ORGAN THING: A violin duo called String Noise, composer Eric Lyon, Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier, and a whole lot of Prince and Brahms and…

Organ Thing of the Day, a quick one for today for we can only hear the last seven minutes of an album due out in just over a week, they are seven rather fine minutes though… actually it looks like there’s a whole load of String Noise releases on March 26th… oh and how good is that prince cover down at the bottom of the page.

“Recognized for their distinct blend of disparate genres, from arrangements of songs by punk legends to conceptual minimalist treatises by Alvin Lucier, String Noise has recorded for Northern Spy Records, Dymaxion Groove, Black Truffle Records, Cold Blue Records, New Focus Recordings, Infrequent Seams and Nouveau Electric Records and…..”

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Violin duo String Noise (Pauline Kim Harris and Conrad Harris) team up with composer Eric Lyon, Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier, and the International Contemporary Ensemble for this wide ranging release of Lyon’s Giga Concerto and his re-imagined versions of Brahms’ op. 105 songs for violin duo and drumset. Lyon’s exuberant Giga Concerto revels in quotation, stylistic diversity and orchestral color, and the Brahms’ songs provide a thought provoking counterpart and a springboard for creative synergy between three versatile musicians.

Artists find myriad ways to grapple with tradition and bring it into a contemporary context. On Giga Concerto, composer Eric Lyon employs what one might call a mashup or collage approach, pitting canonic melodies, conventional textures, and forms directly against experimental techniques and stylistically hybrid material. Joined by colleagues String Noise (Pauline Kim Harris and Conrad Harris, violins), Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier, and the International Contemporary Ensemble conducted by Nicholas DeMaison, Lyon weaves together strains of inspiration from the virtuoso concerto form, Brahms songs, and his reaction to current political events to craft an album that is exuberant, occasionally irreverent, and appropriately schizophrenic for our dizzying cultural moment.

The Giga Concerto was originally composed for String Noise as soloists with the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, and adapted in this version for the International Contemporary Ensemble. In six movements, the work highlights the virtuosity and synergy of the violin duo, offsetting the soloists with colorful writing for this small orchestra of fifteen players. While Lyon was composing the work in 2018, Donald Trump was flirting with Kim Jong-un and North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. As a response to this perilous and absurd reality, Lyon embedded quotes from topical songs into the work, among them, “Nuclear War” by Sun Ra and “Rocket Man” by Elton John.

Giga Concerto opens with a vigorous march before leading to a neo-baroque sequential passage featuring the soloists. Throughout this opening movement, Lyon establishes textures that begin in familiar fashion before slowly introducing destabilizing musical elements. By the end of the movement the steady march that opened the piece has become irregular and marked by disjunct interruptions. The glissandi that open the second movement take on a cartoonish quality, interspersed with off kilter interjections, before a steady driving rhythm supports grinding overpressure bowings in the solo parts.

The third movement returns to the martial character of the opening. Scalar motifs dart through the ensemble, conjuring a circus-like physicality. After an initial passage in the fourth movement that features chords sliding up and down through arrival harmonies, the athletic passagework from the middle of the third movement returns. In the middle of the fourth movement we find the most reflective music of the concerto, a contemplative, post-minimalist chorale of flowing arpeggiations and wispy melodies. Not one to linger in stasis for long, Lyon begins to destabilize this reverie with polytonal material in the guitar, catalyzing a steady unraveling punctuated by three accented notes in the strings that wake the listener from the brief dream. The movement closes with an echo of the gooey, gliding harmonies with which it began.

A flamenco-esque flourish anchors the fifth movement, as the string soloists provide kaleidoscopic, proto-Baroque fortspinnung. Lyon is adept at fixing our attention on a building block component of the musical fabric, here scale passages, and then slowly distorting it by adding rogue elements. The final movement is the concerto’s longest, and doubles down on Lyon’s collage juxtaposition of material, giving ample space for String Noise to raise the temperature with blistering solo lines. The vigorous rhythmic context is primed for hocketed figures, syncopated interruptions, and infectious grooves. Throughout, Lyon takes every opportunity to obscure and toy with expectations once he has established an idea. The ensemble continuity is briefly interrupted for a short series of solos that eventually congeal into a joyful chaos from which the movement never fully recovers. The ritornello for this last movement quotes the main theme from Deerhoof’s song “Giga Dance,” providing a shared link to the Brahms op. 105 song arrangements that alternate with the concerto movements throughout the album.

Those arrangements, initially conceived as duo versions before adding Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier, magnify the gleeful deconstruction at the heart of this record. Brahms’ long limbed central European melodies become recontextualized as music for a post-modern, neo-vaudevillian sideshow, primed to catch and hold the listener’s attention. The balance between Saunier’s percolating, textural drumming and String Noise’s old school, heart on the sleeve approach to these melodies creates a fascinating amalgam of nostalgia, sarcasm, and aesthetic cognitive dissonance. At one poignant moment in the final arrangement, “Verrat,” the maelstrom of the trio stops and all we hear for a brief moment is a disembodied, unresolved major seventh double stop in one of the violins, as if to pull back the curtain and reveal, just for an instant, the underlying conflict driving this bombastic reclaiming of a hundred and forty years’ old repertoire.

Try as many artists may to escape, elude, or dismiss them, we are all working within a series of interlocking traditions, laden with the weight and baggage of history as they may be. In the music on this recording, Eric Lyon steps squarely to the canonic plate and engages with tropes of classical repertoire, first by embracing, and then twisting and distorting them. In the process, he captures something of the grind of our contemporary aesthetic conundrum, where the ubiquity of content from every documented era tacitly invites us to digest the old and the new simultaneously, flatlining the trajectory of evolution that chronicles the evolution of musical style. In Lyon’s music we hear both the internal tension as well as the liberation of allowing a deconstructive impulse to run free.

— Dan Lippel 

Bandcamp

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