Los Angeles-based experimental opera company The Industry workshopped the much-anticipated contemporary opera Bonnie and Clyde for their Second Take program on February 26, 2017. Written by Andrew McIntosh – with libretto by Melinda Rice – the performance was given at the spacious Wilshire Ebell Theatre with a large crowd in attendance. More than three years in development, the full musical score of Bonnie and Clyde was realized by a cast of soloists, a small chorus and wild Up, a 17-piece instrumental ensemble, all under the direction of Christopher Rountree.
Yuval Sharon, Artistic Director for The Industry, explained in his welcoming remarks that the Second Take preview was designed to give a complete performance of all the music in the opera. There is no acting, costumes or scenery, but the full musical forces are all present. The program notes explained that “[Second Take] showcases the new piece in a nascent and pure state; production concerns and directorial interpretation have not yet put this composition to the test.”
The six vocalists comprising the cast stood on one side of the stage, four choristers were placed on the opposite side, with wild Up in the center. A large screen above and at the back of the stage helpfully displayed the libretto as it was sung. As all the singers were stationary and dressed in formal black, the performance feeling a bit more like an oratorio than an opera. The presence of wild Up at center stage tended to emphasize the accompaniment over the singers at times, but the instrumental texture throughout was generally transparent enough that there was no compromise to any of the vocal elements.
As librettist Melinda Rice observed, “When a story is familiar, there is hardly any question of how it will end.” This perspective informs almost everything about Bonnie and Clyde, and from the opening moments the feeling is one of a somber sadness. The libretto is always on a personal and emotional plane, with much of it taken from the reminiscences of the surviving players in the real-life drama. The libretto draws material from the published autobiography of Ted Hinton to form the narrative thread. Hinton worked as a delivery man and personally knew both Bonnie and Clyde. He later became a police officer and was a member of the posse that finally caught up with the fugitive pair.
Bonnie and Clyde unfolds in 24 scenes over two acts. Act I serves to introduce the many characters: Ted Hinton (James Onstad), Clyde’s mother Cumie (Sarah Beaty), brother Buck Barrow and his wife Blanche (David Castillo and Lauren Davis), as well as the titular Bonnie and Clyde (Justine Aronson and Jon Keenan). Given the static nature of the staging, it took a few scenes to get the sense of these relationships – the acting and costuming in the final production will be helpful here – but the music and the singing were both sensitive and precise, clearly sketching out the emotional terrain. Early in Act I Cumie, portrayed by Sarah Beaty, sings a beautiful aria in the form of a letter asking the governor to parole Clyde as he “is needed here on the farm.” There is a palpable sense of pathos in the music; the hard-scrabble life of an East Texas farming family is distinctly heard and felt. When Clyde returns home from prison he arrives in a new Ford V8. Rather than return to his family and the difficult life of a farmer, Clyde is completely bewitched by the power of the automobile and the freedom this represents; you can hear this tension in the music and it marks a decisive point in the story.
The final scene in Act I is masterfully done – Bonnie and Clyde are on the run and crash their car near a washed out bridge in the country. Bonnie is severely burned and they seek shelter at a nearby farmhouse. The family there offers to call for help, but Clyde refuses and announces that he will steal their car to continue the flight. The frightened family begins to sing a hymn – as heard in the chorus – and this immediately connects with the audience on a spiritual level, much like a chorale in a Bach Passion. Act I thus concludes with Bonnie and Clyde renouncing everything that is good in their past for an uncertain freedom in the future.
Act II opens with a spoken soliloquy by Ted Hinton, and this helpfully brings the narrative forward, putting the audience squarely in the middle of the most familiar part of the story. Bonnie and Clyde are now public enemies with brother Buck Barrow and Blanche also members of the gang. In a dramatic duet, Buck is asked to renounce Clyde and return to the quiet life. The music poignantly captures the heart-rendering choice that turns on a brother’s loyalty. When Buck is killed in a police ambush, Ted interrogates the captured Blanche in a tense scene accompanied by a steady tone in the woodwinds that heightens the emotional impact. “Your husband is dead” announces Ted – and the story gains its full dramatic traction.
After a brief orchestral interlude, Bonnie and Clyde return to the stage for a duet – having been absent since the end of Act I – and the story gathers momentum toward the inevitable finish. Another soliloquy by Hinton tells of how Bonnie and Clyde ran a roadblock on Easter Sunday, killing a rookie policeman in the process. The young man was just two weeks from his wedding and there is a very touching aria sung by Marie, his intended bride, lamenting her loss. Hinton now sings of how he has ‘gotten into their future’ and believes he can predict the couple’s next move. Hinton devises a trap for the pair and at this point the music turns very dark, the solemn toll of piano chords ringing out like church bells. A final epilogue scene is unexpectedly quiet with none of the violent histrionics of the more popular accounts. Clyde is simply heard repeating: “Freedom is driving and driving and driving…” as the opera fades to its finish. After a respectful silence, the audience responded with an extended and enthusiastic applause.
This performance of Bonnie and Clyde, although limited to just the musical elements, was nevertheless a powerful experience. The singing and playing was of a very high caliber throughout and the conducting by Christopher Rountree was flawless. The music and libretto were well-matched and artfully performed by all. The eventual staging, scenery and costuming will be an important element in portraying the relationships and motivations of the characters, especially in Act I. The singing was hauntingly beautiful, with the arias and duets more or less evenly distributed throughout the cast. The premiere of the finished production of Bonnie and Clyde is sure to be an extraordinary event.
Two years ago we interviewed composer Andrew McIntosh about his opera-in-progress, Bonnie and Clyde, before the first reading of a few excerpts at The Industry and Wild Up’s 2015 First Take program. Tonight in inaugurates the first ever Second Take, with a complete performance of the work. Andrew and his librettist and partner Melinda Rice somehow had time to answer questions in this week leading up to the premiere, which is at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre tonight at 7.
Bonnie and Clyde made an appearance in the first edition of First Take back in 2015. The Industry is now inaugurating Second Take with a full concert performance of the piece. Obviously there are more scenes and more music, but could you tell us what’s changed about the opera since First Take 2015? Did that reading alter your original conception of the piece? How did it influence writing the rest of it?
Melinda: Andrew and I have discussed this a lot.
In the excerpt of this opera performed at First Take in 2015, Bonnie and Clyde are on the edges of the story, both literally (singing from behind the audience) and in the narrative.
I felt their absence in First Take. I believed that we had created space for seeing other characters. But as I continued to work on the libretto, selecting the stories that I wanted to tell out of all of the stories that have been written down concerning them and their affects on others, Bonnie and Clyde crept back into the libretto, and back onto the stage.
In a vocal workshop of what was meant to be the full opera in mid 2016, I still felt that Clyde, and to some degree Bonnie, were missing, so I apologized to Andrew, who had thought his work in creating new material for this opera was coming to a close, and said that I wanted to write more for them. Scene 11, among other things, came out of that conversation.
Andrew, I heard you once say that you didn’t mind if audiences didn’t like your music, but that you cared a lot about what the people playing it felt. Is that sentiment the same with opera, in which there is – at least in many cases – a plot and staging that needs to communicate with a viewer?
Andrew: I’m hesitant to engage with this question, since I don’t remember the original context and I’m not sure it’s a statement I would necessarily stand behind. Also, I do have a tendency to frame ideas provocatively in conversation in ways that I often wouldn’t write down.
What I can say is that I do care quite a lot about the way performers feel while playing my music. I take extreme care to make the notation as clear as possible, solve issues like page turns, making sure the musicians have all the information they need during long rests, enough time for instrument changes, etc. Also, it is my goal to write with a kind of radical clarity, so that even if there’s only one note then it’s a note that requires love and affection from the performer and that it has some particular quality to it that they can engage with. There aren’t any throw-away notes in my music – every single one of them counts for something and asks the performers to engage critically in some way. Thus, it’s important to me to create something the performers will care about and invest in, since their parts are often exposed and transparent, even in a setting like Bonnie and Clyde where there are 27 people on stage.
1. Consider Bach’s Musical Offering or Art of the Fugue. They were completely theoretical exercises. He wrote the music because he was interested in exploring certain ideas in an almost absurdly focused, deep, and abstract way, to the point that he didn’t even specify what instruments were to play – it’s just abstract harmonies, counterpoint, and rhythms. He certainly wasn’t imaging what audiences might think or care about, yet that music continues to be performed and loved and evolve centuries later. If he had written only for a particular audience in some town in 18th-century Germany then perhaps the music wouldn’t have ended up as radical, iconic, and powerful as it did. I suppose the Musical Offering was written partly as a challenge from Frederick the Great, but I don’t know whether Bach expected the work to actually be played or not.
2. I have many small pieces that I’ve written for friends. One of those is the Symmetry Etudes, a set of eight pieces composed between 2009 and 2012 for Jim Sullivan and Brian Walsh (both of whom are playing in Bonnie and Clyde, incidentally). I wrote them simply as little experiments for us to play together in Jim’s living room for fun, not even for an audience at all. Yet, one of those pieces was the first work of mine to be played in Disney Hall, since John Adams happened to come across it and decided to include it on a concert. If I had been composing for Disney Hall I certainly would have written a different piece, and chances are that it wouldn’t have had whatever quality the Symmetry Etude had that made John select the piece for the concert. I don’t know.
3. The longer I live the less I trust my own judgment about other people’s music or art. I am fully aware that I can hear something and have a strong negative reaction the first time, yet completely embrace it the next time I hear it. In the past I’ve written off whole genres of music thinking that I didn’t value them, and then later realized that it is some of my absolute favorite music to listen to (eg. opera). If my own tastes fluctuate that much, how could I expect a whole audience to react or engage in any kind of predictable way? All I can do is write sounds that I love, try to write for the instruments or singers to the best of my ability, write in a way that asks them to engage intensely, and attempt to do so with the clearest voice I can find. If that resonates with people who listen then I will be overjoyed and grateful, but I also understand that I am never going to please everyone in a room, nor am I going to attempt to. Much of the music I love to listen to myself would probably have a somewhat polarizing effect on many audiences. If it speaks with intensity and clarity then it’s probably going to rub someone the wrong way at some point.
Melinda, I know you as a musician, but before this project didn’t know your work as a writer. Did you study formally? Or is Bonnie and Clyde a sort of first creative foray into writing?
Melinda: First, thank you for mentioning my work as a musician. I appreciate that.
This is my first libretto. I did release an album in 2016 with some of my original lyrics on it, words that I had been working on in 2013-14. I also studied fiction and non-fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College, as well as writing in the context of film. And at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, I was a writing minor (you could do that there, which was a pleasure).
I often worry that my desire for the accoutrements of writing (the reflection, the imagining, the words, the reading of words, the editing of words, and the physical feeling of a paperback in my hands) is stronger than the concepts I have to communicate. But on the topic of Bonnie and Clyde I have made myself comfortable through reading the words of many people affected by the couple, and the ideas in this opera that have come through that process have felt necessary to share.
Andrew, in our first interview before First Take two years ago, you said you “feel that working with words and voices has unlocked something in my writing that I have been trying to find for a long time…I don’t know where it will lead, but I have a feeling that all the work I’ve been doing with singers over the past year will have a significant impact on the future of my writing.” Now that you’ve been at it a while, can you discuss a bit about where that has led?
Andrew: Ha! I still don’t know where it will lead. I’m not in the right space yet to answer this question. I don’t usually understand what I’ve done in a composition until a year or two after it’s finished. Working extensively with singers definitely changed my musical language quite substantially, but I don’t think I could articulate the nature of the change right now. So, ask me again in 2018…
As a wife and husband creative team, how has work on this project made its way into other parts of your lives, or has your relationship made its way into working? Has there been a separation between work and life, so to speak?
Melinda: I don’t know how other people’s relationships work, how much they talk about work, how much they talk about hobbies, how much they talk about ideas. For Andrew and I and this project, we would make dates to work on the opera, and we would sometimes even leave our home and walk somewhere for the meeting, so that we were really clear in our focus. But once an idea became interesting to us and was developing, our conversations about the opera would become a big part of our lives together. It felt important, so we discussed it a lot. I don’t think either of us ever felt like we didn’t want to talk about it when the other one brought it up.
What about tonight’s performance has you most excited?
Melinda: It is an honor to get to share this opera with these musicians with an audience tonight. I am terrified and excited to feel how it is received with an audience. And I am excited that my parents are here.
Andrew: Hearing the incredible talents of the musicians on stage, hearing the whole thing in one fell swoop, listening while knowing that my family has traveled from far-away corners of the country to be here and see what the little brother is up to.
We here at New Classic LA cannot wait to hear Bonnie and Clyde tonight at Second Take. Full details on the concert are up at theindustryla.org/projects/bonnie-and-clyde. Thanks to all of the composers who did interviews this week for First Take as well – you can read all of them at newclassic.la/firsttake.
I’m submitting this as my review of the soon-to-be-released recording of The Industry’s Hopscotch opera project, but here’s the thing: No such thing exists. Conceived by The Industry’s Artistic Director, Yuval Sharon, Hopscotch was an opera presented in the fall of 2015 in twenty four cars driving between a number of locations scattered around Los Angeles. At the start of each performance, a few audience members would get into each of the cars along with a group of performers, and would then experience part of the opera en route to the next physical location, where they’d see another scene before being whisked away in another car. To make matters more confounding, the cars travelled along three different routes, meaning that any given audience member could only see part of the whole in any given performance. Only at the very end did all of the routes converge on a central location for the final scene.
Needless to say, this project doesn’t lend itself easily to a traditional recording. Do you present each of the car routes as a unit to approximate the experience of attending? Do you present the scenes in order to give a view of the work impossible for someone who attended it to have seen? How do you balance the inside of a limo against an open-air concrete bank of the Los Angeles River?
Difficult questions, and ones without obvious answers. Fortunately, with current technology, we can sidestep some of them. With the album released as files on a flash drive instead of tracks on a CD, you’re free to open them in any order and explore the world of this opera as you see fit. You can follow each of the car routes separately, play everything in the order of the plot, or even sort things out by individual composer or lyricist. (There were six primary composers for the project and six primary librettists, all working in a range of different styles in their respective fields.) The liner notes — in the form of a wide-ranging interview with Sharon and Josh Raab, the opera’s dramaturg — encourage this kind of self-guided exploration, though elsewhere in the booklet there are some helpful lists of which tracks to listen to to follow which routes.
Unsurprisingly, given the range of artists that contributed to this project, the tracks cover a lot of ground. “Lucha’s Quinceñera Song” (music by David Rosenboom and text by Janine Salinas Schoenberg) is a sweetly plaintive verse-chorus affair, while “Floats the Roving Nebula” (music by Ellen Reid and text by Mandy Kahn) hovers in an ecstatic crystalline stasis. “Jameson and Lucha in the Park” (music by Mark Lowenstein and text by Erin Young) presents a tightly controlled dance number coordinated with spoken dialogue, while other spoken sections feature music improvised by the contemporary performing group Gnarwhallaby. The plot is a surreally altered (but predictably heterosexual) retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and snatches of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 treatment of the same myth rub up against bristlingly contemporary soundscapes. There are as many contrasts as there are tracks on the album.
Such stylistic diversity can make for an uneven listening experience, especially when paired with the differing qualities of the recordings. Some of the tracks are beautifully mastered studio takes, while others are invaluable field recordings from the site-specific scenes around town. Obviously, there’s room enough in the world for both of these approaches to recording, but repeatedly switching back and forth with such short notice can be a little jarring. (So perhaps another fruitful approach to organizing your listening could be to tackle all the field recordings followed by all the studio takes, or vice versa.)
These slight jars, however, feel in keeping with the nature of the project. Hopscotch the opera wasn’t a singular experience as much as it was a collection of possible experiences, and Hopscotch the album follows suit. There’s no one single recording of the work; there’s a collection of possible recordings all dizzyingly contained on a single flash drive. Elsewhere in the liner notes, Sharon describes the piece not as an opera but as a web, a series of interconnected points with many possible paths leading between them, none more inherently valid than any of the others. The more I listen to the album, the more this description feels right. This album isn’t a documentation or presentation of an artistic event that happened and is now over, it’s an invitation to enter into this world and explore it on your own terms, to find your own way through the work’s myriad winding paths, to make the piece yours as only you can. It’s an opera in twenty four cars, and you’re the one behind the wheel.
You can order the “album” at records.theindustryla.org/album/hopscotch.
The Industry is presenting two events on January 20 to celebrate the release. Details are below:
Friday, January 20 (4 pm)
USC, Wallis Annenberg Hall (ANN), Room L105A
3630 Watt Way, Los Angeles
Panelists include composers Veronika Krausas and Marc Lowenstein, Yuval Sharon of The Industry, and arts journalists Mark Swed and Sasha Anawalt (moderator).
Hopscotch in Concert
Friday, January 20 (7:30 pm)
USC, Newman Recital Hall (AHF)
3616 Trousdale Parkway, Los Angeles
This special evening emceed by director Yuval Sharon will be the first live concert of songs from the opera. Six chapters from the work will be performed (one from each of its six composers), including the expansive choral finale by Andrew Norman.
Over the years I’ve spent running New Classic LA, I’ve heard time and time again the narrative that the torch of new music in Los Angeles is being passed down from our venerable old institutions like Monday Evening Concerts and the LA Phil’s Green Unbrella series to newer, more agile ensembles and series like wild Up and WasteLAnd. Old wisdom had it that the best way for a composer to get played in LA was to move to New York. I hope, with the massive triumph and all-inclusive nature of the LA Phil’s Noon to Midnight event on Saturday, these narratives can finally be put to rest. The torch isn’t being passed down, it’s being shared, and everyone is invited.
First, let’s talk scale. Disney Hall’s spaces were opened up to many of LA’s ensembles and series, and the 12 hour marathon, in which it was impossible to catch everything, featured the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, Piano Spheres, wild Up, gnarwhallaby, WasteLAnd, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Monday Evening Concerts, the USC Percussion Ensemble, The Industry, Jacaranda, Chris Kallmyer, Lucky Dragons, the LA Phil Bass Quintet, the LA Phil New Music Group, as well as a slew of food trucks and a small tasting area for a few beers from SolArc, a brewery that began life catering wild Up parties.
Programming was the spirit of inclusiveness itself, though with a somewhat surprising slant toward sounds and big works from the European, harder, avant-garde. Piano Spheres presented Messiaen’s complete, three-hour, Catalogue d’oiseaux in the garden’s Keck Amphitheatre, calling on pianists Vicky Ray, Susan Svrcek, Thomas Kotcheff, Aron Kallay, Steven Vanjauwaert, Nic Gerpe, Danny Holt, Mark Robson, Joanne Pearce Martin, Sarah Gibson, Richard Valitutto, and Nadia Shpachenko. The playing was top notch, as expected with a roster like that, and the sounds floating in from the garden and street actually served the piece well, putting Messiaen’s birds in a context where you might actually find a few of them.
Other euro-avant picks for the day included the USC Percussion Ensemble’s performance of Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique with a restoration of the original Léger film, and gnarwhallaby’s even-more-aggressive-than-usual delivery of Gorecki’s Muzyczja IV, a brief, crushing, aleatoric sort of trombone concerto that was the original impetus for the group’s formation. With the LA Phil’s penchant for Gorecki’s later, more accessible, work, hearing this punch in the face in Disney Hall was a serious treat, and a highlight of the day.
But let’s get to the new stuff. Wild Up has built a National Composers Intensive in partnership with the LA Phil, in which young composers get to write for the chamber orchestra on a fast deadline, with mentorship from established personalities in the field. Wild Up picked four works for their 1 pm show, from Tina Tallon, Thomas Kotcheff, Katherine Balch, and Ali Can Puskulcu. All showed off unique voices and impressive command of orchestration. Thomas Kotcheff’s gone/gone/gone beyond/gone beyond beyond was the highlight, a riotous, overtly physical, totally insane, “total excess in all things all the time” piece that only a band like wild Up could pull off. It was convincing, self indulgant, and I loved it. I was also unaware before hearing it that guitarist Chris Kallmyer could shred that hard.
Tina Tallon’s Sear, which delved into her life with tinnitus after rupturing an ear drum a couple years ago, was a wrenching and effective listen, and my favorite piece of hers yet. Bowed styrofoam and a power drill could have been gimmicky, as could the whole idea of basing a piece on high drones and sounds disappearing – but Tina handled them with aplomb. It’s a dangerous artistic line she chose to walk with Sear, and she nailed it.
Turning back to the heavier avant-garde, WasteLAnd’s set in BP Hall had the premiere of Nicholas Deyoe’s Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, with text by Allison Carter sung by soprano Stephanie Aston. This seemed to show a slightly simpler and more direct side of Deyoe’s writing, as his vocal music sometimes does – but I say seemed to because the bleed of crowd noise into BP Hall became a real problem for the chamber music sets as the day went on. I am sure Ashley Walters’ performance of Liza Lim’s Invisiblity was utterly stunning, and Erik Ulman’s Tout Orgueil… seemed delicate and thought provoking – but we’ll have to go to WasteLAnd’s repeat of the performance this Friday at Art Share to be sure.
Not at all affected by the crowd noise was the LA Percussion Quartet’s performance in the same space later in the day. Daniel Bjarnason and Ellen Reid presented pieces in line with their dominant aesthetics. This is by no means a bad thing – Bjarnason’s Qui Tollis had a few ideas about varying ostinati and loops from his piano concerto Processions and was similarly thrilling, and Reid’s Fear / Release was covered in decorative flourishes reminiscent of her rooftop scene from Hopscotch, a highlight of that massive opera. Jeffrey Holmes’ Ur, on the other hand, was a break through premiere. With the ensemble surrounding the audience, each musician surrounded by similar set ups of gongs, toms, bass drums, flower pots, and cymbals, we listeners were bathed in swirling cascades of sound, as players echoed each others gestures a few beats apart. I’m not sure that the piece would work as well without the spatialization – but with it, it was magic. Thankfully LAPQ tends to record in surround sound, so the effect won’t be lost when they get around to Ur.
Surprisingly, the evening Green Umbrella concert, with its more traditional format, felt significantly less interesting than the rest of the day. The music was perfectly good – Kate Soper’s The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract was wonderful, as was the composer/singer’s assured and entertaining delivery of the text, and Ingram Marshall’s Flow was lovely as expected – but sitting in the hall, being quiet between movements somehow felt like a comedown from the high of running around from show to show, seeing friends from across the new music spectrum enjoying all sorts of different things.
Wild Up’s 10 pm set changed that. Conductor/composer Christopher Rountree’s Word. Language. Honey., a violin concerto commissioned for Jennifer Koh who tore into it with abandon, was unequivocally the best thing Rountree has written yet. Days later, as I type this, I still get chills thinking about the unison bass drum hits decaying into the distance, and the frantic shredding of strings at the opening giving way to more lyrical passages throughout, and the clever use of text (the piece began with misdirection, as the band started playing while Rountree was seemingly introducing the program), his words coming back in recorded form later. I’ve always liked his music, but Word. Language. Honey. takes his composing from “assured, effective, solid, I like it” to stunning, unique, and powerful. It’s a piece not to be missed.
This review could easily continue for another thousand words. Andrew McIntosh’s Yelling Into The Wind was clever and effective, a sort of play on the whole concept of the virtuoso concerto, as pianist Richard Valitutto traded simple lines with individual soloists from the rest of the ensemble. The Industry’s installation, Nimbus, with music from Rand Steiger, clouds floating above the elevators, musicians and singers walking around (also reminiscent of the last scene of Hopscotch) was whimsical and fun and gave life to an unusually dead space in Disney Hall. Jacaranda’s performance of Steve Reich’s Eight Lines was solid – Donald Crockett’s conducting is impossibly clear, useful for minimalism – and the crickets in the literal spotlight of Chris Kallmyer’s Crickets sang their little cricket hearts out.
The support from a major institution like the LA Phil of all these smaller, grassroots organizations is a huge boon to the LA scene. The phil knows that they wouldn’t have an audience for new music without the work of all these other presenters, and despite the right-leaning shade of the phrase “a rising tide lifts all ships,” every new music group in town will benefit from days like these, whether they were on the program or not.
A day after the event, I saw an instagram post from Kallmyer, a photo of his crickets being released into the wild. They sang together in his little box. Maybe now they’ll go spread all over LA and keep singing, inspired by what they did when they were together. As for the zillion musicians and ensembles and composers that the LA Phil invited into their home on Saturday, I know they will. LA Phil, thanks for having us.
In a diverse, capably executed program of Microtonal music for solo piano and violin entitled “Beyond 12,” Tuesdays@MonkSpace further solidified itself as a major presenting organization for contemporary music in Los Angeles. Pianist and T@MS co-founder Aron Kallay, a noted exponent of microtonality, joined musical forces with like-minded violinist Andrew McIntosh of the Formalist Quartet in a generous offering of harmonically-expanded music spanning three centuries. The concert marked the season finale of T@MS, as well as that of Microfest–the primary source for microtonal music in the area–which co-produced the event.
While the octave (8 lines and spaces on the musical staff), is generally divided into 12 equally spaced notes, microtonality allows for dividing the octave into many more notes and spacing them at varying distances from each other, providing for greater and freer expressive power.
The first selection on the program‑‑a staple of Kallay’s repertoire—Kyle Gann’s Fugitive Objects (2004), exemplified the extraordinary harmonic richness possible in microtonal music by dividing the octave into 36 discreet pitch classes—three times the usual number of notes on the piano. With sweeping romantic intensity and lyricism–heightened by Kallay’s expressive playing—the piece meanders through original, unexpected dimensions of pitch. Listeners are kept on track by memorable ostinatos that define a form amidst a spongy, vibratory tone-massage.
Acoustic pianos are incapable of sustaining the pressures of such extreme tonal fission. Consequently, Kallay used a midi-controller with timbre and tuning courtesy of Pianoteq, a real-time piano modeling software.
“The changes in tuning required by Gann are so great as to be impossible on an acoustic piano: the strings would simply break,” Kallay pointed out. “Even when we can change the piano’s normal tuning system to a microtonal variant, it requires many tunings to stabilize the new tonal scheme, followed by additional tunings to restore the original temperament,” Kallay elaborated.
Such practical factors have led to the accepted and widespread use of electronic technology in live microtonal concerts.
Andrew McIntosh did not use software to produce the tunings of his program for solo violin. The simultaneous blessing and curse of the string player is the ongoing onus of intonation, note by note. The violin’s flexibility of pitch is ideally suited to microtonal music, where subtle tone-warps add expressive range, in many cases complementing programmatic content.
Taking the stage alternately with Kallay, McIntosh opened his survey of microtonality for solo violin with, “Intonation After Morton Feldman, 1” by Marc Sabat, from his suite Les Duresses (2004). McIntosh introduced the piece with enticing context-building commentary, adding an impactful additional element to the concert experience. All evening long, in standard T@MS form, the performers served as musicologists, drawing on extensive academic training in sensitizing listeners to each work’s essential attributes.
Combining a love for the music of Morton Feldman, icon of twentieth century experimental music, with a passion for precision, Marc Sabat pinned down Feldman’s allusions to microtonality in a fully worked out, rigorously notated adaptation of Feldman’s late string writing style.
“In his final few years, Feldman seemed to suggest microtonal inflections of pitch in his music for strings. When pressed to explain his methods, he seemed to avoid the question but hinted that some notes would weigh more than others,” explained McIntosh, who went on to perform the piece with clear, convincing modulations of pitch, indeed evoking weight in some notes, buoyancy in others.
The Weasel of Melancholy, a terse, humorous work for piano solo by Eric Moe, followed, closing out the first half with microtonal whinings and abstract figuration. Animal sounds and songs are always microtonal. Moe drew on the versatility of microtonality to convey animal emotion, and Kallay dispatched passages of virtuoso figuration with abandon and effortless fluency.
A jovial crowd, remaining close at hand throughout intermission, drew to attention as the stage was set for a substantial second half.
In a refreshing reminder that microtonality is nothing new, McIntosh presented a lengthy suite for violin solo, “the first example of microtonal music for solo violin,” by the Baroque composer Johann Joseph Vilsmayer.
Microtonal effects were common in the Baroque, having been used widely by Antonio Vivaldi and Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber for subtle undercurrents of meaning in program music and character sketches. Vilsmayr’s Partita number 5 is a fusion of Austrian folk melodies, French ornamental writing, and poignant microtonal leanings modeled on Biber’s Rosary Sonatas.
In an original scordatura tuning devised by Vilsmayr, the E string became a D string (for two D strings in total), allowing for numerous harmonic possibilities otherwise inconvenient in violin writing.
Aron Kallay, characteristically warm, acknowledged departing interns as well as MonkSpace owner Michael Lane, then continued to inform without lecturing. “There are pockets of microtonal communities throughout the country, especially Boston, as well as Birmingham, Alabama.”
The History of Elevators in Film, by Birmingham composer Holland Hopson, depicted the sensory experience of riding in elevators with virtuoso compositional prowess. Doppler-like expansion and contractions of pitch evoke that unmistakable sensation of “Moving while standing still,” the title of one movement, as well as the ominous destination of floor number 13, in “Floor 13, please….”
Hopson’s History might be considered the sole collaboration of the program: a duet between piano soloist and technology itself. The keyboard’s tuning dynamically shifted in response to programmed triggers using Max, an interactive framework for real-time musical processes. Kallay would “play a low note, repeat a chord a certain number of times, leap by a given interval, etc.” and the tuning would audibly shift concomitantly. The process lent a spontaneous, interactive chamber music quality to the piece, further conveying the reduced independence of elevator passengers.
Apart from Vilsmayar’s Partita, all the pieces of the program were composed in the current century. Many were commissioned by Kallay himself. “I began to grow tired of equal temperament 10 years ago and began playing microtonal music then, but not much had been written for piano solo,” Kallay noted at the program’s outset. “I began commissioning works, and hope to continue building the repertoire forever.”
Among the latest additions to Kallay’s growing compendium is The Blur of Time and Memory, by Los Angeles-based composer, Alex Miller, which brought the program to a dramatic finale.
Miller’s Blur integrated uniquely microtonal effects with idiomatic, even traditional piano writing for a holistic listener experience. An inventive microtonal tuning allowed for seamless glissando-like transitions through the entire range, inducing a haunting, surreal atmosphere of liquefied pitches and flowing masses of sound. While inextricably linked to microtonality, the piece was not dependent upon it, drawing power from striking tone clusters, singing lines, and undulatory dynamic gestures.
Building energy progressively, Miller’s Blur seemed to conclude with its climax. A torrent of sonority reverberated in the lively MonkSpace acoustic, shortly giving way to authentic, spontaneous applause by a nourished audience.
The mood was set for a reception that would last hours—a known T@MS phenomenon—drawing together friends, new and familiar in the joy of a shared adventure, the sense of something meaningful in music, and the promise of another season.
Following the Accordant Commons in this 2016 season of Microfest is the Isaura String Quartet, with “Slightly Irregular Tuning: Another adventure in microtonal music offered as part of this quintessential Los Angeles festival.” The theme of this program was Just intonation. Today, the trending intonation is equal temperament, in which every step is exactly the same distance as the next. Microtonality, in brief, means using the areas around and between those spaces. Just Intonation stems from the overtone series, the sounds you get blowing progressively harder over a coke bottle (or the opening of Thus spake Zarathustra). It is the grandfather of our modern tuning, and so does not sound foreign but a keen ear will notice the difference. The Isaura String Quartet promotes both traditional and contemporary chamber music through live performance, workshops, and collaborative projects with composers and interdisciplinary artists. If any quartet is the perfect team to tackle alternate intonation, it’s these fantastic four ladies.
The evening kicked off with Kraig Grady’s Chippewayan Echoes. He explains in the program notes that he has not attempted to reproduce an authentic historical rendition of Chippewan songs, but rather has sought an emphasis on their melodic qualities of vocal song, translated onto strings. The effect was striking. It began like wailing, in canon, at a carefully measured tempo. The tempo never swayed, and the notes marched forward at quarter and eighth note speeds. The notes wandered and explored the space, never dissonant but always just missing each other. Some sections sounded like Ralph Vaughn-Williams, others like your archetypical Western showdown, and everything in between. After several meditative minutes, the four instruments finally converged and greeted each other, and the piece concluded on a single, pure high note.
Tread Softly by Andrew McIntosh was written as a gift for the ISQ mere months ago. What started out as a chorale became a song with speech-like rhythms as if reciting the W.B. Yeats poem from which the phrase originates. The first ten seconds of the work hint at the chorale beginnings, and quickly melted into the song. The instruments swell together and fall apart, and chords sink and bend away from each other. The middle was call and answer in whispering strings, like kids at a slumber party pretending to be asleep. That faded away like a waking dream, and two lines appeared: the see-sawing cello and viola and the piping sustaining and bending violins. If listening to the music somehow failed to transport you to a secret garden, the extravagant bowing of the performers would hypnotize you instead. These evocations and metaphors of dreams and sleep are no accidents; the poem suggests that, having no worldly rugs to line the floor, he provides his dreams instead, a sentiment any artist and composer (or strapped graduate student) will understand.
John Luther Adams, the environmentally conscious composer, is becoming a household composer name, not to be confused with John Adams the minimalist composer (nor the second POTUS). His The Wind in High Places is a homage to his friend Gordon Wright, who loved Alaska and music as much as Adams. Inspired by Aeolian harps, instruments that draw their musical directly from the wind, the performers may not stop the strings on their instruments; everything is natural harmonics, the quintessential Just Intonation. Three movements unfolded gently rolling and steadily pulsing music. The first movement was a calm ocean, the second was a summer zephyr, and the third was Sisyphus pushing his stone and reaching a little higher every time but never reaching the zenith. Other flowery metaphors I came up with included: lying on a sailboat in summer, watching a sunset on a hill, drifting on a loose flower petal. I hold John Luther Adams’ music in high esteem, and this performance from Isaura confirmed that.
Following a short intermission, the audience geared themselves up for the final piece of the night. Gloria Coates’s String Quartet No. 9 premiered in Germany almost exactly nine years ago. This was the most technically challenging piece of the night, implementing extended techniques like col legno, bowing behind the bridge, and drumming on the body of the instrument. The first movement is a mirror canon, separated by a glissando canon that comes across as a quasi-shepherd tone (the aural illusion that a sound is constantly rising or falling, likened to a barbershop pole stripe). The second movement was, as Coates describes, the more experimental one. It too has elements of the mirror canon, taking a motive and turning it backwards or upside down. The performers had to throw themselves into the music to keep up with the composer’s demanding technical challenges, and the audience was utterly spellbound.
And thus concluded my whirling introduction the Isaura String Quartet. As the 2016 season comes to an end, I look forward to what both MicroFest and Isaura will bring us in the future.
Andrew McIntosh came up to me at a concert last week to invite me to hear the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet premiere his new piece, I Hold The Lion’s Paw, at Zipper Hall this Friday, April 10. I’ve loved LAPQ’s recordings, and immediately thought, “wait a second, why haven’t we done anything with them on New Classic LA?” Andrew introduced me to percussionist/LAPQ member Matt Cook, and here we are.
Fill us in on the show at Zipper this weekend.
On Friday, April 10th, the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet will play a new piece from Andrew McIntosh called “I Hold The Lion’s Paw.” We are thrilled to premiere this in Zipper Hall because we can take advantage of the size and acoustics of such an incredible space. We will have four stations set up around the audience to spread melodies in the air and move our sound around the hall. The goal is to create a concert experience that is tailored more towards our audiences’ ears rather than their eyes.
The other pieces on the concert will remain on stage and represent a more traditional chamber music concert experience. These pieces have been written for us by Los Angeles based composers Nick Deyoe, Joseph Pereira, and Shaun Naidoo. For audiences that have never attended a percussion concert, they will be amazed by the virtuosity of percussionists as well as the diverse sonic possibilities of the art form.
With the music you choose to program and record, it’s obvious that space is important to you. Your records on Sono Luminus are recorded in 7.1 surround sound. Did the decision to record like that come from within the group, or from the recording team? Do you feel that the recordings work equally well on a stereo setup like most listeners have?
As opposed to a string quartet or those with piano, the percussion performance model is very fluid and always changing. We often have strict space constraints because of the large size of our instruments like timpani and marimbas. Equally as often, we have high flexibility in space based on the kind of repertoire we choose and the smaller instruments we could use to create it.
At each show, we try to use the space provided to give an audience the deepest experience possible. We tailor each piece and our instrument choices to do just that.
When we perform in a small space, we give an intimate experience of hand held instruments and use items that can fit on one small table. These concerts often explore rhythm or the nuance of softer sounds. When in a large hall, we choose music that can push the limits of the louder dynamic spectrum.
We are excited to perform this show in Zipper because the hall is sensitive enough capture subtle details with clarity and it is large enough to let us push the louder moments.
The spatial aesthetic of our albums began when we started our recording partnership with Sono Luminus. Most of what they record is in 7.1 Surround Sound and designed to appeal to both the audiophile community and traditional lovers of classical music.
Their recording sessions typically use one tower of microphones in the center of the room with seven microphones pointing in every direction. During the session, we place our instruments in four stations surrounding the microphones so they can capture the actual spatial sound image. This presents challenges when trying to execute tight rhythmic passages over a great distance, but it pays off when we are able to listen to a piece and feel like you’re sitting in the middle of the ensemble.
When our albums are released, they come with two discs – one stereo CD, and one BluRay surround sound disc. To me, the stereo version still captures the beautiful details of the composition, our playing, and a large dynamic spectrum. The stereo version is also how 95% of our listeners can hear the album (iTunes, Spotify, and mp3s, etc). Having said that, sitting in the middle of a BluRay surround sound album with the production quality that Sono Luminus offers is an extremely rare and rewarding experience.
You have, in not a huge amount of time, put out an impressive number of records, nabbed a GRAMMY nomination, and managed to keep a very busy schedule of performances and events. You’re still in touch with our local scene here, though. Without being too blunt about it, what’s your secret?
We appreciate the kind thoughts and we feel fortunate that our work has been received so well up to now. With the individual realities of our family lifestyles, SoCal living proximity, and our creative work with other projects, it is not possible for us to be a “full-time” ensemble at the moment. We are also passionate educators so this makes presenting long tours challenging.
Dealing with our limited schedules, we have chosen to create most of our work by collaborating with composers who are associated with Southern California in some way. The Los Angeles art music community in 2015 is equally as diverse and exciting as anywhere in the world. Although we do work with composers all over the world, since our ensemble’s birth we have made it our mission to highlight the music of Southern California. In doing so, we hope to extend the long tradition of new music on the West Coast by contributing what is happening right now.
Our relationships with these artists help propel our artistry and career as an ensemble. We work together to create an audience, a sound world, and relationships with music venues.
Percussion quartet is a genre that more and more composers are writing in. Is the medium becoming today’s equivalent of the string quartet in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? If so, why do you think that is?
Percussion repertoire is expanding rapidly… we love this! There are several reasons for this recent explosion of content.
75 years ago, composer John Cage challenged the expectations of classical music listeners and used percussionists to experiment in a variety of musical contexts. He set the trend for many composers today to be ambitious in that way. He also established the trend for many percussionists to volunteer to experiment for composers and push the limits of what they could achieve behind an orchestra.
The large collection of instruments many of us have and the hundreds of sounds we can create is attractive to many composers. These sounds often can not be appreciated from behind a larger ensemble, so percussion quartet is a great outlet to explore them. For example, crumbling paper or bowing a cymbal is a kind of sound that requires very few other events to be happening in that moment so they can be heard.
Lastly, the pedagogy over the last 65 years has evolved and created an incredible vehicle for producing creative, talented, and ambitious students. These students create professional ensembles or become teachers to an even more evolved group of young students. A few decades ago, percussion training was limited to orchestral applications or drumset. Now, percussion ensemble playing is at least 50% of the education most modern percussionists receive.
With more and more pieces in the medium, and – I assume – more and more submissions as your reputation grows, what makes a piece stand out as something you want to play? What gets you excited?
Pieces can stand out to us for a variety of reasons. It could be as simple as coming across a piece that fits a theme of an upcoming event – such as music for percussion and electronics, or music to be performed outside.
New pieces that get us excited can vary as well. We often get excited by “new classical” pieces that cross genres and invite interest from wide audiences. We are equally as interested in meditative pieces that focus on subtle shifts in sound evolving over time.
In terms of choosing our repertoire, it is a fluid process. We always welcome new works and any composer to send us ideas. With the limited touring schedule, it sometimes has to coincide with practicality of other pieces on the concert and what instruments are available with the time given.
What’s on the horizon for LAPQ?
After our show on April 10th, we head up to Fresno in May for the California Day of Percussion. We’ll adjudicate young ensembles, give masterclasses, and perform a show for hundreds of high school and collegiate percussionists.
LAPQ recently received our 501c3 non-profit status, so we are excited to be developing the long term growth of our group! We are in the process of solidifying our Board of Directors, fundraising, and long term planning over the next few months.
We are also preparing to record our third album with Sono Luminus. As part of this, we are talking to various composers and finding the right mix of artists to collaborate with to make the album special. Part of this will be fundraising for a large scale commission, which we are very excited about!
Tickets to see LAPQ this Friday at Zipper Hall are available from $5 – $20 at the door. Full details are up on the facebook event page at facebook.com/events/875741825819987. More info and recordings are up on LAPQ’s site, lapercussionquartet.com.
If you’re in new music in LA, you probably know the name Andrew McIntosh. His skill as a violinist and violist is invaluable as a member of the Formalist Quartet, wild Up, and others. He’s a co-founder of populist records. And his music, as a composer, is gorgeous. He’s also the final composer on our series of interviews about The Industry and wild Up’s First Take, which takes place this Saturday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. You can read all of the interviews at newclassic.la/firsttake. Here’s Andrew, on his opera Bonnie and Clyde.
Describe the work you’ll be presenting at First Take.
In creating Bonnie and Clyde, our goal was to start from what is known about the infamous couple and work our way backwards through the stories of people around them who left first-hand accounts. Melinda Rice, the librettist, has done incredibly extensive research, sifting through biographies of family members, police officers, government officials, and friends, as well as historian’s accounts. Together with Berlin-based artist Claudia Doderer we’ve designed an experience that functions like a gallery of images of Bonnie and Clyde, filtered through the subjective eyes of the people around them. In a way, Bonnie and Clyde are not illuminated by this opera, but are left open as characters that the audience can find for themselves. In portraying this story, there are a few questions that are explored. What is it about their lives that has come to symbolize freedom and love in popular culture, when the actual lives that they led were extremely unglamorous, tedious, and full of poverty and tension? Since the accounts that have been left behind are sometimes contradictory, how do we attempt to portray a factual representation of important events in their lives? Why has our society been so fascinated be them, even 80 years after they lived? Is there something universally human about their characters that makes us identify with them?
Musically, the score reflects Bonnie and Clyde’s lives on every level. The shape of each layer and corner in the music is a reflection of the tension, the openness, and the unexpectedness of their lives. Bonnie and Clyde are embedded in the score in other ways as well. Clyde played the saxophone and a large feature of the orchestration is a pair of antiphonal saxophones (although I didn’t know that Clyde played saxophone at the time that choice was made). A classic American steel-string guitar is also prominently featured in the orchestra, as are piano and vibraphone. The only thing Bonnie was afraid of was thunder, and their deaths are represented by the use of thunder sheets. The passage of time can be felt on multiple levels as well, often with a layer that is moving very slowly underneath layers that move at more active pacing, with voices sometimes floating on top in yet another layer of time. I think that this might have been my subconscious way of expressing the constant tension between open field and city that defined their daily existence.
What’s your background in writing opera, or for voice?
This project is the culmination of several years worth of attempts at translating my musical language into something vocal. It is certainly a different language than my comfort zone of instrumental writing. That instrumental relationship to sound has developed during 25 years of playing the violin, and it’s difficult to transcend that. Writing for singers feels naked and vulnerable, and I am in awe of the power and depth that words and human voices bring to music.
I have immersed myself in the land of performing with singers very heavily over the past few years through the work that I do as a period instrument baroque musician, working with Bach Collegium San Diego, American Bach Soloists, LA Master Chorale, Tesserae, and other early music ensembles. Also, during my undergraduate degree I spent two seasons as a violist with the Nevada Opera. I derive a lot of inspiration from studying and performing old music, and the performance aesthetic around it as well. In general, the performers tend to have common interests in creating something that is highly emotional through the use of subtlety, nuance, color, and shape; interests that I also share. I first met several of the singers in Bonnie and Clyde through working in the early music community and I am incredibly happy with the entire cast of Bonnie and Clyde.
I also just recently invested a huge amount of energy into another Industry project (Hopscotch) writing for another singer that I met through the early music community, Estelí Gomez from Roomful of Teeth. Every aspect of the vocal writing was written specifically for Estelí’s remarkable voice and unique talents. I find it incredibly helpful to have a specific singer in mind and write for that particular person when I’m writing for voice. It definitely changes what comes out on paper.
Does/did your composition process change at all when writing for this medium?
I don’t know that it changes my process very much, but I feel changed as a person. I still use a pen and a ruler and start with drawings of the forms of the works on blank paper, finding patterns and symmetries in the content of the material and making maps of the harmony (more or less my typical process). The only significant difference in process is that now the very first step consists of writing out the text several times by hand. I have to write it myself on paper in order to internalize the rhythm and flow of the words.
It is hard to describe exactly how I feel changed since the change is still quite new and also ongoing, but I feel that working with words and voices has unlocked something in my writing that I have been trying to find for a long time. It’s actually quite emotional to hear music that I composed come directly out of other humans’ voices – more so than hearing it through the filter of an external instrument. I don’t know where it will lead, but I have a feeling that all the work I’ve been doing with singers over the past year will have a significant impact on the future of my writing.
What else are you working on that you’d like people to know about?
I recently completed a 40-minute commissioned percussion quartet for the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, which will be premiered at Zipper Hall on April 10. They are exquisite musicians, and it took me over two years to write the piece, so I feel quite invested in this performance!
I’m also working on a small piano concerto for Richard Valitutto and wild Up, which will be premiered on April 26 at UCLA, as well as a chamber piece for MUSA Baroque in San Francisco, and of course Hopscotch, the upcoming collaborative Industry project.
Check out more of Andrew’s music at septimalcomma.com. Full details on First Take are up at http://theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php. While Andrew is the final composer in this year’s First Take series, there’s still one interview yet to go: The Industry’s artistic director, Yuval Sharon, who will be featured here tomorrow at noon. See you then.
LA opera powerhouse The Industry just announced the list of composers who have been selected for their 2015 First Take event. The afternoon opera-thon gives first readings to new pieces and, if I’m not mistaken, one is usually chosen for The Industry to produce. 2015’s will be at the new Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 21 at 1 pm, with wild Up serving as house orchestra.
The composers are:
Jason Thorpe Buchanan
Jenny Olivia Johnson
A more detailed post about the project is up at http://theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php
The Industry is also holding open auditions for singers interested in First Take and Hopscotch. Interested singers should submit their resume, headshots, and performance sample web links to auditions@TheIndustryLA.org.
Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure, the new CD by Andrew McIntosh recently released on the populist records label, consists of three distinct sections of four pieces each. Each group is connected not only by the instrumentation and scoring but also in projecting related sets of feelings. The first and last groups are comprised of the Symmetry Etudes and the middle tracks on the CD are the four movements of Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure.
The first four tracks are Symmetry Etudes V, II, III and IV, composed from 2009 to 2012. These are written for two clarinets – in this case Brian Walsh and James Sullivan – and violin, played by Andrew McIntosh. The first of these, Etude V, starts with a syncopated violin line that is soon joined by smooth, sustained clarinet tones above and below. A sense of purposeful activity in the violin is immersed in tension as the clarinet pitches become stronger and more acute – almost electronic in purity of pitch. The violin struggles and is almost overwhelmed by the loud clarinet tones. There is a sense of virtuous purpose in the violin that contrasts with the emotionless and machine-like clarinet parts. As the piece concludes there is the sense that the two opposing viewpoints remain unresolved.
Etude II begins with a simple but elegant clarinet line that flows out, joined by the second in a higher register. This creates a wonderfully weaving and sinuous feel while the violin adds a thinner sound that provides a complimentary bit of definition in the texture. There is a sense of calmness and nature at work, like walking by a lake early in the morning. A very beautiful piece. Etude III opens with the clarinets warbling together, accompanied by higher, sustained tones in the violin. There is a sense of mystery and anticipation – along with a slightly alien feel. As the piece progresses a feeling of remoteness develops that becomes increasingly agitated, although some nice interweaving harmonies appear that slowly die away at the finish.
Etude IV is a series of slow, ascending scales – there are some lovely harmonies that develop as the three pitches rise upward, like watching warm vapors rising and mixing, forming various combinations. Some occasional syncopation in the rhythm keeps the sound interesting and engaging. There is a wide open – almost Coplandesque – feel to this, like looking out at a far horizon. I first heard this piece performed at Disney Hall in 2013 and much of the finer detail was lost in that cavernous space; this recording is a much more satisfying experience. The clarinets dominate most of these Etudes and the playing by Brian Walsh and James Sullivan is right on target, fitting the various moods exactly.
Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure (2012 – 2013) is a four movement work that occupies the four center tracks of the CD and is performed by Laura Barger and Ning Yu on pianos with Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg on percussion. The first movement starts off with two pianos playing scales in different directions and this evolves into separate lines with differently syncopated rhythms. Now marimbas are added in what becomes an almost random pattern of notes. The pace slows and the feeling is like hearing rain drops. There is an exotic, primal feel by midway through – as if in a rainforest or jungle. A growing sense of tension arises, as if far into deep wilderness, perhaps lost. Now a brief repeat of the first piano lines as the movement ends and it is as if we have traveled deep into the unknown to arrive at a strange place.
Movement II starts off with rapid runs of sixteenth note scales by two pianos – now slowing to single notes spaced a few beats apart with the percussion. A single bell sounds at four second intervals accompanied by a low bottle blow sound. A series of lovely chimes ring out, as if in a Buddhist temple, with piano chords sounding at intervals. There is a serene, meditative feel to this, disrupted by the occasional forceful piano chords. A strong sense of contrast here – restful and menacing at the same time.
A low booming drum roll opens Movement III creating a sense of anticipation. A cascade of piano notes develop into mysterious melody that adds a hint of tension. More ringing percussion now, the same bell chimes from Movement II. There is the feeling of standing on a high, windblown hilltop in Tibet. Lovely, yet vaguely ominous in its mystery.
The final movement opens with a strong piano chord that gives a definite sense of menace. High pitched, sharp tones appear – like shards of glass- and this adds to the anxious feel. Now a bell sounds, restoring some calmness. More chimes arrive – less tension but still an uncertain atmosphere. Stronger chimes now, with lighter, metallic bells above. The piano takes up the theme ending the piece with a feel of anxiety mixed with calmness. There is a definite sense of journey and mystery in Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure that unfolds in a satisfactory arc across the four movements. Tension and restful calm seem to coexist uneasily together and the picture that forms is one of a distant, sacred space suddenly defiled. The playing is remarkable for its range and precision. The percussion was especially artful in both the scoring and the performance.
The second group of Symmetry Etudes begins with Etude I and this starts out with a single clarinet producing a sort of wavy sound. The violin takes this up, and now the other clarinet. The sounds oscillate in and out, eventually escalating to loud and piercing tones. Intense and high in pitch, this becomes almost like a whistling sound by the end. Just two minutes long, Etude I starts low and ends very high, one continuous crescendo of pitch and volume. Etude VI starts out softly but with high, sustained tones in all three instruments. There is a sense of relentlessness – like looking at a bright sunrise on a clear day. As this piece continues the sounds become more strident with zero beating occurring between the pitches. The playing is very precise here – as is needed to attain these exacting sonic effects.
Etude VII begins with a single clarinet playing a simple scale. The second clarinet joins in, but is offset by just a fraction of a beat. This produces a playful syncopation that is quite engaging. The violin now repeats the scale and a clarinet becomes the offset part. Only 1:40 in duration, the success of this etude springs from a simple idea that produces a complex and interesting result. Etude VII begins with a low, sustained clarinet tone that is almost electronic in its purity and constancy. There are slight wobbles in pitch, just as if from an electronic oscillator. A second clarinet joins at almost the exact same pitch to produce some zero beating. The violin joins on what sounds like a harmonic and the the three tones move about to various fixed pitches in a close approximation to the sounds produced by a series of oscillators. The purity and stability of pitch is impressive and this perfectly evokes the cool remote feel of electronics. This second group of etudes has a more synthetic and remote feel where the first group was more organic and pastoral. Overall the Symmetry Etudes are an impressive collection, evoking a wide range of feelings and gestures from just three players.
This collection of pieces in Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure combine impressive playing and excellent scoring with artful storytelling. The mixing and mastering by Nick Tipp, along with Ian Antonio and Ressell Greenberg are state of the art and have accurately captured the widely diverse dynamics and timbres.
Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure is available now from populist records.