If there were any doubts that the LA new-music scene is in the midst of a surfeit of musical and aesthetic diversity, Synchromy and HOCKET’s evening of music, titled Crusoe, on November 5 should certainly quell them. The playing, centering on Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff of the piano duo HOCKET, and later adding a larger ensemble, was truly exceptional: precise, expressive, virtuosic where needed, yet playful, even comedic where possible.
The concert’s first half was comprised of four compositions for piano-four-hands by four local, living LA composers.
Alexander Elliott Miller’s Clock Smasher made for a striking and auspicious beginning. As its title might suggest, the opening motif, in four hands in ascent, burst open a vivid sonic palette that would traverse and transmogrify in interesting and musically satisfying ways.
In his program note Miller makes mention of the “… polyrhythms, many of which do have a sort of ‘tick-tock’ quality, like a room full of out-of-sync clocks.” This is most certainly accurate but it only begins to suggest the variety and vitality of harmonic and gestural realms it creates and explores. Clock Smasher teases us at first with a metronomic, pulsed music which evolves into something ominously hovering, then interrupted by syncopated rhythms infused with quasi-jazz harmonies. Even the mention of the “J Word” is sometimes frowned upon – personally, I don’t frown upon it – but regardless of what that might suggest to you, this is certainly not a jazz composition. But that isn’t to say that it doesn’t flirt with tonality, some very lovely melodies and, at times, even hints at something Bill Evans might have mused about at the keyboard. This music, as Miller’s notes suggest, does subvert its own idiomatic tendencies with those irregular rhythms, to my ear something of a this-is-definitely-NOT-jazz insistence, which then somehow, artfully evolves into a spacious, airy coda, punctuated by big, long and spacious chords. A poignant, striking work.
The next piece on the program was Marc Evans’ One Wandering Night. This piece was for a slightly varied configuration of HOCKET in that Ms. Gibson remained on the piano while Mr. Kotcheff moved to an electric keyboard and they were augmented by the addition of two melodicas (played by the composer and Nick Norton).
Fun fact: I went to a Joe Jackson concert when I was a kid, probably around 1980. He whipped out a melodica and declared it “The Instrument of the Future!” Perhaps he was right. I do hear a lot of melodica at new music concerts these days.
Evans’ piece was inspired by Bartok and that came through clearly enough. There is always the danger of being on the wrong side of the line separating homage from uninspired imitation. Fortunately, One Wandering Night falls decidedly on the right side of that line. While the melodicas played a sort of wheezing Eastern European Bartokian ostinato, definitely and pleasantly reminiscent of Bartok’s own take on modal folk melody, the piano and electric keyboard sputtered and interjected their own contrasting bits. I found this particularly satisfying as it reminded me, on a simple level, of Bartok’s own 2-handed piano trickery, where the two hands remain, stubbornly, in their own domain (key, mode, register) despite any discord that stubborn autonomy might produce. And on a more complex level, it reminded me of one of my very favorite pieces of music, Messiaen’s jardin du sommeil d’amour, a movement from his Turangalîla-Symphonie. While the melodic and harmonic technique is quite different in Messiaen’s masterpiece, a similar bifurcation and their disorienting affect is in play.
And playful it is. As the piece progresses, the tempo of the melodicas’ pumping melody increases and the interjections become more intense until, like a tired Hungarian hiker on the banks of the Danube, all four instruments slow down until they reach total repose. I must admit to being completely unfamiliary with Evans’ work but if this piece is at all representative of his musical sensibilities, then I definitely want to hear more.
Nick Norton told us from the stage that his Mirror Smasher was a number of things. He said it was “minimalisty” (and as such, “easy to write”), loud, and a work in progress. This piece was, again, for the four deft hands of HOCKET, and in fact even the pitch material itself was produced and ordered by them. The unordered (or, to quote the program, “played about a zillion different ways, as if looking at it in a broken mirror”) pitch set is:
H O C K E T = B G C D E F#
Yet again, HOCKET played beautifully. The piece begins with a clear tonal center, pulsing along as “minimalisty” pieces often do. But not long into the playing, a pre-recorded track of electronic sounds makes its presence known.
Norton’s choice of electronic sounds – both their timbre and idiomatic qualities – were a highlight for me. The combination of the smooth, hypnotic four-handed piano combined with the somewhat Kraftwerky buzzes, gently evolving into higher pitched electronic sounds reminiscent of some of the organ work in Einstein on the Beach really made for a powerful electro-acoustic marriage.
About halfway into Mirror Smasher the volume cranks up significantly. (The composer warned us of this before the performance. There will be no lawsuits.) If there was a hint of Einstein before the knob was turned, now the Einsteinian character felt married to something more like Heavy Metal, even Rock Opera. (Norton’s program note says that the title is a nod to Alex Miller’s Clock Smasher but I couldn’t help wonder if it might, even subconsciously, have any connection to The Who’s Do I Smash The Mirror, from Tommy. OK, probably not, but still…) OK, Rock Opera is misleading at best, demeaning at worst. But Mirror Smasher’s loud second half is formidable, powerful, and I could easily imagine it, as the composer suggested, being extended into a much longer Minimalist work. While different in pitched/melodic material, it reminded me, in a very good way, of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music in its powerful, gyrating and relentless sonic attack.
The program’s first half concluded with Jason Barabba’s The Distance of the Moon. The piece takes its title from a story in Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics of the same name. Calvino’s work is a collection of clever, fanciful tales, sometimes mischievous, sometimes romantic and nostalgic, often subverting our expectations if not the laws of nature as we’ve come to understand them. Calvino’s Distance of the Moon is a story about the moon, which, once upon a time, existed but a hop away from the Earth, but is now gradually moving farther and farther away. As the two spheres continue to distance themselves from each other, the inhabitants abandon the moon for the Earth. All but one of them, who decides to remain, forever, stranded alone on the moon.
Barabba’s musical interpretation of the story is itself a clever, fanciful tale. But unlike the rather light quality of the short story, it is a significant, weighty work. This is not to say that it isn’t imbued with moments of lightness – it is! – but it is not a mere bagatelle, but rather a significant musical and pianistic undertaking. Distance of the Moon was originally composed for a single pianist (presumably the two-handed kind) but as such it was almost impossible to play. I can all too easily believe this. Even in its two-person version, it is quite challenging.
Stylistically, it manages to explore a number of moods and idiomatic gestures yet still most definitely feel like a coherent, unified work. Moments of romantic, almost tonal passages intermingle deftly with strong, almost Schoenbergian dissonances. Lugubrious night music passages transition into stumbling, irregular rhythms with almost-BeBop melodic lines.
In the end, analogous to the story on which its based, Distance makes us feel the separation, the yearning, the tension hoping, however in vain, for a resolution. It ends, fragile and sparse, in a delicate and beautiful diad. Two notes at either end of the piano keyboard. A deep work, and one that I suspect would definitely reward repeat hearings and analysis.
Then came an intermission. If this had been a meal, I would have felt not full but satisfied. This was a chunk of concert that delivered four works of diverse character yet not, as a whole, illogically incongruent. But wait, there’s more…
The second half began with Mayke Nas’ DiGiT #2. (For the curious, I don’t think there’s a DiGiT #1.) For those who don’t know (I didn’t), Ms. Nas is a Dutch composer, born in 1972. I don’t know how her work wound up on this program but it was a perfect palette cleanser. DiGiT is, to my ear, entirely devoid of a single specified pitch for any of the four hands, or four forearms, or two foreheads that activate the piano keys. It is, to be clear, a humorous bit of performance, perhaps a commentary on what we consider to be “high art.” It also allows a piano duo to highlight a different take on virtuosity.
DiGiT centers itself around a variation of our childhood schoolyard hand jive or clapping game that involves an intricate collaborative clapping between two people (usually young girls), while simultaneously singing a rhyme. (Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Pop! was the one the Black girls bussed into my Queens elementary school taught me). DiGiT, however, is inspired by another favorite, Oh Little Playmate. It is not only a charming work – one that HOCKET obviously enjoyed immensely – but even a virtuosic one, albeit in a very different way. Piano keys are only played in clusters, but other sounds arise from the intricate interplay of the two pianists’ strikes against the palms, arms, and thighs of themselves and each other. The rhythms are at times satisfyingly smooth, even evoking soft shoe dance moves in their elegance and grace. It’s very much a performance piece, and, if you like, you can see an older performance of it (not by HOCKET, but by eighth blackbird, here:
The concert itself was billed under the title of CRUSOE. The grand finale, so to speak, was Frederic Rzewski’s composition of that name. Rzewski, born in 1938, is seen as a somewhat enigmatic figure of the 20th century avant-garde, someone who studied with “Uptown” and Princeton figures (Babbitt, et al.) yet whose own musical output butterflied effortlessly among genres widely, from serialism to minimalism. His works are coherent and easy to describe in and of themselves. But to describe what a “Rzewski piece” might be is near impossible.
As for Crusoe, where to begin? First of all, it was a delight! Which is not to say that it was necessarily such a delight on the page, but Synchromy upped the dose for our viewing pleasure. The stage was adorned with a backdrop of a deserted island, inflatable palm trees and beach balls. A large ensemble adorned themselves a la Castaway, with everything from light headgear to a stuffed parrot on a shoulder to, in the case of one player (Mr. Norton, on guitar) a full-on shark suit! It was most definitely an aesthetic choice, not one dictated by the score, and I found it to be a wise one which bore much (tropical?) fruit.
Crusoe employs a performing force of unspecified instruments, requires its players to sing and chant various lines about Robinson Crusoe, play percussion instruments, and do other things that might make a Musicians Union bristle. The vocal sections are interspersed among bright, quite lovely pointillistic instrumental episodes. As such, Crusoe is reminiscent at times of some of Harry Partch’s better works, albeit without the microtonal schema.
After various chants, instrumental interludes, spilling of doubloons, breaking of branches, dusting off of hands, tinkling of toy pianos, swords whirred as they are raised in the air, heads patted, feet stomped, the Narrator (sung by Justine Aronson) comes forth to chant the last line. At which point she is pelted by the ensemble with beach balls. The End! (I won’t call the Union if you don’t.)
As I said, Rzewski is enigmatic. And Crusoe is no less an enigma. Did this performance, and this piece, provide any insight into the tale of Robinson Crusoe? No, not really. Did it give me a sense of what Rzewski’s compositional voice was? Well, kinda sorta, inasmuch as only one of his pieces might. But more importantly, it was a perfect end to Synchromy’s ambitious concert, a perfect counterweight to an already diverse and profound selection of our community’s musical wealth.
Last weekend, composer collective Synchromy bridged the Nor Cal/So Cal gap and opened the floodgates for inter-state collaboration. In other words, they hosted the incredible San Francisco based new music ensemble Wild Rumpus, down here at ArtShare. After seeing the group perform at last year’s New Music Gathering, Synchromy member Nick Norton said that it was “only a matter of time” before they made their way down to LA. And while building a “California Sound” might be a bit ambitious for a single concert, the performers and composers featured showed an impressive artistic breadth that never felt overwhelming. More importantly, what this concert lacked was pomp. The audience was small (as one might expect for an out of town group) but excited to see what Wild Rumpus had in store. While some of the music was thorny, the whole show ended up fun. Fun isn’t typically the go to description of Contemporary Art Music, but from the noisy neighbors who did not care that “Serious Art Making” was happening downstairs, to Norton’s tie dyed FYF shirt and his band’s logo duct-taped to the front of the bass drum that made its way into the percussionist’s setup, the whole night felt a little impromptu, kind of spontaneous, and a bit like hanging out in a good friend’s garage.
San Francisco provided some amazing composers, and Wild Rumpus brought some killer players. It was a little novel seeing new faces on the Art Share stage that has become a bit of a home base for LA new music. But the novelty was quick to wear off, and the talents of the performers soon stood in full display. For close followers of Synchromy, a pair of trombone solos from last years anti-valentine’s day concert were reprogrammed, this time under the interpretation of Weston Olencki. Both Richard Valitutto’s Walk of Shame and Scott Worthington’s Unphotographable were outstandingly played. The Valitutto was rendered shamelessly and brashly as a piece of its name and nature ought to be. And the Worthington proved an indomitably delicate wall of glissandoing brass against the backdrop of a slowly shifting sine wave.
The two trombone solos were stylistically distinct, as was the rest of the concert. Each piece seemed in a different world than the previous, making each moment fresh, never fatiguing despite a few pieces that lingered in soundworlds for an extended period of time. Despite their stylistic differences, each piece drew from its context on the program and it was interesting to see similar soundscapes explored by different composer. For example, where Walk of Shame started brassy and noisy and had petered itself out by the end, Sonnet XX for solo cello composed by Ursula Kwong-Brown, and performed by Joanne De Mars, started sweet, almost melodramatically so, and slowly peppered in more and more gritty gestures eventually ending in a shimmer of harmonics Unphotographable had an electroacousitc companion on the program too, Spectral Fields in Time by LA based Joshua Carro featured a longer form with slowly shifting masses of sound and the timbres of the full instrumental ensemble of Wild Rumpus. It featured the amplified wash of cymbals, (which harkened to the Lucier-esque LFO of Worthington’s miniature) and heavily amplified piano to accompany the ensemble’s winds, bass, and electric guitar. Both electroacoustic pieces suffered from a logistic issue: the placements of the mains. While ArtShare is a relatively wet hall, it certainly isn’t as reverberant as Zipper or any other recital hall. As such, the high mounted mains really made the electronic elements feel very separate from the ensemble. This was passable for the Carro due to the size of the ensemble, but really took away from the Worthington.
Another gripe on the venue were the neighbors. As the final sounds of Balance of Power by Dan VanHassel (also co-director of Wild Rumpus) faded out, dance music thudded in from a tenant upstairs. (Artshare is an apartment for artists as well as a venue). The piece relied on stark contrasts between more intense moments of percussive groove and lush swelling noisy chords, and while at first the Cagian response of an upstairs boombox seemed a little cute, and almost appropriate for a concert of new music, it continued, ruining more subtle moments both in Walk of Shame and Sonnet XX. Despite the interruption, the VanHassel was executed brilliantly, and was, (to one who is only fleetingly familiar with the composer’s work) quintessential VanHassel, featuring an incredibly well blended ensemble sound and and incredible accuracy within the group.
The Norton and the Barabba utilized the full ensemble along with vocalist Vanessa Langer. Brabba’s cry trojans cry was evocative of the VanHassel, though, with textures peeking in and out of each other a bit more subtly. The piece was extensively theatrical making great use of Langer’s immense stage presence. Beach Song by Norton may have been the only lone wolf on the program, seemingly unpaired. The song is an adaptation of a pop song originally written “after suffering a dramatic New Year’s Eve break up” and then re-re-arranged for Wild Rumpus. The use of classical voice provided an incredibly interesting juxtaposition over the very singer/songwritery text and the timbrally interesting arrangement.
While Wild Rumpus probably won’t be back in town for a while, if you end up up the coast, or they end up down here, I highly recommend coming out to see this incredibly versatile ensemble. The video below features their performance from last year, and the Carro that was on the program last week:
Composer Jason Barabba just posted a video of the premiere of his huge piece Lettere da Triggiano, and it’s great. What’s Next? Ensemble, joined by actor Kalean Ung and singers Elissa Johnson, Anna Schubert, Amy Fogerson, and Sarah Lynch, put on a semi-staged performance directed by Doug Oliphant.
Of the piece, Jason says,
I inherited a small stack of handwritten letters that grandmother had kept until she died. They were from her sister-in-law, written between 1948 and 1951 and are half of a conversation between my grandmother in Los Angeles and my Great Aunt in Triggiano, Italy. The letters cover a period of time when my grandfather was dying and end about a year after his death. They are very personal and heartfelt missives from a woman who was not able to make the trip to visit her brother as he was dying on the other side of the ocean. I felt there was a good piece in there, so I’ve taken Carmela’s letters and broken them up. They are not presented complete, nor in order. I cannot even begin to know how to summarize the narrative. I never met Carmela, but I feel like I’ve gotten to know her through these letters. I cannot overstate how grateful I am to everyone that had a hand in getting this piece to the stage in October. I am in awe of the performance presented in this recording. I feel like a very lucky composer.
Yep, you read that right. New ClassicLA is having a house party. This Friday at 8, Aron Kallay and Rafael Liebich will be premiering piano pieces by Ben Phelps, Jason Barabba, and yours truly (along with a few other locals) at my
house apartment in Santa Monica. I’ll also be opening the first bottle of my homemade amber ale (fingers crossed that carbonation is going as it should), and I believe a friend is bringing up a keg of something awesome that he made too. And Jason has agreed to make some kind of cakes, which I can tell you from personal experience will be utterly delicious. But yeah, the music! It’s going to be killer, and nice and loud, and you should come. I’m not so hot on posting my address on here, so email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send it to you.
Then, Saturday, at 3:00 pm (more than enough time to get the shrimp omelette at Literati on the way over from my couch), Abagail Fischer presents ABSYNTH at the Hammer as a part of wild Up‘s residency there. Here’s the info from the facebook event page:
ABSYNTH is a constantly evolving multi-media program for electronics and voice, conceived by mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer and directed by wild Up founder Christopher Rountree. Hailed as “riveting” (New York Times) and “sumptuous” (Boston Globe), Ms. Fischer makes her premiere performance in Los Angeles here. This program will include commissioned works by Nico Muhly, Caleb Burhans, Kevin McFarland, Florent Ghys, and interspersed by other works by Missy Mazzoli, Wes Matthews, Kurt Weill, Milton Babbitt, and more. Richard Valitutto will assist on keyboards.
ABSYNTH has been performed in varying lengths since 2007, in locales from John Zorn’s Lower East Side venue- the Stone, to Brooklyn’s Galapagos Art Space, presented by American Opera Projects.
I talked to a couple of the guys in Synchromy, who have the first concert of their 2011/12 season coming up this Saturday, about doing an interview for the site, and we decided it would be cool to attempt to do it on video. This is the first time either of us (them or I) have been interviewed/done an interview on camera, and the results are below. It was a lot of fun, and their season looks pretty cool. Especially because they’re playing one of my pieces in January….ha, kidding…no not really, you should go to that one.
In any case, the video is below.