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New York's New Art Songs: From Post-Punk to Post-Classical

by Seth Colter Walls

New York's New Art Songs: From Post-Punk to Post-Classical

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It's commonplace, by now, to observe that the 1980s heralded an era of cross-pollination between genres in New York. One hears tales of artists like Philip Glass playing in rock clubs, of onetime free-jazz performers delivering ballet scores and operas to Lincoln Center. The discographies of major artists give clues, too, as when the classically trained P-funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell shows next to avant-guitarist Adrian Belew in a touring group version of Talking Heads. Or when experimental composer George Lewis appears in the trombone section of Laurie Anderson's Big Science album.

So all these artists crossed the boundaries set up by the genre police -- so what? When we talk about the new tradition in "art song" that took hold in New York, circa the era of CBGBs and various fly-by-night experimental music spaces, it might help to talk about the traits we can hear in the music. First and foremost, you'll notice a freer approach to song structure than usually observed in vernacular music: A song like Meredith Monk's "Hey Rhythm" might not have any words at all. It might repeat the same pitches frequently (a nod to the minimalist movement brought to New York by composers like Terry Riley). You might find an intense focus on polyrhythm (on everything from Talking Heads' "Born Under Punches" to Tyondai Braxton's "J. City"). And though the music can be as complex as High Modernist atonal music -- check out the competing rhythms in Mikel Rouse's "Orson Elvis" -- they can work as pop music, too.

Likewise, you might find these art songs incorporating spoken-word raps, chamber music instrumentation and electronics (think of Laurie Anderson's "Language Is a Virus"). That liberated approach to pop construction survives to this day: Consider the opening of St. Vincent's "Bring Me Your Loves," which starts out blaring, goes a cappella, rocks out again, then slips from its groove entirely to go practically spoken-word for a few moments, only to roar back with a slowed-down variation on the squiggly theme from the song's kickoff.

From post-punk sounds to post-classical construction -- that's the legacy of New York's New Art Song. It's a diverse but still identifiable collection of sounds that has stayed healthy over the years, thanks to both the longevity of certain innovators like Anderson as well as newcomer composer-performers such as Corey Dargel (who has a new album of post-genre compositions, OK It's Not OK). Click play on our mix, and you'll recognize the New Wave-ish electric guitar parts of Dargel's "I Will Only Get Well," and perhaps also the unstable-seeming but still crisp groove (a legacy of minimalist composer Steve Reich's experiments).

Not surprisingly, with one or two degrees of separation, you can connect plenty of artists in our playlist. St. Vincent has composed chamber music -- under her given name, Annie Clark -- for the yMusic ensemble, which has also recorded classical compositions by singer-songwriters Sufjan Stevens and Gabriel Kahane. Stevens has collaborated with composer Nico Muhly, who has also arranged the compelling chamber music flourishes on Antony and the Johnsons' The Crying Light.

Elsewhere, Muhly appears as a pianist on David Lang's album Death Speaks, a record that also employs the talents of The National's Bryce Dessner and My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden. St. Vincent has also collaborated with David Byrne, who in turn used to tour with aforementioned polyrhythmic whiz Mikel Rouse (whose operas have played both Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and whose pop songs get up to syncopations you've never heard before).

A few key institutions also link up several artists in our playlist. In its current season, the Brooklyn Academy of Music has hosted Stevens, Monk, Kahane and Muhly (the latter as a performer alongside Glass and Reich). Later this summer, BAM will help produce Byrne's Contemporary Color gigs, which will include Muhly, St. Vincent and tUnE-yArDs (the latter of whom has also written chamber music, of late, under her given name, Merrill Garbus). The Brooklyn-based label that released those chamber pieces by Clark and Garbus, New Amsterdam Records, is also the imprint responsible for distributing Dargel's latest song cycle. Composers such as Sarah Kirkland Snider and Jefferson Friedman have also released compelling art-song cycles on the label. (Friedman's are sung by Craig Wedren, a veteran of Shudder to Think.)

Still, you certainly don't need to get lost in the maze of professional relationships to enjoy the fruits of New York's art-song labors. All you have to do is click play on the mix, and start exploring the many approaches to catchy-but-complex music being pursued. While people may have a notional nostalgia for the wild and wooly old days of Manhattan zip codes that have long since been handed over to finance workers, it's still the case that the city's post-genre aesthetic survives, whether you're uptown, at Columbia University's Miller Theatre, or hanging out at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And now you don't even need to trek to New York to hear this music.

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