Posts Tagged ‘Maja Ratkje’

What’s spinning, October 14 edition

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Been a while. What have I been listening to?

The answer is, “not much.” My appetite for new music has taken a pretty steep nose-dive this year as I’ve immersed myself in photography. My appetite for live music has remained unchanged, though, or even increased a bit. But I haven’t bought all that much new music this year. That said, here’s what I’ve been enjoying recently…

  • Anti-Pop Consortium - Fluorescent Black — Anything new from these guys is welcome; I was never all that taken by any of the side projects since their 2002 breakup (not counting the sublime Antipop Vs. Matthew Shipp). On initial listens, this sounds pretty great although perhaps not quite up to the lofty standards of Tragic Epilogue and Arrhythmia.
  • Baroness - Blue Record — Just massive, massive praise for this one from metal critics. I’ve listened to it streaming on Myspace a couple times and don’t see it yet. Good stuff but hardly amazing. Red Album - which I loved - seemed more coherent and compelling to me, but perhaps this just needs more listens.
  • Do Make Say Think - Other Truths — This on the other hand is fantastic. I’ve had one listen to a pre-release copy and it sounds like an absolute must-buy. Four long tracks in the classic DMST mold: laid-back, melodic, slightly repetitive post-rock that is somehow beautiful, sublime, and never boring.
  • Echoes of Eternity - As Shadows Burn — Female-fronted melodic metal whom I first heard on tour with Unexpect; their first album was absolutely laughable, but this is actually pretty decent. Lots more substance here and Francine Boucher’s voice is integrated into the music instead of floating weirdly on top of it all. Still not anything I would call great, but a quantum leap forward from Forgotten Goddess, which is better left forgotten.
  • The Faceless - Planetary Duality — Since this young tech-death band has attached itself to seemingly every major U.S. death metal tour of 2009, I’ve already seen them live three times this year. So I figured I’d pick up their record; it’s solid technical metal with a few standout tracks like the amazing “Xenochrist.” Soon enough they’ll be headlining their own tour.
  • General Surgery - Corpus In Extremis: Analysing Necrocriticism — One of my new discoveries from Maryland Deathfest this year; this is a solid, if unspectacular, record full of slightly grindy gore/death metal. “Solid, if unspectacular” is more than enough to make General Surgery stand out from a sea of utterly mediocre goregrind bands.
  • The National - Boxer — My main discovery from this year’s Virgin FreeFest. I love their laid-back, tastefully orchestrated take on indie-rock, and vocalist Matt Berninger’s deep croon suits them perfectly and sets them apart a bit.
  • Om - God Is Good — As it turns out, Om without drummer Chris Hakius is still Om. Pretty solid album spiced up by the appearance of new instruments like tamboura, flute and, in an absolutely genius moment, Mellotron. Check out my review at the City Paper.
  • Ra Ra Riot - The Rhumb Line — Melodic, slightly sappy indie-pop, helped by some excellent contributions from a cellist and violinist. Like Cloud Cult but with fewer awkward melodies and vocal lines; this is a really promising debut.
  • Shpongle - Are You Shpongled? — This is hardly new, but I found myself spinning it on a long drive recently. Upbeat electronic music, kind of like if Ozric Tentacles just took the techno-ish parts of The Hidden Step or Waterfall Cities, and made a whole album out of them.
  • Spunk - Kantarell — I’ve always found Spunk to be one of Maja Ratkje’s more accessible projects. This one is soundscapey, almost relaxing at times, with acoustic instruments peeking in through the electronics at refreshing intervals. I like to imagine that astronauts landing on an alien planet and turning on their radios might hear something like this.

Favorite shows of 2006

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

Well, there’s one last end-of-year list that I want to do: best shows I saw this year. I made a sort of new year’s resolution at the beginning of the year to see more live music — in the past I have generally been pretty lazy and not bothered leaving the house to make it out to shows other than obvious must-sees (like Los Jaivas, or Present, etc). This year, I made a conscious effort to overcome my inertia and make the effort to get out and see/hear more. I was moderately successful; I think I saw 25 shows over the course of the year, although I might be forgetting one or two. In any case, here are some highlights, in chronological order.

  • The Vandermark 5 at Iota, February 3 (blog entry) — I never got to see this band with Jeb Bishop, which I regret, but Fred Lonberg-Holm was a revelation, a total wildcard. Super high-energy, awesomely tight, these guys played a wide-ranging set that was the first great show I saw this year.
  • The Claudia Quintet at Twins Jazz, March 14 (blog entry) — I’m not a huge fan of their studio albums, but live, they were a joy to watch; John Hollenbeck’s busy drumming style was a treat and Matt Moran on vibes was a whirling dervish. But the star of the show for me was Chris Speed, who blew up with one absolutely thrilling tenor sax solo and a lot of other highlights.
  • Stórsveit Nix Noltes at The Black Cat, March 21 (blog entry) — This one was a total surprise; I went to this show for the headliners, Animal Collective, but these guys stole the show. A nine-piece band from Iceland playing rocked-up Eastern European folk music? Sounds right up my alley, and it was. High energy and big fun.
  • Isis, Dälek & Zombi at The Black Cat, April 30 (blog entry) — The rare bill where I know and like all three of the bands, and none of them disappointed. I was too tired and it was too loud for me to enjoy this show to its fullest, but all three of the bands put on a great show. It may have been Dälek who left the biggest impression on me, with his militant stage presence and aggressive wall-of-sound production.
  • Satoko Fujii/Natsuki Tamura at George Washington University, May 23 (blog entry) — Transparent Productions brought these Japanese avant-jazz masters to DC to play in front of an audience of maybe 15, and they did not disappoint. Probably my favorite show all year. Very challenging; the two of them played for an hour straight with no breaks, and it was hard to tell what was improvised and what was composed. As much classical influence as jazz, and Fujii had a way of keeping me mesmerized that I won’t soon forget.
  • Berne/Carroll/Formanek/Rainey at An Die Musik Live, July 29 — For some reason I never wrote about this show, which is weird because Berne is probably my #1 favorite current jazz artist, and Rainey just might be my alltime favorite drummer. For the first of the two sets I was seated front row right in front of Rainey, and I barely noticed anything but his playing, he was so good. He used a very basic drum kit but eked a huge variety of sounds from it, using all kinds of techniques. The second set I actually enjoyed even more; they played more stuff I recognized, like a couple tunes from Feign, and seemed a little tighter. Great stuff, hope I get to see Berne again sometime in 2007.
  • Nels Cline/Glenn Kotche at The Black Cat, September 20 (blog entry) — Another nice surprise; I came for Cline but I might have actually liked Kotche more. Cline was in full-bore noise mode, wringing loud squalls of feedback from his effects-laden guitar; he was fun to watch but a little hard to listen to. Kotche was equally inventive but more accessible; the idea of a solo percussion set had me a little apprehensive, but his stuff was melodic and fun. The two of them played together to close out their set, and that was my favorite part of the show. A memorable performance from two great improvisors.
  • Yo La Tengo at the 9:30 Club, September 26 (blog entry) — Man, another pleasant surprise. I guess I kind of knew what to expect here, but I didn’t think they were going to completely blow my head off. Ira Kaplan’s guitar freakouts were delicious, noisy and cacophonous but somehow still melodious, if barely. I’m indifferent towards a lot of this band’s poppier moments (though a lot of them are still very good), but when they “shut up and play their guitars” it’s a wondrous experience.
  • Massive Attack at the 9:30 Club, September 28 (blog entry) — Completely different from any other show I saw this year, these guys brought their full complement of guest vocalists and instrumentalists. I lost count of how many sharply-dressed British folks (pretty much equal proportion of males and females) were sauntering about on stage, backed by the most involved lightshow I’ve ever seen at the 9:30 Club. Their trademark trippy beats and sultry vocals made for quite a sensual concert experience, but that didn’t stop them from also rocking out when they wanted to.
  • Wilco at the 9:30 Club, October 19 (blog entry) — This couldn’t possibly live up to the amazing show I saw them put on last year at the same place, but taken on its own, it was still damn good. Some of the new pieces were a nice surprise; hearing Cline and Tweedy do a melodic classic-rock dual-guitar jam was a surreal highlight. Last year’s show was for the ages; this one was merely great.
  • Maja Ratkje & POING at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, December 17 (blog entry) — Like the Fujii/Tamura show, this one was demanding, required all my attention, and left me tired at the end. It was also a fabulous performance. I saw some pretty out-there avant shows this year (a noisy improv set from Denman Maroney, Jack Wright and Reuben Radding tops the list), but this one was easily the best of them. There was a real method to this madness, and I found it quite compelling. A great way to end the year.

On the opposite end of things, probably the most disappointing show I saw this year was in late January, when Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores were supposed to play at the Warehouse Nextdoor, but never showed up. I contented myself with Make a Rising, a Philly band who had gotten good reviews on the avant-progressive list and elsewhere, but they just seemed like a really, really amateurish chamber-rock band to me. Oh well.

The show I am most bummed I missed? By a long shot, Joanna Newsom, who played at the Black Cat in November. I had fallen in love with her new album Ys, but did not think the show would sell out. I mean, she has an immediately hatable voice and she’s pretty obscure. I didn’t expect her to blow up in popularity with Ys (the damn thing is five epic-length songs fergodsakes), but she did. She sold out pretty much all her shows, including the one in DC. Dammit.

Here’s hoping 2007 is as good a year as 2006 was for live music in DC. As Steve Feigenbaum said over at ProgressiveEars, I am endlessly thankful that I live in a place that offers so much great music. Now if only some of those damned New York avant-jazz musicians would journey down here every once in a while…

Maja Ratkje @ National Museum of Women in the Arts

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

Today I went to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which I never knew existed until now, for a performance by Norweigian vocalist/composer/improvisor Maja Ratkje, alongside the accordion/sax/bass trio POING. I went with a friend who I found out has been involved in some “new music” ensembles and is probably the only person I know that I can invite to stuff like this.

Ratkje is probably most known for her electronic noise-improv with groups like Fe-mail, but here we were treated to her more “classical” ouevre — although none of what was played had much to do at all with canonical Western classicism. I went in to this not knowing at all what to expect, other than that Jeff Bagato had called it “an essential event” on various DC announcement lists. Also, a recent show in New York got a rave review on the avant-progressive list.

What we got at this show were five pieces of wide diversity. POING kicked things off with a Ratkje piece inspired by the fifth movement of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” This was followed by “Passing Images,” an extremely minimalistic piece originally composed for solo accordion, and a re-envisioning of an already re-envisioned Norgweigian folk tune. Silence was a fifth instrument in this piece, and the ensemble manipulated it masterfully to create a work that, even though it was slower than the slowest slowcore band, filled the venue with a palpable tension that had me riveted. It didn’t have the same effect on everyone though, as someone in the audience could be heard softly snoring as the piece came to a close. The above-linked review from avant-progressive describes this piece better than I could, so here’s the relevant excerpt:

Passing Images was written as a solo for accordionist Frode Haltli freely from Maja’s memory of his re-arrangement of a Norwegian folk tune, “as a remote echo of something that has already been treated and changed”. Here it is yet re-arranged for the entire trio plus the composer’s voice. Once again we have the sound of air in the bellows or through the brass tube of the sax, devoid of pitch, barely audible bass harmonics, long silences, dramatic interjections from the accordion, then Maja entering with a babble of sound poetry followed by long pure tones alternating with small mouth sounds made audible by amplification; a totally gripping piece of music. It put me in mind of some of the artists pursuing so called lowercase improvisation, using their instruments in ways which strip them of all their traditional expressive qualities. That this was a scored work rather than improvisation may or may not account for its greater emotional power. A version of Passing Images will appear on Frode’s CD slated for release on ECM in 2007.

The only piece these musicians performed that was not composed by Ratkje was a composition apparently written by Terry Riley for Sonny Rollins (???), but maybe I heard that wrong. This one was the most accessible, with a relatively approachable if constantly shifting rhythm. Closing out the set was a nearly 20-minute “overture” for an opera that Ratkje wrote, which involved some pretty nifty pre-recorded bits played back on three separate cassette players and featured Ratkje’s voice more prominently than the other compositions.

Worthy of mention are all of the individual players, who played with all sorts of unconventional techniques, many of them percussive (I’m surprised, in retrospect, that I had never seen anyone play a bass with a mallet before today). Ratkje’s vocals were like Iva Bittová on a bad acip trip: squeaking, muttering, yammering away in a style that reminded me very strongly of the kind of vocal improvisation that Emily Hay does on her album Like Minds, or for that matter the stuff that Dagmar Krause does to open the first News From Babel album.

After this concert Steve Feigenbaum told me that it was perhaps the show he hated most this year, and that’s saying something given that he’s been to somewhere near 60 concerts in 2006. I had a different take, though; I quite enjoyed everything they played, although I refrained from purchasing any of the many CDs that were on sale because I’m not sure I could take this stuff on record. As it was, seeing it live transfixed me, but it was also a pretty exhausting experience.