Sparse Melody and High-Class Noise: Phil Kline with Jim Jarmusch
April 5, 2017
On a Wednesday evening in early April, Roulette hosted a concert from composer Phil Kline, featuring a range of pieces from the past decade. The evening was divided into two parts, the first half presenting a set of compact, haunting art songs, the latter an extended wave of drawn-out guitar noise. Kline's many projects include the worldwide Christmas phenomenon Unsilent Night, and like a greatest hits album by a still-active band, the Roulette show seemed only to offer a small slice of the composer's work—a small slice, but enough to recommend the rest.
The night began with The Hand (2013), performed by mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek and pianist Kathleen Supové. Kline took the text from a letter written to Nikola Tesla by Katharine Johnson. In fact, most all of the songs on the program displayed a similar conceptual approach, whether appropriating text outright, as in The Season Is Over (2005)—a setting of Hunter S. Thompson’s suicide note—or using a collage approach, as in Men (2009) or the world premiere Vienna’s Place, the former drawing from Kierkegaard, the latter from Joan Crawford’s lines in the Nicholas Ray film Johnny Guitar.
These songs—all very much art songs in the classical tradition, though you could imagine them on an album by an ambitious pop singer, some alternate dimension avant-garde Michael Bublé playing in coffee houses around the globe in a world devoid of Starbucks—succeeded thanks to Kline’s sparse arrangements and surprising melodies. Horner-Kwiatek’s unpretentious, clear delivery brought the text alive; so clear was her voice, you barely needed the text projected against the back wall. Supové played chords and tone clusters in steady quarter notes; the occasional arpeggio came off as a radical rhythmic event. Percussionist David Cossin and violist Eva Gerard joined Supové and Horner-Kwiatek for a few songs, but the added instrumentation never cluttered Kline’s arrangements—these were songs with ample room to breathe.
One highlight of the first half of the program was Men, with Kline’s daughter Clementine Kline taking over vocal duties. Appropriate for the fourth-grader’s tuneful but untrained voice, Men features an almost naïve melody which, coupled with the existentialist text, produced a humorous irony. The lyrics ended with a dark punchline, elegantly punctuated in the melody with a simple leading-tone-to-tonic resolution. The text, music, and performers all complemented each other perfectly.
After intermission, Kline himself took the stage with Jim Jarmusch for another world premiere, Not OK. Jarmusch, known primarily as the writer-director of such films as Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law, and, most recently, Paterson, has also had a decent side career as a musician. His band Sqürl has soundtracked his past few films; he and Kline had played together previously in the early ‘80s as co-founders, with James Nares, of the Del-Byzanteens. Tonight, Kline and Jarmusch each played guitar, with Cossin behind the drum kit. The trio’s sound was boosted by Kline’s signature boomboxes, a row of which were lined up on stage behind the guitarists. Finally, the performance featured an added visual component: projected footage, edited by Jarmusch, taken by Thomas Edison on a visit to New York; like the song The Hand that opened the evening, the footage is part of a collaboration between Kline and Jarmusch described in the program notes as “a music theater spectacle about Nikola Tesla.”
The song started out slow, each guitarist building layers of sound. Kline made use of a violin bow and a delay pedal, Jarmusch picked out chords. The boomboxes didn’t announce themselves at first; only later, with the two guitars growing steadily louder and Cossin switching from brushes to sticks, did they start to form an audible part of the cacophony. The projections, meanwhile, showed scenes that recalled early 20th century “city symphony” films like Man with a Movie Camera or Rien que les Heures—people in old-fashioned clothes; bridges, trolleys, and trains.
If there was a flaw to Not OK, it’s that the concept is all too familiar. I have seen any number of “layered noise with esoteric visuals” performances; at any given venue on any given Tuesday there’s probably a guy with a guitar and some pedals making noise with some old cartoons playing in the background. By virtue of their profiles, Kline and Jarmusch bring high-quality ingredients to the mix; the boomboxes and Edison footage add two more high-class touches. But mac ’n’ cheese with Gruyère and hand-made noodles is still mac ’n’ cheese; there’s only so much subtlety that can come through and be appreciated. It’s hard to make a critical distinction as to whether the Roulette performance was twenty minutes of noise or twenty minutes of really good noise. Still, Not OK did serve as a complement—or antipode—to the sparse songs from earlier. Kline spent the first half of the evening carving out negative space. He spent the second half filling it.