I had never heard of Battle Trance before attending this show. What little I did know was what I read on the Facebook event page, and gleaned from talking to other concert goers. I don’t believe I even knew their instrumentation. Like seeing a movie without seeing a trailer, this can be a better experience. Hype can set a bar too high. All I knew was that Equal Sound was putting on the concert, and that some quartet called Battle Trance would play Blade of Love. 10/10 for the names, but would the performance live up to these vague expectations?
A string quartet – Madeline Falcone and Emily Call on violin, Diana Wade on viola, and Betsy Rettig on cello – performed the first half of the concert, which consisted of Medieval and Medieval-inspired music. They opened with Hildegard Von Bingen’s O Virtus Sapientiae, a pensive, simple polyphonic work. Its texture was so lush, yet at the same time, so bare. In light of the women’s marches worldwide, particularly the 750,000-strong march in LA on January 21st, I appreciated that the most prolific Medieval female composer had the honor of opening. I always love von Bingen’s work, and this was no different. O virtus Sapientiae praises the power of wisdom, a lesson we can all value in this age.
The next piece, Valencia (2012), by New York composer Caroline Shaw, had clear roots in Medieval style. The strings pass around ostinato rhythms and simple melodies, intercut with striking glissandi and dense harmonic swells. Shaw wanted to evoke the texture of a Valencia orange. Such a synesthetic feat may be impossible (I must admit I did not get the connection between the title and the piece until reading about it later), but the music by itself was pleasing and its textures were interesting.
Third, My Desert, My Rose (2016) by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, featured low and slow cello like a cantus firmus while the higher strings played aimless harmonies, muddled like a fine cocktail. It feels like wandering through a busy marketplace; each step brings a new wave of sounds, and while there is a goal to reach, the journey wanders. It’s a flawless interpretation of Medieval inspiration for a 21st-century style.
Finally, the quartet concluded the first half of the concert with Guillaume de Machaut’s Kyrie I. The Kyrie is the first sung prayer of the Mass Ordinary, and it is most appropriate during penitential seasons like Lent and Advent. The quartet saved the Kyrie for the last piece in their set, but it also served to introduce Battle Trance, thus keeping with tradition. While we were not actually in a penitential season, something about the timing and the mood of the audience made it fitting.
After intermission, we got what we came for: the tenor saxophone quartet Battle Trance performing Blade of Love. Here’s my short review first: it was bananas. And I love bananas.
Now here’s the longer review. First, you must realize that each segment flowed from one to the next, sometimes overlapping or splitting half and half between the players. The players never rested. The performance was one uber-piece, and the energy ebbed and swelled but never ceased. Sometimes three players would provide an upbeat, looping harmony for the soloist to howl over. Other times, all four would whistle through their reeds. There was impressive counterpoint. There was intense sound blending. There were intergalactic lasers and interstellar spaceships. There were intrepid explorers in jungles. There was an immeasurable ocean. There was an insane profession of love. There was also insufferable honking – but so it is with saxophones, I suppose, and it didn’t last too long.
Most impressive of all, in my eyes (ears?), was that there were difference tones. Those happen resonances combine and modulate in your ear so that your ear itself creates new sound. It’s a curious sensation, and rare for acoustic instruments to pull off. So not only did the four gentlemen of Battle Trance play for an hour straight, on memorized music (somewhat improvised, but mostly structured for sure), and was the music incredible, but they also caused your ear to invent its own music, using acoustic instruments. This illustrates why I love writing these reviews; every time I think I’ve heard it all, that I’ve heard every extended technique, I go to another concert and I’m absolutely floored.
Battle Trance’s music is available on their Bandcamp page. You have the upper hand compared to me; you already know what to expect. I’ll be upfront: I’m told that their recordings don’t have the same chutzpah. So this is what I recommend: buy a CD. Hear how good they are recorded. Then see them live. Fly to New York if you have to, but experience them in person. It’ll be bananas.
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.
X-Ray Sunsets, the new record from LA’s operatic gypsy rock collective from the future Timur and the Dime Museum, is finally getting a CD release party this Saturday, September 21, at the Bootleg in Silverlake. Live Arts Exchange is hosting the show, and tickets are available at https://bootlegtheater.secure.force.com/ticket/#sections_a02A000000Al7nsIAB.
The record, which was largely written, arranged, recorded, edited, mixed, and produced by band member and local composer Daniel Corral, is up on bandcamp now. Timur’s voice is as impossibly flexible as ever, and there’s an enormous range of sounds in the arrangements. They’re featuring the final track, Until the Break of Dawn, on the bandcamp page, but my favorite by far is Here With Me. Enjoy:
Tonight at 8 at the Pasadena Conservatory, New Lens presents the Finisterra Piano Trio on the series’ inaugural run.
It’s a pretty sweet concept: as I understand it, they’re pairing old works that sound modern with new works that sound old, and keeping the program a secret until after the performance is finished.
I just received an email from the fine folks over at Piano Spheres that basically said “short notice, but Mark Robson is playing today at noon as part of Play Me, I’m Yours, at the piano at One Colorado in Old Town Pasadena.”
So if you’re somewhere over there on a lunch break (or don’t have a job – and you’re luckier than you think you are), and want to catch a Mark Robson concert for free, now you know where to do it.
This Saturday night, People Inside Electronics present Nothing is Real: psychedelia for piano and electronics at Pierre’s Fine Pianos in Westwood. Amid preparations for the show, artistic director and founder Isaac Schankler managed to find a moment for an interview.
Tell me a bit about this weekend’s concert. You’ve got a ton of pianists on it, and what looks like a cool mix of pieces by local (Shaun Naidoo) and seriously established (Alvin Lucier) composers.
Yes! We’re really happy to have a bunch of amazing pianists involved: Vicki Ray, Vatche Mankerian, Genevieve Feiwen Lee, Louise Thomas, Aron of course, and Rafael Liebich, who also happens to be our new assistant director.
As far as the music goes, part of our mission all along has been to program works by established composers alongside newer works, to show that there’s a kind of history that’s there that people are continuing to build on. For this concert the classic pieces are Alvin Lucier’s Nothing Is Real (Strawberry Fields Forever) and Charles Dodge’s Any Resemblance Is Purely Coincidental. Lucier’s piece is a kind of stripped-down arrangement of the Beatles tune, which you hear first from the piano and then emerging from a teapot, which the performer is able to play with onstage to control the resonance of the sound. Dodge’s piece takes an old recording of the tenor Enrique Caruso and digitally manipulates it — it was one of the first pieces to use digital manipulation in this way.
One of the things that these pieces have in common, we realized, was the illusory nature of the electronics. There’s this idea that, once you record something, it becomes detached from our ordinary reality and becomes this kind of putty that can be shaped at will. A liberating and scary thought! Hence the “psychedelic” theme that the concert is loosely organized around, though the selection is pretty diverse within that. Linda Bouchard’s Gassho is very meditative, and Mike McFerron’s Torrid Mix is inspired by hip-hop. Pierre Jodlowski’s Serie Noire is based on clips from old noir films, and Shaun Naidoo’s Voices of Time is based conceptually on a J.G. Ballard story. Those last two are quite virtuosic, by the way.
Oh! And I should mention that we just added yet another piece to the program, Benjamin Broening’s Nocturne/Doubles.
How did People Inside Electronics get started?
PIE got started in 2009, when Aron Kallay and I were both graduate students at USC, and we noticed that while there was a lot of new music in LA, there wasn’t a whole lot of electroacoustic music being performed (aside from the efforts of a few groups like SCREAM and Sonic Odyssey). And we had the thought, well, if the venue doesn’t exist, why not create one?
You’ve collaborated not only with artists working in other mediums, but with scientists and engineers as well. Could you discuss some of your collaborative efforts, how you got people involved, and what the reaction was like?
Sure, I can give a couple examples. In 2010 we worked with Alexandre François and Elaine Chew, who were both engineering professors at USC at the time and part of a research group called MuCoaCo (Music Computation and Cognition Laboratory). Alex designed this really cool piece of software called Mimi (Multimodal Interaction for Musical Improvisation). Mimi is a kind of improvisational partner, and there’s also a visualization aspect to it that allows you to see what Mimi is up to. I was really taken with the software, and performed with it at our June 2010 concert. The reaction was great, because it piqued the interest of science-minded people beyond the usual new music crowd. I think it’s exciting for people to see unusual and artistic uses of technology — even though they work with it day in and day out they don’t necessarily know what it’s really capable of.
Then there’s our collaborations with other artists. For example, on that same concert we presented Veronika Krausas’ Waterland, which included video by Quintan Ana Wikswo and text by Andre Alexis. Veronika is curating a concert in April that we’re co-presenting with the interdisciplinary arts organization Catalysis Projects, so you can expect a lot more of that in the future.
What has the reaction to your concerts been like in general? Do you feel that there’s a strong and supportive scene for electroacoustic composition here, or is it something that could use some improvement?
Yes, I would say people have been very supportive! For example, we’ve started to have funding campaigns for our last couple of concerts, and raised over $2000 total through that, so that’s been really encouraging. (You can still donate to our current fundraiser at indiegogo, actually.) We pour a lot of time and energy and money into making these concerts happen, and it would be really hard to do that if people hadn’t responded in the way they have. So if you’re reading this and you’re one of those people who has donated or come to our concerts in the past, thank you!
What do you see as the challenges to running a concert series here and now?
LA presents some unique challenges for a concert series because of the size of the city and the fact that there’s always so much going on. You have to present a really compelling reason for people to come out, especially if they’re driving across town! But I think in the long run it’s actually helped us by pushing us to really finely hone what we do, both in terms of the quality of the music and in how we present it.
I have to say that I think LA is a really fantastic place for new music right now. I’ve seen so many great concerts in the past year, and I’ve missed so many more. I feel terrible every time I miss a concert I want to see, but it’s practically unavoidable.
This is a big question, but it often feels like electroacoustic music somehow gets separated from other genres in an almost unfair way. As in, symphonic or traditional concert music connoisseurs seem to see it as novelty, whereas listeners more familiar with popular electronic music tend to think of it as a separate, experimental thing. Do you perceive that at all? And if so, is it something that concerns you?
I don’t particularly see this kind of thing happening, at least not any more than with other kinds of new music. It may be that I’m just insulated from this kind of talk. But electronics have played such an important role in the development of new music, and so many great 20th and 21st century composers have at least dabbled in the medium, that I think most people who at least know about it don’t view it as a niche at all. It’s been with us almost a century, after all, so it’s not really a novelty at this point.
The exception to this might be those people who view classical music as some kind of final stronghold, the only place where “real” music is still made with “real” instruments. They might say that technology is slowly chipping away at that. But every musical instrument was new technology at some point. Or, to shamelessly quote Brian Eno, “technology is just the name we give to things that don’t work yet.”
I think that’s why PIE has been focused on pieces that just work, pieces that are aesthetically compelling regardless of the technology involved. That’s what’s really striking to me about those pieces by Lucier and Dodge. Whether or not they were technically innovative at the time they were composed, that’s not really why we programmed them or what you notice when you hear them. The technological medium almost melts away, and you’re just listening to a beautifully constructed piece of music.
I’m very curious about your take on electronic performance practice, especially since it says in your biography that you’re interested in how people interact with electronics. Let’s be blunt: watching people press buttons is pretty boring. Having the live pianist and visual elements helps immensely, but are you also pushing new modes of performance for the electronic portions of these concerts?
Well, performance with electronics can be frustrating to watch because it’s kind of a black box; the performance isn’t really visible in the same way it is with an expressive instrumentalist (despite the best efforts of head-bobbing DJs everywhere). It’s a kind of disembodied performance. I think putting live instrumentalists front and center helps, as you said. And when programming newer works, we try as much as possible to incorporate live electronics that react to what the performers are doing, so the electronics become a kind of extension of the instrument. The electronics in Shaun Naidoo’s piece that Aron is premiering, for example, are incredibly responsive to what Aron’s doing at the piano. It just looks and feels like a natural extension of his performance, and it’s really fun to watch.
I also think we can still learn a lot from Lucier, the oldest composer on the program. The lifting of the teapot lid is such a straightforward action, but you immediately understand what it means sonically; you know exactly what the performer is doing to manipulate the sound, and that’s one of the simple joys of experiencing that piece.
I can’t help but notice that People Inside Electronics only puts on one or two shows a year. I’m sure you and your partners are quite busy with other projects. As such, have you hit a happy frequency with that, or are you hoping to increase the number of shows you do?
Two per year (one in the fall and one in the spring) seemed ideal in the past, but lately we’ve had a hankering to do more, which is one of the reasons we asked Rafael to be a part of PIE. We actually have 3 concerts this season: the one with Eclipse Quartet last fall, the one coming up on February 11th, and the one on April 28th called “Misfits and Hooligans” that’s being co-presented with Catalysis Projects. And we already have something in the works for this fall that I’m very anxious to talk about when it’s finalized!
Find more information or purchase tickets to this weekend’s concert at peopleinsideelectronics.com/nothing-real-psychedelia-piano-and-electronics, and donate to the fundraising campaign at indiegogo.com/People-Inside-Electronics.