For Music, a Fall Deluge of Performances Is Beginning
The summertime classical calendar tends to be light even under normal circumstances — so during a lingering pandemic, it can seem almost …
The summertime classical calendar tends to be light even under normal circumstances — so during a lingering pandemic, it can seem almost nonexistent.
But now comes the deluge, Delta variant be damned. Over the past few days, New York audiences had the chance to catch live sets from two well-regarded groups presenting fresh repertoire. And those sets had connections to even more worthy ensembles debuting new material.
On Saturday the Attacca Quartet played a heavily amplified yet lovingly textured program for hundreds in Prospect Park, as part of the Celebrate Brooklyn festival. (The pop group San Fermin headlined the evening.) In a half-hour sprint that managed not to feel rushed, the group played excerpts from its July debut on the Sony Classical label: the dance music-suffused (but somehow not schticky) “Real Life.”
Joined for some selections by the percussionist Shayna Dunkelman, Attacca performed propulsive arrangements of music by Flying Lotus, and an excerpt from Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 3 — featured on the group’s next Sony album, out in November. The set was balanced with tender movements from Caroline Shaw’s “Plan and Elevation,” which the quartet recorded for the Nonesuch and New Amsterdam labels in 2019.
Sunday evening brought the New York City premiere of the composer and multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey’s “For George Lewis,” performed by Alarm Will Sound on the final night of this year’s Time Spans festival, at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in Manhattan. The group’s recording of the work came out nearly simultaneously on the Cantaloupe label, so “For George Lewis” registered not only as a clear highlight of the concerts I caught during the final week of Time Spans, but also of the year in albums.
The piece stands on its own, though here’s a bit of context. When Lewis, a composer, improviser and scholar, released the electroacoustic “Homage to Charles Parker” in 1979, his tribute didn’t waste any time imitating Parker’s quicksilver sound. With Lewis playing trombone, organ and electronics, his austere then emotive work managed to honor its dedicatee by generating new stylistic possibilities within an existing tradition — just as Parker had done.
Now Sorey, long mentored by Lewis, has echoed the favor. Largely constructed from slowly but steadily alternating pools of close-harmony dissonance, “For George Lewis” doesn’t immediately recall Lewis’s recent wry, riotous music for orchestra and chamber ensembles. And though its overall arc moves gradually from grit to melodic flowering, Sorey’s aesthetic also remains distinct from Lewis’s Parker homage.
Instead, as “Homage to Charles Parker” was true to Lewis, so “For George Lewis” is true to Sorey. The fully notated piece has close connections to the music that Sorey has composed for his own improvising trio, on albums like “Alloy.” The first minute and change of “For George Lewis” is dominated by sustained flute tones, and brooding piano figures redolent of somber ritual. But the subtle addition of a pair of vibraphonists quickly banishes any sense of things being on autopilot. Nearly (but not quite) synchronous hits from each mallet-wielding player give the still-quiet dynamics a crucial edge.
These are the kinds of details that keep “For George Lewis” feeling urgent over its nearly hourlong duration. On Saturday, in the intimate room at the DiMenna Center, I savored evidence of Sorey’s catholic tastes. Pungently vibrating violins were reminiscent of early Minimalist pioneers like Tony Conrad; occasionally plunging complexity in the woodwinds had the dramatic verve of later Stockhausen; toward the end, lines for a mellow fluegelhorn recalled the Miles Davis of “Miles Ahead.” But the pacing — and the attentiveness to timbral blends — was pure Sorey.
The rest of Alarm Will Sound’s new album is no less striking. A second disc is devoted to Sorey’s “Autoschediasms” pieces. Inspired by the “Conduction” system developed (and trademarked) by Butch Morris and the “language music” of Anthony Braxton, these improvisational pieces, cued by Sorey as conductor, need the right interpreters. And Alarm Will Sound has become, to my ear, one of his greatest partners for such exercises — whether live or over videoconferencing software.
“Autoschediasms” wasn’t the only reminder of Butch Morris’s influence over the weekend. Before the Attacca Quartet’s set, I saw the veteran avant-rock, funk and jazz outfit Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber perform twice at the Brooklyn Museum, part of the opening celebration for the touring exhibition of Barack and Michelle Obama’s official portraits.
A group of 15 instrumentalists and vocalists were led by the group’s co-founder and conductor, Greg Tate, the pathbreaking cultural critic who cites Morris’s “Conduction” style as the glue that holds together Bunt Sugar’s post-everything aesthetic. Aspects of Sun Ra and Funkadelic commingled from one moment to the next, with Tate using Morris-inspired gestures to spur sudden deviations from the band’s recorded versions. During the final minutes of “Angels Over Oakanda,” the title track from the group’s coming Sept. 23 release, Tate sped up the already heated rendition into a new realm of fervid frenzy.
Veterans of both the Time Spans festival and of Burnt Sugar’s past lineups appeared together on another album released over the weekend.
The Wet Ink Ensemble cellist Mariel Roberts (who premiered a new piece at Time Spans) and the former Burnt Sugar violinist Mazz Swift have each contributed strong solo features to the composer and saxophonist Caroline Davis’s stirring new album “Portals Vol. 1: Mourning,” released by the Sunnyside imprint.
Roberts’s scabrous then lyrical cello can be heard on “Hop On Hop Off,” while Swift’s improvisatory contributions help start the track “Left.” But as with both Sorey and Burnt Sugar, improvisation is only part of the draw. The rest comes from Davis’s supple compositional art — which mixes muscular dexterity with emotional vulnerability in a way that’s rare in both the contemporary chamber music and improvisational scenes.
A version of the group heard on “Portals” — which incorporates a string quartet plus Davis’s regular improvising quintet — will appear at the Jazz Gallery on Sept. 10. But even for those who are not yet comfortable attending concerts, the album version is a sign among many that at-home listening, too, is gaining energy with the coming of fall.