Happy Valley Band’s debut album, ORGANVM PERCEPTVS, is described as a virtuosic decomposition and reconstruction of the Great American Songbook. Think of it as American Classics + The 21st Century. In this album, you will hear a microtonal version of “You Make Me Feel,” a distorted funk version of “Like a Virgin,” and a crunchy, grungy, middle-school band-esque take on “Jungle Boogie” that I am convinced is an actual recording of my high school’s pep band at a snowy football game when every brass instrument detuned after five minutes out of their cases. This album is fresh, deceptive, and insanely fun to listen to.
ORGANVM’s raison d’être is to encourage the listeners to examine biases and expectations. For example, we all know “Ring of Fire.” Listening to “Ring of Fire” that’s been put through a learning algorithm is a different experience. This is not just covering or reimagining music. This is hearing music as machines hear and interpret music. The artistic license is not so much an artist’s personal flair as it is their personal algorithm choice and process.
Love it or hate it, this is the age of algorithmic music and computers creating art from intelligent programs. I’ve heard some crazy things come from algorithms, some of which I loved. It often boils down to what the composer wants the algorithm to accomplish, lest ye worry about a lack of human musicians in our future. David Kant, the head composer and director of the Happy Valley Band, says in liner notes, “We should use machines to hear differently, not to reinforce our expectations – because whose expectations are they anyway?” Don’t hate the process, hate the preconceived notions and preferences. Or something like that.
David Kant also confronts the notion of intellectual property in the perspective of deconstruction and manipulation. If anything can be extracted, sampled, reworked, and replicated, then is the result The Thing-Changed, or A Different-Thing? By rooting itself in familiar territory and turning these songs on their heads, ORGANVM gives us a glimpse through the looking glass.
The Happy Valley Band is in LA on April 29th at Human Resources. You can check out more on ORGANVM PERCEPTVS here at Indexical’s website, and the sale options via bandcamp (digital download album or 12″ vinyl plus booklet) are here.
On April 8, 2017 the Pasadena Conservatory of Music was host to Richard Valitutto along with gnarwhallaby, Arpeture Duo and a subset of wild Up – all in a concert from wild Up’s WORK series, which focuses on single members of the group. Several new pieces and arrangements by Valitutto were heard, as well as reference works by Messiaen, Feldman and Wolfe. Soprano Justine Aronson made a special appearance and the elegant Barrett Hall was filled almost to capacity on a quiet Saturday evening.
The program opened with Papier Mâché, an original piano work by Valitutto. This began with a slow, mysterious feel and just a hint of tension in the chords that increased as the piece progressed. The density and complexity slowly built up, adding to a sense of uncertainty, just as the dynamic crested and fell back, fading at the finish. Papier Mâché has a sophisticated sheen and a solid, well-crafted construction that made for a fine opening to the concert.
Polichromia, by Zygmunt Krauze, followed, and this was performed by gnarwhallaby, the Los Angeles-based new music group who have made a mission of performing works by Polish avant-garde composers active in the mid-20th century. Polichromia begins with sustained tones in the cello, muted trombone and clarinet while the piano counters with rapid one and two note figures separated by silence. The highly chromatic tones in the instruments make for some intriguing harmonies and the sharper piano licks offered a fine contrast. After a few minutes this sequence finishes and there is an extended silence by all. This process restarts twice more, with the tones in the instruments becoming more active in each new sequence. Polichromia creates an environment filled with many varied tone colors, vividly portrayed by gnarwhallaby.
Next was an arrangement by Valitutto of two piano works: From the Cradle to Abysses by the Romanian-French composer Horațiu Rădulescu and Hungarian Passacaglia by György Ligeti. As Valitutto explained, these pieces felt like piano reductions of some larger instrumental work and the purpose of his arrangement was to fill out the parts that seemed to be embedded in the original scores. Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby was the result, and this was played continuously as a single piece of music. The brass, woodwind and string components present in the gnarwhallaby ensemble was ideal for this sort of exploration.
Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby began with solitary piano notes followed by a sharp sforzando from the trombone and quietly sustained tones in the cello and clarinet. Something like a melody materialized from the piano and cello while the trombone continued to emit loud sforzandos at various intervals. The dynamics of the piano chords increased rapidly and soon joined the trombone in making unsettling statements as the cello and clarinet continued with their smoothly understated response. The contrasts here were very effective – the more so because of the difference in instrumentation.
A soft cello solo appeared and seemed to tiptoe around the dramatic piano crashes. This melody was soon passed around to the clarinet and trombone. The piano calmed down to a series of steady two-note chords as the clarinet took up the melody in a higher register. Eventually all three instruments joined in together and some lovely harmonies emerged. The passages in the instruments gradually increased to a rapid tempo just as the piece concluded.
Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby is an inspired expansion of the works of two 20th century masters, and confirmed Valitutto’s sharp instincts for orchestration. This arrangement creates a seamless connection between the two source pieces and the vivid colors brought out by the expanded instrumentation were matched by the coordination and precision of gnarwhallably’s playing.
Shadow (2013) by Rebecca Saunders followed. This is a solo piano piece that explores the sympathetic vibrations of the piano strings that occur after a loud chord is played. An acoustic ‘shadow’ is heard, and with the sustain pedal depressed, the soft tones are allowed to ring out and decay in the subsequent silence. Accordingly, Valitutto struck a series of crashes, tone clusters and sharp chords – often with maximum force – so that the resulting acoustic shadow was clearly heard, even up in the top row of Barrett Hall. These effects were amazingly varied – from lightly hovering and insubstantial to menacingly ominous to warm and welcoming. After a few minutes of listening you begin to ignore the initial impulse and focus instead on the quiet shadows that follow. The process is something like hearing a loud crash of thunder and then listening to the rolling echo as it dissipates into the distance.
The playing became more complex, loud crashes alternating with softer ones, multiplying the contrasting character of the various shadows. The interactions between the shadow tones themselves, although very understated, were also intriguing to the ear. Shadow is an instructive piece that points to the importance of listening for nuance, even when confronted by repeated dynamic outbursts. Valitutto’s sense of timing and the application of energy was perfect, allowing this piece to unfold with all of its subtlety intact.
Another solo piano piece was next, The Black Wheatear, by Oliver Messiaen, from Catalogue d’oiseaux (1958). This began with strong, crashing chords reminiscent of a booming surf; the breeding grounds of the black wheatear include the rocky sea cliffs of the Iberian peninsula. A series of short and rapid runs in the upper registers portray the brief but rich warble of the species. These skittering phrases regularly recur, nicely suggesting the chattering of birds wheeling high above a coastal meadow. The quick and spiky passages were accurately played by Valitutto, fully realizing Messiaen’s unconventional vision.
Voice, Violin and Piano by Morton Feldman followed, and for this Valitutto was joined by Adrianne Pope on violin and – naturally – soprano Justine Aronson. All the familiar Feldman virtues were present – the soft, airy voice of Ms. Aronson hovering lightly over a quiet violin and gentle piano chords. Each sound seemed independent of the others, but the sequences often produced memorable moments despite the spare texture. The intonation, especially in the voice, was impressive as there are almost no landmarks for pitch; even so, there was no hesitation or tentativeness in the many entrances. Voice, Violin and Piano is counted as a miniature in the Feldman canon, but this performance contained everything that makes his music so distinctive.
Valitutto’s Another Spring was next, based on poetry by Denise Leverton and with violist Linnea Powell joining the other players on stage. The opening piano chords of this were bright and sunny while the strings played very high, thin pitches that brought to mind wisps of wind. With the entrance of the soprano voice, Another Spring gained its focus and produced some lovely passages; the strong vocal part giving Ms. Aronson some room to stretch after the restrained Feldman piece. The seemingly disparate piano chords, airy strings and lovely legato vocal parts came together in a fine balance that nicely captured the optimism of a radiant spring day.
In his final remarks Richard Valitutto explained that the composers of his generation have spent their artistic lives working in the shadow of 9/11, and this burden has only increased since the November election. Accordingly, the last piece selected for this program was Compassion (2001), by Julia Wolfe. This begins softly, with an ominous slow trill that steadily builds tension, followed by a series of strong chords that become progressively more chaotic. The roiling chords roll in like a booming surf, freighted with powerful emotions. The rumbling continues to build in intensity, especially in the lower registers, until there is an explosive silence – and the roar slowly dies away. After a short silence, a new trill is heard, now filled with a quiet sorrow. Compassion is destined to be a landmark of our era and was played to perfection by Valitutto, whose efforts were received with extended applause.
The impeccable playing by all the performers made Work an engaging evening of contemporary music that ranged from forceful and complex to the soft and subtle. This concert was a good benchmark reading of Valitutto’s varied musical influences as well as pointing to his continued artistic growth.
People Inside Electronics (abbreviated PIE) performs and promotes electroacoustic music in LA. Often, concerts go beyond music and present interdisciplinary multimedia collaborations with dancers, actors, scientists, and so on. PIE focuses on the artists, and electronic synthesizers and modulators are the media. The more time passes, the more I appreciate the name of the series. Today, we live in a world where music can be created entirely by programs and algorithms, without people at all. Furthermore, an increasing portion of the population has electronics inside them, from pacemakers to RFID implants (yes, really). To turn the lens from the machines’ ability to the people’s, and what they can make the machines do, is something to behold.
Beginning the concert on a fantastic note was The Deep State by Isaac Schankler (2017), performed by Scott Worthington on bass and Isaac Schankler on electronics. Right from the start, I could hear Pauline Oliveros’s influence and inspiration on the piece. She is one of my favorite pioneers in electronic music, and I know she is an influence to Schankler as well. Her pieces change slowly, like delicately bending metal into a sculpture. Like Schankler, she often provokes contemplation.
Schankler writes in the program note, “This piece is ‘about’ both the necessity and seeming impossibility of this kind of contemplation in our…current situation.” It is not difficult to interpret what he was getting at by ‘current situation.’ The ambiguity of the phrase also allows the listener to turn to any other situation, perhaps one more personal and probably less dismal. Regardless of any narrative one applies to the piece, Schankler’s genius composition, performed by my favorite bassist in southern California, is sure to stimulate a deep state of contemplation and peace in anyone who hears it.
Next on the program, pianist Aron Kallay and percussionist Yuri Inoo performed Elliptic by Caroline Louise Miller (2012). Elliptic paints the landscape of a “particularly beautiful dream” Miller had about “our pre-apocalyptic, neoliberal world.” (Compared to Schankler’s The Deep State, we can infer that the apocalypse has occurred sometime between 2012 and 2017.) Miller’s program notes describe an enchanting ellipsoid planet with a golden moon, orbiting a pink star. Monoliths appear on the water and break the spell.
The monoliths were the harbingers of change. The Earth appears on the horizon and destroys the reverie with an onslaught of media noise. In the music, Kallay’s otherworldly electronic piano depicts the beautiful planet, while Inoo’s bombastic snare and gong invoke the Earth’s cacophony. The Earth vanishes, and the music freezes for a second…and then quietly resumes, as if tip-toeing through the wreckage. The third movement, “Exodus,” sounds like flying into the unknown. It is different than the beginning, but there is a similar sense of being, of existing. I would recommend listening to this piece on its own once, then with the program notes, and then a third time on its own again. Close your eyes if you wish to visualize the alien landscape, just don’t forget to open your ears to the sonic landscape Miller crafts.
After intermission, PIE introduced BitPanic, a computer music collective based in LA. In a computer music collective, performers improvise on networked composition systems on laptops. Mark Trayle cofounded The Hub, the godfather of computer music collectives, dating back to 1986. BitPanic took on Trayle’s semi-aleatoric piece Pins and Splits (2004). In this piece, the background sound is fixed, and the foreground allows improvisation. The players affect each other’s timing, like a music game of duck-duck-goose. The result of the game is a constant transformation from chaos to order and back again. The program note says the title comes from an email thread with Trayle’s Hub-mates. To me, this is delightfully meta. Like an email thread, in Pins and Splits each participant takes turns at the lead, asking questions and resolving conflicts.
After Trayle’s piece, BitPanic concluded the concert with a totally improvised set. The quartet set loose on keyboards, knobs, and violins. Each player seemed to exist in their own little bubble. Sometimes they coincided with another player, and sometimes seemed like polar opposites. One performer played the violin normally, albeit hooked up with wires to the laptops for sound processing. Another performer laid his violin on the table and treated it no differently than the laptop. The other two stared stoically at their screens, clicking and typing and twiddling away. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before. That’s the beauty of electroacoustic music. The limit is your imagination, and my thoughts and experiences were certainly not the same as the members of BitPanic. New music, in the hands of PIE and BitPanic, will continue to surprise and delight.
Choral Arts Initiative’s debut album, out today, features the works of LA-composer Dale Trumbore; the bulk of it is dedicated to the composer’s secular requiem, How to Go On. I was lucky enough to be at the premiere performance of this work, and was deeply moved by its wisdom, quiet strength, and feeling. As such, I was excited to spend more time with it. In its entirety, the album tackles the universal questions of mortality and the challenges of life’s journey – no easy undertaking, but one that Trumbore takes on with elegance and grace (and, importantly, without making things too heavy). Choral Arts Initiative, a non-profit choral organization under the direction of Brandon Elliott, successfully convey its powerful messages. Their talented performance achieves that delicate balance of strength and fragility.
Contemporary poet Barbara Crooker asks a simple question: “How can we go on / Knowing the end of the story?” This question is the germinating seed of the eight-movement requiem, as Trumbore seeks to find an answer – or, perhaps, to ask more questions (can we ever really find an answer?). Movement 1, How, is set to the text of this question. It features rising clusters, increasing in dissonance and culminating in a sublime stacked harmony, which leaves the listener with a sense of reverence for the unknown. The altos and sopranos continue this sentiment in the next movement, However Difficult, (set to text by Laura Foley). This is juxtaposed by the tenors and basses, who ground us with the message that however difficult life may be, it is still yours, and there is solace to be found in this simple truth. Movement 3 (To See It) feels like a warm blanket, its soft lines unfolding delicately over a quiet, soothing drone and holding the listener in close. CAI delivers this text (again by Foley) with patience, warmth, and sincerity.
Movement 4 (Relinquishment) is where the pacing begins to quicken. The growth and decay in dynamics, orchestration, shifting tempo, and harmony reflect a larger metaphor for the cyclical nature of life and death – learning “how to give it up again and again.” The following movement is similar in theme, but where Relinquishment calmly beckons, Requiescat is more direct in its urgency. It represents a larger gamut of emotions – from the peace of spring rain to the fury of earth and fire – and makes us confront the concept of mortality head-on. More questions lead us to the final movement, a calm acceptance of our ultimate fate, that culminates in a musical meditation to allow us the space to reflect.
The remaining pieces on the album are some of Trumbore’s earlier works, which further showcase her ability as a choral composer (and pianist, in the case of In the Middle). Embedded in these pieces are moral tales of some of life’s many challenges, from our need to connect with others to the feeling after a storm has passed. Combined with How to Go On, these works tell a complete story of life and death, acceptance and defeat, and growth and decay. They remind us that life is about the journey, and that questions are often more important than answers.
.On Saturday, March 18, People Inside Electronics present the computer music collective Bitpanic at Boston Court, as well as pieces by Isaac Schankler and Caroline Louise Miller. While prepping for the concert, Bitpanic member Scott Cazan had a minute to answer a few questions.
I’ve seen Bitpanic’s name floating around for a while now and unfortunately haven’t had the chance to catch a show yet. Could you describe a bit about what you do?
Sure! Bitpanic is a computer music collective based in Los Angeles that explores networked compositional systems, experimental sound practices, and improvisation. The group follows the computer music lineage pioneered by groups like The Hub (who have been doing this sort of things since the 70’s). In fact, the current members are all former students and colleagues of one of the co-founders of The Hub, the late Mark Trayle and includes Casey Anderson, me, Clay Chaplin, David Paha, and Stephanie Smith. We perform new works for networked electronics as well as repertoire and improvised music.
As a networked computer ensemble, I’m sure you have some thoughts on the challenges of live performance in electronic music. How do you ensure your performances are engaging?
Well certainly there has been a lot of talk in the past about electronic performers and their stage presence but I think, luckily, we are moving past the idea that someone on stage with a laptop is not engaging (in any case there are five of us on laptops!). It has become pretty common to do so and I would only say that perhaps laptop performance has a really nice focusing effect for the ears (although we do have many more LEDs than your typical instrumental player). Certainly I hope that we can create a space for listening and that the music, itself, is central to do what we do and engaging on its own terms. Particularly in a network piece like the Trayle piece we’ll play this Saturday, “Pins and Splits,” where there is a palpable sense of urgency as we find ourselves reacting in real-time to prompts thrown out by other members of the ensemble in real-time.
As to improvisation, or even the simpler “playing together on multiple computers,” I have two questions I’d love your thoughts on. The first is how you think the traditional materials of music making figure in what you do, if they do at all. The second is more technical – are you using a live coding environment? Just syncing your clocks and on your own setups beyond that?
Well, it depends on which tradition one might be speaking of. We draw from a number of musical traditions. Electronic music has had a particularly fascinating tradition (roughly since the 40s) of highlighting timbre and gesture as a prime musical parameter and I think we, as individuals, each approach our own sounds with a careful attention to timbral detail.
Our predecessors, The Hub, certainly found a lot of inspiration in David Tudor and Cage and their ways of working with emergence (there is a really wonderful article by Tim Perkis on this subject called “Complexity and Emergence in the Experimental Music Tradition” that you can find on his website). In a lot of ways what Tudor experimented with was to move the compositional idea from a fixed score into a system/circuit. In other words, the circuit itself becomes the score and network music takes that to an ensemble setting. Of course, you see a lot of that type of thinking present in earlier and later works of Pauline Oliveros, Christian Wolff, John Cage, and many others as well. Bitpanic certainly carries on from that tradition of creating systems in which people are able to interact in very specific ways over a network. It is actually a pretty rich musical tradition of experimental music, from Tudor, The Hub, the cybernetics of Bebe and Louis Barron, and even all the way back to early electronic telemusic experiments such as Thadeus Cahill’s Telharmonium (1895) among others. And that is not even touching on the long history of improvised music that is worth an entirely separate discussion of its own.
How does the concert this weekend stand out, to you, from other performances you’ve done?
Every concert is different given the nature of pieces. Its really wonderful that we can be assured of that as the scores themselves, while specific in their interactions, allow new things to always emerge in the course of performing it. Every concert we do is preceded by reworking our own setups and finding new ways to explore the works so I’m really looking forward to see how this will evolve come Saturday. The last performance of “Pins and Splits” occurred at REDCAT so I also think it will be interesting to hear it in the more intimate setting of Boston Court.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Big thanks to People Inside Electronics for including us on the program. I’m also very much looking forward to hearing a new Isaac Schankler/Scott Worthington piece and a Caroline Louise Miller piece performed by Aron Kallay and Yuri Inoo. It should be a pretty diverse concert!
Tickets are available at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pe.c/10123260.
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.
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.
Now Hear, UC Santa Barbara’s resident ensemble, will be performing Mirrors on February 17, 7:30 PM, at Lotte Lehman Concert Hall at UCSB. The program features a diverse range of composers, but all of the works relate to the same overarching theme of symmetry and reflection. It includes Michael Beil‘s Karaoke Rebranng!, Edo Frenkel‘s &, &, &, &… for solo piano, Marc Evans‘ Counterflow, and three world premieres – Joshua Carro‘s [[[a nation defiled]]], Dan VanHassel‘s Invective, and a new arrangement of Guillaume de Machaut’s Ma fin est mon commencement. I interviewed Anthony Paul Garcia, the ensemble’s percussionist, about the concert. Here is Anthony:
Mirrors is a program about symmetry and reflection. Can you talk a bit more about the ways the pieces work together to achieve this goal?
The show was designed with the Mirrors concept in mind. We commissioned two new works by composers we love and have worked with before – Dan VanHassel and Josh Carro – and asked them to interpret the theme as they pleased. Both of them approached the idea differently: Josh’s piece is a more abstracted interpretation with some impressive live video echoing the sound of the work, while Dan’s – an unrelenting, percussive power house – is divided in to two parts, the second being a retrograde of the first so it is a literal mirror of itself. So, we present the two halves of Dan’s pieces on opposite sides of the program. In addition to commissioning those new works, we knew that we had to put Michael Beil’s Karaoke Rebranng!, a piece we have performed before, in the dead center of the show. It’s an amazing piece that incorporates a life-sized projection of live video of the performers mirrored on the wall next to the ensemble. Basically, the video records a chunk of us playing some material and plays it back and our recorded physical actions “play” (or sing, if you want to take the Karaoke metaphor) the fixed media backtrack which is often comprised of reversed sounds of previous sections. There is also a big surprise at the end. It is something you have to see to believe. Bookending the show with Machaut’s Ma fin est mon commencement or, “My end is my beginning,” seemed obvious because of the title and the construction – all of the melodic material is recycled, retrograded, inverted, and self referential – but we wanted to make it our own, so it got the Now Hear treatment – live electronics and processed speech. With those big structural pieces in mind, we programmed some other pieces within the show that vibed well with the rest.
The program includes works by diverse composers, including world premieres by Dan VanHassel and Josh Carro, as well as the newly arranged piece by 14th century composer Guillaume de Machaut. How does the music on this program compare to the music you typically perform?
For the most part this is a pretty “on brand” show for us. Most, if not all of our programs, contain works we commissioned or that were written specifically for us. Not only because our instrumentation is a little unique but also because that was a core purpose of forming the group – making brand new music and giving composers an opportunity to do so. Additionally, we are always trying to incorporate technology as a kind of 6th member of the group. That technology can be fixed media backtracks, live processing, video, and anything else. This show is no exception in that realm, however.
The Machaut arrangement is something we have never done before. We all liked the idea of having this piece on the program since it felt like such a great fit but we knew a straight arrangement of the three voice chanson for our instrumentation would not only not make sense in the context of the show, but the words are so important that they needed to be incorporated. So we all got together and kind of jammed on the piece and came up with something that is our own and features the text as samples.
We are also excited to have Marc Evans play a short piano solo in the show. We have had Marc play with us so many times and his playing is so great that we jumped at the chance to feature him in a solo role. I don’t think we have ever had a purely acoustic solo in a show ever! So, that’s new and I think it will be a wonderful addition to the program.
How do you hope the audience will react to the music?
As with most of our shows, we hope that we offer both music that is accessible and some that is challenging and new. I really can’t imagine anyone not grooving to Dan’s choppy beats (my girlfriend dances to it when she hears me practicing at home) or feeling jazzy with Marc Evans’ trio for bass, clarinet, and vibes, but I also think people will be surprised and blown away by the unexpected sounds of Josh’s piece and the crazy arrangement of the Machaut. We always want people to come to our shows with open ears, and this kind of balance helps encourage that. We are very proud to be able to perform works with such a variety of approaches and aesthetics.
What’s next on Now Hear’s schedule?
We have already begun our next project! We are collaborating with composers from UC Irvine to create some wonderful new music. There may or may not be some water droplets that show up to perform with us, but I guess you’ll have to come to the show at UCI on April 19th to find out.
More information on Now Hear Ensemble’s February 17 concert is up at NowHearEnsemble.com.
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.
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.
The Laptop Ensemble from Cal State Long Beach is coming to Tuesdays at Monk Space on January 24 to perform Voyage, a reconceptualization of German lied by Schubert, Schumann, Strauss, and Brahms. In 2013 the group teamed up with a Korean theatre troupe led by Byunkoo Ahn and premiered the concept at the Spoleto Open Festival dei due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy. Nearly four years later, we are reimagining the concept once again in Germany with the same troupe. This time, we’re joined by local German singers and have some new works to premiere. The composers all come directly from the ensemble, something the CSULB Laptop Ensemble does almost all of the time.
Which leads to an important question: what is “Laptop Ensemble”?
The origin story begins with composition professors Martin Herman and Carolyn Bremer, who founded the ensemble in 2010. Composition graduate students Zach Lovitch, Andy Zacharias, Seth Shafer, and Brad Van Wick were already putting on elaborate concerts at the time. These concerts featured various analog and modular synthesizers, as well as electroacoustic music with live performance from laptops. After seeing these student-run concerts, Martin was so impressed by the group that they joined forces to create the Laptop Ensemble. From then on, the performers have always been alumni or current CSULB students. It’s always been a small group, typically around 5 or 6 members (with an all-time high of 13). In performance, however, the group is typically a quartet. The group is self-sufficient, writing all of their music mostly in Max-MSP. Their unique speaker arrays, following the PLOrk model, were built by founding member Zach Lovitch, Martin Brenner, and Martin Herman.
It was only a couple of years after formation that the group went to Spoleto to perform Voyage. This time around there are lots of new faces in the group, but most of the pieces are revised versions of works from the 2013 festival.
About the Program
The opener, Silbertöne by Seth Shafer, is nothing short of attention grabbing. It’s complete with punchy, arpeggiated synths and deep bass tones – a stark contrast to the violin samples that weave in and out throughout. Shafer is also the composer of Upon Return to Earth, a beautiful work that comes later in the program. Feldeinsamkeit, reimagined by the ensemble’s director Martin Herman, is both meditative and glitchy, with captivating sounds that trickle in and out. Long-time member Glen Gray wrote the next piece, Dein Angesicht. It is an abstraction of art song, with piano and voice filtered through an array of effects and electronic drone joining the duet later on. Assistant director of the ensemble Matthew Lourtie is the composer of Nacht und Trauma. His version is a complete turn from Schubert’s original Nacht und Träume (Night and Dreams). Sinken by Justin Kennedy is a stunning underwater sound world, with melodic whale calls and resonant percussion contributing to the landscape.
Three of the works are newly composed for the 2017 tour. George Wheeler, a lecturer at CSULB and stand-in member of the ensemble, wrote a new version of Ave Maria. It features arpeggiated harmonies over a bed of musique concrète and long melodic tones. These overlapping melodies, along with the arpeggiation, gradually become more dissonant and distorted before returning to consonance. Next is my own version of Schubert’s Du bist die Ruh. It begins with a new art song using the same text, which is filtered to sound as though it could be coming from off-stage. This leads to a duet of filtered singing bowls and a resonant, melodic bass, and a processed version of the same art song overlaid. The concert closes with a new piece by Oscar Santos-Carrillo, Abendroth. It involves four layered patches, which are largely influenced by hip-hop and industrial sounds. In fact, two of the patches are essentially filtered kick drums with effects. The piece begins with a sample of the original art song by Schubert, a nod to the sampling pervasive in hip-hop music, which then morphs into a larger cluster of sound.
For more information about the program, click here.