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.

Best of Bandcamp Sept 2017

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 - John King - The Secret Quartet - New World Records
March 1 2016
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.

A Trio of Micro-Operas in the East Village/NYTimes

“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.”

NY Observer

"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."

NY SUN