The Sky Isn’t the Limit for Original Music Workshop

Brooklyn Rider

Thursday, August 13th, 2012

Williamsburg, the hip and happening heart of New York City. Two black-clad women at the corner of North 6th and Barry ushered me past a curtain, where a smiling young man wearing a black hard hat suggested I take my time on a temporary staircase––the series of raw planks had likely been fastened together specifically for this very evening.

I peered down at the vast space I was stepping into. Once a sawdust factory, this cavernous construction site is slated to become the new home of Original Music Workshop (co-directed by Kevan Dolan and Paola Prestini) late next year. When it’s finished, the space will provide recording facilities, practice spaces and act as a hub for emerging talent in the new music scene. Hopefully, it will inspire the creation of similar spaces as well.

Tonight, the center is far from finished, just a mere shell of 100-year-old brick and a cement floor poured only four days ago. OMW architects have decided to keep the graffitid brick walls, preserving the historical integrity of the building while adding state-of-the-art elements. Since the roof hadn’t been built yet, we had a clear view to the night sky above, and inside, the space was lit dramatically, filled with musicians and contemporary music aficionados, here to preview OWM’s season through a concert called “Skyful.”

I put on my honorary hardhat and grabbed a drink of City Winery’s special OWM blend, while admiring a towering red Chinese kite in the corner with my sister Marie who had joined me for the evening. Alongside the stage were butterfly kites adorned with oversize images of $10, $20 and $50 dollar bills, awaiting their performance later in the evening.

Before I was fully aware the program had begun, composer-clarinetist Kinan Azmeh began winding his way through the audience, playing his new piece right now, somewhere else, which he later explained incorporated themes of songs sung by demonstrators in his homeland of Syria. Experimental Ethel violinist Cornelius Dufallo followed, performing an upbeat looped piece entitled Violin Loop 1 from Journaling before Azmeh joined him on another original composition, how many will it take, which rounded off the strong opening set nicely.

Since the evening was being streamed live by, the sets were broken up by brief (and often uninformed, if I may say so) interviews by the evening’s host.

Next up was Brooklyn Rider quartet, a dapper group of lads with colorful socks and contagious enthusiasm; the kind that makes me thrilled to be witness to all of the exciting things happening on the new music scene. They began their set with local composer Christina Courin’s smart and elegant Tralala, which is when I began to notice that cellist Eric Jacobson was almost always grinning. How did he do it? I was still pondering this during Kurtag’s Kurtag Microludes, tiny pieces that snapped, crackled and popped with each unexpected twist. Was playing these challenging pieces really as effortless as the group made it seem? They ended the set with Colin Jacobsen’s vibrant composition, A Walking Fire, which is now the second of his pieces that I have heard and loved, the first being, Ascending Bird, heard during one of The Knights’ performances at the Naumburg Orchestra series concert–– both have an adventurous quality that suggests some epic Indiana Jones-esque action adventure.

I considered this performance in light of a recent Emerson String Quartet concert I had seen – the veteran Emerson Quartet representing the apex of finely-tuned string ensemble. Could these four handsome gents who lean towards heavy contemporary exploration, be the future of the traditional string quartet? I sure hope so.

For me, the most spellbinding performances of the evening was Mexican jazz songstress Magos Herrera with guitarist Javier Limón. The duo performed a tribute to Latin legend, singer Chavela Vargas. The pencil-thin Herrera was dressed in a stunning black halter-gown, bejeweled both lavishly and tastefully, things I remained focused on until she began to sing. Her deep breathy voice began tentatively on Luz de Luna by Alvaro Carrillo. At first the breathy quality was distracting; I knew she has a pure voice somewhere in there and was dying to hear it, until I realized that this was tactical. Capable of both florid lines and powerful belts, Herrera’s passionate performance thrived on manipulating her technique and choosing exactly the right moments to let loose. Through Tierra Movida by Georgina Hassan, the singer continued her expressive vocalization while fluidly moving her body, like a sitting flamenco dancer stuck in slow motion. Limón expressed oles and vale’s from time to time, while focused on the singer.

Looking at the program earlier and unfamiliar with Herrera, I thought her place in the lineup was curious, but after hearing her performance I understood how her jazzy-latin style fit into the world of new music. After performing a haunting rendition of Miles Davis’s Blue and Green, which the talented Limón admitted having learned only three hours before the performance, the pair were treated to the most enthusiastic applause of the evening.

The adventurous Talea ensemble followed, performing a long piece by Bernhard Lang, DW 16: Songbook 1, for percussion, synthesizer, electronics, sax and soprano. This was the wildcard of the evening, and it seemed that much of the audience was not feeling wild. Talea lives to perform under-appreciated works, which is admirable, but the broken-record element caused by some unbearable repetition in the piece had some audience members making frequent trips to the bar. Soprano Tony Arnold’s part was incredibly challenging, featuring everything from wolf-like howls to baby voices, which she managed to pull off quite well. Better luck next time, Talea.

Second to last were International Contemporary Ensemble flutists Claire Chase and Eric Lamb, performing The Altar of Two Serpents by Mario Diaz de León, a vicious piping number that made me glad I wasn’t at that altar; those serpents seemed merciless.

Finishing the evening was a piece written by Julian Wachner, performed by the two flutists with a kite installation by Erica Harrsch. Harrsch and her fellow kite flyer moved the two money-clad butterflies masterfully, swirling them above the audience in what appeared to be a vaguely-choreographed routine. At one point, pigeons flew overhead, perhaps checking to see if these were feathered friends. Harrsch explained the concept of her butterfly piece – the two winged creatures represented the forces of economic value. To see these buoyant plastic creatures soaring above with a few scattered stars overhead was very relaxing and a fitting end to a special evening.

I’m looking forward to checking out OMW’s preview season performances at Greene Space starting November 20!