Kronos Quartet, Jessica Pavone, Futurist Noise Intoners & The Tori Ensemble

Martin Longley By

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Kronos Quartet/Wu Man Carnegie Hall November 3, 2009

Although not officially part of Carnegie Hall's spectacular Ancient Paths, Modern Voices season of Chinese culture, this concert was certainly well-timed to sit beside its less innovative brethren. Perhaps the program's decidedly non-traditional stance was the main reason. Also, the Kronos collaboration with pipa player Wu Man was itself an advance taste of another Carnegie season. In 2010, Kronos will be initiating several further musical meetings as part of the well-established Perspectives series.

The first part of the evening was dedicated to Tan Dun's Ghost Opera, which entered the Kronos repertoire back in 1994. It was directly commissioned by the Quartet, and featured Wu Man in its original form. This reading sounded quite different from the recorded album version, with a heightened aura of ritualised minimalism. The Kronos players and Wu Man arrived either from different quarters, or were poised at the sides of the stage. The piece makes prime use of pausing space, with isolated vocal outbursts and gently splashed water, held in strategically-arranged glass bowls. Parchment drapes turn players into shadow-beings. The Kronos players are known for their concern with staging, but this becomes one of their more theatrical outings, its ceremonial nature of equal importance, and even inseparable from, the music. Indeed, the music has become the ritual, and maybe that's why witnessing the work in the flesh feels so removed from the domestic audio- only situation. The piece finishes with Wu Man pulling thick crinkling sounds from the stretched parchment, and setting off a gargantuan gong-rumble, providing a powerful shock following the vestigial traces of the work's overall body. Tan Dun was in the house, standing up to acknowledge the vigorous applause.

Following the intermission, Kronos and Wu Man gave the world premiere of "A Chinese Home," which could be described as either a multi-media suite or a performance art happening. Unusually for Kronos, this is a developed collaboration rather than a work credited to a single composer. The violinist David Harrington and Wu Man have worked out the four-part narrative sequence with director and visual designer Chen Shi- Zheng. Much of the music is blooming from a traditional root, at first folkish, then moving into populist song. It traverses the decades like a veritable history of Chinese popular music.

Having just said that Ghost Opera finds Kronos at their most theatrical: it's an old-fashioned concert piece when compared to "A Chinese Home."

The players behave as if they're the house band for a depraved flop- house, swigging booze, tossing off phrases that blend old-fashioned romance with eternal seediness, with Wu Man even downing her pipa, to become a night club torch singer. The musical patchwork evolves from traditional to Western-influenced midnight cabaret, inextricably linked to a decade-by-decade narrative.

The film backdrop is a dominant element, flooded with an image-parade that veers from technicolor kitsch revolutionary propaganda to the monochrome documentation of horrific corpse mountains. Maybe there are other reasons why this piece didn't appear as part of the mainline Chinese culture season. Although not explicitly commenting upon the Mao years, there's a way in which imagery is paraded that combines atrocity with superficiality, irony with patriotism, tragedy with slapstick. From capitalism to communism alike. When combined with the musical panorama speeding past, the effect is of a wordless, abstract, observational character that would certainly make this work unwelcome in China. This is not to say that the cultural life of many other countries couldn't be sieved through in a similar fashion. However, some lands are more accustomed to such ironic mangling.

The entire piece increases in intensity incrementally, reaching an apocalyptic conclusion when Wu Man straps on her electric pipa (an instrument that we'd surely never even dreamed of before), plugged into a spread of feedback effects pedals. She crafts great crests of sculpted noise, barely in control of the chaos, as Kronos unpack their collection of Made In Hong Kong mechanised toys, which are bleeping, rotating, squawking and bumping until they've carpeted the entire stage. It's a prime evocation of how China ended the last century, girding its loins for a coming economic flowering. One of the reasons that the piece succeeds as an entity is listeners' sense of its inarguable uniqueness. Even though "A Chinese Home" utilizes many familiar elements, they've never been grafted together before in anything quite like this multi-sensory configuration.

Jessica Pavone/The Toomai String Quartet Roulette November 10, 2009

The viola player and composer Jessica Pavone was celebrating the release of an album on John Zorn's Tzadik label. Songs Of Synastry And Solitude uses a string quartet to realize a set of compositions that surely had the sound of a singer reverberating between Pavone's lobes whilst she was penning them. The art of the song appears to be precisely what she's addressing, but using the tools of the chamber recital. They're mostly hanging around the three or four minute mark, with a development shorn of needless elaboration.The pieces make up what feels like a suite, with their sustained mood and growing weight. In actually, however, they're given separate titles.

Pavone was in the house, but had entrusted the work's performance to the Toomai String Quartet, who are usually a quintet, and who seem to have a pool of potential members greater than a mere five. One of them (Rachel Calin) is a bassist. So, there's only one violin, joined by viola and cello: a different make-up compared the accepted string quartet formation.

It was a concentrated set which, not surprisingly, ended up replicating and reflecting the album's contents. A resonant mournfulness pervaded, stained with a bittersweet, weeping vibrato. The songs make their steady parade, dignified as the strings swell and sway. It doesn't take long for the tunes to snag the ears, after only a single airing of the album, followed by this live reiteration. If any influence is apparent, then perhaps it's that of British composer Gavin Bryars, particularly the mood that he set with "The Sinking Of The Titanic." The concert felt almost too brief, but its repertoire reflected the contents of the new album, and the inclusion of any outside material would probably have been a distraction and a dilution. A beautifully miserable mood was lingeringly woven, a dark air which is in keeping with Pavone's acknowledged immersion in the wry-humoured poetry of Leonard Cohen.

Music For Sixteen Futurist Noise Intoners The Town Hall November 12, 2009 . The Performa festival is primarily dedicated to visual art, but usually devotes a corner of its intimidatingly massive programme to sympathetic musical events. The composer Luciano Chessa has long harbored an obsession with the noise intoning instruments created by the Futurist artist Luigi Russolo. This project marks the first reconstruction of Russolo's earliest intonarumori ensemble, from 1913, when he gave a premiere in Milan. Russolo likens his mission to a detective investigation, unearthing the likely innards of these soundbox creations.

The concert was commissioned by Performa, involving the composition of new works for these pioneering old instruments. Although many of the writers are obscure, the crowd- drawing half of the names included Pauline Oliveros, Joan La Barbara, Mike Patton, John Butcher, Blixa Bargeld, Elliott Sharp and Russolo himself. The concert was given in two parts, running through fifteen pieces. It wasn't as epic as this statistic might suggest, as many of the works were of song-length.

The Magik*Magik Orchestra ranged across the stage, their sixteen noise intoners arrayed in semi-circular fashion. Though varying in box-size, the intonarumori all feature large megaphone-style emitters, some with side-positioned levers to control the tone. Simply put, an internal wheel controls tension on a string, with the lever employed to alter its tension. The closest comparison might be with the Brazilian cuíca drum, or the ektara, as used in the music of the Bauls in Bengal.

The use of the word "noise" is slightly misleading. Even though the ensemble's groaning layers might be intended to evoke the sounds of a modern urban world, they possess a very grainy, vocal quality that makes the build-up of rubbing-motions sound harmoniously verbal in nature, like a choir of grumblers. So, far from being an extreme-volume performance, much of the evening involved very subtle textures, near- silences and low dynamic shifts. It's unfortunate, then, that a contemporary audience is so attuned to the temptations of their teat-replacement devices (how the Futurists would have enjoyed that idea!) that surrounding bleeps, clicks, screen-glows and Velcro-tears were becoming a significant element in the sound-and-vision field. Folks just weren't able to concentrate. Adding to this battle was the fact that many of the pieces didn't fully grasp the potential given by these instruments, a factor which was feeding back and forth with the general difficulty of full concentration. Far from being a "noise" gig in the expected sense, it turned out to be an anti-noise experience, the instruments relying on their natural amplification.

Most of the composers appeared to tip-toe around the intonarumori potential, but Tony Conrad lunged in with confidence, sounding like he was improvising. His curiosity led to a more grizzled approach, as he and Jennifer Walshe shifted from intoner to intoner, pushing to find their limitations. Several works involved singers, mostly arriving from operatically trained quarters and imposing a predictable pomposity. Joan La Barbara felt a closer bond with the machines, however, as she made her own gurgling megaphone calls, vocalising in sympathy with the intonarumori groans.

The stage management provided a challenge, with so many performers and pauses. This imposed a sense of halting uncertainty at regular points in the concert. Some of the composers elected to perform in their own pieces, although Blixa Bargeld's narration wasn't as amusing (or surreal) as he probably intended. The saxophonist John Butcher wove himself into the ensemble more successfully, blowing with empathy. With him, Conrad and La Barbara, the secret seemed to be an innate understanding of the sonic realm of the intoners. They felt comfortable with their interior resonances.

Tori Ensemble Merkin Concert Hall November 22, 2009

This time, the fusion arrives from Korea, although despite the presence of three jazz improvisers, the traditional sound remains dominant. The Tori Ensemble formed in 2007, combining Korean traditional musicians with New York improvisers. The jazzers in question are Erik Friedlander (cello), Satoshi Takeishi (percussion) and Ned Rothenberg (reeds/shakuhachi), although all three frequently adventure in other musical zones. The Korean players are Kwon Soon Kang (vocals), Yoon Jeong Heo (geomungo) and Young Chi Min (daegum/changgo).

The audience, if it wants, can amuse itself by breaking down the compartments between what it believes is improvised or composed, what's Korean or pseudo-Korean, what's folkloric, jazz or new music. Nowadays, such demarcations are becoming increasingly irrelevant, as musicians rove around the globe, as studies become all-embracing and as the public's listening tics become ever more uncontrollable. Apparently, two days previously at Roulette, New York's experimental music haunt, this same ensemble were delivering a set that was probably more free-form in nature. Here, the roots definitely lay in the stately, ritualized sound of Korea.

The evening's suite is The Five Directions Of Arirang, with its sections segueing to make up an hour of music. The individual pieces divide Korea into five parts, considering the local music from each area. For much of the time, Satoko Takeishi and Erik Friedlander were significant providers of an often charging rhythmic drive, but when Yoon Jeong Heo was allowed space, her deeply gutsy low-string twangs held a startling authority. Her geomungo is in a similar family to Japan's koto and China's guzheng, its strings struck emphatically by a substantial wooden spatula. When she was singing, Kwon Soon Kang imposed a ritualistic, courtly mood, and it was left to Young Chi Min to deliver the sharply-thwacked changgo drum parts, alongside Takeishi's sometimes subtly dampened floor-percussion. Rothenberg might be the jazziest contributor, but his features were also informed by ongoing shakuhachi (Japanese flute) studies. The ensemble framework allows ample space for individual expression, and the Five Directions Suite took on a unified character. The only frustration was that too often the pieces were too densely composed, failing to provide a sense of contemplative space to which their source music must surely be accustomed.

Subjectivity is crucial to any experience. In the elevator following the concert, a gentleman (presumably Korean) was visibly moved by the music (this he also verbally stated). Even though his experience doubtless had a very different resonance from that of your reviewer, it was still possible (and desirable) for each audience member to arrive at the music from their own individual backgrounds. Your scribe was more familiar with the improvising contingent, though he has a handful of Korean gigs in his knapsack. Nevertheless, that country's sonics appeared to be present here in hardcore form, even though transformed by a more linear Western style of composition.

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