An Interview with Helix Collective

In anticipation of their upcoming show “L.A. Stories” at Monk Space on February 18, I interviewed Phil Popham (oboe) and Sarah Robinson (flute) from Helix Collective, a Los-Angeles based ensemble specializing in multi-media, collaborative performance, and recording. The show will feature works by composers Eugene Micofsky, Dale Trumbore, Reena Esmail, Mark Carlson, Jamie Thierman, and Helix Collective’s own Phil Popham. Here’s what Phil and Sarah had to say: 

How did you get the idea for “L.A. Stories,” and how did you go about programming this particular set of pieces for the concert?

PHIL: We had been performing our show “The Cocktail Stories” which involved Hollywood screenwriters sending us stories about their favorite mixed-drinks. We read the works while simultaneously performing the original music for each story. The music was very fusion and cross-over. It mixed electronics, loops, hip-hop, techno, you name it! We decided to create an all acoustic show, that would involve more new-music composers here in Los Angeles. We assembled a group of 8 composers. We had LA authors and poets submit their works. Each composer personally chose the story and writer they wanted to work with. Once the works were completed, the group began rehearsals. We all had to dig deep for the dramatic speaking. We were mostly classically-trained musicians. It’s funny though, I don’t see a big difference in being dramatic through the oboe vs. my voice. The similarity is still strikingly odd to me.

SARAH: We really enjoyed doing music and storytelling programs in the past and we loved the depth of experience it offers to the audience. There are so many levels on which to engage with the music and the words, and the way they interact. With this program, we wanted to celebrate our adopted home town and utilize the depth of writing talent there is in the city. The instructions for the composers were fairly open-ended so we have a very cool variety of ways that they incorporated the spoken word with their music. We tried to represent a variety of musical perspectives – one composer, Eugene Micofsky, has a rock band background and another, Reena Esmail, specializes in the intersection of Western and Hindustani music. We wanted to make the whole project representative of the city.

Helix Collective: Sarah Robinson (flute), Katie Norring (piano), Phil Popham (oboe), and Lorry Black (percussion)

How do you hope the audience will react to “L.A. Stories?”

PHIL: I want them to feel the excitement and wonder of being part of such a great place. Even with its quirkiness, trials, and tribulations, there is a power that draws us here. They have made it. They have stayed, and in its own way, the city wants to give back to them. The show should remind them of why they stay, and give them a sense of validation and community for their struggles. I want them to feel that even when they are hitting rock-bottom, there are offerings here they could get nowhere else. This show is really about everyone in the audience as well as those of us on stage. It’s about all of us. I want them to be proud of where we live, where we are from, and that we are survivors here each day. When leaving the concert venue, I want them to look in amazement at the city before them, look in amazement at themselves for being part of it, and see the outstretched arms of a truly creative, inspiring, and humbling town.

SARAH: I think this city is so vast and complicated. As musicians we have the unique experience of traveling all over the area and working with so many different people – from Skid Row to Beverly Hills – sometimes in a matter of hours. I hope what we can share with this program is the individual experiences of a variety of artists. I think each writer and composer involved in this project has their own Los Angeles and I would love for our audience to feel like they’ve seen the city through their eyes.

What do you find most engaging or interesting about multi-media and collaborative performances?

PHIL: From an artist’s standpoint, multi-media and collaborative shows communicate incredibly efficiently. It also gives you the ability to add emphasis, context, and conflict into a moment instantly. With so many brilliant people contributing expertise toward relaying the message, it can be delivered, colored, or altered by different disciplines simultaneously. It’s so vivid! Once the writer has written the story, the delivery of the actor can provide more context. Likewise, the music being performed can emphasize, corroborate, or even complicate the story. When we’re collaborating like this, I think the composer must be visceral. You have to think of your heart and nerve endings more than your head. It’s a very fun way to create. You’re getting down to the fundamental reasons music exists. Then, you combine the dramatic power of the writers with the engaging music by the composers and the energetic talents of the musicians/actors. Everyone has now come together to tell a multi-faceted story through each of their disciplines. It’s very powerful. 

SARAH: I think a project can only be as interesting as the people who put it together. The more artists, the more perspectives, the more genres you have represented, the more we can speak to the universal human experience. Of course, there are limits to how many people you can have collaborating at one time but I find the quality and the importance of what we’re doing benefits exponentially when we incorporate other artists from far and wide in the artistic landscape. 

Helix Collective is known for performing at a wide range of venues. Are there any unexpected similarities or differences that you’ve found between performing at nightclubs versus concert stages?

PHIL: They are very different, but each is priceless. A grand stage with stellar acoustics, 1000’s of seats, and a captive audience could certainly a good environment for a show. They tend have to have nice pianos, as well. The intimacy of a bar/nightclub concert is invigorating. A crowd which can interact, yell, applaud, and laugh whenever they feel moved to do so is incredibly rewarding for the musicians. I love being with the audience while performing. I love hearing them if they say things to us and respond to what we do. If the natural acoustics aren’t great, with a good audio engineer, you can be pumped through the house sound system. This actually gives you much more flexibility and variety in the sound, if you go for it. You can also add a huge variety of lighting to the show. This makes it more collaborative/multi-media as more talented people are adding a perspective and skills to the performance. 

SARAH: It’s hard for me to overstate how much performing in casual spaces like nightclubs has taught me about being an artist and performer. What is beautiful about a classical concert environment is the focus and concentration that it helps engender. But the real danger for musicians is that it is really easy to lose touch with your audience. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how many of them might be asleep much less how much they are enjoying your performance.  In a club, though, I can really read the room. I know what people are thinking. They are shouting, or in rapt attention, or on their phones – whatever it is that they’re doing, I can get information from that about how effective my performance is for them. Helix Collective has done so much playing in these spaces and it allows for the best market research and through that we’ve developed programs that really sing – whether you’re in a dive bar or a big hall. 

Any upcoming performances or projects you’d like to talk about?

PHIL: After our performance at Monk Space, we are going to start raising money to record all of these great works! We plan on releasing the album by May or June. We are discussing whether it will be pure audio or a DVD! Let us know, folks!

SARAH: We are excited about our Monk Space debut Sunday, February 18th at 6pm! Monk Space has been such a key player in supporting adventurous music here in L.A. and we are so happy to be part of their programming. We’ll be repeating the L.A. Stories program at Brand Library on March 3rd.  Also this spring we are collaborating with composer Mark Weiser and librettist Amy Punt to present the premiere of their opera “The Place Where You Started” at Art Share L.A., May 17-19. We’re also hosting our 5th season of the Los Angeles Live Score Film Festival this summer at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre and composer applications are open now through March 25th.   

Check out Helix Collective to get tickets for the show February 18.

 

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