"Lean on the upbeat!" Hungarian composer György Kurtág urges, coaching soprano Tony Arnold on a brief but compelling video included in the CD/DVD set Kafka Fragments (Bridge). He knows what he wants. Requiring a momentary embellishment of a line, he requests in fractured English "a little bit yodel."
Written for violin and soprano, Kafka Fragments collates stray tidbits and diaristic epigrams by the most (or at least the first) neurotic writer of the 20th century, Franz Kafka. Some seem clipped from a screenplay ("The seamstress in the downpour") while other snippets are gnomic ("My prison cell, my fortress") or read like compressed novellas ("Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial jugs dry; this is repeated again and again, until it is possible to calculate in advance when they will come, and it becomes part of the ceremony").
Where most songs trace a visible (and predictable) landscape of verses and choruses, the Fragments hover skyward, closer to poetic free verse. Kurtág inlays each line and every word with intense, jewel-hardened expression: Violinist Movses Pogossian might play a shivering tremolo or whinny in the distance while Arnold's voice croaks or stretches a word. A longtime répétiteur for singers performing with Hungary's national orchestra, Kurtág offers Arnold wise advice: "For each register, you must find out where to live."
Most of the 40 Kafka Fragments last two minutes or less. Heard whole, Kurtág has fashioned a skeletal opera, bleached of plots and sets. Taken singly or in pieces, the Fragments shoot little lightning bolts that worm right into your psyche.
For a respite from the intensity of Kurtág, I've been savoring the live EP One Day in Brooklyn (Kinnara) by Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey (Sun Sept 20, High Dive, 8 pm, $10). JFJO distill the best of 1970s jazz-rock: up-tempo bashing drums, a little bit of funk, and crafty licks from keyboardist Brian Haas and Chris Combs on lap steel guitar. I love how the trenchant cadences of the aptly named "Drethoven" stiffly repeat only to collapse into a lovely Keith Jarrett–ish piano solo. Such unpredictable segues make JFJO a treat. Longtime compadre Seattle saxophonist Skerik joins the fray, too.
Anticipating next week's dual (and perhaps dueling) electronic music events, Decibel Festival and Debacle Fest, I've been digging into Institute of Sonology 1959–1969 (Sub Rosa), an astounding and essential compilation of Dutch electronic music. I adore the funny, spastically pounding pianos of Dick Raaijmakers's "Piano-Forte," while "Studie im Lagen Impulsen" by Frits Weiland glowers with thunks and rumbles that trump most sci-fi-movie scores. Gottfried Michael Koenig's prophetic Funktion Orange twitches with knocks, pings, and brutal smears that sound like it was fashioned in 2008, not four decades ago in 1968.