Music at First started back up again September 2, with its first-ever benefit concert, graciously given by pianist Kathleen Supové and guitarist James Moore, who paired up for their debut as A Musical Sacrifice. Check out my video clips from the concert above, and, as always, be sure to wear headphones so as to get all the nuance-y goodness out of the fine pieces they played.

From the delicate Lou Harrison transcriptions played by James to Lainie Fefferman’s dramatic, trill-based “Barnacles”–love the sound of Kathleen banging on the low strings–to the bombastic opening of John Zorn’s “Piece XIV” from Sebastopol, the concert was a satisfying mix of new music sounds from both established and younger contemporary composers. This also included whisper-quiet selections from Larry Polansky’s Songs and Toods and Lisa R. Coons’ jagged “A Quiet Struggle”–which had James dragging childrens’ chopsticks between fretboard and strings.

Perhaps the most striking piece on the program was Marita Bolles’ “Buddha Girl,” which blended portions of an interview with a woman who lost her daughter in the 9/11 attacks with atmospheric piano and electronics accompaniment. Beautifully performed by Kathleen, the result was painfully moving.

Debuting as A Musical Sacrifice, James and Kathleen alternated interviewing each other about their solo selections, as well as asking for a stray-object-sacrifice from the audience (I put a wine cork in the basket). They ended the concert as a duo with Nick Didkovsky’s “She Closes Her Sister With Heavy Bones,” an angular, charged piece that had prepared piano and guitar weaving in and out of synch with each other in a kind of spiky dance.

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Some belated thoughts on the May 2oth Music at First show: Margaret Lancaster (featured above in a video by Jon Williams) used the multifaceted space and her training as an actor and dancer to create a riveting performance.  Communicating a furtive, skittish persona, Margaret started her set up in the organ loft for the first two pieces (by Paul Steenhuisen and Corey Dargel; I unfortunately missed these do to door duties!), and then scampered down to the front of the church, still in character, into a chair explosion of her own making. From here she performed Arthur Kampela’s hyperkinetic “Happy Days,” in which she squeaked and squealed in between lightning-fast melody fragments on the flute and piccolo.

Moving to the middle of the stage area, she performed Paula Matthusen’s “Forgiveness Anthems,” and Wil Smith’s “Black Book,” both for flute and electronic track. In Paula’s piece, the flute line lived inside a semi-pitched electronic world, sounding at times underwater. Wil’s subtly expressive piece laid down a bed of ominous dial tones over which Margaret played, some of the flute’s tones seeming to splinter off into the track and sustain, the piece conveying the many and varied emotions associated with dialing certain phone numbers. Margaret finished her set behind the lectern, appropriately performing JacobTV’s “Jesus Is Coming,” arranged for Lancaster by Milica Paranosic for flute and electronics, which had Margaret playing along with pre-recorded flute tracks (of herself playing) and “found” recordings of baby laughs and histrionic preachers. JacobTV’s clever aligning of the flute line with the found recordings in rhythmic unison created a kind of heterophonous effect, in which the flute seemed to be playing the “melody” of the preacher’s expostulations and the baby’s hiccups.

I had the privilege of singing in Eric km Clark‘s piece, rosebud: Deprivation Music No. 10—Music at First’s first ever commission—which was quite a unique performance experience for me. The piece was divided into two big sections: in the first section, the singers received pre-recorded instructions (sometimes also following a score) and sang accordingly, and in the second section, the recording of the first section was mixed and played over the speakers while the singers were free to walk around the room, and “optional organist” Wil Smith played on the organ.

In the first minute and a half of the video above, which was shot by Music at First staffer Ruben Etienne, you see eight singers wearing blindfolds and headphones, creating the core material of the playback. In the rest of the video, you see my recording of a part of the second section, wandering around the space to hear different facets of the newly created piece and visit Wil up in the organ loft. Though the vocal part was pretty challenging (some of the notes were really high!), interpretation was encouraged, which was a very liberating feeling for someone whose day-job involves always playing the “right” notes (I’m also an organist), a feeling intensified by the fact that we in the choir were pointedly discouraged from interacting with each other or the audience via the use of the blindfolds and headphones, which was not as unsettling as I though it would be!

Music at First will begin its Fall season in September.

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Very belatedly, I’m here to tell you about two amazing performances I saw on March 25 at Wil Smith‘s Music at First series in Brooklyn (you can watch video clips from both sets above).

First up was soprano Mellissa Hughes, starting off with “i carry your heart” by Ted Hearne, a dark and angular piece based on a text by e. e. cummings. This was  followed by Eric Shanfield‘s buoyant Off the Deep End, (text by Matthea Harvey) in which Mellissa’s voice leapt in sweet high notes over the rocky accompaniment. Gabriel Kahane‘s Craigslist Lieder evoked quite a few laughs from the audience as Mellissa sang unintentionally humorous craigslist posts set to ironic music (check out stellar pianist Timo Andres singing backup in “Two years ago, my sister and I…”). For the next two pieces Mellissa sang along to a track, first in the ethereal, electronica-vibed Silver Threads by Jacob Cooper, and then in the beautifully pathos-laden Last Words from Texas by Corey Dargel (stream Corey singing this piece on his NYT profile), based on the last words spoken by executed offenders in Texas. The speeding up and slowing down of the track in “Date of execution May 13 2010”  seemed to evoke the offender’s terrified heartbeat, while the track in “Date of execution May 4 2006” was tragically serene.  “Date of execution February 11 2004” found Mellissa singing the last words (“Jesus is Lord”) in an ascending stratospheric line. For the last piece, I [XX] by Matt Marks, with texts by Royce Vavrek, Mellissa was joined by the Brooklyn Brass Quintet. The brass tones seamlessly backed the vocal line, as Mellissa sang suggestively humorous lyrics (the titles of the movements were “I Didn’t,” “I Tasted,” and “I Pretended”) that made me blush (no really).  Overall, the set was an excellent mix of dark and light, and showcased Mellissa’s captivating versatility both as singer and performer.

In a complete mood shift, Lorna Dune (aka Lorna Krier) performed her set, Selected Saccharine Songs without Words, surrounded by synthesizers up in the organ loft with the lights out, the only illumination coming from projected images on the ceiling (provided by video artist Jon Williams).  Seated in the balconies, the audience could dimly make out the shape of Lorna as she hovered over an array of technology to create sweeping sounds that seemed to fill the entire sanctuary.  The music was (as the title suggests) sweet, but in a genuine way, optimistic melodies and robust atmospheres ballooning out and gently carrying the audience off into its fantasy. Lorna was joined for the last piece by two members of Dream Massage (Stephen Griesgraber and Peter Pearson) and Eleonore Oppenheim on bass.

Be sure to check out the next Music at First show, on May 20th, featuring Margaret Lancaster and Eric km Clark’s Deprivation Choir!

I’ve been helping out with the excellent Music at First Series this year, which is run and curated by my good friend, composer Wil Smith, and features the newest music and freshest talent that NYC has to offer in the way of experimental music.  Held at First Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn Heights (where Wil is also the organist), I was able to shoot some short video clips of both of the sets from the first performance of 2011, which you can see above (warning! the clip contains some strong language).

Pianist David Friend stunned with radical pieces and perfectly controlled energy.  The first piece on his set was Aorta, by fellow Transit member Daniel Wohl (I unfortunately didn’t get any video clips of this meditative piece, but I urge you to listen to it on Daniel’s website).  Next up was the churning Sensitive Spot by Kate Moore, which featured live David playing along with several pre-recorded Davids, all playing the same track.  Probably the most shocking piece on the set was JacobTV‘s Cities Change the Songs of Birds, in which sound-bytes of homeless and drug-addicted women from NYC talking about their lives are mercilessly played over a piano part that skillfully merges with the spoken word and transforms the women’s pain and bitterness into something astonishingly beautiful.  David’s belief in the message of this piece was palpable in his passionate performance.  Next up was the world premiere of Angélica Negrón‘s the peculiar purple pieman of porcupine peak for piano, electronics and desk bells, followed by Christopher Marianetti‘s I think it would be beating a dead dog if we do anything but present this statement, which had David playing an athletic piano part while also rhythmically speaking the title of the piece.

For the second set, singer and composer Corey Dargel charmed the audience with his six-song art/pop cycle, Hold Yourself Together, with Wil on synthesizers and James Moore on guitars.  This was the third time I’d heard this cycle, and I have to say I love it more each time I hear it.  The lyrics are witty and sad in the vein of Morrissey, and the music is so one-of-a-kind that it’s hard to capture in one word.  How about “artfully-structured catchy-pretty”?

Stay tuned for a review of yesterday’s Music at First concert, which featured soprano Mellissa Hughes and synthesizer-player Lorna Dune.  Upcoming MaF performances:

April 8th – Janus Trio and Mantra Percussion

May 20th – Margaret Lancaster and Eric km Clark‘s Deprivation Choir