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March 2017 – upcoming gigs – kletzmer in New York, Southampton, Liverpool and London, from Geoff Berner/Luisa Muhr and She’Koyokh (7th, 9th, 10th, 17th)

27 Feb

Some news on some upcoming kletzmer-related gigs in New York and across England during the first couple of weeks in March.

Geoff Berner & Lisa Muhr, 7th & 9th March 2017

In New York, as part of the Jalopy Theatre’s ongoing NY Klezmer Series in Brooklyn, there’s a newly created, first-collaboration show from two Vancouver-based musicians – singer-songwriter-accordionist Geoff Berner and singer Luisa Muhr (both of whom can collectively muster up talents across novel-writing, theatre directing, community activism and movement art, but that’s several other stories…)

“Being part of the Klezmer and Yiddish music and performance scene in the US, Canada and Europe, Geoff and Luisa first met at the renowned KlezKanada music camp where they spent many hours singing together. ‘Songs of People Other People Don’t Like So Much’ has been created out of the necessity of producing political work in times that need it. Geoff and Luisa will sing you stories of the underdogs (and unpopular overdogs) of our society: some in Yiddish, some with quite some Klezmer, some in their own words, some in someone else’s. Join us, listen, engage, and enjoy!”

The project’s too new for soundclips or videos: but here’s Geoff performing a solo song from 2013 (tearing with righteous venom into Vancouver’s rotten civic developments), and Luisa fronting a Yidishe Lider concert about a year ago.



 
In addition to the Jalopy show, Geoff and Luisa are presenting another Brooklyn performance, in the shape of a preview version a couple of days earlier at Freddy’s Bar & Backroom. This is a pay-what-you-like event (though they suggest a ten bucks minimum and you’re also tied to a minimum-of-two-drinks rule). This particular evening is for twenty-one year olds or over: not because of any added salty adult content, but purely because of licencing laws for the bar.

Dates:

* * * * * * * *

She'Koyokh, 2017

Meanwhile, back here in England, She’Koyokh – who have been hailed as “one of London’s musical treasures” (‘Evening Standard’) and “one of the finest kletzmer ensembles on the planet” (‘The Australian’) – are out on the road launching their fourth studio album, ‘First Dance On Second Avenue’.

“With a name roughly translated from the original Yiddish as “nice one”, She’Koyokh have spent over a decade absorbing the rich folk music traditions of Jewish Eastern Europe, Turkey and the Balkans. Their evolution spans the origins of busking at East London’s Columbia Road flower market to performing in the famous concert halls of Europe including Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, the Gasteig in Munich and London’s Southbank Centre. She’koyokh’s members hail from the UK, USA, Serbia, Sweden and Turkey, forging a unique sound that is traditional yet original.

“Their live shows are an expertly crafted, multi-lingual exploration from the Baltic to the Black Sea virtuosic, toe-tapping klezmer instrumentals, Gypsy music, soulful songs and the best Balkan dance tunes from Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia. They’ll take you on a journey sampling polyphonic singing from Bulgaria, a Serbian song about a pigeon on the raspberries, a steamy quarrel between mother-in-laws in a Turkish sauna, a duet between a father and daughter about who she’s going to marry – in the end she chooses the drunken one! – and a love song for a Gypsy girl with penetrating green eyes.”


 
Dates:

 

The Manchester Jazz Festival (31st July to 9th August)

31 Jul

One of the reasons that I’ve been posting so many concert previews recently is simply that (being mostly homebound at the moment) I miss going to gigs. Looking at the lineup and scope of the 2015 Manchester Jazz Festival (which starts today and runs rampant for ten days through until 9th August) reminds me that not only do I regret not attending the wealth of music that takes place here in London, but that I miss more freewheeling days of music elsewhere. Discovering unexpected, treasurable bands at random while on holiday in Brugge, for instance; or immersing myself in a week of concerts and more in Edinburgh or Leeds (such as the one I reviewed here, over a decade ago.)

We know that, as a British pop and dance city, Manchester punches well above its weight. Despite a bubbling undercurrent of improvised music, its reputation as a jazz town is hazier…. or, more probably, I’m just ignorant. The Festival’s been going for twenty years, long enough to gain enough gravity to generate its own traditions. (One such is ‘Surroundings’,  a longer-form ensemble piece by Salford composer Neil Yates. Commissioned for the festival in 2010, it seems to have become the event’s unofficial signature – this year, it’s being revisited as a quartet performance in the Central Library Reading Room.)

Even a quick sift through this year’s programme reveals a jazz party that any city would be proud of – diverse, inclusive, inviting and multi-levelled, an exciting noise ranging from the stately to the vividly scraggled and all the better for it.  With many tickets going at only four pounds, (with a ten-pound all-events daily ticket and free-entry deals if you stump up as a low-level event sponsor), they could hardly have made it any more inviting to the casual walker-upper. Excuse me for a moment while I strip-mine press releases and YouTube, and check Soundcloud pages and Bandcamp links.

Starting with the higher-end, bigger name events…  Acclaimed Blue Note pianist Robert Glasper slips away from his experimentations with latterday R’n’B to get back to basics with an acoustic trio;  John Surman re-teams with the Trans4mation String Quartet to revive the thoughtful, tidally-deep music from his ‘Coruscating’ and ‘The Spaces in Between’ albums. Norma Winstone, Klaus Gesing and Glauco Venier bring along their trans-European project DistancesPartisans bring their transatlantic swing storm; Christine Tobin  her ‘Thousand Kisses Deep’ jazzification of Leonard Cohen songs. French Jazz Musician of the Year Airelle Besson makes an appearance with her Quartet for a set of “gently experimental songs animated by heartfelt lyrics, plaintive melodies and rolling harmonies.” backed with pinballing rhythms and punchy countersyncopations.

There are heavyweight two-headed summit performances by acclaimed British jazz talents – one by frequent quartet buddies Mike Walker and Gwilym Simcock, another by the more recent pairing of Tori Freestone and Alcyona Mick.  Two further British scene fast risers – Stuart McCallum and Alice Zawadzki – bring string-enhanced performances of ongoing projects (the former offering contemporary soul jazz and bass-heavy electronica with surprise guest singers, the latter a fantastical Mancunian song cycle influenced by various shades of love and fairytale).

There are also several of those gentler, more literate projects which seem to blossom best in a festival atmosphere away from a hot core of gutsy brass.  Andrew Woodhead and Holly Thomas’ Snapdragon trio specialize in chilled, ethereal song-settings of literature and poetry (Larkin and Bukowski-inspired) and bursts of vocalese. Mark Pringle‘s A Moveable Feast mates orchestral strings with a bold horn and rhythm section to explore “themes of wildlife, literature and city chaos.”  The “fractured Anglicana” of Hugh Nankivell’s multi-instrumental/four-part vocal quartet Natural Causes means that they perform “curious compositions with  improbable but poignant texts” including “psychedelic lullabies, pinprick-precise ballads, unpredictable group improvisation and brotherly harmony across the board”, and music which draws on classic and contemporary art pop (Robert Wyatt, XTC and Björk) as much as it does on jazz sources.

Elsewhere, much of the polyglot diversity of jazz today is celebrated. The Cuban tradition is represented by the Pepe Rivero Trio and Orquesta Timbala; the Congolese by Eddy Tshepe Tshepela‘s Afrika Jazz. Central and South American ideas are brought along by Agua Pasa (who, with  Dudley Nesbit’s steel pan project Pan Jumby,  also touch on the Caribbean).  The Quarry Hillbillies (a teaming of Ulrich Elbracht, Ed Jones, Jamil Sheriff) from European contemporary jazz, while the frenetic whirl of Eastern European folk elements are covered by Makanitza.  The Gorka Benítez Trio move between Basque-flavoured small group jazz and compelling free-form impressionism. David Austin Grey’s Hansu-Tori ensemble is inspired by natural, elemental and cinematic” ideas, as well as a fascination with Eastern world culture.  Percussionist Felix Higginbottom’s Hans Prya  provides genre-hopping jazz-dance and Jim Molyneux’s Glowrogues favour funk and hip-hop flavoured pieces. Trumpeter Lily Carassik‘s fusion group Yesa Sikyi take ideas from the ’50s and blend them with popular standards and soul arrangements; while The Stretch Trio include glossier elements from ’70s jazz rock, progressive rock and ’80s pop along with sinuous gusts of wind synth.

Those who prefer classic jazz – more traditional by-the-book American styles – might prefer Russell Henderson and Jamie Taylor’s Ellington-and-Strayhorn tribute ‘The Intimacy Of The Blues’, or the Dan Whieldon Trio‘s salute to Gershwin. The Dave Kane Quartet take inspiration from the knottier ambitions of Charles Mingus, John Zorn and Eric Dolphy. Two groups of students from the Royal Northern College of Music provide live celebrations of the history which they’ve been learning – the James Girling Quintet  spans jazz, blues and funk from New Orleans roots through to the 1960s, while the Nick Conn Octet (a self-described “trombone choir”) interweaves re-arranged jazz classics with original material.

Fans of New Orleans jazz can check out genuine New Orleaners The Session (who offer a past-present take on their hometown’s music), or look out for the street sounds of the New York Brass Band (actually from old York, the cheeky buggers) or see how the Riot Jazz Brass Band dust up old New Orleans sounds with dancefloor, dubstep and drum-and-bass incursions. Hot jazz/Gypsy/jazz manouche aficionados can go for the loving recreations of 52 Skidoo (who promise you prohibition speakeasies, rent parties and Tin Pan Alley) or for Gypsies Of Bohemia, who manouche-ify latterday pop songs such as Heart Of Glass, Toxic and Hot In Herre. (Being Mancunian, they also do This Charming Man – I’ll bet that that high-life opening riff translates pretty well).

Of course, much of the fun of a jazz festival involves catching a lesser-known, or even unknown, band carving away at the edge, furiously discovering – and there are plenty of those here. Since they drew me into covering the festival in the first place, I’m going to put a particular word in for Jon Thorne’s Sunshine Brothers (playing at Matt & Phreds on 4th August) in which the double bass/laptop-wielding Jon teams up with drummer Rob Turner (of Blue Note-signed breakbeat jazz electronicists GoGo Penguin) and looping poly-genre bass guitarist Steve Lawson (a ‘Misfit City’ regular) for “a cutting-edge trio of genre-defying musicians mixing jazz, improvisation, electronic and filmic soundscapes to euphoric effect, evoking sounds far removed from their bass origins.”

However, you could just as easily catch a full performance by GoGo Penguin themselves; or by Lauren Kinsella’s Blue-Eyed Hawk, who offer “art-rock, jazz and electronic soundworlds: imaginative and emotive, from pindrop to powerhouse.” The Madwort Saxophone Quartet play intricate four-part math-jazz. “Power-jazz commando team” Taupe (a triple-city trio from Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh) punch around themes from jazz, hip hop and heavy metal. Craig Scott’s Lobotomy seem determined to take the cake for upfront experimental exhilaration this time around, delivering shout-outs to John Cage, Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, proclaiming a performance in which “experimental jazz rubs shoulders with electronica and DIY alternative rock in a bubbling cauldron of live and recorded sounds” and promising to sample and reconstruction their own improvisations live on stage.  There’ll also be a improvised summit involving bands associated with Manchester’s Efpi Records and Paris’ Onze Heures Onze collective.

One way into discovery is to take advantage of the free showcases for emerging bands. Care of the BBC’s ‘Jazz On 3’, London offers three bands – Nérija ( the all-female creative septet from the Tomorrow’s Warriors jazz school), the award-winning piano jazz of the Ashley Henry Trio and the decidedly psychedelic Phaze Theory (a quartet of drums, tuba, voice and guitar dedicated to “exploring the vastness of the musical cosmos”).

But perhaps it’s Jazz North’s Northern Line series that you should be checking out, showcasing bands from the north and the Midlands. Manchester offers the Iain Dixon/Les Chisnall Duo (whose repertoire of self-defined standards stretches from Messaien to Gracie Fields) and the John Bailey Quintet  (guitar-led, and similarly inspired by twentieth century classical music). Newcastle provides barrel-house blues and ballads from The Lindsay Hannon Plus and the tricky free jazz/folk/rock/dancefloor entwinings of the Graeme Wilson Quartet. Lancaster and Liverpool provide one act apiece – Andrew Grew’s “total improvisers” The Grew Quartet and the “gothic bebop” of Blind Monk Trio, who claim to fuse the spirit of Thelonius Monk with Persian traditional music and the heavy-rock attitude of Led Zeppelin and Nirvana’s heavy-rock attitude.

However, it’s Leeds (still underrated as a musical powerhouse despite the world-class output of its music college and the vigorous inventiveness of its bands) which dominates the Northern Line. As well as providing the previously-mentioned Pan Jumby, Leeds brings the Portuguese/African/Latin  and Indian song-fusions of Manjula, the Django Reinhardt swing of the Matt Holborn Quartet, Cameron Vale‘s ferociously energetic melange of jazz, metal, electronica, Afrobeat and Klezmer and the semi-electric “extreme, eerie to comic” improvisations of Tipping Point (featuring perpetual bad-boy pianist Matthew Bourne).  Friendly rivalry aside, there’s also co-operation: Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool all join forces in The Bugalu Foundation for a Latin barrio take on northern soul.

Around all of this jazz there’s the usual happy agglomeration of related music – not quite jazz in itself, but possibly sharing a drink or a roll-up somewhere along the way. The festival covers various popular outcropping such as soul (in assorted Northern, jazz and diva forms courtesy of The Juggernaut Love Band, Terry Shaltiel & The Soultroopers, Charlie Cooper & The CCs) but also ’60s/‘70s funk (Buffalo Brothers), ’70s Afrobeat and Ethiopian pop (Kalakuta), ska (Baked à la Ska) and mbalax (Mamadou & The Super Libidor Band). There’s even an alt-country act (Stevie Williams & The Most Wanted Band) sneaking in at the back door. As for rock’n’roll/folk/reggae/swing scavengers The Flat Cap 3… well, for starters, there’s only two of them, so you can be dubious about anything else you might read, but don’t let that put you off.

Three female songwriters are also bringing their bands, coming from a folk or world music zone and overlapping into jazz. Kirsty McGee leads her Hobopop Collective through a “joyful, dirty” sound drawing from gospel, blues and a collection of found instruments (including musical saw, waterphone, Humber hubcaps and metal buckets). The constantly shifting song landscapes of the Zoe Kyoti Trio draw from their leader’s Armenian and Greek heritage (as well as Cajun, European and Indian ideas). Saluting home-brewed British polyculture, Shama Rahman‘s ensemble explore her London home, her Bangladeshi roots, and her childhood memories of Middle Eastern desert landscapes in a “sitar,stories and song” melange of  jazz-inspired improvisation, classically-inspired melodies and folk-inspired storytelling accompanied by energetic rhythms of swing, funk, hip hop, bossa nova and drum’n’bass.

For parents of very young children, needing to balance a jazz fix with family responsibilities, there are a couple of fully interactive kids’ events with activities, storytelling and improvisations.  The Living Story Music Ensemble and illustrator Ann Gilligan collaborate on ‘I Have A Duck Who Can Roar’; the blues-and-roots-tinged Hillary Step Quartet work with storyteller Ursula Holden Gill and dancers from The Dalcroze Society for ‘How Monkey Found His Swing’. Once the kids are attended to, there are still interactive events for the grown-ups, whether you’re talking about the all-in jazz vinyl night, the mixed-genre dj sets by Mr Scruff, Franny Eubanks‘ open-door blues jam or (for the more technologically inquisitive)  Rodrigo Constanzo‘s showcasing of his dfscore software. The latter’s a creative music tool, cueing improvisers via graphical, visual and written clues: on this occasion, anyone with an instrument and a connectible smartphone/tablet/pad should be able to roll up and join in with the roar, joining some leading improvisers in performing music in tandem with the system.

For those remaining soundclips which I’ve not already snatched and pasted, visit the MJF Soundcloud page here … but better yet, if you’re anywhere near Manchester over the next few weeks, drop in at the festival (it’s hard to miss, considering that it’s not just hiding behind club doors but has effectively taken over the town’s main square for a fortnight). Seeing something this impressive light up and roll on fills me with delight – even if on this occasion I’m also filled with rue at not being able to go myself.  But never mind me…

More upcoming London gigs in early June – prog rock/math rock/post-hardcore @ The Facemelter; electro-pop/drum’n’brass/loops/experimental ambience @ Tuesdays Post; eclectic classical/experimental chamber music/kletzmer & Bulgarian voices @ The Forge

31 May

Some more early June gig previews for London – these would have been in the previous post if I’d picked up on them earlier.

Firstly, a Facemelter promotion (from the experimental rock/post-hardcore wing of the Chaos Theory organisation whose jazz gigs I’ve also enjoyed)…

Facemelter, 5th June 2015

Alright The Captain + Iran Iran + Porshyne @  The Facemelter (The Black Heart, 2-3 Greenland Place, Camden, London, NW1 0AP, Friday 5th June , 7.30pm

Three heroes of math rock, alternative and post-rock travel from different corners of the UK to unite and form this amazing lineup.

Derby-based trio Alright The Captain masterfully combine virtuosic instrumentalism with unabashed musical experimentation and have effortlessly established themselves as a sonic force to be reckoned with, thanks to their increasingly inimitable, uniquely imaginative brand of math-rock. Their sprawling and varied career has seen them sharing stages with post-rock luminaries including Mono, toe, 65daysofstatic, Pelican, Tera Melos, ASIWYFA, Maybeshewill, Adebisi Shank (RIP), This Will Destroy You, ZU and many more. Their new album ‘Contact Fix’ (which ‘Musical Mathematics’ describes as “div(ing)  in and out of math rock, prog and post rock – but, at its heart, it’s different”) has gone down a storm.

Iran Iran are another supremely talented bunch of musicians who stunned and impressed all who saw them at ArcTanGent last year. With insanely complex rhythms and thunderously heavy riffs, the four-piece from Bristol have evolved since their excellent first EP ‘Crystal Math’ and are packing a punch. They’ve played with Future Of The Left, Cleft, Alright The Captain, This Town Needs Guns, You Slut!, Alpha Male Tea Party, Death Pedals and many others. Fans of complex musical wizardry or heavy riffs will love their new EP ‘Milk Time For Spiders’.

Brightoners Porshyne dance between ambient intervals and melodic vocals to intensely intricate, fantastically crunchy  prog rock riffs. With just a few single releases and a session filmed by Small Pond Recordings, they already sold out their first headline show in Brighton. This is your chance to catch the band before their career takes off.

More info here and here, and tickets here (£5.00 advance, £7.00 on the door).

At the end of the same week, Georgina Brett’s Tuesdays Post event returns to Stoke Newington with another evening of ambient/progressive live music, including ‘Misfit City’ favourites Darkroom

event-20150607tuesdayspost

Minny Pops/Spaceheads/Darkroom/Georgina Brett & Hems @ Tuesdays Post, (The Others, 6 Manor Rd, London, N16 5SA, Friday 7th June, 7.00pm)

Formed by vocalist/band leader Wally van Middendorp in Amsterdam in 1978, Dutch electro pioneers Minny Pops took their name from a primitive Korg drum machine. The band released several singles and a debut album, Drastic Measures, Drastic Movement, on independent Dutch label Plurex before joining the legendary Manchester label Factory Records in 1980 (which resulted in them being produced by Martin Hannett, touring with both Joy Division and New Order, and becoming the first Dutch group to record a Peel Session). Singles including Dolphin’s Spurt, Secret Story and Time were followed by the acclaimed album ‘Sparks In A Dark Room’ in 1982. The band released two further albums (‘Poste Restante’ and ‘Fourth Floor’) before splitting in 1985. In 2012, the band reunited for a series of gigs in the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium and recorded a 7-inch single for Tim Burgess’ O Genesis label. After a pause to draw breath, 2014 has seen Minny Pops performing live once again.

Spaceheads are a cosmic duo of trumpet electronics and drums. Formed in 1990, they have developed a blend of electronics and sunshine fanfares over the course of ten albums, three EPs and much touring across Europe and the USA. Andy Diagram (also of James) plays trumpet with a mobile phone stuck to the top with a fish slice and Richard Harrison plays drums with big bendy metal sheets stuck to the top. They create live looped layers of brass driven by flurries of free flowing funky drums. Andy and Richard have achieved an intuition of what each is about to do next which makes their semi-improvised gigs a joy to behold. They release their first studio album in ten years – ‘A Short Ride On The Arrow of Time’ – this Autumn.

Darkroom – the UK-based duo of Michael Bearpark (guitars) and Andrew Ostler (synths)- expertly ride the line between luscious, old-school progressive rock and modern ambient electronics. At times reminiscent of early Tangerine Dream with hints of Fripp and Eno, they create clouds of sequenced synths, chewy grooves, and looped phrases to support a variety of acoustic and electric guitar melodies that twist and turn in surprising, occasionally aggressive, ways.

Hems Aka Henrique Matias will be playing live with Georgina Brett. Henrique is a multi-talented composer, programmer and DJ. He specialises in Multimedia programming (from internet things to Max/MSP and similars), although not all his live music and performances sounds like computer music (sometimes he takes his drum machines and crazy things out of the house). Georgina Brett’s music is created using her voice and effects pedals, creating instant choirs of sound, often in an hypnotic style. The point of this music is not only to captivate with extraordinary timing and melodic style but also to help the listener to relax in our ever-increasingly fast world.

Interactive visuals and multimedia projections are by Hanzo and Rucksack Cinema.

More information here – tickets £7.00 on the door.

By all accounts The Forge (in Camden Town) has spent the last few years becoming one of north London’s most interesting small venues for mixed music. I’ve yet to go there and see for myself: but in its full June calendar (also featuring funk, jazz, classical and Cuban music as well as assorted poetry) the following four concerts caught my interest:

Notus Winds & Eliza McCarthy (Wednesday 3nd June, 7.30pm)

Part of the classical monthly series Wednesdays at The Forge, this time featuring award-winning chamber ensemble Notus Winds and solo pianist Eliza McCarthy with a program of contemporary compositions (more information here). Tickets £10.00 to £12.00.

Programme:

Harrison Birtwistle – 5 Distances
György Ligeti – Ten Pieces
Arvo Pärt – Quintettino
Anders Hillborg – Six Pieces for Wind Quintet

Fenella Humphreys: Bach to the Future Part 1 (Tuesday 9th June, 7.30pm)

The first of three concerts presented by violinist Fenella Humphreys, featuring commissions of six new works by six of Britain’s leading composers to accompany Bach’s glorious 6 Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin. This first concert includes new works by Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Gordon Crosse alongside extraordinary music by Bach, Scott, Westhoff, Hindemith. Tickets £10.00 to £12.00.

Programme:

Cyril Scott – Bumble-Bees (1928)
Johann Paul von Westhoff – Suite no. 5 in D minor (1682)
Gordon Crosse – Orkney Dreaming (2014)
Fritz Kreisler – Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice op. 6 (1911)
Paul Hindemith – Sonata op. 31 no. 2 ‘Es ist so schönes Wetter draussen’ (1924)
Johann Sebastian Bach – Partita no. 3 in E major BWV 1006 (c. 1720)
Cheryl Frances-Hoad – Suite no. 1 (2014)
Eugene Ysaye – 2nd Sonata op. 27 (1923)

Reciprocity: a new work by Daniel Patrick Cohen (Wednesday 10th June, 7.00pm)

Reciprocity is a 28 minute work for voice, taped narration, eight celli, piano, and percussion. The piece was composed by Daniel Patrick Cohen from six poems by the late Darya Farha, a Canadian poet, therapist, filmmaker and clothing designer. Darya was an extraordinary woman whose sharp intelligence, dry wit, distaste for orthodoxies and boundless empathy fuelled restless journey through her unfinished life. Darya died of breast cancer in 2011 when she was 46, and Reciprocity was commissioned by her sister Juliana Farha, who lives in London. Reciprocity is not about cancer, however. Instead, its human and universal themes of joy, pleasure, fear and anger, along with its intriguing instrumentation are sure to engage a broad audience. You can read more on the project here, and here. Tickets £6.00.

She’Koyokh & Veda Slovena Bulgarian Choir (Thursday 11th June, 8.00pm)

In a unique collaboration, She’Koyokh & Veda Slovena Bulgarian Choir combine the fiery panache of klezmer and Balkan music with the timeless beauty of Bulgarian voices, weaving Jewish, Turkish and Balkan music into the rich tapestry of the Bulgarian choral tradition. Read She’Koyokh’s piece on their Veda Slovena collaboration here. Tickets £10.00 to £12.00.

(All events taking place at The Forge, 3-7 Delancey Street, London, NW1 7NL)

CONCERT REVIEW – The Bochmann Quartet (performing Keith Burstein’s ‘String Quartet No. 1 – ‘Dance Of Death/Dream Of Love’) @ Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution, Highgate, London, UK, sometime in 2002 (“rich, dissenting harmonies… the discolorations of love”)

28 Aug

Outside it’s a dark and rainy night in Highgate. Random and forceful, the wind lashes a miserable drizzle against the Highgate Lit and Sci’s bright white rational walls and skylighted roof. Sometimes, nature just cues you in.

Initially it seems perverse for the Bochmann Quartet to sandwich Keith Burstein’s new composition between two gems of classical string assurance (Mozart’s Quartet In G, K387 and Beethoven’s Quartet In F Opus 18 No. 1). As a latterday composer, surely Burstein’s work belongs with the moderns… whoever they are in these days of “post”s and “quasi”s.

But maybe not. Burstein’s “post-atonal” compositions are far from the deconstructed chance/hazard/subjective strategy of the varied Cage and Stockhausen traditions, from the shocking trills and tangles of Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle (one British compositional generation up) or even from the complex, angry clash of his near-contemporary Mark-Anthony Turnage. Also, his passionate defense of a renewed respect for traditional tonality suggests he’s spinning back towards the arms of classical music, where the breadth of human emotion can be represented in harmonious, resolvable tone colours; and where every piece contains all the pointers to a final flourish, a final satisfying closure of emotion before the dignified applause.

Well… not quite. The actual separation is made explicit by the Bochmanns’ assured navigation of Mozart’s enlightened equations beforehand, and by their stately walkthrough of Beethoven’s forest moods afterwards: each of them eminently satisfying. It’s not just the qualities of musicianship from all four players – committed and graceful throughout. It’s the way that those familiar pieces, rich in harmony and involvement, leave a pure satisfaction in their wake. In the face of jagged modernist upheaval and playful post-modernist scatter, our educated, structured culture still prizes its rationality: the patterns of classical music run through this, reassuring us that whatever emotions we go through, all will pass to resolution. Of all compositions, string quartets (as Bochmann cellist Peter Adams reminds us) were once considered the pinnacle of composed music – that which implies an ideal for living, for feeling.

Burstein’s String Quartet No. 1 (which sports, with an antique and near-mediaeval directness, the subtitle of “Dance Of Death/Dream Of Love”) reflects this particular ideal and its associated duty far more than does the dissonance and overt chaos of modernity and post-modernity. Yet as a composer Burstein remains too honest to simply copy the balance of classical music’s ideals. Marked by different times (when ideals are less easy to envisage, let alone achieve) this string quartet is rooted in an earlier Burstein composition – ‘This Year’s Midnight”, a choral meditation on the Holocaust. It draws on the bitter nourishment of bereavement; and of the splintered confusion when the rudder of faith snaps and incomprehensible chaos seems to have moved in for good. Contained in a shell of formal behaviour and formal tonality, it illustrates disturbance with diffident, insinuating elegance.

Movement 1 (Farewell) builds out of gently interleaving, swelling tonal planes – each instrument alternating through slow arcs of intensity, circulating restlessly. An elegy, for certain, but one in which decorum and dissension mix like the conflicting undercurrents of grief at a death. Complex emotions are hauled up skittering into the open; a disagreeing family protesting mutely and piecemeal at the funeral speeches, their disagreement only in betrayed by the shifting of tense shoulders and the blur of lips. Similar in its morbid beauty to the disturbed vigil-music of Billy Strayhorn’s Blood Count, Farewell is tolled to silence by Adams’ tense cello before Burstein conjures an aspirant, wounded passage with a translucent John Taverner frugality. Launched achingly upwards, it’s kept airborne by the Bochmann Quartet’s gritted bowing: both composition and performance feeling like the heroic efforts of straining birds’ wings.

As a counterweight – a celebration of ongoing lives and commitments in the face of loss – Movement 2 (Paradiso) is a wedding dedication. Filled with serenity, lofted on a bluesy cello arpeggio, its aspirational qualities are still shaded by rich, dissenting harmonies. Here, Burstein seems to have captured the discolorations of love. He illustrates its small perversities, the need for steering, the impossibility of a pure love in a troubled world, but the sheer necessity of striving towards it.

Keith Burstein: ‘String Quartet No. 1 (Dance Of Death/Dream Of Love’) – 2nd movement: ‘Paradiso’ (performed by The Bochmann Quartet)

The third movement, Animato Nervosa, seems to show the alternative – or what happens if loss and fear are allowed to overshadow life. Distracted and lonely, it suggests a neurotic correctness forever threatened by worry. The vivid spectre of collapse tugs constantly at its order and structure, the disturbance led by Adams’ increasingly aggressive cello lines. More brittle than the preceding movements, it’s also more obvious in its violence. The title is as much medical as musical – the dissension hovering in Farewell is ingrained here. It’s more personal, more destructive in the fierce shying of the melodies; and it’s here that the Bochmann Quartet show a darker mettle in the broken, conflicting string lines. As Adams delivers a final growling, twisted stab, there’s a tense pause; then Helen Roberts replies – and seals the movement – with a vicious snap of viola strings.

The fourth and final movement (Totentanz/Liebestraum) sees Burstein draw more sharply on the Jewish music in his background and on the collective bereavement which informed The Year’s Midnight. The nervous jazzy energy and cartoonish structures of Kletzmer folk music simultaneously energize the piece and seem to set it up for wreckage. In the rush of the dance, Michael Bochmann and Mark Messenger deliver bold violin strokes which grow gradually more and more frantic, almost leaping backwards onto each other’s toes. All is suddenly cut off, leaving all four musicians rocking precariously on the brink of a void. From here, the Quartet seem to be picking up pieces of music and attempting fearfully to rethread them on a sobre spine of cello. At last, love’s dream melody arrives – but as comforting as it is, it’s also shot through with trauma (not least by the return of the tolling cello from the first movement).

Burstein’s work is more tuneful and more polite than much of what we’re accustomed to from today’s abrasive, bullishly challenging concert-hall premieres. But in its mannered English way, it’s just as confrontational about the fears that beset us.

The Bochmann Quartet (Michael Bochmann) online:
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Keith Burstein online:
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Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution online:
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