Marianne Nowottny
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Marianne Nowottny


Band Pop Avant-garde


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"Marianne Nowottny ~ Illusions of the Sun"

Permit me to cream. I’ll be brief. It’s Marianne Nowottny’s moment. And we’re lucky enough to have a record of it. Her new disc is just her voice accompanied by a simple instrument. Gone are the more elaborate productions and overworked arrangements of her earlier recordings that obscured her magnificent voice. Stripped down to the essentials, Illusions of the Sun is a chillingly powerful document of a singer-songwriter in full bloom. Clocking in at a mere 28 minutes, there’s not a dead moment on the disc. The breadth she accomplishes with such simple means is astonishing. Her voice jumps in and out of keys, sawing cross-grain through chords, splintering notes into shards, before stitching them back together into pop choruses. Comfortably dipping in and out of atonality, her songs never lose a sense of progression, each retaining a beginning, middle and end. Imagine the songwriting chops of a Stephen Sondheim mixed with the swagger of Arnold Schoenberg and you’ll begin to get the idea. "Rainy Days and Vinyl," the strongest cut on Illusions, showcases Nowottny’s piano, hesitating and stumbling around her voice, which is by turns breathy, warbly, vulnerable and strong. Nowottny is not afraid of modernism. Dodecaphonic nuggets are seamlessly welded with pop tunes in ways that are shockingly unfamiliar (the only other pop artist I’ve heard incorporate high modernism into his work was Frank Zappa: particularly the shards of 12-tones on Absolutely Free as well as the numerous nods to Varese). "Grey City," Nowottny’s oblique 9/11 song, also owes a lot to Schoenberg, in this case his sprechstimme-laden Pierrot Lunaire, which is, in hindsight, a perfect soundtrack for that day’s events. Nowottny grew up watching Bollywood films on the local public-access channels in suburban New Jersey. "Sweet and Low" is her attempt at Indian raga. It’s an odd thing to hear: I don’t imagine that these days—unlike in the 1960s—there’re too many young singers interested in ragas. I’ve got some great 60s recordings of La Monte Young singing wobbly ragas having studied after singer Pandit Pran Nath. It’s obvious from the recordings that Young really can’t sing properly but instead does something very much his own with it. Same here. Accompanied by an harmonium, it’s the most incorrect attempt at world music I’ve ever heard. Instead, she takes a rather tired and cliched genre and makes it her own. Nowottny’s gravelly mezzo slides up and down scales, eventually going far off the charts into new microtonal territorty. File this one with Jeff Buckley’s seminal Live at Sin-é, Bob Dylan’s acoustic appearances in 1966, Annette Peacock’s hauntingly twisted masterpiece I’m the One and Neil Young’s junked-out heart-wrenching acoustic work on Time Fades Away. I used to think that Nowottny was headed into Marianne Faithful territory; now it’s clear that she’s closer to the avant model of Patty Waters. Several years ago, upon the release of her first CD, I wrote the following in this paper: "In the best-case scenario, Nowottny will hook up with a sympathetic producer, one who will realize all her remarkable ideas into some extraordinary music, the likes of which we’ve never heard before. In the worst, she’ll go blazing into mainstream rock history the way of Smashing Pumpkins and Led Zeppelin." I was wrong. Neither has happened. Instead, like any other artist, she’s following her own path, slowly honing her vision to perfection. And this disc is about as close to perfection as we’re going to see.
- Kenneth Goldsmith New York Press

"POP MUSIC; A Teen-Age Idol-in-the-Making With a Grown-Up Following"

WE'RE living through the triumph of teeny-bopper rock. So goes the lament of pop music critics, anyway, as the synthetic beat of corporate constructs like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys flies out of the stores and into the hands of their pre-teen fans. But lately, some critics have been discovering a teen-age idol of their very own. Marianne Nowottny, a high school junior from Sparta, gave her first public performance as recently as Jan. 15, but her music has already been hailed by Mike Wolf in Time Out New York as ''stunning and really original.'' And her CD, ''Afraid of Me,'' was called ''as fabulous and strange a debut as I've heard in some time'' by Kenneth Goldsmith, the disc jockey from WFMU-FM in Jersey City, in his cover article on Ms. Nowottny in the weekly New York Press. What is most surprising about her music is how little it shares in any recent pop-music trends. It seems to come out of nowhere, which is undoubtedly why critics find it so fascinating. (Ms. Nowottny cites the experience of listening to her mother play classical piano at home as a major influence.) Accompanying herself on an electric keyboard, she builds each song from a mosaic of agitated or insinuating little motifs, oddly juxtaposed, over which floats an extraordinary dark voice that twists every syllable around like a sculptor molding clay. Without the usual rock-and-roll armory of drums, guitars and so on, the music has a naked quality, a feeling that is at once intimate and abstract. Mr. Goldsmith, also a well-known visual artist, may be a bit excitable on the subject of Ms. Nowottny; after all, his article described her as ''a stunning 6-foot bleached-blond teen-ager who dresses in Victorian-era clothes.'' In fact, she is about half a foot shorter than that. But his description, which is accurate as far as her taste in clothing goes, does capture the fact that in a quiet way, Ms. Nowottny's presence is larger than life. Offstage, at least, she seems preternaturally self-possessed and, with her ramrod-straight posture, antiquated dress and reserved yet precise manner, more like the product of a Swiss finishing school than someone who has spent all her 16 years in small towns like Millville, Newton and Sparta. That striking presence drew the attention of Lori Bortz, a playwright who moved from New York City to Newton with her husband, the painter Mark Dagley, a few years ago. Ms. Bortz had recently started a small press, Abaton Book Company, to publish her own work as well as pamphlets by artists. When she struck up a conversation, the 14-year-old Ms. Nowottny's response was, ''I'm a writer, too.'' Ms. Bortz was sufficiently taken with her poetry to publish some of it. But it was her tapes of the music she had been making with Donna Bailey, a friend from Millville, that really electrified her and Mr. Dagley, who had played guitar in a punk band in the 1970's but drifted away from music. ''Marianne's music was the first thing I'd heard in 20 years that made me want to get back into it,'' he said. He ended up turning part of his painting studio into a recording studio, where ''Afraid of Me'' was recorded. Ms. Nowottny seems oddly invulnerable to the sudden flurry of attention. Asked about the experience of seeing her face on a magazine cover, she shrugged. ''Sure, it's overwhelming to see your face blow down the street,'' she said. And perhaps because she is self-taught as a musician, what comment she makes on her music seems more metaphorical than technical. At a recent rehearsal with Mr. Dagley, she tried out a new song she was still working on. ''What I'm trying to get here is a feeling of just floating in a white room,'' she said. ''Or not even a room, but pure white, with nothing below you. Like an out-of-body experience.'' Mr. Dagley offered, ''Like a singer in the 50's, when they had the idea of the strings creating an atmosphere that the voice could just float on.'' Ms. Nowottny's taste in music may not be that of today's typical teen-ager, but neither is it that of her admirers. Mr. Goldsmith wrote that he was amazed to discover she had never heard some of the best-known experimentalists in either classical or rock music, from Charles Ives to Stereolab. Instead, her favorite albums turn out to be ones by Gothic, industrial and synth-pop bands of the 1980's and early 90's. ''When was this made?'' Mr. Dagley asked after she played a track by one obscure English group. When she said 1985, he seemed befuddled: ''You were just 3 years old then.'' Mr. Dagley and others have been eager to fill the gaps in his young protegee's musical background, but for the moment she seems too involved in her own teeming psyche to pay much attention. Of all her new discoveries, only the space-jazz pioneer Sun Ra seems to have made a deep impression. A recent performance at Tonic, a Manhattan nightclub, showed her to be a performer of equal parts brilliance and awkwardness. Between songs, she sounded like your typical nervously - BARRY SCHWABSKY The New York Times August 15, 1999.


Still working on that hot first release.



Currently at a loss for words...