The new season of the New Music Circle concert series is up, and due to the circumstances of the new panorama they will all be virtual. In essence, pre-recorded sets by the artists will be premiered live certain Mondays at 8:15pm on the NMC Youtube page. To a purist this might seem pointless (“am I really watching a concert if the artist isn’t physically playing at the same time I’m watching them”), but to me it’s even better than the live stream: it sounds good, production is more thought out and seeing the way musicians express themselves in the visual realm can often be very eye opening. The live chat was a nice bonus, a spot where familiar St Louis concert goers could exchange words of appreciation and awe as the show went on.
This particular Monday, February 8th New Music Circle did something I never thought I’d see them do: they brought two singer-songwriters to perform. Don’t get me wrong, Wendy Eisenberg and Kee Avil stretched the definition of singer-songwriter in all directions during the hour or so of music, but my sensibilities were pleasantly surprised to see not one, but two sets of sung songs in a concert series that usually showcases experimental improvisation and alternative music techniques. I walked in to the stream unaware of this, and after Alex Cunningham’s introductory announcement the proverbial curtains opened to, again, a very pleasant surprise.
Wendy Eisenberg started the show up with a straightforward approach to the stream. Except for a cutout edit before the last song, all the numbers were performed in a row on a couch in front of a camera without much fuss. Rather than a missed opportunity this felt grounding to me, lending me the chance to pay attention more closely and absorb the complex music. Wendy’s songwriting is comforting in its apparent simplicity, yet daringly complex in matters of rhythm, harmony and melody. The interaction between these three elements coming through in each song felt cathartic yet cataclysmic at times, and every time a long winding chord progression or tune would appear to resolve the release was odd, abstract, and already on its way to another idea. Every composition brought shone beautifully, from the complicated and unstable finger picking pattern-based, to the strummed and steady bizarro campfire abstractions. Every song gave me something to think about and kept me thoroughly engaged with Wendy’s unique approach to songwriting.
Kee Avil went a different direction visually, with a dimly lit wooden studio room as the backdrop to the performance and new cuts for each song performed. Kee’s style surprises by being both loud and ill-pronounced. Indeed, the first two compositions brought acted as an exploration of what the electric guitar and the whispering voice can do quietly when turned up really loud. Every crevice of the soundscape crackled with the clear image of muted strings, harmonics, and disappearing voices. A lot of the compositions rely on repeating motifs, and development made itself clear in the form of swells, sudden breaks and paused explosions to outline dynamic evolution. The second song performed “jaf” was especially jarring, with a slurring and disorienting vocal intro rolling out the red carpet for quietly aggressive guitar riffs punctuated by the noises of fingers sliding through strings. The switch to acoustic guitar pointed at a slight shift in style, with the fully blown textures of the steel string and the lingering vocals allowing further chordal development. The evening ended on a piano ballad riddled with dissonance and resonating frequencies (this room was really letting everything shine through). Both the fast and uncomfortable melodic motif presented and the image of an air conditioning unit underneath the piano lingered in my mind after the screen went black, taunting and confusing my brain.
The evening went by quicker than I expected, but it left me with a sense of joy and meaningfulness. It feels rewarding to see live music, even under awkward and complicated circumstances. I will say, though, that the New Music Circle’s approach to setting up live events has been one of my favorites. It would be nice if the live stream could continue for a bit after the show ends so that people could keep chatting about the performances or whatever else, but other than that everything felt perfectly pleasant with the logistics of the event.
The performances themselves were astounding. I’m partial to singer-songwriter music, and both Wendy Eisenberg and Kee Avil took that moniker and completely wrecked it with forward thinking ideas, idiosyncratic composition and stylistic attention to detail. It’s not every day you get to see two different people actually sing a song on a New Music Circle bill, and both performers managed to put on sets that were as challenging and rich as they were emotionally engaging.
Watch Wendy Eisenberg and Kee Avil’s performances via New Music Circle:
Listen to Wendy Eisenberg’s “Dehiscence” via Bandcamp below:
Listen to Kee Avil’s “Kee Avil EP” via Bandcamp below: