On Saturday, June 10, 2017 the Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Gallery on fashionable North La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles hosted a Music & Conversations concert featuring the Lyris Quartet and vocalist Moira Smiley. An overflow crowd packed the venue, sampling Casa Torelli fine wines and previewing works of the upcoming “Artists of Mexico” exhibition. Contemporary music by Moira Smiley and Jane Brockman was on the concert program as well as String Quartet No. 15 by Franz Schubert.
Selections from the Mikrokosmos, by Béla Bartók – as arranged by Moira Smiley – began the concert, with Mikrokosmos #148 – 1st Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm up first. This opened with a strong repeating cello line accompanied by clapping. The violin took up the repeating figure and Ms. Smiley entered with an active vocalese that had a bit of an edge to it, much like scat singing. The hard consonants and clipped delivery was reminiscent of an Eastern European language and proved to be very expressive. At times Ms. Smiley’s voice soared eloquently over the tutti strings, weaving in and out of the busy texture. This is a nicely rhythmic piece with a good vocal presence. Mikrokosmos #75 – Summer Has Come followed and for this Ms. Smiley supplied the lyrics in English. This began with slow, sustained tones in the upper strings followed by counterpoint in the cello. The vocal melody entered with “Summer has come” and was smoothly sung as the strings portrayed a pastoral, organic feel matching the sense of the lyrics. A nice contrast to the opening piece.
Mikrokosmos #74 – ‘The Hat’ was next and opened with a series of pizzicato figures in the upper strings that gave this a fast start, matched by lively vocals. Ms. Smiley had a small accordion and this added to the exotic feel. A violin duo – ‘Bagpipes’ – commenced and this filled the performance space with rapid fiddling that sounded more like twice as many players. The insistent vocals added to the energy as a second violin duo – ‘Mamaros’ – emerged without pause. Mikrokosmos #75 proved to be a rousing portrait of what might have been a Saturday night in any rural Hungarian village square.
Silverlake followed, an original work by Moira Smiley adapted from a text by Charles Wesley that, according to her website, describes “ the wakefulness that comes in the early AM – as the mind wrestles with the questions of fate & divinity.” A repeating pizzicato figure in the cello opens Silverlake, with slower tones in the upper strings. Ms. Smiley’s soprano voice entered above with a beautiful legato melody.
This was completely unlike the previous pieces with their vocalese and sharp edges. The singing here was clear and pleasingly fluid, recalling Judy Collins. Towards the finish a bit of anxiety crept in, but the strings took up smooth tutti passages that created some lovely harmonies with the voice. With the strings and voice perfectly complimenting each other, Silverlake is an exquisitely charming work.
Time Cycles, by Jane Brockman was next, a song cycle in three parts for string quartet and voice with lyrics by Lois Becker. Hurricane Housekeeping was first, and this began with a rapidly repeating tutti figure in the strings, soon taken up by the voice, producing a palpable tempus fugit feel. Quick pizzicato passages added to the sense of breathlessness as Ms. Smiley sang “Time is on the wing…” Later, cyclic rhythms in the strings brought briefly to mind certain sections of Different Trains by Steve Reich. “We are swept along…” fittingly, was heard just before the finish. To anyone who has tried to prepare for company, Hurricane Housekeeping is the perfect musical metaphor.
The Mayfly Rag followed, and this was a more playful and somewhat less harried piece. “Carpe Diem” was heard in the vocals at the start and the brisk pizzicato in the strings gave Mayfly Rag a buoyant, yet purposeful feel. The mayfly, of course, has a very short lifespan and you might expect that this would make for a darkly fatalistic outlook. This music, however, is appealingly upbeat and confident, happily trying to cram all the experiences of life into a single joyous moment. The tag line at the ending was also brightly amusing: “A mayfly lives for just a day… Don’t snooze!”
The Turning of the Seasons completed the three-movement cycle and this, of course, took in a much longer view than The Mayfly Rag. The Turning of the Seasons has a more serious and introspective tone, especially for autumn. An echo of Vivaldi could be heard in the winter section with its flurry of sharp passages. The balance of strings and voice was excellent and the precise playing of the Lyris quartet throughout made for a well-crafted performance. At the finish Ms. Smiley’s expressive voice again soared over the texture, dramatically proclaiming “The cycle does not end…” Time Cycles is an engaging and stimulating look at the way we experience time from three different perspectives. The applause that followed was sincere and enthusiastic.
The balance of the evening was given over to the sprawling String Quartet No. 15 in G Major by Franz Schubert. The Lyris Quartet was on familiar historical footing here, with the phrasing, balance and dynamics all carefully calibrated. The acoustics of the Rutberg Gallery came through once again – even the delicate pianissimo passages were clearly heard in the back row. The 1st movement, Allegro molto moderato, unfolded with all its variety of forcefulness and subtlety intact. The active sections filled the space with sound, as if two string quartets were present. The smooth Andante un poco moto ambled along at just the right tempo, revealing some lovely harmonies and the occasional bit of drama. The lively Scherzo: Allegro vivace was precisely played and the dynamic contrasts all strictly observed. The catchy melody in the recapitulation was particularly well done. The final Allegro assai, although taken at a brisk tempo, was light and nimble and the syncopated sections artfully negotiated. Intense at times, but always under control, the 40+ minutes of non-stop Schubert in the warm gallery was quite a workout for the Lyris Quartet, whose efforts were repaid with a standing ovation.
The success of Music and Conversations concerts comes from just the right mix of an interesting venue, a sociable atmosphere, and good music. Credit for this must go to Jane Brockman and Jack Rutberg who have worked hard to prepare these concert events. The attendance is invariably standing-room only, and the thoughtful programming is always accessible and enlightening, combining exciting new music with familiar classics.
Sitting in Bing Theater in the heart of Los Angeles, I found myself experiencing a unique insight into Hungarian culture at The Vision of Moholy-Nagy and Contemporary Music. The performance was timed to coincide with the Moholy-Nagy exhibition Future Present at LACMA. In all fairness, there was a dose of German culture mixed in too, since the ideals of the Bauhaus school (of which the Hungarian painter and photographer Moholy-Nagy was a prominent figure) were a resonating theme throughout the evening. The performers came from all over: Hungary, yes, but also Los Angeles and New York. True to the Bauhaus movement, different approaches to music, technology, and art were combined, necessitating the concert to be a multi-disciplinary event – even the walk to the theater involved passing some pretty spectacular sculptures and architecture.
The concert began with the fearless Gőz–Kurtág–Lukács Trio, who performed various selections of electro-acoustic works on cimbalom, trombone/bass trumpet/seashells, and synthesizer/computer, with mesmerizing visualizations by Szabolcs Kerestes. Partly through-composed and partly improvised, these works were a collective microcosm of the Hungarian classical electronic music scene, a creatively vital genre during the repressive decades of state socialism. Their performance transported me to a meditative, almost spiritual state, yet somehow simultaneously rooted me with technical, detailed focus. I was entranced by the immaculate, reverberant textures, ranging from pointillist and chaotic to celestial and broadly gestural. The accompanying visualizations featured rapidly moving lines, shapes, and colors, and were directly responsive to live sound. The exception to this rule was György Ligeti’s graphic score to Artikulation, which was comically incredible to watch on a big screen with surround sound.
Lukas Ligeti, who recently moved to Southern California for a new teaching position at UCI, was the featured composer after intermission. The art of the Bauhaus movement, and of Moholy-Nagy, seems to have a marked influence on Ligeti’s music, which showed impressive breadth, experimentation, and proportional symmetry. He presented three works with varying instrumentation and compositional approaches. The first, Language: PROUN: music (2016), had its west coast premiere by soprano Ariadne Grief and wild Up members Matthew Barbier (trombone), Matthew Cook (vibraphone), Derek Stein (cello), and Andrew Tholl (violin). The piece itself is a reaction to Moholy-Nagy’s exhibition Future Present, and follows the Bauhaus tradition in its unconventional exploration of balance and symmetry (however, this is done on Ligeti’s own terms). While in many cases text is made to fit the cadences of music, Ligeti turns the usual plot on its head by allowing the natural rhythm of freely-flowing speech to entirely dictate the music. Continuing on with the natural progression of this idea, the instrumentalists follow the cadences led by the soprano, which Ariadne Grief accomplished with radiant, playful sincerity.
Next was Thinking Songs (2015), a fiercely virtuosic five-movement work for solo marimba. Few marimbists could have pulled it off like Ji Hye Jung – she not only played it perfectly, but also somehow made it look easy (in fact, she danced through the hardest parts). The technical expertise required for movements such as Four-Part Invention and Dance was matched by a musical expressivity that was stunning to behold. The composition itself took us an incredible musical journey: exploiting timbral possibilities with different mallets in Dance, slow-moving lines in Lamento, technical impossibilities manifested into reality in Four-Part Invention, playful exploration of prepared marimba in Scherzo, and quasi-minimalist shifting accents in Two-Part Invention.
Closing the show were three works for Notebook, an ensemble founded by Ligeti to explore the intersection between composition and improvisation. These pieces featured not one but two electric guitars (Eyal Maoz and Tom McNalley), trombone (Rick Parker), violin (Amma Savery), saxophone (Daniel Blake), synthesizer (Ricardo Gallo), and the composer on drums. The performance was pure fun, with an exploratory energy that reconfirmed the experimental and playful side to Ligeti’s musical personality.
On May 12, 2017 the Boston Court Performing Arts Center was the venue for a memorial concert marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lou Harrison, presented by MicroFest. No less than seven Harrison works were programmed – curated by Bill Alves – including rarely and never-performed pieces. The stage was packed with all sorts of instruments and found percussion, including authentic recreations of two conduit xylophones designed by Harrison and tuned to just intonation. The musicians of Just Strings and Varied Trio were on hand and a fine crowd filled the theater in anticipation of an evening of music by one of America’s most influential composers.
Suite for National Steel was first and this four movement piece was written for steel-body guitar re-fretted for just intonation. The first movement is based on a whimsical sculpture by the artist Nek Chand, and several other Harrison pieces compiled by guitarist John Schneider complete the suite. Accordingly, Suite for National Steel opens with a rapid melody and precise counterpoint that had a lively, dance-like feel. The second movement, Jahla, was more relaxed and reflective, the longer notes accentuating the tuning. Music for Bill and Me, movement 3, was slower still and had that Asian flavor so typical of Harrison. Heartfelt and lovely, this was played by Schneider with great feeling. The final Serenado movement was just that: upbeat and optimistic, with a sunny and active feel. Suite for National Steel was beautifully played by John Schneider from memory, and nicely summarized many of Harrison’s most identifiable musical traits.
Solo (1972) followed and this was performed on a carefully reconstructed metal tube instrument first built by Harrison using aluminum conduit tubes tuned to just intonation. Often called a “tubulong”, it resembles a xylophone with resonator tubes. The sound, while distinctly metallic, is rich in overtones and two of these instruments were built by Kathryn Jones specifically for this concert. Solo was played by percussionist-extraordinary Yuri Inoo and the mysterious, exotic feel was immediately evident. The melody was nicely matched to the tuning and pleasant to the ear – a tribute to the composition as well as the playing and construction of the tubulong.
Suite from Young Caesar, consisting of four short movements was next, and there was percussion, a harp and a violin in addition to the conduit tubulong. Lullaby, the first movement, opened with a nice mix of percussion and long, sustained tones in the violin. There was a quietly beautiful Asian feel to this, and an exceptionally fine ensemble between the confident violin playing of Shalini Vijayan and the assorted percussion. The second movement, Prelude to Scene ii, felt stronger and more assertive, with Alison Bjorkedal’s harp trading passages and playing counterpoint to the violin. Shadow Scene and Processional, movement three, again featured the harp and violin; with just the slightest presence of percussion this managed to convey an exotic and mysterious presence. The final movement, Whirling Dance, had an uptempo melody in the violin with counterpoint in the harp and some lovely, deep sounds in the percussion. All of this was skillfully played with intricate, yet even textures throughout. Suite from Young Caesar is a convincing demonstration of Harrison’s ability to find just the right combination of percussion and instrumental pitches, each complimenting the other for just the right balance.
Variations (1936) followed with Aron Kallay at the piano and Shalini Vijayan on violin. Variations is the earliest work in this concert – Harrison would have been just 19 years old when it was written. The score for this piece was discovered by Bill Alves among Harrison’s papers, and was apparently never performed. This piece dates from the time Harrison was a student of Henry Cowell, whose signature keyboard gesture at the time was the tone cluster. Accordingly, Variations begins with a series of these in the lower registers, dark and ominous, like an advancing storm. Each crash increases in volume and menace, and Aron Kallay managed to extract all of it from the grand piano on stage. When the violin enters, there is a subdued and sorrowful melody, while the piano softens with single chords underneath. There is no trace here of the sunny Asian optimism or interest in alternate tuning – these would come later in Harrison’s career. More tone clusters are heard in the higher piano registers, further unsettling things, and when the violin joins in again there is a bleak and angry feel that almost boils with intensity. A final series of roaring crashes and chords are heard accompanied by somber violin passages, and the piece ends, as if on a question. Variations is an intriguing glance at Harrison as the young composer: confident and expressive, yet untouched by his later influences and interests.
After a short intermission the stage was reconfigured and there was much moving and placing of various found percussion objects. Omnipotent Chair (1940) followed, and this was performed in five short movements. Harrison was inspired by Henry Cowell and John Cage to create a percussion ensemble fashioned from items found in old shops and junk yards. Omnipotent Chair opens with an exotic melody in the violin accompanied by the striking of flower pots and drums. The blend is surprisingly balanced and even: the typical Asian feel of Harrison’s work was clearly heard, especially in the delicate soundings of a small triangle. As the suite continued, Aron Kally was heard playing an elaborate sequence of bells, and turned in a nice performance. In another section, Yuri Inoo tapped out the beat on the body of a double bass. In the fourth movement, rapid violin passages and the lively rhythms in the wood block recalled Harrison’s many compositions for dance ensembles. Throughout Omnipotent Chair the profusion of unusual percussive elements never overwhelmed Shalini Vijayan’s confident violin, and the overall texture felt comfortable and familiar.
Air from The Scattered Remains (1988) followed, and this was the result of a commission by filmmaker James Broughton for a film score. Harrison’s approach was to provide a series of repeating figures in order to insure that the feel of the piece would survive the inevitable cutting in the film editing process. This piece opens with a simple solo melody in the conduit tubulong that extends for a bit, followed by bass drum and wood block that add some variety to the texture. The harpsichord enters in a repeating counterpoint that brings a sense of purpose as the work proceeds, with a triangle contributing a light embellishment. A nice groove developed and the ensemble was controlled and precise. According to the program notes Air from The Scattered Remains “.. was perhaps the closest he ever came to the then-popular minimalism, a style Harrison sympathized with and which influenced his students of the time.” This performance was the first since the original recording of the film score.
The final piece of the concert was Varied Quintet (1987) and for this concert the original orchestration with just intonation was used, including two conduit tubulongs, a harp, violin, re-tuned harpsichord and assorted percussion. Varied Quintet proceeds in five movements and the first of these, Gendhing, began with the harp and the conduit tubulongs entering in sequence followed by a simple but strongly expressive melody in the violin. With its exotic feel, Gendhing is clearly influenced by Harrison’s continuing interest in Javanese gamelan forms. The harpsichord joins in and some lovely counterpoint develops. As the program notes point out: “…the interweaving just intonation bell instruments sparkle with an entirely different texture than what can be coaxed from the conventional piano.”
The second movement, Bowl Bells, quickly turned into a percussion tour de force by Yuri Inoo, whose rapidly accurate playing on a set of bowls dazzled the ear while generating a solid groove. Elegy, the third movement, featured a simple, yet sorrowful melody in the violin aided by thick chords from the harpsichord underneath. The percussion was mostly tacit for this solemn movement, with only a few quiet notes from the conduit tubulong. Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard followed, written as a tribute to one of Harrison’s favorite painters, and the buoyant optimism was in complete contrast to the previous Elegy. Some lovely interweaving of violin and harpsichord added to the cheer. The final movement of the piece, Dance, looked back to Harrison’s extensive experience writing for dance companies and the active, whirling feel and rapid passages were precisely executed by the entire ensemble.
Varied Quintet, with its unorthodox instruments, just tuning and exotic character was performed in this program for the first time since it was premiered. The musicians of Varied Trio and Just Strings – as well as the scholarship of Bill Alves – combined to produce a unique concert to hear important works by Lou Harrison that have been too-long neglected.
On April 8, 2017 the Pasadena Conservatory of Music was host to Richard Valitutto along with gnarwhallaby, Arpeture Duo and a subset of wild Up – all in a concert from wild Up’s WORK series, which focuses on single members of the group. Several new pieces and arrangements by Valitutto were heard, as well as reference works by Messiaen, Feldman and Wolfe. Soprano Justine Aronson made a special appearance and the elegant Barrett Hall was filled almost to capacity on a quiet Saturday evening.
The program opened with Papier Mâché, an original piano work by Valitutto. This began with a slow, mysterious feel and just a hint of tension in the chords that increased as the piece progressed. The density and complexity slowly built up, adding to a sense of uncertainty, just as the dynamic crested and fell back, fading at the finish. Papier Mâché has a sophisticated sheen and a solid, well-crafted construction that made for a fine opening to the concert.
Polichromia, by Zygmunt Krauze, followed, and this was performed by gnarwhallaby, the Los Angeles-based new music group who have made a mission of performing works by Polish avant-garde composers active in the mid-20th century. Polichromia begins with sustained tones in the cello, muted trombone and clarinet while the piano counters with rapid one and two note figures separated by silence. The highly chromatic tones in the instruments make for some intriguing harmonies and the sharper piano licks offered a fine contrast. After a few minutes this sequence finishes and there is an extended silence by all. This process restarts twice more, with the tones in the instruments becoming more active in each new sequence. Polichromia creates an environment filled with many varied tone colors, vividly portrayed by gnarwhallaby.
Next was an arrangement by Valitutto of two piano works: From the Cradle to Abysses by the Romanian-French composer Horațiu Rădulescu and Hungarian Passacaglia by György Ligeti. As Valitutto explained, these pieces felt like piano reductions of some larger instrumental work and the purpose of his arrangement was to fill out the parts that seemed to be embedded in the original scores. Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby was the result, and this was played continuously as a single piece of music. The brass, woodwind and string components present in the gnarwhallaby ensemble was ideal for this sort of exploration.
Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby began with solitary piano notes followed by a sharp sforzando from the trombone and quietly sustained tones in the cello and clarinet. Something like a melody materialized from the piano and cello while the trombone continued to emit loud sforzandos at various intervals. The dynamics of the piano chords increased rapidly and soon joined the trombone in making unsettling statements as the cello and clarinet continued with their smoothly understated response. The contrasts here were very effective – the more so because of the difference in instrumentation.
A soft cello solo appeared and seemed to tiptoe around the dramatic piano crashes. This melody was soon passed around to the clarinet and trombone. The piano calmed down to a series of steady two-note chords as the clarinet took up the melody in a higher register. Eventually all three instruments joined in together and some lovely harmonies emerged. The passages in the instruments gradually increased to a rapid tempo just as the piece concluded.
Two Arrangements for gnarwhallaby is an inspired expansion of the works of two 20th century masters, and confirmed Valitutto’s sharp instincts for orchestration. This arrangement creates a seamless connection between the two source pieces and the vivid colors brought out by the expanded instrumentation were matched by the coordination and precision of gnarwhallably’s playing.
Shadow (2013) by Rebecca Saunders followed. This is a solo piano piece that explores the sympathetic vibrations of the piano strings that occur after a loud chord is played. An acoustic ‘shadow’ is heard, and with the sustain pedal depressed, the soft tones are allowed to ring out and decay in the subsequent silence. Accordingly, Valitutto struck a series of crashes, tone clusters and sharp chords – often with maximum force – so that the resulting acoustic shadow was clearly heard, even up in the top row of Barrett Hall. These effects were amazingly varied – from lightly hovering and insubstantial to menacingly ominous to warm and welcoming. After a few minutes of listening you begin to ignore the initial impulse and focus instead on the quiet shadows that follow. The process is something like hearing a loud crash of thunder and then listening to the rolling echo as it dissipates into the distance.
The playing became more complex, loud crashes alternating with softer ones, multiplying the contrasting character of the various shadows. The interactions between the shadow tones themselves, although very understated, were also intriguing to the ear. Shadow is an instructive piece that points to the importance of listening for nuance, even when confronted by repeated dynamic outbursts. Valitutto’s sense of timing and the application of energy was perfect, allowing this piece to unfold with all of its subtlety intact.
Another solo piano piece was next, The Black Wheatear, by Oliver Messiaen, from Catalogue d’oiseaux (1958). This began with strong, crashing chords reminiscent of a booming surf; the breeding grounds of the black wheatear include the rocky sea cliffs of the Iberian peninsula. A series of short and rapid runs in the upper registers portray the brief but rich warble of the species. These skittering phrases regularly recur, nicely suggesting the chattering of birds wheeling high above a coastal meadow. The quick and spiky passages were accurately played by Valitutto, fully realizing Messiaen’s unconventional vision.
Voice, Violin and Piano by Morton Feldman followed, and for this Valitutto was joined by Adrianne Pope on violin and – naturally – soprano Justine Aronson. All the familiar Feldman virtues were present – the soft, airy voice of Ms. Aronson hovering lightly over a quiet violin and gentle piano chords. Each sound seemed independent of the others, but the sequences often produced memorable moments despite the spare texture. The intonation, especially in the voice, was impressive as there are almost no landmarks for pitch; even so, there was no hesitation or tentativeness in the many entrances. Voice, Violin and Piano is counted as a miniature in the Feldman canon, but this performance contained everything that makes his music so distinctive.
Valitutto’s Another Spring was next, based on poetry by Denise Leverton and with violist Linnea Powell joining the other players on stage. The opening piano chords of this were bright and sunny while the strings played very high, thin pitches that brought to mind wisps of wind. With the entrance of the soprano voice, Another Spring gained its focus and produced some lovely passages; the strong vocal part giving Ms. Aronson some room to stretch after the restrained Feldman piece. The seemingly disparate piano chords, airy strings and lovely legato vocal parts came together in a fine balance that nicely captured the optimism of a radiant spring day.
In his final remarks Richard Valitutto explained that the composers of his generation have spent their artistic lives working in the shadow of 9/11, and this burden has only increased since the November election. Accordingly, the last piece selected for this program was Compassion (2001), by Julia Wolfe. This begins softly, with an ominous slow trill that steadily builds tension, followed by a series of strong chords that become progressively more chaotic. The roiling chords roll in like a booming surf, freighted with powerful emotions. The rumbling continues to build in intensity, especially in the lower registers, until there is an explosive silence – and the roar slowly dies away. After a short silence, a new trill is heard, now filled with a quiet sorrow. Compassion is destined to be a landmark of our era and was played to perfection by Valitutto, whose efforts were received with extended applause.
The impeccable playing by all the performers made Work an engaging evening of contemporary music that ranged from forceful and complex to the soft and subtle. This concert was a good benchmark reading of Valitutto’s varied musical influences as well as pointing to his continued artistic growth.
People Inside Electronics (abbreviated PIE) performs and promotes electroacoustic music in LA. Often, concerts go beyond music and present interdisciplinary multimedia collaborations with dancers, actors, scientists, and so on. PIE focuses on the artists, and electronic synthesizers and modulators are the media. The more time passes, the more I appreciate the name of the series. Today, we live in a world where music can be created entirely by programs and algorithms, without people at all. Furthermore, an increasing portion of the population has electronics inside them, from pacemakers to RFID implants (yes, really). To turn the lens from the machines’ ability to the people’s, and what they can make the machines do, is something to behold.
Beginning the concert on a fantastic note was The Deep State by Isaac Schankler (2017), performed by Scott Worthington on bass and Isaac Schankler on electronics. Right from the start, I could hear Pauline Oliveros’s influence and inspiration on the piece. She is one of my favorite pioneers in electronic music, and I know she is an influence to Schankler as well. Her pieces change slowly, like delicately bending metal into a sculpture. Like Schankler, she often provokes contemplation.
Schankler writes in the program note, “This piece is ‘about’ both the necessity and seeming impossibility of this kind of contemplation in our…current situation.” It is not difficult to interpret what he was getting at by ‘current situation.’ The ambiguity of the phrase also allows the listener to turn to any other situation, perhaps one more personal and probably less dismal. Regardless of any narrative one applies to the piece, Schankler’s genius composition, performed by my favorite bassist in southern California, is sure to stimulate a deep state of contemplation and peace in anyone who hears it.
Next on the program, pianist Aron Kallay and percussionist Yuri Inoo performed Elliptic by Caroline Louise Miller (2012). Elliptic paints the landscape of a “particularly beautiful dream” Miller had about “our pre-apocalyptic, neoliberal world.” (Compared to Schankler’s The Deep State, we can infer that the apocalypse has occurred sometime between 2012 and 2017.) Miller’s program notes describe an enchanting ellipsoid planet with a golden moon, orbiting a pink star. Monoliths appear on the water and break the spell.
The monoliths were the harbingers of change. The Earth appears on the horizon and destroys the reverie with an onslaught of media noise. In the music, Kallay’s otherworldly electronic piano depicts the beautiful planet, while Inoo’s bombastic snare and gong invoke the Earth’s cacophony. The Earth vanishes, and the music freezes for a second…and then quietly resumes, as if tip-toeing through the wreckage. The third movement, “Exodus,” sounds like flying into the unknown. It is different than the beginning, but there is a similar sense of being, of existing. I would recommend listening to this piece on its own once, then with the program notes, and then a third time on its own again. Close your eyes if you wish to visualize the alien landscape, just don’t forget to open your ears to the sonic landscape Miller crafts.
After intermission, PIE introduced BitPanic, a computer music collective based in LA. In a computer music collective, performers improvise on networked composition systems on laptops. Mark Trayle cofounded The Hub, the godfather of computer music collectives, dating back to 1986. BitPanic took on Trayle’s semi-aleatoric piece Pins and Splits (2004). In this piece, the background sound is fixed, and the foreground allows improvisation. The players affect each other’s timing, like a music game of duck-duck-goose. The result of the game is a constant transformation from chaos to order and back again. The program note says the title comes from an email thread with Trayle’s Hub-mates. To me, this is delightfully meta. Like an email thread, in Pins and Splits each participant takes turns at the lead, asking questions and resolving conflicts.
After Trayle’s piece, BitPanic concluded the concert with a totally improvised set. The quartet set loose on keyboards, knobs, and violins. Each player seemed to exist in their own little bubble. Sometimes they coincided with another player, and sometimes seemed like polar opposites. One performer played the violin normally, albeit hooked up with wires to the laptops for sound processing. Another performer laid his violin on the table and treated it no differently than the laptop. The other two stared stoically at their screens, clicking and typing and twiddling away. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before. That’s the beauty of electroacoustic music. The limit is your imagination, and my thoughts and experiences were certainly not the same as the members of BitPanic. New music, in the hands of PIE and BitPanic, will continue to surprise and delight.
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.
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.
Hub New Music, an artist-led chamber group hailing from Boston, made their West Coast premiere on Sunday, January 29 at the Sound and Fury Concert at Lineage Performing Arts Center in Pasadena. Comprised of flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, the group has commissioned numerous works by established and emerging contemporary composers. In light of all that is happening in our political climate, this concert contained relevant themes of rejuvenation, self-actualization, environmental issues, journey, and sacrifice. This was my first time at a Sound and Fury Concert, but I was inspired by the directors’ enthusiasm about the music that lay ahead.
Kelsey Broersma, alto saxophone
The first half of the concert featured Kelsey Broersma, a dedicated new music saxophonist of the Inland Empire. She began the program with No.e Parker’s work for solo saxophone, Sweeney Summer (2), an audification of temperature data. As both an artist and composer, Parker’s work addresses issues such as environmental sustainability and technology. Sweeney Summer (2) is one of a multitude of Parker’s works that explore data sonification.
Next was Christian Dubeau’s Crystal Lake, an electro-acoustic composition featuring recorded tape of lake waters as a basis for the saxophone solo. As a composer, environmental issues largely inspire Dubeau, and Crystal Lake is no exception. Its musical narrative tells of the only natural lake in the San Gabriel Mountains being gradually polluted and slowly shrinking due to drought. A lullaby of soft, floating tones from the saxophone over concrète water sounds gradually transforms; the water is distorted through process and the musical lines become more agitated. After reaching a climax, we are left with an eerie sound similar to wind, over which the saxophone resumes softly while facing away from the audience.
Patrick Gibson’s Feedback Loop features the composer on electric guitar along with Broersma. Before playing, Gibson explained that he was inspired by the similarity between saxophone multiphonics and guitar feedback. The piece starts with material reminiscent of a waltz before abruptly transforming texture. The middle section is the heart of the piece, for it is here that the two instruments play off each other’s “feedback.” It closes with material akin to the opening.
Over the Board by Christine Lee closed the first half of the program. Along with saxophone, it featured the composer on piano. Christine Lee described the piece as an “imaginary journey” of a boat on the sea. The piece involves an array of extended techniques for saxophone, the most prominent being multiphonics.
Hub New Music
The second half of the program introduced Hub New Music. They began with Judd Greenstein’s at the end of a really great day, a piece in memoriam of Emily – a friend of the composer’s who died in a tragic accident. Greenstein describes Emily as a beautiful, infectious spirit, and the music and performance alike were equally as contagious. As a celebration of her life, the piece is characterized by shimmering textures, piercing melodic lines, and a jovial lightness of being.
Kirsten Volness creates an exquisite sound world in Little Tiny Stone, Full of Blue Fire, inspired by Dorothea Lansky’s poem Beyond the Blue Seas. Just as the fire’s heart swells and subsides, so does the music. Within this outlining structure of ebb and flow are striking textural changes. The piece begins with a quiet whisper from the violin, overlapped by light, stuttering figures from the winds. The texture grows in the warmth and intensity, and then rapidly recedes. Angular textures are contrasted by freely floating lines. After a pause, the piece ends with a gurgle from the winds – one last word from the fire before its death.
Last but certainly not least was Mason Bates’ The Life of Birds, a set of six short but dense movements. Together they tell a complete story, some chapters more abstract than others, but all equally vivid in their imagery. Intricate textures, bubbling lines bursting with energy, and lush, folk-inspired harmony are staples throughout the movements. I felt a refreshing sense of pure joy and innocence while listening to this work – a perfect way to end the evening.
I had never heard of Battle Trance before attending this show. What little I did know was what I read on the Facebook event page, and gleaned from talking to other concert goers. I don’t believe I even knew their instrumentation. Like seeing a movie without seeing a trailer, this can be a better experience. Hype can set a bar too high. All I knew was that Equal Sound was putting on the concert, and that some quartet called Battle Trance would play Blade of Love. 10/10 for the names, but would the performance live up to these vague expectations?
A string quartet – Madeline Falcone and Emily Call on violin, Diana Wade on viola, and Betsy Rettig on cello – performed the first half of the concert, which consisted of Medieval and Medieval-inspired music. They opened with Hildegard Von Bingen’s O Virtus Sapientiae, a pensive, simple polyphonic work. Its texture was so lush, yet at the same time, so bare. In light of the women’s marches worldwide, particularly the 750,000-strong march in LA on January 21st, I appreciated that the most prolific Medieval female composer had the honor of opening. I always love von Bingen’s work, and this was no different. O virtus Sapientiae praises the power of wisdom, a lesson we can all value in this age.
The next piece, Valencia (2012), by New York composer Caroline Shaw, had clear roots in Medieval style. The strings pass around ostinato rhythms and simple melodies, intercut with striking glissandi and dense harmonic swells. Shaw wanted to evoke the texture of a Valencia orange. Such a synesthetic feat may be impossible (I must admit I did not get the connection between the title and the piece until reading about it later), but the music by itself was pleasing and its textures were interesting.
Third, My Desert, My Rose (2016) by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, featured low and slow cello like a cantus firmus while the higher strings played aimless harmonies, muddled like a fine cocktail. It feels like wandering through a busy marketplace; each step brings a new wave of sounds, and while there is a goal to reach, the journey wanders. It’s a flawless interpretation of Medieval inspiration for a 21st-century style.
Finally, the quartet concluded the first half of the concert with Guillaume de Machaut’s Kyrie I. The Kyrie is the first sung prayer of the Mass Ordinary, and it is most appropriate during penitential seasons like Lent and Advent. The quartet saved the Kyrie for the last piece in their set, but it also served to introduce Battle Trance, thus keeping with tradition. While we were not actually in a penitential season, something about the timing and the mood of the audience made it fitting.
After intermission, we got what we came for: the tenor saxophone quartet Battle Trance performing Blade of Love. Here’s my short review first: it was bananas. And I love bananas.
Now here’s the longer review. First, you must realize that each segment flowed from one to the next, sometimes overlapping or splitting half and half between the players. The players never rested. The performance was one uber-piece, and the energy ebbed and swelled but never ceased. Sometimes three players would provide an upbeat, looping harmony for the soloist to howl over. Other times, all four would whistle through their reeds. There was impressive counterpoint. There was intense sound blending. There were intergalactic lasers and interstellar spaceships. There were intrepid explorers in jungles. There was an immeasurable ocean. There was an insane profession of love. There was also insufferable honking – but so it is with saxophones, I suppose, and it didn’t last too long.
Most impressive of all, in my eyes (ears?), was that there were difference tones. Those happen resonances combine and modulate in your ear so that your ear itself creates new sound. It’s a curious sensation, and rare for acoustic instruments to pull off. So not only did the four gentlemen of Battle Trance play for an hour straight, on memorized music (somewhat improvised, but mostly structured for sure), and was the music incredible, but they also caused your ear to invent its own music, using acoustic instruments. This illustrates why I love writing these reviews; every time I think I’ve heard it all, that I’ve heard every extended technique, I go to another concert and I’m absolutely floored.
Battle Trance’s music is available on their Bandcamp page. You have the upper hand compared to me; you already know what to expect. I’ll be upfront: I’m told that their recordings don’t have the same chutzpah. So this is what I recommend: buy a CD. Hear how good they are recorded. Then see them live. Fly to New York if you have to, but experience them in person. It’ll be bananas.
Cipher Duo consists of soprano Justine Aronson and violinist Sarah Goldfeather. This week, they commence their West Coast tour. I was fortunate to see their Wednesday night performance in Geiringer Hall at UC Santa Barbara. They will perform in Pasadena with gnarwhallaby on Thursday, USC on Friday, and then head north to the Bay Area on Sunday. Wherever you are in California, do not miss this concert.
The program starts with something a little familiar. Though I did not know this piece, I am well acquainted with a variety of Kaija Saariaho works. If you haven’t listened to Saariaho, start now. Changing Light (2002) is the is the perfect introduction to Saariaho, and to the Cipher Duo. The text is an English translation from Hebrew and explores the subject of the fragility of uncertain existence. Beginning simply enough, on the line “Light and darkness,” Aronson sings chilling poetry while Goldfeather floats above on harmonics. Like many Saariaho pieces, each part has a purpose and a goal, but their paths are unclear and meandering. The fact that this concert features only 21st-century works confirms, at least to me, that Kaija Saariaho is in line for Debussy’s crown as the essential composer to bridge the century gap.
The duo then takes on another English piece, also a philosophical musing. Rebekah Driscoll was inspired to write January: Brin’s Mesa (2016) when she observed new life emerging from the ashes of a forest fire in Arizona. From page to performance, Aronson and Goldfeather breathe life into the contemplative score. Listen for the small, organic changes – one can almost hear tendrils of plant life growing and emerging.
The middle piece of the program is a crowd-pleaser for the Californians. Even if you missed the event, you know about Hopscotch (2015). Cipher Duo performs Hopscotch Tarot by Veronika Krausas. In the Hopscotch holistic performance, the audience members could only hear two or three fortunes before getting ushered into the next limo. Here, Aronson and Goldfeather perform all twelve short movements, each one a tarot card reading from Fortuna. If you wanted more insight into the plot of Hopscotch, watch Aronson’s expressions, particularly when she smirks. Each fortune has its own character and style, and Aronson captures them all exquisitely.
The fourth piece of the show comes from Goldfeather herself. Come Back (2017) showcases Goldfeather’s experience as a singer/songwriter with an indie band. Though not in a typical verse-chorus form, the rest of the key elements to an indie song are present: simple lyrics, repetitive gestures, and a distinct sonority. For the first half of the piece, Aronson sings five words on five notes. But it isn’t minimalism. Goldfeather overlaps and dovetails the motives within and between the instruments. When a verse finally arrives, it hits the audience like a bucket of water. The first time a minor chord replaces a major chord, a collective chill went down the audience’s spines. I won’t give away what happens at the ending, but I can tell you it was perfect. After so many minutes of intricate looping, layering, and rearranging of motives, Goldfeather pulls off the perfect ending.
Finally, the duo ended on their namesake. Kate Soper’s Cipher (2011) is one of the most breathtaking violin and soprano pieces I have ever heard. The duo told the audience that Cipher explores timbre. As well as exploring musical dynamics and human dynamics, it wends between music, meaning, and language. The violin and the voice become shared objects. Sometimes both performers sing, speak, or finger the violin together. At times, they even swap. Each movement features conflicting voices and temperaments, such as Wittgenstein, Freud, and Guido d’Arezzo. The conjoining line, “People can understand you when you say something,” is frequently obscured. If nothing else has convinced you to see Cipher Duo this weekend, go for this. Cipher will blow your mind.