Live Minimalism From New York: Shoko Nagai/Satoshi Takeishi, Signal, Rhys Chatham, Terry Riley & Glenn Branca

Martin Longley By

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[Glenn Branca's] 'Lesson No. 3' might be quite a short work, but much more of this monstrous riffing would surely be too dangerously ecstatic an experience.
Shoko Nagai & Satoshi Takeishi
The Stone
April 21, 2009

These Japanese New Yorkers are giving the second performance of Abysm (there was a gig at Roulette in February), an ambitiously intense sequence that revolves around "a tale of a floating world (Ukiyo)," which appears to be the duo's own private land of sonic fantasy. They play for around an hour, and the development holds all music's possible wonderment. Shoko Nagai is initially giving her piano the softest of interior caresses, lightly scraping objects on the strings, or making harp-like brushes. Gradually, she moves onto the keys, issuing tight little clusters, curtly phrased, eventually spending some time with her accordion, during one of the sparser sections. Satoshi Takeishi is seated, his very minimalist drumkit made up from skins balanced on frames in pseudo-taiko fashion. To his left, he has a laptop, wires, boxes, and a sample-triggering mini-keyboard. He's obsessed with ingrown cricket-noise bluster, sympathetically twinned to the constrained striking of tiny gongs and metal pieces, with a variety of soft and hard sticks. He successfully creates a blurring between electro-scrap and percussion rummaging, so that maybe folks who can't actually see what he's doing might be mystified as to the exact instrument-sources. Like an exorcism, the sounds attain a worrying pitch of energy frequencies, particularly when Nagai moves to her Moog, shaking her head and laughing as she finds crazed warbles that surprise her too, while Takeishi is insistently drumming up a rotary storm. They give their all, whether the music is passing through a becalmed, inward phase, or whether it's arcing up to a pinnacle of beautiful excess.


(le) Poisson Rouge

April 22, 2009

Signal is rapidly becoming the hot young new music ensemble in town, having already delivered a rousing, composer-approved version of Steve Reich's Music For Eighteen Musicians, late last year at this very club. The space is ideal for "classical" sounds, as (le) Poisson Rouge operates a musically democratic policy where string quartets can co-exist with DJs, drinks and food flowing, the audience invited to sprawl around casually, as Signal are set up in the room's center. Musical director and conductor Brad Lubman has selected Michael Gordon's Trance for this evening's performance. The Bang On A Can founder wrote this minimalist excursion for the UK group Icebreaker, back in 1995. Signal's members are partially drawn from other fast-rising NYC outfits (So Percussion and Alarm Will Sound, for instance), and Gordon's work calls for a mixture of traditional strings and brass, mingling with electric keyboards, guitars and bass. It lies well within the minimalist tradition, but appears deliberately to avoid having Steve Reich as an influence. The pulsating bass keyboard rolls are more like those employed by Philip Glass, and the jauntily pastoral horn figures recall the distinctive gait of Michael Nyman. The piece's aggressive edge and delivery has more of a Rhys Chatham or Glenn Branca attack, but this is not to say that Gordon doesn't mingle all these outside inflections into a personally composite style. The slabs and wafers of layered sound are less subtle than those of Glass and Reich, as Gordon's shifts are more like severe shunts. When the hellishly loud drums kick in, the glorious headbanging can begin, urged on by a bass line that could be throbbing out from a song by James Chance & The Contortions. The force keeps growing, but Gordon couldn't possibly sustain this momentum over an hour, so there are a couple of reeling-back oases of calm, which allow the listener's mind to get lost. This is not the case with the section that includes samples of what sounds like Tuvan throat-singing, as the attention here is riveted, just before the piece gears up for one more jagged race to a concussive, cumulative finish.

Rhys Chatham

The Metropolitan Museum Of Art

April 24, 2009

Extremity historically grows respectability. The punk-inspired New York composer Rhys Chatham scribed his signature work, "Guitar Trio," in 1977, feeding back influences into the city's emerging No Wave sound, and smearing up the borders between rock and mod-classical musics. Just over three decades later, Chatham is returning to his old stalking grounds, making the jaunt over from his Parisian home of the last two decades. The Metropolitan Museum Of Art is much further uptown than those downtown dens where Chatham's music germinated. This performance (not lasting much longer than an hour) manages to begin as a relatively reined-in New Music recital, steadily growing in drive and amplification until it becomes a monstrous headbanging session. Well, the headbanging of the mind, really, as there isn't much actual mane-shaking amongst the audience, and indeed, some patrons, jewelry severely rattled, take their leave well before the climax, scattering their used and bloodied earplugs en route to a fast exit through the Egyptian galleries.

Chatham strolls on, looking just like a genial country singer, with waistcoat and snowbeard, addressing the gathering with a thickly-ladled sincerity. Then he plugs in, tunes up (lots of twiddling is required for the coming drone-thrang layering) and hurls his five fellow guitarists into the primordial riff-clanging labyrinth. The drummer is Jonathan Kane, who began his career in Swans, the sludgily loudest band in the entire history of rock'n'roll. The bassman is Ernie Brooks (an old Modern Lover), and throughout, his low tones would benefit with a volume boost ("oh no, please, not another volume hike!," scream the assembled). "Guitar Trio" is an ostensibly simple piece, built around a quite basic progression. Its substance arrives as the axe ranks start to make off-beat strums and glancing blows, working around the central spine, playing with their own reverb waste-emissions, setting up stacked drones, either in opposition or sympathy. This present extended incarnation was developed in 2005, for more guitarists at greater length. Although rocking, the piece still has the straight back of a classical work, but then Chatham announces a replay, this time to the accompaniment of Robert Longo's 1979 slide presentation Pictures For Music, the band now plunged into semi-darkness. Chatham hops around like a Ramone, or maybe even a Creedence Clearwater Revivalist, working right up to the stage lip, then shuffling back around to face his players. Much of the dynamism is overseen by the leader's promptings, as he signals each shift or crank up to the next level. There's a particularly close interplay between Chatham, Brooks and Kane. The latter player recorded a version of "Guitar Trio" with his February band, and this second reading allows him much more leeway in introducing his heavier skins at an earlier stage, syncopating the beat. The guitarists, particularly Chatham and an aggressively clipped Robert Poss (Band Of Susans was his main outfit), are loosening up into a raging rock mentality. Drums and guitars push at each other, neither surrendering, and the tension is immense. Release eventually comes, but then there's time for a short encore, where precise isolated bursts of united krunggs herald an even heavier statement.

Terry Riley

Carnegie Hall

April 24, 2009

Can there ever be too much minimalism in a single evening? Less than an hour later, Terry Riley's "In C" is about to strike up, performed by a cast of thousands at Carnegie Hall. This must be one of the most star-studded new music line-ups ever assembled, making the Hall's large stage seem mighty crowded, everyone here to celebrate the 45th anniversary of this classic work. There are fellow composers, such as Philip Glass, Morton Subotnick and Osvaldo Golijov, along with trumpeter Dave Douglas, saxophonist Lenny Pickett, singer Joan LaBarbara, guitarist Bryce Dessner, pipa player Wu Man and toy piano specialist Margaret Leng Tan. The Kronos Quartet sits at front-central, and its leader David Harrington has been the chief organiser of this ambitious endeavour. Riley's just behind them, playing keyboards and singing. The piece has an ostensibly simple construction, built around a one-page series of 53 musical figures which are played through gradually until the music's evolution reaches its natural conclusion. This means that "In C" can exist for an indeterminate amount of time, ranging from the original album's 40-odd minutes, up to the nearly two hours-or-so of this evening's incarnation. The score is projected on a screen above the ensemble. The work's nature is to be ever-rejuvenating, so tonight's manifestation doesn't sound much like the recorded version that most folks know. There are ensembles-within-the-ensemble, featuring massed singers and quartets or trios of koto, recorder and didjeridus, the latter led by Stuart Dempster, who was on the original recording. The ubiquitous So Percussion foursome are responsible for most of the propulsive responsibilities of the performance. Dennis Russell Davies is described as the "flight pattern coordinator," and wanders nonchalantly in-between the players, showing them cards inscribed with numbers, guiding them in the shift towards the next musical figure. His instructions are quite subtle, aside from the final stretch, where more sculpting of dynamics is required to bring the music to an end.

It takes some time for the audience to settle down and immerse themselves in the pulse. Folks are still entering, and finding their seats, but the show has begun, almost organically growing from no discernible starting point. There is a certain amount of governance, as swellings arrive, creating a surge of power, then the majority of musicians will drop out, casting light on certain areas of the stage. The recorder quartet features the largest, bassiest variants of those instruments ever witnessed, issuing an almost comical subterranean belch. Trumpeter Douglas, whether intentionally or not, makes the single most individual statement, as his horn repeatedly cuts above all else, darting in its own frequency-space. Conversely, many of the players can't be heard as separate sources. Humming layers are formed, where the various ranks become a single shimmering entity, dedicated entirely to the whole. After about twenty minutes, it becomes easier for the audience to be mesmerized, after everyone's settled into a receptively relaxed position. There are points where the attention might phase out, but this makes the entrance of a new sequence all the more noticeable, as the mind snicks into a fresh pattern, and attention is revivified. "In C" doesn't possess the hard repetitions of Glass or Reich, but operates on a calmer level, making an unhurried journey of weightless transition. This is destined to be its grandest realization.

Glenn Branca

Issue Project Room

May 7, 2009

If Rhys Chatham burns the eardrums, then Glenn Branca throws them into an acid bath. The Issue Project Room is a converted factory-space in Gowanus, the desolated canal-zone of Brooklyn. It's an environment for experimental sounds that pulls in a younger, rockier crowd, and this is one of the joint's more crammed shows, inexplicably more well-attended than Branca's previous performance here in May 2008. Well, that was a very informal solo performance, and this is a full-band rendering of Branca's "Lesson No. 3 (A Tribute To Steve Reich)." Unlike the situation with Philip Glass sitting in for Terry Riley's "In C," it's hard to imagine Branca ever being asked to join in with Reich's "Electric Counterpoint." Although inspired by Reich, Branca's somewhat lusty approach to the electric guitar might not be appreciated by the older composer. This time, Branca is conducting a line-up of four heavily-amplified guitars and a drummer (including Reg Bloor and Libby Fab, whose impressively fractured Paranoid Critical Revolution duo preceded this set). He likes to make it clear that he's not "sucking up" to Reich, casually throwing in a scathing dismissal of the Village Voice, then setting about his vigorous duties, directing the combo in a completely liberating juggernaut-race of beautifully-sculpted crash-chording.

Branca's Rabelasian personality informs all, and his spirited full-body conducting is a strong contributory factor in channeling the band's crushing forces. It's not often that a baton's flick is exchanged for the vocabulary of the air guitar, with Branca making actual chord-shapes with his left hand. Meanwhile, his lower body is shimmying in zigzag fashion, knee-deep in rock'n'roll. The rhythmic meshing is divine, just slightly removed from whichever beat-emphasis is expected next, the riff constructions gaining in complex interchange, growing a resonant hum of cumulative distortion and resounding accents. It's ear-flatteningly loud, but just the right side of uncomfortable. When the piece heads for its sustained climax, this is one of the most elevated releases known to music. "Lesson No. 3" might be quite a short work, but much more of this monstrous riffing would surely be too dangerously ecstatic an experience.

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