Le Poisson Rouge, NYC March 2, 2013
Radio programming these days is an endless procession of sequenced synth-pop with mediocre singers whose voices are run through Auto-Tune. It results in an equally long procession of bored sighs. So it's a moment of sheer joy when I can listen to music that takes me out of this synth-pop slumber and piques my attention with music that is off the beaten path. Such was the case when I went to Le Poisson Rouge to hear Sasha Siem performing for the release of her debut EP, So Polite.
The British-Norwegian singer/composer's music seems to evade categorization into any particular genre, but it does have elements of contemporary classical music, folk, and jazz. She mostly sings in a soft voice and sometimes parlando, a singing style that sounds almost spoken. The songs are short and feel like prose poetry set to music.
The audience was enamored with Ms. Siem's singing and onstage presence, but for me it was her music that drew my attention. Ms. Siem did the musical arrangements for the string quartet that accompanied her with passages, and they were both sophisticated and evocative. I loved the musical tone color, laden with pizzicatos and portamentos that at times evoked a feeling of suspense and even mockery behind her English/Norwegian demeanor. Even the addition of a drummer/percussionist at this performance was a welcome touch on songs which were arranged for just a string quartet on the EP.
When I closed my eyes to hear the end of "Valentine," to my shame and embarrassment, I felt a salty tear stream down my face. I hate crying at concerts and rarely do so, especially when I'm there to objectively review the performance. But at the end of this song, the weaving of musical lines between the violinist and the cellist overcame me with emotion and memories of when I first heard Górecki's Symphony #3 and cried like a baby.
It's hard to tell where Ms. Siem will eventually take her musical career, but the paths are all good provided that she doesn't go mainstream pop. This highly talented singer/composer can refine her current music and go by way of Björk or Kate Bush, follow the path of Andrew Bird and branch into film scores, or continue to compose contemporary classical works for ensembles. In any case, at the relatively young age of 28, Sasha Siem's compositional mastery is brimming with promise and I look forward to hearing her full-length album, Knots and Do-nots, to be released later this year. Catch her in these small venues while you can, because at some point in the future, her billing will not be at Le Poisson Rouge, but at Radio City, Carnegie Hall, or Lincoln Center.