On Wednesday, August 12, (a while ago now; please excuse this reviewer, gentle readers) wild Up presented a unique collaboration between the American Composers Orchestra, the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, and the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University: specifically, the final concert of the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute, a workshop geared toward giving jazz composers the opportunity to learn about writing for orchestra. If this description alone is hard to follow, it’s because there were so many forces at play here – wild Up’s intuitive and intense grasp of chamber music, Rountree’s dynamic conducting, and a wide range of experience in jazz and classical composition. The marketing of this concert seemed a bit misleading – as the culminating concert of the workshop, one might expect to find some student pieces on the program. This was, however, a showcase of faculty pieces, with a single piece by a member of wild Up – all pieces that, in their varied and skillful ways, played with the intersections between jazz and orchestral music. According to the program, up to 16 of the composers participating in this workshop will present symphonic works in the second phase of the program in 2016.
The concert was held in the Ensemble Room at the UCLA Ostin Music Center, which had lovely, rich acoustics, especially appropriate for the stripped-down chamber orchestra resources of wild Up. The environs strongly conveyed “workshop”, with all the camaraderie and vibrancy thus implied. This camaraderie was echoed in some opening remarks by director James Newton, when he asked audience members to join hands and experience the collaborative moment as one, chuckles and smiles all around. The obvious care and passion poured into this program was moving to behold.
The concert opened with a piece by this same director. Elisha’s Gift, described by the composer as dealing with direct spiritual experience of the Northern Lights, surprisingly began with a wholly intellectual dryness. wild Up’s well-poised players presented a bevy of dramatic gestures in rhythmically interlocking clothing. There was a jazz tautness here; although in classical garb, the precision of rhythmic trajectory was influenced by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gilespie, as described in the program notes. Executions were sharp, and hocketed phrases intersected with great intimacy; one’s ears were being sharpened for contrasts to come. This dryness gave way to an unexpected depth, as phrases opened up with more space, long tones and harmonics began to make an appearance. The dry, tense landscape flowered into a richer spectrum of time, and suddenly, harmonics pulled, what was intellectual became imperative, reactions slowed, and the conversation expanded. This awareness of how to resolve tension seemed quietly but powerfully from the jazz tradition. Rountree’s conducting was effective and natural, with a director’s ease. Finally, the last elements of tension gave way and the piece shone with the spiritual purity described by Newton. Motives traversed the full range of string registers, refined with ever-more delicacy, and when phrases finally elongated into lyricism, our ears had been refined by all the previous filigree to truly appreciate the melodic grace. The final, large group statement breathed strength and spiritual engagement, unified and tangible in the present.
Next up was One Modular Future by Chris Kallmyer of wild Up, a distinct about-face. After Rountree’s short introduction to the piece, a member of wild Up held up a small collection of cards, chirping, “And here’s the score!” The piece did betray this casual form of improvisation-influenced composition, but in the best possible ways. The piece started out of the hall, with wild Up members striking single tones on shimmering gamelan-like homemade percussion instruments – and listeners were quickly welcomed into that idiomatic frame of mind, a particular kind of openness. In a traditional manner, the single melodic line telescoped into double-time, and back again. The line lacked traditional gamelan contours however, as the order of tones was randomly based on the musicians’ placement on stage. In this way, the melody had the pleasing linearity of something like a modular electronic sequencer loop. Percussionists changed order, milling around the front of the stage with a fun, casual theatricality, and then played a sequence of new tones. During this, the clarinet and piano inhabited a different space, presumably the space of a different card from the score. The clarinet played improvisatory textures and multiphonics, while the inside of the piano was scraped and struck. Percussion lines broke down, a few unison clangs resonated, 3 and 4-note fragments remained, and the percussionists receded. There was a hard transition here, which was nicely handled. The next section opened with a small wind ensemble droning reedy unisons and fifths, pungent and resonant, contrasted with a light clattering of orchestral percussion. Winds in groups always seem to evoke the outdoors, and with the improvisatory percussion background, we were quickly propelled into the forest, or a field. Once we settled into this landscape, electric guitar entered with a heavy dose of Americana, and we were sure that we were somewhere with sky. The guitar improvisation continued on repeated motives, substantial and moving, and the piece ended with a (perhaps surprise?) abruptness. There were so many tropes here that could have been poorly handled: Partch-esque homemade percussion that could have been goofy, extended techniques that could have teetered into cliché, and an unabashedly beautiful guitar solo that could have been indulgent. The wealth of compositional ideas was compellingly presented however. The lack of cohesion worked as a series of tableaus, and every idea was well-explored.
Tempest, by Steve Coleman, was a completely different dish as well, direct and potent. wild Up was joined by saxes, and jazz trumpet, and came together as a strikingly alive big band. The program notes describe the piece as evocative of the ebbs and flow of a squall, and it did not disappoint. At least this reviewer had a sudden wish for the revival of the warmth and presence of live pop music that big band jazz epitomized, and that we seem to have permanently lost. The wild Up strings performed the typical big band sax role of fleshing out rich jazz harmonies, while the composer on solo sax navigated deftly and movingly in tandem with muted trumpet. The warmth here was palpable, the hall resonant. The structure was natural and well-formed; there was the feeling of a jazz “head” at important returns. The alto sax constantly commented on the textures but also lead to new territories. One was reminded, in case one had forgotten by listening to so much new music, that harmony can have grammar. Harmonies didn’t just move and shift, tonalities anchored us with physical security. Pivot points between these tonalities were navigated by a composer well-versed in extended tonal gravity, as only a jazz player really is, now. After a while, the rises and falls of the storm began to lack dramatic effect through extended repetition, but the overall texture remained compelling and fresh, through the “rainbow chord” which ended the piece.
Sinovial Joints, by the same composer explored different facets of the jazz idiom, through a distinctly physical lens. In stark contrast to the intellectualism of Elisha’s Gift, African polyrhythm and arrhythmicism here were strongly tied to the body, encouraging one to just be. As the composer describes, “sinovial joints … function as a means of connecting bones, binding tissues and providing various degrees of movement for our bodies.” How quickly wild Up transformed into a fully functioning, churning jazz organism! The political fervency of jazz was in full evidence – there was not only toe-tapping, but sweat. Melodic lines were stated and recapitulated deftly and vibrantly, the strings functioned beautifully in their harmonic choral role, and the blend of arrhythmic and polyrhythmic elements felt totally natural, toothsome. We were not in speculation mode, we were in reality. There were unexpectedly interesting piccolo and clarinet melodies in layers, the trumpet shouted with inevitability, and an eventual transition out of polyrhythm and into orchestra textures brought us back into the intellect, with final, reflective gestures.
After a well-deserved intermission, wild Up returned with String Quintet No. 1: Funky Diversions, by Vince Mendoza. The rhythmic strength here mimicked that of Joints, but in a tighter, leaner ensemble. In a delicate opening, the strings responded to one another, pulling, yawning. Pretty diatonic lyrical motifs contrasted with tight, cerebral runs and leaping, disjunct gestures. The bass was used well, separated enough to ground the ensemble, but still “of” the quintet texture, and at 30 seconds in, ushering in a distinct funkiness. Here we were rooted not by tonal gravity, but by a solid four on the floor rhythmic inevitability. Rountree was fun to watch in this piece, obviously enjoying grooving with the ensemble. The piece as a whole still had a strong classical influence, however, with violins and viola handled idiomatically. Pretty themes were traded and hocketed, and the texture at times seemed to breathe a post-minimal air of shifting diatonic harmonies before settling into bold funk grounding. There were a few transitions to long droning tones, with traded and built in intensity back to the impact of strong, funk rhythm. This “verse-chorus” approach to form seemed to emanate from jazz traditions as well, and overall the piece was solid, self-assured.
Journey of the Shadow, by Gabriela Lena Frank, was unique on the program, as a narrated story, with a fully orchestrated backdrop. The story is a magical realist tale of a boy sending a letter to his father at war in Afghanistan, and of the boy’s shadow that slips into the envelope, and has various poignant adventures and eventually arrives back home. The work is geared toward children and adults alike, and Lena Frank’s narration is good-natured and clear. The opening oboe melody heralds the character for the entire piece: so charismatically mid-century classical, beaming with poise and charm. South American influences soon creep in, Ginastera-influenced rhythmic interactions contrasting with well-shaped clarinet lyricism. One hates to call an entire work charming, but that’s what it was: not a superficial piece, but one that exuded real charm, that awareness of how to create audience delight. Word painting was indulged with abandon throughout – for example in the description of the many kinds of letters in the mail. There were interludes of pure cuteness, including woodblock, pizzicato strings trading with staccato on piano, and wind flourishes. Erin McKibben’s flute tone was particularly rich and haunting. The form generally follows the text, as the shadow encounters various adventures, and the whole work seems built for listening as a recording, at home. The piece is familial. The jazz influence is evident, with rich extended harmonies and perfectly crafted melodies. The cartoony quality of this word painting actually conceals impressive technical strength – orchestration of this kind is actually quite difficult and requires intimate knowledge of the resources at hand. The test of this kind of piece is whether the orchestration is effective in making the story vibrant and it definitely works: one wants to know what happens next, and by the end of the story, the darker nuances of the touching tale have quietly been understood.
The final piece on the program, Time’s Vestiges by Anthony Cheung explored, according to the program notes, “metaphors drawn from geological ‘deep time’. The rumbling, buried texture wasn’t just an evocation of the earth, however; the audience was presented with a fabric of activity so dense and dynamic that it seemed to reflect the complexity of nature itself. Rhythmic counterpoint towered on top of textural effects. There were so many threads here, it was impossible for a listener to follow every contrapuntal statement, so multiplicitous were the lines. Jazz influences here were subtler than in the other pieces, if they existed at all – the most salient jazz element could have simply been the emphasis, as in all these pieces, in the immediacy of the present and the pleasure to be found in textural interplay. The melodic gestures in themselves carried a 19th century kind of angst, or surface expressivity, but the subterranean forces at work were not sentimental; they pushed and ruptured with cold precision. This unique approach to orchestration brought to mind some of the duality of Classical forms, where surface-level expression can bely a more ironic or detached foundation. The composer in fact may take this texture for granted, having lived in it for so long, as the piece starts immediately with this kind of dense patchwork, but for a new listener, the varied surface texture is fresh and enjoyable. Texturally, the piece doesn’t explore extended techniques as much as traditional effects, with tremolos and glissandi expertly layered. The piece eventually transitions from this flurry of activity to quieter moments: pizzicatos are traded with more space for reflection, and tones lengthen. We have been desensitized by the previous complexity, however, and these quiet moments seem to pass us by as we are glazed with glacial indifference. This oddly neutral respite is short-lived. The piece moves quickly to swooping, diving gestures, moving throughout the ensemble, and eventually ends with a rising line that resolves into a surprising vulnerability, given the powerful direction in the rest of the piece.
With its raucous brew of influences, the concert was a fulfilling procession of courses. wild Up’s contributions were as always, singular: no other local ensemble could have handled the diverse demands here, both technical and aesthetic. And naturally, the execution seemed effortless. One can only look forward to the next installment, in 2016, when students will be able to display the fruits of this vibrantly fertile collaboration.
This Friday, wild Up presents an evening of music curated by and celebrating the work of clarinetist Brian Walsh. Walsh is a staple of the LA scene, most frequently inhabiting the contemporary classical and jazz worlds, and having worked with everyone from the LA Phil and wild Up to Nels Cline and Bright Eyes to his own ensembles (Walsh Set Trio and gnarwhallaby). I’m glad he had time to answer a few questions ahead of tomorrow’s concerts at Boston Court (tickets available here).
This concert on Friday explores and celebrates your musical influences and experiences. Could you talk a bit about the program?
I wanted to present music that I love listening to and love playing. I also wanted to work with some of my best friends who are incredible musicians. The two pieces that first popped into my head when chatting with Chris Rountree were Brian Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study 1 for solo bass clarinet, and Fables of Faubus by Charles Mingus. The program developed out of that initial connection. gnarwhallaby will be performing a wonderful piece by Martin Smolka-Euphorium. This is scored for baritone saxophone, euphonium, cello, and prepared piano. It is both disgusting and beautiful. It also grooves. Magnus Lindberg’s Ablauf features a slithering clarinet solo bombarded by two bass drums. I will play a solo I wrote for clarinet striking assorted small objects. Walsh Set Trio(bass clarinet, bass and drums) will play my compositions that mix absurdist vocals, jazz and contemporary music. The music of the great Charles Mingus will round out the concert.
It’s a really wide-ranging program, and I’ve seen you in many different contexts as a performer. What opened you up to exploring such diverse musics? Do you even see them as diverse, or all part of the same practice?
I grew up only listening to classical music and some 60’s folk rock. When I hit 8th grade I discovered jazz and that opened the flood gates. At first, any music that featured the clarinet really interested me, and that pretty much exposes you to almost every kind of music. Almost. I don’t think so much about the diversity aspect. If I hear something and love it, I do it. The different styles just have slightly different needs. I still listen to a lot of music so my brain is used to moving relatively fluidly between styles.
Is there a particular music that’s your favorite to play? Why?
As soon as I think there is, something else comes along. I do tend to always return to contemporary music and jazz though.
What attracted you to clarinet in the first place? Was it your first instrument?
I saw a wind quintet play in the mall and liked the look of the oboe. The group was wearing tuxedos and socks that looked like shoes. I told my band director that I wanted to play oboe and got a clarinet. I figured it was close enough.
What other musicians in LA inspire you?
I have to say that all the groups and musicians I work with are constantly pushing me and inspiring me. Composers as well. Groups like wild Up and Chris Rountree, gnarwhallaby (Richard Valitutto, Derek Stein, and Matt Barbier), Nicholas Deyoe and all the folks at WasteLAnd. Daniel Rosenboom and Orenda Records just to name a few. Local heroes who are trying to make great art as well as build a strong, supportive community.
I mean this as a compliment: anytime I see you onstage I think, “oh, of course they’d get Brian, he can do anything.” That said, are there any musical goals or projects, that you’re interested in and haven’t yet been able to pursue or accomplish? Anyone you’d like to work with but haven’t yet?
I’m planning on recording an album of music featuring an expanded version of my trio, using strings and guitar. My current dream is to record an album with organist Larry Goldings. He doesn’t know that yet. I’ve also been thinking about recording a solo clarinet album. I usually don’t like listening to a whole album of solo anything so I’m not sure what to do about that.