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Alarm Will Sound

The 20-member new-music juggernaut Alarm Will Sound, conceived as a kind of ragtag democracy of intrepid musical adventurers, continues to beguile and delight. The group’s repertoire includes everything from Aphex Twin to Edgar Varese to The Dirty Projectors to Steve Reich’s Radiohead tribute, as well as works commissioned from contemporary composers of all description. Since AWS’s inception as a group of players studying at the Eastman School of Music, the band’s excitingly off-kilter and action-packed virtuoso has led it towards uncharted territory in classical music.

Fri., Sept. 12, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 13, 7:30 p.m., 2014

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Soundboy Burial

As a remixer, Four Tet has cut apart and glued together tracks by everyone from Madvillian and Steve Reich to Radiohead and the xx (his takes on their “Angels” and “VCR” are particularly memorable) and as a producer, he has imagined new directions for everyone from Syrian wedding singer Omar Souleyman to “Buffalo Stance” hitmaker Neneh Cherry. Live, though, he’s one of the most reliable DJs around, and while we’d rather see him play to a party like Mister Saturday Night, where two years ago he kept the crowd dancing late into the night, this Terminal 5 gig should more than suffice. With Martyn and Anthony Naples.

Sat., Feb. 22, 9 p.m., 2014

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The Orb

Twenty years ago, the Orb sampled Pat Metheny playing Steve Reich’s “Music for Counterpoint” for their seminal chill-out composition “Little Fluffy Clouds,” launching the duo on a path to rave superstardom—or at least as much renown as an ambient chill-out act can expect to achieve. Ever since, original member Alex Paterson and a revolving lineup of contributors have been twisting minds with an innovative mix of dub, ambient, minimal techno, and all manner of luscious, cosmic psychedelia. The comedown kings celebrate their 25th Anniversary with a rare New York gig at Webster Hall.

Sat., Nov. 2, 7:30 p.m., 2013

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Bang on a Can

Impressionism canoodles with minimalism when the always inventive local new music organization presents “Consonant Abstraction: Claude Debussy and Steve Reich” in conjunction with the current MOMA exhibition “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925.” Teachers and students from Bang on a Can’s Massachusetts MOCA summer program will perform a chamber version of Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun followed by Steve Reich’s modern classics, Electric Counterpoint and Different Trains.

Tue., Feb. 26, 6 p.m., 2013

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‘Steve Reich in Conversation with John Schaefer’

Tonight, as part of the BAM 150 series, composer Steve Reich johns WNYC’s John Schaefer for a conversation looking back on a lifetime of avant-garde music making.

Tue., March 6, 7 p.m., 2012

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Björk Gets Pedagogical

Please don’t misunderstand Björk. While she might be returning to New York for her first concerts here since 2007 with a residency of conceptual dates premised on her eco-obsessed recent album Biophilia—not to mention specialty instruments and a 24-piece Icelandic choir—the singer would hate for you to think she’s putting on any undue airs.

“I always feel a bit odd when people start to call me a composer. . . . I think what I do is really simple,” Björk says on the phone from Iceland. “I don’t think I’m so complicated or something.”

Well. Let’s not be hasty there.

In the event that 10-foot “pendulum-harps,” a MIDI-controlled pipe organ and something her promotional tour materials describe as “musical Tesla coils,” don’t much resemble your idea of paring things down, Björk is prepared to ride for a broader conception—really, her own private definition—of minimalism. Whether speaking about matters of production design or musicology, it’s clear the word has a special significance in her aesthetic philosophy.

“It’s just kind of loaded with urban problems, the word ‘minimalism’: something about civilization and repetition and the irony of mass production,” Björk says. “In Iceland, we don’t have this history. We definitely have history, but that’s not our history.”

After recalling how her “happy punk” teenage coterie was quite “passionate” and in thrall to everything Romantic in nature—an anti-minimalist crew, if you will—today Björk credits the erratic distribution of music from New York’s old “downtown” scene for exploding those distinctions.

“Which albums came over and which didn’t, it was almost coincidental,” she remembers now about the appearance of Steve Reich’s Tehillim in her life. “Especially the minimalism of Philip Glass or something, it felt very intellectual . . . though I’ve always felt Steve Reich had a lot more soul, for me.” (At the behest of The New Yorker‘s Alex Ross, Björk recently identified the ECM edition of Tehillim as one of her 10 favorite recordings of all time.) And while Björk is careful to append her enthusiasms with humble disclaimers that she’s not officially schooled about classical music, her listening habits speak for themselves when she wonders aloud whether she could sing Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music all the way through from memory.

“I’m influenced by so many folk singers—and I guess what is called ‘world music’—but if I should name any minimalist albums . . . I would name [Tehillim and Dolmen Music, which] don’t have this kind of urban-irony, post-modern feeling. They feel more passionate and more like folk music.”

And there’s the challenge Björk faces: She has to keep making her highly idiosyncratic approach to genre definition go over. In today’s hashtag-reductive listening culture, it’s far from obvious that even the singer’s hardcore followers will keep up with Björk if her brand of folk music continues to betray the influence of Reich and Monk. (For evidence, check the multiple harps and antiphonal choral groupings on Biophilia‘s “Moon,” as well as the slowly thickening organ textures on “Dark Matter.”)

Although Iceland’s avant-pop mainstay has already achieved “career artist” status, her albums over the past decade have been regarded with some suspicion among fans who would prefer a stylistic return to the more unambiguously pop heyday of Debut and Post. Instead, in 2007, she gave them the percussive battery of Volta (which featured free-jazz drummer Chris Corsano and Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale). Last year’s Biophilia, which boasts the songs that anchor this month’s New York shows, is a more serene affair—as befits its themes of environmental consciousness—but is no less compositionally complex, as the combined instrumentation being imported for her concerts attests. Her most devoted fans will take each new album, though their number might be slipping. (While Volta netted a Top 10 debut on the Billboard 200, Biophilia couldn’t manage to sneak into the Top 25.)

Asked whether she has a sense of the challenge that her instructional ambitions might pose even with a contemporary “indie” audience, Björk starts an answer and then questions the premise. “I was gonna say in Europe, it’s more accepted to use complicated music—and then I was thinking about Latin music and jazz—I mean, come on. You have so much music that’s complex,” she says. “And modern folk music, if you want, it has some moments of simplicity with moments of complexity and virtuoso musicianship in between. I feel like I’m in that sort of category.”

This month, Björk will try to sell this pan-stylistic vision of folk by taking on the role of music teacher. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a music teacher; that was like my dream,” she says. “And then this pop thing just kind of happened. . . . I never knew at what point in my life I would get to music teaching—but it felt so natural to do it now and not to separate it from my music, but sort of make it the same thing.”

More than half of her Biophilia shows in town will take place at the New York Hall of Science, mirroring the “Biophilia Educational Program” first tested in England and Iceland last year before making this month’s stop in Queens. (Students at Middle School 185 in Flushing, a music and science magnet school, had to write admissions essays to get into the program.) Designed as a week-long music-education course for children, Björk’s syllabus takes songs from Biophilia and pairs them with phenomena from the earth sciences and musical elements in order to form three-part lessons. That means, for example, that the song “Thunderbolt” equals lightning proper—and thus merits talks from a scientist and a music teacher. The latter will speak on the subject of the arpeggio, which Björk equates with lightning. (If you go to one of the New York Hall of Science shows, just go with the analogy.)

Adults attending the evening concerts at the Hall of Science won’t get precisely the same experience as the approximately 50 New York City kids who attend the Biophilia Educational Program, though the singer does intend for the adults-only shows to communicate some of the same principles. “I don’t want technology to be in one corner and nature in another and music over in a third—it’s all the same thing,” she says. (Her subsequent Roseland Ballroom shows will employ some of the same gonzo instrumentation, though not in as pure an art-installation fashion.)

“I only realized last week why everything’s so crystal clear in the music: It’s because I wanted that simplicity. Where Volta is kind of chaotic and sort of the state before a solution, Biophilia is the solution, in the broadest sense of the word. And if you think of teaching arpeggios with lightning—I hope it doesn’t sound too far-fetched—but it’s part of the same kind of mind-set. . . . And I think this 21st century is going to be very much about that.”

Does that sound far-fetched? Perhaps just a little. But Björk will hardly be the first lecturer to spice up her patter with quasi-mystical concepts and props. And macro-sales figures to the side, her classes in Queens this month are sure to be full: The New York Hall of Science shows will only accommodate 650 adult-aged students a night. Prepare yourself for a waiting list.

Björk performs at the Hall of Science on February 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, and 18 and at Roseland Ballroom on February 22, 25, and 28, as well as on March 2.

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Daniel Bennett & Steve Kuhn

In solo settings, pianist Kuhn trades his hard bop touch for something a bit more gossamer, and as his recent update of the classic “Trance” reminds, his way with lilt shouldn’t be underestimated. Speaking of the softer side, saxophonist Bennett (who also curates this new Upper West Side series) makes hay with an airy approach that’s buoyant enough to conjure notions of East African guitar riffs and Steve Reich’s pastoral repetition. See if you think his band warrants inclusion in the “folk-jazz” ranks.

Fri., May 27, 9:30 p.m., 2011

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Steven Lugerner and Matana Roberts Stimulate the Ears and the Economy

If teachers’ unions represent “a moneyed special interest,” as Chris Christie recently asserted (and if he keeps threatening elderly women with a bat, maybe we should start calling this thug “Big Pussy”), what does that make all those supposed small businesses that Republicans extol as job creators—including, by their calculation, S-Corps and LLCs like Koch Industries, Bechtel, and PricewaterhouseCoopers? There’s no business like small business, goes the current refrain, and even many elected Democrats have joined the chorus, unless they’re just mouthing the words until their turn comes to call the tune again.

As it happens, I’m both a National Writers Union member (we’re affiliated with the UAW) and, by virtue of earning more than $400 annually as a freelancer, proprietor of my own small business, though hardly one likely to be saluted as an economic engine. Performing artists, too, run the smallest of small businesses, some of which do create jobs; think of the musician contributing to the livelihood of others by forming his or her own band, even if only for an off-the-books gig with everyone splitting the door. For all but jazz’s marquee names, it has ever been thus—and I doubt small-time rockers have had it any easier. But with the recording industry in a tailspin, emerging jazz musicians also face the necessity of having to release and distribute their own CDs in order to nail down gigs, becoming into-the-breach entrepreneurs despite lacking sufficient capital or the requisite money lust.

Conventional wisdom says the album (like privacy) is on the endangered list. Market conditions would seem to bear that out; aside from your own website and other online outlets, where can you be sure your CD will be available? Why, at your shows. (You shouldn’t need a marketing consultant to tell you this is an ass-backwards business model.) Yet to judge from my mailbox, more jazz albums are being released than ever, and I’d estimate at least a third are DIYs—and maybe about half of them debut efforts by young performers I’ve never heard of.

Case in point: Steven Lugerner’s Narratives/These Are the Words, a double album combining two discrete projects. Narratives, which features the 23-year-old multi-reedist and composer’s working septet (comprised, one assumes, of recent New School graduates like himself), is merely promising, and I wouldn’t be commenting on it if not for Lugerner’s self-assured writing on the companion disc.

Lugerner has said that the seven pieces on These Are the Words (where he’s joined by pianist Myra Melford, drummer Matt Wilson, and Bay Area trumpeter Darren Johnston, all better known than he) are based on verses from the Torah and draw their “intervallic relationships . . . time signatures, and tempo markings,” as well as their melodies, harmonies, and improvisational gambits, from his application of an ancient practice known as Gematria, “a method favored by medieval Kabbalists” involving assigning numerical values to Hebrew letters. I hope being told this doesn’t give the impression that Lugerner’s music is arcane and emotionally impenetrable, because nothing could be further from the truth. Composers all seem beholden to their own idiosyncratic methodology these days, for which we probably have Arnold Schoenberg and Joseph Schillinger to blame. What counts is how the results fall on the ear, and in Lugerner’s case, this means a textured, nearly seamless blend of composition and improvisation of the sort that die-hard jazzists might complain is really modern chamber music—a distinction that ought to be so much water under the bridge in light of the past 30 years. Though Lugerner cites Steve Reich’s Tehillim as an inspiration behind These Are the Words, Reich’s direct influence is discernable only in the cyclical piano figures that set the closing “The Evening Episode” in motion, and not to an extent likely to strike anyone as derivative. Part of what impressed Lugerner about Tehillim, he says, was Reich’s restraint in setting Hebrew psalms to music that isn’t expressly Jewish. Minus voices and more abstractly, These Are the Words achieves something very similar; Johnston unfurls a few cantorial inflections during his masterful solo on “Sustenance,” but the piece itself is more like one of Ornette Coleman’s tempo-less dirges than anything identifiably Hebraic. Where Lugerner does resemble Reich (and Philip Glass, for that matter) is in expressing weighty ideas via means associated with minimalism—specifically, pivoting motion against stasis, a strategy for which jazz precedents date back to Anthony Davis’s gamelan-influenced pieces of the early 1980s, to say nothing of Monk. On “In the Wilderness”—equal parts piano concerto and (one surmises) evocation of 40 years wandering the desert—this takes the form of Melford and Wilson improvising freely over and around a repeated, rising-and-falling phrase played by trumpet and bass clarinet voiced an interval apart. Lugerner here and elsewhere achieves orchestral color by assigning his horn and Johnston’s a role usually given to bass, and along with the free rein he allows his fellow improvisers (the wonderful Melford, in particular), pieces that might have sounded rigid and schematic come across as spontaneous and engaging.

In his own infrequent solos here, Lugerner makes even less of an impression than on Narratives. But his bass clarinet adds plenty of tug to the ensembles and duets, and soloing doesn’t seem to be what he’s about anyway. He figures to make his mark as a composer, and he’s off to a great start.

You can learn all sorts of things by listening to jazz today. Thanks to These Are the Words, I can drop “Gematria” into a conversation, even if I don’t pretend to understand how it works. And without the cover version of his “My Sistr” on Matana Roberts’s Live in London (Central Control), I might never have heard of Frankie Sparo, a gloomy Canadian singer/songwriter from about 10 years ago and a new favorite of mine, with as expressive a monotone as Nick Drake’s or Street Hassle–era Lou Reed. Even if Roberts’s 27-minute expansion captures just enough of the tune’s fretful drone to send you out in search of the original, it does prove her ability to hold your interest throughout a largely improvised performance of epic length—in lieu of one long outburst, the Chicago-born/New York–based alto saxophonist and her British rhythm section break their statements up into thematic episodes of varying length and intensity, and you’re with them from beginning to end. That Roberts, whom many of us first heard with Greg Tate’s Burnt Sugar a few years ago, has a mile-wide vibrato like Albert Ayler’s without the lunge is just one of the reasons Live in London conjures images of Village coffeehouses and lofts circa 1964; there’s also pianist Robert Mitchell’s Cecil-like attack, drummer Chris Vataloro’s shades-of-Milford Graves tabla rhythms, and an overall sense of big things about to break loose. The live set, taken from a BBC broadcast, seems oddly inverted, with the more outside stuff at the beginning and a chordal romp and Monk’s “Oska T” (miscredited to Ellington) together toward the end. But this is hardly a complaint.

Roberts, who is coy about revealing her age but appears to be in her early thirties, has an album called Coin Coin due in May. There’s also something new coming from Lugerner: For Brian Wilson, by a trio he belongs to called the Chives. What’s the point of being young if you’re not going to be prolific, too? Never mind if it’s good for business.

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SWISS MIX

The aquatic undercurrent of Nik Bärtsch and Ronin‘s most recent ECM album, Llyria, echoes the keyboardist-composer’s description of his decade-old quintet’s music: “It reminds me of a school of fish moving across a coral reef with lightning speed. Are the fish faster than thought?” Ronin’s meticulously interwoven and unbelievably through-composed “modules,” subtle jewels of pliant minimalism, suggest an answer in the affirmative. Saxophone (or bass clarinet), bass, drums, keyboard, and percussion feint and flicker with uncanny precision. Ronin plays its highly disciplined “ritual groove music” every Monday night at Bärtsch’s Zurich club, and their Swiss-timepiece precision—which at times resembles an acoustic King Crimson on the q.t. or Steve Reich at a Zen retreat—is enlivened by ghostly improvised subtleties.

Tue., March 1, 6:30 p.m., 2011

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Anne Teresa de Keersmaker Writes a Dance on Sand

In 1981, I was up at SUNY-Purchase attending a festival centered on the early years of modern dance. Amid the panels and performances, there was an ongoing showcase, in which students from college dance departments throughout New York State could present their works. One of my grad students at NYU-Tisch ran up, took hold of my arm, and said, “You have to come see Teresa’s piece!”

In the campus’s studio theater, sandwiched between student offerings of varying levels, 21-year-old Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker was performing her new solo, Violin Phase, to Steve Reich’s music of the same name. She was dressed in the shoes and little flower-print dress that she wore traveling to and from Purchase. The audience sat dumbfounded; it was as if a new species of choreographer had appeared out of nowhere.

I’ve seen, admired, and written about De Keersmaeker’s work a number of times since then and watched her develop into a master artist—famous, respected, even honored in her homeland of Belgium with the title of Baroness. But seated in the atrium at the Museum of Modern Art, watching her perform Violin Phase 30 years after its auspicious premiere, I feel my breath and heartbeat and mind resonating with the recollection of that long-ago day during the single year De Keersmaeker was an NYU student.

This event is the third in MoMA’s performances tied to the current exhibit On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century. Violin Phase fits elegantly into its theme. De Keersmaeker dances it on a thin coating of sand (given an immaculate surface by a careful man with a push broom before each showing). Because her steps trace a circle and also travel in and out on its radii, by the time she’s finished, she’s drawn a sliced pie—or, better—a petaled flower with slightly ragged edges. Spectators looking down from balconies can watch the pattern grow as the dark floor under the sand appears.

She enters the arena wearing a simply cut, light-beige dress and matching shoes. The tape of Steve Reich’s Violin Phase (1967) opens with two violins playing in unison. De Keersmaeker begins by swinging her arms forcefully to the right and back to the left, letting them wrap around her body a bit; the impetus of the forward stroke almost pulls her left foot off the floor. She does this a number of times before beginning to walk around the circumference of the circle, continuing to swing her arms as she goes.

Like Reich’s music, De Keersmaeker’s dance—with its large amounts of repetition and spare number of ingredients—can easily be linked to Minimalism, but that would not account for its driving energy. Nor would the term convey the fact that the “instrument” is one slim woman alone in a dry world, making the desert bloom, and that this is a pleasurable, yet tiring task.

Violin Phase (usually seen as a section of De Keersmaeker’s Fase) takes slightly under 20 minutes to unfold. Her process doesn’t imitate Reich’s. While the two violins slip out of phase with each other and the other two gradually join to build an increasingly dense texture, De Keersmaeker is more parsimonious. Periodically adding new movements as she travels, she also drops ones from the beginning. A sudden, whipped-off turn enters; a small skip; a low kick that scuffs the sand; a few sidesteps; a bend to touch the floor and flick the sand, et al.—each one a surprise and all separated by that brisk, ongoing walk. (At some point, I wonder if there are only as many elements as there are minutes in the music.)

Toward the end, some of the additions are more expansive. De Keersmaeker stands at the center of the circle and swings one leg like a pendulum, letting it pull her into half turns. She spins with outspread arms. She sashays along, lifting her skirt high and swinging it like a rambunctious girl at a square dance.

De Keersmaeker inhabits this rigorous structure and its increasingly propulsive rhythms without “performing” in any overt way, yet her execution of Violin Phase humanizes its formality. She is a thoughtful woman doing something. Now and then a small smile twitches the corners of her lips. Occasionally she winces, expels a whoosh of breath, or subtly admits to a moment of dizziness. She’s not a girl anymore, but her performance both belies that and is deepened by the richly creative years she has experienced between 1981 and 2011. She and Reich’s music end together in an instant. Suddenly, the silence is immense. Her last gesture has been to clutch her arms close, fists pointing up, as if she has had to grab the dance to still it. From the balconies above, a bouquet of cell phones sprouts, recording the design left on the floor. The enigmatic history of a voyage.