On Thursday night the Calder Quartet brought life to a formidable program of chamber works–new and old–at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Although the performance might have benefited from some amplified sound reinforcement, the energy and precision of the quartet kept audience eyes and ears focused intensely on the intimate assembly of musicians onstage. A well-designed balance of lively minimalism and lush romanticism set the stage for Schubert’s iconic (and massive) Quartet No. 14, Death and the Maiden. The program, however, offered more than stylistic contrast: The three pieces differed markedly in their approach to using musical time to engage the audience.
The classical language of the Schubert breaks the work into digestible chunks, its musical ideas and developments laid out in clear, periodic sections. Like much music of the 19th century, the challenge to the performer(s) lies in conveying passion without obscuring the clarity of form—a delicate balance deeply embedded into the performance practice of string quartets. The rhetorical value of this style takes advantage of human cognition and memory to build and articulate increasingly larger narratives, but as such its effectiveness becomes increasingly intertwined with the listener’s memory and frame of reference. So it was especially mindful to contrast Schubert’s thoughtful, rational bites with the Schoenberg (which lived fully in the heart) and the Cerrone (which was firmly planted in the body).
For Verklärte Nacht, the quartet enlisted the help of violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill and cellist Nicholas Canellakis to round out the sextet. The ensemble succeeded brilliantly at drawing out the suspended, tortured lines to create a sense of timelessness—one more akin to Wagnerian romanticism than the expressionist modernism many associate with Schoenberg. Indeed, the balance and nature of six strings catered to a sense of atmosphere difficult to achieve with quartet alone, and the piece moved easily from complex contrapuntal textures to detailed, swelling blocks of sound. I say this performance lived in the heart because the musicians patiently explored passing themes without spoiling the frustrated trajectory of the work. As a result, a few moments—most of all the gorgeous final twinklings of the piece—provide reflective cadences both sweet and complicated; cadences that reflect the resignation and messiness of emotion rather than the tidy wrappings of rationality.
In stark contrast to both was the night’s opening performance, the world premiere of Christopher Cerrone’s Can’t and Won’t. Evolving from faint tappings to raucous hockets, the piece married suspense-building devices of minimalism with savvy quartet writing. In particular, repetition and patterns allow Cerrone to redirect his audience’s attention to other aspects of the music; musical time unfolds not only through bold metric modulations, but also though subtle evolutions of harmony. Just as crucial, though, is its invitation to admire the dramatic athleticism of performing this music as the Calder Quartet summoned delicate, alternating harmonics with precision, and attacked furious bowings with vigor. Sonically, this physicality manifested in the wood and bow noise inherent to instruments, adding a rawness to the energetic build that prepares the final “tender” movement: The wild, frenetic energy is suddenly withdrawn to make room for soft, staggered re-entrances of the upper strings, swelling and climbing quietly into the stratosphere.
Programming for string quartet in a large space like Walt Disney Concert Hall requires consideration of the inevitable compromises to both the intimacy and the intensity of the performance. Even cornerstone works like the Schubert rely on their framing to succeed, and so opening the night with the charged and pulsing Can’t and Won’t was a smart exposition of the excitement possible in Calder Quartet’s tight virtuosic playing. Further, the added resources and musical breadth of Verklärte Nacht offered a subtle but effective dynamic; as a result each piece on the program felt like the centerpiece in its own way. Perhaps it is fitting for a hall that feels simultaneously modern and classic that each work on a program spanning nearly two hundred year felt essential, but it is also an indication of the immense talent and flexibility of the Calder Quartet.
Next Tuesday, December 12, violist Diana Wade will be performing a solo recital at Monk Space, with some guest appearances from violist Linnea Powell and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Beattie. I had the opportunity to ask Diana some questions about the program, working with composers, and thoughts about performing and composing. Here’s what she had to say:
The title of the program is “You Made It Weird.” So, how weird is it?
SO WEIRD! HA. Actually, I think weird is in the eye (or ear, as the case may be) of the beholder and on some level I don’t think anything on my program is weird. It’s only weird if you make it weird. That being said, there’s some pretty strange stuff on the docket: I don’t imagine most people have heard an entire vocal duo in vocal fry, let alone anticipate hearing that at the top of a “viola recital.” What I love about this program is that no two pieces really embody the same aesthetic, so I’m really trying to go down the rabbit hold of each sonic world so far that maybe the strange, at very least, starts to make sense? I get bummed out when I hear that people feel alienated by new music or classical music, in general. I’m not at all planning on doing a lecture-recital, but I have taken into consideration the entertainment value of what I’ve programmed as well as thinking about what is an effective way to communicate and present these strange beautiful sounds to the connoisseurs and newbies, alike.
Can you tell us a bit more about your own piece, fry on fry? What was the inspiration behind it?
fry on fry was borne out of a “hey, wouldn’t it be funny if….” situation: I met Jen Beattie (who will be performing with me) at New Music on the Point, a new music festival in Vermont. Jen mentioned that she was talking to the singers there about vocal fry and I just said “hey, what if there was a piece in vocal fry, solely notated in types of fries?!” She and I giggled about it and over a beer (or three) came up with the general performance practice- a french fry will sound like this, a curly fry like that, etc. I didn’t think I would write the piece ever. Fast forward a few months and I get an email from Jen “I’m coming to LA, write the fry piece!” So I did, and it has strangely taken off. It’s been performed a handful of times on both coasts and just recently had its Australian premiere! While it is certainly a funny piece, from the minute I started writing I couldn’t get out of my mind some old podcasts and npr stories I’d heard about people complaining about the sound of women’s voices on the radio and, in particular, any use of fry in their voice. This just added a layer for me: considering all of these complaints about women’s voices and then choosing to write a piece that just bombards the listener with this supposed awful sound for a few minutes is really empowering. The last thing I’ll say about that is that Jen and I premiered the piece, but she has also performed it with a male duo partner and the Australian premiere was with two men: it’s so cool to experience the piece in each iteration. It takes on a new life with each combination. I will be projecting the score while Jen and I perform it, so everyone can see all the fries!
You’ll be performing the world premiere of a piece by Adam Borecki for viola, electronics, and projection. Can you tell us more about the piece?
Ok I don’t want to give away all the craziness that is Adam’s piece BUT I’m really excited about it. This is the first time I’ve had a solo piece so specifically written for me. Adam and I started working together on it in the summer – he recorded those early conversations and some of the movement titles are actually quotes of things, or references to things I said. Most of this piece was written with me sitting in the room next to Adam which was a luxury to both of us and led to a really beautiful collaboration. The piece is in 5 movements and some of the parts I’m most excited (and nervous) about require me doing things beyond playing the viola. I want to remain mysterious so I will just list things that are involved: video camera, lazy Susan, two pocket synthesizers, an mbira, office supplies, a quarter sized violin bow, a wooden frog and SO MUCH MORE.
In a way, this is a dream program for me: for example, I’ve wanted to play Viola, Viola (Benjamin) for a decade, but at first at seemed too daunting and then it was hard to find the right time and place to do it. I’m super thankful to my friend Linnea Powell for learning it with me, we’ve been chipping away on it for a few months and it’s been so fun to work with her.
I mean, all of these pieces are rad but the Sciarrino was one of the first pieces I knew I wanted to program- I had heard recordings of it and was completely enamored with sounds and textures I was hearing and I immediately knew I wanted to use them as connecting material throughout a program. Then, I got the music, and realized how wickedly hard this beautiful music was. So, there was an extended banging my head against the wall phase of learning it, but I think they are going to be a really special feature of this program.
In many ways, this program is incredibly personal and represents a fairly accurate snapshot of what’s going on in my mind right now from the beautiful to the completely bizarre.
What are your thoughts about working with and/or playing the music of living composers?
Whether it’s playing music by a friend or a living composer I’ve never met (like Sciarrino), I think it is of the highest importance to be playing music of our time. I absolutely love playing the “standard” repertoire, but being able to have conversations with composers: whether about a specific piece, or just getting to know them, informs so much about how I want to approach their music. Having the opportunity to bring a piece to life for the first time is an extra special thing to be a part of- getting to see and hear abstract ideas turn into a reality is completely thrilling.
What do you enjoy most about solo performance versus working with ensembles, such as Wild Up, Jacaranda, and others?
Well, this concert feels like a stepping out for me as an artist. For the majority of my professional life, I have seen myself in reference to an ensemble whether that’s an orchestra or chamber ensemble and so it’s really exciting (and a little scary) to take full ownership of a program to let people know who I am and what I’m about. I don’t have schemes or illusions that I’m on the road to becoming a famous viola soloist (I know, that’s sort of an oxymoron), but I see this as a step in the direction of carving out a little space for my voice in Los Angeles and, hopefully eventually, in the greater musical world.
Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information on the December 12 concert or to purchase tickets.
On Thursday, December 7, night the Calder Quartet will premiere Christopher Cerrone’s new string quartet, Can’t and Won’t, at Walt Disney Concert Hall. It opens hefty program of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. Amid flights and rehearsals I was able to wrangle Chris into answering some questions about the piece and even recording a bit of rehearsal.
When this commission came through, did you know it would be programmed alongside Verklärte Nacht and, perhaps more a propos, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden? It’s hard, reading your score, not to think there’s something these pieces have common with the Ds and the way the polyrhythms work in both openings, the shapes of the lines in Schubert’s presto against your ending…and your program note does say “songs without words” a few times.
I think string quartets have something to do with D! One of the challenging of writing for a string quartet is coming terms to the reality. Though as we speak of this it does make me think of a quote from one of my favorite books, Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West.
“He sat in the window thinking. Man has a tropism for order. Keys in one pocket, change in another. Mandolins are tuned G D A E. The physical world has a tropism for disorder, entropy. Man against Nature…the battle of the centuries. Keys yearn to mix with change. Mandolins strive to get out of tune. Every order has within it the germ of destruction. All order is doomed, yet the battle is worth while.”
Feels a propos of the piece! A lot of the piece is struggling with the basic nature of string instruments and how they work — these open strings — and how to address them in an interesting and creative way.
There’s a fascinating notational/metric trick at bar 226, when three members of the quartet switch to quarter = 76 and the cello keeps up its ostinato at the previous tempo of dotted quarter = 220, which makes for a not-quite-aligned dance. It seems like a super efficient way to get the intended effect, but I have to wonder how the quartet feels about it. In practice, is it executed accurately, or is getting very close workable in this context? And did you approach it this way because the notated polyrhythm would be essentially unreadable?
Oh no it’s super easy. Trust me players are really good at not playing together sometimes ;-). I think the goal was to have this running through line throughout the whole piece, this restless sense of pulsation. I always feel when writing for strings you need to give me a lot of activity, and movement, and through motion do they create sound. But on a simpler level, I didn’t want them obsessing over some kind of really complicated polyrthyms that I didn’t really care about — it’s just about turning foreground and background on one another a bunch.
The piece constantly returns to static harmony around D with various takes on ostinati, and your program note mentions trying to “find a sense of repose in a deeply chaotic time.” Though a literal interpretation of “programmatic” music of course runs into issues, do you find this is something you were intentionally doing in this piece as a reaction to, say, our current political dilemmas, or has it been an unconscious but real trend in your writing in general? I partially ask because I’ve heard quite a few composers over the past year or so suddenly begin writing much more harmonically static, perhaps traditionally-beautiful music, and parts of this certainly remind me of the balance of chaotic vs. static in Invisible Cities or The Pieces That Fall To Earth.
Hmm, sort of. The piece grows out of a melody I wrote years ago, but after I wrote it, so maybe or maybe not. What I found interesting that, even as I wrote the piece at the Macdowell Colony, a place mostly free of distraction, I still have felt distracted. I’ve felt distracted all year, and I’m sure many people have. It’s one of the weird, particularly toxic side effects of the Trump era: all of the news that comes in makes you more distracted, less focused, less able to do deep thinking: and therefore more like Trump.
This work is an inadvertent dramatization of that very fact.
You’ve become a bit of a regular here. Outside of our awesome concert hall, what’s your favorite spot to hang when you visit LA?
Usually my trips to LA are just jam packed with trying to see all the friends I’ve developed around my projects here. And if not that, sitting in the sunless room of a recording studio working on my new album with Wild Up.
But when I do have a few minutes, I’m excited to spend time in the Arts District, at the Hauser and Wirth gallery, and then swing by Wurstkuche after.
Tickets for the December 7 premiere are available at laphil.com/tickets/colburn-celebrity-recitals/2017-12-07.
On November 18th Walt Disney Concert Hall transformed into a showcase of the community, talent and swagger of Los Angeles new music. The second annual Noon to Midnight event was as much an exhibition as a festival: An overlapping schedule of pop-up performances populated the building’s many nestled spaces, encouraging attendees to wander and casually sample the day’s various offerings. The music-making spilled over Gehry’s grand titanium shipwreck onto the sidewalk and plaza, but the main stage served as a central hub for major performances, punctuating the day with moments of communion between curious ears scattering outwards toward the bustling amphitheater, beer garden, and cozy nooks and crannies of the hall.
In truth, this collar-loosening was the first successful performance of the day. Among younger audiences, the glitzy, glass-enclosed posters of Dudamel might seem out of touch with the Phil’s superimposed tagline “our city, our sound” as his immaculate white bow tie and baton are a far cry from the flimsy band posters that litter telephone poles around Echo Park. But something about licking food truck drippings off of your fingers while listening to electric guitars compete with traffic noise really tempers the imposing austerity of the concert hall. And so, from the very onset, Noon to Midnight transformed the space from a venue for witnessing art into a home-base for engaging with it.
And engaging it was. Yuval Sharon and Annie Gosfield’s new performance piece, War of the Worlds was a fitting centerpiece for the event, occupying both the hall and remote sites in a sprawling, tech-savvy production that cleverly balanced national and local relevance (see Nick Norton’s review here). Wild Up performed two separate sets. The first was a showcase of the collaborative works born of the LA Phil’s National Composers Intensive, featuring new pieces by six young composers. As one might expect, the music reflected an excited exploration of the ensemble’s open-mindedness, navigated by some promising compositional voices. The second set utilized the ensemble’s larger forces to premiere several new works that best demonstrated the ensemble’s agile, performative charm—sometimes dance-y, sometimes delicate, sometimes asking “how did I end up waist deep in this swamp” and “are trombone multiphonics the only way out.” But whether shimmering or sloshing, Christopher Rountree and wild Up were always committed, always convincing, and always a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
The smaller ensembles offered a more intimate experience, including a noisy, forward-looking set by gnarwhallaby, installation performances by HOCKET and Southland Ensemble, jazzy moments with the LA Signal Lab, and a tight, driving performance by Jacaranda. Outdoor spaces hosted less traditional instrumentations like RAGE THORMBONES and Los Angeles Electric 8. The performance that perhaps best encapsulated Noon to Midnight as a whole was Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Etoile: red fish blue fish, spread among the serene beer garden atop Disney Hall, animated the crisp evening air and city views with a radically virtuosic performance in which audience members strolled between and around the performers to create a consuming, fluid and completely individual experience of the colossal work. Here the performance and experience of the music were inseparably entangled, defined by the audience’s direct engagement with the production. The same could be said of Chris Kallmyer‘s Soft Structures, almost a festival in itself.
In total, the day included more than twenty separate programs, and it would be impossible to speak to each set individually. But parsing the experience into discrete parts would betray the atmosphere the LA Phil took such care to create in the first place; Noon to Midnight is a monument of local music that generates all the electricity and none of the pomp of the traditional concert. The music, performers, spaces, drinks and food all embodied an LA personality that manifested in every detail. Having spent most of my life in Silicon Valley, what strikes me most since moving to Los Angeles is the physicality of the city: people don’t just philosophize about things, they make them. There is a reverence for the man-made and the hand-made: What the east side lacks in blooming nature it replaces with colorful graffiti, what towering buildings of Hollywood obscure from your view they replace with blinding LEDs and enormous marquis. In a field of new music that can all too easily slip into intellectualism, this combining of upstart and established groups alike was a heartening account of the range of artists getting their hands seriously dirty making art. It is clear that music here is being made not only in pristine halls, but also in aged, mixed-use buildings with shoddy plumbing. And so, rather than hanging the the local art on a white wall, standing back and rubbing its beard to pontificate, Noon to Midnight was instead an invitation to come together, wash hands, and admire the buildup of dirt in the sink. A glorious, silver sink in the middle of downtown.
While that particular fantasy didn’t quite happen, War of the Worlds did manage to blast through my rather high expectations. It is in many ways the most fully realized version of Yuval’s unique brand of opera theatre, a project perhaps more deeply connected to Los Angeles than even Hopscotch. Rather than take the essential Wells/Welles story/broadcast and stage it, the new libretto (by Sharon himself) engages with contemporary LA life, politics, and a lot of sci fi fandom. Its layers of metacommentary on cultural life in 2017 are a joy to unpeel.
Let’s begin with the premise. Audiences were seated both inside the concert hall and at three “siren sites” around LA. The opera began with Sigourney Weaver as a guest celebrity host for an LA Phil concert, which was broadcast to the three sites. For the first performance I was at site one, where a pair of scientists were listening to the broadcast on the radio while doing some experiments, and for the second I was in the hall. Before we go any farther, let’s think about the setup. The Industry’s other productions, as ambitious and wild and creative and postmodern as they are, often run into a fourth wall problem. In Hopscotch, for instance, yes, you were in a car with the singers and actors, but it still felt as if they were performing for a large audience, or for a camera, as if it didn’t matter that you were there.
That’s not exactly a knock on Hopscotch or its performers, but it was definitely odd to be sitting two feet from someone singing their heart out but not actually interacting with you. The fourth wall is a tricky thing, though – break it too obviously and it can completely ruin the narrative, like the remote scene in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Such breaks have to serve the story rather than spice it up. In the cases of Hopscotch, Invisible Cities, and Crescent City, I think Yuval was right in his avoidance of dealing with the fourth wall in the drama, much as the staging might make it seem like the obvious device to manipulate.
That the actual plot of War of the Worlds included a concert broadcast being interrupted, however, finally gave Yuval the legitimate justification to start playing with that fourth wall. It’s normal to have a bunch of celebrities show up and hang out at LA Phil concerts — hell, it’s almost a marketing device — so having Sigourney Weaver show up and participate brought the opera’s narrative into our normal experience as LA Phil concertgoers. It seemed to say “this is actually happening to you,” rather than “watch and listen to this thing we are performing,” and it was convincing.
The choice to cast Weaver as the all-knowing person in a science fiction situation itself is a trope we’re also familiar with. It’s almost a requirement for a self-aware sci fi film these days to give her a cameo or have her show up at the end to explain to the characters what is actually happening. This casting decision further brings War of the Worlds into our world, and isn’t lost on Yuval’s libretto, with the scientists (read: lovable nerds) at site one geeking out over getting to talk to Ellen Ripley. Sitting at site one and listening to an LA Phil broadcast is what both the audience and the scientists are doing, so it makes perfect sense that they would interact. And interact we did, with Professor Pierson and his assistant (perfectly portrayed by actors Hugo Armstrong and Clayton Farris, respectively) bantering with the audience before the concert, and Professor Pierson developing a celebrity crush on Weaver.
When the music and story get rolling, though, the metanarrative helps the opera to get real, and real important. Jorge Luis Borges once pondered,
Why does it disturb us that…the thousand and one nights be [included] in the book of the Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.
I believe that with War of the Worlds, the inverse is true. As the sirens around Los Angeles wake up from their machine slumber to coordinate the martian attack, mayor Eric Garcetti himself walks onstage to tell the audience that – paraphrasing – “these things have been hiding in plain sight for 70 years, and that we’ll fight them to defend our way of life in Los Angeles.” In case it wasn’t clear that this is an opera about America and LA in 2017, when the Mexican shop owner portrayed by hometown opera hero Suzana Guzmán gets asked about the aliens, she immediately launches into a panicked defense of her legal immigrant status. It’s not that we, the audience, can be fictitious, but that the fiction can be fact.
Sometimes with Industry productions it can feel like the music, while important, takes a backseat to the setting. While the narrative structure and libretto are integral to War of the Worlds, in this case it is clearer than ever that they are in support of Annie Gosfield’s score and the performers. Yuval has said that gathering a community for artistic purposes can be a form of sociopolitical action, and the mere premise of this opera is that we’re getting together to listen to a piece of music. That literally happens here, as being at a concert, with a tongue-in-cheek name check to Frank Gehry’s silver building, ends up saving the listeners from the invasion.
Christopher Rountree’s muscular but agile conducting style was a perfect match for Gosfield’s synth-laden orchestral score with occasional dips into popular idioms. Furthering our theme of music-as-community here, one got the feeling that not only did most of the people in the hall actually know Rountree from around town, but that he was having a blast being exactly who he is, even getting to act a little with the sound guy, “Dave,” in a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. At least one other critic wrote that he was hoping for an orchestral suite of movements from the opera; I’ll second that request. And coloratura soprano Hila Plitmann’s portrayal of La Sirena, or the wordless, musique concrète instrumentale of the alarm sirens – broadcast through the actual alarm sirens – was utterly stunning.
Making art together in a diverse community is our hometown’s calling card. The Industry’s past productions have done that splendidly for their audience. With War of the Worlds, the LA Phil and The Industry do it with their audience. To live in LA is to be a part of this story and project.By embracing that, War of the Worlds becomes not only engrossing and entertaining as hell, but a vital piece of opera theatre.
Disclosure: the author of this review is friends with some of the subjects, and sometimes works for The Industry. Rather than pretending this is some piece of unbiased writing in the name of journalistic integrity, I think being actively involved allows for deeper insights while writing. Make of that what you will.
Next Tuesday, November 21, cellist Nick Photinos of Chicago-based ensemble Eighth Blackbird will be performing works from his debut solo album, Petits Artéfacts at Monk Space, aided by pianist Vicki Ray. I asked Nick some questions about the album, performing, working with composers, and Eighth Blackbird. Here’s what he had to say:
Can you tell us about the process of recording your album, Petits Artéfacts?
The concept for the album happened after I premiered the Florent Ghys work, Petits Artéfacts, a 17 minute work of six small, tightly constructed pieces. I got thinking about all the short pieces I had played over the years and, when I started digging around, found that none of them had been recorded yet, so the content came together pretty quickly. So did the idea to collaborate with pianist Vicki Ray and percussionist Doug Perkins, two people I’ve played with for many years but not often enough. The recording sessions themselves happened in May and June of 2016 and January of 2017.
What are your thoughts on performing this music live? Does the live performance offer something the recording cannot, and vice versa?
The plan was always to tour this music live following the release, so it’s been really great to get this music out in the world more. As far as why go see this live, besides just that live music is and should be better than listening to recordings: the Ghys in particular has great accompanying videos that Florent made himself, so those are definitely worth seeing and something you can’t get from the album alone. A lot of the works also have more punch when seen live, from the politically-charged Little to the wit of the Norman.
Do you plan on more solo albums in the future?
I’ve started thinking about it, but I want to get as much mileage out of this album as I can, so that’s at least a few years down the road.
Did you work with any of the composers personally while recording the album? Can you tell us about this experience?
Not so much in the recording process itself, but I did work extensively with Florent for the editing and mixing process. I’ve loved his album Télévision, not just for the music but also the sound on the recording: full and rich but also close and present, with not as much reverb as a lot of solo classical albums have. He had a lot of great input and helped shape the sound of the recording in a big way.
So far we’ve been focusing on your work as a soloist in light of your new album, but you’re also the cellist for the Chicago-based new music ensemble, Eighth Blackbird. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences with Eighth Blackbird? In contrast with solo performing, what do you love most about performing with the group? Anything on the horizon for you guys that you’d like to share?
I’m the founding cellist of Eighth Blackbird, now in its 21st season, so it’s old enough to drink. There’s so much I love about the group–the repertoire, the staging and memorization–but it all comes down to simply getting to go to work every day, whether that’s at our studio or recently onstage in front of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and just play good music really, really well together, and have fun doing it. So much on the horizon for us, including a new album of a staged 90-minute work by Dan Trueman, called Olagón, that comes out on Nov. 10; performances of that and our regular rep; and this June the second year of Blackbird Creative Lab, our two-week summer festival in Ojai, CA that’s free of tuition, room, and board for accepted fellows.
Cellist Ashley Walters released her first solo album, Sweet Anxiety, on Populist Records last month. The music is complex and difficult—sometimes on its surface, sometimes in the hidden technical requirements—but Walters breathes life into each work with her astounding virtuosity. Beyond physical skill, however, Sweet Anxiety showcases her ability to find musical consequence across a range of compositional styles. The result is a stunning album, strengthened by its aesthetic diversity and yet unimaginable without Walters’s distinct talents.
The journey of this album is in the gamut of musical intent: some pieces clutch the wheel with caffeine-trembling hands while others gaze contemplatively out the passenger-seat window. To this end, Nicholas Deyoe’s For Stephanie (on our wedding day) works as an effective exposition for the record, a short juxtaposition of dramatic, lush chords against melodic fragments and sparkling timbral echoes. Walters’ impeccable balance guides the listener’s ears, pulling you in to reveal subtle verticalities before thrusting you back in your seat to bathe you in guttural drones. Deyoe’s writing here reveals a keen sense of energy and diffusion, which Walters embodies with astounding sensitivity. This understanding between Deyoe and Walters is particularly highlighted as the splashing, melodic climax dissolves into a passage of gorgeous tranquility, calmly rippling outwards until subsiding into the stillness.
And then, emerging from quiet tappings, comes the funk. Right as you are wondering if Walters had herself become ocean, the unmistakable percussive episodes, insect-like buzzing, and haunting melodies of Berio’s late Sequenza XIV zap the air with electricity. Along with Deyoe’s works, Sequenza XIV employs a more traditional musical rhetoric, building forward momentum in which listener expectations are resolved, subverted, or re-directed. In both Sequenza XIV and Another Anxiety, Walters sets these moments ablaze with acrobatic changes of technique, tone and dynamic. Furious passages are handled with intimidating virtuosity, but it is Walters’ right hand technique that stands out here. The control of bow pressure and position transforms even the most extended of techniques into musical devices rather than musical effects. This in particular makes the dramatic contrasts inherent to the language of these pieces especially effective and expressive.
On the other hand, quite literally, are Andrew McIntosh’s Another Secular Calvinist Creed and Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s Plainsound-Litany. Both works are patient, disciplined explorations of microtonal material—horizontal in Creed and vertical in Plainsound. The Schweinitz presents intervals of varied intonation and timbre, emerging and receding in succession. A meditative atmosphere is sustained through the gentle ease of Walters’s playing (a true feat given the technical difficulty of the piece), unfolding the material like an exposé of unhurried snapshots with shifting perspectives. Creed instead explores microtonal relationships melodically in the form of a 31-note scale. Ascending and descending, the lines slowly fragment into opposing forms before recombining into a final, climbing iteration. Missing from the sound recording is the theatre of contradiction embedded in McIntosh’s piece: Radically disjunct physicality is required to produce the smooth, conjunct musical material. Still, the inclusion of these two pieces offers a contemplative and unforced contrast to the more propulsive works on the album.
Perhaps most curious is the inclusion of Wadada Leo Smith’s Sweet Bay Magnolia with Berry Clusters. The piece inherits the uninhibited, reckless abandon of an improvisation—one which emphasizes performer intuition and awareness over formal archetypes. The task of communicating a work that is less about the plot than the language itself is a difficult one, but Walters succeeds brilliantly. Under her hands, piece oozes with personality, spinning out a trajectory of ideas and development with convincing and relatable motivation. Surrounded by works that treat time as a means of either thematic propulsion or suspension, Sweet Bay Magnolia stands instead with the Berio in its improvisatory bend, creating the impression that the listener is witnessing the piece’s conception in real time. And so, beyond the merits of the piece itself, Sweet Bay Magnolia helps rounds out the album in way that highlights the variety of stylistic intent included.
Sweet Anxiety is a showcase of musical aptitude, not only for Walters’ skilled performances, but for the interpretations and larger flow of the album. Its incorporation of distinct and diverse compositional approaches is bold and effective, and the commitment to conveying the sound world and personality of each piece makes for exceptionally moving moments. This album is, no doubt, both “sweet” and “anxious”—so much so that you may have to remind yourself there is just a single instrument. But that would be somewhat deceiving, because in truth this is music for much more than solo cello; it is music for Ashley Walters.
On November 17 at REDCAT, the EXO//ENDO ensemble will be performing works by composers Braden Diotte and Ulrich Krieger, both of whom are known for pushing boundaries with their music. The ensemble will perform Braden Diotte’s General Manifest, a 48-minute musical meditation on freedom, using memories of soundscapes along with field recordings from a twenty-year period traveling through the American west. Composer Ulrich Krieger’s Black Sun Rebirth combines elements of contemporary chamber music, dark ambient, doom metal and microsound aesthetics, telling a story of destruction and creation, the demise of the cosmos and the rebirth from the oceans. The piece is inspired by Ragnarök tetralogy and the first book of the Edda. Both composers will be performing with the ensemble.
I asked Braden Diotte and Ulrich Krieger some questions about their work, views on collaboration, the cross-pollination between rock, metal, and contemporary music, and more. Here’s what they had to say:
EXO//ENDO will be performing General Manifest, which, in your own words, pays tribute to the fleeting music witnessed during a twenty-year span riding freight trains about the American West, and is about the broader notion of birthright freedoms. Can you tell us more about this time in your life, riding freight trains and experiencing the underbelly of this part of the country? When/how did you realize you wanted to translate the experience to music, and what was the process of writing General Manifest like?
General Manifest is the repository for a handful of sonic experiences upon which I made a cohesive connection between the music I was listening to and the sounds bellowing from moving freight trains. My reasons for being aboard those trains in the first place varies from year to year beginning with traveling to punk shows in Berkeley, to attempting to collect food stamps in three states at once, to eventually visiting friends in distant cities and states, and finally to reconnect with a lost sense of independence after the demise of a string of important relationships. On one of my decidedly final journeys, in 2011, I experienced a sound-world on the rails just southeast of the Salton Sea in the Imperial Valley, which fell somewhere between an epiphany and a religious experience. It was in that moment that it became apparent that General Manifest needed to be written.
The writing process for General Manifest was graced with a series of very happy accidents which took quite a while to unfold, evolving from a quasi-minimalist multi-pianist work into an electronic work and finally into its current state as an electro-acoustic work. It may continue to evolve, but at its core the work is getting closer and closer to the true sounds from which its inspiration was drawn. Eventually, General Manifest will exist as a personal tribute to those years and experiences, even after I’ve reached the end of the line.
Throughout your career, you’ve collaborated with many well-known artists in the progressive/avant-garde rock scene, such as Faust, Neurosis, and the Locust. What do you enjoy most about the collaboration process?
When it’s truly happening, the collaborative process brings out the best and worst of everyone involved. It is no different than any other intimate relationship, and may be happening with a roomful of people at the same time, which can make things far more complicated. To fully invest in a creative exchange, one should be vulnerable and expose themselves, not withholding passion to save face. Light investment produces light results, like casual dating. Some collaborations have legs, and in my experience the collaborations that have the strongest legs also have the strongest passions, egos, arguments, and so on. There’s a ton of potential for growing in all of it, but the flame that burns twice as bright also tends to burn half as long. So what you’re left with is the artifact: the collaboration in whatever form it was documented. At the end of it all, it’s these artifacts that I get the most enjoyment from.
What do you view as similarities and/or differences between the avant-garde rock scene and the contemporary art music community?
I see the greatest similarities between those two communities existing in the mutual desire to communicate a unique and personal expression built upon the back of their respective lineages. Both worlds tend to be well-informed, and each carries their own discourse surrounding the important mileposts in their lineage. But now, in the 21stcentury, another interesting similarity is the burgeoning crossover between those worlds, with both seemingly pulling from each other’s histories without the concerns that previously kept them divided. As long as that continues to happen, it would be counterproductive to expound upon the differences.
How did you and Ulrich Krieger meet? Do you collaborate often?
I met Ulrich during my stint as a graduate student at CalArts, where he assisted with my 2013 work General Manifest, which was a large part of what I did while there. I was a member of his ensemble Sonic Boom for a period of time, and have performed alongside him in a number of public presentations over the past five years. The collaboration between Ulrich and EXO//ENDO has resulted in numerous collaborative sessions, and has been in development since 2015 – partially due to the “ping-pong” collaboration process that we are using, as well as the fact that none of us live in the same city.
Can you tell us about your experiences with EXO//ENDO, as a founding member and co-director? What do you see for the future of the ensemble?
EXO//ENDO has no future. It is an ensemble that by its very design holds its weight in the present, whenever present that may be. Right now that present involves a collaboration with Ulrich Krieger, as well as several other collaborations that are in various stages of development. Each project has a flavor of its very own, and the personnel are a revolving door of talented soloists and contributors that each brings their wares to any given performance. This – combined with the improvisatory ethos that is the spine of E//E – results in one performance of any given piece varying substantially from any other performance.
EXO//ENDO will be performing your work, Black Sun Rebirth, which is inspired by the first book of the Edda and tells a story of destruction and creation. On a personal level, what does this work mean to you? What do you hope the audience will get from it?
Using classic Greek themes has since long been a staple in art music: Elektra, Prometeo, etc., but very few composers have looked at Nordic mythology for inspiration. Might it be due to less exposure of it, might it be due to Wagner having seemingly occupied that material, might be due to the misuse of the material by fascists and right-wing groups. This always bothered me. I am German and we didn’t even read the Edda in school but we read Greek and Roman mythology and discussed their culture, but not our ancestors. Christianity has done everything to cover up and discredit these Nordic traditions, because they were a threat to the Christian ideology and much more progressive than Christanity: in Germanic tribes women were sword fighting soldiers, women were land and farm owners, and tribes were organized democratically in the Althing, kind of a parliament of tribes. I am interested in looking into this tradition, my tradition more closely. It holds a lot of interesting material. And I hope that the audience will be exposed to these ideas and will be able to connect to these ideas through the music.
The score for Black Sun Rebirth combines elements from contemporary chamber music, dark ambient, doom metal, and microsounds. How did you arrive at this combination of musical language for this piece?
These are all elements I personally like and I am influenced by. Metal, especially black metal, is the only musical style that since decades shows an interest in this culture and is outspoken about the violent, aggressive and bloody ways Christianity slaughtered and oppressed these traditional pagan Germanic cultures. In chamber music I am mostly interested in the extended soundscapes of timbral music—so ambient or doom is not so far away from this. All these styles work with non-traditional musical material. There is no key signature and often not even a meter in a traditional sense in these styles. It seems perfectly contemporary and at the same time ancient material.
Can you tell us about your interest in the cross-pollination between art music and avant-garde rock? Do you have a background in rock music?
Yes, I do. I have been working with Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth, we have the band Text of Light, with Lou Reed (Band and Metal Machine Trio), with the German krautrock band Faust and regularly record saxophone arrangements or soli for rock bands. Just recently I did a 4 contrabass-clarinet arrangement for a doom band in Berlin. I also have my own noise-metal band Blood Oath here in LA. At this moment I see avant-garde rock carrying on the torch of progressive music experimentation more than contemporary chamber music does, which seems as a whole to be in a phase of mannerism and getting conservative and retro. Rock music as well as contemporary art music is based on two main elements: sound and rhythm. Melody and traditional harmony are of minor importance to rock musicians and avant-garde chamber music composers.
You’re known for pushing the boundaries of saxophone through collaboration with many well-known and respected artists, including Lou Reed, John Zorn, LaMonte Young, and others. What do you enjoy most about the collaboration process?
About collaborations I enjoy mostly that the end result is more than the sum of its elements. The music coming out of collaborations is a music I would have never written alone. It is a group thing and in best cases even transcends the group itself.
What do you see for the future of new music?
This is a deep question, I could fill a book with. I talked about some of it already in the questions above. I think we are at the dawn of a major cultural change. I see contemporary chamber music declining due to its crisis and its clinging to the 20th century. I see rock and pop music, especially metal, hip hop and electronica, getting even stronger and developing, opening up more and more to the experiment. It seems that rock and pop will continue the tradition of experimentation and innovation of 20th century art music. We see this already with noise, doom metal and electronica, which are all non-academic, progressive, experimental styles.
Don’t miss out on the concert November 17. Check out REDCAT for more information and to get your tickets.
Last Sunday evening, a 20-odd crew quietly gathered at Automata in Chinatown for Southland Ensemble’s first concert of the season, a presentation of works by Manfred Werder and Jürg Frey. What works about Southland is their commitment to making space for a delicate strain of experimental music that requires care to present well. As the audience settled into their folding chairs and the lights dimmed in the compact gallery, a peculiar hush spread through the room.
The program’s three pieces were judiciously selected explorations of an attenuated sound world – more or less: unison cued harmonies, each lasting between half a breath and a full breath, floating into one another, and into silence. This kind of program is especially exciting because the audience can settle into a certain kind of careful listening, appreciating the nuances between each piece, and between each composer.
When materials are this bare, fluctuation is content. This is music about gesture, and the multiplicities of meaning that the tiniest variations in gesture can encode. The physicality of the music approaches dance, or theater. Maybe some would describe popular or folk dance as the height of physicality. But here, so many more revealing movements of the body are transcribed. Hidden personal rituals, telling missteps.
The first piece by Frey was 60 Pieces of Sound for bassoon, alto saxophone and flute. The 60 musical events begin simply: unison cued dyads with impeccable intonation, sans vibrato, lasting roughly half a breath, expanding into triads or clusters. If that sounds like a performance direction for a structured improvisation, it’s because the production here is so transparent that just being an audience member feels like being part of the creative process. All music depends on its audience for completion, but this music especially seems to require the audience as container. It’s nice to be needed.
The harmonies expand and contract, gently leaning and pulling. Silences are not uncomfortable, attention can ebb and flow. Gagaku comes to mind – a heightened atmosphere in which declamations have meaning, can take root.
In this context, harmonic grammar carries real weight. This music is not abstracted from canonic music, it’s stripped. The house is not rendered in multiple perspectives, it’s just the furniture has been taken out. History is still richly in evidence, if one cares to find it, speaking through temperament and timbre, harmonic expectation. Much care is given to pleasure – silences are perfectly satisfying, not intimidating. Switches to minor harmonies seem more powerful, emotional shifts more salient. The alto sax tone was especially exquisite and well-controlled for such a bare context. Intonation between all was precise, reverberating just right in the intimate acoustics of Automata. It’s hard to say what kind of spiritual food this is exactly, but it’s certainly toothsome.
stück, by Manfred Werder, brings similar concerns to an ensemble of flute, violin, bassoon, viola, cello, and alto sax. In uniformly blue lighting, Southland’s focused performers were like specters, communicating from another plane. Again, limited materials are at play here – half to full-breath length drones. The difference here is that the larger ensemble creates a new meaning. No longer are we exploring the intimate thoughts of a single person; this music is inherently social. There’s a ‘we.’ Register-wise, the pitches explored are much higher and lower, and although the basic form is similar to 60 Pieces, this feels like a completely different personality. More emphasis on intellect, a little less generosity, a little sharper, not inherently more dissonant, but voiced more harshly. There is less pleasure. The contrasts between high, piercing tones and sul pont whispers are especially interesting – the strings are functioning as a section here, and the play on tradition is satisfying. Haunting, piercing intonation. As the piece develops, the contrasts feel more dialectic. Here we don’t have a described narrative, we are grappling with opposites, in real time. The overall feeling is so solid. The heritage of experimental music has produced a vocabulary not comprised of idiomatic phrases, but a way of approaching temporality, the perception of time.
All this music deals with meaning – intensifying or distilling it. It’s not typical to describe experimentalism as concerned with psychological meaning. In fact, performance instructions on the Werder are “für sich, klar und sachlich. einfach.” (to itself, clear and objective. simple.) But what is objectively being described? It seems: experience.
And for an even richer kind of experience, the star of the show was Frey’s String Quartet No.3. Although again we were presented with simple successions of harmonies, the tones here were instantly meatier, uniquely-voiced dissonances, all sans vibrato, by the superbly balanced Koan Quartet. The group is aptly named; their commitment feels squarely placed in the mysteries of the work rather than showiness.
The piece is theatrical, self-referential — a character, a monologue, setting the scene in the city, telling us about an experience before we dive into the epic. Then, traditionally, there’s a secondary theme. Rather than just hinting at the idea of a narrative, the whole story is here, impossibly: a character, a conflict, even a love interest, a journey. Schubert comes to mind. Suspended chords bleed into one another, extended tonality unexpectedly tilts into rapturous shimmering textures. The story stops at points at glassy pools of sul pont. The explorations here examine all textural possibilities without being glib. These points of interest are selected, chosen with care, composed! “Themes” return. Perhaps most interestingly, the work grapples with the history of the string quartet itself. There’s a Beethovenian sense of fate. Silences are used here to mark sections and narrative transitions, rather than as expressive means in their own right, as in the first piece. It’s uncanny how the meaning of silence can be shaped so strongly by a composers’ intent. The piece doesn’t play with extremes of register, as in the Werder. Instead, the contrasts are between harmonic progression and unexpected leaps into extended techniques. It’s genuinely surprising when the quartet turns from phrases to textures, and a third of the way through, into a whispering wintry sul pont landscape with solo tones emerging as voices. The piece as a whole is striking in its sincerity and seriousness of purpose.
The project in these pieces is, if not absolutely clear in intent, then perfectly clear in execution. What works about such harmonic play is that, more than melody or rhythm, harmonic grammar is deeply intertwined with cultural conditioning of Western music history. Hopes and expectations formed by acculturation battle reality, mirroring so much of experience.
Frey’s String Quartet No. 3 was extraordinary, and one felt that it should have been appreciated by more than 20-or-so lucky souls. The ending fades with long breath-like tones, receding into the ether. This is Romantic music, but in a way we can really hear, today. There are concerns about identity, hope, belonging, clothed in garments we understand. These composers take their task seriously and that is perhaps the most moving thing of all.
I’m excited to share the news that Brandon Rolle has joined the team of writers contributing to New Classic LA. We posted his first review, of Nicholas Deyoe’s new record, a couple days ago. Here’s Brandon’s bio:
Brandon J. Rolle is a composer and conductor of contemporary music. Fueled by curiosity but informed by classical and experimental traditions, his works employ a singular language that investigates points of connection between old and new, structure and chaos, perception and deception. His diverse compositional output has been performed across the United States and Europe, including orchestral, electro-acoustic and acousmatic music, as well as original interactive computer instruments, intermedia works and installations. Beyond his concert works, Rolle has worked as a composer for videogame, short film, dance, and is an active conductor and ensemble coach. His industry experience includes work as an orchestrator, copyist, editor, audio programmer, and recently as contributor to New Classic LA.
Rolle holds degrees in guitar and political science from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and a Masters degree in composition from Mills College where he studied with Roscoe Mitchell and Pauline Oliveros. He is currently a PhD Candidate in Composition at the University of California, Santa Barbara where he works with Clarence Barlow, Joel Feigin and Curtis Roads. Brandon lives in Los Angeles, California, and teaches composition at the University of California, Santa Barbara.