ALBUM REVIEW: Florent Ghys’ Bonjour

by Maggie Molloy

What does your Monday morning sound like?

For composer and videographer Florent Ghys, Monday morning sounds like a blur of metallic strings, syncopated melodies, bland newscasting, tasteful glockenspiel ornamentation, and lots and lots of double bass. Double the double bass, to be exact.

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Ghys’ new ensemble Bonjour is a low string quartet with percussion featuring some of New York’s finest new music-makers. Comprised of Ghys and Eleonore Oppenheim on the two double basses, Ashley Bathgate on cello, James Moore on electric guitar, and Owen Weaver on percussion, the group is taking the classical string quartet model and giving it a 21st century edge.

“I’ve always loved rock bands with a lot of bass, and I’ve always dreamt of a string quartet that would be lower in register than the usual classical string quartet,” Ghys said. “So I decided to incorporate two double basses and one cello in Bonjour. I’m also trained as a classical guitarist myself, so I knew I wanted to add a guitar (acoustic and electric) that could blend with the bowed strings and bring other string timbres to Bonjour’s palette.”

That palette comes alive in Bonjour’s debut self-titled album: a series of musical snapshots capturing the moods of various days and times throughout the week. Performed in no particular order, each piece offers a refined glimpse into the sounds and sentiments of everyday living, from the jumbled, hazy newscasts of Monday morning to the chaotic afternoon distractions of Friday at 3pm.

Ghys was loosely inspired by the tradition of the Indian raga, in which different scales or modes are associated with different times of day. Fascinated by the idea that a pitch set could have its own mood, color, and specific timeframe, Ghys began applying these principles to his daily music practice.

He also, of course, combined them with his trademark jazz grooves, classical composition background, idiosyncratic bass hooks, and inimitable pop music sensibilities. Mix it all together and voilà! You have Bonjour.

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The album begins with “Friday 3pm,” an upbeat, danceable tune comprised of wordless vocals sighing above a bed of jagged strings—with some electric guitar embellishments thrown in for an extra punch. It sounds like the blissful anticipation of the weekend ahead: the looming promise of less work, more play.

“Wednesday” sounds a bit more like that mid-week grind: a little darker color scheme and a lot more drama. For Ghys, Wednesday brings a split mood: one moment the voices double the bassline above evergreen acoustic guitar strumming—the next moment, the strings take center stage for an angular canon above a steady rock drum beat.

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“Thursday Afternoon” starts fresh with some jazzy bass comping, the two double bassists playing off one another as the other instruments gradually join in, feeling happy, optimistic, creative. Extraordinarily low strings fill out their indie-band sound, eventually dropping into a low, buzzing drone, like a car zooming off into the sunset for a long weekend.

That car zooms right into the track “Sunday,” a reminder of how quickly the weekend passes by. Sunday sounds calmer, nostalgic even, with strings hocketing back and forth above warbling electric guitar chords. Twinkling glockenspiel adds another layer of whimsy above the softly fluttering strings, and before you know it, it’s already “Monday Morning.”

Monday is a bit of a daze: stormy strings, circling melodies, a smattering of indecipherable voices spewing nonsensical quotes from literary and news sources. Monday goes through a lot of moods: first dark then dreamy, anxious then sleepy, focused, excited—and finally, inspired.

“Thursday Morning” is much more buoyant, with pizzicato cello and bass lines weaving in and out of one another, their vibrations echoing across the sparse musical texture. Sighing vocals start in about halfway through the piece, supported by broad bow strokes and the subtle, metallic sparkle of the glockenspiel.

The album comes to a close on “Tuesday Noon Around 12:21,” with electric guitar harmonics gradually creeping through a sparse soundscape of wispy strings, slowly growing in depth and drama as the day wears on.

But whether it’s a Tuesday afternoon or the tail end of the work week, the different days and times ultimately all blend together, and as weeks pass by those individual moments become less and less individual. Certain hours share a similar character, certain feelings or moods last across several days—certain sounds and certain moments bleed into the larger fabric of our lives.

And it’s that sense of wholeness—of complex intersection between those distinctly individual moments across the album—that makes Bonjour the perfect soundtrack for any day of the week.

ALBUM REVIEW: Eleonore Oppenheim’s Home

by Maggie Molloy

In classical music, the double bass is one of those instruments you never really hear much about. In fact, you rarely even hear it very much at all—usually the bass is pushed to the back corner of the stage, largely reduced to providing rhythmic support, textural depth, and a lower pitch range for the rest of a larger ensemble.

But not anymore.

Eleonore Oppenheim

Bassist Eleonore Oppenheim recently released her debut solo album Home: a collection of five contemporary works which explore the vast and varied possibilities of the double bass as a modern solo instrument. To bring the vision to life, she enlisted the talents of five fearlessly innovative and experimental composers.

“We as bassists have a conundrum,” Oppenheim said. “As our technique evolves, and as we explore the ever-expanding possibilities of our instrument as a voice that can stand on its own, we need music to play that will grow and evolve with us. I am fortunate enough to have a number of talented and adventurous composer friends who all have an interest in pushing the limits not just of the instrument, but of preconceived ideas of genre and form.”

Among those friends are the likes of Angélica Negrón, Florent Ghys, Wil Smith, Jenny Olivia Johnson, and Lorna Dune—each of whom contributed a composition for the album.

Home

The album begins with composer Angélica Negrón’s contribution, “La Isla Mágica.” Brimming with whimsy and wistful nostalgia, the piece combines punchy, video game-worthy electronics with bowed bass, percussion, and even some ambient vocals. At times it almost sounds as though Oppenheim and her bass are in the middle of a theme park, playing among the neon signs, the colorful carnival games, and the translucent
stars above.

Florent Ghys’ “Crocodile” takes a decidedly more avant-garde turn: double the double basses. Composed for live bass, prerecorded bass, and audio samples, the piece layers two independent bass lines above excerpts from the 1996 French documentary La fabrique de l’homme occidental (The Fashioning of Western Man) by filmmaker Gérard Caillat and psychoanalyst Pierre Legendre. Broad bow strokes set the scene before shifting to funky pizzicato syncopations which showcase both Oppenheim’s technical skill as well as her musical finesse.

Percussion takes on a new meaning, though, in Wil Smith’s “Heavy Beating.” The piece features Oppenheim literally beating her bass in a series of dramatically percussive blows both on the wood and the strings. Glitchy electronics trickle in as she begins to bow, digging deep into the strings as her bass howls and growls in response.

The album’s title track, composed by Jenny Olivia Johnson, is a bit more patient in its intensity. Oppenheim slowly saws away at her lowest strings, each note buzzing, ringing, and echoing in the surrounding silence as the piece builds toward the shrill reaches of the instrument’s higher range, climaxing in a swirl of agitated bowings and electronics.

The album comes to a close with electropop remix of “Home” by composer Lorna Dune. Synthesized melodies and hypnotic drum machines dance above a slow and solemn bass line as the album slowly fades into silence.

And at just under 40 minutes, the album is over too soon—yet the musical terrain traversed over the course of just five pieces is astounding. Oppenheim drifts seemingly effortlessly from classical to noise rock, jazz to synth pop, and even toward the outer reaches of the avant-garde. In doing so, Oppenheim and her team of composers prove that 21st century bass is in very good hands indeed—and when it comes to center stage, the bass is right at Home.

Eleonore Oppenheim Photo

 

STAFF & COMMUNITY PICKS: September 17, 2015

A weekly rundown of the music our staff and listeners are loving lately! Are you interested in contributing some thoughts on your favorite new music albums? Drop us a line!

Joshua Roman on JACK Quartet’s recording of Tetras by Iannis Xenakis:

From the insanity of the opening glissandi, or slides, to the final whimper, it’s hard to imagine a more captivating 17.5 minutes than Tetras. The precision and intensity brought to this performance by the JACK Quartet are almost frightening. If you can pull your jaw off the floor long enough to get past the shock and awe factor, the innovative structure and sounds of the piece kick in. Fantastical glissandi of all shapes and sizes, wild percussive sounds (using many parts of the instruments not traditionally in play), tremolo and hitherto unheard of scales are provocative and forceful in their narrative roles. Underneath all of that, Tetras creates a space where your imagination can go wild, at times wailing, at times full palpable tension, or in chaotic ecstasy.



Maggie Molloy on Florent Ghys’s Télévision:

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I listen to the weather forecast pretty much every morning—but I have never heard it like this before. French composer and bassist Florent Ghys’s eclectic new album “Télévision” begins with a piece composed for double bass, voice, guitars, percussion, and, oh yeah, five weather forecasts. Yes, five weather forecasts.

But it’s not all just sunshiny, warm weatherman banter—the piece actually serves as an introduction to Ghys’s idiosyncratic compositional style. As the title of the album suggests, his music is like a mashup of video and sound clips, sampled speech, multi-tracking, found sound, and more—and it’s all tied together with perfectly groovy pizzicato basslines and subtle yet witty social commentary. The colorful and unapologetically contemporary works live somewhere in the realm between chamber music, minimalism, sound art, and seriously catchy pop tunes.

So the next time you’re looking for something new, turn off your TV and tune into Florent Ghys’s musique concrète masterpiece, “Télévision.”



Maggie Stapleton on Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal’s Musique de Nuit:

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This duo is one of my go-to musical pick-me-ups. The delicate, sprinkling sounds of the kora along with the low, resonant cello is a soundscape that can turn around a glum day or transport me to a centered place.  Musique de Nuit is a spectacular follow-up to their debut album, Chamber Music (which, BTW, was on our pilot playlist for Second Inversion when we created the project three years ago!) and was recorded in a mere TWO sessions – one on Ballake Sissoko’s rooftop in Bamako, and one in a studio. Who does that? These guys. With infuence from West African folk traditions, a hint of Baroque music, and a fresh take on the concept of “Night Music,” rest assured you can listen to this morning, day, or night and retreat to a world of enchantment.

ALBUM REVIEW: Bang on a Can All-Stars’ “Field Recordings”

by Maggie Molloy 

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You’ve probably heard countless buskers playing bucket drums and other found objects on city streets—but you’ve never heard anyone bang on a can like this before.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars are a six-member amplified ensemble known for exploring the furthest reaches of the classical music world, with an affinity for imagination, experimentation, multimedia music performances, and all things avant-garde.

The one of a kind ensemble is comprised of cellist Ashley Bathgate, bassist Robert Black, pianist Vicky Chow, percussionist David Cossin, guitarist Mark Stewart, and clarinetist Ken Thomson, and their wide-ranging repertoire spans from the minimalist musings of Philip Glass and Steve Reich to the computer music compositions of Paul Lansky and Tristan Perich.

But the All-Stars’ latest project combines an even more colorful palette of creative influences. Toeing the line between music and sound art, “Field Recordings” is a new multimedia project which combines music, film, found sound, and obscure audio-visual archives to create a dialogue between past and present art traditions.

(Purchase links and more information from Cantaloupe Music)

“It’s a kind of ghost story,” composer David Lang said of the album. “We asked composers from different parts of the music world to find a recording of something that already exists—a voice, a sound, a faded scrap of melody—and then write a new piece around it.”

Lang is one of the co-founders of Bang on a Can, along with Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon. The three appear as featured composers on the new 12-track album, along with Florent Ghys, Christian Marclay, Tyondai Braxton, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Todd Reynolds, Steve Reich, Bryce Dessner, Mira Calix, and Anna Clyne.

The album begins with a performance of Julia Wolfe’s “Reeling,” a lively piece based around a sound clip of a French Canadian vocalist. He sings in a twirling, sing-song style with no lyrics, his melody taking on the role of a fiddle or banjo soloing in a folk reel. Little by little Wolfe adds more instruments to the mix, creating an increasingly chaotic and computerized sound, like a record being rewound and replayed over and over, speaking to the album’s overarching theme of manipulating recorded sound.

The next piece on the album is nothing short of an absolute treasure. Florent Ghys’s “An Open Cage” uses as its basis excerpts from John Cage’s “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse),” a poetic five-hour diary recorded by Cage himself a year before his death. In Ghys’s piece, a solo pizzicato bass line dances within the rhythms of Cage’s calm and serene narration, painting his deadpan delivery with a funky groove and a distinctly contemporary color. The lively bass line creates an undeniably catchy duet with Cage’s witty and obscure observations, and the piece grows in musical force, gradually adding more instruments until finally a small chorus of voices appears, echoing Cage’s words.

Christian Marclay’s “Fade to Slide” is equally experimental. The multimedia piece is a dramatic exploration into the rich sounds and distinctive timbres of the world around us, featuring everything from water splashing to record playing, bike riding to gong ringing, glass breaking to soup eating, perfume spraying to bagpiping. Yes, even bagpiping.

Marclay specializes in creating sonic collages from found footage, as evidenced by the imaginative—and at times humorous—combinations of recorded sounds in both the audio and video versions of the piece. (The video version is included in “Field Recordings” on a DVD along with five other multimedia pieces.)

The All-Stars also pay tribute to one of the biggest names in contemporary classical: Steve Reich. The album features the ensemble’s own arrangement of “The Cave of Machpelah,” an excerpt from Reich’s multimedia opera, “The Cave.” The slow-moving and ambient piece features an interesting mixture of musical timbres, with wispy, high-pitched cello strings skidding above a deep, droning bass, muffled recorded sound, and a bowed xylophone.

The album ends with a performance of Anna Clyne’s “A Wonderful Day,” the first in a series of short electroacoustic works combining recordings of Chicago street musicians with live instrumental ensembles. This particular piece features the raw, slow voice of an elderly man singing a sweet and poignant tune, surrounded by the muted sounds of the city and the All-Stars’ gentle accompaniment.

Each piece on the album uses recorded sound in a different and distinct way, but they all have one thing in common: they combine music of the past with music of the present, thereby crafting a new vision for music of the future. And in doing so, “Field Recordings” opens up a colorful new can of worms in contemporary classical music.