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The Infinite Worlds of Arthur Russell

At first, Charles Arthur Russell was just Charley. Growing up in Iowa during the Fifties and Sixties, Charley vacationed in the Midwest and Mexico with his parents and two sisters. As a teenager, Charley decided he wanted to be called Arthur. When he moved to Northern California in 1968 and found his way into a Buddhist commune, he was renamed Jigmé. It didn’t last. But he settled on Arthur when he moved to New York in 1973 at twenty-two, bringing all his places and names with him.

Before dying of AIDS-related illnesses in 1992, at forty, Russell checked off many boxes, usually at the same time. But his vision of small and large ensemble work with the unspecified duration of a Buddhist mantra and the hubcap glow of a Beach Boys single was no easy sell — at least, not until his records were reissued in the early 21st century. Now people move to New York because of Arthur.

Russell played in rock bands, wrote folk songs, produced rubbery disco epics, and inverted most of the forms he participated in. First, though, he was a cellist studying both Indian and Western classical music. Once in New York, Russell worked on a hybrid of notation and improvisation he had begun developing in San Francisco. In 1973, he finished an open-ended piece called “City Park,” which used bits of poems by Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. Russell’s professor at the Manhattan School of Music, serialist composer Charles Wuorinen, reacted by saying, “That’s the most unattractive thing I’ve ever heard.” (There is no recording of “City Park,” so we cannot replay this match.)

Russell performing in 1979 at the Kitchen, where he served as musical director in the mid-Seventies.

By April of 1979, Russell was concentrating on dance tracks. Though he had put out a single on Sire Records, he was no more at home inside the pop industry than he had been at an uptown college. After hearing Russell’s submission to Warner Brothers, a&r man Michael Ostin submitted a handwritten note. He described Russell’s “instrumental performance” as “uneventful”; the “vocal performance” prompted Ostin to write, “This guys [sic] in trouble.” His summary: “Who knows what this guy is up to — you figure it out — give me a break.”

Russell was up to many things. Another of his inventions was a form of pop using the tools of modern classical, sort of. With little more than a cello, a fuzz pedal, and very quiet vocals, Russell created a body of songs that were economical, sweet, and pop-smart, with a slippery tonality that suggested neither Top 40 nor lieder. The first album in this style, World of Echo, came out in 1986 on a label called Upside that was also releasing records by Jonathan Richman and the Woodentops. The reaction from critics was almost uniformly positive, but the first pressing of World of Echo sold fewer than a thousand copies. This time, Russell didn’t wait for someone else to characterize the project. He asked the label to attach a sticker to the remaining three hundred copies of World of Echo, one black word on a white oval: “UNINTELLIGIBLE.” “It was Arthur’s way of saying to people, ‘Don’t expect to get it the first time, or the second time. Don’t listen to it that way,’ ” Upside boss Barry Feldman says in Tim Lawrence’s Russell biography, Hold On to Your Dreams.

“I had never seen the rejection notes from the record companies until the exhibit,” says bassist Ernie Brooks, Russell’s collaborator on many projects, including the Necessaries and the Flying Hearts. “Over the last several years, people have started understanding what was great about how Arthur sang and wrote songs. His singing seemed so effortless — he was never striving for drama. But that’s not what was going on at the time. It was the punk moment at CBGB, and here was Arthur doing these quiet pop songs. He conveyed so much affect in an affectless way.”

The strongest album of the voice-and-cello songs didn’t come out during his lifetime — Another Thought was compiled and issued on Philip Glass’s label, Point, in 1994. Russell’s bigger career has been the posthumous one, and began in earnest when Steve Knutson’s Audika label launched in 2004. Dedicated to Russell’s work, Audika has steadily released unheard recordings, as well as those that have fallen out of print. Audika and the 2009 publication of Hold On to Your Dreams have helped move Russell’s work into a pop canon that has become (almost) as accepting as he was.

The origins of the Russell exhibit currently showing at BAM, “Do What I Want: Selections From the Arthur Russell Papers,” lie in two 2015 concerts (featuring Devonté Hynes, Sam Amidon, and others) that followed a tribute album released by the Red Hot organization, Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell. At one show, BAM’s curator of visual arts, Holly Shen, started talking about Russell’s work with independent curator Nicole Will. At that fall’s Editions and Artists book fair, Will and Shen heard from rare-book collector Arthur Fournier that the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts was about to acquire Russell’s papers, and the planning began.

Arthur Russell, on the beach, c. 1980, a decade before his AIDS-related death at forty

“Russell’s music feels important to me because it never seems nostalgic,” Will said while we toured the exhibit. “It doesn’t seem to be tied to any particular era. Steve [Knutson] has told me about hearing Arthur playlists in cafés. Young people hear it and say, ‘Great. Where is he playing next?’ ”

“Do What I Want” is split into two parts, the larger section in the Natman Room on the ground floor of the Peter Jay Sharp Building, with a sidecar upstairs in the Diker Gallery. Some pieces on display are reproductions from the archives at the NYPL, which will open to public view later this year. The majority of the material, though, comes from Russell’s partner, Tom Lee; Knutson; and former collaborators such as Peter Zummo, Peter Gordon, Brooks, and Steven Hall: flyers, photographs, records, snarky notes from label executives, lyrics, and Russell’s Yamaha KM802 Mixer, a fat black box striped with green and salmon.

All of Russell’s various styles involve references to natural phenomena common to both the landscape of the Midwest and the symbols of Buddhism. Check the song titles: “Lucky Cloud,” “Corn,” “Hollow Tree,” “Tree House” — even “This Is How We Walk on the Moon” makes more sense as a song written by an Iowa kid, who would have seen that moon more clearly than his New York counterpart. To this point, one corner of the Natman Room is wallpapered with a blown-out blue-and-white image of a cloud, a photograph taken by Russell’s San Francisco Buddhism teacher, Yuko Nonomura.

This year, Audika released an hour of live recordings of Instrumentals, taken from three different New York performances staged between 1975 and 1978. Even for those already converted to Russell’s benevolent sprawl, the range is immense. Track two on Volume 1, Part I — all are untitled — could be an easy-listening version of a Seventies Bacharach ballad. The legato horn parts on track two of Volume 2, Part II, conducted by Julius Eastman, sound like a Michael Nyman soundtrack from the early Nineties. Track one of Volume 2 evokes the placid, unevenly spaced, evenly delivered motifs of Tortoise; another instrumental the optimistic swells of Copland. As important as the ambition is the tentative quality of these performances. Russell’s desire to make trained players work in an accessible but skewed language is audible in dropped cues and occasional misalignment between instruments. Instrumentals is a document of an ensemble looking for a footing, a process Russell often said was more important than the result.

Typewritten notes included in the exhibit show how Russell’s path could be as confusing for collaborators as it was for suits. Russell wrote: “Since January of 1975 I have been working…on music designed specially for a series of color slides by Yuko Nonomuro [sic]….I was awakened, or re-awakened to the bright-sound and magical qualities of the bubblegum and easy-listening currents in American popular music….Since in most popular music a lyric is the focus of a song, and since in popular music a song without words, in order to be a commercial success, must have a special quality of its own, and since the music for the color slides was not structured on speech patterns, I ended up calling the piece ‘Instrumentals.’ ” Flautist and saxophonist Jon Gibson had a different take: “One of the difficulties (or should I say challenges?) in learning Arthur Russell’s new work involved trying to improvise with unfamiliar chord sequences placed upon asymmetrical (at times) time lengths.” Though Russell imagined it would be performed as one 48-hour cycle, Instrumentals was only ever played in smaller chunks, not all of which were recorded.

Richard Reed Parry, composer and member of Arcade Fire, found Arthur in 2005. “Rough Trade put out the Arcade Fire and the first two Audika releases, Calling Out of Context and World of Echo,” Parry recalled. “Neil Young’s Decade, those two Arthur CDs, and a Discman was all the music I had with me for while we were touring nonstop for about four months. I loved being immersed in these fragmentary bits of poetry and musical ideas. Exploring them seemed more important to Russell than finishing a record. The irony is that he did make some perfect pop songs, fully realized things, but he was happy being in the process of finding an idea that could reiterate itself across different songs.”

In the Diker Gallery, you see evidence of the (slightly) more commercial side of Russell, dance music producer. Sealed copies of Dinosaur L’s “Go Bang!” and Loose Joints’ “Is It All Over My Face,” both New York City club hits, hang on the wall, as does an enlarged copy of Russell’s membership card to the Paradise Garage, the club where New York dance music was legislated: If something went over at the Garage, it had impressed both dancers and DJs.

A working cassette of “Telling No One”

One record that connects all of Arthur’s worlds is his very first commercial release, the 1978 single “Kiss Me Again,” credited to Dinosaur and present in the Diker Gallery as a bright red vinyl twelve-inch. A disco track with a modest chart life but a robust presence in downtown clubs, “Kiss Me Again” had nine different physical releases and five remixes, at a time when releasing even one remix was still unusual. Sire, new to the disco market, was grappling with a thirteen-minute song and looking for the version that might break it on radio. Russell wasn’t interested in shortening the song, and the remixes didn’t help sell it. So Russell got the variation he loved, but for the wrong reasons.

A recent signing to Sire, David Byrne, played guitar on “Kiss Me Again”; r&b designated hitter Bob Babbitt played bass; studio heavy Allan Schwartzberg was the drummer; and friends of Russell’s including Peters Zummo and Gordon played horns. Though there is a topline vocal, the length and vagueness of the song make it both glorious and impossible to reduce. Find the version that clocks in at 12:42 and you’ll hear Byrne’s rhythm guitar work itself into a blur around the ten-minute mark, moving from a clean chicken-scratch to a fuzzy German chug. The main hook seems to be the horn line, until Russell’s cello part comes in; both are more memorable than the vocal melody. While sounding absolutely nothing like Instrumentals, “Kiss Me Again” presents the same sense of indeterminacy: equally strong sections that could be arranged in any order without depleting the vibrancy or masking the voice.

On April 20, Matt Wolf’s elegant documentary on Russell, Wild Combination, will be shown at BAM, as will Phill Niblock’s short movie from 1988, Terrace of Unintelligibility, a twenty-minute close-up of Russell’s mouth near a microphone, filmed while he played cello and sang. Two days later, on the 22nd, BAM will host a free tribute concert led by a clutch of Russell’s original collaborators. Go to both — but in the meantime, go to the Natman Room and look at my favorite of the seeds on display.

Russell always carried a piece of composition paper, folded into quarters, in his front shirt pocket. Some of these sheets were used for compositions, but many were just notes (or phone numbers). These were ideas, not lyrics, sometimes put into parentheses; some are works yet to be finished, others predictions that came true. “Exploit fact that amorphous material is always in sync when greeted by a drumbeat.” “Speaker cabinets that are paraplegics.” “Nature documentary on radio with crunching sound effects only.”

One of them reads like a sticker Russell might have printed up for this exhibit. He just didn’t get around to it. “(p Idea: its clear that any style can be heard [in] the recording, yet critics continue to put a ‘price’ on the trappings of form, really in the imagination) (sometimes very clearly).”

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‘The Hubble Cantata’ Is a VR-Tinged Operatic Tour of Outer Space

The annual BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn series of outdoor shows at Prospect Park doesn’t usually include opera, and it’s not usually associated with science, either. But on August 6, loungers on the grassy bandshell knoll will get both at The Hubble Cantata, a new performance combining an orchestra, a hundred-member choir, and two Metropolitan Opera star singers with astrophysics, virtual reality, and 3-D sound.

The piece began four years ago. Maine music foundation Bay Chamber Concerts commissioned composer Paola Prestini to write a piece about the Hubble, with scientific input from the telescope’s lead astrophysicist, Mario Livio. Prestini and librettist Royce Vavrek created a story where a human couple’s relationship is mirrored in the life cycle of a star, from birth in a nebula to death in a supernova. “It becomes this piece about searching, and the unknown, and trying to find somebody in this infinite vastness,” says Vavrek. The story ends when the woman floats into the sky to join the stars.

[pullquote]The artists are intentionally holding off on showing Hubble imagery until the end of the show.[/pullquote]

This theme of loss was inspired by the impending end of the Hubble’s era: The telescope has been in operation since 1990, providing breathtaking photos of the far reaches of space, but talks are under way to decommission it over the next few years. It successor, the James Webb Telescope, is slated to launch in 2018, with much more advanced contemporary technology. Prestini wrote the music for the piece based on this story. “Royce’s words, and the way that they married the scientific language, became a roadmap,” she says. “We learned that the choir represented the cosmos. Then the electronics in the music, which I designed with [the engineering firm] Arup, were infused with Mario Livio’s actual voice.” Prestini and Vavrek’s collaboration resulted in a twenty-minute piece that’s been performed several times, most recently with the L.A. Philharmonic.

The performance at Celebrate Brooklyn marks the premiere of an expanded, hour-long composition and a completely new companion film directed by Eliza McNitt, who has created films for scientific organizations like the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. For most of the cantata, subtly animated stills shot by Sasha Arutyunova and directed by McNitt will be projected on a screen behind Jessica Rivera and Nathan Gunn, the Met Opera singers portraying the couple. But the best part is the very end, when the audience turns on a phone app and slips on Google Cardboard VR headsets to experience Fistful of Stars, a five-minute virtual reality trip into the heavens.

Thanks to the Hubble, we learned space is cool beyond imagination.
Thanks to the Hubble, we learned space is cool beyond imagination.

“The first 45 minutes is this fun, poetic interpolation of the scientific nuggets that Mario gave us, but then the VR at the end, which is also narrated by Mario, is much more this real, beautiful scientific exploration of the imagery,” says Prestini. The artists are intentionally holding off on showing Hubble imagery until the end of the show. “At the end, you finally see it, and you see it in VR,” she says. “It’s like all this that you’ve been imagining then explodes into a new world.”

The virtual reality film propels viewers through a photorealistic simulation of the Hubble Telescope and out the other side, where they’ll witness the life cycle of a star. For this portion of the visuals McNitt enlisted Endless Collective, a small VR company of expert animators who have worked on films including Gravity. It’s more than worth the heavy logistics required to pull it off: As approximately six thousand guests ender the bandshell, each will get a free Google Cardboard, a foldable VR headset allowing anyone to turn their phone into a virtual reality device. Guests are strongly encouraged to download the app in advance (the iOS version is available now, with Android arriving shortly), although beefed-up on-site Wi-Fi should help out those who didn’t get the memo.

Funding for this sprawling project came from many sources, including NEA grants and personal donations; Time Warner contributed the headsets. National Sawdust is also running a Kickstarter to fund the VR segment of the production, with a fundraising goal of $35,000. “The project will happen even if we don’t raise that money,” Prestini says, “but it’s been a real challenge to raise the funds.”

After the Brooklyn show, the cantata will be recorded at National Sawdust and released on Prestini’s VIA Records label. But the composer also hopes to re-create the Brooklyn show in other large outdoor spaces and museums around the world, which is why she hopes the Kickstarter will reach its funding goal (it is currently at about 25 percent). She’s already in talks with the Sydney Opera House and others about future performances. “I’d love to bring it to places and have it be this free, wonderful experience that is both educational and artistic, a really sensorial, rich, scientific experience.”

The Hubble Cantata premieres August 6. Watch a preview of the event below.

 

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Black Lives Matter in the Orchestra Pit, Too

Pianist Courtney Bryan has, in more than one instance, been called a “gentle soul.” She is affable, even disarming in conversation. But that swiftly melts away when she performs her arrangement of “City Called Heaven,” a negro spiritual that she’s turned into a melodic tribute to freedom fighters. Halfway through the song, Bryan’s vibrant refrain transitions into claps of thunder as she bangs on the keys with her fists. The result is not classical and clean. It’s an expression of the human condition, and more specifically, her experience as a black woman in America.

She’s applying the same sensibility to a new piece, “Yet Unheard.” It’s set to debut on July 13 at Sing Her Name, a tribute concert for the women of the Black Lives Matter movement on the one-year anniversary of Sandra Bland’s death. The event is powered by The Dream Unfinished, an orchestra that supports NYC-based civil rights and community organizations; at this event, they’re donating proceeds to the African American Policy Forum.

While classical music is steeped in a tradition that typically involves tuxedos and gowns and a stoic reverence to the canon, The Dream Unfinished, by design, shifts these ideas. Founder and executive producer Eun Lee says her organization is able to make waves because classical music is overwhelmingly wealthy and white, stigmatizing musicians and composers who don’t fit into that space. “Within that paradigm, we’re using this medium for a means of social protest,” she says. “We also talk about systemic racism within classical music, because it affects larger societal ills.”

Lee, who reached out to Bryan after becoming aware of her expertise in combining composition and social justice issues, has a career as a clarinetist and teaching artist but shifted focus to the orchestra when she realized her musical community had no stance on human rights. “I was doing some strange Googling, like ‘classical music and Black Lives Matter,’ ” says Lee. “No one within classical music, within these institutions, was responding or engaging with [it].”

She reacted by curating her own team of experienced musicians who wanted to use their art as a platform, launching The Dream Unfinished in late 2014. Its inaugural event, in 2015, was a concert honoring Eric Garner. This year’s commemoration of Sandra Bland includes orchestral and choral performances of pieces written by women composers including Margaret Bonds, Florence Price, and Ethel Smyth.

[pullquote]”The story of Sandra Bland is inconclusive. I didn’t want the piece to end triumphantly, because it isn’t triumphant.” – Courtney Bryan[/pullquote]

Bryan, whose piece will be performed in conjunction with verse by poet Sharan Strange, and sung by Helga Davis, is the only living composer honored at the event. Bryan, Strange, and Davis worked closely to bring the headlining piece to life. “We decided that we are mourning what happened to [Bland] but also trying to celebrate her spirit, so we wanted some element of hope in it,” says Bryan. “It wasn’t supposed to be a very pretty piece but there [are] moments of vulnerability.”

This vulnerability was fueled not just by these artists’ reactions to the loss of Bland’s life, but to Sandy Speaks, the podcast Bland launched just a few months before she died. Strange penned a poem about the wide resonance of Bland’s death, “Urging the audience toward, I hope, an apprehension of her death, among those of many others, as loss in a larger social sense,” says Strange.

Bryan’s composition mirrors these sentiments while also battling the posthumous character assassinations that attempt to degrade victims of color. It retains the tone of a negro spiritual but employs a wide cast of instruments to mimic the the composer’s complex experience as a black woman. The score includes brass, woodwinds, percussion, and a harp, which Bryan hopes will lend an otherworldly feel to the performance.

The Dream Unfinished perform in 2015
The Dream Unfinished perform in 2015

“The harmonies [move] a lot because I wanted things to be unsettled. I want the mood to be agitation and urgency,” she says, noting that voices of the chorus singing Strange’s poem will rise and fall throughout the piece. “The end will be a rallying call. The story of Sandra Bland is inconclusive. I didn’t want the piece to end triumphantly, because it isn’t triumphant.”

“Yet Unheard” aims to awaken rather than comfort, which is exactly what Lee had in mind when she approached the women to create it. “People are coming because they’re so thrown off by the idea of an activist orchestra. That’s our goal — to change as many minds as possible. To show people that they to have an agency and they too can be engaging these topics,” she says.

All this, of course, was planned before police killed two more black Americans, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, just this week. Sterling, of Baton Rouge, was selling CDs outside a convenience store and shot to death at close range. Castile, in Minnesota, was killed during a traffic stop. We find ourselves again asking the same question Bryan’s composition presents: How many lives have to be destroyed before there is change?

Lee says the recent deaths have made the concert even more urgent. Days before the show, the orchestra members are digesting the losses of Sterling and Castile, gaining even more clarity of purpose. “The more than we can [use] classical music as a medium for protest,” says Lee, “maybe people will recognize that we have to stop ignoring this.”

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Rossini in Bushwick: Classical Music Gets Casual (and Sweaty) in Kitchens and Warehouses

Classical music struck me as a chore when I was a kid. It’s not that I didn’t like the way it sounded; I was just too restless to sit through the concerts my mother would drag me to, or even to make it through a piano lesson without breaking for cartwheels. As soon as I had any say in the matter, I learned three chords on the electric guitar, spent the greater part of the next decade in moshpits, and never looked back.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2015: I’m living in Brooklyn, and my roommate’s invited me to attend a performance by a string quartet at a friend’s house up the street. I’m skeptical, the way I’d be about a night out at Carnegie Hall — I would feel uncomfortable, trapped, bored, and a little stupid — but I go anyway.

The show was on the parlor floor of a shabby brownstone. After a quick introduction from the host, four young musicians, surrounded by cushions, couches, and red Solo cups, dived into Dvorák’s “American” String Quartet and Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 3. I sat cross-legged on a tattered sofa, stretched as I pleased, and drank about six different kinds of BYO rosé. Nobody seemed snobby about the music; no one seemed to care that I’d shown up in cutoffs and a T-shirt. It was chamber music at its most basic: music, in someone’s chambers.

Thanks to an organization called Groupmuse, shows like this one take place on any given evening, in any number of New York City neighborhoods. Traditionalists might balk at the lack of formality, but Groupmuses, as they’re known, are part of a new breed of performance transforming the way a younger crowd engages with classical music. The motivation behind it is simple: Scores of potential listeners don’t experience the beauty of live classical music because they are too intimidated, broke, or impatient to frequent established venues, where tickets can tax the wallet and your seatmate might be a coughing octogenarian.

It makes sense, then, that Sam Bodkin, 26, the CEO and co-founder of Groupmuse, doesn’t look much like a man who’s out to save classical music, either. With his Teva sandals, loose-fitting shirts, and curly hair, he looks like he could be big into Phish. It’s only when he starts describing his work that the picture starts to make more sense. “Couch-surfing, but for classical music” is how Bodkin pegs it.

“We need more opportunities to connect in the real world, in real time, in real space, to touch warm bodies,” he tells me, sitting with his legs hoisted into a loose lotus pose before a performance in Williamsburg, his eyebrows unruly accelerandos prodding him to talk faster and louder. “And classical music can save us.”

Groupmuse functions through an online platform that matches musicians with hosts, who pay nothing, and hosts with an audience, who pay $10 to the musicians. Its larger concerts, or “massivemuses” — anything from a Stravinsky-inspired “rave” to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique performed in a Bushwick warehouse — are more elaborate and cost around $20 in advance.

Bodkin himself is a classical music civilian, with no formal training — nor, by his account, much talent. He hadn’t even listened to it much until an unplanned encounter with Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge op. 133 in his early twenties at a neighbor’s house in 2008. After he heard the piece, “a switch was flipped in my brain. And within about six months of that first experience with Beethoven I knew that I was going to devote my life to classical music.”

Árbjörnsson and Apostolou with co-star Elizabeth Pojanowski in Washington Square Park

If Bodkin — a suburban kid from Newton, Massachusetts, who majored in political science at Columbia and used to write “bad Beatles songs” — could have such a transcendent experience with Beethoven, couldn’t everyone? That was the assumption on which he founded Groupmuse with Ezra Weller, a New England Conservatory of Music grad, and Kyle Nichols-Schmolze, a Web developer. And it struck a chord: Groupmuse has organized more than a thousand concerts to date and raised $140,000 in a successful Kickstarter campaign (full disclosure, I donated $25). That’s not a lot, but enough to keep running on a shoestring budget.

“People would come to us and say things like, ‘You know, I had no idea that I wanted something like this in my life,’ ” Bodkin says. “It shows that there’s this raw appetite for the intensity of these musical and artistic experiences.”

This way of thinking about classical music is catching on. A start-up opera company called LoftOpera is currently staging a riotous run of Rossini’s Le Comte Ory at the Muse, an industrial warehouse off the Wilson Avenue L, through June 11. Aesthetically and spiritually, the production has more in common with a low-budget pantomime than what you’d normally register as high art, but musically, they pulled off the lighthearted comedy without a hitch.

On opening night, aerialists in nun’s habits performed acrobatics while hanging from the ceiling while music director Sean Kelly conducted some thirty musicians under a wreath of sparkly Hula-Hoops, a tangle of electrical cables, and a crusty NO SMOKING sign. The male chorus, dressed in pink habits, supported a delightfully pervy Ory (Thorsteinn Árbjörnsson), who channeled the Holy Spirit of Terry Richardson in knockoff Ray-Bans and a pink mustache. As the count handed out bananas as blessings, the female chorus, dressed in shabby beige uniforms, peeled and sensuously devoured them.

And there were some decidedly modern twists: Comtesse Adele (Sharin Apostolou) and her sidekick, Ragonde (Shirin Eskandani), received good news via iPhone about a war their husbands were fighting, and promptly mimed selfies to celebrate. The opera ends with a risqué ménage à trois, with Ory (wearing nothing but hot-pink Calvins), his page, Isolier (Elizabeth Pojanowski), and Adele, whom they both lust after, thrusting their hips at one another in a four-poster bed without missing a note.

“This one was exciting to us because there’s a lot of queering going on,” says co-founder Daniel Ellis-Ferris, 27. “There was a lot of opportunity for color and craziness that fit with the farce and comedy.”

Ellis-Ferris started LoftOpera with his stepsister, Brianna Maury, and his classmate, principal conductor Dean Buck, both 26, after studying music at the New School (which sponsored the production of Comte Ory). “Coming out of college we saw an interesting movement of art and music, but no opera,” he tells me. The trio assembled a cast of mostly New School students to perform Don Giovanni in a Gowanus loft space. “This show is only something someone would do if they were very inexperienced,” Ellis-Ferris now notes, “but it went well and we never stopped.” LoftOpera plans to stage a short series of rooftop concerts over the summer and is preparing a production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte for September.

A big part of Ory‘s appeal is getting so up close and personal with the performers. It’s an offering that other, more traditionally established composers and directors, like the Metropolis Ensemble’s Andrew Cyr, are experimenting with too. Cyr, who was nominated for a Grammy in 2010, and a group of twenty musicians recently staged the second iteration of a show called Brownstone, a multi-room party-concert at the American Irish Historical Association. Violinists, xylophonists, and harpists performed, and vocalist Ariadne Greif sang a haunting solo while standing just inches from the audience. Combined with a light show, DJ, and food-and-cocktail pairings, it was a synesthetic experience, calibrated to toe the line between awesomeness and sensory overload.

The idea, in Cyr’s words, was for the audience to circulate freely and “take control of the experience.” The music and setting were perfectly suited to that: In each room, you heard a different version of the same song. That seems fundamental to this new crop of classical ensembles: It’s not about gimmicks, it’s about feeling allowed to break with convention and enjoy the music as you like.

Similarly, Groupmuses, whether intimate or wildly blown out, abide by just one programming rule: Performers must stick to classical pieces and not resort to, say, canned covers of “Stairway to Heaven” with strings. (“It’s really silly when you see the London Symphony Orchestra, like, playing a song written by Robert Plant basically about his dick,” Bodkin says.)

Still, “disrupting” classical music comes with its own set of criticisms and worries. “In Lucretia, we played Beyoncé during the intermission,” Maury remembers. “During one show, I got an email with the title: ‘TERRIBLE IDEA INTERMISSION MUSIC’…and it says, ‘I can’t believe this atrocious music. My friend is here and she had to cover her ears.’ And there was this old white lady covering her ears.”

There are more pedestrian concerns, too. “I have to worry if the L train is running or not,” Maury says. “Last summer there was a large cricket by the back door, so it was my job to move my feet to stop the cricket from making noises. As long as I was moving it would keep quiet. During Tosca, I had to sit by the breaker flipping it when we ran out of electricity and hope no one noticed. We’re getting used to garbage trucks. That’s Bushwick for you.”

She could just as easily have been describing the Groupmuse that followed my chat with Bodkin last month. The main attraction was a young group called the Ulysses Quartet, recent winners of the prestigious Fischoff competition, performing Bartók’s fourth quartet. The show was sold out: People sat on the floor, squeezed into corners, and piled up on a large mezzanine, their legs hanging off the ledge. It was wet and cold out, but within minutes listeners were peeling off their clothes. A volunteer tossed ragged foam squares — makeshift cushions — and cracked jokes about fire hazards. It was all pretty punk rock, for a classical music show.

As the quartet played, I noticed Bodkin sitting behind them on a spiral staircase. He played air violin and punched the air. His eyes were closed, his head thrown back. He appeared, from afar, to be having what they call an experience.

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Behold the Fancy Piano at the Met That Connects Parlor Music and Pop

Acting as a backbone for Astoria, Queens, Steinway Street begins where 39th Street meets Northern Boulevard. It stretches Northeast along the length of the neighborhood, crossing under Grand Central Parkway. It eventually ends just before it meets the widening part of the East River that acts as a buffer between Queens, Rikers Island, and mainland Bronx. There, at the end of Steinway Street, is its namesake: the Steinway and Sons piano factory, built in the nineteenth century and still operating today using the same obsessively calculated methods that made Steinway the gold standard in piano-building a century and a half ago. In fact, pianos as we know them today exist in large part because of innovations within the Steinway craft, and there are patents to prove it — 126 of them, in fact, which forever changed the way the instrument plays and sounds.

In the midst of this innovation, circa 1857, Steinway began commissioning artists to create rare, one-of-a-kind art cases. These have included the ridiculously opulent Alma-Tadema grand piano, made of ebony inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl, with a painting on the inside lid by Edward Poynter (Christie’s got $1.2 million for it in 1997, making it the priciest piano ever sold at auction), and the two pianos that have lived at the White House — the 100,000th Steinway grand, decorated by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, which was relocated to the Smithsonian and replaced by Steinway’s 300,000th grand, designed by New York architect Eric Gugler, with gold leaf by muralist Dunbar Beck.

Among the designers commissioned to create these art cases was George A. Schastey, a hugely successful cabinetmaker and interior decorator whose works form the basis of current Metropolitan Museum exhibition “Artistic Furniture of the Gilded Age.” The exhibit, which opened at the Met on December 15 and runs through May 1, features the ornate dressing-room furniture of Arabella Worsham, mistress and eventual wife of railroad mogul Collis P. Huntington, as well as the piano. But dressing-room furniture, however elaborately embellished, can’t be played in concert; though it was built in 1882, Schastey’s Steinway can, and it will be, thanks to Limor Tomer.

[pullquote]Three concerts will place the Schastey piano front and center over the next three months, but don’t expect ‘Great Balls of Fire’ to ring out in Gallery 746.[/pullquote]

Tomer is the Met’s General Manager of Concerts and Lectures, and she’s responsible for an upcoming series of events that brings the Gilded Age into our Millennial one. Three concerts will place the Schastey piano front and center over the next three months, but don’t expect “Great Balls of Fire” to ring out in Gallery 746. In tandem with the theme of the exhibition, these pianists will focus on music of the Gilded Age. On the lowbrow end of the spectrum, the music from this period was played in the parlors of upper-class citizenry, mostly by unmarried young women interested in attracting husbands; in a highbrow setting, it was shared in salons among artists, musicians, writers, and other intellectuals as they convened to discuss ideas about culture and politics.

Up first, on February 5, pianist Michael Brown will showcase the diverse roles piano can take on, in “Something Strange: The American Parlor Meets the French Avant-Garde,” which he co-curated to include Metropolitan Opera Young Artists program protégé mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb; regular cello collaborator Nicholas Canellakis; and his former Julliard teacher and renowned classical pianist Jerome Lowenthal. The two will play a four-hand piano suite, sitting side by side at the Steinway.

Though Brown had not yet seen Schastey’s Steinway in person as of last week, when he spoke to the Village Voice on the phone, he has an 1884 Steinway in his home. It is certainly not as ornamented as the one he’ll play during “Something Strange,” but should possess some of the same tonal qualities. “Every piano is different, especially from that era, when [piano makers] were still figuring it out,” he says. “That era of Steinway pianos is incredibly special; the piano technician guru junkies call that the ‘Golden Age’ for Steinway, with pianos that had a particularly beautiful sound. I can’t tell you why, technically speaking, but that’s sort of the word on the street.”

Brown says he’s played fortepianos that date back to 1703, though never in concert. Of the Schastey, which has only 85 keys (as opposed to modern pianos, which feature 88), Brown says, “It’s the type of piano that Fauré and Debussy and the composers that I’m playing would have played on, so that’s kind of cool, that these instruments are still around and thriving and are still being able to be preserved and played in public.”

[pullquote]’The piano technician guru junkies call that the “Golden Age” for Steinway, with pianos that had a particularly beautiful sound. I can’t tell you why, technically speaking, but that’s sort of the word on the street.'[/pullquote]

Next month, on March 4, John Davis brings his “Songs and Stories from the American Parlor” to the gallery, highlighting the forgotten African American piano pioneers of the same era, including Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Blind Tom, Blind Boone, and Jelly Roll Morton, alongside the European classical music that was part of those performers’ repertoire. Davis has spent much of his life combing rare book shows for sheet music of the era, with particular attention to the roots music of the Deep South. He’s also resurrected music that would otherwise be lost forever, hoping to “draw attention to a forgotten end of American music that really had an important influence on the development of popular music of the 20th century — jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, and rock ‘n’ roll and things like that,” he explains. He’s amassed a collection of early African American printed material, including books, posters, playbills and other memorabilia from “all kinds of musical and theatrical endeavors” that have become visual elements of his shows; during some performances, he’ll project an image of, say, the cover of some sheet music that he’s playing or some other image that relates to it.

One of Davis’s main interests lies in the dichotomy between parlor music’s cultural importance and the stigma attached to it. Much of this music was ignored because it was seen as “schlocky, over-sentimentalized European music, and also simple,” he says. “I think it has been sort of unfairly dismissed because of the stigma attached to [it]. And the point, in fact, is that there is a lot of great music and because of [programs like the Met’s], a little more attention is being given to parlor music today than it originally was.”

If the arguments against parlor music, then, are the same ones that rage on music blogs about the merits of Taylor Swift, then perhaps the takeaway is that music snobbery doesn’t seem to have the same staying power as the supposedly lowbrow culture it rails against. The parallels between parlor and pop don’t seem so hard to draw, if you know where to listen, and like the fancy Steinways of the Gilded Age, all of it is essentially built from the same sounds, repackaged over and over again in ever more ostentatious trappings.

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The Met Wants to Serenade You — Literally — With New Musical Exhibit ‘Sonic Blossom’

At the heart of Lee Mingwei’s upcoming exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a simple offering: May I give you the gift of song? The question serves as an introduction to Lee’s interactive “Sonic Blossom” project, which pairs museum visitors with a singer for a one-on-one serenade of a Franz Schubert Lied — the German word for “song” — that effectively challenges the restrictions on intimacy between strangers.

“Sonic Blossom” debuted in 2013 at Korea’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and has since appeared in Beijing, Tokyo, Taipei, and Boston. The inspiration came to Lee three and a half years ago as he cared for his mother while she recuperated from surgery. Recalling how, in his childhood, his mother had used a Schubert Lied to calm him down, Lee streamed her a Lieder collection on Spotify — and found that the operatic music provided similar comfort. Today his mother is doing extremely well, and she’ll soon experience the exhibit for the first time. “She’s waiting for the big one at the Met,” Lee says.

Speaking to the Voice from his new home in Paris, Lee elaborates on the distinction between his project’s origins and its current presentation.

“The big difference between what I did and the ‘Sonic Blossom’ project is that this is a gift between strangers,” explains the Taiwanese-born artist. “So that adds a little bit more tension between the gesture of gift and also receiving the gift, because we usually do not receive gifts from strangers.”

[pullquote]’You know it’s going to be just for a fleeting second. It’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful because it is so sudden and impermanent.'[/pullquote]

Museum attendees are chosen at random; if they elect to accept, they’re led into a nearby room, where they’ll be seated before a singer dressed in a floral Japanese kimono and sash. The exchange lasts only a few minutes — its ephemeralness is a pivotal aspect of “Sonic Blossom.”

“This is almost like when you walk into a garden and suddenly a butterfly lands on your shoulder,” Lee says. “That moment is very delicate and beautiful. You know it’s going to be just for a fleeting second because you don’t know when that butterfly is going to leave. It’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful because it is so sudden and impermanent.”

Intent on using nonprofessional performers, Lee selected eleven singers from the Manhattan School of Music. “The voices of these students are not perfect yet,” he says. “There’s a sense of humbleness and imperfection that I found very beautiful.”

“Sonic Blossom” had its U.S. debut last spring in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts. Upon the installation’s completion, the museum presented Lee with a collection of various stories compiled by the singers. Reading through these anecdotes, he discovered another feature entrained by the gifts.

“I think the overall experience for the singers had been transformative because most of them were not taught to sing to a single person; they’re [used to] singing to this void that has 2,000 people,” he says. “Now they’re singing to one person and looking them in the eyes. At first, the singer thought, ‘OK, I’m giving this person a gift,’ but very quickly they realized the gift is coming back to them from the receiver. The receivers were so emotional that often they broke down in tears within just a few seconds after the singer started. The singer realized that this is such a great gift in the sense of enlightenment — their voice could move them in a way they never could imagine.”

Of course, that all hinges on the receptiveness of the listener in the first place. Lee notes that across the four venues in Asia, only twice was the “gift” declined, whereas in Boston, museum patrons chose to opt out ten to fifteen times a day.

“I don’t know if it’s a cultural difference,” he says. “Maybe Asians, even if they don’t want it, are embarrassed to say no. But when people went to MFA, most of the visitors [were] not expecting to encounter a living contemporary art.

“We’ll see at the Met what happens.”

“Sonic Blossom” will run October 30–November 8 in the Blanche and A.L. Levine Court and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Museum of Metropolitan Art. For more information, click here

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Williamsburg’s Bright New Diamond National Sawdust Will Change the Way Modern Music is Made

In a new piece Terry Riley wrote for Grammy-winning experimental vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, eight voices rose and fell in polyphonic rounds of one repeated lyric: “You may not believe it, but it will happen.” Positioned amongst the angular paneled walls of National Sawdust, a brand-new Williamsburg venue wholly dedicated to contemporary classical music, the octet could have been singing the nascent space’s mantra. State of the art, but not-for-profit, National Sawdust is an ambitious undertaking, and its programs are curated and helmed by composers and musicians themselves. The idea is that it will serve as more of an incubator than simple concert hall, with the ultimate goal of ushering contemporary composers through the entire process of writing, performing, and recording specifically commissioned pieces all under one roof. Nothing quite like it exists in New York City, or anywhere else in the world, and it must be seen (and heard) to be believed indeed.

National Sawdust capped off its opening weekend with a festival honoring Riley, known for his pioneering minimalist synth works in the Sixties. Celebrating his eightieth birthday this year, Riley also composed many works for strings via his longtime association with Kronos Quartet, and his October 5 performance began with a tempestuous composition for eight cellos entitled “ArchAngels.” The three-day dedication to Riley’s varied career featured improvisations from the man himself, as well as appearances by his guitar-playing son Gyan, Matmos, John Zorn, and more across five unique performances – and a lecture. As an introduction to National Sawdust, the Terry Riley festival was certainly fitting, because no other venue would have dared to attempt such an undertaking, let alone been able to accommodate it. Now, it’s looking to give creative birth to a new generation of artists like Riley, while also celebrating other pioneers in the field.

[pullquote]In short: It’s a modernized version of an eighteenth century chamber hall where almost anything is possible so long as someone is creative enough to come up with a concept befitting the space.[/pullquote]

After a recent tour, Gothamist said the interior of National Sawdust’s main performance room looked like a spaceship, but Creative Director Paola Prestini begs to differ. “Personally, I think it looks like a little diamond, the cuts of the light — that’s my perspective on it. It’s a little jewel,” she said proudly over the phone last Wednesday, just as construction crews were installing the final touches. Her description speaks more truly to its beauty and its rarity, as well as the process of change the space has undergone; as part of Williamsburg’s industrial waterfront at the turn of the century, it actually operated as a sawdust processing center, hence the name.

Redesigned by Bureau V Architects and Arup Theatrical Consultants, its acoustics are exquisite. iIts interior is fluid, a box-within-a-box suspended on springs, wired for amplification or unplugged events, the whole room projection-mapped for audiovisual performances. In other words, it’s a modernized version of an eighteenth century chamber hall where almost anything is possible so long as someone is creative enough to come up with a concept befitting the space. “[Artists] can imagine the room in different ways,” Prestini explains, growing excited. “The seating is completely loose – for example, one artist is using the entire lower space, and the audience can only sit in the balcony. [Anyone] can play around with all these configurations.”

Performance art, modern dance, hip-hop, jazz, experimental choirs, Norwegian youth orchestras performing live re-scores, “extreme guitar” ensembles, and indie darlings Majical Cloudz all figure into October’s decidedly eccentric programming. There are artists- and curators-in-residence, but also a regular house series of one-off shows called In Situ, which serve as a kind of test-run partnership. “They’re coming in, we’re hearing them in our house space, and then deciding, ‘You know, this is the perfect artist to come and develop an entire album here,’” Prestini elaborates. “What makes us unique in terms of a small organization is that we do give commissions from $2,500 to $15,000 to work with our artists in residence.”

If it seems lofty, that’s because it is, but these incredible goals are also very sincere. Prestini is also a composer, and she founded VisionIntoArt, an interdisciplinary music fostering program that has its own record label, in 1999. She has its logo tattooed on the nape of her neck; in many ways, VIA was a precursor to the work she’s doing now at National Sawdust, and likely what caught the attention of the project’s founding visionary and Vice President, Kevin Dolan. Prestini will also get the opportunity to develop her own works, and is presenting an “installation concerto” in February.

“Because my work tends to be long-process multimedia work, it’s going to be extraordinary to have a home,” she admits. “But one of the things that’s always been part of the way I think is that you really have to help create the context in which you’re living as an artist. The beauty of the space is that it can offer artists so much. We are open 24/7. There are two shows a night. There’s an entire year of programming, and it’s entirely artist-led, curating their discoveries. I can dream forward now in a way that I didn’t have the luxury [of doing in the past], but it also is an extension of everything I’ve been working for over the past fifteen years.”

[pullquote]’They’re coming in, we’re hearing them in our house space, and then deciding, “You know, this is the perfect artist to come and develop an entire album here.”‘[/pullquote]

She came to National Sawdust five years ago, before a location had been found, and was “tasked with the idea of how to build an institution” that would serve emerging artists and be composer-centric, while also spearheading fundraising efforts alongside Dolan. But now that National Sawdust is open, it’s the unique programming that will keep it afloat, and Prestini turned to her extensive network of talented, taste-making cohorts to help flesh out the calendar. “It was a group that I felt could showcase the mission, the depth, and the variety, but at the same time, that I had trust in, that would support the institution though this incredible opening,” she says. “As a practicing artist, you’re constantly listening, and that’s what I’m looking for in the curators – people who are listening and discovering.”

Prestini could also be describing the neighborhood in which National Sawdust now makes its home. Williamsburg’s demographic of hip, affluent, and culturally curious residents will hopefully welcome its presence at North 6th and Wythe (and buy tickets to its performances). Though National Sawdust forges new territory, Prestini says the founders were not without inspirational blueprints. “Le Poisson Rouge and Subculture really opened the door in terms of clubs with that kind of relaxed atmosphere, where classical music and contemporary music and indie and rock and jazz and improv can live side by side in a very fluid way. So this is very much an outcome of all of these successes that we’ve had in the city,” she notes. “The thing about New York is that it’s a city of impermanence, so what you have to do is just constantly catch up. As a composer and as someone who understands how hard it is to make a career, I feel poised to just keep my ear to the ground and keep evolving.” With so much ahead for National Sawdust, their vision could be game-changing, so when Roomful of Teeth sang Terry Riley’s new composition, it felt prophetic. Believe it. It is happening.

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Violin Lessons and Beer Mix in Brookyn

Their classes meet every week in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but it all really started on a porch in Nashville.

Performing folk musicians Ginger Dolden and Pete Lanctot had traveled to the Tennessee city from their home in New York to produce their first record. But there was one, small problem. “After the first day of recording, we realized that we didn’t nearly have enough money,” Lanctot says with a laugh. They started going over ways to come up with the cash — perhaps they could become bike messengers, make things to sell on Etsy, or become Uber drivers.

And then the two classically-trained musicians had a breakthrough: “Well, we thought that people like activities and they like beer, so what do we know how to do?” Lanctot recalls. “We could teach violin and give ‘em beer?” With that, Booze Music was created. The duo, who met in music school and are now engaged to be married, decided to teach violin, fiddle and guitar to adults with a side of beer or wine during class. They figured it would be less intimidating for adults who may not have been in a classroom since college or high school, and may have never touched a violin. The idea struck a chord.

“We were blown away,” Dolden says. The first session in 2013 had two classes with just 30 students. Now they’re teaching about 100 people from all walks of life. Among the members are twentysomethings from Brooklyn who walk over to class on their way home from work, artists or photographers looking for inspiration, retired engineers, legal assistants and even a consultant at a big four firm who often comes to class straight from the airport.

Dolden and Lanctot, who both played instruments from a very early age, try to keep things light and fun — showing students the folk side of music, rather than the more intimidating classical version they grew up with. But no matter who they are, everyone performs in the final recital in front of friends and family. Like any kid at a music show, they’re nervous. But at least these students can have a glass or two of liquid courage before standing up under the lights.

“Everyone comes out of it with just the most amazingly happy smiles,” Dolden says, “I don’t think they ever get this kind of experience ever.”

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Stand Clear of the Cello, Please: Bach in the Subway Changes Up Classical Music

On March 21, 130 cities across 40 countries will host the same 330th birthday celebration. Thousands of classical musicians will gather in public places — like the urban echo chamber of the subway — to commemorate the influence and enduring legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach. Orchestrated by New York’s own cellist Dale Henderson and in its fifth year of operation, Bach in the Subways is preparing for its largest celebration yet.

“Classical music is everything that pop music claims to be — it’s sexy, it’s exciting, it’s fun,” says Henderson in an interview with DNAinfo New York. “But for several reasons — marketing, the creation of the recording industry — people don’t get exposed to it much or they assume it’s boring or it’s an old-white-guy thing. By bringing live classical music for free, we aim to change that.”

From midnight to 9 p.m., New York will have twelve separate performances situated along subway lines running through Brooklyn and Manhattan, with one event taking place above ground at the Bern Dibner Library in downtown Brooklyn. Beyond the event acting as a way to observe one of music’s more distinguished innovators, Bach in the Subway is an invitation for musicians and audience members alike to join together in experiencing the subtle, compelling nature of classical music.

Eleven classical musicians carting accordions, flutes, violoncellos, upright basses, and more will take to New York’s underground and offer complimentary doses of Bach to commuters and weekend explorers as they pass.

Returning for his third year is Baroque violinist Jude Ziliak with two separate performances during the day. Beginning at 9 a.m. at the 181st Street Station and then later in the Columbus Circle subway station at 4:30 p.m., Ziliak will tackle Bach’s D-minor Partita, including the much-famed “Chaconne.” Grammy-winning violist and conductor Joshua Bell, in an interview with the Washington Post, referred to the “Chaconne” as “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.”

Bach in the Subway founder and organizer Dale Henderson will bookend the day, starting as soon as Bach’s birthday begins at 12 a.m. in Columbus Circle and ending the musical festivities in the Washington Square station at 8 p.m. Henderson’s ode to Bach has greatly expanded from his initial celebration five years ago, when he was joined by just two fellow cellists, Eric Edberg and Michael Lunapiena. This year, countless musicians will join him across five continents, honoring Bach in a global musical movement.

Bach in the Subway begins at midnight March 21 in the Columbus Circle Station and continues throughout the day in various locations. For more information visit their website here.

See also:
The 60 Best Songs Ever Written About New York City
Sanda Weigl Transforms Park Slope’s Barbes Into a Mid-Century Gypsy Cabaret
For Danielle Mastrion, There’s Only One Way to Paint the Notorious B.I.G. in a New Light