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Live From New York

Themselves, John Hollenbeck, Uri Caine, The Arditti Quartet & DJ Spooky

By Published: December 23, 2009
The Future Quest quintet possesses greater density, but it still observes a respect for stillness. This combo is involved with the Meredith Monk Ensemble, performing earlier in the year as part of her Whitney Museum retrospective. Hollenbeck is joined by Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby (saxophones), Gary Versace (piano/organ), and then it looks like some uninhibited soul is performing a hippy gyration in front of the stage. No! It's Theo Bleckmann, normally known for his singing. He wafts from right to left, throwing static poses before joining the band onstage to shape his perfectly controlled choirboy tones. He's become a virtual Meredith Monk, aping her vocal delivery accurately, as Future Quest performs a micro-history of her works. The composer is in the house, and she looks very pleased with these prime evocations of her pieces. They simultaneously match authenticity with a shape-shifting re-interpretation.

Hollenbeck had gradually introduced some sturdier beats, hinting at the full pulse that would soon drive his Large Ensemble. Eskelin and Malaby were both issuing statements of coiled, understated power. Following another short break, the full big band colonized the stage. The last time I caught them, at the Jazz Standard, the music seemed not too removed from conventional big-band history. This time, it still sounded jazz-like, but was toppling that vocabulary more towards minimalism, which is not to say the full ensemble was either too gentle, too quiet or too homogenised.

It was well into the evening when Hollenbeck remembered that it might be an idea to promote the Eternal Interlude album that was providing his repertoire. He was too busy entertaining the crowd with his eccentric wit: half-bumbling, half-rapiered. The album's title composition was actually the grand finale of the night, managing to surpass an already outstanding sequence of epic excursions. It was here that the Large Ensemble's sparkling layers of minimalist build-up were most apparent, with Versace surely in thrall to Terry Riley as he set up tantalizing curlicues of electric organ, whilst Bleckmann gradually rose up from inaudibility, swelling against a gleaming wall of steadily intensifying repeats. Hollenbeck's composing for his Large Ensemble has now developed a deeply personal language, retaining jazz values as it launches into a pan-stylistic orbit.

Uri Caine/The Arditti Quartet

(le) Poisson Rouge

December 1, 2009

At the same haunt on the following evening, your reviewer was perched on a stool right next to Hollenbeck. He's on a new-music roll. We talked about how the club is now literally serving milk and cookies—a bold new move in keeping with its alternative cast. And there were we all, the previous night, presuming that his observation on the milk'n'cookie scene was just another surreal Hollenbeck joke.

For this gig, it's fellow New Yorker Uri Caine who's unveiling a new work, penned for the Arditti Quartet. But not before this long-established (1974) British string group gave it's own early-evening recital of pieces by Harrison Birtwistle ("The Tree Of Strings"), Conlon Nancarrow ("Quartet No. 3") and Iannis Xenakis ("Tetras"). Usually, the Ardittis leaven their modernism with a stray ancient work, but these three composers had been chosen for their similar sense of intensely resonant friction. Instead of conveying a diverse set of contrasts, the Ardittis had elected to lock the audience into a dramatic, sometimes harsh world of riffing cello, slippery violin or viola streaks and radical changes in speed, space, texture, rhythm and attack.

All victual-vending had been suspended for this first half (even the milk'n'cookies), the quartet limned under static light, foregoing the club's distinctive shadow-shifting visuals. They were subtly amplified, but with no trace of unintentional distortion or hiss. Purity triumphed. Doubtless at the request of the Ardittis, all unnecessary distractions were banished, so that the gathering could completely drown in such a masterful depth of expression.

An alternative space can often have a beneficial effect. Unlike most classical temples, the Poisson hadn't provided programs, so the audience had to guess, initially, which pieces were being played. As soon as leader and founder Irvine Arditti discovered this, he elected to communicate directly, in a surprisingly humorous vein. This helped to flesh out the musical background in a more memorable and personal manner.

Your scribe was seated at a frontal table for this first set, completely surrounded by sound. For the second half, he removed himself to the rear wall, and this might have had an effect on his lessened appreciation of the sonics of Uri Caine's new Caprices For String Quartet And Piano. By comparison, these sounded smoother, suffering as they followed the more aggressive sound-worlds of Birtwistle, Nancarrow and Xenakis.

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