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REVIEW: MusicNOW Fest (Sufjan Stevens, Amiina, My Brightest Diamond…) Cincinnati, April 2007

9th Apr 07 (Mon) 5 comments

I’ll start this 1st review by saying that I truly feel fortunate to live in the city that is hosting this truly wonderful MusicNow Festival. It is elegantly and professionally put together and a trove of new and exciting music (many of the pieces from last night were world premieres).

Music Now Festival – April 5, 2007 (Day 1)
Memorial Hall, Cincinnati, OH

http://musicnowfestival.org/

Pedro Soler:
selected works for solo guitar
We showed up a little late (maybe only 10 minutes), but luckily there were some fabulous seats up near the front left. Pedro plays an amazing flamenco guitar. Very much a virtuoso. I’d say the music was not quite noodling, but also not quite all that melodic either — sort of a cross-between. His technique was fascinating to watch, and it was oft stunning. He played probably 50 minutes or so, ended with a standing ovation. He’s 68 or 69 years old and a world renowned flamenco guitarist, but this is apparently his first tour of the U.S. — with Cincinnati being one of the first dates. Bizarre choice in city to start.

Bryce Dessner’s “Memorial” (2006):
Bryce Dessner (guitar), David Cossin (percussion), Padma Newsome (viola)
This piece for trio showed off some great playing and composition. It was originally composed for the New York Guitar Festival to show off Bryce’s Spanish guitar playing. I’d say it was probably 10-15 minutes (no idea really) with some flair and highlights from Padma and David as well. David’s percussion on this piece made us excited for the next piece…

Tan Dun’s “Water Music” for solo percussion (2007):
David Cossin (percussion)
This was a third arrangement of Dun’s “Water Music.” The initial being for percussion and orchestra and the 2nd being for a percussion quartet. The solo percussion from David Cossin was brilliant and subtley played. Not brilliant in the Alanis “My Humps” way, but brilliant in the soundscapes and avant-garde asthetic kinda way. :P His main “drums” were two big plastic bowls… BIG bowls (10 gallons each is my guess). The opening was a rainfall from a colander. Next up was an odd-looking bulb with water in it, and a stem with strings (or spokes) that David played with a cello bow. It made primarily shreeking, dissonant noises; but then he warbled it around near the mic and the water in the bulb at the base ossilated the sound. Quite neato. He then went on to play different cymbals over (and in) the water and different depths with different mallets, sticks, et cetera. Two of the cooler parts of the set — 1) the wooden bowls of different sizes placed upside-down over the water… think “water tom” drums. Nice, full sounds… he played these with bigger tympani-like sticks, as well as with his hands. And 2) the water trombone… it was a clear boxy basin of water with a clear, slender tube in it. He hit it with something that resembled a Croc shoe (but wasn’t), and he raised the tube up and down. Again, “water trombone” is the best description.

Anyway, I’m a fan of one-man musical freak-shows (That1Guy, Buckethead) and a fan of composed and avant-garde music (Zorn, Zappa, et al). This was a pleasant combination of all three of those aspects of experimental music. David Cossin’s performance wins my “surprise enjoyment” award for the evening. Surpise in that I didn’t know so many artists were playing Thursday night, but I’m glad he did. The other musicians that evening were also probably glad that their gear wasn’t set up too near his 20 gallons or so of water… as some of it made its way on to the stage.

Maria Huld Markan’s “Thorri” (2007):
Hildur Ársælsdóttir (saw), David Cossin (marimba), Osso Quartet: Maria Jeffers (cello), Marla Hansen (viola), Oliver Manchon (violin), Rob Moose (violin)
Written by Markan of Amiina and performed here for the first time in public… it had a good vibe. Very much like most chamber music I’ve heard, but with a slight world feel (marimba) and oddities from the saw. It wasn’t as captivating/electronic as Amiina’s music, but I enjoyed it. Maria’s intro to it was funny. The title of the piece (Thorri) is all about what Icelanders call the Jan/Feb period in winter. They have a festival where they eat traditional, yet disgusting foods… “rotten shark” and “sour ram testicles” were uttered in an accent that was not-unlike that of Björk. Quaint. Anyway, she wrote the piece in London because she missed the bright, crisp winters she had in Iceland while suffering through a grey, rainy London winter. Great music, too…

Sufjan Stevens’ selections from Enjoy Your Rabbit arranged for string quartet (2007):
Michael Atkinson (arrangements), Osso Quartet: Maria Jeffers (cello), Marla Hansen (viola), Oliver Manchon (violin), Rob Moose (violin)

Enjoy Your Rabbit is Sufjan’s experimental, instrumental electronic album. When I first got in to Sufjan, I actually liked this album the best (it’s fucking weird as was what I was craving musically at the time). Anyway, “selections from Enjoy Your Rabbit arranged for string quartet” was actually one of the biggest draws for me for this festival in the first place. I heart Enjoy Your Rabbit; and, bonus, I heart string quartets. The formerly unnamed string quartet (named themselves “Osso” {aw-so} from the stage last night) played the selections in a very chamber music way, but paying attention to the electronic blips-and-beeps from the original by vocally “shushing,” playing pizzicato, and plucking or beating on their instruments to translate the electronic structure for their organic instruments. They played what I figured they would… the more melodic tunes from the album: Year of the Ox, Enjoy Your Rabbit, Year of the Lord, and Year of the Boar. Great stuff, and I was thrilled to be part of this world premiere.


Padma Newsome / Clogs Songs (2007):
Shara Worden (vocals), Sufjan Stevens (vocals, banjo, celeste), Padma Newsome (vocals, viola, harmonium, celeste), Rachel Elliott (bassoon, celeste), Thomas Kozumplik (percussion), David Cossin (percussion), Aaron Dessner (bass, guitar), Bryce Dessner (mandola, ukelele, guitar), Maria Jeffers (cello), Marla Hansen (viola), Oliver Manchon (violin), Rob Moose (violin), Michael Atkinson (horn), Irena & Vojt–ch Havel (cellos)
Another world premiere… the Clogs had heretofore been primarily an instrumental band. This collaborative Clogs (fronted by Padma Newsome and Bryce Dessner) featured more “traditional” song structures and *gasp* vocals. Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) lended her operatic voice to the first three songs (“On the Edge,” “The Owl of Love,” and “The Adages of Cleansing”). She’s got a beautiful voice, but I don’t think it matched well with the songs. Viola-playing Padma switched to vocals and harmonium for the 4th song (“Red Seas”). Sufjan joined the percussionist to play the celeste (like a super-sized toy piano). The Osso string quartet also joined the band for some songs (I forget which ones). The last song (“We Were Here”) featured Sufjan on vocals and banjo and Shara Worden came out and sang with Sufjan. All in all, a great set…

I’m looking forward to Day 2 (Amiina & My Brightest Diamond) and 3 (The Havels & Sufjan).

Music Now Festival – April 6, 2007 (Day 2)
Memorial Hall, Cincinnati, OH

http://musicnowfestival.org/

Amiina:
Maria Huld Markan Sugjusdóttir, Hildur Ársælsdóttir, Edda Rún Ólafsdóttir, Sólrún Sumarliadóttir
I like Amiina a lot, having seen them open for Sigur Rós several times, and this show didn’t disappoint. It was good to pick up their debut LP (Kurr) without having to pay tons in shipping. Their sound also featured some gentle vocals in several tracks, which is a new direction for them. It almost seemed to Enya-y for me, but that’s OK. Maybe it’ll replace Bob Johnson‘s Musings as our house’s 1 massage CD (“oh no, not Bob Johnson!“). I dug their hour long set — it was a good mix of the string/organic sound and electronics. It was a very similar set-up as previous shows… instruments everywhere and the girls roaming about and playing just about everything. The saw song (“Seoul”) was played. They also had a short last song where all four girls played saws of various lengths. I can’t say I saw that coming…  :D

My Brightest Diamond:
Shara worden (vocals, guitar, piano), Osso Quartet: Maria Jeffers (cello), Marla Hansen (viola), Oliver Manchon (violin), Rob Moose (violin)
Shara Worden’s been a favorite vocalist of mine since I first heard her on MySpace. Bring Me the Workhorse, her debut album under the My Brightest Diamond moniker (she has three discs as AwRy), was one of my favorite CDs in 2006. Anyway, I knew what to expect going in, but she still blew me away. Her vocals are quite possibly the richest, most beautiful in indie rock. She’s got the delicate, quirky pixie side and the grandiose, powerful operatic side. It’s compelling to see her sing. The last time I saw her, she had more of a rock-meets-strings setup. This time around, her backing band was solely the Osso string quartet (no drums/bass). I scribbled down the song titles, but I know I’m guessing on some in the italics (she didn’t give the name, or I forgot it/couldn’t hear her totally)… Apples (a very cute song), Dragonfly (from Workhorse), If I Were Queen, Bass Player (a new song), Disappear (from Workhorse), Goodbye Forever (which had the lyrics “A Thousand Shark’s Teeth” which will be her new album title), Clean Through, Gone Away (from Workhorse), Riding Horses (from her AwRy Quiet B-Sides disc), New Dawn/Day/Life (Nina Simone standard), Golden Star (from Workhorse), Black and Gusteaux (the French Sherlock Holmes), Youkali (gorgeous French lyrics, a cover from her AwRy Quiet B-Sides disc). A fantastic performance.

Sufjan is tonight… Shara and the Osso quartet will be backing him. yay!

Music Now Festival – April 7, 2007 (Day 3)
Memorial Hall, Cincinnati, OH

http://musicnowfestival.org/

Irena & Vojtech Havel:
cellos, piano strings, piano
The sister of festival curator Bryce Dessner went to Prague in the mid-80’s and bought a CD by the Havels and brought it home. That CD would shape Bryce’s musical interests as he progressed into songwriting. He essentially went on a 15-20 year hunt for this band from Prague, but finally made contact last year in order to bring them to Cincinnati to play at this festival (made possible by a grant from the Ohio Arts Council). Some people in the audience might not have liked the Havels, but I thought they were quite compelling to watch – – except for perhaps when Irena was singing (I liked it more when they were both cello-ing). They played for about an hour, 10 minutes of which was vocal and the rest was all instrumental – – chiefly avant-garde, but more composed in nature than noodling, IMO. There was some bird chirping and kittie meowing cello lines, but there were also some more standard scales. Their dual cello work was all over the place, but still structured, sort of. I loved it when they were complimenting each other (one upbeat, one downbeat). I also liked some of the more adventurous plucking below the bridge and almost strumming the cello like a guitar (rather than pizzicato). Their second to last bit was of both of them playing the piano, Irena sitting and after Vojt–ch finished on the cello he came around and played on her right, then, while standing started playing on both her right and left. It was sweet and romantic.

Sufjan Stevens:
Sufjan Stevens (vocals, guitar, banjo, piano, harmonium, celeste), Shara Worden (vocals, celeste, piano), Bryce Dessner (guitar), Michael Atkinson (horn), Rachael Elliott (bassoon), Padma Newsome (viola), Osso Quartet: Maria Jeffers (cello), Marla Hansen (viola), Oliver Manchon (violin), Rob Moose (violin)

The first time I saw Sufjan live, he and his band dressed up as cheerleaders. The second time I saw him live, he had on huge bird wings, and his band had on butterfly wings. This time, it was all about the music… no costume gimmicks. He and his lovely string-based band put on a great show. Probably my only regret in setlist was that they didn’t play “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From the Dead!! Ahhhh!” (my favorite from Illinoise), but all-in-all, it was a great-sounding, moving set… hour and a half, I think.

Here are the songs that they played (I’m not claiming 100% accuracy)…

  • “Jupiter to June” (titled guess… song from way back in his unreleased conceptual songbook about the planets)
  • “Dad’s Girlfriend” (titled guess… Sufjan on solo banjo… song about one of his dad’s crazy girlfriends)
  • Three Stars (new one?)
  • The Avalanche (from the vinyl & iTunes version of Come on Feel the Illinoise and the CD version of The Avalanche)
  • All the Trees of the Fields Will Clap Their Hands (from Seven Swans)
  • The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us! (from Illinoise)
  • Casimir Pulaski Day (from Illinoise)
  • John Wayne Gacy, Jr. (from Illinoise)
  • Come On! Feel The Illinoise! (Part 1: The World’s Columbian Exposition; Part 2: Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream) (from Illinoise)
  • “???” (a new one… I think I zoned out)
  • The Transfiguration (from Seven Swans)
  • Year of the Boar (played by the string quartet, Osso… from Enjoy Your Rabbit)
  • Seven Swans (from Seven Swans)
  • ENCORE: To Be Alone With You (Sufjan solo guitar… from Seven Swans)

It seemed heavy on the Seven Swans/Jebus-y stuff, but seeing as it was “Zombie Carpenter Eve” this night, I understand why… there also may have been an instrumental or two from Michigan and/or Illinoise that I didn’t know the name — thus it didn’t make it in my notes…

Fantastic festival. Day 2 was probably the most favorite, but all three days were utterly enjoyable.

~Dan

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