The Women in the Room

(Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

March 28, 2017
Cornell University, Kiplinger Theater

I can tell you that Alicia Hall Moran is a singer with countless biographies woven into her lungs; that Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon are poets of vast interpersonal awareness; that LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is a sensitive purveyor of visual and sonic incisions. But this conveys only who they are on paper and not what they became in person when their forces cross-pollinated in Cornell’s Kiplinger Theater on March 28, 2017.

The title of their performance, THROUGHLINE, felt like both descriptor and mission statement as they drew lines through the curio cabinets of our minds even while rearranging them, jumping from soul to soul until only a singularity of verbal perfume was left. Amid top notes of citrus and spice, girlhood’s questioning turned into womanhood’s indestructibility and floral mids scented the skin of forgotten children, while a base of grasslands and burnt umber evoked the muck of conflicting narratives from which these four singular artists excavated common themes.

Moran’s voice carried ahistorical futures written in historical registers. Presenting selections from her debut album, Heavy Blue, as well as new songs composed around the poetry of her sisterly collaborators, Moran spotlighted the nooks of maturation in which understandings take deepest root. Whether intensifying her mezzo brilliance in the original “Open Door” or modernizing the spirit of John Dowland’s “Flow My Tears,” she proved that emotional celebrities must first unlock their own silence before preaching to the silenced. Throughout her collage of serenades and broken dreams, she pulled at the seams of self-proclamation until “self-” dropped off and fell into the lottery of brighter tomorrows.

Griffiths likewise blurred languages of light and grain, ever the auditory bokeh in our depth of field as listeners. She took Moran’s photorealistic impulses of yearning and spun them into a pastiche of reflections. Her lyrics were odes to lived experience. Through pulling of moon and tide, creation and womb, a life-giving dance took place in everything she embraced. In her world of submarine maternity and spirits within spirits, she rendered birth pangs as tactile substances to be fashioned into words. Like a child looking upon her mother for the first time, every poem was precious and beyond worthy of the swaddling by our attentions.

Van Clief-Stefanon drew a vertical axis to Griffiths’s horizontal, exploring hierarchies of musical impulses, chemical time signatures and the types of choices that fuel epiphanies of social justice. Her breaths of transitioning spring held their shape despite the infernos of ignorance that have beset our present age, and tipped her scales of allusion toward the popular canon — polishing, for instance, Rihanna’s diamond until its dark matter threw open the wings of an intergalactic politic. Pulling names from the depths of her blood, she homed in on key tones of physical relationships and lifted valor with gloved tongue as an object worthy of study. Flipping over male dominance like a fish in a pan, she captured its briny smoke in her nostrils and exhaled sweet critique.

Diggs’s conveyance of videos and stills taken by Griffiths was the rhythm section behind the soloists, to which she added her own interdisciplinary foraging as filtered through a tabletop array of electronica. Her digitally altered singing worked at molecular levels, made clear as the artists laid down a path of composites aching from the grammar of their integration. Diggs divided the moon like an egg and deferred her feel for montage to three women who shelter all the beauty of the world in their consonance.

The THROUGHLINE project sees something beyond the obvious. Experiencing it was akin to seeing a dream you once forgot now being laid bare, newborn edges and all. Its discourse was so precise that it sharpened blades of memory until only reality was left by their slice. It was music for those that fortune once threw into a pool of amniotic fluid and walked away disappointed when they didn’t drown. Music for those who’ve since learned that every change of dress is another chance at remembrance. Music that looked us straight in the eyes and said: You want to know what real privilege is? Sharing the duty of those dismantling its infrastructures, throwing away the master’s tools, and rebuilding — letter by letter — the temples of our bodies without warning signs, fire escapes or trigger alarms.

Moran, Griffiths, Van Clief-Stefanon and Diggs were their own microphones, amplified through self-expression — the strongest form of faith — and built on the assertion that nothing is real until spoken, nothing spoken until real. These were the women in the room, voices of a collective body whose signatures imprinted ears and eyes with every individual step forward, and the honor of unfolding said signatures out into this tightly and artfully folded world will stay with us. Perseverant. Honest. Unafraid.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Eleni Karaindrou: Trojan Women (ECM New Series 1810)

Trojan Women

Eleni Karaindrou
Trojan Women

Socratis Sinopoulos Constantinople lyra, laouto
Christos Tsiamoulis ney, suling, outi
Panos Dimitrakopoulos kanonaki
Andreas Katsiyiannis santouri
Maria Bildea harp
Andreas Papas bendir, daouli
Veronika Iliopoulou soprano
Eleni Karaindrou
Antonis Kontogeorgiou chorus director
Recorded July 2001 at Studio Polysound, Athens
Engineer: Yiorgos Karyotis
Produced by Manfred Eicher

No human heart is set so hard
that hearing the grave music of your dirge,
your keening, would not bring tears.

The distinct approach of Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou to film sound-tracking, through ECM’s rigorous documentation of her partnership with director Theo Angelopoulos, has imbued her music with a life of its own among international audiences. All the while, Karaindrou had been nurturing an equally prolific association at home with the theatre. Her Angelopoulos in that craft has been director Antonis Antypas, with whom she has collaborated on over 20 productions for the Aplo Theatro. This album documents her incidental music for a new staging of the Euripides tragedy Trojan Women, which received its premiere at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus on August 31 and September 1, 2001.

First performed in 415 B.C., the play was a vitriolic critique of the Athenians’ then-recent attack on the island of Melos, where countless violently perished and women were sold into bondage in the name of conquering Sparta (in this the Athenians did not succeed). It is perhaps no coincidence that the word melos also means song, for singing constitutes the very flesh of this album’s limestone skeleton. Karaindrou kneads into these politics the idea that less is more. With the barest use of folk instruments—such as the Constantinople lyra, ney, santouri, and bendir—she implies a battered panorama of immense emotional congruity. Producer Manfred Eicher has lent further sanctity through his arrangement and editing of the material into its present form.

A profoundly comported scenography of touching (which is to say, tangible) melodic beauty finds particular expression through the lyra’s grasshopper song. It is a mournful, unforgettable sound, dry as a reed in summer. The harp also figures notably in the music’s rolling waves, overcoming the barrenness evoked by titles like “Terra Deserta” with oceanic depth. Its vibrations are transformations of landscape itself, silenced by their own resonance.

Trojan Stage

Much of the material on Trojan Women will sound familiar to regular Karaindrou listeners. The themes, although nominally character-specific, are melodically uniform, changing their instrumental clothing from visage to visage, thereby sounding a fluidity of purpose and choice. Unusual, and perhaps a point of contrast to nevertheless persistent indications of barrenness, is the presence of choir and a soprano soloist who only occasionally poises her lips above the waterline to spout names of the deep. Of central importance in this regard are the three stasimons (choral odes), each a vertebra of both story and music, a refraction of the rest. In them voices grow bolder, reaching epiphany in “An Ode Of Tears” and “In Vain The Sacrifices,” the latter a ring to which the former’s gaping clasp holds true. These voices do more than the traditional Greek chorus. They burgeon at stage center, relegated not to the wings but to the head and body of a flightless bird. Without wings, they think themselves into freedom, casting their minds from horizon to horizon, faster than the sun. They do not create the stars but make them brighter.

As a matter of course, the pieces are generally short (only one surpasses four minutes). In their sublime chemical suspensions of tears, blood, and determination swims a pair of eyes—one directed at us, the other elsewhere. Consequently, there is a feeling of stepping out of time in order to better understand its circumscription. Vast harmonic networks slumber in the underlying empty spaces, never stirring except in the most funerary moments. Despite the mythic sheen, the music of Trojan Women finds deeper mystery in the earth’s living subjects, which in isolation reveal the mystery of creation, both divine and mortal, far more acutely: in order to attain permanence one must be open to the fallacies of agreement.

Alternate Trojan
Alternate cover

Arild Andersen Group: Electra (ECM 1908)


Arild Andersen Group

Arve Henriksen trumpet
Eivind Aarset guitars
Paolo Vinaccia drums, percussion
Patrice Héral drums, percussion, voice
Nils Petter Molvær drum programming
Savina Yannatou vocal
Chrysanthi Douzi vocal
Elly-Marina Casdas chorus vocal
Fotini-Niki Grammenou chorus vocal
Arild Andersen double bass, drum programming
Recorded 2002/03 at home, 7. Etage in Oslo, Kæv Studio in Copenhagen, Les productions de l’érable in Montpellier and Spectrum Studio in Athens
Engineers: Reidar Skår (7. Etage), Kæv Gliemann (Kæv Studio), Christophe Héral (Les productions de l’érable), and Vangelis Katsoulis (Spectrum Studio)
Mixed by Reidar Skår at 7. Etage (tracks: 1, 10, 14, 18), Jock Loveband at Barracuda Studio (tracks: 3, 9, 11, 13, 16), and Kæv Gliemann at Kæv Studio
Produced by Arild Andersen

In the beginning was the word and the word was breath, brought to life through life, as life. This is the message written in “Birth Of The Universe,” a guiding of human expression through honed elements and air. It is a cursory introduction, nevertheless packed with voids and stardust, opening into the slow-motion formations of “Mourn,” which begin the set list proper of Arild Andersen’s Electra. Originally composed for a production of the Sophocles play directed by Yannis Margaritis at Spring Theatre in Athens, this concept album par excellence shows the Norwegian bassist at his most lyrically contemplative. Lying somewhere between the all-acoustic ruminations of Voice of Eye and the electronic infusions of Khmer, it belongs squarely beside the latter as a classic alchemy of jazz, digitalia, and less definable sources. The Khmer comparison is no coincidence, for Electra in fact borrows that groundbreaking session’s leader, Nils Petter Molvær (moonlighting here as drum programmer) and the versatile guitarist Eivind Aarset. Drummers Paolo Vinaccia and Patrice Héral cross the t’s and dot the i’s, leaving trumpeter and ECM veteran Arve Henriksen to feel his way through tight spaces and alleyways by virtue of his melodic whiskers. Completing the cast is vocalist Savina Yannatou, singing as Electra, and her Greek chorus: Elly Casdas, Chrysanthi Douzi, and Fontini Grammenou. Yannatou evokes the album’s lifeblood in the title song, which is bookended by a fluid Intro and Outro. Thus embraced by Andersen’s thematic leadership, her soliloquies form the hub of this karmic wheel.

At its most meditative moments (e.g., “The Big Lie”) Electra journeys inwardly and without judgment, while at its most extroverted (the guttural “Clytemnestra’s Entrance” and, surprisingly enough, the robust unfolding that is “Whispers”) it tears down the fourth wall and grabs the listener at point blank. Along the way, four “Choruses” dot the landscape with their walkabouts, each an atmospheric soul-search with a hermetic, percussive feel. Those beats echo in empty shells of a life aquatic, each a bead threaded by the dreadlock of a lumbering deity whose arms swing like lightning bolts slowed to the pathos of dreams. Such are the types of figures that shape-shift with every track.

Yet it is Andersen whose wayfaring leaves the most indelible footprints throughout. So profound is his drifting that the appearance of drums often feels like the storms of a distant planet, swirling in an indecipherable calligraphy. Whether laying down heady grounds against Héral’s beatboxing in the droning “Opening” or stitching the edges of “7th Background,” he pulls worlds of feeling into the crucible, which reduces every sonic ingredient into the sputtering electronic fuse of “Big Bang.” Dying like a depressed piano key, it sounds in the eco-verse.

If you love Khmer, then you’re sure to enjoy getting to know Electra. It represents Andersen the structuralist, an artist as compositionally as he is instrumentally present in a program of deep, flavorsome music with a clear sense of dramaturgical motion and a keen interest in unseen worlds.