Cipher Duo consists of soprano Justine Aronson and violinist Sarah Goldfeather. This week, they commence their West Coast tour. I was fortunate to see their Wednesday night performance in Geiringer Hall at UC Santa Barbara. They will perform in Pasadena with gnarwhallaby on Thursday, USC on Friday, and then head north to the Bay Area on Sunday. Wherever you are in California, do not miss this concert.
The program starts with something a little familiar. Though I did not know this piece, I am well acquainted with a variety of Kaija Saariaho works. If you haven’t listened to Saariaho, start now. Changing Light (2002) is the is the perfect introduction to Saariaho, and to the Cipher Duo. The text is an English translation from Hebrew and explores the subject of the fragility of uncertain existence. Beginning simply enough, on the line “Light and darkness,” Aronson sings chilling poetry while Goldfeather floats above on harmonics. Like many Saariaho pieces, each part has a purpose and a goal, but their paths are unclear and meandering. The fact that this concert features only 21st-century works confirms, at least to me, that Kaija Saariaho is in line for Debussy’s crown as the essential composer to bridge the century gap.
The duo then takes on another English piece, also a philosophical musing. Rebekah Driscoll was inspired to write January: Brin’s Mesa (2016) when she observed new life emerging from the ashes of a forest fire in Arizona. From page to performance, Aronson and Goldfeather breathe life into the contemplative score. Listen for the small, organic changes – one can almost hear tendrils of plant life growing and emerging.
The middle piece of the program is a crowd-pleaser for the Californians. Even if you missed the event, you know about Hopscotch (2015). Cipher Duo performs Hopscotch Tarot by Veronika Krausas. In the Hopscotch holistic performance, the audience members could only hear two or three fortunes before getting ushered into the next limo. Here, Aronson and Goldfeather perform all twelve short movements, each one a tarot card reading from Fortuna. If you wanted more insight into the plot of Hopscotch, watch Aronson’s expressions, particularly when she smirks. Each fortune has its own character and style, and Aronson captures them all exquisitely.
The fourth piece of the show comes from Goldfeather herself. Come Back (2017) showcases Goldfeather’s experience as a singer/songwriter with an indie band. Though not in a typical verse-chorus form, the rest of the key elements to an indie song are present: simple lyrics, repetitive gestures, and a distinct sonority. For the first half of the piece, Aronson sings five words on five notes. But it isn’t minimalism. Goldfeather overlaps and dovetails the motives within and between the instruments. When a verse finally arrives, it hits the audience like a bucket of water. The first time a minor chord replaces a major chord, a collective chill went down the audience’s spines. I won’t give away what happens at the ending, but I can tell you it was perfect. After so many minutes of intricate looping, layering, and rearranging of motives, Goldfeather pulls off the perfect ending.
Finally, the duo ended on their namesake. Kate Soper’s Cipher (2011) is one of the most breathtaking violin and soprano pieces I have ever heard. The duo told the audience that Cipher explores timbre. As well as exploring musical dynamics and human dynamics, it wends between music, meaning, and language. The violin and the voice become shared objects. Sometimes both performers sing, speak, or finger the violin together. At times, they even swap. Each movement features conflicting voices and temperaments, such as Wittgenstein, Freud, and Guido d’Arezzo. The conjoining line, “People can understand you when you say something,” is frequently obscured. If nothing else has convinced you to see Cipher Duo this weekend, go for this. Cipher will blow your mind.
WasteLAnd continues to impress audiences with a program of new music, most of it from LA-based composers. Each performer has their respective claim to fame in LA and is closely associated with wasteLAnd, and each composer is a long-time favorite of wasteLAnd’s. New to the scene, however, is Allison Carter, a poet whose words found their way into Deyoe’s new piece. Her work made quite the stir among the audience members, and I have a feeling we will begin to hear her name more in the future.
Before I review the concert itself, I find something worth mentioning: the gender representation. It was an even split. In my day job, I currently have my students writing a paper on 19th century gender roles and women composers in the Romantic era, so this has been on my mind a lot. One hundred years ago, women could not vote in the United States, and it was nearly impossible to earn respect as a composer or performer. Nowadays, female representation in the music scene is gaining. It is not yet even, but progress is happening. WasteLAnd’s October concert featured six composers; three were women and two were men (Erik Ulman had two pieces, so the ratio of compositions is 3:3). There were seven performers (including Allison Carter reading aloud), and four were women. The best part was that I didn’t notice until afterwards. I have come to recognize that gender equality is already quite common in the LA new music scene. So much so that this is the first time I put it together. I looked back over some old programs I’ve reviewed, and every concert has women as composers, performers, directors or all three.
Ok. Feminist aside complete. Moving on, because there is so much good about this concert to discuss.
The night opened with Kaija Saariaho’s Folia, performed by Scott Worthington on double bass and electronics. Like many compositions from the end of the 20th century, this piece focuses on dynamics and timbre over pitch and harmony. Sometimes the bass whistles like an icy wind, other times it rumbles like an earthquake, putting palpable pressure on your ears. Scott saws out some kind of textural melody, phrases build and climax and fade – textural intensity carries the musical line. The electronic aspect augments and echoes the timbres. It overlays overtones, resulting in both a more ‘open’-sounding composition and greater complexity overall.
Next on the docket was the duet Tout Orgeuil… by Erik Ulman. Stephanie Aston and Elise Roy are always an amazing team, and their performance on this piece was no exception. It begins with a piccolo solo, and Roy gradually descended down the flute family to alto flute. Aston sang sleepily about pride smoking in the night. Given that the text is from a Stephan Mallarmé poem, my mind turned to Debussy. Ulman is no Impressionist, but I feel Debussy would have approved of the modern counterpoint and expressive extended techniques. The pitches bent down, down, down into sleep, and the flutes became larger and the words grew heavier. Erik captured the good sinking feeling, the kind you feel in a cozy armchair while drifting to sleep.
Third up was Matt Barbier on trombone and electronics performing puddles and crumbs by Katherine Young. For me, this piece created a very specific soundscape: I, the listener, am a koi in the pond on a rainy day and the daily miracle of food raining from heaven is happening. Three of the major elements that contribute to this soundscape are 1. Sharply sucking air through the trombone, 2. Sharp plosives into the mouthpiece that are amplified by the electronics, 3. Dynamic tempi. Matt’s deep breathing combined with the electronic influence reminded me of snorkeling, the plosive pops like rain on water’s surface when I swim underwater. These are instinctive memories, of course, and it may be a coincidence that they play so well together. Now you understand my watery theme. The push and pull of the tempo took me a while to incorporate into my soundscape idea. At first I thought it felt like seasickness, but I eventually concluded it was more like watching fish dart in a pond. They sprint only a few inches or feet, depending on the size of the fish, and then hesitate. The tempo seemed to do exactly that. And then it all became clear, that the soundscape was from the point of view of a koi in a pond in the rain during feeding time. I’m sure many will disagree, whether they had another idea or didn’t find it so blatantly programmatic at all; one of the wonders of music is how everyone experiences things differently. For what it’s worth, I did come up with a secondary interpretation that involves heavy breathing, plosive pops, and sprinting-and-stopping: Darth Vader playing basketball. So really it’s all relative. Regardless of the loftiness or pop art-iness of my personal experience, Barbier proved yet again that the trombone is more than just a brass instrument in a marching band. He played every color in the palette, and demonstrated rigorous control over his body and his instrument to perform such a demanding piece.
Fittingly the 100th piece wasteLAnd has programmed, Erik Ulman’s this until is a flute solo, and Elise Roy absolutely nailed it. I’ve said before that she has superhuman control of her instrument, and she proved it again with this piece. She made her flute sing, speak, howl, wail and whisper. Though a solo composition, I could sometimes here a ghost of counterpoint when she effected heavy harmonics. I honestly couldn’t say if that was Ulman’s intention or Roy’s execution, but every so often a particularly turgid note would quietly sound the octave or fourth below, creating a beautiful, haunting harmony. this until was the only solo acoustic musical composition of the night and it was right in the middle of the program; Elise managed to keep up the energy on her own, and carried us into the final pieces of the evening.
The program ends with a sort of binary piece. First, Allison Carter read her Poems from A Fixed, Formal Arrangement; Nicholas Deyoe used the text for his piece Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, a line from the poem. I can’t say I have ever attended another concert that had the poet read their work first before the musical product, and I wish this would become the norm everywhere. As a general rule, increased understanding leads to increased appreciation, so knowing the text ahead of time (and from the author herself, no less) helped Deyoe’s work succeed. The instrumentation sounded like speech slowed down by a factor of ten. The melodies felt like they wanted to resolve up to a tonic, but they kept bending downwards, defying expectations. One thing I love about Deyoe’s style is that it’s always interesting and it never fulfills your expectations. Once you think you have it figured out, he changes it again. This piece feels like your mind wandering and getting lost – when it’s 4am and you have to wake up in two hours but you’re caught up in the twilight zone that is four in the morning. Knowing composers, that is probably the mindset he was in while writing. Also, knowing composers, that is a hard composition to pull off. I commend Nicholas Deyoe for a well-constructed and evocative ensemble composition.
WasteLAnd concerts are on the first Friday of every month at ArtShare. Check out Weights and Measures on November 4.
Editor’s note: WasteLAnd is currently running their annual fundraiser. Take a minute to support them at https://squareup.com/store/wasteland/
This program was the epitome of newness. Nothing old enough to be enrolled in first grade and three world premieres, Synchromy and The Argus Quartet‘s February 27 concert achieved a rare level of innovation, with the presenter and ensemble working together to build an effective, feasible, and enjoyable program to showcase all their talents. Like a sonata, it built up, developed, had some themes come back, and ended on a sort of cadenza with a new theme -that of the voice. We had heard the voice before; the narrator, Chelsea Fryer, had also been introducing the pieces. One could say this non-performance voice became integrated into the program. Or perhaps it had been part of the performance all along, that as soon as the doors closed and the lights when down everything that happened on or near the stage was performative.
The concert opens with a sunrise in Andrew Norman’s Sabina, from the Companion Guide to Rome, for solo violin. It begins with a whisper, not even a note. When the sound finally starts, it sounds far away, almost like an echo in a canyon. It creaks into existence, broken by bird calls and wind. The violin finally begins a kind of fiddling over a drone and splitting high notes so pure. The sun is finally high enough to be seen through the window of the church that inspired Andrew Norman, and the violin plays a single, pure melody. No birds, no wind, nothing but a sweet melody.
Following the sky theme, the sunrise is clouded over by Kaija Saariaho’s “Cloud Trio,” which adds a viola and cello to the violin soloist but is still not the full quartet yet. This work depicts four types of clouds, and the audience is invited to imagine which clouds they are. Like many, I can identify cumulus as the fluffy ones and that’s it. Regardless of lacking the vocabulary to name the clouds, the types were clearly depicted in the music. Each has its own identity, utilizing thick harmonies or sparse counterpoint or the rhythmic shush shush of col legno.
Staying within the theme of Rome, one of the most popular archaeological sites in the world, Zaq Kenefick’s funeral song of the people of the ruined cities, speaks to the beauty and brokenness of the ruins. The violin plays a trembling solo and the viola strums chords dissonant with the cello. The video of folding black cloth was surely a beautiful artistic choice, though I must admit I and many other audience members I talked to afterwards were uncertain what to make of the visuals. The piece was over almost as soon as it began, the length itself a reflection of the lost ruins.
Immediately before intermission, the concert changed gears and addressed the modern: Skronk. A word thrown around in various musical genres and circles, it is a thick onomatopoeia. The introduction defines it in many ones, and generally as “not a thing you are, but a thing you do.” The piece features strong pizzicati and a syncopated rock rhythm and melody, some fiddling tossed between the different instruments, and overall frankly smoother string playing than I would have expected from a word that can mean the skronk of an electric guitar. This one was a fast crowd pleaser and kept everyone on their toes. Ending as though someone suddenly turned up the volume and then plucking away into nothingness like the fade-outs of rock songs of the ‘90s, John Frantzen captured the many facets skronk may and can represent.
Post-intermission, we were given something of a variation on a theme. The music kicked off with three excerpts from Norman’s Companion Guide to Rome for string trio, featuring swirling harmonies, birdlike whistles, crackling glitches, whispering on the bows, and plucked pizzicato like rocks skipping on a pond. This was followed by Nick Norton’s String Quartet No 1., in which chords slid like skates on ice and the melody bounced between the four instruments in a playful game of keep-away. The second section was frantic, reminding me of a car race – the way the upper strings chomped rhythmically at the notes and the cello made engine revs pealing past the stage, going so far as to imitate the Doppler effect, it seemed. The third ethereal movement felt like flying in a dream. The dramatic violin swelled alongside the pastoral lower strings, all slowing until they ran out of steam. The perfect end to the day that Norman’s first piece began. But a false ending gave way to screeching and tapping. The spell was broken. Composers have great power over the audience, and with great power comes great responsibility. Norton made the daring choice to shatter the beauty he built.
After Norton came the second Kenefick piece, harvesting tunes of the people of the rope-tree towers, this one featuring the viola practically crunching itself in half to sound like white noise on an old CRTV, a dark melody in the violin with dissonance in its twin, and the cello rumbling beneath it all. This video panned the length of a red cloth rope. Again, I will not pretend to have understood or fully appreciated the visuals provided, but the piece was an intriguing exercise in tension and release, and well placed in the middle of the second half of the program. It is experimental enough that I might experiment with it on a Spotify playlist someday, just to see how it goes.
Gabriela Frank’s excerpts from Leyendas: an Andean Walkabout gave a breath of fresh air from the concert hall by taking the audience on a pastoral journey through the Andes via “Tarqueada,” a piece imitating the split tone flute played in quartal and quintal harmony, “Himno de Zampoñas,” or panpipes, and “Chasqui,” the messenger runner who relies on small instruments light enough to carry on journeys, particularly small guitars. Each section was magnificently portrayed by the quartet, making the flutes and panpipes sing and drums thwack and guitars strum, all on bowed strings. For brief moments I was transported to the Smithsonian Folkways Festival of 2013 when a Quechua band played on the instruments the strings were portraying. The effect was astounding and beautiful, and I felt nostalgia for a place I’ve never been, only heard.
The concert ended with Eve Beglarian’s Testy Pony, which featured the cellist, a video and prerecorded sounds, and the narrator. A charming story of a girl who gets a pony and learns a life lesson, the pleasant tale is backed by a constantly rolling cello playing in time with the prerecorded sounds. If you don’t think this is technically challenging, try cooking while watching a chef on TV, and you’ll get some idea of the balancing act at play. This work seemed to finally end the “day” we started, as we watched the back of a horse gallop out of sight and out of mind.
The brief descriptions and interpretations of the pieces reveal a variety of ways in which music can be “new” and concerts can showcase facets of interest. Composition can show off new techniques, new subject matter (or old, in the case of the ruins, but in a new way), or use new orchestration. Synchromy is a collective of composers showing off recent works, and the Argus Quartet specializes in modern techniques. The New Classic LA facebook page has a rule that only ‘new’ music may be posted. 15th century madrigals are not new, but perhaps the way in which they are performed is new. Film music is not a new genre anymore, but a fresh composition is new. ‘New’ is such a tiny word packed with so much to interpret and interpolate. Regardless of how you take any of it to heart or choose to think about music, last Friday’s concert was a fair epitome of newness.