Music is often colorfully compared to alchemy. Both arts involve the careful meeting of scientific logic and emotive, mystical chaos. The musician takes sounds that can be expressed mathematically, orders them in a way that can be analyzed logically, and produces something that, hopefully, will elicit some kind of emotional, intellectual, or spiritual reaction from the listener. The comparison doesn’t really work…after all, alchemy never made lead into gold, while music has been doing just that since the beginning of humankind. Creating music that is heavily rooted in specific traditions, like bluegrass or klezmer or minimalism, is perhaps like woodworking, or painting in a photorealist style, where the creator must balance personal expression with strict adherence to certain rules. Trying to make new music, music that is different enough for people to hear it as a new genre or style, or something without genre or style, is a different beast altogether, metaphorically akin to bomb-making, or perhaps the brewing of moonshine. An artist combines various elements, refined and distilled into their own voice, and the results may be glorious, chaotic, unexpected, horribly boring, or all of the above.
I wondered if these kinds of thoughts preoccupied musicians like Christopher Tignor, A Far Cry, and This Will Destroy You, as I attended their concert at Merkin Hall as part of the Ecstatic Music Festival (Tignor was also joined by his band, A Slow Six). The theme of the evening seemed to be alchemical in nature, combining drastically different elements in the hopes of a new sonic breakthrough. Tignor, a young composer with a brilliant approach to musical cross-breeding, was the only constant across the three sections of the concert. The young crowd included a large percentage of non-classical fans, likely there to see TWDY, who play in the Mogwai/Sigur Ros post-rock style defined by droning ambiance, slow crescendoes and extreme dynamics. A Far Cry, who I became enamored with (I highly recommend their recordings, available from afarcry.org), are a conductorless string orchestra from the Boston area. The concert was divided into three sections: first, AFC played two works, Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet and Tignor’s Thunder Lay Down in the Heart, accompanied by Tignor himself on electronics. Second, Tignor’s band Slow Six played several pieces, accompanied by AFC, with arrangements (and occasional conduction) by Tignor. Finally, Tignor joined AFC’s ranks to play his arrangements for TWDY’s set.
AFC appear to think with one mind. Reich’s Triple Quartet was written for a single quartet, playing along with a recording of two others. AFC played the entirety of the piece live, and perfectly executed the energy of Reich’s intense, visual work. There are times when the music is a colossal orb of energy, expanding and contracting, with ripples of light running across its surface. There are others when it’s some Lovecraftian multi-tentacled beast, flailing menacingly, and fleeting moments when it’s delicate and aching, strings like bobbing bodies of zero-g dancers. AFC communicated the dense, complex emotions of the Quartet with understanding, authority and grace.
Next was Tignor’s Thunder Lay Down in the Heart, performed by AFC with Tignor on laptop and electronics. Tignor’s compositional voice is natural and well-developed. He draws from many styles and musical traditions, but is never guilty of gimmickry. Many musicians opt for the “mash-up” approach, which, while sometimes producing great music, more often than not smacks of artificial cleverness trying to pass as genuine creativity. Tignor understands how to take broad ideas from ambient techno, minimalism, and post-rock, and combine them with an organic logic. His music sounds like a painting of blended textures and colors, as opposed to the collage of incongruous images that another composer might produce when working with the same source materials. This piece in particular covered a wide range of emotional ground, with AFC constantly shifting between cloudy effects and blunt unison lines, sometimes dominating the space over Tignor’s soft synths while other times buckling under the weight of white-noise slabs. Segues would slowly phase one section into the other, or arrive abruptly, with hostility.
The next two parts of the concert were marred by sloppy sound mixing. To be fair, Merkin was not exactly designed as a rock venue, and the acoustics were working against the sound engineer. And it can be a nightmare to blend drums and electric guitars with strings in a live situation. But no matter how delicate or sensitive the other players were, there were long sections where AFC were completely buried. The show honestly would’ve sounded much better in a rock venue like Bowery Ballroom. I don’t mean to downplay the quality of the music, I just was not able to get nearly as clear a picture of what was happening in the latter two parts as I was in the first.
Slow Six served as the bridging point for the evening; their music lives equally in AFC’s large-classical-ensemble sound-world and TWDY’s dynamic, effects-laden electric Valhalla. Their nstrumentation keeps to this theme, with electric violin, viola, guitar and piano over an acoustic drumkit. Building their sweeping songs around short string patterns, the band grooves hard at the bottom and floats angelically on top. AFC, when audible, alternated between providing a stark counterpoint to the electric strings, and blending subtle textures with the rhythm section.
Tignor took a different approach writing for TWDY, having AFC serve primarily in a contrasting, sometimes combative, but generally more equal, role. TWDY’s music is built mainly around repetition and crescendo, allowing AFC to weave in and out of the band’s airy drone with rich melodies and sharp rhythms. Most impressive was how the nature of TWDY’s music didn’t change. Tignor’s arrangement added something new, and spoke cleary with his musical voice, but it didn’t feel like TWDY’s sound and emotional impact were fundamentally different from how they’d be normally, they were just communicated in a more expansive way. The sound problems persisted throughout their set, however. They weren’t omnipresent, but would arise, as if on cue, during the major emotional climaxes. Tignor, AFC, and TWDY more than achieved their alchemical goals, yielding exciting new music that joyously destroyed genre boundaries. I hope desperately that they record the material I saw that night sometime in the future…just somewhere a little more suited to the mix.
Listen to the Q2 recording here: http://www.wqxr.org/#/articles/q2-live-concerts/2012/feb/15/will-destroy-you-christopher-tignorslow-six-and-far-cry-live-merkin-hall
Evan Burke is a bassist and composer living in Brooklyn.