January 8, 2011
There is a certain kind of music that not only takes the listener to new places, but also produces a night of intense and lucid dreaming. That’s the kind of music one hears at the Stone, John Zorn’s intimate Lower East Side avant-garde house of aural thaumaturgy. In January, the composer and pianist Angelica Sanchez curated a series of concerts there featuring musicians with whom she’s collaborated previously, including Phillip Greenlief and Tom Rainey. For her solo performance on the 8th, she carried her own piano in under her arm. A miniature upright of about two octaves, Sanchez’s caramel toy, sitting at right angles at the top of the limo-gloss black grand piano’s eighty-eights, produced an intriguing, plinking sound under her prestidigitationally magic touch. With one’s eyes closed, the instrument’s sound was hard to place (a glockenspiel music box, perhaps?), and, with Sanchez engaged in a serendipitously harmonious duet with the big instrument, it was novelly unlike any other keyboard experience.
Sanchez performed music from her new CD, A Little House (Clean Feed Records; from “A casinha pequenina,” the name of a Brazilian folk song sung by the legendary diva Bidú Sayão of Metropolitan Opera fame), and improvised, playing a half dozen compositions with minimal interstitial explanation. Which was fine, since Sanchez’s fingers are rather more than eloquent, so thank you very much, whether playing single-finger slow notes or virtuoso ramping sheets of hailstorm arpeggios, or back again to ritardando, fine.
For example, one piece, in haunting minor key, featuring dissonant, shirred glissades, evoked nothing so much as nocturnal urbanity, as if Sanchez were chasing something elusive, percussive—as if her fingers were trying to tease something ineffable out of the piano, to weave the inexpressible. Sanchez constantly changed pace and rhythm, with Faustian, seemingly-more-than-10-keys-at-a-time attacks, a change-up to rocking placidity, and a high/low-keys dramatic climax.
Her riff on the CD’s titular piece was at first melodically unrecognizable, which was no doubt its appeal to Sanchez. Subtle DNA, indeed, as she literally took a mallet to the strings under the grand piano’s lid, then to the keyboard for something akin to the foreboding second-level tensioner well-known to Super Mario Brothers fans. Next, Sanchez set up an acoustical vibration with her left hand that was contrapuntally offset by pairs of treble notes, finally segueing into the melody, such as it was. As it was, it was as if the notes of this Brazilian folk song were spilled out onto the floor and randomly swept across the keyboard. Make no mistake: Such sleight-of-hand is hard to pull off, and the effect mesmerizing. For Sanchez, the piano is an orchestra, not an instrument, and she works it very hard. The impression is one of scientific thoroughness and domination, as she plays every key, and hard. The listener’s ears—and brain—are maximally rewarded.
Sanchez zig-zagged with a major-key improvisation incorporating smooth chromatic scales (every white and black key worked) that melted into modern jazz, followed by a melodic music-box continuo. Changing up again, Sanchez reprised her reach under the grand piano’s lid to scratch the strings, settling down on the keyboard for a fusillade of dissonant arpeggios, next hitting the bass notes to produce a sound that seemed ironically trebly, but wasn’t. This piece felt oracular, as if Sanchez were telling us the future with her fingers, our ears receiving a staccato message that they might or might not understand. The trance continued, with no need for any pedal; we penguin-walked a musical tightrope with her, holding hands, to a serene piano dénouement.
Sanchez closed with a 20th century Satie soundtrack mystery in which the two pianos explored surreal gardens, raising the question of when new sound will be discovered beyond the 12-tone, beyond the atonal, beyond the synthetic, beyond the biosonic. The integrity of the analog instrument notwithstanding, Sanchez’s music would seem to benefit from electronic expression, from collaboration, from distortion, from orchestration. Still, whether altered or not, Sanchez’s lilting—or crashing—improvisation would produce reptilian dreams.
Given Sanchez’s ensemble collaborations, her solo performance came at some risk, if the intention was to vary and to give her some relief. In this context, monotony is fine for minimalists, less so for others. Here, Sanchez satisfied. Chords struck slowly on major- and minor-keyed pieces; symbolically crossed hands ascended the metaphorical spinal cord; and caressing, xylophonic taps easily maintained the audience’s attention. Half the fun was watching Sanchez, smiling, eyes closed, in a trance, her arms apprenticed.
Connie Crothers, a pianist who performed the following week at the Stone with Kevin Nolan, percussionist and vibraphonist, remarked after Sanchez’s concert that music is necessary for human survival, that without it we would atrophy and wither away. Listening to Angelica Sanchez, we foresee an optimistic future.