Piano, Percussion, and Video: Vicky Chow and Ben Reimer at Roulette

On December 16, 2017, pianist Vicky Chow and percussionist Ben Reimer presented a program of music by Christopher Cerrone, Vincent Ho, and Nicole Lizée at Roulette in Brooklyn. The powerhouse duo joined forces several years ago at the Bang on a Can Summer Institute held at MASS MoCA, North Adams, and made their debut in January 2017 at the International PuSH Festival in Vancouver, Canada, co-presented by Music on Main.

The concert opened with Christopher Cerrone’s, Double Happiness (2012, arr. 2016). Inspired by a summer spent in Italy, Cerrone used field recordings he took of church bells, train stations, and rainstorms to create a spacey electronics track, which saturated the air around an ever-shifting and evolving unison motive on vibes and piano. Chow and Reimer gave a sensitive and intimate performance of the work, and there was a sense of profound stillness and beauty in moments when electronic and acoustic sounds created a stunning composite timbre.

Vicky Chow

The bulk of the evening’s offering was a whimsical and captivating trio of pieces by Nicole Lizée, all with accompanying video. When I see video components in new music performances, I am more often than not disappointed. Often, these trite visuals resemble an old computer screensaver, with uninspiring abstract patterns, shapes, and colors dancing aimlessly across a screen, but the video in Lizée’s pieces could not be further from the norm. She brilliantly unites a highly personal DIY aesthetic with a Lynchian narrative structure and glitchy, cyclical editing. Rather than providing a distraction, or appearing as a poorly executed afterthought, Lizée’s video work is just as fully-formed and provocative as her musical composition, and holds its own as a significant visual counterpoint to the aural dimension of her work.

Before playing Lizée’s spectacular drum set showpiece Katana of Choice (2014), Reimer spoke of his decade-long working relationship with the composer—he has premiered four of her concerti as well as various chamber and solo works. Katana of Choice was originally performed with TorQ Percussion, but for this performance, a recording of the ensemble was used. The drum set writing in Katana is a vast and relentless collage of classic drumbeats and rhapsodic fills, and Reimer gave an electrifying, tight performance.

Nicole Lizée

Nicole Lizée

The quick pacing and disjoint nature of the musical writing is mirrored in the film, where Wuxia martial arts and film noir tropes are whipped around in whirlwind of stylistic elements. Lizée’s visual aesthetic is delightfully disorienting: live actors are suddenly replaced with paper dolls, which in turn become images in a flipbook; environments alternate between real spaces and close-ups of toy models or sketches. Reimer himself features heavily in the film, and at moments, his live performance is perfectly synced with that in the film, where he wears a white mask and brandishes a cap gun, types furiously on an old typewriter, and plays drums in the back of a car that speeds through the night. The resulting experience is something like a fever dream. Lizée grabs us by the hand and pulls us into this world where narrative structures fold in on themselves like origami. It’s impossible to look away, and utterly inspiring.

The two other pieces by Lizée used pre-existing media as source material for the films. Hitchcock Etudes (2010) is a piano solo with soundtrack and video from Hitchcock’s “middle period” films, such as Psycho (1960). Lizée dissects and splices this material, often looping small sections of film and soundtrack, and in doing so, reveals to us other worlds hidden in the seams. The piano part, brilliantly executed by Chow, mimes and responds to the resulting glitchy sonic landscape. The soundtrack and live piano often resemble each other so closely that they become inseparable.

Softcore (2017), which the duo premiered earlier this year, is an exploration of 1980s R&B aesthetics pioneered by Prince. Here, Lizée strips the genre of certain elements—colors, sonorities, vocal stylings—and repurposes them in a trippy, kaleidoscopic piece. Between explosive bursts of material, Chow and Reimer confidently stomped, clapped, and sung backup vocals along with hypnotically edited video taken from Prince’s oeuvre.

Ben Reimer

Before Vincent Ho’s Kickin’ It (2017), Chow asked Reimer from across the stage—“Do you wanna do a chill version or a fast version?” “Medium-chill,” he replied. Although Ho’s piece is anything but chill, demanding virtuosic playing from both piano and percussion, the duo cooly and confidently navigated the barrage of fast and wild playing that followed. Balance can be difficult to maintain in piano and percussion music, but Ho shows strong command of these instruments by carving out distinct timbral space for them to occupy, resulting in a wonderfully transparent sound.

I left Roulette and stepped out into the chilly Brooklyn night feeling energized by the evening’s music. The duo is now on the pursuit of a commissioning, recording, and touring project, and I eagerly look forward to what they will offer next. Even now, days after the concert, the energy and warmth that Chow and Reimer brought to this performance has stayed with me, while strange and beautiful moments from Lizée’s video pieces reach out to me through daydreams.