Saturday night at REDCAT treated a full house to Play Like A Girl, an evening of works by American composer Eve Beglarian. CalArts students and faculty explored music from her ever-evolving Book of Days. Hailed by the Los Angeles Times as “a grand and gradually manifesting work in progress,” this latest installation did not disappoint.
Examples of “playing like a girl” abound in stories of justice, strength, regret, and courage. Highlights included Vera Weber’s Fireside rendition of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s poetry with block chords that cycled through harmonies from Crawford’s fifth prelude. The choice to have the pianist recite the text instead of a vocalist lent the work an intimacy it would otherwise be without; as the pianist played with her back to the audience, illuminated yet still not fully visible, you felt the singularity of her efforts and hung on to every word, unsure when the next iteration would begin. The program’s opener I will not be sad in this world for flute and pre-recorded voice based on the Armenian song Ashkharumes Akh Chim Kashil left audience members spellbound by CalArts faculty member Rachel Rudich on the shakuhachi, whose melodies rose and fell with a mystery and grace only matched by the timelessness felt by Beglarian’s setting of the traditional text.
The titular pieces delivered on their taunt with energy and style. Performed by a quartet of pianists (Vera Weber, Yaryn Choi, Vicki Ray, and Sarah Voshall), the variations on Kaval Sviri from the Bulgarian Women’s Chorus can be played in any combination for either toy pianos, grand pianos, or both. This evening presented two variations with mixtures of grand piano, toy pianos, celeste, melodica, and harmonium. The propulsive lines floated and spun, glittering with the metallic bite of the celeste and the elongated vibrations of the harmonium.
The program closed with The bus driver didn’t change his mind from 2002. Beglarian’s Bang on a Can commission constructed a world taut and rhythmic led by pianist Vicki Ray, with references to Mahler’s second symphony and Berio’s Sinfonia. Laced with pre-recorded material constructed from pipa samples, the band intoned bluesy ululations from the clarinets by Phil O’Connor and Tal Katz on cello. Vocalist Meltem Ege was strategically reserved for the end, cutting through the texture with a “keep going” mantra inspired by poetry from the Bangladeshi troublemaker Taslima Nasrin and closing the event with the perfect message.
Music stands and couches ornamented the floor of the spacious Los Angeles Theater Center on Saturday night. The breaking-down of a formal performance space allowed the audience to mill around, taking in the scattered spoiler of instruments warming up while gazing on the building’s marble boundaries. A bar nestled into the far corner helped encourage curious roaming behind a vague suggestion of stage, and the casually awkward pre-concert discussion conveyed a sense of heartfelt “we’re glad you’re here”-ness. Taken together, the whole atmosphere had a communal spirit—one that begins with Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra‘s self-branding as a conductor-less chamber orchestra and extends into their significant educational and artistic outreach.
Many things felt right. Among them, the location and late start time gave a feeling of entering a musical petting zoo buried on South Spring street. Both before and after the concert I noticed dozens of passer-byes stopping, poking their head in, trying to understand what was happening behind the shiny glass doors. The fact that inside was a musical gathering of palpable informality was made even cooler by the idea one might have walked right by it were their head buried in their phone. But our heads were up, for the moment, and our reward was a peek under the lid of this strange buried treasure in the neon-blue depths of downtown.
In fact, many of the details of the evening were so thoughtful: The audio mix in the first half, the layout of the ensemble and equipment, the programs (save a few typos) and promotional materials were all very good. The Sandbox Percussion Quartet were excellent, both in Viet Cuong’s Re(new)al with Kaleidoscope, and as solo quartet on Aart Strootman’s Requiem Apoidea. That first half, in particular, had a sense of musical impetus and vision stemming from the quartet—simultaneously mindful and theatrical. Besides their ecological commonalities, Strootman’s work was reflective and ritualistic where Cuong’s employed a linear, at times post-minimalist, language. In both cases, the music, performance, and environment were integrated to feel fresh, young, decidedly anti-stuffy.
The second half, for me, demonstrated one of the challenges inherent to any an ensemble sourcing artistic vision from the whole ensemble rather than a single musical director: incoherence. It was clear that there were talented musicians on stage who had spent time rehearsing together, but for both Alyssa Weinberg’s Title TBD and Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1, the music would have benefited from a unifying interpretation, a unifying set of ears to balance, a unifying set of emotions to feel and respond to the room. The vision and physicality conveyed by Sandbox Percussion on the first half led the ensemble into realizing musical ideas with a sense of coherence and inevitability. That sense was noticeably missing from these final two works—works which were, more than most, reliant on that very nuance. How to develop clarity and detail as a group is tricky for any ensemble, especially one that emphasizes such a democratic artistic process. The takeaway from my first experience with Kaleidoscope? It will not be my last: it was entertaining and unpretentious and fresh. Add to that their philosophy and ambitious programming for this season, I can say for sure I’ll be there rooting for them.
On Friday night, Walt Disney Concert Hall hosted the U.S. Premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra: en forme de pas de trois. Under the baton of Susanna Mälkki, the Los Angeles Philharmonic skillfully navigated the work’s technical and conceptual challenges in a thoughtful marriage with Tero Saarinen’s choreography.
True to its title, Zimmermann’s concerto utilizes the parings and structure suggested by the pas de trois: five movements—starting with an introduction and concluding with a coda—present the three dancers in various combination. The significance of “three” was prevalent throughout, not only in the cleanly-partitioned triangular spaces of the dancers, but in the shape of the props, the lighting design, the staging, and the layout of the orchestra. Originally scheduled to be performed by Robert deMaine, the cello solo was divided among three cellists: Ben Hong, Eric Byers, and Timothy Loo, whose own choreography cycling through the solo stand furthered an sense of tripartite structure. With the added element of dance, the concerto took the form of a three-way conversation between solo, ensemble and body.
The music reflected the range of textures one might expect more from a ballet than from a mid-century modernist work. Mälkki offered an intelligent interpretation, painting an eerie modernist landscapes propelled by energetic outbursts and percussive cello episodes. The balance of soloists and orchestra maintained a certain intimacy which traded easily with the dancers; only in the penultimate march did the music’s intensity momentarily seize full attention. The later sections added to the weight of tutti passages with a sense of familiarity: where the early movements showcased Zimmermann’s sensitivity to pace and silence, the march and blues movements looked to outside musical influences for thematic material. Committed and virtuosic performances by each of the soloists pulled attention in still one more direction, instilling the work with a frenetic energy that, along with the staging and dance, kept the audience enraptured from beginning to end.
In addition to the lights and stage design, the premiere benefitted from its pairing with the other works on the program. Webern’s orchestration of Bach’s Ricercar spun out Bach’s fugal entanglements with a delicate, admiring glance over the shoulder, while Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony peeked into the future by combining romantic gesture with complex timbral swaths. Together, they framed the Zimmerman in a way that highlighted its internal stylistic contrasts and diversity as a key feature, making it feel exploratory while also cohesive. For the LA Phil, this concert was not only musically successful, but another example of how their attention to programming and staging makes each performance stand out.
I want to talk to you about mud.
Not the sole-adorning, crossing-the-grass mud. I’m talking about thick, jailbroken swamp; the kind of mud that takes a full hand of fleshy, calloused fingers to scrape from your cheek. That was the raw, slopping sound world of Øyvind Torvund’s “MudJam”—a rib-vibrating reminder that beneath the glyphs and tuplets and extramusical suggestion, music is just sound; simple, physical, shoved around by skin, wood, and metal. At the most recent installment of the Monday Evening Concert series, each work demonstrated a different way this tug-of-air might communicate meaning; some works focused inward at the sonic material itself while others gazed outward towards their reflection in the world. The program impressed on me how sound, like dirt and water, can be molded to convey simplicity of form while its inner makeup remains impenetrably intricate—sound soil patted into a castle whose form can be either admired or subjected to the impending tide. What the hell am I talking about? I have no idea. But I left Monday’s program, New Voices IV: Untitled School, with a renewed sense of wonder at the aural sludge we work with as composers and musicians.
This isn’t to imply that the evening’s entertainment was messy or monochromatic or tracked itself halfway across my apartment before I thought better of it and took off my boots. In fact, the program was exquisitely designed and brilliantly performed—ambitious and hip and carefully paced. New York-based piano and percussion quartet, Yarn/Wire, were not just instrumentally virtuosic, but musically virtuosic. Consisting of Laura Barger and Ning Yi on pianos with Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg on percussion, Yarn/Wire’s dozen years together has yielded a savviness for new music which bathed each work with a sense of proud ownership. In Thomas Meadowcroft’s Walkman Antiquarian, their playful ensemble work intertwined with nostalgic electronics in child-like exploration, punctuated by moments of breathtaking, reflective stillness. As Paul Griffith puts in his program notes, “Memory is coming to us from several angles and at different removes, in a form that proceeds with the necessity of a ritual.” This reminiscent quality is partially an artifact of the form, but is also illuminated by Meadowcroft’s orchestration. Resonances are disembodied and passed around the ensemble with the saccharine distortions of memory: Vinyl crackles become beads dancing on a speaker cone, melodic episodes reverberate eerily from the harp of the piano. Textures dissolve with a casual inevitability in the way that memories softly, if persistently, return to reality.
The more inward-focused works were Catherine Lamb’s Curvo Totalitas and Johannes Kreidler’s Scanner Studies. Where Meadowcroft’s work attended to sound’s referential (and so, emotional) potential, Lamb’s contribution was one of austere magnification of sound itself. Waves of metallic rumbling respirate slowly, almost imperceptibly, gradually unveiling a world of spectral details and transformations. Yarn/Wire’s performance was patient and deliberate, elegantly unfolding subtle shifts of timbre to stunning, pulsating, effect. Scanner Studies (numbers 1 and 2 were performed) were equally concise in concept: images are sonified in the manner of a simple grahic score before parameters are expanded to the point of absurdity. But beneath the amusing exercises is Kreidler’s always keen eye for musical potential in the mundanely ordinary, and a profound awareness of dramatic, rhetorical and comedic form.
The title work of the program, Torvund’s Untitled School, was a massive, seven-movement audio-visual exploration of scales, chords and textures that closed the evvening. Clever and driving, its later movements traverse imitations of various styles and textures before landing in the chirping soundscape of “Jungles.” This dramatic shift begged the question of how (or where) the work might progress—serene landscapes quivering with life amid dimming lights might well have concluded the piece. But then came the mud.
The final two movements, “MudJam” and “Campfire Tunes,” were set apart in several ways. There were no accompanying images. The stage lights were dimmed. There was no formal separation starting or ending either movement. All of this amplified a sense of arrival: Now, we listen rather than watch. Returning to sound(s) from the world rather than the brain, Yarn/Wire summoned a hell-raised, raucous rumbling, only loosening its grip for the flickering, smokey tranquility of “Campfire Songs.”
If anything fell short in the program’s careful design, it was the occasional awkward trappings of traditional concert format: The space, balance and performers were all on-point, but some pieces needed time for digestion afterwards. Jonathan Hepfer exuded calm, considerate intelligence and I could imagine him and/or members of the ensemble saying a few words about each piece during stage changes. Certainly program notes can provide helpful context, but with new music the context is unclear at best, and usually still in-development—brief discussions might serve (or supplement) this sort of series well. Still, Paul Griffiths’ program notes were beautiful (“scanning geometries in a thundercloud?” Be still my chart…), and the program held my interest throughout. Needless to say, this will be the first of many Monday Evening Concerts for me; I’ve already marked the remainder of this season’s offerings in my calendar.
String quartets have an extensive tradition, not only in their repertoire and performance practice, but also in characteristic sound. Accordingly, mixing electronics with string quartet is tricky because the balance has to be just right: Too much electronics and the strings are felt as accompanying the speakers, too little and the electronics are commenting beneath a string quartet. Indeed composers might want those effects from time to time, but creating them effectively and intentionally is a delicate procedure. On December 16th, People Inside Electronics presented the Eclipse Quartet in a program of electroacoustic works—all from within the last eight years—that addressed various approaches to handling this precarious balance.
Several pieces took the approach of quartet writing supplemented by subtle electronics that became part of the ensemble itself, often felt rather than heard explicitly. Kojiro Umezaki’s (Cycles) what falls must rise benefitted greatly from this atmospheric type of electronics, which consumed the strings and shakuhachi (performed by the composer) in a scored reflection of touching, personal energy. Ian Dicke’s Unmanned wove granular soundscapes into the agile ebbs and flows so natural to string quartets. The ensemble’s deep understanding of contemporary music was especially apparent in the careful unfolding of Dicke’s textures; straying further and further from the acoustic realm, the quartet gradually withdrew musically and physically until repeating harmonies devolved into electronic noise amid an empty stage.
Among this group of works, Tom Flaherty’s Recess best showcased Eclipse Quartet’s precise and invigorating virtuosity: Driving rhythmic hockets and frenzied, fragmented melodies sandwiched a gorgeously slow middle movement. Flaherty’s work can be performed with or without the electronics and so it is not surprising that it employed the most inconspicuous electronics of the program. And the piece was all the better for its electronic restraint; the writing achieved brilliant, contrapuntal balance between foreground and background throughout. The quartet returned the favor by savoring every raucous tutti and playful imitation with both composure and excitement, thrusting the audience into an intermission of wine-drinking fueled by enthusiasm rather than by awkward, idle small talk.
The bookends of the concert were works of more experimental nature, treating the electronics as an independent—even oppositional—feature rather than an integrative one. Especially striking was the opening piece, the world premiere of Zeena Parkins’s Spirit Away the Flesh. A mosaic of romantic, shimmering and agitated moments emerges from a broadly spatialized atmosphere of field recordings and voices. Recorded spoken texts address the creative process of abstract artists Eva Hess, Hilma Af Klint, and Richard Serra; inquisitive and curious creative impulses are voiced in densely-packed aphorisms. The performers cleverly emphasized the music’s own synthetic and exploratory nature, conveying a coherence among Parkins’s many appropriated influences that felt fresh, individual, and hip from beginning to end.
Parkins’s spacious and unforced writing made way for a Mari Kimura’s I-Quadrifoglio, an active and linear four-movement prayer in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. Kimura’s movements (“Faith,” “Love,” “Hope,” and “Luck”) each playfully interacted with the electronics, ranging from subtle synthetic backgrounds in the first movement to hopping echoes, sweeping filters and harmonizing lines in the later movements. An improvisatory style was delineated by a few moments of stunning cohesion: A melodic doubling between first violin and cello, the violin inheriting soaring, ascending sweeps from the electronics, and a teasing callback to the elegant opening harmonies in the final movement.
The program closed with Missy Mazzoli’s haunting ode to the Brooklyn Bridge, Harp and Altar. Electronics also play against the ensemble here, most of all in the moments where Gabriel Kahane’s voice materializes, singing lines from the Hart Crane poem from which the piece takes its title. But the synthesis of the two contradicting sound worlds is seamlessly brokered by Mazzoli’s signature language: Static yet driving, eerie yet loving, simple yet complex. The use of a clicktrack left something to be desired, but the performance by Eclipse Quartet unfurled dramatic waves of suspense and resignation throughout. The result was an emotionally tumultuous conclusion to the concert, but also one that poignantly reaffirmed the fundamental question of the night: When the performers can themselves convey such deep musical meaning, what role can (or should) technology play? Is it accompanist? Performer? Sound effects?
If you looked around the room at Throop Church during the performance, the incredible amount of work People Inside Electronics did to stage this program was readily apparent. The chairs, performance space and speakers were thoughtfully laid out. The space created was intimate but exciting. The people, cables, mixing boards, computers, light stands and video cameras waiting at the ready betrayed the incredible amount of care afforded every detail. And it payed off: The sound was excellent, the electronics seemed flawless, the concert carried an air of comfortable professionalism that put the audience in the right frame of mind for an adventurous program. At musical commencement, the audience witnessed the members of the Eclipse Quartet do their part, leaping around the fingerboard and pulling the bow heavily through the strings. But like so many modern concerts, that other, binary, member of the ensemble was invisible save a coy, glowing apple hovering above a table of audio equipment. We didn’t see her sweat. We didn’t see her frantically reach to execute the code, or run out of breath as she swept filters across delay lines. She was the buffering, multi-channel elephant in the room, but we didn’t get to see her balance tenuously on the ball.
I enjoyed the program immensely, but it seems to me that this is the missing aspect we must reconcile in order for electroacoustic music performance to move forward. The music is already there: The writing and use of electronic sounds was intricate and balanced and clever, and the Eclipse Quartet showcased impressive chops and huge ears. But the audience needs to experience the exertion, the risk, the capacity to fail of all essential elements of a performance—we need to see the jungle of cables, to doubt them, in order to really appreciate when they work. Of course, sometimes a composer wants to hide technical facets of a performance from the audience, but the impact experiencing a performance has on an audience’s perception of the music must be rightfully acknowledged and incorporated into compositional practice. I left “Electric Eclipse” encouraged that electronics have matured beyond mere exploration in contemporary music–they were meaningful, emotional and powerful musical-rhetorical devices. But I also left confident that the performance practice of electroacoustic music is now the pressing limitation to its further development. It is time to abandon the stoic, screen-lit face as an acceptable prime form of electronic music and explore ways for technology to critically enhance the performance of music, rather than just the sound of it.
Rachel Beetz and Jennifer Bewerse, also known as Autoduplicity, curated the wasteLAnd concert at Art Share L.A. on Friday, December 1, 2017. The duo presented six pieces by women composers, ranging from an electronic work by Pauline Oliveros to a premiere by Celeste Oram.
Bye Bye Butterfly by Pauline Oliveros was first. The lights faded to total darkness and the high whine of an electronic oscillator came from speakers hanging from the ceiling. The sound was reminiscent of an old heterodyne radio tuning in a far-away station. The pitches varied a bit, creating a somewhat alien feel. The oscillator was soon joined by a chorus of faint voices, and this served to add a human element to the mix of sounds. The piece proceeded with the voices overlapping the electronic tones so that it was hard to tell where one left off and the other began. The context shifted back and forth between alien and human, while the sounds themselves mixed together, blurring the distinction. Bye Bye Butterfly is classic Oliveros, inviting the listener to experience familiar emotions through unexpected combinations of sounds.
DiGiT #2, by Mayke Nas followed. Ms. Beetz and Ms. Bewerse both seated themselves at a piano and the piece began in dramatic fashion with a great forearm crash to the keyboard. The massive sound rang into the hall, slowly dissipating into silence. After a few seconds, a second powerful crash hit in a somewhat higher register. This continued, alternating between the ominously low and the anxiously high portions of the keyboard. The length of the intervening silences decreased as the crashes shortened, and this built up a definite feeling of tension. At about the midway point, the two performers began clapping hands just before they struck the keyboard. This happened briefly at first, but as the piece progressed the clapping sequences became longer and more intricate. By the finish, the clapping predominated, creating a playful feel that dispelled the previously menacing atmosphere. DiGiT #2 artfully illustrates how even the most sinister musical foreshadowing can be overcome by a simple expression of optimism.
2.5 Nightmares, for Jessie, by Natacha Diels, was next. Ms. Bewerse, with her cello, occupied a low riser in the center of the stage. Ms. Beetz and Dustin Donahue took their places on either side, sitting at tables with a ukulele, a sand paper block and other assorted percussion. The cello began by playing short, scratchy strokes while the wood blocks were drawn across the sandpaper. Silence followed, and a mallet striking a pie tin combined with bowed ukuleles to create a sequence of wonderfully strange sounds. The players also choreographed their movements and vocalized as the piece proceeded. Weaving together found sounds, cello, ukulele and choreography, 2.5 Nightmares, for Jessie nicely expresses that precise blend of the formal and the surreal that populates our dreams.
a…i…u…e…o…, a video piece by Michiko Saiki, followed. The opening scene simply showed a beautiful young woman alone in a room with red chairs lining an interior corner formed by two white walls. The soundtrack started with some vocal sounds which evolved into singing, often with lovely harmonies. The images portrayed a strong sense of loneliness mixed with a search for identity. There was also an element of the surreal to this – at one point the young woman was shown with several sets of arms, and again with something like sprouts of clover growing out of her skin. The technical effort was of a very high order, and none of the effects seemed contrived or forced. The powerful images and appealing vocals of a…i…u…e…o… made a strong impression on the audience.
The thin air between skins, by Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh, was next. Ms. Beetz and Ms. Bewerse seated themselves back-to-back on the stage. A low trill from the flute began the piece and the cello entered with soft tones, creating an air of quiet mystery. Skittering flute sounds mixed with the cello to create a remote feel, as if hearing a breeze sweeping through a lonely forest. The flute occasionally became more agitated, but The thin air between skins remained consistently understated and sensitively played. A short, overblown blast from the flute ended this peaceful and reserved work.
The premiere of Machut: sanz cuer / Amis, dolens / Dame, par vous (Ballade #17), by Celeste Oram concluded the concert. Autoduplicity, clad completely in black, returned to the stage. The piece began with strong passages from the cello and a stately counterpoint in the alto flute. The feeling was very formal, a bit like early baroque music. The rich tones in the flute and cello made for an elegant combination, especially in the lower registers. Part way through, Ms. Beetz rose from her chair and walked behind a black screen at the rear of the stage. As she did so, an image of her – now dressed in a white top – appeared on the screen. The players traded off, walking back and forth from their music stands, an image of them appearing at the moment they walked behind the screen. At times there were scratchy or breathy sounds heard from the screen, at other times musical sounds, and sometimes silence.
The illusion of seamless, live action was very convincing and all the more remarkable as the images on the screen were prerecorded videos. The music was smoothly continuous and the comings and goings on the stage seemed to connect the players to another dimension. The complex choreography of movement by the players and the split-second timing of the images was remarkable. This flawless premiere of Machut: sanz cuer / Amis, dolens / Dame, par vous is even more impressive given the potential for a technical catastrophe. The skill of Autoduplicity and the ingenuity of the music and video combined for an engaging and entertaining performance.
The next wasteLAnd concert will be on February 10, 2018 at Art ShareLA and will feature new works by Ulrich Krieger and Sarah Belle Reid.
On Thursday night the Calder Quartet brought life to a formidable program of chamber works–new and old–at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Although the performance might have benefited from some amplified sound reinforcement, the energy and precision of the quartet kept audience eyes and ears focused intensely on the intimate assembly of musicians onstage. A well-designed balance of lively minimalism and lush romanticism set the stage for Schubert’s iconic (and massive) Quartet No. 14, Death and the Maiden. The program, however, offered more than stylistic contrast: The three pieces differed markedly in their approach to using musical time to engage the audience.
The classical language of the Schubert breaks the work into digestible chunks, its musical ideas and developments laid out in clear, periodic sections. Like much music of the 19th century, the challenge to the performer(s) lies in conveying passion without obscuring the clarity of form—a delicate balance deeply embedded into the performance practice of string quartets. The rhetorical value of this style takes advantage of human cognition and memory to build and articulate increasingly larger narratives, but as such its effectiveness becomes increasingly intertwined with the listener’s memory and frame of reference. So it was especially mindful to contrast Schubert’s thoughtful, rational bites with the Schoenberg (which lived fully in the heart) and the Cerrone (which was firmly planted in the body).
For Verklärte Nacht, the quartet enlisted the help of violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill and cellist Nicholas Canellakis to round out the sextet. The ensemble succeeded brilliantly at drawing out the suspended, tortured lines to create a sense of timelessness—one more akin to Wagnerian romanticism than the expressionist modernism many associate with Schoenberg. Indeed, the balance and nature of six strings catered to a sense of atmosphere difficult to achieve with quartet alone, and the piece moved easily from complex contrapuntal textures to detailed, swelling blocks of sound. I say this performance lived in the heart because the musicians patiently explored passing themes without spoiling the frustrated trajectory of the work. As a result, a few moments—most of all the gorgeous final twinklings of the piece—provide reflective cadences both sweet and complicated; cadences that reflect the resignation and messiness of emotion rather than the tidy wrappings of rationality.
In stark contrast to both was the night’s opening performance, the world premiere of Christopher Cerrone’s Can’t and Won’t. Evolving from faint tappings to raucous hockets, the piece married suspense-building devices of minimalism with savvy quartet writing. In particular, repetition and patterns allow Cerrone to redirect his audience’s attention to other aspects of the music; musical time unfolds not only through bold metric modulations, but also though subtle evolutions of harmony. Just as crucial, though, is its invitation to admire the dramatic athleticism of performing this music as the Calder Quartet summoned delicate, alternating harmonics with precision, and attacked furious bowings with vigor. Sonically, this physicality manifested in the wood and bow noise inherent to instruments, adding a rawness to the energetic build that prepares the final “tender” movement: The wild, frenetic energy is suddenly withdrawn to make room for soft, staggered re-entrances of the upper strings, swelling and climbing quietly into the stratosphere.
Programming for string quartet in a large space like Walt Disney Concert Hall requires consideration of the inevitable compromises to both the intimacy and the intensity of the performance. Even cornerstone works like the Schubert rely on their framing to succeed, and so opening the night with the charged and pulsing Can’t and Won’t was a smart exposition of the excitement possible in Calder Quartet’s tight virtuosic playing. Further, the added resources and musical breadth of Verklärte Nacht offered a subtle but effective dynamic; as a result each piece on the program felt like the centerpiece in its own way. Perhaps it is fitting for a hall that feels simultaneously modern and classic that each work on a program spanning nearly two hundred year felt essential, but it is also an indication of the immense talent and flexibility of the Calder Quartet.
On November 18th Walt Disney Concert Hall transformed into a showcase of the community, talent and swagger of Los Angeles new music. The second annual Noon to Midnight event was as much an exhibition as a festival: An overlapping schedule of pop-up performances populated the building’s many nestled spaces, encouraging attendees to wander and casually sample the day’s various offerings. The music-making spilled over Gehry’s grand titanium shipwreck onto the sidewalk and plaza, but the main stage served as a central hub for major performances, punctuating the day with moments of communion between curious ears scattering outwards toward the bustling amphitheater, beer garden, and cozy nooks and crannies of the hall.
In truth, this collar-loosening was the first successful performance of the day. Among younger audiences, the glitzy, glass-enclosed posters of Dudamel might seem out of touch with the Phil’s superimposed tagline “our city, our sound” as his immaculate white bow tie and baton are a far cry from the flimsy band posters that litter telephone poles around Echo Park. But something about licking food truck drippings off of your fingers while listening to electric guitars compete with traffic noise really tempers the imposing austerity of the concert hall. And so, from the very onset, Noon to Midnight transformed the space from a venue for witnessing art into a home-base for engaging with it.
And engaging it was. Yuval Sharon and Annie Gosfield’s new performance piece, War of the Worlds was a fitting centerpiece for the event, occupying both the hall and remote sites in a sprawling, tech-savvy production that cleverly balanced national and local relevance (see Nick Norton’s review here). Wild Up performed two separate sets. The first was a showcase of the collaborative works born of the LA Phil’s National Composers Intensive, featuring new pieces by six young composers. As one might expect, the music reflected an excited exploration of the ensemble’s open-mindedness, navigated by some promising compositional voices. The second set utilized the ensemble’s larger forces to premiere several new works that best demonstrated the ensemble’s agile, performative charm—sometimes dance-y, sometimes delicate, sometimes asking “how did I end up waist deep in this swamp” and “are trombone multiphonics the only way out.” But whether shimmering or sloshing, Christopher Rountree and wild Up were always committed, always convincing, and always a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
The smaller ensembles offered a more intimate experience, including a noisy, forward-looking set by gnarwhallaby, installation performances by HOCKET and Southland Ensemble, jazzy moments with the LA Signal Lab, and a tight, driving performance by Jacaranda. Outdoor spaces hosted less traditional instrumentations like RAGE THORMBONES and Los Angeles Electric 8. The performance that perhaps best encapsulated Noon to Midnight as a whole was Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Etoile: red fish blue fish, spread among the serene beer garden atop Disney Hall, animated the crisp evening air and city views with a radically virtuosic performance in which audience members strolled between and around the performers to create a consuming, fluid and completely individual experience of the colossal work. Here the performance and experience of the music were inseparably entangled, defined by the audience’s direct engagement with the production. The same could be said of Chris Kallmyer‘s Soft Structures, almost a festival in itself.
In total, the day included more than twenty separate programs, and it would be impossible to speak to each set individually. But parsing the experience into discrete parts would betray the atmosphere the LA Phil took such care to create in the first place; Noon to Midnight is a monument of local music that generates all the electricity and none of the pomp of the traditional concert. The music, performers, spaces, drinks and food all embodied an LA personality that manifested in every detail. Having spent most of my life in Silicon Valley, what strikes me most since moving to Los Angeles is the physicality of the city: people don’t just philosophize about things, they make them. There is a reverence for the man-made and the hand-made: What the east side lacks in blooming nature it replaces with colorful graffiti, what towering buildings of Hollywood obscure from your view they replace with blinding LEDs and enormous marquis. In a field of new music that can all too easily slip into intellectualism, this combining of upstart and established groups alike was a heartening account of the range of artists getting their hands seriously dirty making art. It is clear that music here is being made not only in pristine halls, but also in aged, mixed-use buildings with shoddy plumbing. And so, rather than hanging the the local art on a white wall, standing back and rubbing its beard to pontificate, Noon to Midnight was instead an invitation to come together, wash hands, and admire the buildup of dirt in the sink. A glorious, silver sink in the middle of downtown.
While that particular fantasy didn’t quite happen, War of the Worlds did manage to blast through my rather high expectations. It is in many ways the most fully realized version of Yuval’s unique brand of opera theatre, a project perhaps more deeply connected to Los Angeles than even Hopscotch. Rather than take the essential Wells/Welles story/broadcast and stage it, the new libretto (by Sharon himself) engages with contemporary LA life, politics, and a lot of sci fi fandom. Its layers of metacommentary on cultural life in 2017 are a joy to unpeel.
Let’s begin with the premise. Audiences were seated both inside the concert hall and at three “siren sites” around LA. The opera began with Sigourney Weaver as a guest celebrity host for an LA Phil concert, which was broadcast to the three sites. For the first performance I was at site one, where a pair of scientists were listening to the broadcast on the radio while doing some experiments, and for the second I was in the hall. Before we go any farther, let’s think about the setup. The Industry’s other productions, as ambitious and wild and creative and postmodern as they are, often run into a fourth wall problem. In Hopscotch, for instance, yes, you were in a car with the singers and actors, but it still felt as if they were performing for a large audience, or for a camera, as if it didn’t matter that you were there.
That’s not exactly a knock on Hopscotch or its performers, but it was definitely odd to be sitting two feet from someone singing their heart out but not actually interacting with you. The fourth wall is a tricky thing, though – break it too obviously and it can completely ruin the narrative, like the remote scene in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Such breaks have to serve the story rather than spice it up. In the cases of Hopscotch, Invisible Cities, and Crescent City, I think Yuval was right in his avoidance of dealing with the fourth wall in the drama, much as the staging might make it seem like the obvious device to manipulate.
That the actual plot of War of the Worlds included a concert broadcast being interrupted, however, finally gave Yuval the legitimate justification to start playing with that fourth wall. It’s normal to have a bunch of celebrities show up and hang out at LA Phil concerts — hell, it’s almost a marketing device — so having Sigourney Weaver show up and participate brought the opera’s narrative into our normal experience as LA Phil concertgoers. It seemed to say “this is actually happening to you,” rather than “watch and listen to this thing we are performing,” and it was convincing.
The choice to cast Weaver as the all-knowing person in a science fiction situation itself is a trope we’re also familiar with. It’s almost a requirement for a self-aware sci fi film these days to give her a cameo or have her show up at the end to explain to the characters what is actually happening. This casting decision further brings War of the Worlds into our world, and isn’t lost on Yuval’s libretto, with the scientists (read: lovable nerds) at site one geeking out over getting to talk to Ellen Ripley. Sitting at site one and listening to an LA Phil broadcast is what both the audience and the scientists are doing, so it makes perfect sense that they would interact. And interact we did, with Professor Pierson and his assistant (perfectly portrayed by actors Hugo Armstrong and Clayton Farris, respectively) bantering with the audience before the concert, and Professor Pierson developing a celebrity crush on Weaver.
When the music and story get rolling, though, the metanarrative helps the opera to get real, and real important. Jorge Luis Borges once pondered,
Why does it disturb us that…the thousand and one nights be [included] in the book of the Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.
I believe that with War of the Worlds, the inverse is true. As the sirens around Los Angeles wake up from their machine slumber to coordinate the martian attack, mayor Eric Garcetti himself walks onstage to tell the audience that – paraphrasing – “these things have been hiding in plain sight for 70 years, and that we’ll fight them to defend our way of life in Los Angeles.” In case it wasn’t clear that this is an opera about America and LA in 2017, when the Mexican shop owner portrayed by hometown opera hero Suzana Guzmán gets asked about the aliens, she immediately launches into a panicked defense of her legal immigrant status. It’s not that we, the audience, can be fictitious, but that the fiction can be fact.
Sometimes with Industry productions it can feel like the music, while important, takes a backseat to the setting. While the narrative structure and libretto are integral to War of the Worlds, in this case it is clearer than ever that they are in support of Annie Gosfield’s score and the performers. Yuval has said that gathering a community for artistic purposes can be a form of sociopolitical action, and the mere premise of this opera is that we’re getting together to listen to a piece of music. That literally happens here, as being at a concert, with a tongue-in-cheek name check to Frank Gehry’s silver building, ends up saving the listeners from the invasion.
Christopher Rountree’s muscular but agile conducting style was a perfect match for Gosfield’s synth-laden orchestral score with occasional dips into popular idioms. Furthering our theme of music-as-community here, one got the feeling that not only did most of the people in the hall actually know Rountree from around town, but that he was having a blast being exactly who he is, even getting to act a little with the sound guy, “Dave,” in a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. At least one other critic wrote that he was hoping for an orchestral suite of movements from the opera; I’ll second that request. And coloratura soprano Hila Plitmann’s portrayal of La Sirena, or the wordless, musique concrète instrumentale of the alarm sirens – broadcast through the actual alarm sirens – was utterly stunning.
Making art together in a diverse community is our hometown’s calling card. The Industry’s past productions have done that splendidly for their audience. With War of the Worlds, the LA Phil and The Industry do it with their audience. To live in LA is to be a part of this story and project.By embracing that, War of the Worlds becomes not only engrossing and entertaining as hell, but a vital piece of opera theatre.
Disclosure: the author of this review is friends with some of the subjects, and sometimes works for The Industry. Rather than pretending this is some piece of unbiased writing in the name of journalistic integrity, I think being actively involved allows for deeper insights while writing. Make of that what you will.
Cellist Ashley Walters released her first solo album, Sweet Anxiety, on Populist Records last month. The music is complex and difficult—sometimes on its surface, sometimes in the hidden technical requirements—but Walters breathes life into each work with her astounding virtuosity. Beyond physical skill, however, Sweet Anxiety showcases her ability to find musical consequence across a range of compositional styles. The result is a stunning album, strengthened by its aesthetic diversity and yet unimaginable without Walters’s distinct talents.
The journey of this album is in the gamut of musical intent: some pieces clutch the wheel with caffeine-trembling hands while others gaze contemplatively out the passenger-seat window. To this end, Nicholas Deyoe’s For Stephanie (on our wedding day) works as an effective exposition for the record, a short juxtaposition of dramatic, lush chords against melodic fragments and sparkling timbral echoes. Walters’ impeccable balance guides the listener’s ears, pulling you in to reveal subtle verticalities before thrusting you back in your seat to bathe you in guttural drones. Deyoe’s writing here reveals a keen sense of energy and diffusion, which Walters embodies with astounding sensitivity. This understanding between Deyoe and Walters is particularly highlighted as the splashing, melodic climax dissolves into a passage of gorgeous tranquility, calmly rippling outwards until subsiding into the stillness.
And then, emerging from quiet tappings, comes the funk. Right as you are wondering if Walters had herself become ocean, the unmistakable percussive episodes, insect-like buzzing, and haunting melodies of Berio’s late Sequenza XIV zap the air with electricity. Along with Deyoe’s works, Sequenza XIV employs a more traditional musical rhetoric, building forward momentum in which listener expectations are resolved, subverted, or re-directed. In both Sequenza XIV and Another Anxiety, Walters sets these moments ablaze with acrobatic changes of technique, tone and dynamic. Furious passages are handled with intimidating virtuosity, but it is Walters’ right hand technique that stands out here. The control of bow pressure and position transforms even the most extended of techniques into musical devices rather than musical effects. This in particular makes the dramatic contrasts inherent to the language of these pieces especially effective and expressive.
On the other hand, quite literally, are Andrew McIntosh’s Another Secular Calvinist Creed and Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s Plainsound-Litany. Both works are patient, disciplined explorations of microtonal material—horizontal in Creed and vertical in Plainsound. The Schweinitz presents intervals of varied intonation and timbre, emerging and receding in succession. A meditative atmosphere is sustained through the gentle ease of Walters’s playing (a true feat given the technical difficulty of the piece), unfolding the material like an exposé of unhurried snapshots with shifting perspectives. Creed instead explores microtonal relationships melodically in the form of a 31-note scale. Ascending and descending, the lines slowly fragment into opposing forms before recombining into a final, climbing iteration. Missing from the sound recording is the theatre of contradiction embedded in McIntosh’s piece: Radically disjunct physicality is required to produce the smooth, conjunct musical material. Still, the inclusion of these two pieces offers a contemplative and unforced contrast to the more propulsive works on the album.
Perhaps most curious is the inclusion of Wadada Leo Smith’s Sweet Bay Magnolia with Berry Clusters. The piece inherits the uninhibited, reckless abandon of an improvisation—one which emphasizes performer intuition and awareness over formal archetypes. The task of communicating a work that is less about the plot than the language itself is a difficult one, but Walters succeeds brilliantly. Under her hands, piece oozes with personality, spinning out a trajectory of ideas and development with convincing and relatable motivation. Surrounded by works that treat time as a means of either thematic propulsion or suspension, Sweet Bay Magnolia stands instead with the Berio in its improvisatory bend, creating the impression that the listener is witnessing the piece’s conception in real time. And so, beyond the merits of the piece itself, Sweet Bay Magnolia helps rounds out the album in way that highlights the variety of stylistic intent included.
Sweet Anxiety is a showcase of musical aptitude, not only for Walters’ skilled performances, but for the interpretations and larger flow of the album. Its incorporation of distinct and diverse compositional approaches is bold and effective, and the commitment to conveying the sound world and personality of each piece makes for exceptionally moving moments. This album is, no doubt, both “sweet” and “anxious”—so much so that you may have to remind yourself there is just a single instrument. But that would be somewhat deceiving, because in truth this is music for much more than solo cello; it is music for Ashley Walters.