On November 18th Walt Disney Concert Hall transformed into a showcase of the community, talent and swagger of Los Angeles new music. The second annual Noon to Midnight event was as much an exhibition as a festival: An overlapping schedule of pop-up performances populated the building’s many nestled spaces, encouraging attendees to wander and casually sample the day’s various offerings. The music-making spilled over Gehry’s grand titanium shipwreck onto the sidewalk and plaza, but the main stage served as a central hub for major performances, punctuating the day with moments of communion between curious ears scattering outwards toward the bustling amphitheater, beer garden, and cozy nooks and crannies of the hall.
In truth, this collar-loosening was the first successful performance of the day. Among younger audiences, the glitzy, glass-enclosed posters of Dudamel might seem out of touch with the Phil’s superimposed tagline “our city, our sound” as his immaculate white bow tie and baton are a far cry from the flimsy band posters that litter telephone poles around Echo Park. But something about licking food truck drippings off of your fingers while listening to electric guitars compete with traffic noise really tempers the imposing austerity of the concert hall. And so, from the very onset, Noon to Midnight transformed the space from a venue for witnessing art into a home-base for engaging with it.
And engaging it was. Yuval Sharon and Annie Gosfield’s new performance piece, War of the Worlds was a fitting centerpiece for the event, occupying both the hall and remote sites in a sprawling, tech-savvy production that cleverly balanced national and local relevance (see Nick Norton’s review here). Wild Up performed two separate sets. The first was a showcase of the collaborative works born of the LA Phil’s National Composers Intensive, featuring new pieces by six young composers. As one might expect, the music reflected an excited exploration of the ensemble’s open-mindedness, navigated by some promising compositional voices. The second set utilized the ensemble’s larger forces to premiere several new works that best demonstrated the ensemble’s agile, performative charm—sometimes dance-y, sometimes delicate, sometimes asking “how did I end up waist deep in this swamp” and “are trombone multiphonics the only way out.” But whether shimmering or sloshing, Christopher Rountree and wild Up were always committed, always convincing, and always a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
The smaller ensembles offered a more intimate experience, including a noisy, forward-looking set by gnarwhallaby, installation performances by HOCKET and Southland Ensemble, jazzy moments with the LA Signal Lab, and a tight, driving performance by Jacaranda. Outdoor spaces hosted less traditional instrumentations like RAGE THORMBONES and Los Angeles Electric 8. The performance that perhaps best encapsulated Noon to Midnight as a whole was Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Etoile: red fish blue fish, spread among the serene beer garden atop Disney Hall, animated the crisp evening air and city views with a radically virtuosic performance in which audience members strolled between and around the performers to create a consuming, fluid and completely individual experience of the colossal work. Here the performance and experience of the music were inseparably entangled, defined by the audience’s direct engagement with the production. The same could be said of Chris Kallmyer‘s Soft Structures, almost a festival in itself.
In total, the day included more than twenty separate programs, and it would be impossible to speak to each set individually. But parsing the experience into discrete parts would betray the atmosphere the LA Phil took such care to create in the first place; Noon to Midnight is a monument of local music that generates all the electricity and none of the pomp of the traditional concert. The music, performers, spaces, drinks and food all embodied an LA personality that manifested in every detail. Having spent most of my life in Silicon Valley, what strikes me most since moving to Los Angeles is the physicality of the city: people don’t just philosophize about things, they make them. There is a reverence for the man-made and the hand-made: What the east side lacks in blooming nature it replaces with colorful graffiti, what towering buildings of Hollywood obscure from your view they replace with blinding LEDs and enormous marquis. In a field of new music that can all too easily slip into intellectualism, this combining of upstart and established groups alike was a heartening account of the range of artists getting their hands seriously dirty making art. It is clear that music here is being made not only in pristine halls, but also in aged, mixed-use buildings with shoddy plumbing. And so, rather than hanging the the local art on a white wall, standing back and rubbing its beard to pontificate, Noon to Midnight was instead an invitation to come together, wash hands, and admire the buildup of dirt in the sink. A glorious, silver sink in the middle of downtown.
While that particular fantasy didn’t quite happen, War of the Worlds did manage to blast through my rather high expectations. It is in many ways the most fully realized version of Yuval’s unique brand of opera theatre, a project perhaps more deeply connected to Los Angeles than even Hopscotch. Rather than take the essential Wells/Welles story/broadcast and stage it, the new libretto (by Sharon himself) engages with contemporary LA life, politics, and a lot of sci fi fandom. Its layers of metacommentary on cultural life in 2017 are a joy to unpeel.
Let’s begin with the premise. Audiences were seated both inside the concert hall and at three “siren sites” around LA. The opera began with Sigourney Weaver as a guest celebrity host for an LA Phil concert, which was broadcast to the three sites. For the first performance I was at site one, where a pair of scientists were listening to the broadcast on the radio while doing some experiments, and for the second I was in the hall. Before we go any farther, let’s think about the setup. The Industry’s other productions, as ambitious and wild and creative and postmodern as they are, often run into a fourth wall problem. In Hopscotch, for instance, yes, you were in a car with the singers and actors, but it still felt as if they were performing for a large audience, or for a camera, as if it didn’t matter that you were there.
That’s not exactly a knock on Hopscotch or its performers, but it was definitely odd to be sitting two feet from someone singing their heart out but not actually interacting with you. The fourth wall is a tricky thing, though – break it too obviously and it can completely ruin the narrative, like the remote scene in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Such breaks have to serve the story rather than spice it up. In the cases of Hopscotch, Invisible Cities, and Crescent City, I think Yuval was right in his avoidance of dealing with the fourth wall in the drama, much as the staging might make it seem like the obvious device to manipulate.
That the actual plot of War of the Worlds included a concert broadcast being interrupted, however, finally gave Yuval the legitimate justification to start playing with that fourth wall. It’s normal to have a bunch of celebrities show up and hang out at LA Phil concerts — hell, it’s almost a marketing device — so having Sigourney Weaver show up and participate brought the opera’s narrative into our normal experience as LA Phil concertgoers. It seemed to say “this is actually happening to you,” rather than “watch and listen to this thing we are performing,” and it was convincing.
The choice to cast Weaver as the all-knowing person in a science fiction situation itself is a trope we’re also familiar with. It’s almost a requirement for a self-aware sci fi film these days to give her a cameo or have her show up at the end to explain to the characters what is actually happening. This casting decision further brings War of the Worlds into our world, and isn’t lost on Yuval’s libretto, with the scientists (read: lovable nerds) at site one geeking out over getting to talk to Ellen Ripley. Sitting at site one and listening to an LA Phil broadcast is what both the audience and the scientists are doing, so it makes perfect sense that they would interact. And interact we did, with Professor Pierson and his assistant (perfectly portrayed by actors Hugo Armstrong and Clayton Farris, respectively) bantering with the audience before the concert, and Professor Pierson developing a celebrity crush on Weaver.
When the music and story get rolling, though, the metanarrative helps the opera to get real, and real important. Jorge Luis Borges once pondered,
Why does it disturb us that…the thousand and one nights be [included] in the book of the Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.
I believe that with War of the Worlds, the inverse is true. As the sirens around Los Angeles wake up from their machine slumber to coordinate the martian attack, mayor Eric Garcetti himself walks onstage to tell the audience that – paraphrasing – “these things have been hiding in plain sight for 70 years, and that we’ll fight them to defend our way of life in Los Angeles.” In case it wasn’t clear that this is an opera about America and LA in 2017, when the Mexican shop owner portrayed by hometown opera hero Suzana Guzmán gets asked about the aliens, she immediately launches into a panicked defense of her legal immigrant status. It’s not that we, the audience, can be fictitious, but that the fiction can be fact.
Sometimes with Industry productions it can feel like the music, while important, takes a backseat to the setting. While the narrative structure and libretto are integral to War of the Worlds, in this case it is clearer than ever that they are in support of Annie Gosfield’s score and the performers. Yuval has said that gathering a community for artistic purposes can be a form of sociopolitical action, and the mere premise of this opera is that we’re getting together to listen to a piece of music. That literally happens here, as being at a concert, with a tongue-in-cheek name check to Frank Gehry’s silver building, ends up saving the listeners from the invasion.
Christopher Rountree’s muscular but agile conducting style was a perfect match for Gosfield’s synth-laden orchestral score with occasional dips into popular idioms. Furthering our theme of music-as-community here, one got the feeling that not only did most of the people in the hall actually know Rountree from around town, but that he was having a blast being exactly who he is, even getting to act a little with the sound guy, “Dave,” in a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. At least one other critic wrote that he was hoping for an orchestral suite of movements from the opera; I’ll second that request. And coloratura soprano Hila Plitmann’s portrayal of La Sirena, or the wordless, musique concrète instrumentale of the alarm sirens – broadcast through the actual alarm sirens – was utterly stunning.
Making art together in a diverse community is our hometown’s calling card. The Industry’s past productions have done that splendidly for their audience. With War of the Worlds, the LA Phil and The Industry do it with their audience. To live in LA is to be a part of this story and project.By embracing that, War of the Worlds becomes not only engrossing and entertaining as hell, but a vital piece of opera theatre.
Disclosure: the author of this review is friends with some of the subjects, and sometimes works for The Industry. Rather than pretending this is some piece of unbiased writing in the name of journalistic integrity, I think being actively involved allows for deeper insights while writing. Make of that what you will.
Over the years I’ve spent running New Classic LA, I’ve heard time and time again the narrative that the torch of new music in Los Angeles is being passed down from our venerable old institutions like Monday Evening Concerts and the LA Phil’s Green Unbrella series to newer, more agile ensembles and series like wild Up and WasteLAnd. Old wisdom had it that the best way for a composer to get played in LA was to move to New York. I hope, with the massive triumph and all-inclusive nature of the LA Phil’s Noon to Midnight event on Saturday, these narratives can finally be put to rest. The torch isn’t being passed down, it’s being shared, and everyone is invited.
First, let’s talk scale. Disney Hall’s spaces were opened up to many of LA’s ensembles and series, and the 12 hour marathon, in which it was impossible to catch everything, featured the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, Piano Spheres, wild Up, gnarwhallaby, WasteLAnd, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Monday Evening Concerts, the USC Percussion Ensemble, The Industry, Jacaranda, Chris Kallmyer, Lucky Dragons, the LA Phil Bass Quintet, the LA Phil New Music Group, as well as a slew of food trucks and a small tasting area for a few beers from SolArc, a brewery that began life catering wild Up parties.
Programming was the spirit of inclusiveness itself, though with a somewhat surprising slant toward sounds and big works from the European, harder, avant-garde. Piano Spheres presented Messiaen’s complete, three-hour, Catalogue d’oiseaux in the garden’s Keck Amphitheatre, calling on pianists Vicky Ray, Susan Svrcek, Thomas Kotcheff, Aron Kallay, Steven Vanjauwaert, Nic Gerpe, Danny Holt, Mark Robson, Joanne Pearce Martin, Sarah Gibson, Richard Valitutto, and Nadia Shpachenko. The playing was top notch, as expected with a roster like that, and the sounds floating in from the garden and street actually served the piece well, putting Messiaen’s birds in a context where you might actually find a few of them.
Other euro-avant picks for the day included the USC Percussion Ensemble’s performance of Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique with a restoration of the original Léger film, and gnarwhallaby’s even-more-aggressive-than-usual delivery of Gorecki’s Muzyczja IV, a brief, crushing, aleatoric sort of trombone concerto that was the original impetus for the group’s formation. With the LA Phil’s penchant for Gorecki’s later, more accessible, work, hearing this punch in the face in Disney Hall was a serious treat, and a highlight of the day.
But let’s get to the new stuff. Wild Up has built a National Composers Intensive in partnership with the LA Phil, in which young composers get to write for the chamber orchestra on a fast deadline, with mentorship from established personalities in the field. Wild Up picked four works for their 1 pm show, from Tina Tallon, Thomas Kotcheff, Katherine Balch, and Ali Can Puskulcu. All showed off unique voices and impressive command of orchestration. Thomas Kotcheff’s gone/gone/gone beyond/gone beyond beyond was the highlight, a riotous, overtly physical, totally insane, “total excess in all things all the time” piece that only a band like wild Up could pull off. It was convincing, self indulgant, and I loved it. I was also unaware before hearing it that guitarist Chris Kallmyer could shred that hard.
Tina Tallon’s Sear, which delved into her life with tinnitus after rupturing an ear drum a couple years ago, was a wrenching and effective listen, and my favorite piece of hers yet. Bowed styrofoam and a power drill could have been gimmicky, as could the whole idea of basing a piece on high drones and sounds disappearing – but Tina handled them with aplomb. It’s a dangerous artistic line she chose to walk with Sear, and she nailed it.
Turning back to the heavier avant-garde, WasteLAnd’s set in BP Hall had the premiere of Nicholas Deyoe’s Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, with text by Allison Carter sung by soprano Stephanie Aston. This seemed to show a slightly simpler and more direct side of Deyoe’s writing, as his vocal music sometimes does – but I say seemed to because the bleed of crowd noise into BP Hall became a real problem for the chamber music sets as the day went on. I am sure Ashley Walters’ performance of Liza Lim’s Invisiblity was utterly stunning, and Erik Ulman’s Tout Orgueil… seemed delicate and thought provoking – but we’ll have to go to WasteLAnd’s repeat of the performance this Friday at Art Share to be sure.
Not at all affected by the crowd noise was the LA Percussion Quartet’s performance in the same space later in the day. Daniel Bjarnason and Ellen Reid presented pieces in line with their dominant aesthetics. This is by no means a bad thing – Bjarnason’s Qui Tollis had a few ideas about varying ostinati and loops from his piano concerto Processions and was similarly thrilling, and Reid’s Fear / Release was covered in decorative flourishes reminiscent of her rooftop scene from Hopscotch, a highlight of that massive opera. Jeffrey Holmes’ Ur, on the other hand, was a break through premiere. With the ensemble surrounding the audience, each musician surrounded by similar set ups of gongs, toms, bass drums, flower pots, and cymbals, we listeners were bathed in swirling cascades of sound, as players echoed each others gestures a few beats apart. I’m not sure that the piece would work as well without the spatialization – but with it, it was magic. Thankfully LAPQ tends to record in surround sound, so the effect won’t be lost when they get around to Ur.
Surprisingly, the evening Green Umbrella concert, with its more traditional format, felt significantly less interesting than the rest of the day. The music was perfectly good – Kate Soper’s The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract was wonderful, as was the composer/singer’s assured and entertaining delivery of the text, and Ingram Marshall’s Flow was lovely as expected – but sitting in the hall, being quiet between movements somehow felt like a comedown from the high of running around from show to show, seeing friends from across the new music spectrum enjoying all sorts of different things.
Wild Up’s 10 pm set changed that. Conductor/composer Christopher Rountree’s Word. Language. Honey., a violin concerto commissioned for Jennifer Koh who tore into it with abandon, was unequivocally the best thing Rountree has written yet. Days later, as I type this, I still get chills thinking about the unison bass drum hits decaying into the distance, and the frantic shredding of strings at the opening giving way to more lyrical passages throughout, and the clever use of text (the piece began with misdirection, as the band started playing while Rountree was seemingly introducing the program), his words coming back in recorded form later. I’ve always liked his music, but Word. Language. Honey. takes his composing from “assured, effective, solid, I like it” to stunning, unique, and powerful. It’s a piece not to be missed.
This review could easily continue for another thousand words. Andrew McIntosh’s Yelling Into The Wind was clever and effective, a sort of play on the whole concept of the virtuoso concerto, as pianist Richard Valitutto traded simple lines with individual soloists from the rest of the ensemble. The Industry’s installation, Nimbus, with music from Rand Steiger, clouds floating above the elevators, musicians and singers walking around (also reminiscent of the last scene of Hopscotch) was whimsical and fun and gave life to an unusually dead space in Disney Hall. Jacaranda’s performance of Steve Reich’s Eight Lines was solid – Donald Crockett’s conducting is impossibly clear, useful for minimalism – and the crickets in the literal spotlight of Chris Kallmyer’s Crickets sang their little cricket hearts out.
The support from a major institution like the LA Phil of all these smaller, grassroots organizations is a huge boon to the LA scene. The phil knows that they wouldn’t have an audience for new music without the work of all these other presenters, and despite the right-leaning shade of the phrase “a rising tide lifts all ships,” every new music group in town will benefit from days like these, whether they were on the program or not.
A day after the event, I saw an instagram post from Kallmyer, a photo of his crickets being released into the wild. They sang together in his little box. Maybe now they’ll go spread all over LA and keep singing, inspired by what they did when they were together. As for the zillion musicians and ensembles and composers that the LA Phil invited into their home on Saturday, I know they will. LA Phil, thanks for having us.
Say the word “lied” to the average classical listener, and they probably won’t think of a post-tonal heavy metal band roaring about gay sex in front of lurid, psychedelic projections. But audiences were treated to just that — among many other raucous, exuberant offerings — at last night’s 21c Liederabend at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Conceived by the Beth Morrison Projects and VisionIntoArt and co-directed by Beth Morrison and Paola Prestini, the 21c Liederabend project seeks to update the 19th–Century tradition of Schubertiads and liederabends for contemporary audiences, bringing in not just living poets and composers but also visual artists to create an immersive multimedia experience. Updatings of this sort sometimes feel like painful pandering to passing fads, but the 21c Liederabend was nothing of the sort. Rather than a gimmicky shoehorning-in of disparate elements, the evening was a gripping celebration of the possibilities of song at the start of a new century, an exploration of the range and capabilities of music and the human voice.
On entering the hall before the show, the audience was greeted not with the “instrumental warmups overlaid with chitchat” that usually precedes a classical concert, but instead with a pre-recorded playlist of the sort usually reserved for plays, rock shows, and other less stuffy occasions. It was a perfect choice. Without calling undue attention to itself, it set a relaxed atmosphere of openness, and, with a few carefully selected pop numbers mixed in with the rest, foreshadowed how far the concert would venture away from standard classical fare. A brief video skit involving a muppet and Deborah Voigt introduced the project, and then it was on to the first piece of the program, the world première of Juhi Bansal’s “Begin”, a setting of a text by Neil Aitken and the only work of the evening scored for voice and piano alone (performed exquisitely by Peabody Southwell and Richard Valitutto, respectively). Beginning with barely a murmur in the piano and the quietest of hummings, it is a leisurely, lyrical piece that takes full advantage of the time it has to build to its impassioned climax. Drawing inspiration from the life of Charles Babbage, the piece conveys the yearning desire of dreaming of a world half seen, as well as the loss that getting lost in such dreams can cause to the people around you. Radiant and transcendent in its final passions, “Begin” is a testament to the continuing possibilities of the voice+piano art song.
Next was a set of songs from John Adams and June Jordan’s 1995 “song play” I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky about the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake. These selections focused on the arc of Dewain, a black man arrested on trumped-up charges whose prison cell is rent asunder by the shaking earth. This was the first piece with amplification on the program, and it took a while for the balance to settle; from where I was sitting, the backing ensemble came close to overpowering the singers at times, though by the end balance had been restored. Adams’s music was at its dynamic, twitchy best, and felt constrained by the limits of a concert hall. During the “Song about the On-Site Altercation,” especially, the stillness of the actors felt like a let-down next to the tension and forcefulness of the music. Still, “Dewain’s Song of Liberation and Surprise,” a slow ballade from the second half of the show, gave me goosebumps for its entire duration, not least because of the plaintive clarity of Cedric Berry’s voice. (The slow transformation of the backing projection from a drab, decrepit wall to a pure and open sky didn’t hurt either.)
Going slightly astray from the printed order, this was followed by the world première of Jacob Cooper’s “Ripple the Sky.” The text was by Greg Alan Brownderville and incorporated snippets from Ophelia’s lines in Hamlet alongside quotes from Robert Schumann’s personal diary from around the time of his 1854 attempt at drowning himself in the Rhine. Unsurprisingly, then, the music had much to do with death by water, but it was far from a programmatic depiction of ripples and currents. Backing the singer Theo Bleckmann was an ensemble of strings and electronics (including some pre-recorded vocals by Mellissa Hughes), and together they spun a sere, arid landscape, devoid of any breath of air. It was paradoxical, but it worked, capturing something of the vacancy and inertness of a deep depression — including that strangest of states where the world seems brimming over with undirected feeling and yet action is a hopeless proposition. Built on a foundation of uneasy drones and skittery gymnastics from the strings, “Ripple the Sky” is a gaunt voyage across a landscape of sun-bleached fragments.
Ending the first half were two songs from David T Little and Anne Waldman’s Artaud in the Black Lodge, an experimental music theatre piece imagining a meeting between Antonin Artaud, William Burroughs, and David Lynch in some kind of afterlife or otherworldly plane. Little described the work as his imagining of what would happen if a heavy metal band tried writing art songs, and the performance (by Timur and the Dime Museum) lived up to that, complete with punk-inspired haircuts and distressed and re-sewn black clothes. Timur was a captivating frontman, standing way out at the lip of the stage, embodying the spirit of Burroughs while singing about the modernist author’s cut-up technique and the time that he cut off part of one of his fingers to impress a man he had a crush on. In keeping with the heavy metal influence, there were moments of overwhelming grunge and noise, washes of white noise that spoke to the fury of war and the urgency of desire, but there were also moments of intimacy and tenderness, as when Timur/Burroughs crooned a delicate “take it – take it – take it” (referring at times to his finger and to his body in the guise of a sexual offering), echoing the gentle yet irresistible urgings of Peter Quint in Britten and Piper’s Turn of the Screw. At one point, lights above the stage shone out into the audience, and on seeing the still figures in upholstered chairs, I found myself doing a double take and biting back surprised laughter — I had quite forgotten my surroundings and was half expecting to gaze out on a stadium full of cheering, dancing bodies.
Variety was a hallmark of the second half as well. Leaha Villarreal’s “Never Not” (text by Adara Meyers) brought us back from intermission with a pensive, cryptic meditation. The projections for this featured what looked like decontextualized shots from 1950s makeup commercials and nature documentaries, which blurred together with the music to create an unusual atmosphere — it was as though we had traveled back from the distant future, turning our eyes on the 20th Century much the way we in the present look back at civilizations before the invention of writing. We have tantalizing fragments that suggest echoes of continuity with how we live today, but shorn of context, their secrets and stories are lost, and we grope towards their meanings forever in the dark. In a similar vein, this piece and its video seemed to make the present distant and unreal, shrouded in the mists of forgottenness.
Excerpts from Ted Hearne’s Sound from the Bench (text by Jena Osman, pulled together from court decisions and ventriloquism manuals) followed, with members of the Los Robles Master Chorale presenting snippets concerning the fiction of corporate personhood and the financial ventriloquism of the current campaign finance landscape. Then came the world première of Paola Prestini and Royce Vavrek’s Hubble Cantata. Inspired by the Hubble Space Telescope, Aokigahara Forest, and the Nazca Lines in Peru, the piece felt unfocused and also a little long for its surroundings. Even so, there were some arresting moments, as when a blown conch shell melded seamlessly into the breathy whisper of a solo flute, or the searing passage where Nathan Gunn sang of a desperate hope to find someone beloved after an unspecified disaster: “I wanted to find you./Even in pieces,/I wanted to find/And assemble/Those splinters of you.”
Next and last were two excerpts form Jefferson Friedman’s album On in Love, where he worked with poet and singer Craig Wedren to create a set of songs that each did one single thing, instead of his previous, more complex approaches to structure and content. First was the rowdy “Fight Song” that seemed somewhere between a hyped–up encouragement to a football team and a jingoistic incitement to actual war, complete with vicious sections in 5 and imagery of blood and conquest. Then, to close the evening, came “Tarrying”, an achingly simple paean to the Christian conception of divine forgiveness. After the dizzying complexity on offer elsewhere in the evening, such a turn to the plainspoken might have seemed an odd choice to conclude things, but in Friedman’s hands, simplicity became transcendence. The final stanza of Wedren’s text is an unadorned repetition of the word “please”, a condensed prayer sent heavenwards with no caveats or conditions. A request for forgiveness, shorn of all explanations of extenuating circumstances. Earnest, despairing, profound. The projections overflowed their screens, painting every surface in Disney Hall red, blazing with holy fire.
I have groused in the past about concerts that don’t plan anything to cover extensive set changes, thus losing the audience’s attention and promoting tedium, so it seems only fair that I give praise when a creative team avoids that trap. To cover for each of the (many) set changes throughout the evening, pre-recorded videos of the composers talking about their work played, keeping the audience’s attention and providing interesting and illuminating context and commentary on what we were about to hear while stagehands scurried around moving chairs, stands, and pianos. The result was a truly integrated concert experience, one that felt like it had been consciously designed on every level from start to finish; I wasn’t watching a bunch of pieces that might be good in their own right surrounded by buffers of boredom, I was watching a show. This also had the curious effect of lifting my enjoyment of some of the program’s weaker pieces; since everything flowed seamlessly along a clear trajectory, each individual piece on the program became part of a greater whole instead of having to stand or fall on its own merit. There were a few glitches here and there (usually when the audience clapped long enough to produce a second round of bows, forcing the lights crew to hastily rewind back out of the set change lighting), but I hope that those don’t dissuade others from taking this approach. Planning out the logistical details at this level can be tedious, but it makes a difference, and I hope I see more groups embrace this level of thoughtfulness and artistic integrity.
Andrew Norman’s star has been on the rise recently, and last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, curious listeners got a taste of what all the fuss is about. The LA Philharmonic, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, opened their program with the first movement of Play, a work he wrote for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in 2013. (The Phil will be playing the complete work in their next season.) While the movement’s designation as “Level One” may seem whimsical, the music is anything but. Without preamble, it plunges into a skittish, disjointed soundscape, an inhuman maelstrom of digital glitch and grain. There are no electronic instruments in the orchestra, but there might as well have been: the Norman is the closest thing I’ve ever heard to making live players sound like MIDI simulations.
Mixed in with the frenetic tumult are several slower interludes, but even here tenderness is not forthcoming. These interludes feel like examinations of the seams of something that has been pulled apart, as though Norman has stripped away all the flashy graphics of a big-budget video game sensation to show us not the human beings who poured their hearts into making it but the dry code they had written instead. Nevertheless, towards the end something human does seem to be trying to emerge. Several times an aching, arcing line rises up from the depths of the orchestra, a warm gesture that struggles at every moment to retain its integrity in the face of the digital wash, a feeble signal repeatedly lost to onslaughts of noise. Towards the end there is a brief moment of triumph when the woodwinds and brass burst into a Higdon-esque fanfaric dance, but the percussion — who, as per Norman’s program note, have been “playing” the orchestra in much the same way that the conductor “plays” the percussionists and the score “plays” the conductor — join forces in a coordinated attack, forcing the dance higher and higher until it disintegrates into a panicked mess, leaving only a few blips and bloops to bring the piece to a grim, heartless close.
Exhaustion reigns at the start of the next piece on the program, Alberto Ginastera’s first piano concerto. (Sergio Tiempo covered the ferociously demanding solo part from memory with admirable panache.) The first movement is essentially an accompanied cadenza for the soloist, and it shifts easily and casually between heavy, groaning interludes that barely move and whirlwind outbursts of helter-skelter activity. Although resolutely 12-tone in conception, there are repeated hints of late Romanticism peeking out from just below the musical surface. They never fully blossom — a harsh dissonance always drives them away — but their lurking presence adds an air of almost familiarity to an otherwise astringent score.
Rustled whispers dominate the second movement, which picks up in tempo but drops in volume to the very edge of audibility. Ginastera called the movement a “hallucinatory scherzo”, but given the way twists and winks out of sight, it’s more a mirage than a hallucination, the shimmer of air over asphalt on a scorching summer’s day. Disney Hall has the unfortunate effect of amplifying noise from the audience, and while that’s often inconsequential, here there were times where the music on stage was considerably quieter than the ambient volume of the house, causing several of the quieter flutterings to disappear completely, ghosts imagined instead of observed.
In the expansive third movement, calm reigns supreme. An opening viola solo leads to an impassioned outburst, but the subsequent music is sparse and quiet, a pointillistic wash of scattered tones. It is almost as if Ginastera has pulled apart a single one of Norman’s twitchy pixels and found an entire world to explore inside, stretching a single moment out towards eternity.
Coming directly on the heels of this gaunt meditation, the finale bursts forth with explosive vigor, a blistering, relentless toccata that calls to mind the thunderous scherzo of Aaron Copland’s Organ Symphony. The program notes quote Ginastera’s claim that “[t]here are no more folk melodic or rhythmic cells” in the music of his piano concerto, but the music of the finale has more than a few echoes of his earlier nationalistic ballets. Many of its practitioners might push back against this claim, but serial music is confined to a narrow emotional range. Its powers of joy and catharsis are limited, and when it tries to overstep those bounds, it often falls flat. Ginastera recognizes how tightly he is hemmed in by the musical language he is using, and doesn’t try to burst out of this box. Instead, he explores every inch of it and insists, resolutely and unapologetically, that even in these tight confines, there is still room to celebrate, to dance.
After the modernist onslaught of the first half, the second was a bit of a let-down. This half opened with John Williams’s Soundings (initially slated to start the program, but switched with Play at the last minute), a piece written to celebrate the opening of Disney Hall in 2003. I wanted to like it. Many in the classical community have an anti-populist bias that all film composers are inherently hacks, and I often find myself defending people like Williams, because I do think that much of his work is legitimately great. Unfortunately, Soundings isn’t. It feels half-baked, as though Williams couldn’t quite decide what he wanted the piece to be. At twelve minutes in length, it’s a little too long to be a simple celebration, but a little too short to fully grapple with all the material that Williams has in play. Especially with the Ginastera so fresh in our ears, the dissonances sounded wan and half-hearted, wrapped in cloying softness to avoid offending those with more conservative tastes. Had it opened the concert as originally planned, it might have held up better, but slotted in where it was it wound up falling rather flat. (If Soundings is ammunition for those dead set against film music, the encore was a strong rejoinder: A searing rendition of the “Love Theme” from Bernard Hermann’s score to Vertigo, an agonizing mix of loss and desire. I can’t help but wish that that had opened the second half instead.)
Still, Soundings did provide a nice transition from the caustic world of Ginastera to the diatonic evenness of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. I confess that I still prefer the lightness and transparency of the original chamber version, but there’s something to be said for the power that the full orchestra can bring to the brasher moments of the score. There were a few moments where the ensemble seemed on the verge of losing cohesion — despite its outwards simplicity, it’s a surprisingly tricky piece to put together — but on the whole the Phil gave a rousing account of an iconic work in the canon of American concert music.
When I started this blog, Ben Phelps wrote to me almost immediately, to thank me, in a way, for covering LA’s new music scene, but also, it almost seemed, to take up arms together, ask “what can we do to make things even better?” and then go out and do it. I am sure as hell glad that he did. In addition to becoming a friend, Ben has been an enormous advocate for new music here in LA, and we do, in fact, have some rad stuff in the works. Ben had talked about writing a post/essay in which to consider our local scene and offer some suggestions to take it from good to great to extraordinary. Man, am I glad that he came through and wrote what follows. Read on, then head to a concert and start talking. Here’s Ben.
Two anecdotes to set the stage:
An untold number of years ago, back when I was involved in my first upstart entrepreneurial new music project here in Los Angeles, one of my collaborators thought it would be a good idea to reach out to one of the older, more established new music groups in town to ask, you know, for advice on what the heck we’re doing. To seek any kernels of wisdom from those older and wiser on the highs and lows of striking out on your own to form a new arts non-profit.
The response: “we can’t help you, you’re our competition.”
This has stuck with me for years since because I can’t get over what a tragic answer it is. Not to get all Shakespearean, but it cuts straight to the core of one of man’s fatal flaws- the misperception of self interest. I get it: the scraps of money seemingly available to the new music musicians are so small, our instinct is to fight ever more viciously over the precious crumbs of audience members. It’s human nature. But in reality, this attitude is actually grossly self-defeating. It’s like the individual Easter Islander fighting for the right to cut down a tree in order to roll a massive stone statue miles away to erect it facing the ocean. Yeah sure it might make the individual chief seem totally awesome- until there are no more trees and the civilization collapses. It’s the tragedy of the commons – somebody should write an opera about it.
Composers in Los Angeles love to complain about never getting played by the LA Phil. They do have a point, at least in terms of the data. Esa-Pekka earned accolades and worship from New York critics for his adventurous programming of (mostly) Finnish composers + John Adams and the audiences that attended said concerts and applauded, but very few if any Los Angeles based composers ever received much (if any) love. As if adding insult to injury, The LA Phil now plans a “Brooklyn Festival” of new music, and the LA Chamber Orchestra continues to parade a familiar batch of young Brooklyn based composers across their stage.
On the other hand, we the Los Angeles composer might stand back a second and ask if we deserve it. We might individually believe our music more than worthy to grace the baton of our boy wonder conductor, but who collectively do we hold up as the best we have to offer? This should make apparent the bigger problem: there is no collective from which to choose our representative. I do believe Los Angeles and its new music makers have a wealth of exciting ideas and music. But it’s Balkanized. At least compared to the current gold standard of Brooklyn (cue choir “ahhh”), what I see is great potential in search of scene.
Maybe this is the reason why Brooklyn keeps poaching some of our best prospects. Young composers move to New York for the scene, not the weather.
So what do they got that we don’t? What are the components of a thriving new music scene? Starting from the assumption that New York has a thriving scene, as their PR people constantly tell us via twitter, we might think a good place to start would be to list all the things New York has.
1. Music publishers
2. Performance Rights Organizations (BMI and ASCAP)
3. Lots of New Music Ensembles
4. Centenarian composers with amusing stories about meeting Stravinsky
5. Lots of other composers
6. PR people
7. An audience (?)
8. Record Labels
9. Music Schools
10. Venerable blue blood investment in music
12. Agents and managers
OK. So there’s a bunch of random stuff. New York has a lot of things, neat. As the classical music business center of the country, it better. But actually this list is quite useless. It’s a business list, and Los Angeles is not about to compete with New York as the center of the classical music business, just as New York is not about to compete with LA as the center of the movie making business. Basic economic geography tells us that like businesses tend to cluster- there is mutual benefit to it. It’s why all the new tech companies are in Silicon Valley, it’s why there are all those furniture stores on La Brea. But I’m talking about artistic clustering- an art scene- and the number of agents your city has don’t matter. Basically, this list is utterly irrelevant to the fact of the LA Phil’s “Brooklyn” festival. What LA composers and musicians need to foster is a clustering of artistic creation. The agents will follow.
An art scene has a lot in common with the industrial clustering of Detroit or Boston or New York. But let’s think about what it is actually important to cluster. Seattle had a thriving grunge indie-music scene, and produced a lot of famous bands. The major record labels came to them. That should be the model.
So what is a thriving art scene? It’s a bunch of people clustering together and doing art. And then talking about it.
Here’s a new list:
1. Lots of new music ensembles
2. Lots of composers
3. Lots of people (mostly the same people from parts one and two) talking about it
4. An audience (?)
Now most likely this is something that happens organically, and can’t be prescribed for a city by a central planner writing an obscure blog article. But think of this as descriptive rather than prescriptive. And it’s already starting to happen. Enough elements of this list start firing, and what does it add up to? Hype. And what follows hype? All the other stuff from list one. Larger monied institutions. Audience members who aren’t actually musicians themselves. PR people. Hipsters. All looking to milk some of hype for themselves.
There’s something to this about the biological imperative for creating art in the first place. That’s another blog post.
Here’s what you can do to help: first, stop sitting in your room complaining that nobody is playing your music or that you have no where to play your instrument. Get out there and make it happen. We need a lot of ensembles looking to put on concerts. This is a lot of work. But as groups trail blaze a path, venues start to learn, and it gets easier. The next step is easy though: where there are new music bands putting on concerts, composers will follow like attorneys chasing ambulances. And the two actually form a symbiotic relationship. The composer looking to get his or her own piece played by an ensemble is a reliable audience member. In fact, they are probably the early adopter audience member. When you only have three audience members, two are the significant others of the band members, and the third is a composer.
But don’t get depressed. We all have to start somewhere. Just remember, one or two bands playing in isolation a scene does not make. Don’t forget about step three. It’s the most important. LA already has a bunch of groups and a bunch of composers.
Talk about the concerts you see. Put on lots of concerts, and talk about them. If you are so inclined, blog or tweet about it. Or just talk to people in the old fashioned way, like in the middle ages. It’s the appearance of activity that counts, but not just your activity. The scene’s activity.
It’s ok that your motives are selfish- you hope to get plucked out of the cutting edge scene by monied institutions who can help your music reach wider audiences. But to have any chance of that, you first need a hyped scene and you need to be an active part of that scene. Go to concerts! I simply cannot understand composers (and they are numerous) who do not go to concerts. Don’t you like music? Why the heck are you putting yourself through all of this work if you don’t? And once you do, be selfless in your promotion of others’ work. Especially if you like it.
The more it seems like something is going on, the more others will want to be a part of it. It’s human nature. Nobody wants to be left out.
The crazy thing about thinking of two small fledgling new music groups in the same city as each others’ “competition” is that a single group could never possibly meet the musical needs of any true music fan. We are bands, not soft-drink companies. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are not each others’ competition, at least not like Coke and Pepsi are. People might choose Coke exclusively over Pepsi as the cause of their Type II diabetes, but nobody chooses The Beach Boys as their band to the exclusion of all music. Nobody has ever said “Nico Muhly is my composer, please take your business elsewhere.”
It is through the confluence of artistic activity that aesthetic direction is established, a scene is hyped, and ultimately, young talented composers stop moving away from Los Angeles to start their careers but to it. So if you want a true scene, it’s time to come down out of your closely guarded aesthetic towers, your new music fiefdoms, and start attending each others’ concerts. It’s already happening. You are the audience and the creator. You are also the publicist. Talk about what you’re doing. Argue about it. Remember, you’re selling cool. It’s the perception of cool that the audience and money will follow.
And oh yeah, there might even be some great music made in the process. Who knows.
Ben Phelps is a composer and percussionist based in Los Angeles. Visit him at benphelpscomposer.com.