Sunday, April 22, 2012

Go Talea On The Mountain

Attending a concert of "classical" music is usually an exercise in reviewing interpretation. More often than not, the music is familiar, from another time, or both. If you don't like Mozart, it's unlikely you're going to spend your precious time to check out how one group's approach may differ from another. However, when it comes to contemporary classical, often referred to as "new music," the music could very well be new to you (and everyone else in the room) and the evaluation of the performance and the composition itself becomes more intertwined.

After seeing two concerts by the Talea Ensemble, I am unshakably convinced that the depth of their preparation, the sincerity of their engagement and enthusiasm, and their technical mastery, can produce definitive and transparent performances of whatever they choose to do. Talea's work is a gift to composers and listeners, allowing these often challenging works to be put forth into our experience as complete works of art.

Their most recent appearance was in the stunning and acoustically rich space in the basement of the Baryshnikov Arts Center (pictured above). The opening work was called Tractus, by a young composer studying at Columbia University named Victor Adan. Beginning with breathy sounds and sustained woodsy scrapings from the viola, the heart of the piece is soon revealed to be the percussion. Whether in beats on a low-tuned tomtom or a violin bow eliciting squeaks and sighs from a block of styrofoam, most of the tonal color resided there. While there is apparently an improvisational element to Adan's work, there was enough pattern and repetition that Tractus became a playfully terrifying little machine. I couldn't help being reminded of some of the more outré songs by art rock legends Pere Ubu, for example A Small Dark Cloud from 1979's New Picnic Time. Adan is obviously one to watch.

The second composition was the one that gave the ensemble it's name, Talea, completed by Gerard Grisey in 1986. A French composer born in 1946, Grisey studied with such luminaries as Olivier Messiaen, Gyorgy Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis, and also trained at Pierre Boulez's IRCAM. In short, he was groomed and poised to become a new music superstar, and had the talent to match, before being tragically felled by an aneurysm in 1998 at the age of 52. Talea comes around the middle of his output and was the first piece I've heard by him. From the first few bars, Grisey's deep understanding and love of the sounds of instruments comes to the forefront and i was luxuriating in instrumental textures and timbres. A multicolored explosion of rising, falling and resonant sounds, Talea also featured pile-driving unison riffs that seemed drenched in the sonorities of progressive rock. While it stopped and started regularly, Talea's forward motion was undeniable, and undeniably exciting. "I've never been disappointed in a piece by Grisey," I overheard another concertgoer say. And now I can say the same - and that I'm looking forward to more.

After a brief intermission, all the lights (except those on the music stands) were turned off and we were exposed to Salvatore Sciarriino's challenging and mysterious Infinito Nero for mezzo soprano and ensemble. Composed in 1998, this work hovers at an intersection of music, sound art and theater. The text comes from the ecstatic and bloody ravings of a 17th century saint named Maria Maddelena de' Pazzi. According to Sciarrino, she did not speak, rather "...words actually shot out of her like a machine gun and then she fell silent for a long period." Even though those long silences are part of the work, the role of the singer is extraordinarily difficult. Bo Chang's lush tone and incredible concentration brought it off with aplomb. The sound world of the piece consists mainly of windy whistles, glottal plops and occasional melodic fragments. There were moments of such quiet that the breathing and shifting organism of the audience became almost a Cagian collaborator in the music making; it was impossible to separate any of the sounds in the hall from the composition itself.

In the end, I couldn't help but think that Sciarrino had committed an amazing act of empathy, putting us in the head of this mystic madwoman as she yelped such visions as: "They are the/Wounds in which I lose myself/Come, come/With the crown: its long thorns pierce/The eternal father in heaven/He writes on me with his blood." The sounds with which Sciarrino surrounds these words could be seen as the saint's breathing and swallowing as she waited for inspiration, or that of her attendants as they waited for her words, or of the breeze blowing through the skulls on Mount Golgotha as Jesus died on the cross. Powerful stuff, indeed.

The Talea Ensemble performs again in our area on May 27th and June 9th. Take a chance and you might find yourself with a new habit.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Record Review: Breton

The album is dead, say the pundits. Listeners live on shuffle play and you can't sell'em anymore, so why bother? From an artistic point of view, however, this holds about as much water as telling playwrights to only write one-act plays or painters that they can only use one subject per piece. Just as real musicians desire to use a bigger canvas for expression, real music fans demand to hear their heroes go big. Finally, if a forward thinking bunch like Breton still see value in creating a long-player, I wouldn't worry too much about the health of the format.


That leaves us with Other People's Problems, the debut album from Breton, which comes on the heels of the Blanket Rule EP, the most recent of several they've released since 2010. The first sign that they are going to treat this seriously is the addition of secret weapon Hauschka, a fairly prominent avant garde pianist/composer who is also signed to FatCat Records. His string and brass arrangements appear on four songs, which are brilliantly sequenced throughout the record, lending it a continuity. Fortunately, there is no reverence for the work of the Dusseldorf-based master. The first sounds we hear on lead track Pacemaker (after some ominous clanking, which may be the "Demolition" or "Metro" referred to in the sleeve notes), are Hauschka's strings, chopped, scuzzed, and quickly joined by the brick-hard rhythm section. Roman Rappak's doleful sprechstimme soon enters along with some uber-distorted synth that could cause a weak woofer to clip in protest. It's a fantastic song that doesn't end so much as back out of your consciousness.

Pacemaker is an apt title for an opener as it sets the tone without hesitation. Those of us who have followed Breton for a while know we will hear them evolving but familiar. Anyone new to the band will know right away what they're about and be ready to go along for the ride. Electrician follows, with the crucial couplet "Why are they trying to salvage/What we'll be leaving by the side of the road?" Crucial, because nearly everything is treated as salvage in Breton's world, from the dilapidated London bank they use as a headquarters, to Hauschka's strings, and even Rappak's voice, Adam Ainger's drums and the field recordings used by Ian Patterson and bassist Daniel McIlvenny to thicken the texture. It's a scorched earth approach that leaves only the future as a possibility: Don't pick up our scraps because we've bled them dry.

The third song is a re-recording of standout 2011 single Edward The Confessor, an assaultive stomp that includes their other secret weapon, Rappak's delicate harp filigrees, which are also heard on one or two other songs. The noirish soundscape of 2 Years follows, with its alternating refrains of "Two years is not so much" and "Whatever happens, don't ask us who we're here to see" - its mood made stunningly effective by the soulful backing vocals from Py. It's one of my favorite songs on the record, a haunting combination of glitch, strings and sorrow.

For all their engagement with the world of electronics, samples and studio wizardry, Breton has always come off as a band and Wood and Plastic has a careening forward motion that only a live rhythm section can create. Soaring strings once again bring drama and segue nicely into the next song, Governing Correctly, which opens with the bone-dry wit of Ainger's drums. This song showcases the band's compositional chops, almost a mini-suite with three or four micro-movements in a mere 3:50. There's a casual virtuosity in the way the synth picks up the melody of the almost spoken lyrics, hinting at an anthem, but only just.

Interference is actually anthemic, with massed football-terrace vocals and a chorus of "It's a mechanism we've come to rely on/It's a skeleton." Hauschka's work here has a grandeur reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield that exposes the cinematic nature of the song, amplified in the poignant video Breton created. Ghost Note is a dense keyboard-heavy workout leavened by Rappak's harp but unmistakably grim. "They decide, they decide, they decide," Rappak repeats, as if he indeed has no choice.

The spacious opening to Oxides comes as a momentary relief, as does its mildly funky backbeat. However, subway announcement vocals and mechanistic synth patterns soon bring the calamity of modern life back to the forefront. Just when you think there will be no let-up along comes the goofy cowbell and cheap keyboard intro to Jostle, which they somehow transmute into the most lyrical song on the album, the way a shaft of sunlight can make an urban wasteland sparkle. Shattered safety glass and the stars in the sky can be equally uplifting, if we let our eyes do the seeing instead of our minds.

The album ends as I hoped, with the fractured stasis of The Commission. Five minutes of broken glass, bass drum drops, pulsing keys and echo-laden vocals. It's the kind of song that continues after it's over, until you go back to the beginning. And you will go back quickly - Other People's Problems is a triumph.

The packaging is also exemplary, as is the extra stuff included in the deluxe package, most notably a limited edition cassette. Only 150 exist and no two are alike. Mine was recorded an old copy of Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection and contains gorgeous mostly instrumental music - low-fi and hinting at further possibilities for Breton. No doubt the contents of these tapes will provide future material to be salvaged...

Full disclosure moment: I am thanked on the inner sleeve, not for anything I've done in any official capacity but just for trying to spread the word across all my networks about this terrific band. Call me "the under-under-assistant east coast promotion man."


Sunday, April 01, 2012

Tense and Dense: Breton Live

At a time when GarageBand, Pro Tools, AutoTune, MPC's and MacBooks are the basics of many bands's arsenal, the question of what they can deliver in a live setting can loom ever larger. That's not to say that a band has to be great on stage to be great - three unsatisfying live encounters with Siouxsie & The Banshees in their heyday proved that point definitively. However, putting on a great concert is a way to expand on existing material, showcase new songs, and deepen the bond between musicians and fans.

Back in 2010, when I first discovered Breton on an episode of the Iodacast, the possibility of seeing them live was as remote as solid information about who they were and what they were doing. In the months since, that's changed considerably due to what appears to be a measured plan of growing exposure and prominence (not to mention - full disclosure moment - my befriending the band members on Facebook). This campaign recently came to a head with multiple performances at SXSW and their NYC debut at Mercury Lounge last Wednesday, and will culminate with the release of their first album, Other People's Problems, on March 26th.
Even though they take full advantage of all the above mentioned soft- and hardware, Breton's sound is emphatically that of a band, with all the energy that implies, so I was not expecting an arid bunch of laptop jockeys to take the stage on a foggy night last week. And while there were two MacBook's and at least one MPC on stage, I was not wrong. Anchored by the explosive, gestural, angular-yet-swinging drumming of Adam Ainger, the five piece group leapt out of the gate and did not let up for the hour of their set. Although they performed in the dark (more on that later), the light from the films they projected was enough to see their expressive movements. They were clearly making the kind of music they like to listen and dance to and their engagement had much of the crowd moving constantly.

Taut barbed-wire bass, usually played by Daniel McIlvenny, and the jagged guitar of vocalist Roman Rappak interlocked perfectly with Ainger's drums and created a tense, nervy foundation for the dense blocs of sound perpetrated by Ian Patterson on the various electronics. On the impressive newer songs, the sampled material included rich string arrangements by their FatCat Records label-mate, Hauschka - a welcome embellishment to their sound.

Rappak's vocals are the final component and his plain-spoken yet slightly wounded tone is perfect for the sentiments of betrayal, confusion, sorrow and anger that make up the subject of many of their songs (i.e. this modern world that we live in). On the brutal blast of Edward The Confessor, he pushed a little harder but never edged into shouting, and on this song and the recent How Can They Tell, he is showing greater and greater range and proving himself more than up to the task of meeting the variety of moods, sounds, and textures that make up the growing palette of their sound.

The group started as a filmmaking collective that just made music to accompany their visuals. Obviously, with the current touring and imminent record release, their sonic efforts are in the foreground (although Rappok recently helmed a Sinead O'Connor video). When asked why they performed in the dark, Patterson let on that it was so that the accompanying visuals (run by Ryan McClarnon) could be seen and also to preserve a certain anonymity that would keep the focus on the music. A fair point, however the Mercury Lounge doesn't quite have the resources to realize that vision. No worries - such a group canny artists will soon have those details sorted.

The show at Mercury Lounge proved without a doubt that Breton can bring it onstage, and, in a venue with more sophisticated staging, their films and the vision of stylized anonymity will come to fruition in what should be a thrilling experience. I, for one, plan to be in the front row.

P.S. The boys return in May for two shows opening up for meat and potatoes indie-rockers We Were Promised Jetpacks (think Arctic Monkey's duller cousins), but it will be worth your while to catch them while you can.