An Interview with Aperture Duo

The virtuosic Aperture Duo (Adrianne Pope and Linnea Powell) will be performing at Tuesdays at Monk Space this coming Tuesday, February 27. I had the opportunity to ask Adrianne Pope (violin) and Linnea Powell (viola) about the upcoming show, working with composers, and more. Here’s what they had to say: 

Linnea Powell and Adrianne Pope of Aperture Duo

The program features works by George Aperghis, Salvatore Sciarrino, Nicholas Deyoe, and Sarah Gibson. Can you tell us about the program as a whole?

Our Monk Space program has been incredibly fun to put together, as it features some of our favorite composers and people whose works center around memories, reunions, and reflections. Sciarrino’s short and fleeting “La Malinconia” and Georges Aperghis’ enthusiastic “Retrouvailles” are pieces that we’ve wanted to perform for years. The program also features two Aperture Duo commissions: a world premiere by Sarah Gibson and a commission by Nicholas Deyoe from 2015. These two commissions give a window into our wide ranging interests as a duo, as they are very contrasting in sound and style.

From whistles to claps, beautiful lyricism to deafening scratches, we aim to create programs that challenge the assumptions of what a violin and viola duo can sound like. This will show be no exception!

You’ll be premiering Sarah Gibson’s piece, tiny, tangled world at the concert. What has your experience been like with this new work?

Whether it’s performing, teaching, or composing, working with Sarah is always a joy for us. As a composer, Sarah has a perfect balance of clear ideas and flexibility. We got to workshop new sounds, different notation options and extended techniques from the very beginning stages. We have loved seeing it evolve each step of the way!

When Sarah gave us the final draft, we were thrilled to see how virtuosic and unique it is from our other rep. She even included a specific extended technique that was new to us! Her title, tiny, tangled world, has been in place from the beginning sketches, and it has been intriguing to see the work really come to fit the title perfectly.

How often have you worked with LA composers Sarah Gibson and Nicholas Deyoe in the past? Can you tell us a little about these experiences?

With Sarah, we have performed as colleagues, performed her works in other ensembles, and worked with and performed her composition students’ works. Tiny, tangled world is the first piece Aperture has worked on solely with Sarah.

With Nick, we have performed a little bit together, and we’ve played many of his works with different groups in LA. We recently got to work with his students at CalArts on new works, and we recorded 1560 for his most recent album, for Duane. 1560 was one of our first commissions and we can’t wait to play it again at the end of this month.

Besides being colleagues, both Sarah and Nick are good friends of ours and we jump on any opportunity to collaborate with them.

Any upcoming performances or projects you’d like to talk about?

In April, Aperture Duo is ensemble in residence with the Black House SoCal New Music Workshop at UC Irvine. We’re very excited to work with the selected composers and musicians there, it’s going to be a wonderfully creative workshop! In May we’ll be in residence in Northern California at Las Positas College and in June we’ll be performing at Bread and Salt in San Diego, where we’ll be premiering a new work by Courtney Bryan. It’s going to be a great spring! More information can be found on our website.

For more information about the upcoming concert, check out Tuesdays at Monk Space. The concert will also be featuring works by composer Colin Horrocks.

Playing Like a Girl at REDCAT with Eve Beglarian

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.

Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra with Schoenberg and Competition Premieres

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.

An Interview with Helix Collective

In anticipation of their upcoming show “L.A. Stories” at Monk Space on February 18, I interviewed Phil Popham (oboe) and Sarah Robinson (flute) from Helix Collective, a Los-Angeles based ensemble specializing in multi-media, collaborative performance, and recording. The show will feature works by composers Eugene Micofsky, Dale Trumbore, Reena Esmail, Mark Carlson, Jamie Thierman, and Helix Collective’s own Phil Popham. Here’s what Phil and Sarah had to say: 

How did you get the idea for “L.A. Stories,” and how did you go about programming this particular set of pieces for the concert?

PHIL: We had been performing our show “The Cocktail Stories” which involved Hollywood screenwriters sending us stories about their favorite mixed-drinks. We read the works while simultaneously performing the original music for each story. The music was very fusion and cross-over. It mixed electronics, loops, hip-hop, techno, you name it! We decided to create an all acoustic show, that would involve more new-music composers here in Los Angeles. We assembled a group of 8 composers. We had LA authors and poets submit their works. Each composer personally chose the story and writer they wanted to work with. Once the works were completed, the group began rehearsals. We all had to dig deep for the dramatic speaking. We were mostly classically-trained musicians. It’s funny though, I don’t see a big difference in being dramatic through the oboe vs. my voice. The similarity is still strikingly odd to me.

SARAH: We really enjoyed doing music and storytelling programs in the past and we loved the depth of experience it offers to the audience. There are so many levels on which to engage with the music and the words, and the way they interact. With this program, we wanted to celebrate our adopted home town and utilize the depth of writing talent there is in the city. The instructions for the composers were fairly open-ended so we have a very cool variety of ways that they incorporated the spoken word with their music. We tried to represent a variety of musical perspectives – one composer, Eugene Micofsky, has a rock band background and another, Reena Esmail, specializes in the intersection of Western and Hindustani music. We wanted to make the whole project representative of the city.

Helix Collective: Sarah Robinson (flute), Katie Norring (piano), Phil Popham (oboe), and Lorry Black (percussion)

How do you hope the audience will react to “L.A. Stories?”

PHIL: I want them to feel the excitement and wonder of being part of such a great place. Even with its quirkiness, trials, and tribulations, there is a power that draws us here. They have made it. They have stayed, and in its own way, the city wants to give back to them. The show should remind them of why they stay, and give them a sense of validation and community for their struggles. I want them to feel that even when they are hitting rock-bottom, there are offerings here they could get nowhere else. This show is really about everyone in the audience as well as those of us on stage. It’s about all of us. I want them to be proud of where we live, where we are from, and that we are survivors here each day. When leaving the concert venue, I want them to look in amazement at the city before them, look in amazement at themselves for being part of it, and see the outstretched arms of a truly creative, inspiring, and humbling town.

SARAH: I think this city is so vast and complicated. As musicians we have the unique experience of traveling all over the area and working with so many different people – from Skid Row to Beverly Hills – sometimes in a matter of hours. I hope what we can share with this program is the individual experiences of a variety of artists. I think each writer and composer involved in this project has their own Los Angeles and I would love for our audience to feel like they’ve seen the city through their eyes.

What do you find most engaging or interesting about multi-media and collaborative performances?

PHIL: From an artist’s standpoint, multi-media and collaborative shows communicate incredibly efficiently. It also gives you the ability to add emphasis, context, and conflict into a moment instantly. With so many brilliant people contributing expertise toward relaying the message, it can be delivered, colored, or altered by different disciplines simultaneously. It’s so vivid! Once the writer has written the story, the delivery of the actor can provide more context. Likewise, the music being performed can emphasize, corroborate, or even complicate the story. When we’re collaborating like this, I think the composer must be visceral. You have to think of your heart and nerve endings more than your head. It’s a very fun way to create. You’re getting down to the fundamental reasons music exists. Then, you combine the dramatic power of the writers with the engaging music by the composers and the energetic talents of the musicians/actors. Everyone has now come together to tell a multi-faceted story through each of their disciplines. It’s very powerful. 

SARAH: I think a project can only be as interesting as the people who put it together. The more artists, the more perspectives, the more genres you have represented, the more we can speak to the universal human experience. Of course, there are limits to how many people you can have collaborating at one time but I find the quality and the importance of what we’re doing benefits exponentially when we incorporate other artists from far and wide in the artistic landscape. 

Helix Collective is known for performing at a wide range of venues. Are there any unexpected similarities or differences that you’ve found between performing at nightclubs versus concert stages?

PHIL: They are very different, but each is priceless. A grand stage with stellar acoustics, 1000’s of seats, and a captive audience could certainly a good environment for a show. They tend have to have nice pianos, as well. The intimacy of a bar/nightclub concert is invigorating. A crowd which can interact, yell, applaud, and laugh whenever they feel moved to do so is incredibly rewarding for the musicians. I love being with the audience while performing. I love hearing them if they say things to us and respond to what we do. If the natural acoustics aren’t great, with a good audio engineer, you can be pumped through the house sound system. This actually gives you much more flexibility and variety in the sound, if you go for it. You can also add a huge variety of lighting to the show. This makes it more collaborative/multi-media as more talented people are adding a perspective and skills to the performance. 

SARAH: It’s hard for me to overstate how much performing in casual spaces like nightclubs has taught me about being an artist and performer. What is beautiful about a classical concert environment is the focus and concentration that it helps engender. But the real danger for musicians is that it is really easy to lose touch with your audience. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how many of them might be asleep much less how much they are enjoying your performance.  In a club, though, I can really read the room. I know what people are thinking. They are shouting, or in rapt attention, or on their phones – whatever it is that they’re doing, I can get information from that about how effective my performance is for them. Helix Collective has done so much playing in these spaces and it allows for the best market research and through that we’ve developed programs that really sing – whether you’re in a dive bar or a big hall. 

Any upcoming performances or projects you’d like to talk about?

PHIL: After our performance at Monk Space, we are going to start raising money to record all of these great works! We plan on releasing the album by May or June. We are discussing whether it will be pure audio or a DVD! Let us know, folks!

SARAH: We are excited about our Monk Space debut Sunday, February 18th at 6pm! Monk Space has been such a key player in supporting adventurous music here in L.A. and we are so happy to be part of their programming. We’ll be repeating the L.A. Stories program at Brand Library on March 3rd.  Also this spring we are collaborating with composer Mark Weiser and librettist Amy Punt to present the premiere of their opera “The Place Where You Started” at Art Share L.A., May 17-19. We’re also hosting our 5th season of the Los Angeles Live Score Film Festival this summer at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre and composer applications are open now through March 25th.   

Check out Helix Collective to get tickets for the show February 18.

 

Interview: Sugar Vendil and Mara Mayer of The Nouveau Classical Project

The Nouveau Classical Project, a New York-based, all-women contemporary ensemble, makes it their mission to integrate music with other arts disciplines and to show that classical music is a living, breathing art form. On February 7, Equal Sound presents The Nouveau Classical Project’s first Los Angeles concert, “Currents.” Currents features music composed for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and electronics commissioned by NCP. I interviewed NCP’s artistic directors Sugar Vendil and Mara Mayer about interdisciplinary arts, commissioning new works, and the upcoming concert, featuring works by Odeya Nini, Olga Bell, Gabrielle Herbst, and Isaac Schankler. Here’s what they had to say: 

Can you tell us about the works on the program? What is the inspiration behind the title, “Currents”?

Currents is a program that consists of pieces commissioned specifically for NCP that use our acoustic instruments of piano, flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, and some form of electronics. The title refers both to electric currents and the fact that the music is brand new. Each piece explores the boundaries between acoustic and electronic timbres in a different way, from field recordings in Bell’s piece to acoustic buzzing sounds created through extended techniques on a deconstructed clarinet in Kifferstein’s work.

What are your thoughts about interdisciplinary arts, and what kinds of interdisciplinary works do you hope to see evolve in the future?

Interdisciplinary collaboration can be great, but can also be tricky to do really well. We both attended E|Merge interdisciplinary collaborative residency in 2015 and learned a lot about communication during the collaborative process and how to clearly define roles and potential decision-making hierarchy between collaborators. Artistically it’s important to understand how the elements fit together and interact and not just slap things together at the last minute. Ideally, collaborators work together throughout the artistic process so that ideas can evolve together and the finished work can be cohesive and fulfilling for all parties. We hope to see our work with fashion designers evolve in the future in a way where they are more involved earlier in the process.

How often do you commission new works for Nouveau Classical Project? 

We commission new pieces every year, and this happens in a variety of ways: a composer can be awarded a commissioning opportunity via our annual Commissioning Call for Scores competition (we are accepting submissions until April 20, 2018 you can apply here: http://www.nouveauclassical.org/call-for-scores/). We reach out to composers we want to collaborate with; or occasionally a composer sends us a random proposal and we’ll work with them if we love their music and decide their proposed project is a good fit.

Sugar, you’re known for combining classical music with new fashion – what parallels do you see between the fashion and music worlds?

They’re both nonverbal ways of communicating. A score or a piece of clothing is activated by a human. Music and fashion – and I use fashion here in the sense of personal dressing – are two expressive art forms that already exist in a musical performance. What we try to do at NCP is make these parallels intersect.

Any future projects you’d like to talk about?

On May 31, 2018 we are premiering a new opera by Gabrielle Herbst at Roulette in Brooklyn. We love her music and working with her, so this project is really special to us.

Check out Equal Sound for more information about the upcoming concert Feburary 7 and to get tickets. 

Three’s a Crowd-Pleaser: LA Phil premieres Zimmermann Ballet

The LA Phil and Susanna Mälkki perform Zimmermann's cello concerto with Tero Saarinen's choreography. The LA Phil and Susanna Mälkki perform Zimmermann's cello concerto with Tero Saarinen's choreography. Photo by Mikki Kunttu.

The LA Phil and Susanna Mälkki perform Zimmermann’s cello concerto with Tero Saarinen’s choreography. Photo by Mikki Kunttu.

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.

Yarn/Wire bring thoughtful brutality to Monday Evening Concerts

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.

Interview with cellist Maggie Parkins, Mojave Trio

This coming Tuesday at Monk Space, Mojave Trio (Sara Parkins, violin; Maggie Parkins, cello; Genevieve Feiwen Lee, piano) will be performing along with SAKURA Cello Quintet (Michael Kaufman, Benjamin Lash, Gabriel Martins, Yoshika Masuda, Peter Myers), for a program of music by composers Daniel Silliman, Daniel Allas, Thomas Kotcheff, Kaija Saariaho, and Nico Muhly. I had the opportunity to ask cellist Maggie Parkins some questions about the piano trio as a genre, performing the works of living composers, and the program on January 9. Here’s what she had to say: 

Mojave Trio

As a standard of the classical canon, how has the piano trio evolved over time in your opinion?

Here is a quote from Kaija Saariaho: “I have written many trios for different combinations, but have been hesitant to compose for a traditional piano trio, maybe because of its long and weighty tradition.”

The chamber ensemble of the piano trio with its plentiful classic beginnings of Haydn and Mozart, its deeper development of Beethoven and Schubert, to its late 19th century peak of a romantic explosion of Mendelssohn (Felix and Fanny), Brahms, Schumann (Robert and Clara) Dvorak and Debussy, etc., has left an indelible mark on the repertoire for three mostly compatible instruments.

The early twentieth century has left some fantastic staples such as, Ravel, Shostakovich, Faure, Frank Bridge, Henry Cowell, Korngold, and of course Ives.  One can develop a long list of later 20th and early 21st century works but there seems to be a wane of multiple explorations into the genre by well-known composers as other types of chamber ensembles using different instrumental combinations have developed. Now we see sextets, duos, percussion groups, and many other variations that capture the contemporary landscape. Contemporary piano trios are generally used to “fill out” programs of concert length. One sometimes wonders why some notable 20th century composers such as Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev or Barber didn’t write for piano trio.

The string quartet seems to have continued to capture the interest of composers more consistently than piano trio. There are multiple examples of quartets by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Ben Johnston, and John Adams.

There are built-in challenges for matching the timbres of the strings to the keyboard. Perhaps it is the weighty tradition itself and the focus to find fresh new combinations that satisfies the aural palette.

What are your thoughts about performing music from the classical repertoire versus works by living composers?

As a cellist focused on small ensemble chamber music, I find myself in a unique and enviable position. Conservatory trained on an instrument steeped in tradition, I am lucky to have studied with fantastic teachers handing down their classic wisdom and knowledge. I have had some amazing experiences performing at great festivals such as Tanglewood, Taos, and Banff, and in wonderful orchestras as well.

At the same time I have gravitated toward and truly enjoyed working with living composers, having shared the camaraderie and challenge of exploring new techniques with the ability to discuss performance issues with the composer to be so rewarding. My sister, who is a composer, initiated me into her world of composition through improvisation and dance collaboration and further opened up my eyes to possibilities of interpretation.  But guess what? I have decided that the two concentrations nourish each other. After a stretch of doing only new music I find myself listening to Beethoven or Brahms or performing a Bach Suite and thinking, “Now that is a really good composer!” How delightful to play a piece I have grown up hearing and knowing and playing. It is comforting.

My luck is having the opportunity and ability to do both. The thrill of premiering a new work and working hard on a piece to get it just the way a composer wants it is very enjoyable to me. Who knows, it could be a piece that gets played again and again.

Can you tell us about the works you’ll be performing on the program at Monk Space?

Yes, we are really excited by these new works for our ensemble. I have been really into Saariaho’s compositions for quite some time. This is the fourth piece of hers I have worked on. I find her voice so unique and commanding. You won’t be whistling a tune into the wee hours of the evening though. Her music is about abstract color, timbre and contrast. Close your eyes and listen. She takes movement such as trills into tremolo and glissando, puts it over the fingerboard and on top of the bridge, maybe inside the piano, and then the overtones pop out. Her language creates such a wide pallet, changing simple notions of loud and soft, and occasional new sounds. She has truly explored some of the now accepted techniques of sul ponticello and sul tasto. She isn’t afraid to make the motion just stop and meditate on static sound which develops over the longer periods of time. Her music is a little more challenging for the listener and it often needs several listenings, but what a lovely door to enter.

Like Saariaho, Jennifer Higdon is also interested in color as a basis for compositional beginnings. It influences melody for her. Higdon is quite appreciated for her soaring tunes, and Pale Yellow doesn’t disappoint with its glorious romantic feeling. The music has depth too and feels authentic.

Nicho Muhly’s piece is all about rhythmic drive. Its energy is fun with bookends of material that have funky asymmetrical meters and conversational dynamic writing. The middle has a long melody popping through against the chatter. It’s a really fun piece to learn and play.

Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information about the concert, and to purchase tickets for the show on January 9. 

Electric Eclipse puts People Inside Electronics. And electronics inside a church.

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.

Autoduplicity at WasteLAnd

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.