This bold collaboration features two New York experimentalists of different generations and disciplines finding common cause with powerfully cogent results. Vocalist Gelsey Bell, a core member of the unapologetically chance-taking thingNY, works at the nexus of improvisation, theatricality, and classical rigor, while composer and guitarist John King, a veteran presence on the downtown scene, has spanned decades evolving his technologies and approaches. The late choreographer Merce Cunningham brings them together; King wrote music and performed for Cunningham, while Bell was drawn into his orbit for a collaboration when the French dance company Compagnie CNDC-Angers mounted an interpretation of his Event in 2015. The music they created for that piece is the core of this stunning recording, developed over another year or so of performance and rehearsal. Each artist wrote loose improvisational frameworks for one another. They draw upon vast reserves of extended technique and traditional practice to deliver six shape-shifting works that shimmer with a mix of liquid grace and harrowing tension. King alternates between viola, his second instrument next to electric guitar, and the traditional West African string instrument n’goni—both heavily treated and processed with electronics—while Bell unleashes a dizzying array of clear-toned melody, guttural groans, various electronic effects and vocoder, along with gurgles and smears generated on synthesizer and metallophone. There’s no missing the improvisational openness of the performances, but the shape and logic of each piece is directed by an indelible compositional mindset. The music doesn’t wander aimlessly—it engages in meticulous, but largely fearless, exploration.
John King (b. 1953) has been a fixture of the Downtown scene for decades, as a performer and composer. Free Palestine (2013–14) is a set of 15 pieces for string quartet, each based on a particular maquam’at, or mode, from Arabic musical practice. The titles of each combine the mode with the name of a Palestinian village destroyed during the partition of the region in the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948 (such as “Nikriz-Qamun”). As you can see, the underlying concept of the piece is controversial, and King is unafraid to plant his flag in defense of Palestinian rights. But the piece is political only in this conceptual underpinning; the actual music is direct, sophisticated, and designed to stand entirely on its own, not as agitprop. As far as I can tell, the actual music is King’s, not arrangements of traditional works. It seems that after a long immersion of listening and performing in the style, these pieces began to pour out of him. They are often more sectional, varied, and multilayered than many of their sources (for example, to my ear, some lines in a texture are taking over the role of percussion). It reminds me at times of Terry Riley’s mammoth cycle for string quartet, Salome Dances for Peace (one piece even is structured in manner similar to In C). And the “Free” of the title has multiple meanings, in particular the musical freedom that is incorporated in varied forms of improvisation and openness throughout. King in the notes says that he has not tried to create an ethnomusically “correct” work, especially in terms of alternative tuning; rather, he wants sounds that fit the tradition to emerge naturally out of the context he creates. I suspect that the more one knows of the tradition, the more one comes to hear how this music is different from the source. (To take just one example, there are moments of far greater chromaticism than I suspect would usually be found.) And at the same time, it feels deeply rooted therein and immensely respectful. This is made particularly feasible by the fluent, precise, and passionate playing of the Secret Quartet, who are Cornelius Dufallo and Jennifer Choi, violins; Ljova Zhurbin, viola; and Yves Dharamraj, cello. King aims to advocate for the rights of what he sees as a dispossessed people by presenting music from their tradition as something strong and authentic, a legacy that can be taken up by those outside the tradition, and thus is a cultural gift to all. You don’t have to accept the politics to savor the strength, beauty, and imagination of this music. Robert Carl
Free Palestine CD
Said, I think, would have appreciated John King’s extraordinary suite for string quartet, Free Palestine, recently released on New World Records, and not only because King has dedicated it to the same cause that Said served as an unofficial spokesman. Seldom have the traditions of Western and Arabic music been fused with such intelligence, integrity, and feeling. King, an experimental New York composer born in 1953, discovered Arabic music late in life, but he has more than made up for lost time in his study of the maqam’at (melodic modes) and iqa’at (rhythmic units), the building blocks of the improvisatory form known as taqsim. Yet Free Palestine wears its diligence lightly. Although rigorous in its exploration of Arabic music, it is also playful, relaxed, and joyous, the work of a mature composer who has replenished himself thanks to a love affair with a new form. The freedom King’s title invokes has as much to do with the liberation of sound as it does with the liberation of Palestine. (for full article, go to link)
Rarely on our stages do we hear such joyful music filled with calm yet energetic life force. The work has an arc which emerges from silence and after drawing a spiral returns to stillness. Right at the beginning we hear timbral signals of Buddhist ritual instruments: the large horns, pipes, bells, prayer wheels and bowls. The narrative and meaning of this work overlap in a slow and steady movement towards a peak through gradually increased complexity, accelerated tempo, increased dynamic levels and harmonies pleasant to the ear. With all sharp angles removed the music overflows and spills into waves of excitement, sounding complex but not complicated, orchestrated expertly with much finesse and delicacy. "10,000 Things" spirals out from emptiness, through a steadily growing power, stopping at an expressive climatic point, followed by a joyful letting go and serenely entering into silence, perhaps the silence nirvana brings.
three micro-operas - ping | A-R-S | WHAT IS THE WORD
The past and future of experimental vocalism came together on Saturday, when Joan La Barbara and Gelsey Bell shared the stage at the Wild Project in the East Village for an enthralling trio of John King’s 20-minute “micro-operas.” Not that Ms. La Barbara resides in the past. At 68, after decades as a trailblazing composer and performer of works by John Cage, Robert Ashley, Morton Feldman and others, she remains an active artist and a redoubtable voice. Opening Saturday’s program, part of the seventh Avant Music Festival, with “Ping” (2014), even her slight intake of breath was thrilling, the signal of a threshold being crossed. At one point in the evening, Ms. La Barbara stood in an aisle, staring as if lost in thought and emitting a low tone about a foot from my left ear. It felt like an annunciation. From that first breath, “Ping,” a setting of a prose text by Beckett, progressed with the ominousness of a cast spell. The vocal part is a kind of toned, modulated speaking: vowels elongated, pitches bent, full of whispers and rasps. The word “white” appears over and over again, and each time she delivered it like a mystery. Suspended midway between floor and ceiling on either side of a seated Ms. La Barbara were two pieces of cast-iron cookware, which she would occasionally thwack with mallets held in a tense formation at her midsection. Mr. King also sat, framed in a doorway at the back of the stage, playing the viola, the fragmented notes of which elicited an array of swirling, spreading electronic sounds. The title of “A-R-S” (2015), which followed “Ping” without pause, refers to a quote of ancient philosophy favored by Cage: “Ars imitatur naturam in sua operatione” (“art imitates nature in the way she operates”). Ms. Bell joined in here, seeming to slowly follow Ms. La Barbara’s movements throughout the stage and the small theater, crossed by shifting patches of colored light. A quartet of recorded voices — Ms. La Barbara, Ms. Bell, Randy Gibson and Nick Hallett — droned in the background underneath a live sound world familiar from the works of Meredith Monk: throat clicks, buzzing, hums, tones that shifted from wisps to operatic cries. Ms. La Barbara’s costume — a flowing white nightgown and white robe — evoked both a hospital patient and an angel. Was the 33-year-old Ms. Bell, in a girlish white dress, her long-ago self? The subtle tensions here — young/old, live/recorded, still/moving, separate/together, male/female — made “A-R-S,” mournful and ecstatic by turns, indelibly an opera, even without characters, plot or readily comprehensible text. Chance plays a significant role in how the piece transpires, but there was a sense of firm intention, of dramatic momentum. A setting of the last text Beckett wrote, “What Is the Word” (2016) was more driving, dominated by stuttering, playful, patchy repetitions of the title. As they sat at a table facing the audience, Ms. Bell was goofy, Ms. La Barbara drier. This was an abstract buddy comedy, mystifying and utterly endearing.
Ethel kicked the show off with Hardwood, a piece written by John King and the reason why Ethel formed as a group. It was a bit hard hearing them talking about how long ago the piece was written, because I don’t want to think that the 1995 was twenty years ago! The two original members of the group, Ralph Ferris on viola and Dorothy Lawson on cello, are joined by Kip Jones and Corin Lee on violin. Before each piece, the composer had a chance to talk about it, and John King was up next to explain Huzam and Khan Younis from his latest work, Free Palestine. On these he played the oud, which I’m not sure I’ve seen played live before.
(Black Mountain Songs at BAM)...performed with confidence, energy and tenderness (and from memory) by the 50 skilled singers of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, who are mostly teenagers and mostly girls. Several songs require the singers to sustain ethereal, high harmonies spiked with dissonant intervals. The sheer beauty of their singing was captivating.
Especially in choreographer Kevin O’Day’s driving, dreamlike closer, this was an artist making full use of the company, with his long-time collaborator, New York composer John King, also exploring the bounds of every musician of the Turning Point Ensemble for this commission. King’s time-vectors/still-points worked with blasts from the orchestra becoming oh-so-gradually more frequent, the music in between inhabited by clucking strings and fluttering harps, woodwinds, and percussion. Bodies rushed on- and off-stage, a whirl of duos turning into trios turning into quartets turning into duos. Its biggest appeal was its deliriumlike feel, with dancers sometimes running backward as if they were being pulled by an invisible force. Strong, strange images included Meyer, her body stiff and horizontal, being passed between partners, or Alexis Fletcher being hoisted high, her legs running in the air. When you weren’t marvelling at the complex, brain-teasing games of rhythm in the score, you were taking in a blizzard of movement on the dim stage. Call it a full-on experience for both sides of the brain—and maybe even some corners of that grey matter that you didn’t even know existed.
“The Brooklyn Youth Chorus filed into the balcony and launched into an ethereal performance of John King’s Light. The theater was completely dark, but the music lived up to its title. The teens’ and children’s voices, directed by BYC founder Dianne Berkun-Menaker, glowed across each other from one side of the stage to the other. The two groups of voices were like clouds merging from dissonance to consonance so silkily that it was impossible to tell just when the discordance dissolved. The voices spiralled and zigzagged over and under one another and permeated the air above our heads. It was hard to believe the performers producing this difficult, mature-sounding music were so young.”
"Led by director Dianne Berkun-Menaker, the choir’s first selection kicked off the night with an ethereal, otherworldly sound. “Light” by John King was a soup of dissonance and complex harmonies, crashing into each other and bouncing off the walls. The young choir’s high quality of training and professionalism was immediately apparent, and they would prove to live up to the many accolades given to them in their 21 seasons."
Less well known as a name but no less important to the mix here is the veteran downtown eminence John King: a composer equally at home writing for a rock-tinged ensemble or a string quartet. His Prima Volta, a notated piece that also makes use of computer-aided chance processes, adds a pleasingly discordant, electronic texture that the album needs.
"John King’s Hammerbone for two trombones and electronics was likewise impressive for its level of interaction, both between the two performers and the electronics. At times this involved slides into dissonance between the two trombones, and at other times one trombone would settle into a simple groove while the other burst into soloistic passages. The electronics flowed out of the performance, filling in the music, building new timbres from the live instruments, and echoing the trombone lines. The more consonant moments verged on some combination of minimalism and modern jazz without ever quite going there. The low rumbles and resonance created between the two trombones and electronics were full of sonorous gravitas. Jen Baker and Chris McIntyre moved through the expansive and virtuosic material with great control and a feeling of spontaneity."
"John King’s powerful “AllSteel” is a response to rather than an illustration of 9/11. Four of its movements — muscular and driving and energized — were begun on Sept. 10, 2001. After Sept. 11, King reconceived the piece by answering each with a quiet meditation, harmonics such as smoke drifting up from the ruins. The result amounts to two antiphonally interleaving quartets, crystallizing around a cadenza-like passage for solo violin in which Jennifer Choi tried to fiddle her way out of solitude as the other players began to chime in, then again fell silent."
At the start, with wonderful polyphony, brass players, one located on each of the topmost balconies on four sides, play long notes that mesh wonderfully with recorded high choral sounds (like a Kyrie in a modernist requiem Mass).
"Chance and improvisation are the primary forces driving composer/violist/guitarist John King’s 3rd CD of riveting, inventive string quartets. Performed by his quartet, Crucible, comprised of King on viola, Cornelius Dufallo and Mark Feldman on violin, and Alex Waterman on cello, the three works on this disc employ what King refers to as “trilogic unity,” in which “predetermined (composed), spontaneous (improvised) and indeterminate (randomized) music… are incorporated into the work equally.” The result is a set of compositions that are all very different from one another, and that share a surprisingly organic sense of flow and structure..."
“In his second recording of music for string quartet to appear on Tzadik, violist John King explores the three-way intersection between composition, indeterminacy and improvisation. “10 Mysteries,” the disc’s primary material, is an extended work in nine movements. In addition to traditionally notated music, King has included his own notation system, which prescribes simple actions such as “drone” or “silence” or more directional transformations like “expand” or “distill.” It is up to the performer to translate these instructions into music. The order and placement of these notations was determined through consulting the I-Ching, bringing yet another form of indeterminacy to the compositional process. The work becomes further indeterminate, as the player determines the duration of each semi-improvisational section.”
Opera traditionally requires highly organized and tightly machined collaborations of facets and artists. It’s a different story entirely, however, with “Dice Thrown”, John King’s provocative new opera given its world premiere over the weekend. What transpired on Friday night was innately different from Saturday’s brainchild, thanks to the embrace of computer-generated chance – digital “dice-throwing.” King commandeers a blend of chamber ensemble, dance and vocalists who intone lines from Stephane Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolira le Hasard/Dice Thrown Never will Annul Chance.” With “Dice Thrown”, elements of musical theater are in place, but the rules of the opera game are thrown into happy disarray.
“John King’s Dice Thrown, a fantasia on a grand and intoxicating late poem by Mallarmé, was more like a revelation. Mr. King is an esteemed downtown veteran who has composed two scores for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; like Mr. Cunningham’s partner, John Cage, he composes using chance operations, creating music that eschews any resemblance to traditional tonality or syntax. And yet, in a performance by the stunningly accurate soprano Melissa Fogarty, the piece became a dazzling coloratura solo of compelling dramatic urgency. The soprano and the orchestral players (conducted ably by Marc Lowenstein) have considerable freedom in interpreting the “materials” of Mr. King’s fragmentary score: Each performance makes for a unique, unrepeatable composition. Nothing’s easier than to write bad music this way—and as the second of two 15-minute versions began its run, I was not hopeful. But about five minutes in, wonderful things started happening. The English horn player intoned his phrases with an ear-catching lyrical arc; the strings responded in kind, and Ms. Fogarty started creating a character, not just a “part.” A musical country you could call Mallarmé Land cohered into being: We could picture its mountains, its cities, its fretting housewives, its squabbling politicians. Perhaps it’s the listener, ultimately, who breathes life into Mr. King’s piece, or pieces. But it’s the composer’s invention that makes that possible, and Mr. King’s is of a rare kind.”
"Another recent Ethel disc, “AllSteel,” issued on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, is devoted exclusively to works by John King, an electric guitarist and the former curator of music programming at the Kitchen. The most substantial piece is the one that lends the disc its title. Mr. King sketched four movements of “AllSteel” on Sept. 10, 2001, then added another four in response to the tumultuous events of the next day. The movements composed before the tragedy are energetic, jazzy and occasionally abrasive in their high spirits; those that followed move from numbed anguish to quiet resilience and hope. “Round Sunrise” is in two movements, a relaxed blues and a bustling conclusion based on a persistent riff. Both sections require extensive improvisation. The Ethel players respond with serpentine lines and greasy slurs. Similar qualities characterize “Lightning Slide,” which Mr. King composed for Kronos. Insistently chugging rhythms in the opening and closing movements suggest the momentum of a runaway locomotive. Happily, Ethel keeps eight firm hands on the wheel."
"Right up front, written in the program, composer/creator John King proposes a half-dozen different scenarios for his electronic opera, "La Belle Captive" (you get to decide on the most likely candidate). Then he quotes Alain Robbe-Grillet. If this doesn't provoke in you feelings of placid certainty, you're not alone. But what follows is hypnotic, intellectually substantial, and slightly chilling - if never quite comprehensible. Mr. King’s multimedia cornucopia, with video and sound mixed live, delights in proposing a dozen narrative nodes that collide and compete with each other. Using bits of Robbe-Grillet’s writing, he spins a sort of multidimensional, postmodern mystery story, in which young women are abducted, tarot cards are examined, and foreign objects suddenly appear in static paintings. It's a bit like having a dream after hearing a fragment of Paul Auster broadcast on a broken television set. A young woman (Analia Couceyro) can just be seen through a portal of scrim, on which is projected yellow and orange static, images of a city, and a giant eye. Her voice, lightly accented, describes for us an unseen picture in staggering detail. The painting, which occasionally resembles what we see through the screen, is of a cell with women trapped inside. As the voice of our narrator weaves its way in and out of Spanish and through various identities, we worry she herself might be some sort of inmate. Another woman (Carla Filipcic Holm), dressed in a toga, sings fragments of songs in Spanish, and provides the lonely woman with an imaginary friend. Describing the production has the unfortunate result of making it all sound like chaos. But Mr. King, video designer Benton-C Bainbridge, and set designer Minou Maguna have created a well-delineated world that churns up the same disturbing images again and again. Only a few chosen items make up this strange little universe, and the piece obsesses over them until our minds are forced to order them into sense. The spell of the piece never breaks. It's a sturdy sort of magic that Mr. King creates, and it's a pleasure to succumb to it."
"Most impressive was John King's "All Steel," a meaty composition full of buoyant energy. The composer, a violinist and guitarist, hit a target that many fall short of: Each of the eight or so connected movements had a distinctive character or groove, with much rhythmic invention and interesting harmonic wanderings, often the result of gently sliding counterpoint. While there was nothing that screamed "I'm trying to sound like rock music," the work was utterly contemporary and street-smart, and offered fine, idiomatic writing for strings.”
“A smorgasbord of styles and anxious riffs pervades King's "Ethos (topology of freedom)," which embraces rock, jazz, blues and minimalism. Each of the quartet players goes improvisationally crazy, three percussionists keep the beat, piano provides piquant punctuation and bombastic explosions lead to an ethereal ending.”
"On last Thursday night's opening program was the world premiere of John King's "AllSteel", an eight-movement work that touched on an extraordinarily wide range of styles. Movements were often driven by rhythmic figures that, in different instrumental shades, could propel a rock jam, but there was also a movement with an extended cello solo, played pizzicato and with sliding notes in the style of a jazz bass. Between the more outgoing movements were quiet if not entirely serene interludes.”
“They concluded with ‘Spiritual,' a foray into Indian music, and ‘Shuffle,' another John King composition which proves that the authenticity of the Delta blues can be equally as valid on a traditional instrument as it is on slide guitar. Unencumbered by convention, genre or style, these four musicians have a key asset: soul. Long may they explore new possibilities in string quartet performance.”
"Full of improvisations, obeisances to bop and blues and irresistible rhythmic bounce. Its level of energy sweeps everything before it."
"Soulful and clever, these songs offer a bright vision for electric music that doesn't need any sugar in its belly to keep the energy going. And, god forbid. it's fun!”
"Deep down, King is a blues-rock player. More than this, he plays not only the style of Hendrix-Prince-Noise-Satire, but also a dobro slide blues, which is delightful.”
"The unsuspecting audience was massaged with funk rhythms until we were completely wet. Then we were nailed to the wall with Hendrix-esque guitar solos. In one hour, the trio created a kind of music which made one long for citizenship in King's Electric World."
"John King plays witty avant-garde rock in which his guitar solidly and confidently plays 21st century blues. Stevie Ray Vaughan hits the noise scene, really nice".
"Electric World is a New York trio whose Saturday night show at Foufounes mixed funk and punk-rock. The band was wildly entertaining."
"King starts out with strong rhythmic funk riffs, and in his solos was always the spirit of Jimi Hendrix, including playing guitar with his teeth.”