Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Glints In The Darkness: Mario Diaz de Leon

Embedded among the halal joints, Islamic libraries, thrift shops, and even a few hip restaurants on Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill, is Roulette, the latest iteration of a venerable space for avant garde music and performance. They've been in this spot since 2011 and the location was chosen wisely, as they are within sight of the Barclay's center and just a few blocks from BAM and other exemplars of cultural ferment in downtown Brooklyn.

This past Tuesday saw the former YMCA (circa 1928) devoted to a showcase of works by Mario Diaz de Leon, yet another exciting young composer launched from Columbia University's orbit. Diaz de Leon's instrument is the guitar and he has wielded his axe in the realms of progressive metal for the last few years, while also releasing albums of chamber music on John Zorn's Tzadik label. On the basis of this impressive concert, he is growing into an assured manipulator and assembler of a panoply of sounds and instruments.

Claire Chase, the flautist who made waves with her performance of Edgard Varese's seminal Density 21.5 on a platinum flute, opened the show with Luciform (2013) for solo flute and electronics. Dressed in a to-the-minute ensemble in shades of black, she launched into the complex opening sequences with a fury, dispatching the extended techniques with aplomb. Gradually, a cloud of synthetic sound began to engulf the amplified flute and just when that seemed to be the composer's modis operandi for the piece, Chase launched into a devastatingly knotty run that was matched note for note by the recorded sound in a texture like shattered glass rods. 

It was a thrilling moment, two wary collaborators finding common ground in a smoking crater of their own design. Between woman and machine, I'm not sure whose job it was to keep up with who, but it was executed flawlessly - and repeatedly throughout the 13 minute work, interspersed with more spacious periods of exploratory music. This is sure to become a signature work for Chase and it is included on Density, her just-released third album, along with the Varese and compositions for flute(s) by Glass, Reich, Alvin Lucier, and Marcos Balter. Needless to say, I bought it on the way out. Chase, also the founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), is seeming a more crucial element in NYC's musical firmament all the time. The spirit of Roulette was exemplified by the way she took her bows, packed up her flute and took a seat among the audience.

Next up was Tilt Brass performing Bellum, composed for their 10th anniversary festival held earlier this year. The seven players formed a semi-circle around the conductor and began sonorous blasts, assembling dense chords anchored by the tuba's rumble. In this piece, rather than working together, the electronics and instruments alternate sections, with three movements for the brass and two for the synthetics. At the end of the first brass section, the lights went down - all the way down - and we listened to the sounds in darkness, with the brass barely glinting on the stage. There was a touch of theater to it, but it also made perfect sense as there really is nothing to see during those moments.

The lights came up and the brass returned. The second movement held more chords, but also melodic strings of notes from either the pair of trumpets, the pair of horns or the trombone and bass trombone. There was some difficult writing here, whether in the duration of notes or the sequences, but like Luciform, it never dissolved into a virtuoso exercise. The lights went off again and we were treated splintered soundtrack that was quite loud, but very beautiful. Bellum was finished by the brass, limned by the echoes (in my mind, at least) of the explosive blocks of electronic sounds.

After a brief intermission, the three string players of Talea Ensemble took the stage for Trembling Time II, completed in 2009 and Diaz de Leon's earliest composition on the program. In this case, all the distorted and highly dramatic sounds are produced by the string instruments themselves. Deep, long notes from the viola or cello were accompanied by skirling runs from the violin, often ending in an abrupt pluck. From a melodic standpoint it was reminiscent of Eastern European liturgical music, with an atmosphere of mystery and ritual. It is arresting music and, of the works we heard at least, the most direct translation of Diaz de Leon's more rock-based work to the realm of the concert hall. One could easily hear three distorted guitars navigating its craggy, dark terrain but having traditional instruments play it was in no way a stunt.

The capstone of the program was the world premiere of The Chapel Abyss, performed by the full cohort of Talea, with Diaz de Leon himself on guitar. At around 23 minutes, this was the longest piece and featured some complex ensemble writing interspersed with glassy solo keyboard segments. There was a searching atmosphere, as if the group were seeking new territory, sometimes working together and sometimes at cross-purposes. 

While this, too, was a dark-hued piece, the chimes - withheld until the end - shot it through with hopeful light, just like those glints on the brass during the blackness of Bellum. All of the instrumental work was outstanding, without any sense of tentativeness. One quality that makes Talea so impressive is the sense of alertness all the musicians demonstrate - to the score, to each other and to the production of their individual sounds. As a listener, this has the effect of keeping me on the edge of my seat and listening to every nuance. The Chapel Abyss rewarded my attention and I look forward to hearing it again, along with the other pieces performed at Roulette and more music from Diaz de Leon. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Crowns And Crowds: Jonwayne & Mount Kimbie

See Mass Appeal for my review of Jonwayne's debut, Rap Album 1.

After my last hip hop concert experience, I was doubly excited that rising rapper Jonwayne was coming to the Music Hall of Williamsburg as an opener for Mount Kimbie, rather than as part of a rap show. That meant I could catch him live without standing around listening to open mic night before he came on. Even so, my friend and I arrived on the early side and after observing the completely empty music room, repaired to the basement bar for a drink. I admit that we were too busy tasting speed-rack rotgut (Kentucky Gentleman - better than expected!) and missed most of the opening set by D33J (pronounced "deej"). His laptop'n'guitar jams sounded pretty good, though, and he did his job, which was to priime the crowd for Jonwayne.

I had just got through telling someone that, no, they hadn't missed Jonwayne and that he would probably go on at 9:00 sharp, given how tightly Bowery Presents runs their shows, when the lights went down and a hulking figure shambled on stage and began unleashing sharp, dazzling, and dramatic beats from the stage. Even in the dark and with no introduction, everyone's attention was quickly focused on him. This was Jonwayne, and the timing and style of the beginning of the show were just the start of the brilliant surprises he had in store.
After about 10 minutes of music, the spotlights brightened and Jon picked up the mic and launched into Ode To Mortality from Cassette 3: Marion Morrison Mixtape. By the third verse, when he's procuring "drops of dark matter" and describing the "pure oceanic space inside my eyelids," it felt like he had much of the crowd in the palm of his hand. He continued with three more short songs from Cassette 3: Numbers On The Hoard, his appropriation of the similarly named Pusha T jam, Blaq Cowboy ("I am the rap game Sam Beckett"), and The Ritz, managing the neck-snapping changes of mood, tone and tempo with ease. All the while, he acted as his own DJ, dropping beats in and out with a practiced push of a button or twist of a knob while never losing his connection to the audience. This was virtuoso one-man-band stuff, and when you add the effective theatre of Jonwayne's gestures and use of the stage (at one point he sat on the stairs on the right of the stage and rapped from there), you have one of the most dynamic live acts in contemporary hip hop.
Like most great rappers, Jonwayne has a certain arrogance and is not uncomfortable projecting an air of superiority. Most of the time, you get the idea that this is protective, a force field against self doubt and self consciousness. Even so, near the end of his set, when he started repeating "It's not the crown that makes the royalty, it's the crowd and their loyalty," and expected us to say it along with him, I wondered if he had overreached. "I'm a performance artist," he told the audience, "I can do this for five minutes," if we didn't comply, that is. He also picked out individuals in the crowd who weren't feeling it and as much as told them to get with the program. You know what? They did, and he soon had a pretty good group chant going. And when he walked off stage shortly after, the audience wanted him back and he returned for another song or two.
Besides the songs from the mixtapes, he also did a few of the more beat-driven songs from his reflective debut album, Rap Album 1, set for release on October 29th. These were well-received and when, in Marion Morrison he rapped "I'm on the fringe, Mackelmore ain't got shit on me," I'd like to think the cheers were for the sentiment rather than just the name check of that pandering top 40 rapper. Overall, Jonwayne's act was a thrilling display and one I would gladly repeat. I don't know how many people plumped for the cassettes at the merch table, but I suspect a brisk business there when Rap Album 1 is available.
By the time the stage was set and the lights went down for Mount Kimbie, the Music Hall was at max cap and I was jammed up against the wall by people ready to dance. And as soon as Kai Campos and Dominic Maker took the stage, dance they did. There was a certain aggressive jockish quality to some of the dancers - at least in our little corner of the crowd - and my friend was prompted to ask "Have bros taken over the world?" while I wondered if EDM has ruined IDM.
That divide between the utilitarian and the avant garde makes Mount Kimbie is a curious case, to my mind. Their first album, Crooks & Lovers was an arty little gem of a record (#7 on my Best Of Ten), which displayed an originality of texture and composition that was the most refreshing thing in British electronica in years. Still, I was not expecting Campos and Maker's sounds to translate so well to a live setting until I saw their Tiny Desk Concert, and realized they had the goods on stage as well as in the studio. Even so, I was unable to catch them on tour in 2011 and was left to idly wonder about who their audience was.
I have read in more than one interview that they attribute some of the wonderful oddness of Crooks & Lovers to their not knowing what they were doing. The somewhat disappointing poppy direction of sophomore album Cold Spring Fault Less Youth makes me think they were not being entirely disingenuous. I wouldn't mind a return to amateurism, especially if it meant no more collaborations with the self-indulgent King Krule, whose stentorian vocals on two songs nearly sink the new album entirely. In any case, he was not on tour with them, thankfully. Instead, they brought Tony Kus on drums and occasional bass, and when he was bashing away and either Campos or Maker was playing guitar, Mount Kimbie seemed more than ever like a real band, and an excellent one at that.
Despite my doubts about Cold Spring Fault Less Youth and my hesitation about the motives of many of the attendees, there was no denying that they put on a fantastic concert. The projections of young Asians getting drunk and stupid on the screen behind them made me wonder if Mount Kimbie also have questions about their audience, but there was no reticence to their performance. Even the new songs sounded more interesting on the Music Hall's well-defined sound system, with the propulsive So Many Times, So Many Ways a levitating high point. As would be expected, the set was sequenced like a great DJ's playlist, with peaks and valleys and straightforward trajectories mixed with sharp left turns. One such turn was when Jonwayne joined them for a new collaboration, to the audience's overwhelming approval. Let's hope they lay that track down before the end of the tour.
In the end, it was a masterful and fully absorbing concert that allowed me to ignore my often rude fellow concertgoers. Lest I sound like a prig, it's not that I didn't move to the deep grooves, it's just that I believe a collective experience can - and should - come with kindness and joy rather than selfishness. Mount Kimbie's music left me blissfully exhausted, but also with one central question: where do they go from here?