Friday, November 19, 2010


November 18

The kind of American invasion we like to see swept through Prague last night, led by two progressive music stars: avant-garde composer and singer Meredith Monk, and rock guitar hero Adrian Belew. Faced with simultaneous must-see shows, Mr. Culture mapped out the crosstown logistics and saddled up for an ambitious evening of brain-bending sounds.

A modernist with primitive roots.
The first stop was Archa, where Meredith Monk brought three members of her ensemble for a career retrospective. The program included a touch of theatrics, but mostly focused on her music, in particular her incredible vocal gifts. Along with a remarkable range, Monk has a unique vocabulary of sounds, syllables and breathing effects that she delivers with more emotional impact than mere words could convey. Most impressive is the quality of her voice – at 68, she sounds as clear and strong as a singer half her age.

Monk opened solo, with three a cappella selections that included “Click Song,” a clever one-person duet of vocal and sound effects, and a toe-tapping excerpt from Juice performed expertly on a modest jew’s-harp. The next segment, with Monk accompanying herself on piano, showcased her extended singing techniques, with “Madwoman’s Vision” offering a dramatic display of the power a nonsense language can have when delivered with emotional conviction and specific ideas in mind.

A charming trio from the opera Atlas brought Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin onto the stage, both strong singers who support and interact with Monk with fluency and clockwork precision. Their work on “Epilogue” and “Woman at the Door” was dazzling. Clarinetist Teddy Ezra provided some flavor and atmospherics, including a solo for a brief interpretive dance performance by Monk.

While not as startling as it was 40 years ago, Monk’s work is still challenging and fresh. Her vocal lines and flourishes are consistently inventive, and the lack of intelligible words in most songs forces the listener to focus on the emotions behind the shrieks, screams and pure vocal notes, adding a different dimension to the music. And Monk draws on something still deeper; consciously or unconsciously, her contemporary techniques mimic primitive traditions. Indeed, some songs seem like straight renditions of Native American chants. At one point last night, Sniffin even let loose a series of coyote yips.

No one synthesizes ancient and modern forms quite like Monk, who also traverses a variety of disciplines – music, dance, theater, film. Though last night’s concert offered just a glimpse of her multifaceted world, it was a heady and satisfying experience.

I repeat myself when under stress.
Bolting during the applause and hopping the red line to I.P. Pavlova brought us to Retro, unfortunately for the second half of Adrian Belew’s concert. Headliners almost never start at Retro before 10; last night that time marked an intermission. #%&!!

Belew started the second half onstage by himself, doing a sweet rendition of George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” that segued into an extended effects solo. (November 29 marks the ninth anniversary of Harrison’s death.) He then took a seat while drummer Marco Minnemann put on an entertaining one-man show, capped by some flashy finesse work on the cymbals.

Bassist Julie Slick joined them for a couple cuts from Op Zop Too Wah, “Of Bow and Drum” and “All Her Love is Mine.” It was great to hear that music live, though it sounded flat, without much nuance or articulation. But then, everything sounds flat in Retro. Maybe standing closer to the stage instead of being jammed into the back of the hall would have helped.

The trio punched its way through a couple newer works, including some material from e. But what really pumped up the crowd was a dip into the King Crimson catalogue, circa the Discipline period. Songs like “Indiscipline” and “Thela Hun Gingeet” brought roars of recognition and approval, and Belew made a point of thanking the audience for their enthusiasm and energy before leaving the stage.

For this reviewer, it’s always a bit startling to see Prague concert crowds react so strongly to music that was supposedly banned during communism – especially songs thick with English-language lyrics, like Belew’s and Frank Zappa’s. Granted, about half the audience last night seemed to be guitar players from local rock groups. But it’s heartening to know that progressive music from the West was heard, and appreciated, during the dark days of commie censorship.

As for the trio, the Bears were better. But that band played different music, more power pop. This one faces a challenge in resurrecting King Crimson, as any power trio would. But Belew is clearly having a great time playing those songs, which is in fact one of his hallmarks. Grinning onstage with his latest guitar (this one a signature Parker Fly), he always looks like a kid with a new toy on Christmas. Until he starts playing. Then he’s a master of his craft, still pumping out some of the most original rock on the planet.

Further reading:

Both artists run informative and comprehensive websites.

For more on Meredith Monk and her ensemble:

To get up to speed on Adrian Belew:

And for the gearheads, here are the specs on Belew’s guitar:

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