.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.
Cipher Duo consists of soprano Justine Aronson and violinist Sarah Goldfeather. This week, they commence their West Coast tour. I was fortunate to see their Wednesday night performance in Geiringer Hall at UC Santa Barbara. They will perform in Pasadena with gnarwhallaby on Thursday, USC on Friday, and then head north to the Bay Area on Sunday. Wherever you are in California, do not miss this concert.
The program starts with something a little familiar. Though I did not know this piece, I am well acquainted with a variety of Kaija Saariaho works. If you haven’t listened to Saariaho, start now. Changing Light (2002) is the is the perfect introduction to Saariaho, and to the Cipher Duo. The text is an English translation from Hebrew and explores the subject of the fragility of uncertain existence. Beginning simply enough, on the line “Light and darkness,” Aronson sings chilling poetry while Goldfeather floats above on harmonics. Like many Saariaho pieces, each part has a purpose and a goal, but their paths are unclear and meandering. The fact that this concert features only 21st-century works confirms, at least to me, that Kaija Saariaho is in line for Debussy’s crown as the essential composer to bridge the century gap.
The duo then takes on another English piece, also a philosophical musing. Rebekah Driscoll was inspired to write January: Brin’s Mesa (2016) when she observed new life emerging from the ashes of a forest fire in Arizona. From page to performance, Aronson and Goldfeather breathe life into the contemplative score. Listen for the small, organic changes – one can almost hear tendrils of plant life growing and emerging.
The middle piece of the program is a crowd-pleaser for the Californians. Even if you missed the event, you know about Hopscotch (2015). Cipher Duo performs Hopscotch Tarot by Veronika Krausas. In the Hopscotch holistic performance, the audience members could only hear two or three fortunes before getting ushered into the next limo. Here, Aronson and Goldfeather perform all twelve short movements, each one a tarot card reading from Fortuna. If you wanted more insight into the plot of Hopscotch, watch Aronson’s expressions, particularly when she smirks. Each fortune has its own character and style, and Aronson captures them all exquisitely.
The fourth piece of the show comes from Goldfeather herself. Come Back (2017) showcases Goldfeather’s experience as a singer/songwriter with an indie band. Though not in a typical verse-chorus form, the rest of the key elements to an indie song are present: simple lyrics, repetitive gestures, and a distinct sonority. For the first half of the piece, Aronson sings five words on five notes. But it isn’t minimalism. Goldfeather overlaps and dovetails the motives within and between the instruments. When a verse finally arrives, it hits the audience like a bucket of water. The first time a minor chord replaces a major chord, a collective chill went down the audience’s spines. I won’t give away what happens at the ending, but I can tell you it was perfect. After so many minutes of intricate looping, layering, and rearranging of motives, Goldfeather pulls off the perfect ending.
Finally, the duo ended on their namesake. Kate Soper’s Cipher (2011) is one of the most breathtaking violin and soprano pieces I have ever heard. The duo told the audience that Cipher explores timbre. As well as exploring musical dynamics and human dynamics, it wends between music, meaning, and language. The violin and the voice become shared objects. Sometimes both performers sing, speak, or finger the violin together. At times, they even swap. Each movement features conflicting voices and temperaments, such as Wittgenstein, Freud, and Guido d’Arezzo. The conjoining line, “People can understand you when you say something,” is frequently obscured. If nothing else has convinced you to see Cipher Duo this weekend, go for this. Cipher will blow your mind.
Close followers of New Classic LA will have seen the interviews that composer Cristina Lord conducted with musicians for Tuesdays at Monk Space, as we reprinted them here and here. We got to talking and realized that she’d be an awesome addition to our team. Here’s her bio:
Cristina Lord is a composer, pianist, and teacher based in the Los Angeles area. While primarily a composer of concert works, she also scores for media, writes and performs for artist collaborations (most frequently dancers), and creates electronic music as a solo artist. She has written for ensembles such as Gnarwhallaby, Friction Quartet, HOCKET, Veda Quartet, and the Southern California Brass Consortium. She holds degrees in composition from Cal State Long Beach (MM) and UC Santa Barbara (BA). As a human, Cristina is a tea enthusiast, amateur vegan baker, and loves admiring other people’s dogs.
While Cristina gets going writing, you can check out some of her music in the mean time at cristinalord.com.
I’m submitting this as my review of the soon-to-be-released recording of The Industry’s Hopscotch opera project, but here’s the thing: No such thing exists. Conceived by The Industry’s Artistic Director, Yuval Sharon, Hopscotch was an opera presented in the fall of 2015 in twenty four cars driving between a number of locations scattered around Los Angeles. At the start of each performance, a few audience members would get into each of the cars along with a group of performers, and would then experience part of the opera en route to the next physical location, where they’d see another scene before being whisked away in another car. To make matters more confounding, the cars travelled along three different routes, meaning that any given audience member could only see part of the whole in any given performance. Only at the very end did all of the routes converge on a central location for the final scene.
Needless to say, this project doesn’t lend itself easily to a traditional recording. Do you present each of the car routes as a unit to approximate the experience of attending? Do you present the scenes in order to give a view of the work impossible for someone who attended it to have seen? How do you balance the inside of a limo against an open-air concrete bank of the Los Angeles River?
Difficult questions, and ones without obvious answers. Fortunately, with current technology, we can sidestep some of them. With the album released as files on a flash drive instead of tracks on a CD, you’re free to open them in any order and explore the world of this opera as you see fit. You can follow each of the car routes separately, play everything in the order of the plot, or even sort things out by individual composer or lyricist. (There were six primary composers for the project and six primary librettists, all working in a range of different styles in their respective fields.) The liner notes — in the form of a wide-ranging interview with Sharon and Josh Raab, the opera’s dramaturg — encourage this kind of self-guided exploration, though elsewhere in the booklet there are some helpful lists of which tracks to listen to to follow which routes.
Unsurprisingly, given the range of artists that contributed to this project, the tracks cover a lot of ground. “Lucha’s Quinceñera Song” (music by David Rosenboom and text by Janine Salinas Schoenberg) is a sweetly plaintive verse-chorus affair, while “Floats the Roving Nebula” (music by Ellen Reid and text by Mandy Kahn) hovers in an ecstatic crystalline stasis. “Jameson and Lucha in the Park” (music by Mark Lowenstein and text by Erin Young) presents a tightly controlled dance number coordinated with spoken dialogue, while other spoken sections feature music improvised by the contemporary performing group Gnarwhallaby. The plot is a surreally altered (but predictably heterosexual) retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and snatches of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 treatment of the same myth rub up against bristlingly contemporary soundscapes. There are as many contrasts as there are tracks on the album.
Such stylistic diversity can make for an uneven listening experience, especially when paired with the differing qualities of the recordings. Some of the tracks are beautifully mastered studio takes, while others are invaluable field recordings from the site-specific scenes around town. Obviously, there’s room enough in the world for both of these approaches to recording, but repeatedly switching back and forth with such short notice can be a little jarring. (So perhaps another fruitful approach to organizing your listening could be to tackle all the field recordings followed by all the studio takes, or vice versa.)
These slight jars, however, feel in keeping with the nature of the project. Hopscotch the opera wasn’t a singular experience as much as it was a collection of possible experiences, and Hopscotch the album follows suit. There’s no one single recording of the work; there’s a collection of possible recordings all dizzyingly contained on a single flash drive. Elsewhere in the liner notes, Sharon describes the piece not as an opera but as a web, a series of interconnected points with many possible paths leading between them, none more inherently valid than any of the others. The more I listen to the album, the more this description feels right. This album isn’t a documentation or presentation of an artistic event that happened and is now over, it’s an invitation to enter into this world and explore it on your own terms, to find your own way through the work’s myriad winding paths, to make the piece yours as only you can. It’s an opera in twenty four cars, and you’re the one behind the wheel.
You can order the “album” at records.theindustryla.org/album/hopscotch.
The Industry is presenting two events on January 20 to celebrate the release. Details are below:
Friday, January 20 (4 pm)
USC, Wallis Annenberg Hall (ANN), Room L105A
3630 Watt Way, Los Angeles
Panelists include composers Veronika Krausas and Marc Lowenstein, Yuval Sharon of The Industry, and arts journalists Mark Swed and Sasha Anawalt (moderator).
Hopscotch in Concert
Friday, January 20 (7:30 pm)
USC, Newman Recital Hall (AHF)
3616 Trousdale Parkway, Los Angeles
This special evening emceed by director Yuval Sharon will be the first live concert of songs from the opera. Six chapters from the work will be performed (one from each of its six composers), including the expansive choral finale by Andrew Norman.
As a fellow Miyazawa flutist, I could hardly contain my excitement about this review. Thrive is Areon Flutes’ third full album release and innova Recordings debut. The flute chamber music ensemble upholds a dogma of revitalizing chamber music for 21st-century audiences. In May 2008, Areon Flutes was awarded the Bronze Medal at the prestigious Fischoff Chamber Music Competition in Notre Dame, Indiana, the first flute chamber music ensemble to do so in thirty-five years. In 2015 they were hailed as one of the most memorable live performers by the San Francisco Examiner. This album Thrive features compositions by Elainie Lillios, Cornelius Boots, and Mike Sempert, and performances by the core trio of Areon Flutes: Jill Heinke, Kassey Plaha, and Sasha Launer.
Lillios’s Summer Sketches, the winner of Areon’s 2014 International Composition Competition, begins with a playful, wandering flute solo. Two more flutes join in and engage in an aural game of hide-and-seek. At times the music describes an action like skipping and diving, and other times seems more onomatopoetic. The two movements, “Skating on Discs of Light” and “Dry Wind,” follow ants running past a picnic, mosquitos buzzing past your ear, spiders creeping toward their prey, and dragonflies dive-bombing the lazy river. Unorthodox tone color, hums, trills, percussive tongue and finger slaps, flutters and growls used on the whole flute family evoke these quintessential insectoid summer sounds. This broad exploration of sounds and soundscape makes sense for an electroacoustic composer flexing her flute trio muscles. Lillios gives a voice to every insect, spider, and bug. Summer Sketches evokes a 21st-century variation of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux combined with a modernized Das Jahr (Hensel), compacted into two movements.
Cornelius Boots’s Chthonic Flute Suite, commissioned by Areon Flutes, takes the listener on a journey through the underworld. The first movement, “Root of Ether,” begins with a calm, solo meditation. About a minute in, the player exhales poignantly; upon this ‘last breath,’ the tempo picks up and the listener approaches the allegorical rabbit hole. The next movement, “Enantiodromia,” kicks off with a loud chord, and then the three flutes move in and out of sync with each other, taking turns with the melody and turning counterpoint on its head. This middle movement of Chthonic Flute Suite suggests diving down the rabbit hole and finding the underworld. ‘Enantiodromia’ is the concept that any force inevitably produces its opposite, usually towards equilibrium. This is quite possibly my favorite piece on the album for the sheer amount of fun I had listening to the twists and turns. As the name suggests, the piece moves in cycles of turning, reversing, and toppling – on an unrelated note, I just found the perfect word to describe politics. The third movement of Boots’s journey, “Void of Day” opens with a wan panpipe solo. The anemic yet cheerful tune gives way as the trio volleys melodies between each other, forming a collage of scenes from the underworld. At the midpoint, the music suddenly becomes somber and churchlike. Boots changes the mood on a dime. A great gravity overcomes the prior mystique. This does not last until the end, for as the name suggests, the void is coming! After nearly a minute of frantic chordal chuffing, the flutes arpeggiate up and…nothing. Boots saw the opportunity and took it – the void swallows the piece before it can conclude.
The last piece on this album is Uncanny Valley by Mike Sempert, commissioned by Areon Flutes. This gentle three-part counterpoint in the beginning evokes relaxing video games like Journey, Flower, and Thomas Was Alone. I choose this comparison conscientiously. The video games listed are all simple stories concerning man versus machine and are renowned for their unique (and pleasant) soundtracks. When the synthesizer enters, the piece takes on its own soul. Stumbling rhythms, harmonious electronic dance sounds and waltz-like melodies in the flutes offer a glimpse into a halting conversation between artificial intelligence and organic beings. The two halves of this multi-sided duet (organic flutes vs artificial synthesizers seek and fail to find common musical ground. The synthesizers eventually cut out, and the three flutes come together more united than before. This is a track I put on repeat and imagine a different story for each playthrough. It feels like a science fiction story put into music, and I have the pleasure of deciphering it.
Thrive easily earns a spot in my top five albums of 2016. Every track is easy to listen to, and the more you listen, the more levels of appreciation you gain. There is very little showing off, which frankly is something of a relief. So many compositions and performances are downright acrobatic nowadays. Finding a composition without virtuosity for flashy virtuosity’s sake is becoming a rare treasure. It is said that a true master makes something difficult seem easy; Areon Flutes embodies this concept and makes modern compositions for chamber ensembles accessible and pleasurable to all.
Thrive is available from Innova Music at innova.mu/albums/areon-flutes/thrive, and from iTunes, Amazon, and other music retailers.