Posts by Paul Muller

Second Take: Bonnie and Clyde

Los Angeles-based experimental opera company The Industry workshopped the much-anticipated contemporary opera Bonnie and Clyde for their Second Take program on February 26, 2017. Written by Andrew McIntosh – with libretto by Melinda Rice – the performance was given at the spacious Wilshire Ebell Theatre with a large crowd in attendance. More than three years in development, the full musical score of Bonnie and Clyde was realized by a cast of soloists, a small chorus and wild Up, a 17-piece instrumental ensemble, all under the direction of Christopher Rountree.

Yuval Sharon, Artistic Director for The Industry, explained in his welcoming remarks that the Second Take preview was designed to give a complete performance of all the music in the opera. There is no acting, costumes or scenery, but the full musical forces are all present. The program notes explained that “[Second Take] showcases the new piece in a nascent and pure state; production concerns and directorial interpretation have not yet put this composition to the test.”

The six vocalists comprising the cast stood on one side of the stage, four choristers were placed on the opposite side, with wild Up in the center. A large screen above and at the back of the stage helpfully displayed the libretto as it was sung. As all the singers were stationary and dressed in formal black, the performance feeling a bit more like an oratorio than an opera. The presence of wild Up at center stage tended to emphasize the accompaniment over the singers at times, but the instrumental texture throughout was generally transparent enough that there was no compromise to any of the vocal elements.

As librettist Melinda Rice observed, “When a story is familiar, there is hardly any question of how it will end.” This perspective informs almost everything about Bonnie and Clyde, and from the opening moments the feeling is one of a somber sadness. The libretto is always on a personal and emotional plane, with much of it taken from the reminiscences of the surviving players in the real-life drama. The libretto draws material from the published autobiography of Ted Hinton to form the narrative thread. Hinton worked as a delivery man and personally knew both Bonnie and Clyde. He later became a police officer and was a member of the posse that finally caught up with the fugitive pair.

Bonnie and Clyde unfolds in 24 scenes over two acts. Act I serves to introduce the many characters: Ted Hinton (James Onstad), Clyde’s mother Cumie (Sarah Beaty), brother Buck Barrow and his wife Blanche (David Castillo and Lauren Davis), as well as the titular Bonnie and Clyde (Justine Aronson and Jon Keenan). Given the static nature of the staging, it took a few scenes to get the sense of these relationships – the acting and costuming in the final production will be helpful here – but the music and the singing were both sensitive and precise, clearly sketching out the emotional terrain. Early in Act I Cumie, portrayed by Sarah Beaty, sings a beautiful aria in the form of a letter asking the governor to parole Clyde as he “is needed here on the farm.” There is a palpable sense of pathos in the music; the hard-scrabble life of an East Texas farming family is distinctly heard and felt. When Clyde returns home from prison he arrives in a new Ford V8. Rather than return to his family and the difficult life of a farmer, Clyde is completely bewitched by the power of the automobile and the freedom this represents; you can hear this tension in the music and it marks a decisive point in the story.

The final scene in Act I is masterfully done – Bonnie and Clyde are on the run and crash their car near a washed out bridge in the country. Bonnie is severely burned and they seek shelter at a nearby farmhouse. The family there offers to call for help, but Clyde refuses and announces that he will steal their car to continue the flight. The frightened family begins to sing a hymn – as heard in the chorus – and this immediately connects with the audience on a spiritual level, much like a chorale in a Bach Passion. Act I thus concludes with Bonnie and Clyde renouncing everything that is good in their past for an uncertain freedom in the future.

Act II opens with a spoken soliloquy by Ted Hinton, and this helpfully brings the narrative forward, putting the audience squarely in the middle of the most familiar part of the story. Bonnie and Clyde are now public enemies with brother Buck Barrow and Blanche also members of the gang. In a dramatic duet, Buck is asked to renounce Clyde and return to the quiet life. The music poignantly captures the heart-rendering choice that turns on a brother’s loyalty. When Buck is killed in a police ambush, Ted interrogates the captured Blanche in a tense scene accompanied by a steady tone in the woodwinds that heightens the emotional impact. “Your husband is dead” announces Ted – and the story gains its full dramatic traction.

After a brief orchestral interlude, Bonnie and Clyde return to the stage for a duet – having been absent since the end of Act I – and the story gathers momentum toward the inevitable finish. Another soliloquy by Hinton tells of how Bonnie and Clyde ran a roadblock on Easter Sunday, killing a rookie policeman in the process. The young man was just two weeks from his wedding and there is a very touching aria sung by Marie, his intended bride, lamenting her loss. Hinton now sings of how he has ‘gotten into their future’ and believes he can predict the couple’s next move. Hinton devises a trap for the pair and at this point the music turns very dark, the solemn toll of piano chords ringing out like church bells. A final epilogue scene is unexpectedly quiet with none of the violent histrionics of the more popular accounts. Clyde is simply heard repeating: “Freedom is driving and driving and driving…” as the opera fades to its finish. After a respectful silence, the audience responded with an extended and enthusiastic applause.

Bows after the concert premiere of Andrew McIntosh and Melinda Rice's <em>Bonnie and Clyde</em>.

Bows after the concert premiere of Andrew McIntosh and Melinda Rice’s Bonnie and Clyde.

This performance of Bonnie and Clyde, although limited to just the musical elements, was nevertheless a powerful experience. The singing and playing was of a very high caliber throughout and the conducting by Christopher Rountree was flawless. The music and libretto were well-matched and artfully performed by all. The eventual staging, scenery and costuming will be an important element in portraying the relationships and motivations of the characters, especially in Act I. The singing was hauntingly beautiful, with the arias and duets more or less evenly distributed throughout the cast. The premiere of the finished production of Bonnie and Clyde is sure to be an extraordinary event.

 

Review: Mark Menzies plays Nono, Chao, and Ulman

On February 3, 2017 wasteLAnd presented the second in a series of four concert appearances – titled 4:7 – by master violinist Mark Menzies. A long time presence on the Los Angeles new music scene, Menzies was in town on a visit from his native New Zealand and the four concerts also marked the violinist’s 47th birthday. The spacious downtown Art Share  venue was filled to capacity despite a rainy Friday night on the local freeways. Three solo pieces were heard, by Ching-Wen Chao, wasteLAnd resident composer Erik Ulman and the Italian utopian Luigi Nono.

Elegy in Flight by Ching-Wen Chao was first, inspired by Buddhist sacred texts and the ‘wheel of life,’ as described in the program notes: “This piece starts with a statement of a 59-note set, which is derived from a 59-syllable mantra used in recitation for the dead. The set subsequently expands itself through the multiplication of its own intervals… This expansion/compression process is stated 6 times over the course of the piece with variations of speed and emphasis.” Elegy in Flight opened with a strong, declarative statement followed by a series of softer runs. Menzies is extremely adept at dynamic contrast and this added to the underlying sense of anxiety and building tension in the complex passages. A stretch of soft, sustained tones followed that changed the feeling to one of a quiet remoteness, only to change again with a series of rapid runs full of spikes and squeaks. In all of this Menzies was in full command of the intonation and expressiveness pouring out from his violin. Some lovely playing was heard in the lower registers while several short, stabbing phrases marked the finish. Elegy in Flight is a dynamic, evolving work that makes many demands on the soloist; all artfully met in this performance.

The world premiere of Lake, by Erik Ulman followed, and this solo viola piece was dedicated to Mark Menzies. Soft, sustained tones in a rich viola register filled the space, making for an elegant contrast to the preceding work. Lake has an introspective feel, nicely conveyed by the series of long tones that decrescendo to pianissimo. High-pitched phrases added a rhythmic movement that evokes a more alien feel, but this changed yet again to an active bubbling propelled by the pop of rapid of pizzicato notes. All of this was managed adroitly by Menzies, and as the final notes faded quietly away, sustained applause filled the room. Taking full advantage of the viola’s range and timbral possibilities, Lake is a worthy contribution to the solo repertoire.

After the intermission, La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura by Luigi Nono was performed by Mark Menzies along with Scott Worthington at the controls of the electronics. This piece was seemingly inspired by a stray piece of graffiti that Nono happened to see while visiting Toledo: “Traveler, there is no pathway, there is only traveling itself.” Accordingly, several music stands holding copies of the written score were scattered throughout the venue – on stage and in or around the audience – and Menzies traveled, as it were, from stand to stand during the performance. Speakers were also positioned in various places effectively filling the space with the recorded electronic accompaniment.

La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura began with Menzies at a music stand on stage, violin at the ready, while the speakers filled the room with the ambient sounds of what seemed to be string players warming up or tuning. There was a few odd words heard, then some thumps and squeaks before a strong upward glissando unleashed a series of complex runs that established an air of mystery and tension. Menzies then added short bursts of high, anxious notes and rapid passages that increased the ominous feel. The recorded sounds often came from single speakers in opposite corners of the space, and this added spatial perception to the overall experience. More rumbles and rattles came from the speakers as if large cases or cabinets were being moved. Menzies walked slowly and thoughtfully across the stage, settling at another music stand, and began playing a new set of quietly anxious tones along with the electronics.

The piece proceeded in this manner – the sounds from the recording continuing, full of riddles, while the soloist contributed variously fast phrases or slow, sustained tones. There was little form or structure evident – at times the sounds were fast and intense while at other times slower and softly atmospheric. The overall result was a remarkably good blend of electronics and live playing, with excellent fidelity from the speakers that perfectly matched the soloist. The dragging and thumping sounds in the recording were most convincing and the violin playing was controlled and precise throughout. Menzies made his way around to the various music stands at certain defined points in the score, but not in any preset pattern. There was a microphone at the final music stand and the piece concluded with a strong, steady violin pitch that persisted for a moment, then faded away as Menzies slipped offstage. La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura is a journey unto itself, full of mystery and uncertainty, yet always inviting the listener to formulate context from multiple combinations of sonic clues.

Review: Nicholas Chase: Bhajan

Cold Blue Music is releasing a new album by Nicholas Chase titled Bhajan (CB0046). An engaging mix of electronics and brilliant violin playing by Robin Lorentz, Bhajan is inspired by Hindu devotional music and the Indian raga. The four tracks of this CD are loosely connected by Western classical tonality, yet reflect a diversity achieved through “temporal freedom, melodic non-structure and fusions of musical genre…” The computer-driven electronic sounds realized by Mr. Chase and the sensitive violin playing of Ms. Lorentz make for an intriguing combination.

Bhajan album artThe first track, Bindu, begins with a series of thin electronic tones that gradually change in volume and pitch. More electronic elements are added, giving a sense of being in the presence of a metaphysical entity. A high repeating Eb violin figure becomes the focal point, fixing the listener’s attention while oscillations, whirring and clicking sounds add to the otherworldly feel. Towards the finish, as the violin figure becomes more strident, an electronic chorus appears and the piece morphs from the strange and anxious to the settled and serene. Bindu fashions an interesting emotional bridge between the familiar and the unknown.

Drshti, track 2, comes from a completely different place. A sharp, but deep bell-like tone opens the piece and a sustained violin-buzz is accompanied by a related drone in the electronics. There is a spiritual feeling to this – like standing in some remote Asian temple. The raspy, monotone pitches in the violin line have the rhythm and cadence of a spoken chant. About midway through, the drone and violin arrive at almost the same pitch, zero-beating, and this is soon accompanied by a stately melody in the electronics. The violin continues ‘speaking’ and the electronic chorus weaves in and around the violin and drone, adding to the strong devotional feeling. Towards the finish, a deep, satisfying bass appears in bursts of short phrases. The music quickly vanishes, as if swept away on the breeze. Drshti is very effective and beautifully extracts the liturgical essence of the ceremonial, even in the absence any specific context or intelligible text.

Japa is next and this track begins with rapid, quiet clicking sounds – followed by a short, vivid electronic phrase – and then silence. More electronic phrases follow, louder and more striking, while the soft clicking seems to move left-to-right at a rapid rate. Now the acoustic violin joins in with recognizably musical phrases, followed by silence. The electronic sounds are pure tones and act as background while the violin phrases are at the forefront by virtue of the familiar tone and timbre so that listener instinctively identifies with them. The periods of silence and the sense of movement in the electronic sounds add to the image of watching something approach and then fade away. The electronic sounds are swirling and amicable – not menacing or formidable – and they seem to be attracted to the violin, as if participating in a conversation. Japa finishes suddenly just as violin and electronics are in mid-phrase. The interaction of the electronics and playing of Ms. Lorenz is especially precise and well-coordinated.

Bhajan, the title track, is the most understated and stunningly effective piece of this album. A soft electronic drone is cleanly heard in the higher registers while a somber violin repeats mournful phrases below. The overall feeling is not one of sadness or melancholy, but rather of wistful reflection. It is very beautiful and does not wear, even as it continues in the same repeating patterns over its entire length. It has a hypnotic mysticism, as watching the sun slowly set over a calm ocean. Towards the finish there is more activity in the electronics, including a low hum that grows in volume. The violin skitters a bit, then recedes as a continuous sine tone, wavering slightly in pitch, fills the foreground. The violin persists, resuming its prominence as the electronics fade at the finish. Bhajan is a warm and comforting wash, introspective and reassuring as well as beautifully performed.

Ms. Lorentz has a formidable resume as an acoustic violinist that includes the music of John Luther Adams, Daniel Lentz, Michael Jon Fink, Jim Fox, the California EAR unit as well as Jerry Goldsmith and Michael Jackson. To this must be added Bhajan, a masterly collaboration with the electronic music of Nicholas Chase. The art of ensemble playing with other acoustic musicians is, of course, a highly regarded virtue. The ability to play closely and sensitively with music realized by electronics must now be included in the arts of the acoustic musician. Ms. Lorentz and Nicholas Chase have set a standard in Bhajan that others would do well to emulate.

Bhajan is available directly from Cold Blue Music starting January 20, 2017.

 

The Lyris Quartet at Music and Conversations

On Saturday, November 12, 2016 Music and Conversations presented the Lyris Quartet in a concert of music ranging from Bach and Mozart to Shostakovich, along with new contemporary works by Jane Brockman and Billy Childs. The Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Gallery on La Brea was the venue and an overflow crowd filled every available seat for the occasion.

Timothy Loo, cellist for the Lyris Quartet was first, performing the Prelude from Suite No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1009 by J.S. Bach. This began with a lovely deep sound in the warm lower registers followed quickly by a series of ascending scales. The detailed ornamentation and the precise articulation was especially easy to follow in the cozy acoustics of the gallery. The tempo was brisk – almost urgent at times – but the optimism and elegance inherent in Suite No. 3 never faltered while under the care of Mr. Loo.

Duo No. 1 in G, K. 423 (version for viola and cello) by Mozart followed. Timothy Loo was joined by Luke Maurer, violist for the Lyris Quartet. By way of introduction, Maurer explained that Michael Haydn had been commissioned by the Archbishop of Salzburg in the summer of 1783 to write six duos, but Haydn fell ill and had only finished four. Mozart offered to complete the remaining two for his friend, and Duo No. 1 in G is the first of these. The piece begins with light, active passages in the viola with a nice counterpoint in the cello. The tempo was brisk and the resulting texture light and frothy – textbook Mozart. Maurer and Loo maintained good coordination as the quick melody alternated with more moderate sections, and they never let the pace slacken or drag.

The Adagio movement followed providing a slower, more relaxed contrast to the opening, but even here the delicate proportions and almost weightless feel of the harmonies carries the listener effortlessly along. The intonation was rock solid. The Rondo:Allegro movement finished the piece and returned to the rapid tempo and closely intertwined rhythms. The quick passages in the viola were particularly well played and the intimate acoustics complimented the overall balance. The bright and sunny feel of this movement persisted to the conclusion, prompting the audience to enthusiastically applaud a fine effort.

The Lyris Quartet at Music and Conversations

The Lyris Quartet at Music and Conversations

Unrequited, the new Billy Childs string quartet was next, with violinists Shalini Vijayan and Alyssa Park joining the others on stage. Unrequited is one of four new pieces commissioned by the Lyris Quartet, all written as a commentary or reflection on String Quartet No. 2 (1928) by Leoš Janáček.  Janáček was inspired by his long and close friendship with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman some 38 years younger, with whom over 700 letters were exchanged over a span of 11 years. As Mr. Childs noted in his introductory remarks, this relationship never moved to the next level, and the tragedy of love unfulfilled was uppermost in the mind of the composer while writing this piece. Unrequited begins with long, sustained chords full of wistful sadness. The harmonies are very expressive and the inner details were brought out nicely by the gallery acoustics. This piece was performed at a recent Jacaranda event in a much larger hall and the difference is striking – the interior structure of this piece is well crafted and very beautiful. At times there were faster, more complex sections that suggested a sense of tension or anxiety, but Unrequited always returns to a feeling of achingly mournful disappointment. A final melancholy chord of sad acceptance completes this remarkable work.

beneath the surface of a sea of silence by Jane Brockman followed, based on two lines from the poem Fireflies by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore:

“The world is the ever-changing foam
that floats on the surface of a sea of silence.”

This begins with high trills in the violins and an active melody that has a driving, rhythmic feel, although never overpowering. This sense of purposeful intent continues forward, with occasional hints of tension arising in the harmony. A nice series of tutti trills changes the texture to a mystical shimmering before returning to the more deliberate marcato. An elegant violin solo precedes another series of tutti trills. beneath the surface of a sea of silence proceeds in this way, with slower, more dramatic sections alternating with somewhat faster passages that move persistently ahead. All are interspersed with tutti pizzicato or trills that break into the moment and prepare the listener for the next sequence. beneath the surface of a sea of silence contains all of the mystery and restlessness of the sea, artfully capturing the contrasting relationship of contemplation and movement.

The final work of the concert was String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110 by Dimitri Shostakovich. Written over just three days in July, 1960 it is dedicated to ‘the victims of fascism and the war’. Alyssa Park explained that rehearsals of this piece took on a cathartic dimension given recent political events here. The opening movement, Largo, begins with a solemn cello line, picked up, in turn, by the viola and violins. Soft, sustained chords add to the gloomy feel and a sad violin solo arose that was expressively played by Ms. Park. The reflective tempo abruptly ended and a series of frenetic passages of the Allegro molto movement ensued, intense and furious – almost like being under attack. The Lyris Quartet played this with resolute precision, and the close spaces of the gallery seemed barely able to contain the dynamic energy. The dance-like rhythms of the Allegretto movement relieved the tension somewhat and these were given just the right amount of airiness and lyricism. The anxiety and darkness reappeared, however, in the 4th movement with smooth, quietly powerful passages interspersed with short, rapid tutti strokes. The final Largo movement continued in this slower, dirge-like manner and the piece ended with a sad cello solo that faded quietly away. String Quartet No. 8 is a compact and impressively intense work, played with great emotion in this performance. The Lyris Quartet received a long standing ovation for their superb effort.

The next Music and Conversations concert is on March 18, 2017.

The Lyris Quartet has just released a new CD titled Intimate Letters, featuring the Billy Childs piece Unrequited.

wasteLAnd Opens Run at Art Share LA

wasteLAnd opened their first Friday concert, U/L, at Art Share LA on September 2, 2016. For the coming season, wasteLAnd will perform there on the first Friday of the month. An overflow crowd turned out on the start of the long Labor Day weekend to hear the music of Todd Lerew and wasteLand featured composer Erik Ulman.

Reading the Dictionaries, by Todd Lerew, began the proceedings with Movement Q and Movement V. Five performers stood in a semicircle on stage, each holding a copy of a different dictionary. Given a starting signal, they began reading the entries from each dictionary in unison, starting with those for the letter Q. At first the words were identical and the slight differences in pronunciation made for ragged, but intelligible speech. Soon the words in each dictionary began to vary – as might be expected for several different editions – and the words became less understandable. Those listening focused their attention, but was soon possible to hear and comprehend only a single word at a time. Eventually the words differed to the point that what was perceived was not language but the overall shape of the sound. The Q words from each performer came in and out of synchronization, as it were, and your brain was constantly hopping back and forth between comprehending the words as speech or simply hearing the texture and colors of the sound. About three-quarters of the way through Q, one of the performers – Matt Barbier – simply ceased speaking as the abridged edition of the dictionary he was given apparently ran out of words. The others finished as each dictionary dictated, and soon just a single voice was heard finishing up.

Movement V proceeded in the same way, each of the words spoken simultaneously at intervals of about one second. The initial sound of a word beginning with V has a sharper attack, and this made for more dramatic intonation. The V words also seemed to have a greater variety of letters and lengths so that the arc of their soundings was richer in sonic detail. All of this worked to sharpen the listener’s hearing so that by the end of the piece the ear became sensitized to even minute variations. Several of the dictionaries contained long lists of vitamins – Vitamin A, Vitamin B, Vitamin C, etc – and when these were encountered there were invariably some giggles from the audience. Matt Barbier once again finished first and stoically awaited the conclusion of the piece some minutes later.

Reading the Dictionaries proved to be an insightful experience, transforming a seemingly dry recitation of words into an engaging exercise in perception, language and comprehension.

The Formalist Quartet performing featured composer Erik Ulman's string quartet at Art Share

The Formalist Quartet performing featured composer Erik Ulman’s string quartet at Art Share

String Quartet No. 3, by Erik Ulman, followed, performed by the Formalist Quartet. Ulman is the featured composer for wasteLAnd and will contribute works throughout the current season. String Quartet No. 3 began with a series of high squeaks and chirps followed by an energetic burst of sound in all the parts. The phrases seemed to alternate between sustained tones in one part and a flurry of complex sounds by the others. There was an underlying feeling of tension in all of this, but there were also smoother and more placid stretches. Most of the activity seemed to be centered in the middle registers with the cello typically blending into the texture. Midway through, a series of high, syncopated pitches were followed by sustained tones creating a sort of ebb and flow to the rhythm that made for a good contrast with the more complex passages. Towards the finish a low growling tutti effectively escalated the sense of tension and suspense – this music has a mysterious feel, like walking in an alien landscape. String Quartet No. 3 constantly challenges the listener and performer with its intricate and independently moving lines. The Formalist Quartet delivered to their usual high standard, and the audience responded with strong applause.

After an intermission, Spherical Harmonics, by Todd Lerew, was performed by six singers and conducted by Matt Barbier. This began with a low unison humming tone that soon broke into various related harmonics. The singers then began whistling their tones while humming – something we have all idly done at one time or another – and this combination added a convincing perception of depth. The humming gradually diminished, leaving mostly whistling sounds turning the feeling somewhat desolate and a bit lonely. All of this was reminiscent of the Rhyolite sound installation in the Nevada desert where the sound of the wind blowing across dozens of old glass bottles was recorded by Chris Kallmyer and Andrew McIntosh. At times Matt Barbier could be seen striking a tuning fork and holding it close to his ear as he set the pitch for the other singers. The group repeated this sequence with different several tones before quietly finishing. Spherical Harmonics artfully mixes the simple acts of humming and whistling to fashion an intriguing amalgamation of harmonic possibilities.

Andrew Tholl, literally shredding on Todd Lerew's Bowing to Pressure

Andrew Tholl, literally shredding on Todd Lerew’s Bowing to Pressure

The final piece on the program was Bowing to Pressure, also by Todd Lerew, and this was a solo piece for violin performed by Andrew Tholl. As the title suggests, Andrew applied the maximum amount of pressure as he began a vigorous bowing action across the violin strings. This produced an active, muscular set of tones that were reminiscent of the more primal country music pieces sometimes heard from historical archives. The pressure began to take a toll and strands of hair could be seen streaming from the bow. The tone coarsened, settling into a drone-like sound and the audience held its collective breath as if waiting for the violin bow, strings or bridge to self-destruct. Andrew Tholl powered on, the sounds becoming rougher and almost desperately violent. The forcefully crude intonation carried the audience into uncharted violin territory, completely removed from the delicacy and smoothness normally expected from this instrument. At the end, the bow was in tatters and Tholl was clearly fatigued by the effort. Bowing to Pressure might be a metaphor for the stress of contemporary life, but it is surely a vivid demonstration of the powerful feelings a violin can convey when pushed to its physical limit.

The next appearance of wasteLAnd will be at the Green Umbrella Noon to Midnight concert, Disney Hall, on October 1, 2016.

Performers for the this concert were:

Reading the Dictionaries:

Matt Barbier, Nicholas Deyoe, Brian Griffeath-Loeb, Todd Lerew, Élise Roy

String Quartet No. 3 – The Formalist Quartet:

Andrew Tholl, Mark Menzies, Andrew McIntosh, Ashley Walters

Spherical Harmonics:

Nicholas Deyoe, Brian Griffeath-Loeb, Andrew McIntosh, Cody Putnam, Élise Roy

Matthew Barbier, conductor

Bowing to Pressure:

Andrew Tholl

Dog Star 12: Math is Nature

On Tuesday, June 14, 2016 the Dog Star volume 12 concert series convened at Art Share LA to present Math is Nature, an evening of experimental pieces by Tom Johnson, John Eagle and James Tenney. The Koan Quartet, from the Southland Ensemble, and the Isaura String Quartet were on hand to play and a good sized audience turned out to fill the space. Curated by John Eagle and Cassia Streb, all of the music in this concert involved mathematics in the composition and performance realization.

thumb_Art_Share_LA_Building_Small

Art Share LA

The first work was Formulas (1994), by Tom Johnson. The Koan Quartet took the stage and the piece began with a moving melody line, repeated in different permutations by each of the instruments. Just as the active and optimistic feel of this seemed to be established, all fell quiet. After a few moments of silence, two tones in the violins were heard, followed by the viola. The sequential sounding of each instrument gave some movement to the otherwise slow and deliberate feel. The sense of mystery and suspense built up – and then there was another period of silence.

Formulas continued in this fashion – short sections with various combinations and permutations of instrument entrances, rhythms, dynamics and pitch directions. A nice minimalist groove broke out in one sequence while others featured lush harmonies or florid counterpoint. The parts were all cleanly played by the Koan Quartet with good ensemble throughout. Although originally conceived as a more strictly algorithmic piece, Tom Johnson confessed in the program notes: “I too have to rely on taste and instincts, and I can never prove that this version is better than the others, and finally this piece is not so much Formulas as simply music.” Formulas is an engaging and varied work that is an elegant balance of pure mathematics and inspired music.

A short intermission allowed the Koan Quartet to withdraw and the Isaura String Quartet took the stage for rhythm color #3 (2014), by John Eagle. The program notes sketched an overview of the methods employed in this composition: “The piece is made up of 24 individual pages (arranged in any order) which present three players with a sequence of notes and their numerical doubles (to be counted). These numbers are determined by the ratio of the given note to a fundamental which is either played or implied by a fourth part which drones throughout. While the score is presented like a grid, individual cells are left out in performance (not to be played) or are optional (left to the player to decide to play or not).” rhythm color #3 has an indeterminate structure and can be realized in many different ways depending on the decisions made by the performers at the time.

The Isaura Quartet at Dog Star 12

The Isaura Quartet at Dog Star 12

An extended period of silence began the piece followed by a low sustained tone from the cello, soon answered by the violins and viola. As each player entered, a verbal counting or a recitation of numbers was heard. The tones, all long and continuous, formed some interesting harmonies. As there was no perceived beat in the playing, the verbalization of the numbers added a kind of structural skeleton to the texture of tones as they sounded in various combinations and sequences. Various emotions emerged as the piece unfolded: tension, anxiety or fright – especially when the violins were at extremely high pitches – or a more spiritual feeling as when the cello played warm, reassuring tones. With all the players had to do to navigate the score, the ensemble and intonation were exemplary and there was never any sense of confusion or uncertainty over the many entrances.

rhythm color #3 operates at the cutting edge of an important experimental idea in music – that a piece can be performed in many different possible ways, and that the process of realization can include self-direction by the performers. The success of this performance demonstrates the far-reaching possibilities of this idea.

After a short break the Koan Quartet returned to perform Arbor Vitae (2006) by James Tenney, the final work of the composer. The program notes stated that Arbor Vitae is “… a series of related tonalities modulating through a richly populated, extended just intonation pitch space.” All of this began with a low, almost inaudible tone from the cello that was soon joined by the other strings at a similarly quiet dynamic. The combined sound seemed barely above a whisper and had some competition from a cooling fan. The long, subtle tones continued, only gradually increasing in volume and pitch. The intonation was exceptionally well-controlled by the Koan Quartet who were also equipped with tuner pickups on their instruments to realize the extended JI pitches called for in the score.

The quiet sounds invited careful listening and the interplay of the higher pitches was particularly interesting. Long, sustained tones came from each instrument but the entrances were offset and this gave the surface a sense of graceful and deliberate movement. The tones moved lower into the middle registers, creating some lovely harmonies. True to its title, a biotic feel predominated and the piece seemed to uncoil like a living organism. Arbor Vitae is a subtle, yet expressive depiction of the organic as realized through alternate tuning and precise playing.

The annual Dog Star concerts continue to provide a unique and generous contribution to the experimental music scene in Los Angeles, and beyond.

The Koan Quartet is Eric KM Clark and Orin Hildestad, violins, Cassia Streb, viola, and Jennifer Bewerse, cello. The Isaura String Quartet is Emily Call and Madeline Falcone, violins, Melinda Rice, viola, and Betsy Rettig, cello.

Seth Cluett, Michael Pisaro and Friends at the wulf

Hoboken, NJ-based Seth Cluett and guests Isaac Aronson, Ben Levinson, Luke Martin, Michael Pisaro and Andrew Young performed an evening of experimental electronic music on Sunday April 10, 2016 at the wulf. A full house was on hand to hear separately scored duos played simultaneously along with a second set that had six musicians improvising on electronic devices.

First up was The Lost Quartet, by Michael Pisaro, performed by the composer on electric guitar with Ben Levinson on acoustic bass while Seth Cluett and Andrew Young played a second electronic duo simultaneously. This began very quietly with low, soft tones followed by a rapid burst of pianissimo notes from the electric guitar that sounded a bit like an old Geiger counter, only with musical notes instead of clicks. A pencil striking the guitar strings occasionally produced a somewhat louder sound while sine tones and scratching noises were heard from the second duo. Ben Levinson added a very slight trilling sound on one string of the bass that was barely audible . All of this was consistently quiet and understated – very subdued music.

The two duos were completely independent – driven by certain sequences of pitches or by events marked on a time line. They overlapped elegantly, however, as each piece was deliberately paced and operating at the same minimal dynamic levels throughout. A quieter venue, in fact, might have been preferred – street and freeway noises from the open windows occasionally drifted into the performance space. As it was, the very soft playing invited an intense concentration in the listening, making any intrusion that much more noticeable.

At the midpoint, the phrases coming from the electric guitar increased slightly in strength and it seemed as if the other sounds followed. The sequence of quiet scratching noises, sine tones and soft bass sounds continued as before. The overall effect of this piece was to remove the viewpoint of the listener to a far distance – as if observing something just at the limits of aural awareness. The pieces concluded with the sounds gradually becoming less frequent and a solitary electronic tone fading slowly away. The Lost Quartet, as combined with the Seth Cluett duo, is an interesting experiment in the similarities and compatibility of independent pieces played simultaneously, with each managing to compliment the other in the final realization.

After a short intermission Seth Cluett presented a thoughtful tribute to the late Tony Conrad in the form of a short recording of sustained mixed voices and electronic tones. These were woven together in cycles so that at times there was a noticeable distortion while at other points in the cycle the sounds were more coherently consonant. The contrast and spiritual feel of this made for a fitting memorial.

An extended improvisation followed, involving a total of six musicians all performing with electronic devices. The floor of the wulf was covered with patch cables, power cords, amplifiers, speakers, sequencers, and even a turntable with a vinyl record. The opening was a rhythmic, percussive sound that increased in tempo and included an occasional banging noise – like hearing some construction equipment working nearby. This was joined by aggressive electronic sounds and static so that the piece began to faintly resemble a rap performance. The record spinning on the turntable was tapped by the performer to slow or stop the rotation, giving a halting character to its output and this contributed a distinctly urban street flavor to the overall sound.. The electronic pitches climbed higher, became more animated and gained in volume so that at one point it felt as if the listener was inside an old shortwave radio. The electronics sounds continued to increase in their intensity, almost to the threshold of pain. The spinning turntable provided a visual focus, inviting the listener to process the sounds as music, and this added to the sense of ensemble despite the wide variety of pitches and exotic electronic timbres filling the room. At length the powerful sounds moderated, the lower tones dropping out and the persistent, higher pitches gradually fading away. This improvisation was a vivid example of what can be created on the spot with unconventional sounds and the common vision of independent artists.

Upcoming performances at the wulf will feature the music of Michael Winter on April 15 and Scott Cazan on April 30.

Update on the wulf: The building that has housed the wulf for some 8 years has been sold and the wulf expects to relocate in July or August. No new location has been announced and the search continues.

Friction Quartet, presented by People Inside Electronics in Pasadena

The Neighborhood Church in Pasadena was the venue for the latest People Inside Electronics concert titled Music for String Quartet and Electronics, featuring the San Francisco-based Friction Quartet. Six pieces of new music were performed, including one world premiere.

Friction Quartet performing at People Inside Electronics' March concert

Friction Quartet performing at People Inside Electronics’ March


Universe Explosion (2014) by Adam Cuthbert was first, undertaking the ambitious task of presenting a musical biography of the universe from its beginning to the present. This opens with a rapid, repeating figure in the high register of the violin that is soon joined by the other strings in a frenetic, yet rhythmically coherent, outpouring of notes. The electronics joined in, adding to the bustling, cosmic feel. The playing by the Friction Quartet was precise and accurate, producing a strong, satisfying groove that suggested the music of Steve Reich. The tempo gradually slows as the piece progresses and smooth passages appear that contrasted nicely with an active, syncopated counterpoint. Still later, as the tempo again slows, a strong melody emerges containing some lovely harmonies. The sweeping arc of the rhythm and tempo changes convincingly portray the vast scale of the subject. As the piece concludes, the texture decomposes into several slow, wayward fragments that quietly fade at the finish. Universe Explosion is a remarkable work, ably performed by the Friction Quartet, perfectly integrated with the electronics and fully exploiting a combined sonic palette that convincingly captures its monumental subject matter.

Harp and Altar (2009) by Missy Mazzoli followed, and the title is taken from a poem by Hart Crane about the Brooklyn Bridge. This begins with a warm, affectionate cello line that is soon joined by the other strings, becoming busier and suggesting the crossing patterns of the cables of the bridge as seen from a distance. The tutti passages soon turn forceful and assertive, alluding to the strength and massive presence looming over the Brooklyn and Manhattan waterfronts. About midway through, a recorded voice is heard singing lines and fragments from the poem, underscoring the heartfelt sincerity of music. The skillful orchestration here was carefully observed by the playing, allowing space for the recorded vocals to be heard clearly. After a dynamic and dramatic climax in the strings, the piece concludes with smooth vocal tones that fade to a finish. Harp and Altar is a genuine and unpretentious valentine to the iconic New York landmark, carefully crafted and pleasingly performed.

Unmanned (2013) by Ian Dicke was next and for this piece the acoustic sounds of Friction Quartet were reprocessed through a computer and sent to speakers on the stage. There were some software adjustments needed for this, giving Mr. Dicke a chance to remark that subject for Unmanned was the use of military drones and that his major influence for this was, tellingly, the 8th String Quartet of Dmitri Shostakovich. The opening of Unmanned is a forcefully strident tutti passage, with a pounding rhythm in the electronics and a palpable sense of tension in the strings. This shifts quickly to a series of slow, poignant phrases that evoke a quiet melancholy. As the piece progresses, feelings of uncertainty and anxiety creep back in, gradually building the tension. The ensemble through this stretch was excellent, slowly building the energy level and creating a sense of menacingly purposeful motion. About two thirds of the way through the slower, solemn feeling returned, but with a stronger undercurrent of sadness. As this continued, the string players left the stage one by one, while the electronics gradually raised in pitch and volume, arriving at a sense of profound disquiet and dread. The sounds, coming only from the speakers now, became more mechanical and increasingly disorganized, like a machine tearing itself apart – until a sudden silence marked the finish. Unmanned is a powerful musical experience with a troubling message about the use of deadly force by remote control and the Friction Quartet brought this challenging vision to a masterful realization.

The world premiere of Hagiography (2015) by Isaac Schankler followed the intermission. Hagiography is a form of historical biography, usually of a monarch or Christian saint, where the less attractive aspects of the subject are glossed over in favor of pleasant stories that highlight good works and accomplishments. In this piece, the Friction Quartet was accompanied by electronics, and this supplied the hagiographic element. Hagiography opened with a complex, swirling ebb and flow of sound that surged like a restless tide. There was a choppy, rhythmic feel that was busy, but always engaging to the ear. As the piece progressed, stretches of dissonance would creep in, never alienating, but clearly noticeable – only to be replaced by more consonant passages reinforced by the electronics.

The texture and pace were consistent throughout, like a fast-flowing stream full of rapid gestures. Hagiography was true to its form – at times there was a roughness and tension in strong tutti passages, but these were invariably superseded by some really lovely harmonies and soft colors. The blend of acoustic instruments and electronics was seamless and well-balanced, perfectly fitted to the intentions of this piece. Although fast-moving and often complex in character, this is a well-structured and skillfully crafted piece with all the details precisely under control. Hagiography offers hope that the good we do can outlive our failings.

Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites (2010) was next, an arrangement of the music of Skrillex by Friction cellist Doug Machiz. This began with an active, busy feel that bounced pleasantly along until a sharply dissonant chord suddenly changes the entire direction and feel from ‘nice sprite’ to ‘scary monster’. After a few bars of moderately frightful music, the nice sprite regained control and a lovely melody emerged against artful counterpoint. As the piece proceeds, the music passes back and forth between scary and nice, although scary never approaches the truly frightening.. At several points, while in monster mode, the stomping of the players feet in unison added a clever accent to the proceedings. There is an exotic, almost Asian feel to this that portrays what could be the good and the evil characters of some ancient folk tale. Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites is an accessible and engaging work that achieves a charming intensity when realized through the unique capabilities of this quartet.

The concert concluded with another Doug Machiz arrangement, this time Where Are Ü Now (2015) by Jack Ü and Justin Bieber. This has a formal, almost courtly sensibility at times, but also includes a strong beat and other identifiable pop influences. Just a few minutes in length, but with some nicely complex passages and strong harmonies, Where Are Ü Now has an upbeat optimism and familiar feel that makes this piece a favorite when the Friction Quartet plays before younger audiences.

This concert of string quartet music combined with electronics was well-balanced – the electronics never dominated by raw power or sheer volume – and the equal partnership with the strings made the combination all the more effective.

The next People Inside Electronics concert is at 8:00 PM April 2, 2016 at the Neighborhood Church and will feature the Southland Ensemble with a live performance of Rain Forest IV by David Tudor as well as the world premiere of a new composition by Carolyn Chen.
Photos by Adam Borecki

Review: Euler Quartet at Art Share

On Sunday, January 31, 2016, the Euler Quartet performed five string pieces at Art Share LA in a concert entitled Pixels. This was the inaugural concert for the Euler Quartet and a full crowd turned out on a blustery winter evening to hear contemporary music from five different Los Angeles area composers.

The Euler Quartet at ArtShare

The Euler Quartet at ArtShare

Toccata (for amplified string quartet) by David Aguila was first. This began with two successive high, thin pitches in the violins, sustained and differing just slightly in pitch. The cello joined in with a low, foundational tone and the amplified viola then entered with a continuous middle pitch that completed some beautiful harmonies. The viola began to ascend and a thin haze of distortion emerged from the interaction of the various upper partials. There was a mostly relaxed feel to this, even as the viola pitch ascended toward a siren-like howl the cello continued with a steady, calming presence in the lower registers. The viola climbed still higher, its amplification dominating the texture with a screeching that invoked a distinct sense of anxiety. The violins pulled back to reveal the viola now at its squealing apex, issuing varying and tenuous melodies that hovered indistinctly in the air; the pitches at times were so high that it sounded like the whistling of the wind. The ensemble and pitch quality throughout, especially by violist Benjamin Bartelt, was remarkably precise and controlled. Toccata is an intense study of the relationships and interaction of pitches at the extremes of string instrument intonation.

Scenes from my Parents’ Cocktail Party by Max Mueller followed. This piece is based on the childhood recollections of the composer sneaking downstairs during a party hosted by his parents in their suburban home. Mueller is an accomplished film composer and this piece has the breezy nostalgia of a vintage sitcom sound track. Mango Salsa, a strong, up-tempo tutti section that begins the piece, nicely invokes the hurried preparations of an imminent house party. The busy passages and tight ensemble were perfectly matched in this stylish and jazzy opening. The Two People Flirting, section II, has a slower, more elegant feel and features some lush harmonies. There is a more formal and stately pace to this – the party has started and the guests have arrived. Candles on the Porch, section III, slows further and adds a touch of solemnity, perhaps the sharing of some sad news among friends. The Bickering Couple, the final section, returns to the fast pace of the opening with rapid, spiky runs in the violin that capture the inevitable result of long-held grudges combined with too much alcohol. Scenes from my Parents’ Cocktail Party is a well crafted and accessible musical portrait of a vivid childhood memory.

64 Colors, by Sara Cubarsi, was next and this work was inspired by a collection of 64 three-note harmonies commonly used by 20th century string players such as Pablo Casals, Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin. According to the program notes: “…this piece selects those which contain at least one just interval (in extended just intonation) within each trichord… These 64 chords are then inverted twice as the structural frame of the piece, consisting of three chorales.” The opening chords contained some lovely harmony; soft, tentative and quiet with a spare, solemn feel. As the piece progressed, new harmonic colors emerged while the pace and texture was very much in keeping with the chorale tradition. Some of the passages felt perhaps a bit remote, others strong and dramatic while at other times a darker color prevailed, adding a bit of sadness. The playing was well balanced and the pitches tightly controlled so that the harmonies never felt alien or unsettled. 64 Colors is an ambitious – and ultimately successful – exploration of the possibilities of harmonic expression that incorporate unorthodox intervals without slighting historically informed sensibilities.

Luminosity studies (for scordatura string quartet) by Haosi Howard Chen followed and misty, the first of three movements, began with high trills in the violins accompanied by slower and sustained tones in the viola and cello. This was brimming with energy, an exciting sound with active attacks in each phrase that increased in intensity right up to the finish. The second movement, bleak, opened with high, airy sounds in the violins followed by a suddenly powerful tutti chord. The feeling here was perhaps more tentative and included a bit of drama and tension. The final movement, effaced, was a series of active tutti passages with a flood of notes, the feeling was reminiscent of looking at a stormy sea filled with choppy swells. The players navigated these difficult passages with care and an admirably tight ensemble. As Chen writes in the program notes, ‘…this work is an exploration of textural nuance through the different contextualization of similar pitch and timbre materials.” Luminosity studies is an artfully conceived and challenging piece, skillfully performed by the Euler Quartet.

The final piece on the program was Take the Forest, For Example… by Edward Park. This began with a series of precise pizzicato chords, full of motion and vitality. There is a somewhat more conventional feel to this work, with some really lovely harmonies emerging as the piece progressed. The playing was polished and disciplined with good rhythmic movement. A lovely violin solo emerged, soaring gracefully over the busyness of the texture, followed by a dramatic viola passage as the tempo slowed somewhat. A cello solo added a dark solemnity to the coloring and a nicely played tutti chord that was repeated added effectively to a sense of sadness. The playing at this point was expressively beautiful, and with a crescendo the pace returned to the bright activity of the opening to conclude the work. Take the Forest, For Example… is full of varied sentiments and emotions, each artfully revealed and elegantly played.

The Euler Quartet put on a polished concert, thoughtfully programmed and performed with skill and poise. They will be a solid addition to the new music landscape in Los Angeles.

Review: Cold Blue Music at Soundwaves in Santa Monica

On January 20, 2016, the Santa Monica Public Library kicked off a new concert series, presenting innovative contemporary music in their Martin Luther King auditorium on the third Wednesday of each month. Featured in this first concert were artists of the Los Angeles-based Cold Blue Music record label in an evening of piano music. Composers Daniel Lentz, Jim Fox and Michael Jon Fink were on hand to introduce and play their works and pianist Aron Kallay was the featured performer.

Aron Kallay performing at the inaugural Soundwaves concert in Santa Monica

Aron Kallay performing at the inaugural Soundwaves concert in Santa Monica

Two Preludes for Piano, by Michael Jon Fink was first, played by the composer. The first prelude, Image, was built around quiet passages of single notes and simple chords. This is plainly stated music with a straightforward declarative style, but the fine, nuanced touch by Michael Jon Fink added a dimension of mystery and elegance to the otherwise simple materials. The second prelude, Wordless, similarly began with a series of soft single notes, but now in repeated phrases with slight variations. This prelude evoked a more introspective feel, enhanced by the occasional solemn chord. The playing towards the end was more forthright – but never loud – and this made for a nice contrast with the opening as the piece slowly faded away. Two Preludes for Piano is spare and restrained, but masterfully shaped to facilitate a strong emotional encounter.

Five Pieces for Piano followed, also by Michael Jon Fink and again performed by the composer. This began with another soft line of notes ending in a gentle chord, again eliciting a thoughtful and reflective feel. The second movement added a little anxiety by way of some slight dissonance while movement 3 incorporated simply stated chords that delivered an uncomplicated sense of grandeur. A repeating line with a counter melody was very effective towards the end of this section. The final two movements provided a bit of tension and mystery but were free of any heavy drama. A series of deep notes moving up the scale resulted in some lovely sustained tones that seemed to hover in the still air. The conclusion of the last movement invoked a more solitary feeling, as if looking at a far horizon from an empty beach.

Five Pieces for Piano is a jewel of a piece where each phrase is crafted with a quiet emotion that affirms the power of its understated simplicity.

Composer Daniel Lentz next offered a few remarks on the writing of his 51 Nocturnes, a piece that was created by improvisation, followed by writing up the notation. All 51 of the nocturnes fit into something like 18 minutes, as played by Aron Kallay. The program notes describe this piece as follows: “As with much of Lentz’s music, it is somewhat kaleidoscopic, restless, and given to changing directions without warning.”

The opening chords set the tone for the piece – warm and welcoming. Like the music of Michael Jon Fink this piece is the essence refined simplicity, but each of the nocturnes are, by turns, accessible and inviting, slightly agitated and anxious, mildly intense or even dramatic – but always returning to a settled and comfortable optimism. The many nuances and colors of the nocturnes were scrupulously observed by the sensitive playing of Aron Kallay. At the finish the light arpeggios and warm chords rekindled the warm mood of the opening and it was as if you were watching your life pass by for a minute, pleased and holding no regrets.  51 Nocturnes is settled, secure music, full of good hopes and wishes without turning saccharine.

The final three works of the program were by Peter Garland, Michael Byron and Jim Fox, as performed by Jim Fox. Nostalgia of the Southern Cross by Garland was first and opened with a series of gentle, solemn notes followed by a wistful chord. This music is quietly thoughtful and perhaps somewhat reminiscent of the Lentz piece in its sensibility. Repetition followed and each repeating phrase seemed to draw out a bit more color. As She Sleeps by Michael Byron followed directly and although a subdued lullaby, had a brightly optimistic feel, as if you had just finished your morning coffee and had the whole day was in front of you. The last chord hung deliciously in the air and slowly evaporated into silence.

The final piece heard was smoke, hornblende, clay by Jim Fox and this took less than a minute to complete. A slow two-note trill, followed by a bright arpeggio and some quiet chords completed this sunny and marvelously concise work.

This initial Soundwaves concert by the Santa Monica Public Library was an important step for bringing live new music to the west side. The artists of Cold Blue Music lifted up our West Coast minimalism to its rightful stature while bringing it home to its native ground.

Recordings by the composers featured in this concert are available from Cold Blue Music.

Cold Blue Music will again host a concert on February 16, 2018 at Monk Space in Koreatown.

Further Soundwaves concerts can be heard on the third Wednesday of each month at the Santa Monica Public Library.