to the role of de facto emcee. Shirey demonstrated his flair for stage banter and extended techniques early on with the introduction to his own solo number, “Trains”, a piece for prepared guitar (a guitar with a piezo pickup, strings prepared with paperclips and played with a harmonica and additional gated reverb) meant to mimic the sounds of trains in the mountains of Missoula, Montana. And, whether planned or not, his interjections proved a serendipitous stroke for a program that could just as easily have suffered as succeeded at the hands of its own playful eccentricity.

It’s almost unjust to try to single out highlights from an evening stacked end to end with new sounds and eye-catching performances. Sxip Shirey’s “I Live In New York City” (probably the most popular piece he’s written to date, here performed with violinist Todd Reynolds) and the aforementioned “Trains” are stellar numbers not to be missed.

Todd Reynolds and Sxip Shirey (photo by David Andrako)

But still, a handful of pieces, like “Asa Nisi Masa”, stand out for their exceptional beauty. A collaborative effort, written and performed by Angélica Negrón and Sxip Shirey, “Asa Nisi Masa” is an invocation featuring numerous bells and glockenspiels and a breathtaking stretch of several moments of false anticipation. And, while the slow, deliberate, swirling chord progressions of Noveller and Negrón on “At Dusk” sound almost like Vidulgi OoyoO doing Arvo Pärt, Jonny Rodgers’ “Spero/Sparrow”—taken from a phrase meaning “while I breathe, I hope”—and performed with the seemingly improvisatory but perfectly placed accents of violinist Todd Reynolds, makes for a stunning ode to a charity dealing with human trafficking.

For a program loaded with artists of such seemingly disparate compositional tracks and influences, day two of the Ecstatic Music Festival proved once again that even a forced play-date can prove a match made in Heaven.

To hear the archived broadcast of Sxip Shirey and Angélica Negrón from Ecstatic Music Festival, check out the Q2 Music website. The next Ecstatic performance—featuring Nick Zammuto and Jason Treuting with janus, Grey McMurray, and Daisy Press—takes place Thursday, February 23 at 7:30 PM, at Merkin Concert Hall.

Shara Worden and yMusic

For those of you who like a bit of snarkiness in your gig reviews, I’m sorry, but you’re likely to be disappointed by this one. I’ve been lost in thought over this particular set for nearly two months now. I couldn’t even speak about it for a week after, and even then, I was barely coherent.

 

For someone who hasn’t released an album of her own in three years, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) has been remarkably busy, performing all over the world with everyone from Clogs to the Decemberists, and making guest appearances on just about every album released in the last 18 months (Penelope, anyone?). Somehow, in there, she even managed to spend an hour talking to me, which is a remarkable feat for anyone. Then there’s the matter of the album’s-worth of material she’s written in that time, which is what concerns us here.

When a friend with connections to MusicNOW told me in March that I had to get down to Cincinnati for the festival, if only to hear Shara’s new stuff, I didn’t exactly put up much of a fight. I’ve been hearing second hand accounts of it for a while and everyone seemed to be in agreement that it was really something, but, in retrospect, nothing they could have told me could ever have prepared me for the real thing. Because something has happened here – something big – but I just can’t quite put my finger on it.

Maybe it’s her teaming up with yMusic. I’ve been witness to a number of incredible performances in the last few months and, more often than not, yMusic (or members thereof) have been involved. Whether they’re backing Owen Pallett or playing their own rep, there is just something revelatory about the way they play – a sort of purposefulness that is all too rare. (It’s worth noting here that Shara Worden and yMusic violinist Rob Moose have recently collaborated on a multimedia/poetry album, Letters to Distant Cities, for New Amsterdam Records, which I have reviewed for another publication.)

That could be it. Yes, I know that we all love the way My Brightest Diamond can turn it up and blow the roof off a club, but this was different. Here was power derived through intricacy – a fabric so finely woven it’s hardly noticeable until it’s swept your feet out from under you and carried you away. On only one occasion, I managed momentarily to tear my gaze from the stage and scan the room. And in that moment, I witnessed something I have never seen before: an entire audience transfixed – jaws scraping the floor and people pulling at their hair in rapt amazement – hundreds awash in power and intimacy, under a blanket of music and dance, punctuated by squeals of a baby in the back at the sound of his mother onstage.

So maybe it was he who threw that switch, because in those final moments – a lullaby – the great sweeping wind that left bodies slumped in their chairs under the sheer power of it all came to rest a gentle breeze that stole our breath and drew tears from more than one witness. (Even now, it’s difficult to think back on it without becoming choked up.)

I’ve spent a great deal of time on this blog talking about reconciling pop and classical music. I discussed it with Shara a couple of years ago, and have done with several other artists since then (some of which I haven’t even published here yet). But I’m starting to think that maybe reconciliation isn’t what we’re looking for here. “Reconciliation” still seems to imply, at least to some extent, pandering to what one (or both) side(s) think of the other. But what we really want – I think – is a complete dismantling of all previously-formed opinions. And I’m pretty sure that’s what I’ve just seen. And the fact that this same material can be performed at Lincoln Center one month and in front of a theaterful of Midwestern indie rock kids the next speaks volumes about the music – and that both audiences can find it equally ravishing and devastating gives me a little hope for humanity.

So, here we are, it’s June and festival season is in high gear. I’ve been to three and I’ve already got my sights set on Airwaves, trying to work out just how I can swing a week in Reykjavik come mid-October. One of my UK counterparts recently told me about a dream she’d had in which I had scored media passes to The Great Escape and was texting her updates as her jealously and disappointment mounted. This was pure fantasy, of course. (I only do that sort of thing to people who have treated me horribly in the past and I bear no such ill will towards her.) Moreover, and more importantly, come the weekend of The Great Escape, I was thousands of miles away at another, much smaller festival, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Now, I call MusicNOW a “small” festival. And in terms of seating capacity and the shear number of bands slated to perform, it is. But one look at the lineup curated this (and every) year by Bryce Dessner of The National, it’s a wonder that MusicNOW—this year including The National, Owen Pallett, Sharon Van Etten, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), and Megafaun among others—isn’t at the top of everyone’s list. My only regret being that I could only attend the opening night of the festival, but, in the immortal words of Frankie Valli: oh, what a night!

It looks straightforward enough on the surface. Three bands on the bill: Sounds of the South, Shara Worden, and yMusic. (I’m going to take them out of order, if it’s alright with you.) But it’s not so simple as that.

MusicNOW bills itself as a “festival of contemporary music” and is, in every sense, the embodiment of that ideal (opening night featured, almost exclusively, unrecorded music). It’s a festival about more than a string of bands taking the stage to play the hits. From the moment that yMusic took the stage, it was clear (as I’ve heard from so many people) that MusicNOW is a special festival. I first met yMusic (well, half of them, anyway) at String Theory Festival in Minneapolis in April. Now being a New York native, I had never seen them before, though I’d long heard tell of their impeccable performances. And it’s all true.

My first impression of yMusic was one of complete astonishment—like the shock of recovering the memory of something I never knew I’d forgotten. And with every subsequent performance (four in the last two months), I’ve come away thinking the same thing: that this is why I ever studied music in the first place. And MusicNOW was no different. From the opening moments of Judd Greenstein’s Clearing, Dawn, Dance (which you can download here) through the premiere of a new work by Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire) and their set with Shara Worden it is, as always, abundantly clear that yMusic are one of the brightest lights in whatever the hell we’ve decided to call the current state of music.

Now, a word about the Parry premiere: one of the main focal points of each MusicNOW festival is the commissioning of a new piece of music. Past contributors have included Tyondai Braxton (Battles) and Annie Clark (St. Vincent). This year, the honor fell to Richard Reed Parry (or, as he was introduced by Bryce Dessner, “my friend from a band that no one has ever heard of who recently won a Grammy”.) For the piece, half of yMusic, seated at the piano with stethoscopes bound tightly to them, played to the tempo of their respective heartbeats while their three counterparts played in what might be called “the traditional manner”. The resulting pseudo-aleatory—always out of step, never out of phase—produces a beautiful haunting effect and will likely serve as a useful metaphor about stylistic diversity in future posts. It’s musica humana in its truest form.

And while yMusic may have played, quite literally, to their hearts’ content, the evening’s headliner, Sounds of the South took their organic cues from another source entirely. The performance, commissioned by Duke Performances finds its origins in the field recordings of Alan Lomax, appropriately enough, from the collection entitled Sound of the South. Through a series of new arrangements, reinterpretations, and reimaginings, the members of Megafaun and Fight the Big Bull breathe new life into Lomax’s legendary field recordings at once removing them from their native context to a whole new setting (the concert hall) and redefining the sound of concert music. All while enlisting the help of some very special friends along the way.

If you had told me two months ago that I would spend an evening listening to Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Sharon Van Etten singing blues backed by full New Orleans style jazz band, I would have—well, you probably wouldn’t have told me that, so this is a useless metaphor, but the point is, I did. And it was incredible. With intricate (and occasionally cerebral) jam sessions the rule for the night and a constantly rotating cast of singers to keep things interesting, Sounds of the South also highlights the transcendent nature of the source material (and folk music in general) – more than just songs, they are a launching point for a flurry of ideas and ingenuity. And as midnight approached 90 minutes into the performance, the only conceivable downside was that it would eventually have to end.

So that’s it, then. 2010 is over. We’re well into 2011 now, so I suppose it’s time to start looking into the coming months to see what’s headed our way. I mean, 2010 felt like an endless streak of one economic or natural disaster after another and, if you’re Dave Barry, the worst year ever.

But still, it wasn’t all bad, was it?—not for music, at least. With several solid releases from old favourite along with a surge of exciting newcomers, I’d say it was a pretty good year if I’m honest. And if you’ve been anywhere NPR or Time Out New York recently, you may have read something about the exciting rebirth of classical music in the form of “alt-classical” or “indie classical” or whichever ridiculous moniker you prefer. (Never mind the fact that I’ve been going on about this since day one of this blog, it’s nice to see that some ‘real’ publications are catching on.) I mean, honestly, who thought, 12 months ago, that a tiny Brooklyn label like New Amsterdam would be the most celebrated thing in the world of art music?

So, with that said, you shouldn’t consider what follows to be my definitive list of predictions regarding who will be huge by the end of 2011. There’s a chance some of these projects will be released in obscurity and continue to languish there. Some may not make it off the ground in the next calendar year, while others may never see the light of day to begin with. What this is is an assortment of things to look forward to—the things that have me the most excited for—in 2011.

Parlours (Des Moines, Iowa)

I first mentioned Parlours to you way back in the summer of 2009. At the time, Parlours, was just Dana Halferty in her bedroom with a guitar and a bunch of loops and layers. They’ve expanded since then into a full-fledged five-piece and recorded an EP to be released later this month. The music has grown more melodic and the surrealism dialed back a notch or twelve since I first fell in love with ‘Bobby on Repeat’, but I’ve been anticipating a concrete release from Parlours for a year and a half now, and I for one am excited. I don’t know if ‘Bobby’ will be included on the EP (I haven’t received my copy yet), but one can only hope. For now, you can still hear it on MySpace (that is, if you can still tolerate MySpace).

The Black Atlantic (Groningen, Netherlands)

Here’s another band The Indie Handbook has been supporting for a while. God only knows how many bazillions of people have downloaded their last album, Reverence for Fallen Trees. But can you blame them? It’s free and it’s gorgeous. What more do you need? More recently, however, the band have been back in the studio working on a new album. Though I don’t know of any firm release date yet, I have it on good authority that singer Geert van der Velde has been listening to a fair amount of Arvo Pärt and medieval lute music lately, which is always promising. Then there’s the simple fact that these guys tour relentlessly. Having made at least three separate trips to the US in 2010, including appearances at SXSW and CMJ, the band long ago confirmed their return to SXSW in March followed by several dates in China later in the spring.

The Vaccines (London, UK)

They’ve generated so much buzz in recent months, that it almost feels like cheating to list The Vaccines here (not bad for a band that’s been together for just about a year). My own experience with the band is limited to the performance of a couple of songs on the Bonfire Night edition Jools Holland a couple of months back. But I was thoroughly impressed by their uptempo lo-fi guitar pop and—well—any band who can dethrone enfants terribles Kings of Leon (who performed on the same show) gets my vote any day.

Cults (NYC)

Just like The Vaccines, perhaps even more so, Cults are a band that have hotly tipped in the past year. For several months, the tracks from their debut 7” were available on Bandcamp as a free download, but, having recently signed with a major label that is, of course, no longer the case. The signing, at least in theory, bodes well for Cults who, if they are able to retain some semblance of creative control, could do some wonderful things with some decent label backing. And if they don’t, well, there’s still that first 7” floating around out there. I suggest you grab one. Here’s to 60s-drenched lo-fi melodic homophony.

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