Tonight, soprano Elissa Johnston will join the Lyris Quartet at Monk Space for what’s sure to be a beautiful night of music. In anticipation of the quickly approaching concert, I had the opportunity to interview Lyris Quartet members Alyssa Park (violin), Shalini Vijayan (violin), and Luke Maurer (viola) about the program, thoughts on collaboration, and more. Here’s what they said:
The program contains a set of lyrical, moving, and experimental works from a variety of composers, including Arvo Pärt, Pin Hsin Lin, John Tavener, David Hertzberg, and Evan Beigel. From a programming perspective, how do the pieces relate to each other, and/or how do they contrast?
Perhaps the unity of the concept for this program lies in the reflective and complex writings of each composer. Each of these pieces have their own unique meditative quality which is not to say that they lack power. On the contrary, because of the subtleties and contrasts within each piece, it creates a haunting beauty. We hope this selection of composers and their pieces will help the listener look inward and be able to escape all the chaos around us…to be in the moment and just feel. (Alyssa)
How often do you perform with vocalists? What has the process of collaborating with soprano Elissa Johnston been like?
We’ve had the opportunity to work with vocalists in a number of different settings. As the featured string quartet on Long Beach Opera’s production of David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field several seasons ago, we had the rare chance to support an entire cast of vocalists. That said, when we get the chance to work with a singer in an intimate setting such as this, it is always a special treat. The beauty of the voice is the ideal to which all instrumentalists aspire, in phrasing, tone and timbre. Elissa is always such a joy to work with because she can grasp such a wide array of styles with her captivating voice. Not to mention, that she is a fabulous person and really fun to be around! (Shalini)
Both you and Elissa Johnston are known for performing a wide variety of works, both from the classical canon as well as living composers. Has this repertoire informed your playing in any ways you’d be interested in sharing?
We do have a great foundation of having played many of the celebrated works for quartet together, and it’s always great to revisit pieces from past eras after working on those from this century. We are fortunate to often have the chance to work directly with composers on new music for quartet. Indeed, three of the pieces on Tuesday’s program are by composers right here in Los Angeles! Years of collaboration with many composers definitely has expanded our own individual instrumental technique, and it has built up our ability as a group to listen and react to each other. (Luke)
For more information about the concert or to get tickets, check out Tuesdays at Monk Space.
Composer Nicholas Chase and violinist Robin Lorentz have a joint performance at Tuesdays @ Monk Space on February 21. This event will mark the world premiere performance of Chase’s electro-acoustic piece Bhajan, a four-movement work for electric violin and live electronics. This performance, celebrating the release of Bhajan as a new Cold Blue Music CD, will mark a rare return visit to Los Angeles for both musicians. I had a chance to interview both of them ahead of the concert. Here’s what they had to say:
What is the driving force behind Bhajan? What are the unifying elements across movements?
Exploration! That is the driving force behind Bhajan. There isn’t any aspect of it that isn’t designed as some form of investigation both theoretical and physical—including my friendship and musical relationship with Robin. I couldn’t have written this for someone else. Another violinist would have thought I was crazy!
The violin part in Bhajan is very simply constructed and focuses the tuning of the open strings. Virtuosity is a traditional western approach to a large piece like this, but my idea in was to take traditional virtuosic acrobatics out of the concerto scenario and bring the player back to the fundamentals of playing. As it turns out that approach brings out a whole different kind of virtuosity for both of us. So the investigation takes place on stage between the two of us, in a kind of musical conversation. That’s a good way to describe the piece: if you think of the four sections of the piece as parts of a conversation, you’ll hear how they evolve out of each other.
How did you first become involved with Hindi devotional music and Indian raga? What about this music speaks to you the most?
I’m not actually involved with Hindi devotional music and know very little about it. I studied North Indian Classical Music briefly with Rajeev Tharanath at the same time I was studying composition at conservatory. I had studied Schoenberg’s atonal serialism extensively and I felt like I that gave me an interesting springboard to dive into the deeper traditions of raga.
Rajeev discovered that I have a great ear for subtle tunings, tonalities and complex rhythms. I discovered that western formality—even serialism—was too constricting for me. What I love about raga is that within a single raga system the performer can shape her performance with limitless nuances and stylization. That makes the music both personal and alive. That is something I started putting into my writing early on in modular scores. Even though Bhajan isn’t modular, it tallies up everything I learned from writing those.
I started writing Bhajan during a research residency at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. At the time I was hanging out with acoustic technicians and I spent a lot of time talking and thinking about the physical phenomena of sound. I don’t know how I missed it early on, but I discovered that Hindustani music is also concerned with many of these aspects of sound making—with how the sound waves emanating from a string interact with sound waves emanating from another string!
I think it’s the unlikely but exquisite conscious union of science, skill, and craft that draws me to raga.
A good way to hear how I’ve brought all this into Bhajan, take a listen to Drshti, the second section of Bhajan, then listen to Ram Narayan’s performance of Raga Marwa on the sarangi. Wildly, I hadn’t heard this performance until after Drshti was recorded and mixed—I was surprised myself at how the two pieces echo each other. It’s exciting to think that I might have come to a musical conclusion outside of, but still reflecting, an ages-old tradition.
Bhajan was just released by Cold Blue Music in January 2017, but the performance at Monk Space will be its world premiere performance. What do you hope to communicate to the audience with the live performance of Bhajan?
You asked about my involvement with HIndi devotional music above. What I didn’t say is that, even though I’m not involved in devotional music, through nearly a decade of committed yoga practice which I had to take up for health reasons, I realized that making music is my devotion. It’s how I communicate back to the world and the “worlds beyond this world.” What I mean by that is scientifically, we understand that we’re all made up of vibrations. As musicians I think that we’re perhaps more, or at least differently, tied to an understanding of those vibrations. Bhajan is a celebration of the bridge between what we experience and its vibrational source and is a humble offering to that. You know, when someone waves at you, you wave back. Bhajan is me and Robin waving back!
How did you meet Nicholas Chase, and what was the collaborative process like with Bhajan?
I met Nicholas Chase through the CalArts Community and through The California EAR Unit. We were both heavily involved with Cal Arts at overlapping times and non overlapping times, so were aware of one another; but my first chance to work with Nick and get to know him was with the EAR UNIT. Nick wrote some musics for the Unit and so we worked, travelled and concertized together.
The collaborative process on Bhajan with Nick was indescribably and wonderfully prismatic. Every moment a new birth and breath…just like the piece. I love Bhajan so very very much. To have been involved with it in any way has been the richest gift.
You have performed for an incredibly diverse range of artists, composers, and projects. What have you gained from these diverse experiences?
Tickets for the February 21 concert are available at tuesdaysatmonkspace.org/shows/cold-blue-night.
Monk Space, in the Koreatown district of Los Angeles was the venue for a concert titled Crazy Quilt, string music from the Cold Blue recording label as performed by the Formalist Quartet. A nice midweek crowd turned out on March 10, 2015 – Crazy Quilt being part of the monthly Tuesdays@Monkspace series of new music concerts.
Hymn of Change (2010) by David Rosenboom was first, in an arrangement by Andrew Tholl, one of the violinists in the Formalist Quartet. This piece derives from an earlier work by Rosenboom, as he writes in the program notes: “In my 1998 work for piano, Bell Solaris- the Sun Rings Like a Bell, initiating waves of influence that traverse, shape, and create space, time and life – twelve movements emerged from subtle and grand transformations of the Hymn of Change, which I had written earlier in 1992. Some years later, after hearing Bell, Andrew Tholl was inspired to arrange the Hymn, a kind of slow, gospel waltz, for string quartet.” The result of Andrew’s efforts is a warm, traditional sound with full four part harmony and good balance that perfectly recalls the sunny days of late-19th century Americana. Although not a long piece, the careful playing of the Formalist Quartet and accommodating acoustics of Monk Space combined to bring Hymn of Change into a vivid realization that brought complete tonal satisfaction.
Music for Airport Furniture (2011) by Stephen Whittington was next, and this was a US premiere. An Australian musician with a long history of involvement with contemporary composers, Whittington gave the first performances in Australia of music by Christian Wolff, Terry Riley, James Tenney, Peter Garland, Alan Hovhaness and Morton Feldman – among many others. Whittington’s extensive travels were the inspiration for Music for Airport Furniture – which owes far more to Erik Satie than to Brian Eno. This is not music to fill public spaces but rather tailored for the interior of the human heart. Whittington writes: “I was interested in the airport departure lounge as an arena for human emotions – boredom, apprehension, hope, despair, loneliness, the tenderness of farewells – all taking place within a bland, often desolate space.”
Music for Airport Furniture consists of a series of long sustained phrases, lush and warm, broken only by the occasional pizzicato arpeggio in the cello. The sweet sadness of farewell is slowly released with a distant, introspective feel. The string quartet is the perfect ensemble for this music. The delicate texture was nicely realized by the Formalist Quartet who kept the long, quiet passages interesting by infusing just the right amount of energy while at the same time carefully controlling the dynamics. The brick wall acoustics of Monk Space allowed the intimate and heartfelt sensibility of this piece to reach all parts of the audience. Music for Airport Furniture slowly unpacks all the emotions of the lonely traveler waiting for an airline boarding call.
After an intermission the concert concluded with a world premiere – String Quartet No. 4 Crazy Quilt (2014), by Peter Garland. Crazy Quilt is based on an earlier work for solo cello – Out of the Blue – written the year before, which consisted of a rising, then descending arc of 44 pitches. The other instruments of a string quartet were then added to this foundation to increase the timbrel possibilities. As Garland writes, “I chose different basic time units: with the cello maintaining its 60-second unit, the viola uses a 75 second unit, violin 2 uses a 90 second unit; and violin 1 uses two different units – first a 45 second one, then shifting to a 30 second unit, and finally going back to 45 seconds. The common denominator for all these is that they add up evenly to 45 minutes (2700 seconds). I.e. what starts together, ends together…” For this performance page turners were employed as the players were continuously engaged in sounding the long, sustained tones called for in the score.
The beginning of Crazy Quilt is a quiet, sustained chord in the lower registers of each instrument. The bowing by the players was, of necessity, achingly slow – but the sound produced was warm and full. As the time units rolled by, the chord would change slightly, – generally rising in pitch – but very slowly and deliberately. Each change of tone by a player would reveal an entirely new feeling in the sound, sometimes adding tension or anxiety and sometimes resolving into mellowness and warmth. There was no beat per se; the players had to concentrate and be in good communication as each was working to a different time unit. Overall the effect was very engaging – like watching a slow-motion kaleidoscope. In the lower registers the feelings were mostly smooth and reassuring, but as the pitches increased the more stressful and anxious sensations predominated. At the very top of the arc the violins soared above the rest of the ensemble – sometimes heroically and sometimes with great angst – but always bringing another interesting variation to the sound. As the piece floated gently downward in pitch, the chords seemed to become gradually more consonant and consoling. The familiarity and harmonic cohesion in the middle registers added to the feeling of solace, and by the conclusion of this piece there was a comforting sense of return.
Crazy Quilt is an ambitious work, attempting as it does, to conjure so many different colors and feelings from the sound. It is also a difficult piece to play given the different time units and sustained pitches required – with no conventional tempo or harmonic progressions to follow. Despite these challenges, the Formalist Quartet brought this piece fully alive so that the vision of Peter Garland was fully articulated.
The Formalist Quartet is:
Andrew Tholl, violin
Mark Menzies, violin/viola
Andrew McIntosh, violin/viola
Ashley Walters, cello
The next concert at presented by Tuesdays at Monk Space will be on Saturday, March 21, 2015 at 8:00 PM at Villa Aurora, featuring The Varied Trio (Yuri Inoo, Aron Kallay, and Shalini Vijayan). Music of Lou Harrison, Bill Alves and others will be performed.
Tuesdays at Monk Space, the series run by Aron Kallay and Jason Heath in K-town, has a really cool mix of old and new happening tonight at 8. The first half of the program features Ensemble Hotteterre performing music by Couperin, Telemann and Phillidor on period instruments. The second is a Mark Robson solo harpsichord show, with pieces by Henry Cowell, Alexander Tcherepnin, Maurice Ohana, György Ligeti, and a premiere from Robson himself, along with selections from Froberger, Rossi, Scarlatti, and Giovanni de Macque for flavor.
Full info on the show is available at http://tuesdaysatmonkspace.org/shows/oldmusic-newmusic.