SONiC Afterhours – Innovocal @ 92Y Tribeca

It wasn’t until well after the show began that I realized how right it felt: an after-hours new-music show.  With a bar.  Why hasn’t this format taken off?  Why does the new music community (and the classical community, more broadly) stick to 8pm start times, with the occasional matinee thrown in?  And, of course, the dreaded 7:30 start time, which exists solely for the purpose of making all your friends a half-hour late because every reasonable human being knows that Concerts Start at Eight.

The official start time for Innovocal Thursday night at the 92Y Tribeca, part of the SONiC Afterhours festival-within-a-festival, was 11pm, but the show took its time as the audience got their drinks from the bar and chatted each other up on their leisurely walk to the tables.  Most of the audience appeared to be people associated with SONiC, or their friends, but rather than feeling like an insiders’ club, there was a genuinely warm social buzz in the room.  It really did have the feel of a genuine after-hours show, the kind where band members shed all the main-stage formalities and just play a stripped down, relaxed set for their friends.

And the music didn’t disappoint.  A short, tight program, Innovocal presented music by three composer-performers which falls somewhere between art song and singer-songwriter.  Chris Cerrone’s Requiem [for KV]—a setting of a short, enigmatic text by Kurt Vonnegut, the piece’s namesake—layered Christiana Little’s delicate soprano on top of, below, and around itself, mainly on only three pitches: the first two notes of a C minor scale, and then the third an octave higher.  The text hints obliquely at the planet’s response to the end of the world, or at least the end of life, and was written in response to the legendary author’s death in 2007.  Remarkable, then, was the airy lightness and deep calm in the music, with the composer on live electronics.

Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say, by composer-singer Kate Soper with a text by Lydia Davis and Erin Lesser on flute (and piccolo, and alto flute), might have been the polar opposite of Requiem [for KV] in every way imaginable, and yet the two pieces (songs?) ended up balancing each other perfectly.  Only the Words is a sort of mad scene centered around a woman’s reaction to being told by her boyfriend to “never come back here,” moving through different, and increasingly hilarious, stages of denial, with the flute part functioning as a foil, or an appendage of the sprechstimme-style voice part, or even as another character.  Indeed, both performers brought a stunning virtuosity and expressive depth both to their musical parts and, amazingly, to their faces.  It’s a rare thing indeed to have a piece of contemporary music intentionally make you laugh out loud.

Corey Dargel - Photo by Robert Mciver

The comic tone continued with a set by Corey Dargel, who has made a career on his song cycles (albums?) on odd, silly, and often unexpectedly moving topics, the most notorious of which is undoubtedly Removable Parts, “a theatrical series of love songs about voluntary amputation.”  Thursday night’s set, Hold Yourself Together, takes as its theme the art of human composure, and all the challenges to maintaining it.  Of the eight songs in the cycle, two were freshly written and receiving their world premieres.  With Wil Smith on keyboards and James Moore on guitar grooving and lurching around in odd meters––a 4/4 bar with an extra 8th note on the last beat, or a 12/8 bar with the last 8th of each bar missing––the lyrics were jokey, but hinted at the deeper unease that comes with an excess of self-awareness.  “Is there anything on which we can agree,” Dargel crooned, “other than the worthlessness of your degree?”  This holder of two worthless degrees sipped his hard cider, laughed uncomfortably, and looked around the room for no reason.  So, are they art songs in pop clothing, or pop songs with a classical pedigree?  They’re funny, catchy, and musically sophisticated.  Who cares what we call them?

Putting together a program is a tricky thing.  You want the pieces to have enough in common that they feel right being in each other’s company, but you also want them to be different enough that they don’t just seem like varied rehashes of each other.  This program was a solid example of three extremely different pieces that still made for good neighbors, giving each piece its own space and identity, but also complementing and informing what we’d already heard, and what we’d heard since.

Side note: in the lobby before the show, I was mistaken for Dargel by a very sweet and very well-meaning couple, who told me how much they loved my songs.  Do all bald white guys really look alike?  When my beard was shorter people seriously thought I was Moby.  In 30 years they’ll probably think I’m the reincarnation of Shel Silverstein.

Jeremy Howard Beck is a New York-based composer, as well as an active trombonist. Follow him on Twitter: @jeremyhowardboo