REVIEW: A Far Cry with A Roomful Of Teeth

Included in the slew of excellent UMS programs this year was last week’s concert featuring string orchestra A Far Cry and experimental vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. The concert primarily represented the music of two groundbreaking contemporary composers, Caroline Shaw and Ted Hearne, as well as 20th century composer Prokofiev and Renaissance composer Josquin. The concert alternated from the ensembles playing separately and together.

The music of Hearne and Shaw, while being quite stylistically different, both boast the mastery of drawing bold, chaotic, and somehow cohesive pictures from multiple stylistic and thematic threads. In their pieces, they both kneaded into the dissonance of two or more disconnected things happening at once. The various techniques that the composers used to handle these dissonances — intensifying them and then abruptly letting them evaporate, drawing them out over a long period time until gradually relaxing them, and more–were a source of thrilling suspense for both of the composers’ pieces.

Hearne’s pieces were “Coloring Book,” performed by a Roomful of Teeth, and “Law of Mosaics,” performed by A Far Cry. In “Coloring Book,” he juxtaposed austere polyphony with more rhythmically driven, unruly, and playful styles. “Law of Mosaics” was packed to the brim with conversational, interlocking parts, such as convoluted rhythmic pulses with sprawled out melodic lines overtop. The melodies and riffs in “Law of Mosiacs” were improvisational and bursting with personality, and A Far Cry carried this energy successfully.

Caroline Shaw’s pieces, while also possessing this similar ‘mosaic’ quality as Ted Hearne’s pieces, stood out in their patience; in both of her pieces, “Music in Common Time” and “La déploration sur la mort de Johannes Ockeghem” (her arrangement of a piece by Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez), she gave gravity to drawn-out drones and slowly moving polyphony, eventually splattering more rhythmic and angular sections overtop. She has a way of inviting the listeners into huge, thick, open spaces/baselines and then working within those spaces in creative and shocking ways.

As an ensemble, A Far Cry radiated a rock-like energy. Not only are they remarkably virtuosic, but they are conversational players; their communication, sensitivity, and clarity of vision as a group packed their performances with electricity, whether it be in a slow, twisted movement of the Prokofiev or a high-octane and rhythmically aggressive segment of the Hearne.

Vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth represented a library of various vocal timbres styles, and tendencies, but the group was able to sound unified while still providing space for the unique colors of each vocalist to shine. Common threads among the singers such as bright vowels and rich but piercing timbres helped to make the ensemble seem like one body. It was exciting to see each performer lose themselves in their own way, especially during the solo sections; it’s not something that you usually get to observe in traditional Western vocal ensembles.

The night was lined with disorienting, chaotic beauty interspersed with more focused and calm moments. This intricate rhythm of tension made the a concert suspenseful and captivating one.

REVIEW: Big Fun plays Electric Miles Davis

This weekend, jazz group Big Fun played a concert of electronic renditions of tunes by the prolific jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis. The group consists of several skilled and colorful musicians, many of whom are faculty at the music school: Mark Kirschenmann on trumpet, Stephen Rush on keyboard, Jeremy Edwards on drums, Jonathan Edwards on guitar, Dan Piccolo on percussion, Tim Flood on bass, and Patrick Booth on saxophone.


This concert took place on two nights and in two venues: the first concert was on March 11th at East Quad’s Keene Theater and the second on March 12th at Encore Records. I went to the first night in Keene Theater, which I thought was the perfect space for the concert: low-lit and intimate like a jazz club. Big Fun played Miles Davis pieces from the 1970s and onwards including “Bitches Brew,” “Right Off,” “Black Satin,” and more. Each piece flowed seamlessly into the next; there was not one moment in the concert when the energy was let down.

Watching this concert was akin to a satisfying workout; it was long, breathless, packed with adrenaline, and most of all, fun. I could tell that the performers were experienced with performing together (and with performing in general) by the way they dug into the music with contagious confidence.

Each musician had a unique playing style that added dimension to the listening experience. Mark Kirschenmann, whose trumpet was made electric with various pedals, cleverly played with and reworked melodies. Stephen Rush’s electric piano and organ gave the music a wild harmonic crunch. Jeremy Edwards’ drum playing was both energized and reliable. Jonathan Edward’s guitar playing and Tim Flood’s bass playing provided smart and stylish counterpoint and foundational motifs. Dan Piccolo’s various percussion instruments offered refreshing splashes of color, and Patrick Booth’s saxophone lines were long and smooth.

During the concert, a live, interactive video created by Simon Alexander-Adams and videographer Theo Schear was projected on the screen. The visuals were successful in reflecting the compactness, intricacy, and diversity in the music.

This was one of the most impressive concerts I have seen all year. While being loyal to Miles Davis’ musical fingerprint, Big Fun was comfortable and confident with experimenting and digging in with their own unique voices. The musicians devoted a huge amount of energy to their performance and gave the audience a convincing and cutting-edge Miles Davis experience.

REVIEW: The Triplets of Belleville

On February 19, UMS and the Michigan Theater hosted Benoit Charest and his Le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville, who performed their “hot jazz” soundtrack to The Triplets of Belleville alongside the film.

Photo courtesy of the artist; from UMS website
Photo courtesy of the artist; from UMS website

This iconic film from 2003 follows a woman whose grandson was kidnapped by the mafia while racing in the Tour de France. With a zany crew of companions, including a spacey dog and the Triplets of Belleville, three elderly ladies who used to be popular singers, she embarks on an adventure to find him.

I, unlike one of our other writers who reviewed this same event, new nothing about this film or its soundtrack going into the event. I was captivated by its bold, clever, and unconventional animation and narrative techniques. The drawings emphasized the diversity and idiosyncrasies of human beings; oversized noses, lopsided bodies, buck teeth and all.  The film contained no dialogue and thus invited the viewer to read into the film closely.

The soundtrack fit the film like a glove, capturing its spunk, poignancy, and occasional darkness in full. It was both accessible and extremely intricate; while being emotionally direct and easily enjoyable, it was often experimental with texture, rhythm, and harmony.

One of the scenes in which this was most evident in the scene in which the grandmother is accompanying The Triplets on a wheel, slightly offsetting the rhythmic pulse of the original song, “Belleville Rendez-Vous” and incorporating a Bach melody. The musicians performed this live, slipping into the voices characters of The Triplets and nailing the tricky rhythms.

Other songs, like the original “Belleville Rendez-Vous,” “Pa Pa Pa Palavas,” and “Generique d’ouverture” were purely fun and catchy. The musicians maintained a bright, contagious energy during these upbeat tracks.

I was deeply impressed by the ease and virtuosity the Benoit Charest and Le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville brought to the concert. There were times while I was watching in which I forgot that the music was being performed live; it melded so well with the film and brought it to life as one, cohesive entity.

REVIEW: Momentum

Momentum, which showed Thursday through Sunday of last week, was a showcase concert from the University of Michigan’s dance department. The program consisted of four works: Big Weather, Cheating, Lying, Stealing, Goodbye to Wayward Flesh, and City of Rain, choreographed by various members of the Department of Dance faculty and guest choreographer Camille A. Brown.

The first piece, Big Weather by choreographer Peter Sparling, was a commentary on climate change. It was urgent, compact, and intense, much like its soundtrack: Michael Gordon’s “Timber,” a heavily-layered percussion piece. Onstage, the dancers were in a constant state of emergency and scrambling to find their way out. The stage was busy with groups of dancers in different sections of the stage delivering expansive, synchronized movements, occasionally crossing through each other’s space with frantic energy. The choreography and accompanying video was geometric and entrancing.

The earthy color scheme of this piece contrasted starkly with the bright lights and grey suits of the next piece, Bill DeYoung’s Cheating, Lying, Stealing, which explored toxic office dynamics. The soundtrack was David Lang’s forceful, jolting composition of the same title. This choreography had more of a narrative, with cliques of dancers interacting with each other in derogatory gestures. Their movements were swooping and aggressive. I admired the consistent, fiery energy with which they portrayed the narrative.

The quirkiest piece on the program was Amy Chavasse’s Goodbye to Wayward Flesh. The stage was set up with a mannequin duct-taped to a wall, a bright red, winding staircase, and a life-sized llama watching a TV with static. The costumes (Jean Luc Deladurantaye) and soundtrack (Simon Alexander-Adams)  both effectively reflected the choreography’s playfulness. For the majority of the piece, a large ensemble of dancers were onstage and interacting with each other with unpredictable, whimsical movements. The piece closed with a lone dancer (Paula Modafferi) jumping up and down, eventually realizing she had been abandoned by the rest of the dancers, and then climbing up the red staircase while removing her costume.

The show ended on a hopeful note with Camille A. Brown’s City of Rain. The work featured a blue color scheme, an evocative soundtrack by John Melville Pratt, and costumes with soft outlines. The dancers bloomed with the music, slowly emerging and increasing the scale of their movement. The choreography flowed seamlessly from a timid beginning to a triumphant finale.

The diversity of Momentum was remarkable; a wide variety of colors, music, and themes were represented, and the intricate choreography was performed with strong conviction by the students of the dance department.


REVIEW: Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten

On January 27th Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, a documentary about the history of Cambodian rock and roll, was screened at The University of Michigan Art Museum. The event was hosted by the Center for South Asian Studies and the student-run radio station WCBN.

This documentary was produced in 2014 and directed by John Pirozzi. Going into the film, I expected it to be no more than a detailed summary of the Cambodian rock scene. But it proved to be much more vital, thoroughly interweaving Cambodia’s music history with the history of its people, politics, and national hardship.

The documentary picked up from the 1950s, a time in which the Cambodian music scene thrived and musicians were experimenting with different styles. Latin, American, and French music in particular had a huge impact on the musicians of this time, particularly on those rooted in rock music.

Although the film’s title refers exclusively to rock and roll, it presents a variety of types of Cambodian music. The musicians interviewed described how Cambodia’s pop music often has a yearning, melancholy tone. The lyrics are poetic and incorporate cultural and self-reflective meanings, despite seeming purely romantic on the surface.

However, Cambodia’s music scene transformed entirely during the Vietnamese War in the late 1960s, when the US began to bomb neutral Cambodia in an effort to weaken North Vietnamese supply lines. The rock music became more raw and unruly. Cambodians lived in fear and many did not dare to leave their homes to attend live performances, so several popular musicians lost their audience. Later on, as Cambodia became involved in the Vietnamese War, their music became increasingly dominated by nationalistic sentiments.

Immediately after the war, Cambodia’s Communist regime Khmer Rouge took over the nation and killed millions of intellectuals and artists who were considered to be a possible threat. This included the majority of Cambodian musicians and their families. “If you have to eliminate the values from a society,” said one of the musicians, “you have to eliminate the artist.”

The regime was overthrown in 1979, and the documentary finished on a hopeful note by playing singer Cheam Chansovannary’s “Oh! Phnom Penh,” a song about Cambodia’s capital which was emptied by Khmer Rouge, while showing footage of people returning to their homes in Phnom Penh.

The documentary did a wonderful job portraying the legacy and resilience of musicians through these historical events.  It was thorough without indulging in excess detail. The combination of live performance videos from the time and recent interviews brought the history to life with a remarkably personal narrative. Additionally, the film was beautifully shot and edited. Its smooth transitions into different topics and time periods offered a seamless and continuously engaging narrative. Although the film was only two hours long, it brought three significant decades of Cambodia’s music and history to life.