I had never heard of Battle Trance before attending this show. What little I did know was what I read on the Facebook event page, and gleaned from talking to other concert goers. I don’t believe I even knew their instrumentation. Like seeing a movie without seeing a trailer, this can be a better experience. Hype can set a bar too high. All I knew was that Equal Sound was putting on the concert, and that some quartet called Battle Trance would play Blade of Love. 10/10 for the names, but would the performance live up to these vague expectations?
A string quartet – Madeline Falcone and Emily Call on violin, Diana Wade on viola, and Betsy Rettig on cello – performed the first half of the concert, which consisted of Medieval and Medieval-inspired music. They opened with Hildegard Von Bingen’s O Virtus Sapientiae, a pensive, simple polyphonic work. Its texture was so lush, yet at the same time, so bare. In light of the women’s marches worldwide, particularly the 750,000-strong march in LA on January 21st, I appreciated that the most prolific Medieval female composer had the honor of opening. I always love von Bingen’s work, and this was no different. O virtus Sapientiae praises the power of wisdom, a lesson we can all value in this age.
The next piece, Valencia (2012), by New York composer Caroline Shaw, had clear roots in Medieval style. The strings pass around ostinato rhythms and simple melodies, intercut with striking glissandi and dense harmonic swells. Shaw wanted to evoke the texture of a Valencia orange. Such a synesthetic feat may be impossible (I must admit I did not get the connection between the title and the piece until reading about it later), but the music by itself was pleasing and its textures were interesting.
Third, My Desert, My Rose (2016) by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, featured low and slow cello like a cantus firmus while the higher strings played aimless harmonies, muddled like a fine cocktail. It feels like wandering through a busy marketplace; each step brings a new wave of sounds, and while there is a goal to reach, the journey wanders. It’s a flawless interpretation of Medieval inspiration for a 21st-century style.
Finally, the quartet concluded the first half of the concert with Guillaume de Machaut’s Kyrie I. The Kyrie is the first sung prayer of the Mass Ordinary, and it is most appropriate during penitential seasons like Lent and Advent. The quartet saved the Kyrie for the last piece in their set, but it also served to introduce Battle Trance, thus keeping with tradition. While we were not actually in a penitential season, something about the timing and the mood of the audience made it fitting.
After intermission, we got what we came for: the tenor saxophone quartet Battle Trance performing Blade of Love. Here’s my short review first: it was bananas. And I love bananas.
Now here’s the longer review. First, you must realize that each segment flowed from one to the next, sometimes overlapping or splitting half and half between the players. The players never rested. The performance was one uber-piece, and the energy ebbed and swelled but never ceased. Sometimes three players would provide an upbeat, looping harmony for the soloist to howl over. Other times, all four would whistle through their reeds. There was impressive counterpoint. There was intense sound blending. There were intergalactic lasers and interstellar spaceships. There were intrepid explorers in jungles. There was an immeasurable ocean. There was an insane profession of love. There was also insufferable honking – but so it is with saxophones, I suppose, and it didn’t last too long.
Most impressive of all, in my eyes (ears?), was that there were difference tones. Those happen resonances combine and modulate in your ear so that your ear itself creates new sound. It’s a curious sensation, and rare for acoustic instruments to pull off. So not only did the four gentlemen of Battle Trance play for an hour straight, on memorized music (somewhat improvised, but mostly structured for sure), and was the music incredible, but they also caused your ear to invent its own music, using acoustic instruments. This illustrates why I love writing these reviews; every time I think I’ve heard it all, that I’ve heard every extended technique, I go to another concert and I’m absolutely floored.
Battle Trance’s music is available on their Bandcamp page. You have the upper hand compared to me; you already know what to expect. I’ll be upfront: I’m told that their recordings don’t have the same chutzpah. So this is what I recommend: buy a CD. Hear how good they are recorded. Then see them live. Fly to New York if you have to, but experience them in person. It’ll be bananas.
Cipher Duo consists of soprano Justine Aronson and violinist Sarah Goldfeather. This week, they commence their West Coast tour. I was fortunate to see their Wednesday night performance in Geiringer Hall at UC Santa Barbara. They will perform in Pasadena with gnarwhallaby on Thursday, USC on Friday, and then head north to the Bay Area on Sunday. Wherever you are in California, do not miss this concert.
The program starts with something a little familiar. Though I did not know this piece, I am well acquainted with a variety of Kaija Saariaho works. If you haven’t listened to Saariaho, start now. Changing Light (2002) is the is the perfect introduction to Saariaho, and to the Cipher Duo. The text is an English translation from Hebrew and explores the subject of the fragility of uncertain existence. Beginning simply enough, on the line “Light and darkness,” Aronson sings chilling poetry while Goldfeather floats above on harmonics. Like many Saariaho pieces, each part has a purpose and a goal, but their paths are unclear and meandering. The fact that this concert features only 21st-century works confirms, at least to me, that Kaija Saariaho is in line for Debussy’s crown as the essential composer to bridge the century gap.
The duo then takes on another English piece, also a philosophical musing. Rebekah Driscoll was inspired to write January: Brin’s Mesa (2016) when she observed new life emerging from the ashes of a forest fire in Arizona. From page to performance, Aronson and Goldfeather breathe life into the contemplative score. Listen for the small, organic changes – one can almost hear tendrils of plant life growing and emerging.
The middle piece of the program is a crowd-pleaser for the Californians. Even if you missed the event, you know about Hopscotch (2015). Cipher Duo performs Hopscotch Tarot by Veronika Krausas. In the Hopscotch holistic performance, the audience members could only hear two or three fortunes before getting ushered into the next limo. Here, Aronson and Goldfeather perform all twelve short movements, each one a tarot card reading from Fortuna. If you wanted more insight into the plot of Hopscotch, watch Aronson’s expressions, particularly when she smirks. Each fortune has its own character and style, and Aronson captures them all exquisitely.
The fourth piece of the show comes from Goldfeather herself. Come Back (2017) showcases Goldfeather’s experience as a singer/songwriter with an indie band. Though not in a typical verse-chorus form, the rest of the key elements to an indie song are present: simple lyrics, repetitive gestures, and a distinct sonority. For the first half of the piece, Aronson sings five words on five notes. But it isn’t minimalism. Goldfeather overlaps and dovetails the motives within and between the instruments. When a verse finally arrives, it hits the audience like a bucket of water. The first time a minor chord replaces a major chord, a collective chill went down the audience’s spines. I won’t give away what happens at the ending, but I can tell you it was perfect. After so many minutes of intricate looping, layering, and rearranging of motives, Goldfeather pulls off the perfect ending.
Finally, the duo ended on their namesake. Kate Soper’s Cipher (2011) is one of the most breathtaking violin and soprano pieces I have ever heard. The duo told the audience that Cipher explores timbre. As well as exploring musical dynamics and human dynamics, it wends between music, meaning, and language. The violin and the voice become shared objects. Sometimes both performers sing, speak, or finger the violin together. At times, they even swap. Each movement features conflicting voices and temperaments, such as Wittgenstein, Freud, and Guido d’Arezzo. The conjoining line, “People can understand you when you say something,” is frequently obscured. If nothing else has convinced you to see Cipher Duo this weekend, go for this. Cipher will blow your mind.
As a fellow Miyazawa flutist, I could hardly contain my excitement about this review. Thrive is Areon Flutes’ third full album release and innova Recordings debut. The flute chamber music ensemble upholds a dogma of revitalizing chamber music for 21st-century audiences. In May 2008, Areon Flutes was awarded the Bronze Medal at the prestigious Fischoff Chamber Music Competition in Notre Dame, Indiana, the first flute chamber music ensemble to do so in thirty-five years. In 2015 they were hailed as one of the most memorable live performers by the San Francisco Examiner. This album Thrive features compositions by Elainie Lillios, Cornelius Boots, and Mike Sempert, and performances by the core trio of Areon Flutes: Jill Heinke, Kassey Plaha, and Sasha Launer.
Lillios’s Summer Sketches, the winner of Areon’s 2014 International Composition Competition, begins with a playful, wandering flute solo. Two more flutes join in and engage in an aural game of hide-and-seek. At times the music describes an action like skipping and diving, and other times seems more onomatopoetic. The two movements, “Skating on Discs of Light” and “Dry Wind,” follow ants running past a picnic, mosquitos buzzing past your ear, spiders creeping toward their prey, and dragonflies dive-bombing the lazy river. Unorthodox tone color, hums, trills, percussive tongue and finger slaps, flutters and growls used on the whole flute family evoke these quintessential insectoid summer sounds. This broad exploration of sounds and soundscape makes sense for an electroacoustic composer flexing her flute trio muscles. Lillios gives a voice to every insect, spider, and bug. Summer Sketches evokes a 21st-century variation of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux combined with a modernized Das Jahr (Hensel), compacted into two movements.
Cornelius Boots’s Chthonic Flute Suite, commissioned by Areon Flutes, takes the listener on a journey through the underworld. The first movement, “Root of Ether,” begins with a calm, solo meditation. About a minute in, the player exhales poignantly; upon this ‘last breath,’ the tempo picks up and the listener approaches the allegorical rabbit hole. The next movement, “Enantiodromia,” kicks off with a loud chord, and then the three flutes move in and out of sync with each other, taking turns with the melody and turning counterpoint on its head. This middle movement of Chthonic Flute Suite suggests diving down the rabbit hole and finding the underworld. ‘Enantiodromia’ is the concept that any force inevitably produces its opposite, usually towards equilibrium. This is quite possibly my favorite piece on the album for the sheer amount of fun I had listening to the twists and turns. As the name suggests, the piece moves in cycles of turning, reversing, and toppling – on an unrelated note, I just found the perfect word to describe politics. The third movement of Boots’s journey, “Void of Day” opens with a wan panpipe solo. The anemic yet cheerful tune gives way as the trio volleys melodies between each other, forming a collage of scenes from the underworld. At the midpoint, the music suddenly becomes somber and churchlike. Boots changes the mood on a dime. A great gravity overcomes the prior mystique. This does not last until the end, for as the name suggests, the void is coming! After nearly a minute of frantic chordal chuffing, the flutes arpeggiate up and…nothing. Boots saw the opportunity and took it – the void swallows the piece before it can conclude.
The last piece on this album is Uncanny Valley by Mike Sempert, commissioned by Areon Flutes. This gentle three-part counterpoint in the beginning evokes relaxing video games like Journey, Flower, and Thomas Was Alone. I choose this comparison conscientiously. The video games listed are all simple stories concerning man versus machine and are renowned for their unique (and pleasant) soundtracks. When the synthesizer enters, the piece takes on its own soul. Stumbling rhythms, harmonious electronic dance sounds and waltz-like melodies in the flutes offer a glimpse into a halting conversation between artificial intelligence and organic beings. The two halves of this multi-sided duet (organic flutes vs artificial synthesizers seek and fail to find common musical ground. The synthesizers eventually cut out, and the three flutes come together more united than before. This is a track I put on repeat and imagine a different story for each playthrough. It feels like a science fiction story put into music, and I have the pleasure of deciphering it.
Thrive easily earns a spot in my top five albums of 2016. Every track is easy to listen to, and the more you listen, the more levels of appreciation you gain. There is very little showing off, which frankly is something of a relief. So many compositions and performances are downright acrobatic nowadays. Finding a composition without virtuosity for flashy virtuosity’s sake is becoming a rare treasure. It is said that a true master makes something difficult seem easy; Areon Flutes embodies this concept and makes modern compositions for chamber ensembles accessible and pleasurable to all.
Thrive is available from Innova Music at innova.mu/albums/areon-flutes/thrive, and from iTunes, Amazon, and other music retailers.
“Is that 8-bit game music?” My boyfriend asked, overhearing the song Karina Kallas. His question was surprisingly apt. Alexander Noice’s Music Made With Voices, published by Orenda Records, features eight pieces created out of the same eight voices singing the same note. As there are exactly eight elements, it is indeed, in a sense, 8-bit. The songs showcase characterizing traits of eponymous friends and family through only their voices.
Noice manipulates the pitch, attack, decay, and so on, and layers these modifed sonic elements into melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. Human ears fail to recognize sound as a voice if it has been altered by more than a major third (the span of the first two notes in Kumbaya). Since most of the notes are indeed outside that range from the original pitch, it is nearly impossible to recognize the sounds as vocal. Depending on the timbre of the individual singer, and the manner in which Noice alters the voice, they can sound like an electronic beep, a shawm, a kazoo, or an electric bass. Noice orchestrates according to each voice’s unique properties, and presumably according to the singer’s personality.
Some works, like Frank Noice, sound relatively more acoustic; it could probably be done with a choir of shawms and sackbuts (if you don’t know what a sackbut is, it’s as funny as it sounds. Google it). In other words, though it does not sound like a choir, it does sound instrumental. Others, like Masatoshi Sato, sound more electronic. The third category is, of course, those that retain their voice. Ihui Wu is a clever mix of female voices whooping out a melody while other voices chirp and thrum like old-school synths.
This technique is ingenious in itself, but it requires a certain skill to pull off such intricate polyphony with it. Here, Noice’s expertise with ensemble work shines through. Every track exhibits novel rhythms, interesting harmonies, a clear and unique melody, and a variety of textures. This is especially impressive given his minimal source material of a single note. Then again, a single note in a digital audio workspace contains infinite potential. Making the right choices to concoct a series of engaging pieces is the real challenge, over which Noice triumphs.
Noice uses technology to chop, warp, bend, stop, drop, and roll, cha cha real smooth. You get the picture. Software turns the original sound clip into something almost-but-not-quite-completely different. And that was his inspiration. “[Music Made With Voices] parallels our modern relationships and interactions, both with communication, and the cherry-picking portrayal of our daily lives through texting, Facebook, Twitter, etc. At times it’s hard to get a fully realistic, honest view of people with our relationships are so filtered through digital outlets,” Noice explains. This is a keen insight to our 21st century culture. Many adults miss the days of communicating by voice instead of text, as many believe actual talking breeds deeper connection. Some people believe a voice is the most honest part of any person; some cultures believe the soul resides in the throat, not the heart or the brain, for exactly this reason. By digitally afflicting the voice, Noice transforms this human essence into art, thus destroying the very thing that made it human.
At the same time, he creates a community. The voices were recorded alone, and Noice joins them in an ensemble. Say what you will about technology filtering interaction, it does have the wonderful power to bring people and voices together. Though transformed, the essence remains, and now the voices interact. In continuing the parallel to cyber interactions, Noice succeeds in uniquely uniting eight people for the sake of art.
Noice has created a thought-provoking and aurally stimulating album. Each song proves again and again his prowess with intricate ensemble work, a sense of interesting melody, and his understanding of the subject’s personality. As reliant on digital effects as this album is, it exhibits a rare organicism. Music Made With Voices encapsulates creativity, humanity, and the digital age.
WasteLAnd continues to impress audiences with a program of new music, most of it from LA-based composers. Each performer has their respective claim to fame in LA and is closely associated with wasteLAnd, and each composer is a long-time favorite of wasteLAnd’s. New to the scene, however, is Allison Carter, a poet whose words found their way into Deyoe’s new piece. Her work made quite the stir among the audience members, and I have a feeling we will begin to hear her name more in the future.
Before I review the concert itself, I find something worth mentioning: the gender representation. It was an even split. In my day job, I currently have my students writing a paper on 19th century gender roles and women composers in the Romantic era, so this has been on my mind a lot. One hundred years ago, women could not vote in the United States, and it was nearly impossible to earn respect as a composer or performer. Nowadays, female representation in the music scene is gaining. It is not yet even, but progress is happening. WasteLAnd’s October concert featured six composers; three were women and two were men (Erik Ulman had two pieces, so the ratio of compositions is 3:3). There were seven performers (including Allison Carter reading aloud), and four were women. The best part was that I didn’t notice until afterwards. I have come to recognize that gender equality is already quite common in the LA new music scene. So much so that this is the first time I put it together. I looked back over some old programs I’ve reviewed, and every concert has women as composers, performers, directors or all three.
Ok. Feminist aside complete. Moving on, because there is so much good about this concert to discuss.
The night opened with Kaija Saariaho’s Folia, performed by Scott Worthington on double bass and electronics. Like many compositions from the end of the 20th century, this piece focuses on dynamics and timbre over pitch and harmony. Sometimes the bass whistles like an icy wind, other times it rumbles like an earthquake, putting palpable pressure on your ears. Scott saws out some kind of textural melody, phrases build and climax and fade – textural intensity carries the musical line. The electronic aspect augments and echoes the timbres. It overlays overtones, resulting in both a more ‘open’-sounding composition and greater complexity overall.
Next on the docket was the duet Tout Orgeuil… by Erik Ulman. Stephanie Aston and Elise Roy are always an amazing team, and their performance on this piece was no exception. It begins with a piccolo solo, and Roy gradually descended down the flute family to alto flute. Aston sang sleepily about pride smoking in the night. Given that the text is from a Stephan Mallarmé poem, my mind turned to Debussy. Ulman is no Impressionist, but I feel Debussy would have approved of the modern counterpoint and expressive extended techniques. The pitches bent down, down, down into sleep, and the flutes became larger and the words grew heavier. Erik captured the good sinking feeling, the kind you feel in a cozy armchair while drifting to sleep.
Third up was Matt Barbier on trombone and electronics performing puddles and crumbs by Katherine Young. For me, this piece created a very specific soundscape: I, the listener, am a koi in the pond on a rainy day and the daily miracle of food raining from heaven is happening. Three of the major elements that contribute to this soundscape are 1. Sharply sucking air through the trombone, 2. Sharp plosives into the mouthpiece that are amplified by the electronics, 3. Dynamic tempi. Matt’s deep breathing combined with the electronic influence reminded me of snorkeling, the plosive pops like rain on water’s surface when I swim underwater. These are instinctive memories, of course, and it may be a coincidence that they play so well together. Now you understand my watery theme. The push and pull of the tempo took me a while to incorporate into my soundscape idea. At first I thought it felt like seasickness, but I eventually concluded it was more like watching fish dart in a pond. They sprint only a few inches or feet, depending on the size of the fish, and then hesitate. The tempo seemed to do exactly that. And then it all became clear, that the soundscape was from the point of view of a koi in a pond in the rain during feeding time. I’m sure many will disagree, whether they had another idea or didn’t find it so blatantly programmatic at all; one of the wonders of music is how everyone experiences things differently. For what it’s worth, I did come up with a secondary interpretation that involves heavy breathing, plosive pops, and sprinting-and-stopping: Darth Vader playing basketball. So really it’s all relative. Regardless of the loftiness or pop art-iness of my personal experience, Barbier proved yet again that the trombone is more than just a brass instrument in a marching band. He played every color in the palette, and demonstrated rigorous control over his body and his instrument to perform such a demanding piece.
Fittingly the 100th piece wasteLAnd has programmed, Erik Ulman’s this until is a flute solo, and Elise Roy absolutely nailed it. I’ve said before that she has superhuman control of her instrument, and she proved it again with this piece. She made her flute sing, speak, howl, wail and whisper. Though a solo composition, I could sometimes here a ghost of counterpoint when she effected heavy harmonics. I honestly couldn’t say if that was Ulman’s intention or Roy’s execution, but every so often a particularly turgid note would quietly sound the octave or fourth below, creating a beautiful, haunting harmony. this until was the only solo acoustic musical composition of the night and it was right in the middle of the program; Elise managed to keep up the energy on her own, and carried us into the final pieces of the evening.
The program ends with a sort of binary piece. First, Allison Carter read her Poems from A Fixed, Formal Arrangement; Nicholas Deyoe used the text for his piece Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, a line from the poem. I can’t say I have ever attended another concert that had the poet read their work first before the musical product, and I wish this would become the norm everywhere. As a general rule, increased understanding leads to increased appreciation, so knowing the text ahead of time (and from the author herself, no less) helped Deyoe’s work succeed. The instrumentation sounded like speech slowed down by a factor of ten. The melodies felt like they wanted to resolve up to a tonic, but they kept bending downwards, defying expectations. One thing I love about Deyoe’s style is that it’s always interesting and it never fulfills your expectations. Once you think you have it figured out, he changes it again. This piece feels like your mind wandering and getting lost – when it’s 4am and you have to wake up in two hours but you’re caught up in the twilight zone that is four in the morning. Knowing composers, that is probably the mindset he was in while writing. Also, knowing composers, that is a hard composition to pull off. I commend Nicholas Deyoe for a well-constructed and evocative ensemble composition.
WasteLAnd concerts are on the first Friday of every month at ArtShare. Check out Weights and Measures on November 4.
Editor’s note: WasteLAnd is currently running their annual fundraiser. Take a minute to support them at https://squareup.com/store/wasteland/
Record label New Ovation Music has just completed a modern classical recording project with the Formalist Quartet, nationally acclaimed tenor Kerry Jennings, and other Los Angeles locals on the music of LA-based composer David Arbury. From bottom to top, this showcases the excellence of the Los Angeles music scene. This record features beautiful melodies and lush harmonies. I absolutely recommend headphones and minimal distractions. The recording feels intimate and magical, but you won’t turn iron to gold if you don’t put down your phone.
David Arbury’s aesthetic lies somewhere between Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Schubert, and Iannis Xenakis. This makes sense given his background in music technology, choral composition, and bass and percussion performance. In the notes, Arbury writes, “Alchemy is a collection of music written for different performers in different styles at different times in my life but all of which tries to express a similar idea: that transformation and change are an inherent part of our being no matter our course through life.” This idea of alchemy is evident between works and also within movements of pieces. With each listen, you hear more and deeper connections between the motifs.
The record begins with his second string quartet, performed by the Formalist Quartet. The first movement initially struck me as reminiscent of Schoenberg’s string quartets, but the way the notes ebbed and flowed was unique to Arbury. The second movement is a pleasant change of pace from the push and pull of the first movement. You can almost touch the lush texture of the strings. The third movement features harmonics in a way I have come to expect from John Luther Adams. You can hear the scratching of the bow on the string, making it feel like you the listener are inches from the performer. Everything suddenly changes for the final movement, which sounds like a page from an old Western soundtrack. The notes chase each other up and down, and the performers tap out percussion on the hollow bodies of their instruments. Overall, the full quartet feels like a series of vignettes. Alone they are good. Together they create an unexpected dish better than the sum of its parts.
The next set of the pieces is a song cycle titled “If I Shall Ever Return Home: Seven Chinese Poems” written specifically for tenor Kerry Jennings. Jennings is garnering a lot of attention right now on the international circuit because of his focused energy on performing new works. I admire this work for its Neoromantic feel; Arbury was surely channeling Schubert, Schumann, and Liszt when writing this one. Kerry Jennings’s dulcet voice and Andria Fennig’s expressive piano skills bring the score to life and transport the listener to a simpler, more pastoral world apart from the hustle and bustle of busy LA.
The eponymous track is something different altogether. Two percussionists, Douglas Nottingham and Brett Reed, create strings of motives on various percussion instruments and quilt them together into a tapestry. The enchanting piece is 20 minutes long, but it goes by quickly. This piece is one of the few times words fail me – I want to go on and on about how I hear something different every time I listen, and how the space between the notes is the real music, and how the interplay between timbres makes for a unique sound, but everything I say sounds flat in comparison to what I mean. This is one I will just take the easy way out and say you need to hear it for yourself.
Wrapping up the album, Arbury’s third string quartet sounds like a blend of Ralph Vaughn Williams and Elliott Carter. There’s something about the way Arbury expresses and moves time that can only come from an accomplished percussionist, the rumbling low end plays tribute to his knowledge of double bass, and the thick textures move from polyphonic to homophonic and everywhere in between. The final notes lift and drift away. There is no resolution, no conclusion, just beautiful dissipation.
I was struck by the carefully curated variety of composition and performance on one record. Arbury doesn’t let himself get pigeon-holed in one genre. The performers are not robotic perfectionists, but artists breathing life into the music. This is the kind of record that earns New Ovation’s place as the center of progressive music-making. The next project you can look forward to from David Arbury, collaborating with Kerry Jennings, Andria Fennig, and Charles Stanton is a multi-sensory presentation of many these works in cities across the country. Such an experience seeks to engage new and diverse audiences, and Arbury’s cinematic feeling cultivates successful execution. Before they come to your city, check out “Alchemy” for yourself.
Alchemy is available from most online music retailers, but CD Baby pays artists more than most, so buy it here: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/davidarbury.
A question I hear often is “why should people go to concerts?” It can be expensive,* it takes time out of your busy evening,** and high fidelity recordings make it easy to pipe music directly to your own headphones.*** If you have ever asked this question, this review is for you.
*Big symphonies in big venues can be upwards of $100, especially famous orchestras on tour. Small ensembles in smaller venues, especially doing contemporary music, can be $5-$20, which is comparable to buying a CD.
**In light of a certain app that came out on July 6, I am inclined to believe anyone can be convinced to go outside if they have enough of a reward. Every concert is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For me, that’s a pretty good reward.
***Don’t get me started.
WasteLAnd is run by five SoCal-based composers (all of whom I have reviewed in some regard at some point in the past year). Alex Ross calls it “one of the country’s most far-sighted new-music series.” The music is performed mostly by LA-based performers, but also brings in internationally renowned players and composers. WasteLAnd programs 21st century music, generally for soloists or small ensembles. This is the first show of their fourth season, featuring internationally acclaimed Icelandic flutist Berglind Tómasdóttir.
Berglind Tómasdóttir is a flutist and interdisciplinary artist living in Reykjavik, Iceland, and has ties to the SoCal music scene through her time achieving a DMA from UCSD and working with LA- and SD-based composers. She is now an associate professor in contemporary music performance at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, and her music has been featured in festivals and conventions across the northern hemisphere. Her performance for WasteLAnd featured her own recent flute pieces, played with minimal break so they blend into one hour-long piece.
After taking my seat, I noticed an array of flutes on a table. The lights dimmed. Berglind picked up the headjoint of a bass flute, and began to whisper. Behind her shone a projection of a camera inside a flute. Or maybe it was an esophagus. Or rain, incredibly close up. It was impossible to make out the shapes on the screen, just as it was difficult to grasp the sounds coming out of Berglind. What Berglind made with the headjoint was not dulcet music, but rather a soundscape. She wheezed and sucked and whispered into the aperture. I keenly remember a moment when it sounded like animalistic slurping, right as the projector showed something that looked vaguely organic. It was a completely spell-binding moment, but was whisked away as Berglind relentlessly squeezed and squeaked. There was an electroacoustic element, and a ghostly amplified flute generated by processing Berglind’s original sound accompanied her like a duet partner. She eventually put the headjoint on the bass flute and had a wider range of notes. She didn’t need them; I would have been content to hear her headjoint-only timbral play for hours. But applying pitches added a new element to the music. She eventually picked up a C flute for the finale, the standard size with a higher register than the bass flute, and the opportunities increased yet again. Between the two flutes, a video played on the projector of her in a grassy field playing her C flute. She was attacking the music vigorously, jerking her head emphatically, but it was silent. It is a curious thing to watch music without sound. I could almost hear it. I could see what she was doing with her fingers and mouth, and having just watched and listened for half an hour, I had become attuned to her style. But even the wind was silent. When the video faded out, the real her faded back in on flute, and the audibility was startling.
All that would be an impressive performance by itself, but Berglind wasn’t out of tricks yet. It took me completely by surprise when I realized the echoes surrounding me were not just her amplified flute on the speakers, but flutes and voices coming from performers hiding in the shadows. I had never experienced anything like it before, and I am not sure if I ever will again. The precision of blending multiple flutes and voices, matching and blurring microtones and timbres like they did, was unreal. The realization came when they started to spread; they no longer matched, but they took on their own identities. Out of one came many, and in ways the listener wouldn’t expect. The performers landed together on a sweet chord and faded away. Now, you know a performance is amazing when people don’t want to clap and break the spell. The stunned silence is the best compliment to give a performer. Berglind took a timid bow and we finally broke out in applause.
This concert was not an album you can put in the background while reading the new Harry Potter book. This was an experience that only happened once. Nothing can ever replace the wonderment of being there enveloped by sounds from another reality. And that, dear readers, is why you should go to concerts.
Following the Accordant Commons in this 2016 season of Microfest is the Isaura String Quartet, with “Slightly Irregular Tuning: Another adventure in microtonal music offered as part of this quintessential Los Angeles festival.” The theme of this program was Just intonation. Today, the trending intonation is equal temperament, in which every step is exactly the same distance as the next. Microtonality, in brief, means using the areas around and between those spaces. Just Intonation stems from the overtone series, the sounds you get blowing progressively harder over a coke bottle (or the opening of Thus spake Zarathustra). It is the grandfather of our modern tuning, and so does not sound foreign but a keen ear will notice the difference. The Isaura String Quartet promotes both traditional and contemporary chamber music through live performance, workshops, and collaborative projects with composers and interdisciplinary artists. If any quartet is the perfect team to tackle alternate intonation, it’s these fantastic four ladies.
The evening kicked off with Kraig Grady’s Chippewayan Echoes. He explains in the program notes that he has not attempted to reproduce an authentic historical rendition of Chippewan songs, but rather has sought an emphasis on their melodic qualities of vocal song, translated onto strings. The effect was striking. It began like wailing, in canon, at a carefully measured tempo. The tempo never swayed, and the notes marched forward at quarter and eighth note speeds. The notes wandered and explored the space, never dissonant but always just missing each other. Some sections sounded like Ralph Vaughn-Williams, others like your archetypical Western showdown, and everything in between. After several meditative minutes, the four instruments finally converged and greeted each other, and the piece concluded on a single, pure high note.
Tread Softly by Andrew McIntosh was written as a gift for the ISQ mere months ago. What started out as a chorale became a song with speech-like rhythms as if reciting the W.B. Yeats poem from which the phrase originates. The first ten seconds of the work hint at the chorale beginnings, and quickly melted into the song. The instruments swell together and fall apart, and chords sink and bend away from each other. The middle was call and answer in whispering strings, like kids at a slumber party pretending to be asleep. That faded away like a waking dream, and two lines appeared: the see-sawing cello and viola and the piping sustaining and bending violins. If listening to the music somehow failed to transport you to a secret garden, the extravagant bowing of the performers would hypnotize you instead. These evocations and metaphors of dreams and sleep are no accidents; the poem suggests that, having no worldly rugs to line the floor, he provides his dreams instead, a sentiment any artist and composer (or strapped graduate student) will understand.
John Luther Adams, the environmentally conscious composer, is becoming a household composer name, not to be confused with John Adams the minimalist composer (nor the second POTUS). His The Wind in High Places is a homage to his friend Gordon Wright, who loved Alaska and music as much as Adams. Inspired by Aeolian harps, instruments that draw their musical directly from the wind, the performers may not stop the strings on their instruments; everything is natural harmonics, the quintessential Just Intonation. Three movements unfolded gently rolling and steadily pulsing music. The first movement was a calm ocean, the second was a summer zephyr, and the third was Sisyphus pushing his stone and reaching a little higher every time but never reaching the zenith. Other flowery metaphors I came up with included: lying on a sailboat in summer, watching a sunset on a hill, drifting on a loose flower petal. I hold John Luther Adams’ music in high esteem, and this performance from Isaura confirmed that.
Following a short intermission, the audience geared themselves up for the final piece of the night. Gloria Coates’s String Quartet No. 9 premiered in Germany almost exactly nine years ago. This was the most technically challenging piece of the night, implementing extended techniques like col legno, bowing behind the bridge, and drumming on the body of the instrument. The first movement is a mirror canon, separated by a glissando canon that comes across as a quasi-shepherd tone (the aural illusion that a sound is constantly rising or falling, likened to a barbershop pole stripe). The second movement was, as Coates describes, the more experimental one. It too has elements of the mirror canon, taking a motive and turning it backwards or upside down. The performers had to throw themselves into the music to keep up with the composer’s demanding technical challenges, and the audience was utterly spellbound.
And thus concluded my whirling introduction the Isaura String Quartet. As the 2016 season comes to an end, I look forward to what both MicroFest and Isaura will bring us in the future.
Now in its twentieth year of celebrating microtonality and non-standard tunings, MicroFest takes place sprinkled throughout Los Angeles over the course of multiple weekends. The fourth of seven concerts featured LA-based Accordant Commons, a contemporary vocal chamber music group dedicated to performance and collaboration founded by Stephanie Aston and Argenta Walther, joined by Marja Liisa Kay and Tany Ling for a concert featuring four composers, five pieces, and a heck of a lot more than just twelve notes.
Squeezing into the teeny venue tucked into the Chung King Court in Chinatown, the concertgoers immediately saw that the wall wa covered with pieces of sheet music. Lo and behold, it’s two of the works about to be performed, and they showcase two hugely different approaches to achieving and notating microtonal music. There’s the traditional notation + method, or the graphic score. It’s up to the composer to decide how best to communicate their artistic ideas. If you haven’t seen a graphic score before, just look it up in google images for top notch examples. That’s what new music musicians often deal with, including Accordant Commons.
The show opened with Three in, ad abundantiam by American composer Evan Johnson, for a trio of singers. The music was exquisitely gentle, reminiscent of hearing a church choir practicing from the next hill over while the wind snatches the sound away sporadically. A sustained note grounded the other two voices like a tonal gravity, but the other voices never quite managed to meet it, instead dancing around on either side of it, fitting the fragments of text from Petrarch: “Alone and pensive…my life, which is hidden from others…with me, and me with it.” Johnson never jars the listener, but instead makes the notes rub up against your ears like an overly friendly cat with overly long claws. The threads of music mingle to create brief islands of tonality in the ocean of microtonal possibility.
The second piece was less singing and more vocalizing and other bodily sounds (don’t get too excited, I just mean claps and snaps), plus kazoos and slide whistles. Stanford-based Leah Reid’s Single Fish is an aphoristic composition for three sopranos and hand percussion, in which the phonemes from Gertrude Stein’s eponymous poem are repeated, segmented, shuffled and turned upside down to explore timbre more so than pitch. In this piece, there is no single fish or timbre, but a whole school of them, weaving in and out of each other, shimmering and fluctuating, in a great celebration of the sounds three humans can make together.
Nomi Epstein is a Chicago-based composer and professor, and her song Four Voices features microtonal glissandi in a notation she has been developing for several years which resembles a graph that allows pitch to freely but measuredly move about the pitch space. The four voices move in pairs and sometimes meet together. The form of the piece is dictated by the combinations of singers at a given time. Not unlike Johnson’s first piece on the program, the vocal lines are spotty, like steam venting from cracks in the earth to resist a great eruption. The conductor moves the voices forward with stop and go motions, a musical game of red-light-green-light, and thus the motion atemporal as time has nothing to do with the timing. By the end, all four singers sounded like ghosts, whispering and coughing and holding low moans that rose and fell by a barely perceptible dozen cents (~1/8 of a pitch) at a time, microscopically shifting the tonality. They all ended together on a downward lilt, reaching for heaven and missing only to land back on earth.
The fourth piece brought us back to Evan Johnson, this time for A general interrupter of ongoing activity. The name does not lie. It began with the sound one makes when holding back a laugh, and then progressed into air leaking from a tire, evolving into purrs, clicks, chirps and slurps. Like Reid, she explores the human airways on a timbral odyssey, but unlike Reid she does not use the vocal chords as much. In the middle I was struck by how much it started to remind me of trips to the dentist, and occasionally of radio static. I had no idea a single person could make such convincing and provoking sounds, and I applaud Johnson for this compelling journey.
Fifth and finally, Space-time by LA-based Daniel Corral and commissioned by Accordant Commons was a rollicking jam of minimalist grooves a la Philip Glass. It was accompanied by recorded drums and marimbas and the text from +|’me’S-pace by Christine Wertheim, projected on the wall behind the singers. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Wertheim during the concert (and of borrowing her pen), and she is exactly the kind of darkly draped, elegant woman you would expect to write a poetic exploration of space time. The mood set for meditation and rhythmic swaying and shifting, the singers clapped and recited and sang and slurred and whooped. The words philosophize about reading and comprehending, and shift tiny elements to change entire meanings, like changing “time” to “+ime,” and shifting that to “ta ta ta ta ta ta I’m me,” atomizing the language and investigating the relationships of its components. The music plays along, going upside down and backwards when necessary, and implements La Monte Young’s Well Tuned Piano tuning system. The result reframes consonance and dissonance, making the audience rethink on the fly what they think is pleasant and what clashes. What is usually instinctive to our ears here required conscious thought, fitting the space journey of +|’me’S-pace. The beat was constant but the meter shifts, making the steady time feel like it was swaying in the wind. Between the sonority and the flux of time, it is all the listener can do to hang on and enjoy the ride. The recapitulation at the end brings the roller coaster to a conclusion and returns the audience back to reality, whatever that may be.
The concert was a triumph for Accordant Commons and for the future of microtonality and non-standard tuning. LA is one of the best places to find new techniques and new music, and MicroFest is the concert series to explore rarer tonalities in gamelans, pianos, and more. Three concerts remain in the 2016 series. The next is Saturday, May 14th at Boston Court in Pasadena, featuring The Isaura String Quartet. Need some more of Accordant Commons’ exquisite singing in your life? Check their website for concert dates and recordings: accordantcommons.com.
This program was the epitome of newness. Nothing old enough to be enrolled in first grade and three world premieres, Synchromy and The Argus Quartet‘s February 27 concert achieved a rare level of innovation, with the presenter and ensemble working together to build an effective, feasible, and enjoyable program to showcase all their talents. Like a sonata, it built up, developed, had some themes come back, and ended on a sort of cadenza with a new theme -that of the voice. We had heard the voice before; the narrator, Chelsea Fryer, had also been introducing the pieces. One could say this non-performance voice became integrated into the program. Or perhaps it had been part of the performance all along, that as soon as the doors closed and the lights when down everything that happened on or near the stage was performative.
The concert opens with a sunrise in Andrew Norman’s Sabina, from the Companion Guide to Rome, for solo violin. It begins with a whisper, not even a note. When the sound finally starts, it sounds far away, almost like an echo in a canyon. It creaks into existence, broken by bird calls and wind. The violin finally begins a kind of fiddling over a drone and splitting high notes so pure. The sun is finally high enough to be seen through the window of the church that inspired Andrew Norman, and the violin plays a single, pure melody. No birds, no wind, nothing but a sweet melody.
Following the sky theme, the sunrise is clouded over by Kaija Saariaho’s “Cloud Trio,” which adds a viola and cello to the violin soloist but is still not the full quartet yet. This work depicts four types of clouds, and the audience is invited to imagine which clouds they are. Like many, I can identify cumulus as the fluffy ones and that’s it. Regardless of lacking the vocabulary to name the clouds, the types were clearly depicted in the music. Each has its own identity, utilizing thick harmonies or sparse counterpoint or the rhythmic shush shush of col legno.
Staying within the theme of Rome, one of the most popular archaeological sites in the world, Zaq Kenefick’s funeral song of the people of the ruined cities, speaks to the beauty and brokenness of the ruins. The violin plays a trembling solo and the viola strums chords dissonant with the cello. The video of folding black cloth was surely a beautiful artistic choice, though I must admit I and many other audience members I talked to afterwards were uncertain what to make of the visuals. The piece was over almost as soon as it began, the length itself a reflection of the lost ruins.
Immediately before intermission, the concert changed gears and addressed the modern: Skronk. A word thrown around in various musical genres and circles, it is a thick onomatopoeia. The introduction defines it in many ones, and generally as “not a thing you are, but a thing you do.” The piece features strong pizzicati and a syncopated rock rhythm and melody, some fiddling tossed between the different instruments, and overall frankly smoother string playing than I would have expected from a word that can mean the skronk of an electric guitar. This one was a fast crowd pleaser and kept everyone on their toes. Ending as though someone suddenly turned up the volume and then plucking away into nothingness like the fade-outs of rock songs of the ‘90s, John Frantzen captured the many facets skronk may and can represent.
Post-intermission, we were given something of a variation on a theme. The music kicked off with three excerpts from Norman’s Companion Guide to Rome for string trio, featuring swirling harmonies, birdlike whistles, crackling glitches, whispering on the bows, and plucked pizzicato like rocks skipping on a pond. This was followed by Nick Norton’s String Quartet No 1., in which chords slid like skates on ice and the melody bounced between the four instruments in a playful game of keep-away. The second section was frantic, reminding me of a car race – the way the upper strings chomped rhythmically at the notes and the cello made engine revs pealing past the stage, going so far as to imitate the Doppler effect, it seemed. The third ethereal movement felt like flying in a dream. The dramatic violin swelled alongside the pastoral lower strings, all slowing until they ran out of steam. The perfect end to the day that Norman’s first piece began. But a false ending gave way to screeching and tapping. The spell was broken. Composers have great power over the audience, and with great power comes great responsibility. Norton made the daring choice to shatter the beauty he built.
After Norton came the second Kenefick piece, harvesting tunes of the people of the rope-tree towers, this one featuring the viola practically crunching itself in half to sound like white noise on an old CRTV, a dark melody in the violin with dissonance in its twin, and the cello rumbling beneath it all. This video panned the length of a red cloth rope. Again, I will not pretend to have understood or fully appreciated the visuals provided, but the piece was an intriguing exercise in tension and release, and well placed in the middle of the second half of the program. It is experimental enough that I might experiment with it on a Spotify playlist someday, just to see how it goes.
Gabriela Frank’s excerpts from Leyendas: an Andean Walkabout gave a breath of fresh air from the concert hall by taking the audience on a pastoral journey through the Andes via “Tarqueada,” a piece imitating the split tone flute played in quartal and quintal harmony, “Himno de Zampoñas,” or panpipes, and “Chasqui,” the messenger runner who relies on small instruments light enough to carry on journeys, particularly small guitars. Each section was magnificently portrayed by the quartet, making the flutes and panpipes sing and drums thwack and guitars strum, all on bowed strings. For brief moments I was transported to the Smithsonian Folkways Festival of 2013 when a Quechua band played on the instruments the strings were portraying. The effect was astounding and beautiful, and I felt nostalgia for a place I’ve never been, only heard.
The concert ended with Eve Beglarian’s Testy Pony, which featured the cellist, a video and prerecorded sounds, and the narrator. A charming story of a girl who gets a pony and learns a life lesson, the pleasant tale is backed by a constantly rolling cello playing in time with the prerecorded sounds. If you don’t think this is technically challenging, try cooking while watching a chef on TV, and you’ll get some idea of the balancing act at play. This work seemed to finally end the “day” we started, as we watched the back of a horse gallop out of sight and out of mind.
The brief descriptions and interpretations of the pieces reveal a variety of ways in which music can be “new” and concerts can showcase facets of interest. Composition can show off new techniques, new subject matter (or old, in the case of the ruins, but in a new way), or use new orchestration. Synchromy is a collective of composers showing off recent works, and the Argus Quartet specializes in modern techniques. The New Classic LA facebook page has a rule that only ‘new’ music may be posted. 15th century madrigals are not new, but perhaps the way in which they are performed is new. Film music is not a new genre anymore, but a fresh composition is new. ‘New’ is such a tiny word packed with so much to interpret and interpolate. Regardless of how you take any of it to heart or choose to think about music, last Friday’s concert was a fair epitome of newness.