Category Archives: New Listen

album review series

New Listen: PRISM Quartet’s ‘The Curtis Project’

prism quartet curtis project

 

Artist: PRISM Quartet
Album: The Curtis Project (2016)

PRISM Quartet‘s April 2016 release The Curtis Project is a collection of strong, mostly recent additions to the medium’s repertoire that explore many aesthetic avenues. The album is the product of PRISM’s 2012 residency with The Curtis Institute‘s composition department. All seven compositions are from Curtis-affiliated composers: two from faculty members (and Pulitzer Prize recipient) Jennifer Higdon and David Ludwig, and five from then-student composers Kat Souponetsky, Daniel Temkin, Gabriella Smith, Thomas Oltarzewski, and Tim Woos. All works were performed during the residency, at which time all but Higdon’s were premieres. The Curtis Project is PRISM’s debut release on XAS Records, the ensemble’s new record label.

Here, PRISM Quartet’s personnel is slightly amended:
Timothy McAllister – soprano saxophone
Zachary Shemon – alto saxophone
Matthew Levy – tenor saxophone
Taimur Sullivan – soprano (track 1 only) and baritone saxophones
Robert Young – tenor saxophone; substituting for Levy on tracks 12-19 (works by Souponetsky, Temkin, Smith, Oltarzewski, Woos)

These seven pieces are stylistically distinct from one another, all of which branch in different directions. And with three of the works having multiple movements, none of the album’s nineteen tracks are overly long. (Of course, multi-movement works are larger collectively. That said, the longest individual selection or movement is just over seven minutes, and it’s an outlier.) The musical diversity and brevity is noteworthy, as it can often seem that (speaking from experience) “New Music” recordings are geared towards like practitioners — new saxophone music is largely for other composers and saxophonists, etc. The Curtis Project, however, would be equally suitable as a performance program on a university campus, a concert hall for a general audience, or as part of a community engagement or school outreach setting.

The album begins with Higdon’s Short Stories, a collections of six programmatic movements lacking a defined order, which serves as a nice microcosm of the album as a whole. From the calm “Summer’s Eve” and serene “Lullaby” to the frenetic “Chase” and Pollock-inspired “Splashing the Canvas,” the quartet shines in the movements’ more traditional writing. Also, like much of the album, all four voices are given their time to shine both individually and as part of PRISM’s organ-esque blend, such as in the haunting “Coyote Nights,” or the energetic “Stomp And Dance,” featuring key-clicks and slap-tongue.

Ludwig’s Josquin Microludes offers a clever and sonically-intriguing reworking of Josquin’s Mille Regretz, with each of the five differing, near-schizophrenic movements being based on subsequent lines of text and melody. Listening in order, one eventually goes through the (barely recognizable) original. The sixteenth-century source material is interpreted through a twenty-first-century vocabulary, and in doing so Ludwig honors the stylings of both time periods. The fourth movement “Quon Me Verra Brief Mes Jours” highlights this juxtaposition, with hard-driving rhythmic sections alternating with a dream-like processional, giving way to the calmly soaring and dissonant finale.

Although the faculty’s larger works constitute half of the album, the students are by no means also-rans here — each of the pieces have something different to say and chart territory theretofore unheard. Named for a river in the composer’s hometown of Moldova, Souponetsky’s The Dniester Flow depicts the rushing rapids through hard-driving rhythms in the piece’s first half. These give way to more lyrical fare in the second half, during which the tenor, alto, and soprano seamlessly pass the ascending melody to one another until the rapids return at the end. As a matter of programming, this gives way nicely to Temkin’s Blossoming, for which the sound really does blossom out of silence. A full minute of blowing air gradually gives way to soft saxophone tones that build to full ensemble chords and cries of both woe and hope, eventually fading back to nothingness. The use of both “dead” air and semi-tones are tasteful throughout, giving Blossoming a fluidity that’s not often highlighted in keyed instruments.

Smith’s Spring/Neap programmatically engages the “extremities of tidal ranges”1, beginning with cacophonous runs and glissandi, likely depicting the competing gravitational forces between the sun and moon. This later gives way to deep, rich chords and blowing air, giving one the impression of calm night tides before the gravity pulls the levels higher once more. Olterzewski’s Toccata is somewhat reminiscent of its centuries-old keyboard namesake, at least in character, although the composer likens it to the twentieth century works for wind ensemble. The aggressive and accented mixed-meter “left hand” of the tenor and baritone saxophones provide a nimble motor atop which the “right hand” of the alto and soprano saxophones playfully melodize. It’s not completely segregated, however, as the tenor saxophone occasionally tags into the melodic fun. Woos’s whimsical 4 Miniatures closes the album. Though concise as the title suggests, the four brief movements are full statements in and of themselves, covering much terrain. The first movement is full of swelling phrases and restful chorales, while the second miniature features beautiful “glass-like”2 harmonies that I could put on repeat for hours. (Selfishly, I would love to hear a larger work from Woos in this style.) The aggressive bomb-like glissandi of the third movement jolt the listener out of the second movement’s placidity, giving way to the jocular closing polka of the fourth movement. Here, over the course of just a few dozen seconds, the saxophones seemingly grow annoyed with one another, stumbling along until closing in what amounts to a tantrum. Humor can be difficult to notate and execute, and both are tastefully done here.

The Curtis Project continues PRISM Quartet’s proud tradition of amassing new works for both the ensemble and the instrument’s repertoire at large. It includes a number of musically interesting and accessible works that display a range of styles and compositional approaches, offering both breadth and depth. The Curtis Project is an excellent first step for XAS Records, and I’m already looking forward to what’s next.

PRISM album link here
Amazon link here
iTunes link here

 


1. [Smith, Gabriella. The Curtis Project. Liner notes, p. 7]
2. [Woos, Tim. The Curtis Project. Liner notes, p. 8]

(Other PRISM Quartet reviews here.)

New Listen: Jack DeJohnette’s ‘In Movement’

jack dejohnette in movement

Jack DeJohnette’s In Movement is a powerful addition to an already consequential discography as a bandleader. Among other ventures, the bands and recordings under DeJohnette’s Special Edition moniker are formidable. Unfortunately, this still seems to be a surprise for some, as the drummer, composer, and pianist is often considered “just a sideman.” (Which is laughable — even if he’d never functioned as a bandleader, the fact that he’s played with just about everybody since the 1960s, while remaining one of music’s best drummers at 73, nearly negates the connotation of “sideman.”)

In Movement features:
Jack DeJohnette — drums, piano, electronic percussion
Ravi Coltrane — tenor, soprano, and sopranino saxophones
Matthew Garrison — electric bass, electronics

Much has been made of the historical nature of In Movement‘s lineup. (Coltrane and Garrison’s fathers, John Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison, formed half of arguably the greatest quartet in jazz history. Furthermore, DeJohnette sat in with the elder Coltrane in the early 60s, years before joining Miles Davis — also Trane’s former employer — later that decade.) However, don’t be fooled by any sense of nostalgia: the playing and sounds are fresh. It’s an album of today, informed by yesterday, and looking to tomorrow.

One of DeJohnette’s main strengths as a bandleader and composers is his command of orchestration in small ensembles. His Special Edition bands, for example, sound like groups of Mingus-y proportions instead of the quartets and quintets they are. Similarly, In Movement often sounds much bigger than a trio. That’s not to say that it’s busy and cluttered. There’s a lot of space on this record. But, between the three of them, they bring the forces and possible textures of a quintet. Garrison’s electronic work often provides a sonic bed or wash to envelop the group, with DeJohnette’s piano providing a nice acoustic counterpoint to the electric sounds. And it’s worth noting Coltrane’s strong presence, not only on his standard-issue tenor and soprano, but also on sopranino. I believe this album is his recording debut on the instrument, and what a strong one it is. Sopranino is a difficult horn to manage, even (unfortunately) for those who play it regularly, but Coltrane doesn’t falter here. I’ll be honest: when I first read that he played it on this album, I rolled my eyes, and my ears waited for it to stick out like a sore thumb. However, I instead realized partway through “Rashied” that I was hearing masterful sopranino work.

In Movement includes three covers which emphasize the album’s lineage: a weighty, solemn rendition of John Coltrane’s “Alabama” (with the composer’s son on tenor, channeling his father) opens the album; a sparse, soprano- and piano-driven rendition of Miles Davis and Bill Evans’s “Blue in Green”; and a plodding, deeply grooving account of “Serpentine Fire” by Earth, Wind & Fire that sounds wholly different from the original. Other allusions appear elsewhere, with “Rashied” (for drummer Rashied Ali) featuring a fiery sax and drum duet reminiscent of Interstellar Space, and “Two Jimmys” (for Jimmy Garrison and Jimi Hendrix) allowing Garrison plenty of room to paint an abstract sonic canvas rife with effects, distortion, and wandering lines.

It’s better to almost ignore the titles, though, as the other originals blend right in. “Lydia” is a mid-tempo stroll which tastefully blends Coltrane’s melodic soprano playing with DeJohnette’s trademark (at least to me) cymbal work and Garrison’s pocket bass lines and electronic textures. “In Movement” is a fitting title track, capturing not only the highlight talents from “Lydia,” but also exploring quicker, more intertwined lines and grooves. It’s also an apt title — while DeJohnette and Coltrane forge ahead, Garrison both follows on bass and stretches time with his electronic textures. And though “Alabama” served as a somber opening, “Soulful Ballad” is more optimistic, with DeJohnette and Coltrane trading drums and tenor for piano and soprano, respectively.

This is an encouraging sign of where DeJohnette’s bandleader duties may be headed in this stage of his career, particularly on ECM. I’m already waiting for the follow-up.

In Movement was released on May 6 by ECM Records and is available now.

Album links:
Amazon
iTunes

Matthew Barney & Jonathan Bepler’s ‘River of Fundament’

Last weekend I finally saw Matthew Barney‘s River of Fundament, the 2014 film that is the operatic result of his years-long collaboration with Jonathan Bepler to explore, as Barney has put it in interviews, “the language of opera.” I wouldn’t dare call this “an official review,” particularly since I’m still absorbing the work seven days on, but I’d like to log some thoughts. I find it’s a worthwhile endeavor for a few reasons — some selfish, others less so:
• This is my site. I’ll do what I please.
• It may help me process it for my own understanding.
• A number of the legitimate reviews in circulation, particularly the more negative ones, are flawed in at least one or two common respects. (More on that below.) I may not be The New York Times or The Guardian, but I get some traffic. In light of that, I’d like to offer my own $0.02.

Any attempt at a concise summary of the film’s plot is futile, but I’ll try anyway. (You can read or hear far better synopsis straight from the source here.)

River of Fundament is a loose interpretation of Normal Mailer’s 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, and the content is largely informed by both the book as well as critic Harold Bloom’s review in The New York Review of Books. Ancient Evenings is a graphic tale of an ancient Egyptian nobleman who, through magic, reincarnates himself several times in order to attain greater knowledge and power, ultimately failing his third rebirth. The 700-page+ novel, which Mailer considered his best, was largely panned by critics because of its intensely sexual and scatological passages and themes. Traveling from womb to the outside world, the reincarnated must traverse a river of feces, or River of Fundament. Also included are tales of Isis and Osiris, Horus and Set, the Battle of Kadesh, a peculiar accounting of embalmment, and other detailed curiosities. Content aside, it is also written in an engaging but unusual manner. It’s less like you’re being told a story and more like you’re peeking into others’ lives. As for Bloom, his criticism suggested that Ancient Evenings was symbolically autobiographical for Mailer, in that he had hoped, through his life’s work, to eventually evolve or reincarnate into one of The Great American Authors, namely Ernest Hemingway (as represented by the pharaoh, per Bloom). That, and Bloom considered the sordid descriptions of ancient Egypt to be a comment on American society.

River of Fundament’s central setting is the wake of Norman Mailer, taking place in a precise reconstruction of Mailer’s Brooklyn home (which just so happens to be floating down the East River as a funeral barge). The protagonist is the dead Mailer himself, whose various reincarnations visit his own wake, each being reborn in a river of feces that flows beneath the home. The wake is full of friends, family, and spirits. (For an extra dose of realism, the wake guests include various levels of arterati, many of which could be tied to Mailer in one way or another, such as Fran Lebowitz, Salman Rushdie, Elaine Stritch, Dick Cavett, and more. The casting of Paul Giamatti as Ptah-nem-hotep and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ellen Burstyn both as Hathfertiti also lend “celebrity” credence.) Over the course of the evening, the living gradually exit, leaving only the spirits as the successive Normans work to ascend to greatness. Parallel to this are three separate live performances filmed in Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York, the footage for which is interspersed throughout each of the film’s three acts, respectively. These performances each center around the ritualistic destruction and rebirth of an American-made car (harkening back to Bloom’s essay), with each car acting as a simulacrum for Norman’s spirit. Also, like Ancient Evenings, the live performances tell ancient tales. In Los Angeles’s REN the car (Norman) dies its first death, only to be reborn. The Detroit performance (KHU) is a retelling of Isis and Osiris, and Brooklyn’s BA includes the fight between Horus and Set, both symbolically and physically.

Throughout the three acts, these parallel worlds eventually blend together. In Act I, the wake’s living and spirits are separated — only the Egyptian characters (Hathfertiti, Ptah-nem-hotep, Set, Nepthys, Isis) able to communicate with both — and REN is presented as a flashback to another time. In Act II, the wake’s drunkenness begins to blur the living and spiritual worlds, which are affected by KHU‘s telling of Isis and Osiris. Finally, Act III sees Mailer’s house near completely taken over by the spirit realm (save Norman’s widow) while the wake crosses paths with the seemingly contemporaneous battle between Horus and Set.

I’ve been wanting to see this for over 18 months. Thankfully, the Cleveland Institute of Art‘s Cinematheque, in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland offered two screenings over the weekend and I was able to attend. Frustratingly, I missed the Detroit screenings in June 2014 because I didn’t even know about the work until I saw the beautiful, jaw-dropping exhibition at Munich’s Haus der Kunst the following month. (I touched upon the work in this earlier post.) It was a happy accident that I saw the Munich show — the first major one for the sculptures and film in tandem — as I simply visited the museum on my day off. Though, within about twenty minutes, I was admiring the Boat of Ra with equal parts wonder and awe. Many of the sculptures were products of or featured in the live performances (e.g., the destroyed cars), but the exhibit also featured pieces related to the wake setting as well as production stills and other small works. I spent at least a couple hours in the exhibit, devouring the program and gallery’s every description and evaluating every crevice. I hadn’t before heard of Ancient Evenings, but I got the gist, and I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of Egyptian mythology and the American auto industry (and, particularly living so close, Detroit). Once through the exhibit, I decided that I had to see the corresponding film. How or when were an absolute mystery, as it had already left Munich and was on its way to Australia.

So, after over a year-and-a-half of waiting, occasionally binge-reading what info I could find (including reviews), and often pondering about what the work would actually be like, I was delighted to have a regional screening and my calendar align. Once it looked as if the weather would be clear for the 3.5-hr.+ commute each way, I even started reading Ancient Evenings just to at least get a point of reference. (I also read Bloom’s criticism, of course.) By this point, though, I was shouldering a burdensome dichotomy: my own ponderous — idealized? — notions about what River would be, and the often mixed-to-negative reviews by those who seem to know Barney’s work well. (After all, it’s hard for me to get out of the house for fun these days between work and a baby at home, and I was committing significant mileage and hours to see it. What if it turned out to be a bust?) At the close of Act III, one of my initial thoughts after getting my wits about myself was: Did I see the same film as some of those critics?.

I was moved.

And I wasn’t just moved in a materialistic “I finally got to see it” sort of way, but rather genuinely so. It caught me off guard, as I knew so little about the actual content going in — or, rather, how it would be realized. Yeah, I read about it for many months, had already made my way through a good chunk of Ancient Evenings, and had seen the gallery exhibition, but the music and most of the images and action were a mystery to me. (Very much unlike, for example, my seeing my first Ring Cycle or Einstein on the Beach — I was well studied going in and went for the live experience.) Running just shy of six hours (not counting the two intermissions), River is relentless throughout save the brief, pastoral prelude and postlude. And, yes, as is made clear in every review (and I can attest), the work is graphic in nearly every way, occasionally bordering on the perverse. Much has been made of the scatological and sexual themes and depictions. Fair enough. However, in all honesty, I didn’t feel that the explicit moments overshadowed the rest of the work. (For example, the sexual occurrences are devoid of titillation.) While there’s at least a running thread of vulgarity throughout, it’s worth noting that more can be said of Ancient Evenings, the work upon which River is at least loosely based. Action aside, the film is beautifully and impeccably shot. The set pieces, makeup, color palettes, and camera work really synthesize into visual enchantment.

To say that River is rife with symbolism is to say that I breathe oxygen. Plenty is there for the uninitiated. However, the deeper one digs into both the film and its myriad sources, the more rewarding of an experience it is. For example, take KHU, Act II’s live performance from Detroit. If one knows the story of Isis and Osiris, particularly as told by Mailer, then you realize just how ingenious Barney’s interpretation is. Here, the resurrected Trans Am acts both as Norman’s spirit but also as Osiris, who is ultimately deceived and murdered by Set. Once his body has been found and retrieved from the river by FBI Agents Isis and Nepthys, Set (a detective, now portrayed as a double by both Eugene and Herbert Perry) commands that the body (car/spirit) now be dismembered and cut into fourteen pieces, all of which are then incinerated and poured into molten molds, creating some of the more impressive exhibit sculptures. At the end of the act, Isis then gives birth to Horus, who will attempt to avenge his father (Osiris) in Act III. If that weren’t enough, at the beginning of KHU, Barney (representing Osiris) is dressed as James Lee Byars in The Death of James Lee Byars, and placed inside a goldleaf-lined ambulance near his golden Trans Am. While this may seem like a non-sequitur at first, it’s worth noting that Byars was born in Detroit but died in Cairo, Egypt, and his Death was one of his most known pieces. It’s all there: Detroit, Egypt, art, gold (an idée fixe throughout River), and death.

If anything negatively affected me, it was the utter bleakness at the end of Act II and the first part of Act III. The wake’s drunken, origiastic peak in Act II and the pharaoh Usermare’s desacratory holding court at the beginning of Act III was rather discomforting. However, I assume that was Barney’s intended effect. Consequently, I came away disturbed more by Usermare’s character than with anything he (or his court) specifically did. I was affected but in no way offended.

I mentioned a number of reviews having shared flaws. Many of them (over-)emphasize the (legitimately) graphic elements. It’d be easy to assume, based on reading most reviews, that River is six hours of continuous, purposefully alienating revulsion. Not so. (It’d be like saying Strauss’s Salome is only noteworthy for brief nudity and a touch of necrophilia, saying nothing of the revolutionary musical score.) Who knows; perhaps it helps that I’m not easily disgusted. At any rate, I went in with an open and, admittedly, willing mind. On this point I’ll note that Barney has stated that he himself was uncomfortable with Mailer’s explicit nature in Ancient Evenings, implying that he wouldn’t let his own taste impede Mailer’s to a certain degree.

The most glaring failure of most of the reviews, however, relates to the music. River of Fundament is almost always reviewed strictly through the prism of visual art or as an art film (emphasized by the exhibitions and limited screenings, respectively), both of which it certainly is *in part*. However, this is truly a collaborative piece by Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler. That Bepler’s masterfully eclectic score is often treated like any old soundtrack is beyond egregious. Going back to the beginning, Barney and Bepler wanted to tackle “the language of opera.” And, donning my professor hat for a moment, “opera” connotes (mostly) continuous music. (Technically, River could be a singspiel, etc. because of the dialogue, but that’s why Barney often avoids labeling it as opera outright.) Bepler’s largely through-composed score takes up much of the film — I’d guess at least 4.75 hours of it. And it’s not just a sound bed, but wholly integral to the dramatic experience. Text is sung throughout — with both traditional and extended techniques — via aria, recitative, and sprechstimme, complete with solos, ensembles, and choruses. The libretto comes from excerpts of Ancient Evenings, Hemingway, Whitman, Emerson, Yeats, and others.

Also noteworthy is that most of the music is diegetic in some form or another. For example, when the music starts to emanate during Norman’s eulogy (about 20+ minutes into the film), it quietly emerges from the musicians attending the wake, almost as if they’re warming up during the reading. (The eulogy, read by Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, is an excerpt of Ancient Evenings.) Gradually, Stritch (and others) begin to incorporate elements of sprechstimme and recitative, taking the “live” performers and sound and making them extra-diegetic, more for the audience than the subjects. The music generally becomes more dissonant and “ancient” as the film progresses, with string instruments made from sheet metal in Act II’s KHU, and Act III’s BA featuring brass horns made from car parts, and Native American Indian music in Act III’s latter wake scenes. Bepler handles these transitions — both small and large — masterfully throughout.

The stylistic diversity is truly staggering, and, to my ears, is (almost) all very effective. (I was a little jarred by the R&B section near the end of Act II’s wake, possibly because it was juxtaposed with one of the more nihilistic scenes.) The score includes elements of classical, (free) jazz, folk, mariachi, soul, R&B, traditional Native American Indian, Partch-ian systems of both construction and micro-tonality, drum and bugle corps, and more. At first glance, that may seem ineffectually broad. However, when you consider some of the performers, it’s a veritable Who’s Who of each style, two of which perform main characters: modern voice pioneer Joan La Barbara (as Norman’s widow), and free jazz percussion pioneer Milford Graves (as Norman II; also notable is that he’s Jonathan Bepler’s former teacher). Other musicians include Dr. Lonnie Smith, Lila Downs, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), James Carter (in a brief, unexpected appearance that made my jaw hit the floor), Eugene and Herbert Perry, Belita Woods, and many more. Though, Barney wasn’t going for names alone — the three live performances which are spliced into each act feature local talent as well. I can personally attest to this, as a friend of mine, Dr. James Fusik, performed as part of Detroit’s KHU, as well as a number of other familiar faces of colleagues and former classmates. Also, I’d be remiss to not give special mention to Detroit-based vocalist Jennie Knaggs, who deftly performs a variety of styles throughout (both during the wake and in KHU).

Furthermore, it’s not just a matter of Bepler juxtaposing varying styles, but rather his ability to so fluently filter them through his own voice and to serve the story. For example, Act I’s REN features a drum & bugle corps as well as a mariachi band with vocalist. Similar to the early wake music, the ensembles mostly begin stylistically traditionally, but eventually the brass are playing dense harmonic clusters and Lila Downs’s beautiful contralto sings atop dissonant bursts from the mariachi violins. The two ensembles are initially separated spatially and musically, the camera and audio going back and forth. Ultimately, in the culmination of REN (and Act I), they find themselves performing together in the same space while Khepera, in a ceremoniously profane fashion (isn’t it all?), prepares the automotive spirit of Norman for death/rebirth.

Of course, the score isn’t just a collection of similarly “Bepler-ed” styles. The composer also demonstrates his ability to tackle various musics head-on. For example, in the wake’s latter half of Act I, the young Hathfertiti sings a truly charming and catchy folk-pop ballad for Norman I (to the guests who can’t see Norman I, and to Norman I himself). It’s a fully realized song amidst the overall work, abruptly cut off at the end by a melismatic outburst from an angered Set. The same can be said for the more straightforward classical writing for Set’s passages, particularly in Act II’s KHU. Heard out of context, one may assume that it’s just another excerpt of contemporary American opera.

The voice as an instrument and atmospheric sound device is really highlighted, particularly in the wake scenes and in KHU, much more so than I had anticipated. It was a pleasant surprise. The aforementioned La Barbara and Knaggs as well as powerhouses Phil Minton and Sidsel Endresen really shine in this regard, as well as the wake’s chorus of Kjersti Kveli, Gelsey Bell, and Megan Schubert. A number of the sounds border on inhuman, particularly from Minton, but their conviction, virtuosity, and gravitas belie any absurdity.

Related to the music, one rather common criticism overall (not just music) is that the film engages in tokenism throughout, such as with the use of the mariachi band or with Act III’s African-American step dance team. I didn’t really get that impression; nothing stood out as such to me. Frankly, those making such broad (and lazy) accusations need to dig deeper into the material. This is yet another common shortcoming. (*)

Take the step dance team as an example, as that’s one that is occasionally highlighted as tokenism. The ensemble appears as part of Norman II’s ascension ceremony (en route to rebirth as Norman III) in Act III. Norman II is portrayed by Milford Graves, whose every scene from rebirth to death fittingly incorporates rhythm in one way or another (sometimes free, other times not). In a final celebration of rhythm, is a step dance team not out of the realm of aesthetic possibility? Until this point, Graves had been playing rhythms and music mostly himself (with found objects, his body and voice, and drums alike), so how is this group not appropriate for joining him in a rhythmic/percussive chorus? Similar criticisms have been levied against the Native American Indian chorus that appears in Act III (and musically opens the film’s trailer). However, it’s worth noting that Norman III is played by the 95-year-old Chief Dave Beautiful Bald Eagle. So wouldn’t that be appropriate also?

Taken together, the exhibition, the film, and its sources are a staggering gesamtkunstwerk. Each may be appreciated differently and separately, of course, and it’s certainly a calorie-burner that, arguably, requires some studying. But if you’re willing to put forth the time and the effort, the payoff makes it more than worthwhile. Personally, I imagine there’ll be more for me to stew over once I finish Ancient Evenings and contemplate the film even more. In fact, having sat and digested it for a while, I’d like a second viewing and listening just to help make more sense of the visual minutiae and to hear Bepler’s amazing score another time. River of Fundament, much like its namesake, is something you enter at your own risk, but you may come out the other side better for it.

 

 

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*I initially did have a question about Horus and Set’s respective pre-fight entourages in Act III. Many thanks to Twitter user @noodlz09, who performed in River, for clarifying. They pointed out that those characters are Mardi Gras Indians, whose “composite ethnicity” is a nice analogue for the metals and characters. After that, nothing stood out to me as racial, ethnic, or gender tokenism. I’m grateful for the clarification — both to set the record straight and also to allay my sole potential concern with the work.

New Listen: The Forgotten Prophets’ ‘The End’

theend

Artist: The Forgotten Prophets
Album: The End (2016)

I can think of few better ways to musically kick off 2016 than The End, the debut album from The Forgotten Prophets. The End is pure rock and roll, the songcraft and stylings of which are a tasteful and fun mix of rock, blues, and country, with strong elements of roots music and improvisation.

Bassist, vocalist, and songwriter Pat Harris may, at least on paper, serve as the group’s de facto leader, but the album is very much a group effort. This virtuosic sextet brings together top-notch musicians into a whole that is greater than the sum of its formidable parts. Guitarist Chris Bell is a first-rate gunslinger. Together with James Anderson, who deftly moves between melodic violin playing and gritty fiddling, they handle much of the album’s lead soloing. Keyboardist Jonathan Geer flexibly rounds out the melodic and harmonic fabric with everything from barroom swagger on acoustic piano to funky electric textures. Aaron Lack and Steve Schwelling do a particularly great job of forming one full-bodied but cohesive percussive unit. Harris sandwiches the sound with his rock-solid and often melodic basslines and his strong vocals.

At the risk of being hyperbolic, The End is timeless. Pristine production quality* aside, the songs and performances sound simultaneously fresh and decades old (though not a bit dated). As stated at the outset, this is rock and roll (i.e., before it was just “rock”), a genre borne out of rhythm & blues and country and meant for an intimate stage and dance floor. The End doesn’t at all come off as a stylistic homage (a la Billy Joel). It’s the genuine artifact, and the songs’ styles and moods are diverse but cohesive. Harris’s compositions are artful yet accessible pieces that demonstrate a deep and broad well of musical influences. Songwriting has long been one of his many strengths — for example, see 2013’s Hour Before the Mourning and 2011’s Traveling by Moonlight (reviewed here) — but here he reaches another level of lyrical and formal maturity. The songs are but a framework, however, realized only by the ensemble’s collective talent and intuition.

Recorded over four days in and around Austin, TX, the group’s home base, The End has a very “live” presence. What you hear are live single takes (performances), save the vocals. It’s quickly apparent that the musicians are all technical masters of their respective crafts. What’s more is that these are six nuanced, empathetic practitioners who always know when to play, how to play, and when to lay back. The violin and second drum set seamlessly meld into this standard rock instrumentation, and never does the band sound too cluttered nor any instrument out of place. The orchestration changes slightly throughout, offering constant variety.

“Always a Road” opens the album. The rhythm section chugs along, buoying Harris’s singing of driving down life’s highway, accompanied by expansive piano fills and, later, sweeping violin melodies. Moving from contemplative to carefree, “Mountain Town Blues” — an ode to Mt. Pleasant, MI (once home to Harris, Lack, and even yours truly) — is a honky tonk saloon stomp that is pure fun. Harris shares lead vocals here, trading alternate verses with Bell and Lack. The dirty, bluesy guitar and violin soloing, the gritty vocals, and the percussive beat (and tambourine) make you want to storm the bar’s dance floor, peanut shells and all. Changing gears once again, the next three songs form a nice triptych. “Dance with the Lightning” is a melancholic mid-tempo anthem that is easily the 21st-century heir apparent to Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page.” The band here is a big wall of sound without being too busy. A rather spacey instrumental breakdown follows the second chorus, with the drums, electric keys, and violin nearly taking a fusion-esque turn. It may seem like an odd pairing, but it works, naturally building into the final chorus. The closing chord leads directly into the guitar intro of “Magnolia Hill,” a nostalgic number that, in terms of songcraft, is easily one of the album’s crown jewels. It’s a touching tale reminiscent of the heartland, both in story and sound. A sparse, brief group improvisation follows the close of the song proper, fading away into the ether. Emerging from the final notes is a light percussive pattern leading into “The Canyon,” an outlaw number with soaring vocals, electric keys, wailing violin, and shredding guitar.

The second half of the album is a bit lighter in character overall. “Alright, I Love You, Be Good” is a playful up-tempo dance number with a charming twang. It’s a joyous chaser that’s welcome after the previous three songs, setting the stage for the rest of the album. For my money, the ballad-esque “Run from the Ocean” is a great display of this band’s live sound on record. (Arguably, the same could be said for the other songs as well.) From the soft, approachable verses to the anthemic, wall-of-sound choruses, and the full-bodied but melodic guitar solo, you feel like you’re feet from the stage. “Raise the Gate,” The End‘s rocker, is a surefire prescription to get you on your feet and dancing (if you can keep up with the off-kilter, but not forced, mixed-meter intro and segues, that is). “Gate” is infectious and will stay in your mind’s ear long after the album’s finished.

The penultimate, mixed-meter “Only from Afar” is a mournful country-tinged ballad. One of my favorite things about Harris’s compositional approach is that his use of odd meters sound natural, not shoe-horned in. The music certainly doesn’t impede the message here. The appropriately-titled “The End” closes the album. I dare say that it’s the title track because it showcases much of the band’s, and the album’s, strengths: technical command and tasteful interplay, songcraft, a powerful live presence, and stylistic diversity. Clocking in at over twelve minutes, it’s by far the longest song on the record, over double the length of “Magnolia Hill,” The End‘s second-longest entry. Also like “Magnolia Hill,” “The End” features an extended instrumental jam, only this one lasts over eight minutes. Musically throwing caution to the wind, the sextet take a lyrical cue and let the Devil out of his cage, covering a wide musical berth that’d attract the ears of any nearby Deadhead. The jam gives everyone room to breathe and shine, moving from the freely mysterious to the frenetic and culminating in a cacophonous blues that leads back into one last romp through the chorus.

While the title track may be about throwing caution to the wind at the End of All Things, I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s an allegory for The End‘s place in the current state of the music business, an institution that, in many respects, is crumbling before our eyes. (At least for the 99% who don’t wake up each morning with corporate endorsements and six- and seven-figure royalty payments.) In the face of this, The Forgotten Prophets release a self-financed album with little fanfare, recorded and produced — at a very high level, might I add — simply for the sake of doing it. The attitude (having nothing to lose and letting it all hang out), the content (top-shelf songwriting), and the execution (expert performances) are a recipe for much artistic success. I can’t recommend The End enough, and I hope it’s only the beginning for this group and catalogue.

The End is out now. Purchase via:
Bandcamp
iTunes
CD Baby

*The End was engineered, edited, and mixed by Charlie Kramsky at Blue Rock Studios and Phase In Studios (TX), and mastered by Daniel Gonko at The Sounding Board (NC).

Album preview:

Album art (atop) by Kait Harris Cleanthes.

New Listen: Mette Henriette

mhecm

Artist: Mette Henriette
Album: Mette Henriette (2015, ECM Records)

ECM has done it again: introduced me to a new artist and new sounds. Saxophonist and composer Mette Henriette Martedatter Rølvåg’s double-album ECM debut Mette Henriette is a triumph, presenting a fresh sound from an original voice. I’ve been listening to this album for several weeks now, and one thing remains constant: this is a soundworld in which I want to inhabit and further explore. It’s enchanting.

Mette Henriette includes 35 pieces that flow seamlessly over 100+ minutes. The two discs, while complementary, each showcase a different ensemble: a trio on the first and a 13-piece “sinfonietta” on the second. Although Mette is the leader, she doesn’t often place the saxophone front and center, opting instead to blend into the overall texture. Similarly, while Mette subtly demonstrates that she’s a virtuoso tenor saxophonist, she doesn’t make her technique an end itself — it’s always a tasteful means and used appropriately. The album is billed as jazz, but that’s selling it a little short. It’s as much chamber music as it is jazz. The Nordic- and free-jazz elements may serve as a foundation, but this album transcends many singular stylistic labels. In fact, the first time I listened to it — straight through and without regard for track names and numbers — it wasn’t until about an hour in when I thought that it sounded like a “jazz record” (“wildheart,” specifically). Also, the quantity of tracks can be some misleading, as I find it best to just listen to the album straight through — either a disc at a time or all together. It flows nicely, and the only real noticeable change is the transition from the trio to the larger ensemble, which itself is gradual.

The first disc features the trio of Mette, pianist Johan Lindvall (who composed three of the pieces: “.oOo.,” “3 – 4 – 5,” and “O”), and cellist Katrine Schiøtt. The three perform a quiet, intimate series of 15 pieces that together sonically paint a stark landscape upon which they wander. While the album isn’t explicitly constructed as a suite or other similar large work, there are motifs that recur throughout in different permutations, be they short melodic phrases or textures (e.g., the low piano ostinato in “all ears” and “beneath you”). A number of the pieces are melancholic and mournful though not without hope. In fact, light breaks through towards the end with “I Do” and “O.”

This trio of tenor sax, cello, and piano is wonderfully flexible, showcasing an uncanny knack for orchestration. The tasteful use of extended techniques — such as the sax and cello’s parallel lines both in standard ranges and in altissimo/harmonics in “the taboo” — help to break up the texture, and you rarely get the aural impression that it’s a static ensemble. Also, regarding the aforementioned stylistic transcendence, it’s rarely clear if the music is composed or improvised. I know that both are occurring, but I don’t always hear the delineation, which is a compliment to the composer and the performers. In fact, the first time one hears a semblance of a “jazz lick” is in the first disc’s penultimate track, “I do,” and even then it’s fleeting.

The second disc features a large ensemble of the aforementioned trio plus trombonist Henrik Nørstebø, trumpeter Eivind Lønnig, violinists Sara Övinge, Karin Hellqvist, and Odd Hannisdal violist Bendik Bjørnstad Foss, cellist Ingvild Nesdal Sandnes, bandoneonist Andreas Rokseth, bassist Per Zanussi, and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen (also on saw). It’s not an abrupt change of ensemble, however, and rarely does the full group play in concert. The immediate use of bandoneon on “passé” is of course obvious, but much of the ensemble gradually enters over the next several tracks (including the strings-only “pearl rafter” and winds-only “unfold”), culminating in “wildheart,” the whole album’s first raucous romp and the first time in which Mette’s free jazz roots enter the spotlight, with her guttural cries on tenor rising from the band’s primordial bed. Given that, the second disc isn’t as uniformly quiet as the first. While the more cacophonous moments can break up the pieces more than on the first disc, everything is still rather seamless.

As evidenced by “wildheart,” the second disc, though often complementary to the first (e.g., “behold” sounds like something originally for the initial trio but re-orchestrated for a different instrumentation), explores different sonic terrain. Another example is “late à la carte,” which drunkenly plods along like some Lynchian (and Badalamentian) burlesque. Several pieces later, “I” begs the question of what is improvised and what’s composed, only in a far more aggressive context. There appear to be motifs and structure, yet it also sounds rather free. Perhaps it’s both? I can’t know without the score, and that’s an asset. The music simply flows — composed and improvised, quiet and loud, dissonant and consonant, free jazz and chamber music, trio and sinfonietta.

I know it’s a word thrown around too often, but Mette Henriette is a unique album, particularly as an ECM debut. The only other ECM albums I sort of immediately liken it to are the Evan Parker and Roscoe Mitchell pairing of Boustrophedon and Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2, & 3, but only really because of the structure — a large mixed ensemble of classical and jazz musicians performing notated and improvised music. As for sound, though, Mette is an original voice, and one I’m anxious to hear a lot more from going forward.

Mette Henriette is available in the US this Friday, November 20.

Pre-order via:
Amazon
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