by Robert Leeper
Photo credit: David Andrak
Saul Williams has been peddling his unique brand of hyperliterate hip-hop for several years now. His dense, lyrical offerings present socially conscious narratives with a quick angular flow across challenging rhyme schemes. Williams' acerbic tone covers a wide array of social injustices—from a tech-obsessed society unable to cope with a vast influx of information in a healthy way, to the West's imperialist tendencies in less-developed countries.
On Wednesday night, Williams hit the intimate stage of Merkin Concert Hall, teaming up with the Mivos Quartet and composer Thomas Kessler to present a pair of works for string quartet and vocals, part of the ongoing 2014 Ecstatic Music Festival. The opening piece on the program, a collaborative work with lyrics by Williams and music by Mivos, combined four poems to form a kind of four-movement piece. The quartet deftly handled the odd rhythmic patterns, accenting the occasional beat and creating a constantly shifting setting.
Peering out into the crowd, Williams ran through a number of other works, the emotional high being Coltan as Cotton, which first appeared as a note on his Facebook page last January. Williams entered into a trance-like state, ferociously trading his own tirades with angry licks from the strings.
NGH WHT was a stream-of-consciousness rant against all things wrong in the world—a battlefield of action and reaction. The contemplative lyrics were taken from Williams' Dead Emcee Scrolls, set for string quartet and voice by Kessler. The harmonically rich arrangement had a raw edge to it that complemented Williams' seemingly effortless—if rhythmically complex—stream. The mixture created a potent effect, with strings flitting in and out between Williams' vocals, which were clearly the beat around which the string parts were constructed.