The 13th annual New Original Works (NOW) festival, presented at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theatre (better known as REDCAT), drew to a convincing close last weekend in a diverse program of Body Demonstration, Music, and Dance.
The hotly anticipated summer festival is a local oasis of artistic innovation in the creatively dry months of the year. The festival of three interdisciplinary programs over as many weeks featured works by early career artists, selected with an eye to new projects in development.
REDCAT Directors Mark Murphy and Edgar Miramontes opened the program with contextualizing remarks, citing the festival’s mandate and methods. “The NOW Festival allows emerging artists to use this theater as a laboratory for taking risks,” Miramontes articulated.
Filling the house to its 200 seat capacity, a decidedly risk-on audience had no objection to being subjects in tests that proved largely successful.
Energetically bounding into view, self-styled performance art ensemble I AM A BOYS CHOIR took the stage for the first, longest, most outrageous work of the program, Demonstrating the Imaginary Body or How I Became an Ice Princess.
Oddly coinciding with the current Summer Olympic games, Ice Princess chronicles the enmeshed paths of three figure skaters competing in the 1992 Winter Olympics through film and the art of “body demonstration,” an experimental genre blurring the boundaries of dance, theater, and spoken word.
The piece unfolds through a series of vignettes, each named and modeled after steps on Kristi Yamaguchi’s checklist for success: “beauty, stamina, fearlessness,” and others. Through funny, rambling stories, neatly choreographed fitness routines, and mock auditions, all reinforced by gender-bending costumes and driving 90s-era disco music, a clear sense of an ice princess culture begins to emerge, “without a narrative” as collective member Adam Rigg stated upfront.
Emotional intensity mounted throughout the work, moving from the cerebral to the emotional in a kind of exploration of Chakras. Communication evolved from ordinary speech, to body language, to sense-defying videography, followed by a hedonistic frenzy of activity complete with animal costumes, nudity, and other-worldly lighting.
Strongly camp informed, the three-member, queer-identified collective knowingly disregards conventional notions of artistic territory. Banal, self-critical chatter punctuated by an intermittent “what time is it now?” among other seeming trivialities, challenged observers to accept a new standard of artistic merit. “Our goal is to present the truth above all, at all times,” recited member Kate D’Arcus Attwell at one juncture in the performance. Audaciously direct, natural, and unrestrained, I AM A BOYS CHOIR convinces on a visceral level, even as it befuddles logically.
Audience analyses percolated up along the pilgrimage for half-time restoratives. A view proliferated that “much did not make sense,” but the collective clearly delivered on its opening claim to “blow your minds.”
Following a leisurely intermission (and extensive cleanup), composer Daniel Corral arrived on stage to perform his new work Comma in an innovative usage of existing technology.
Presenting the only expressly musical work of the festival, Corral faced the dual duty of satisfying artistically, as well as representing the art of music before the NOW audience.
A darkened hall suddenly flared with iridescent swatches, pulsing and changing with each note in streams of electronic sound reinforced by vigorous minimalist rhythms.
Congruent in purpose with the foregoing Ice Princess, Corral’s Comma reverses traditional musical priorities in a celebration of the Pythagorean comma, the bane of tuning systems since the middle ages.
Pythagoras gets the credit for codifying an intonation based on just fifths, pure and without “beats” (a canceling out of soundwave crest and trough). Beatless fifths are gentle, euphonious harmonies, but the sum of such intervals is greater than their parts, leading to a small but significant inequity in the tuning system. That hair’s breadth of dissonance is the comma (“hair” in Latin), and for centuries, the question was what to do about it.
Today’s intrepid listener accepts the comma, enjoying the dissonant crunch of “wolf intervals,” originally named for the howling of wolves. Comma draws on a pitch vocabulary derived from just-tuned fifths, exploiting their inherent beauty, and cognitively reframes dissonances as sumptuous umami flavors.
Striving for “something that could be experienced on multiple levels,” as Corral notes, a whimsical light show of shifting colors and shapes complements beguiling harmonies and timbres for a “total work of art.” Building on accordion-playing chops, Corral dispatched a dizzyingly intricate drum machine part on Novation’s Launchpad Pro, triggering sound and light with agility and speed.
Comma’s multiple paths of engagement and balanced blend of cooperative elements worked to hold audience attention consistently, slowing time against a steady stream of activity. Enthusiasm for the concluded piece reverberated palpably, as a sense of music’s abiding power to enchant and challenge was affirmed once again.
In the moving finish of both program and festival, dancer and choreographer Wilfried Souly integrated disparate movement traditions and original music in On Becoming, an exploration of identity-evolution.
“Reflecting the way physical history shapes Self across life,” writes Souly, On Becoming reflects influences on Souly’s own history, including African traditional dance, contemporary dance, and Taekwondo, fluidly fusing them for a new, unique genre.
An ensemble of musician from at least three countries collaborated in creating new music through shared improvisation: Boubacar Djiga, from Souly’s West African homeland of Burkina Faso, arranged and recorded traditional Burkinan music. Composers Tom Moose and Julio Montero later created new jazz, blues, and Latin folk-inspired music, taking the original African music as an impetus. A mosaic of styles crystalized, each element retaining its identity while harmoniously supporting the others.
The diverse musical backdrop both drove and reflected movement content on stage. An upbeat swing melody accompanied by shimmering tremolos served as springboard for bouncy gaits and playful turns.
A lyrical ballad for violin, guitar, and recorded media supported a tender episode, featuring intimate close embrace and expressive undulatory gestures. Afro-Blues fusion music pulsed rhythmically in a play on space and number: Dancers merged densely then diffused apart, then bifurcated the stage along a striking diagonal. A later number featured Souly in isolation, divided from the ensemble as soloist, as if satellite reflecting ensemble action. “While the others shared a tender moment together, I preferred to stand apart, on my own,” Souly explained in post-performance conversation. A plaintive soliloquy in spoken word, followed by an episode of descriptive facial expressions and subtle hand gestures brought the piece to an ending point, with ensemble exiting unobtrusively into the audience.
An apt closing number for the evening and season, On Becoming acknowledges the evolving of individual identity and the diversity that shapes it. NOW guests witnessed a moment in that flow of impermanence this season, and can expect new, original works of another variety next summer and beyond.
Now in its twentieth year of celebrating microtonality and non-standard tunings, MicroFest takes place sprinkled throughout Los Angeles over the course of multiple weekends. The fourth of seven concerts featured LA-based Accordant Commons, a contemporary vocal chamber music group dedicated to performance and collaboration founded by Stephanie Aston and Argenta Walther, joined by Marja Liisa Kay and Tany Ling for a concert featuring four composers, five pieces, and a heck of a lot more than just twelve notes.
Squeezing into the teeny venue tucked into the Chung King Court in Chinatown, the concertgoers immediately saw that the wall wa covered with pieces of sheet music. Lo and behold, it’s two of the works about to be performed, and they showcase two hugely different approaches to achieving and notating microtonal music. There’s the traditional notation + method, or the graphic score. It’s up to the composer to decide how best to communicate their artistic ideas. If you haven’t seen a graphic score before, just look it up in google images for top notch examples. That’s what new music musicians often deal with, including Accordant Commons.
The show opened with Three in, ad abundantiam by American composer Evan Johnson, for a trio of singers. The music was exquisitely gentle, reminiscent of hearing a church choir practicing from the next hill over while the wind snatches the sound away sporadically. A sustained note grounded the other two voices like a tonal gravity, but the other voices never quite managed to meet it, instead dancing around on either side of it, fitting the fragments of text from Petrarch: “Alone and pensive…my life, which is hidden from others…with me, and me with it.” Johnson never jars the listener, but instead makes the notes rub up against your ears like an overly friendly cat with overly long claws. The threads of music mingle to create brief islands of tonality in the ocean of microtonal possibility.
The second piece was less singing and more vocalizing and other bodily sounds (don’t get too excited, I just mean claps and snaps), plus kazoos and slide whistles. Stanford-based Leah Reid’s Single Fish is an aphoristic composition for three sopranos and hand percussion, in which the phonemes from Gertrude Stein’s eponymous poem are repeated, segmented, shuffled and turned upside down to explore timbre more so than pitch. In this piece, there is no single fish or timbre, but a whole school of them, weaving in and out of each other, shimmering and fluctuating, in a great celebration of the sounds three humans can make together.
Nomi Epstein is a Chicago-based composer and professor, and her song Four Voices features microtonal glissandi in a notation she has been developing for several years which resembles a graph that allows pitch to freely but measuredly move about the pitch space. The four voices move in pairs and sometimes meet together. The form of the piece is dictated by the combinations of singers at a given time. Not unlike Johnson’s first piece on the program, the vocal lines are spotty, like steam venting from cracks in the earth to resist a great eruption. The conductor moves the voices forward with stop and go motions, a musical game of red-light-green-light, and thus the motion atemporal as time has nothing to do with the timing. By the end, all four singers sounded like ghosts, whispering and coughing and holding low moans that rose and fell by a barely perceptible dozen cents (~1/8 of a pitch) at a time, microscopically shifting the tonality. They all ended together on a downward lilt, reaching for heaven and missing only to land back on earth.
The fourth piece brought us back to Evan Johnson, this time for A general interrupter of ongoing activity. The name does not lie. It began with the sound one makes when holding back a laugh, and then progressed into air leaking from a tire, evolving into purrs, clicks, chirps and slurps. Like Reid, she explores the human airways on a timbral odyssey, but unlike Reid she does not use the vocal chords as much. In the middle I was struck by how much it started to remind me of trips to the dentist, and occasionally of radio static. I had no idea a single person could make such convincing and provoking sounds, and I applaud Johnson for this compelling journey.
Fifth and finally, Space-time by LA-based Daniel Corral and commissioned by Accordant Commons was a rollicking jam of minimalist grooves a la Philip Glass. It was accompanied by recorded drums and marimbas and the text from +|’me’S-pace by Christine Wertheim, projected on the wall behind the singers. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Wertheim during the concert (and of borrowing her pen), and she is exactly the kind of darkly draped, elegant woman you would expect to write a poetic exploration of space time. The mood set for meditation and rhythmic swaying and shifting, the singers clapped and recited and sang and slurred and whooped. The words philosophize about reading and comprehending, and shift tiny elements to change entire meanings, like changing “time” to “+ime,” and shifting that to “ta ta ta ta ta ta I’m me,” atomizing the language and investigating the relationships of its components. The music plays along, going upside down and backwards when necessary, and implements La Monte Young’s Well Tuned Piano tuning system. The result reframes consonance and dissonance, making the audience rethink on the fly what they think is pleasant and what clashes. What is usually instinctive to our ears here required conscious thought, fitting the space journey of +|’me’S-pace. The beat was constant but the meter shifts, making the steady time feel like it was swaying in the wind. Between the sonority and the flux of time, it is all the listener can do to hang on and enjoy the ride. The recapitulation at the end brings the roller coaster to a conclusion and returns the audience back to reality, whatever that may be.
The concert was a triumph for Accordant Commons and for the future of microtonality and non-standard tuning. LA is one of the best places to find new techniques and new music, and MicroFest is the concert series to explore rarer tonalities in gamelans, pianos, and more. Three concerts remain in the 2016 series. The next is Saturday, May 14th at Boston Court in Pasadena, featuring The Isaura String Quartet. Need some more of Accordant Commons’ exquisite singing in your life? Check their website for concert dates and recordings: accordantcommons.com.
Diamond Pulses, the new electronic album by Daniel Corral, released on Orenda Records and available September 12, is an odd duck. How could it be otherwise, as by Corral’s admission, it “started as a mockup for a microtonal Plinko game/sound-installation.” The Plinko element is referenced on the album artwork, as a glowing grid interacting with a drifting abstract background. There’s a clue.
On the surface of the single, 32-minute track, everything seems perfectly transparent, maybe even grid-like. Insistent, hopped-up Plinko polyrhythms braid together in a dense patchwork of minimalist activity, while oceanic noise waxes and wanes. Or it’s pop electronica, but more desperate, more worldly, shamelessly reverbed. Minimalist motivic transitions speed the texture through harmonic and registral shifts, while rhythm remains constant. Corral knows exactly what he wants us to hear, at what pace, and moody swells of noise give us enough respite to fool us into thinking we’ve made our own choices. Robert Ashley said that music either comes from speech, or it comes from dance. Diamond Pulses is unconditionally from the dance. There are no words here at all.
But there is something else, tugging. What is it? Why the Feldman quote in the liner notes, “Sound is all our dreams of music. Noise is music’s dreams of us.”? The rhythms aren’t just insistent, they’re rabid. Transitions aren’t just inevitable, they’re eerily prescribed. Electronic ephemera churn in atonal relation to pretty guitar-ish licks. Noise swells aren’t just a contrast; they undermine with a mysteriously undercooked autonomy. Things are not as diatonic as they seem.
The piece is not really diatonic, after all. It slowly transforms into an 11-limit tuning system, the middle of the piece swimming in shades of microtonal subtlety. Taken together, the whole is perplexingly different than the sum of its parts. Nothing here quite matches up, as Corral notes, “making it impossible to focus on the endless business of trying to square an imperfect circle.” Grappling with alternative tuning systems has a tendency to bring these kinds of cracks to the fore. Things don’t fit. The illusion of the joints of reality being flush is demolished. That’s the interest in this album; we don’t realize it, but the incongruities here turn us inside-out.
Take a few listens, and see if you notice the flip-flop. Maybe don’t listen to this, despite temptation, while driving. Listen at home, with dedicated ears, to this strangely rigid dance meditation, a fervent solipsism with a disturbingly wild, encroaching reality. Consciously intended or not, Diamond Pulses evokes Los Angeles.
We asked Daniel a few questions about the album:
You mention that the album grew out of an experiment for a Plinko installation. Can you talk a little more about that process of development?
I was at a residency when I sketched out that original Plinko installation idea. I had a great studio right near the beach, and you might be able to hear a cheap imitation of those ocean sounds in the noisy washes that fade in and out during Diamond Pulses. That studio was quite large, and allowed me to imagine what installations might fit inside it. I really like Trimpin’s work, and I think his whimsicality comes out in my music box installations. I was trying to imagine similarly playful sound installations that also have a more conceptually sound footing. I sketched out a just intonation Plinko game on some graph paper, and started thinking about how that might be translated into a performable piece. At the same time, I had a 4-channel audio setup there with which I made quite a few quadraphonic electronic pieces with a tunable sampler. These streams of thought smashed together into Diamond Pulses. Perhaps it is a bit more serious than the original game show-inspired idea, but hopefully still enjoyable.
What specifically made you think that these materials would work as an album-length piece, rather than as an installation?
There are two big factors in the decision to turn Diamond Pulses into an album-length piece: accessibility and space. An installation has a specific time and place in which it can be appreciated, and that unique experience is part of what makes it so magical. On the other hand, an album can find its way all over the world via the internet. Also, live performances of it are solo, so it’s easy to plan and schedule. When my residency ended, I returned back to LA and realized that it would be ridiculous to try and put more installation-type pieces in my small house. But, I could develop the performable electronic piece practically anywhere. For example – I did a lot of programming for it on my laptop during a long Bolt Bus ride with Timur and the Dime Museum. After the first performance of Diamond Pulses at Battery Books, I decided that it would be worth trying to make an album of it. I knew that Orenda Records had put out some fantastic albums of adventurous music, so I reached out to them. I am grateful that they were interested, and they have been great to work with as I developed the piece into what’s on the album!
Is this whole piece in 11-limit temperament? Could you give a little more information for readers who may not be familiar with alternative tuning systems?
It’s hard to come to a succinct explanation of tuning, but I’ll give it a try! Most musicians using microtonality do so with systems based on ratios, often with some sort of fundamental pitch as the denominator. A ratio with a lower numerator and denominator is usually considered more consonant, while higher numbers are more complex and dissonant. “Limits” bound the available pitches to a certain level of complexity (EX: a system with a 3-limit will likely sound less complex than a system with a 5-limit). Basically, Diamond Pulses starts super simple, gets more complex, and returns to simplicity in a sort of ternary form. It starts with just one note and very gradually moves to a limit of 3, then, 5, 7, 9, and 11. After reaching a limit of 11, it gradually contracts back to the single note it started with, which is the fundamental that all of the tuning ratios relate to. Because Diamond Pulses starts with just one note and slowly increases it’s limit, the available intervals get more complex as well. When it decreases it’s limit back to one fundamental pitch, it’s kind of like a symphony ending on a big V-I – at least that’s how I imagine it. I put an image of the “score” on my website here, if anyone is interested: spinalfrog.com/projects/diamond-pulses
I’ve spent a fair amount of time with people and works that use microtonality with great skill and musicality, and have long been a bit too intimidated to really share any of my own. Diamond Pulses is the first piece of mine built around a tuning system that I feel comfortable putting out in the world.
If there is one thing you’d want people to listen for in this piece, what is it?
I never have one universal thing that I want all people to listen for in my music. Rather, I hope that Diamond Pulses has multiple levels on which it can be experienced. Someone that has trained his/her ears to hear the tuned intervals might enjoy doing so, while someone else with no knowledge of or interest in that might just like the spacey rhythmic grooves. I want listeners to engage with Diamond Pulses in whatever capacity they see fit.
Check out the official CD release show this Saturday, with special guests Danny Holt and Mike Robbins:
Saturday, September 12, 8pm and 10pm
504 Chung King Court
Los Angeles CA 90012
• Workers Union, performed by Danny Holt and Mike Robbins
• Diamond Pulses, performed by Daniel Corral
• Two Pages, performed by Danny Holt
• Diamond Pulses, performed by Daniel Corral
But tickets online here:
I get requests to post blurbs about fundraisers every now and then, and am happy to do it to help people out. I like it when people are able to make things that they want to make. Most of the time I give these requests a quick look, skim through any video, post a blurb, and hope for the best for them. With Timur & The Dime Museum‘s video for their fundraiser to record Daniel Corral’s COLLAPSE, I actually found giving it a full-attention watch (omg, internet age ADD) was totally worthwhile. There’s a part where Timur is a robot.
If you’re not familiar with the band, there are a ton of live clips in it, with good information on what they’re up to. This project, which they worked on with Beth Morrison, has gotten a lot of attention, and its well-deserved. Also, Timur is a robot. Did I say that already?
Here’s the video. Go to http://www.timurandthedimemuseum.com/collapse to help make this record happen.[vimeo http://vimeo.com/108973643]
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:
Selections from Daniel Corral‘s Zoophilic Follies, as performed by Timur and the Dime Museum, are being played as part of wild Up‘s residency at the Hammer Museum next Saturday at 3. Music by Anne LeBaron, Veronika Krausas, and Isaac Schankler is also on the program. Chris Rountree is conducting, and it’s a free show. Check out the track “Wax and Feathers” below.
I love it when a flyer actually contains all of the information that you might want to know about a given concert. Who’s playing, what the program is, the location, the date and time, how much tickets are, and where to get them. That’s it! You’d be amazed at how many fail to include this seemingly necessary information. Having spent some time working in concert marketing, I’ve discovered that people aren’t going to call or go to your website. They will, however, loudly complain about being uninformed. Put all of the info on the flyer, in the email, the facebook event invitation…basically, make it so that the person reading it doesn’t have to do anything else to find out what’s going on.
Having completed that minor rant, I’d like to share a superb example I received this morning, and encourage you to check out this concert. Amazing players, cool programs, friendly people, all of that good stuff. I might go just to thank them for making my job easy by sending such a well-designed and informative flyer. And on that note, here’s ALL of the info for the show (click to make it bigger/higher resolution):