PRINT December 2011

Music: Best of 2011

George Lewis

Steven Schick performing Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate, 1922–32, during the Tune-In Music Festival, Park Avenue Armory, New York, February 18, 2011. Photo: James Ewing.

1 Steven Schick (Park Avenue Armory, New York, February 18) Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate (1922–32) is a sound-poetry classic. Steven Schick’s highly amplified interpretation during the Tune-In Music Festival, with video montage/collage of giant images of him performed by Shahrokh Yadegari and Ross Karre, evoked a US mass-media demagogue, speaking in tongues.

2 Music for Merce (Roulette, SoHo, NY, March 20) One of the final events at the old Roulette space featured performances by Christian Wolff, Takehisa Kosugi, David Behrman, John King, Alvin Curran, Ikue Mori, Marina Rosenfeld, Gordon Mumma, Joan La Barbara, and many others, all to celebrate the release of Music for Merce (New World), a ten-CD box set of pieces created by these incredible composers for the Cunningham company.

3 John Zorn (David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, March 25) John Zorn’s monodrama La Machine de l’être (2000) took its title, as John noted, from “a drawing by Antonin Artaud created during his last days in the asylum at Rodez . . . no text, no plot, and no stage directions predetermined whatsoever.” In this New York City Opera production, soprano Anu Komsi charged into the music with a sustained fervor that recalled the electroshock therapies Artaud himself underwent in the asylum.

4 Misha Mengelberg (Le Poisson Rouge, New York, March 31) Misha Mengelberg’s Instant Composers Pool exemplifies the legacy of Mengelberg’s associations with Fluxus and the famed “Notenkraker” gang (with Louis Andriessen and others) of the 1970s. Today’s ICP functions as much as a family as a band, and you can hear the musicians sonically close ranks around their beloved leader.

5 Olga Neuwirth and The Talea Ensemble (Bohemian National Hall, New York, May 24) Olga Neuwirth’s audacious yet subtle use of timbre always puts me on the edge of my seat, and I loved the Austrian Cultural Forum–sponsored performance of her music by the Talea Ensemble, one of today’s hot contemporary music bands. In the midconcert discussion, she confessed her original intent to become a jazz trumpeter after listening to—who else?—Miles Davis.

6 Matana Roberts and Muhal Richard Abrams (Community Church of New York, September 23) Well attended but rarely reviewed in major New York media is the ongoing concert series of the New York chapter of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. A highlight of this year’s lineup was an evening of open improvisation by a quartet led by pianist-composer and AACM cofounder Muhal Richard Abrams, preceded by an extraordinarily introspective piece by saxophonist-composer Matana Roberts, featuring sudden, unexpected juxtapositions and interjections alongside subtle sonic signaling. It came as no surprise to me that I was totally surprised by what happened onstage.

7 Kaija Saariaho, Jean-Baptiste Barrière, Camilla Hoitenga, and Margaret Leng Tan (Roulette, Brooklyn, NY, September 15) Considering Roulette’s humble origins in trombonist Jim Staley’s Tribeca loft, the new four-hundred-seat space on Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue prompts celebration. One of the first concerts offered innovative Fin- nish composer Kaija Saariaho’s early work Noa Noa, 1992, performed by virtuoso flutist Camilla Hoitenga with subtly textured interactive video by Saariaho’s spouse, Jean-Baptiste Barrière, followed by a lively performance of John Cage by Margaret Leng Tan, who handles the prepared piano every bit as deftly as its toy cousin.

8 Anthony Braxton (Roulette, Brooklyn, NY, October 5–8) A highlight of Roulette’s weekend of Braxton performances was the world premiere of two acts from his opera Trillium J. This was Afrofuturism après la lettre; Braxton’s portrayals of intergalactic imperialism have more in common with Doris Lessing than with Sun Ra, and the thirty-five-piece orchestra undergirded the work of twelve amazing singers who portrayed characters with endlessly morphing identities.

9 Tyshawn Sorey, Oblique-1 (Pi Recordings) Despite the title, this brand-new recording by this young and widely admired percussionist, pianist, and trombonist gives it to you straight. Any peaks Sorey may have reached so far are merely prologue.

10 Burkhard Stangl, Hommage à Moi (Loewenhertz) Burkhard is part of what he jokingly calls “the Third Viennese School,” along with sound artist Christof Kurzmann and video artist Billy Roisz. His Hommage à moi comprises a five-hundred-page compilation of his texts, three CDs, and a DVD of video by collaborators such as Roisz and Martin Arnold. If you’re going to pay homage to yourself, this is how you want to do it.

Composer, performer, and experimental musician George Lewis is the Edwin H. Case professor of American music at Columbia University in New York. his latest CD is Les Exercices Spirituels (Tzadik).