Cellist Ashley Walters released her first solo album, Sweet Anxiety, on Populist Records last month. The music is complex and difficult—sometimes on its surface, sometimes in the hidden technical requirements—but Walters breathes life into each work with her astounding virtuosity. Beyond physical skill, however, Sweet Anxiety showcases her ability to find musical consequence across a range of compositional styles. The result is a stunning album, strengthened by its aesthetic diversity and yet unimaginable without Walters’s distinct talents.
The journey of this album is in the gamut of musical intent: some pieces clutch the wheel with caffeine-trembling hands while others gaze contemplatively out the passenger-seat window. To this end, Nicholas Deyoe’s For Stephanie (on our wedding day) works as an effective exposition for the record, a short juxtaposition of dramatic, lush chords against melodic fragments and sparkling timbral echoes. Walters’ impeccable balance guides the listener’s ears, pulling you in to reveal subtle verticalities before thrusting you back in your seat to bathe you in guttural drones. Deyoe’s writing here reveals a keen sense of energy and diffusion, which Walters embodies with astounding sensitivity. This understanding between Deyoe and Walters is particularly highlighted as the splashing, melodic climax dissolves into a passage of gorgeous tranquility, calmly rippling outwards until subsiding into the stillness.
And then, emerging from quiet tappings, comes the funk. Right as you are wondering if Walters had herself become ocean, the unmistakable percussive episodes, insect-like buzzing, and haunting melodies of Berio’s late Sequenza XIV zap the air with electricity. Along with Deyoe’s works, Sequenza XIV employs a more traditional musical rhetoric, building forward momentum in which listener expectations are resolved, subverted, or re-directed. In both Sequenza XIV and Another Anxiety, Walters sets these moments ablaze with acrobatic changes of technique, tone and dynamic. Furious passages are handled with intimidating virtuosity, but it is Walters’ right hand technique that stands out here. The control of bow pressure and position transforms even the most extended of techniques into musical devices rather than musical effects. This in particular makes the dramatic contrasts inherent to the language of these pieces especially effective and expressive.
On the other hand, quite literally, are Andrew McIntosh’s Another Secular Calvinist Creed and Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s Plainsound-Litany. Both works are patient, disciplined explorations of microtonal material—horizontal in Creed and vertical in Plainsound. The Schweinitz presents intervals of varied intonation and timbre, emerging and receding in succession. A meditative atmosphere is sustained through the gentle ease of Walters’s playing (a true feat given the technical difficulty of the piece), unfolding the material like an exposé of unhurried snapshots with shifting perspectives. Creed instead explores microtonal relationships melodically in the form of a 31-note scale. Ascending and descending, the lines slowly fragment into opposing forms before recombining into a final, climbing iteration. Missing from the sound recording is the theatre of contradiction embedded in McIntosh’s piece: Radically disjunct physicality is required to produce the smooth, conjunct musical material. Still, the inclusion of these two pieces offers a contemplative and unforced contrast to the more propulsive works on the album.
Perhaps most curious is the inclusion of Wadada Leo Smith’s Sweet Bay Magnolia with Berry Clusters. The piece inherits the uninhibited, reckless abandon of an improvisation—one which emphasizes performer intuition and awareness over formal archetypes. The task of communicating a work that is less about the plot than the language itself is a difficult one, but Walters succeeds brilliantly. Under her hands, piece oozes with personality, spinning out a trajectory of ideas and development with convincing and relatable motivation. Surrounded by works that treat time as a means of either thematic propulsion or suspension, Sweet Bay Magnolia stands instead with the Berio in its improvisatory bend, creating the impression that the listener is witnessing the piece’s conception in real time. And so, beyond the merits of the piece itself, Sweet Bay Magnolia helps rounds out the album in way that highlights the variety of stylistic intent included.
Sweet Anxiety is a showcase of musical aptitude, not only for Walters’ skilled performances, but for the interpretations and larger flow of the album. Its incorporation of distinct and diverse compositional approaches is bold and effective, and the commitment to conveying the sound world and personality of each piece makes for exceptionally moving moments. This album is, no doubt, both “sweet” and “anxious”—so much so that you may have to remind yourself there is just a single instrument. But that would be somewhat deceiving, because in truth this is music for much more than solo cello; it is music for Ashley Walters.
Each album has a distinct narrative, but the two releases are connected — two of Deyoe’s works appear on Walters’ album and Walters appears as both a member of the WasteLAnd ensemble and as a soloist on for Duane.
For this interview, Nick and Ashley reminisced about their collaboration over the past decade. Here, they present stories about their albums, music, and friendship.
First Impressions of Each Other
ND: I first met Ashley Walters in rehearsals for my second jury piece at UCSD (September-ish 2007), but I’d seen her perform with the Formalist Quartet a few times in the year before that. She was really astonishing in the quartet performances that I’d seen and I was really excited to get to work with her. She was detail-oriented, clear and direct in her feedback, and unbelievably positive. When we met, I was still really figuring myself out musically. I had a lot of insecurities that I was desperate to keep hidden and regularly felt like I wasn’t making music that was as interesting as that of my colleagues. Ashley was someone whose support and enthusiasm for my music made an incalculable difference in how I saw myself. As I became more confident in myself and my music, I began to feel much more free to develop my language (I’m not sure I’ve ever expressed these sentiments to Ashley). Daniel Tacke (who wrote a beautiful essay for my liner notes) and Stephanie Aston were two others who played pivotal roles for me. These were people who helped me question my work in a constructive way, helping me understand who I wanted to be musically.
AW: I met Nicholas Deyoe when we were grad students and neighbors in San Diego. I immediately noticed Nick’s presence and energy in rehearsals — he was professional yet sensitive; gregarious yet humble. I found tremendous energy and extreme contrasts in his music, which has biting, severe, and brutal sounds with moments of purity and sweetness. Whether I think of Nick in those early meetings or as a current collaborator and friend the word that always comes to mind to describe him is kind. He is a prominent force in the LA music scene not only because of his professional drive but because our community knows that he is invested in making connections with people and building strong friendships. I think there are many people who would consider themselves lucky to have met Nick.
ND: After this, Ashley and I started working together a lot, especially once we discovered that we were neighbors. Hearing Ashley’s perspectives on working with other composers, rehearsal preparation, and performance materials shaped my own approaches toward all things. I had the luxury of not only learning from her through our collaborations, but by drinking tea and talking about issues in other music, teaching, and life. She is thoughtful, direct, and never negative without warrant. If Ashley thought something was a problem, there was a good reason. She was the person to teach me that cello music is just as much about the person holding the instrument as the instrument itself (seems silly to make such an obvious statement) and that not all cellists have massive hands. She also demonstrated time and again that she would always strive to find a good solution for anything. Her dedication is remarkable and is something I witnessed immediately. In the 10 years we’ve known each other, I’ve only watched that dedication to her craft, her community, and her students deepen.
AW: Our first collaboration, For Stephanie (on our wedding day), was written for a momentous occasion — the marriage of Nick and Stephanie Aston. I am still touched to this day that our first collaboration was presented at such a personal event for two dear friends. During the process of creating this piece we spent as much time drinking tea and building our friendship through conversation as we did experimenting with sounds. This allowed us to connect first as friends and artists and then as collaborators not long after. [There is a work on each of our albums that was written for and performed at each other’s wedding. Six years after Ashley performed For Stephanie at my wedding, Stephanie performed Immer Wieder, which was composed for Ashley’s marriage to Luke Storm.—ND]
Then and Now
AW: In some ways it is impossible for me to imagine my career without the presence of Nick Deyoe — both as a colleague and as a composer. Releasing these two albums on the same day feels like the perfect celebration of a chapter in my life that has been enhanced by our work together.
As a performer, I try to be a portal between a composer’s voice and the audience’s experience. It has been a true honor that Nick has chosen me time and time again to be his ambassador of sound. Nick has challenged my technique and my own creativity; his music constantly inspires me to explore new colors and timbres on my instrument. I am a better cellist because of our work together. Nick’s musical language is unique but now feels completely familiar and comfortable to me. It’s like riding a bike — but his music is much more difficult than that!
ND: My relationship to pieces like another anxiety or for Stephanie are a lot different now than when I composed them four and eight years ago. At the time of creation, I was very focused on every detail, fussing over the sculpting of small moments. Now, as Ashley plays the pieces over and over again, across several years, I’m continually excited by the way she surprises me. At this point, I assume the time she has spent practicing the pieces surpasses the time I spent composing them. She has put incredible thought into every moment of the interpretation. She owns these pieces now, and it is an honor to watch her thought process unfold. In our early meetings refining her part for Lullaby 6, it felt like I was hearing her play an old piece. Ashley’s earliest interpretations were already nuanced and persuasive. It felt like she had already internalized the piece in a way that felt so familiar despite the music being completely new to us. [I truly think this work is a masterpiece, Nick. While it is an intensely difficult to play it was never anything but pure joy for me to uncover the nuances in your notation.—AW]
AW: Nick is often outgoing and effusive after concerts but the two performances that I remember and cherish the most are when he was speechless backstage — it was in those moments that I felt like we truly understood the magnitude of our collaboration. For me the performance of Nicks’s concerto, Lullaby 6 “for Duane,” is my most memorable — that night was not about virtuosity or even about collaboration — it was truly about friendship. Nick and I stepped on stage, he with a baton [“baton” is figurative, because I rarely use one.—ND] and myself with my cello, and together we celebrated the life of Nick’s father, Duane, who had passed away earlier that year. I was again honored to be asked to share a profound moment in Nick’s life through his music.
ND: Each new project we start together feels like it is embedded in everything we’ve already done while still moving forward. My collaborations with Ashley (similar to what I’ve done with Stephanie Aston and Matt Barbier) are what I use as a model when encouraging composition students to focus on building relationships with their peers. With these people, whom I’ve made so much music with over the last several years, a very different set of possibilities emerges. A new piece is a continuation of a long, thoughtful, and mutually respectful dialog rather than a fresh start. I am excited for every new musical relationship I begin, but maintaining the old ones is what I cherish about being a musician.
The Recording Process
AW: The collaboration between the composers and myself on this album extended past the composition/performance stage and into the recording process. Every composer (except Berio) was present when I recorded their piece. For me, recording solo repertoire in a large studio can feel lonely and isolating. However, in these sessions the energy of each composer was palpable through the glass. Wolfgang von Schweinitz brought his masterful ear and bolstered my own confidence with the fragile intonation in Plainsound-Litany. Wadada Leo Smith’s spirit in the booth was as contagious as it is on stage. The flexibility of his notation allows the performer to find her own voice and Smith provided constant support about the decisions I was making and the risks I was taking in my interpretation. Andrew McIntosh, a string player himself, is more frequently sitting in front of the mic than in the producer’s seat. (However, he is a talented producer in his own right, as you can hear on Nick’s album!). Knowing the great difficulty of his own piece, Andrew was my cheerleader throughout the process. Nick Deyoe was the first composer who joined me in the recording studio. Because this recording was documenting our first collaboration it felt like a special moment for both of us.
ND: All of the topics that Ashley and I keep discussing come back to collaboration. Making this album was a giant collaboration, involving 20+ people. My role composing the music, making the scores/parts, and editing the recordings feels, relatively, like a small part of everything that came together to make this album. This was the incredible work of 15 performers, 2 poets, a visual artist, a designer, and the miraculous producer/engineer pair of Andrew McIntosh and Nick Tipp. During our recording days last March, I spent time on both sides of the glass. I conducted Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along and Lullaby 6 “for Duane,” and I sat next to Andrew in the control room for Immer Wieder and 1560. As a performer, I was trying to simultaneously think in-the-moment while considering what would make a good recording. Thankfully, Nick (Tipp) and Andrew (Mcintosh) were paying great attention to everything, taking notes, and also reading the room and managing the overall flow of the session. Recording challenging music is stressful for everyone, and having people who can help keep a productive flow while ensuring that everyone in the room is happy can’t be understated. On the other side of the glass, with the opportunity to listen more objectively (Immer Wieder, 1560), I was no less grateful to have Nick and Andrew’s sensitive ears reinforcing (and sometimes contradicting) what I was hearing. Their notes were crucial to me when I edited the album.
To learn more about the albums and the release party/concert that will take place on October 20th, visit here: http://deyoe-walters.brownpapertickets.com/
Pre-Order from Populist Records here:
Ashley Walters – Sweet Anxiety
Nicholas Deyoe – for Duane
The 2017 edition of The Industry and wild Up’s First Take is right around the corner. On February 24, the world’s most audacious opera company presents scenes from works-in-progress by six composers. Full details on that are up at theindustryla.org/projects/first-take-2017. Over here at New Classic LA, we’ll repeat our tradition of one composer interview per day in the week leading up to it. You can read all of the interviews – including the 2015 interviews – at newclassic.la/firsttake.
We start today with LA’s own Nicholas Deyoe.
Describe the work you’ll be presenting at First Take.
Haydn’s Head is a project that Rick Burkhardt (librettist) and I have been talking about for 4 years. Joseph Haydn died in 1809, during Napoleon’s occupation of Vienna. The chaos and confusion of this time allowed Joseph Carl Rosenbaum and Johann Nepomuk Peter, two phrenology enthusiasts, to rob Haydn’s grave and steal the head. Rosenbaum believed he could study the skull to better understand the secret of musical genius. Rick used this as his jumping-off point and created a fantastic story that blends history with satire. It’s kind of a “buddy comedy” between Rosenbaum (the lead grave robber) and Haydn’s severed head. The characters you’ll get to meet in the scenes presented on First Take are: Napoleon, both grave robbers, Haydn’s Head, an ill-tempered pair of policemen, Haydn’s headless body, and a random (and disturbingly fresh) severed head obtained so that Haydn’s body may have a new head. For this performance, DanRae Wilson has designed a Head that will be present for these scenes. I haven’t seen the finished Head yet, but the test images I’ve seen have me very excited.
The incredible cast is:
Napoleon – Jon Lee Keenan
Joseph Carl Rosenbaum – Leslie Leytham
Johann Nepomuk Peter/Haydn’s New Head – James Hayden (a happy coincidence)
Haydn’s Head/Haydn’s Body – Stephanie Aston
2 police officers – Derek Stein and his Cello
What’s your background in writing opera, or for voice?
This is my first opera, but I’ve written a lot for the voice in the 10 years that I’ve known my wife, soprano Stephanie Aston.
Did your composition process change at all when writing in this medium?
I haven’t found that my actual process of composing vocal music has changed in this situation, but working in a dramatic context has definitely shifted the way I think about style. This opera calls on every style of music I’ve composed, often quickly changing or combined in ways that I probably wouldn’t have done in my “concert music.” There is also a lot more quotation (Haydn, of course) than I would usually use, though I’ve definitely referenced older music in my compositions in the past.
What else are you working on that you’d like people to know about?
People should check out wastelandmusic.org, of course!
I’m also working on a collaboration with local metal/thrash/hardcore/weirdo band Grand Lord High Master. I don’t know exactly what shape this is going to take, but I’m intensely exited for it. gnarwhallaby will almost definitely be involved. GLHM’s debut album comes out this Spring on Kill All Music. http://www.destroyexist.com/2017/01/grand-lord-high-master-flexxx.html.
Check back tomorrow for our next interview, and get your First Take tickets at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/first-take-2017-and-second-take-bonnie-clyde-tickets-27916364598.
Perhaps the title here is a hair misleading – as far as we know, Ashley Walters, cellist, does not have anxiety. We do know that she’s on of the most active cellists in the LA scene, specializing in microtonal music and repertoire featuring extended techniques and alternate tunings. Ashley, a member of the Formalist Quartet, has appeared as a soloist on concert series such as Green Umbrella, wasteLAnd music, San Diego New Music, Beyond Baroque, and many others. Tomorrow evening, she plays a solo set at Tuesdays at Monk Space, entitled A Sweet Anxiety.
T@MS’ Social Media and Outreach Director, Cristina Lord, interviewed Ashley ahead of the concert. The interview was sent out via email to their list, and I asked if we could reprint it here for our readers. Here are Cristina and Ashley:
The program contains a challenging list of works that explore the sonic possibilities of the cello. From your perspective, does the combination of these particular pieces affect their meanings as a whole?
The works on this program represent what I believe to be milestones of the recent cello repertoire. While there are parallels in this collection of pieces — four use microtonality, all use extended techniques, and all bear the imprint for the performer for whom it was written — the pieces, nevertheless, arrive at dramatically different expressive destinations as a result of their explorations in technique and timbre.
You’ve been praised for your performances of Liza Lim’s Invisibility, a dazzling, unpredictable work that is part of Lim’s ongoing investigation of Australian Aboriginal’s ‘aesthetics of presence.’ The piece has an overall shimmering quality, and uses two kinds of bows to offer different possibilities of friction that explore harmonic complexities within the instrument. What aesthetic qualities have you found most enrapturing about this piece, and how does the work speak to you?
Liza Lim has reimagined the personality and voice of the cello in an absolutely unique way. Although the modified “guiro” bow provides visual and timbral drama, it is the retuned strings that truly define the essence of this piece to me. Three of the four strings are tuned lower, darkening and obscuring the cello’s familiar, swan-like voice. The open and ringing perfect fifths of standard tuning are replaced with tense and unruly dissonances.
Also on the program is Berio’s Sequenza XIV, a work inspired by the Kandyan drum rhythms of Sri Lanka. As such, the piece utilizes the cello as a percussion instrument in addition to its traditional role as a string instrument. Given the diverse range of techniques required in this piece, what did you find most challenging or interesting?
As a kid, I grew up playing both cello and percussion and I think part of why I love this piece so much is because it allows me to play both! In many ways, Berio set the precedent for composer/performer collaboration making the unique characteristics and capabilities of each dedicatee a central theme in many of his Sequenzas. In the case of this final Sequenza, Berio incorporates these Kandayan drumming cycles, which were shown to him by the great Sri Lankan cellist, Rohan de Saram.
You’ve worked closely with multiple composers, including Nicholas Deyoe whose piece another anxiety will be opening the concert at Monk Space. What do you enjoy most about collaborating with composers? What was the process like for Another Anxiety?
Nicholas Deyoe has been a friend and collaborator for the past nine years, during which time I have premiered twelve of his works. Our first collaboration, developed in secret, was a piece performed as a surprise dedication to the great soprano, Stephanie Aston on her and Nicholas’ wedding day. The process of our collaboration continues to evolve, but risk-taking and honesty have been our anchors throughout. The inspiration for the opening of another anxiety, with its tiny microtonal intervals, came from Nicholas’ observation that I could easily divide a whole step into four notes in the lowest positions of the cello. To me, such collaboration, is the epitome of being a new music performer. I am so proud to be presenting the results of my collaboration with Nicholas Deyoe and Wadada Leo Smith as part of my program at Tuesdays @ Monk Space.
Tickets are available at asweetanxiety.brownpapertickets.com.
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/
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.
The final wasteLAnd concert of 2015, Nocturnes and Lullabies, featured Richard Valitutto at the piano and was presented on Friday evening, December 11, 2015 at Los Angeles City College’s Clausen Hall in Hollywood. An enthusiastic crowd turned out on a chilly night to hear piano music by Wolfgang von Schweinitz, Bunita Marcus, Nicholas Deyoe, Timo Andres, Helmut Lachenmann, Salvatore Sciarrino, and Linda Caitlin Smith.
NCTRN (2014) by Nicholas Deyoe started things off, opening with a sharp rap followed by a sudden, crashing chord. The piece immediately turned quiet and a series of dense, atmospheric chords drifted up, creating a shimmering undercurrent of anxiety. This continued and soon a quiet rapping was heard, as realized by several prepared keys in the uppermost notes of the keyboard. The rapping became more insistent as the piece progressed, adding another level of tension that contrasted nicely with the dark chords coming from the lower registers. The persistent knocking became louder – like a ghost trapped in a closet – ceasing suddenly at the finish.
Notturno crudelo no. 1 (2000), by Salvatore Sciarrino was next with a march-like rhythm dominating, almost mechanical in its repetition and regularity. Complex passages consisting of rapid runs and skips intervened – less strident and at times even tentative – but the forceful marcato texture invariably returned. Valitutto managed all of this with high efficiency, effectively portraying the vivid contrast between the sections.
Three pieces were then played continuously: Wiegenmusik (1963) by Helmut Lachenmann, Lullaby (2000) by Bunita Marcus and Plainsound Lullaby (2014) by Wolfgang von Schweinitz. The Lachenmann piece felt restrained, full of quiet notes and short stretches of silence. Some sharp, rapid figures were heard in the upper registers at times, but the overall feel was remote, tentative and mysterious. Lullaby by Bunita Marcus had an altogether more settled sound and featured repeating phrases combined with conventional chords, producing a more introspective feel.
The von Schweinitz piece called for Valitutto to play from the keyboard while depressing the sustain pedal and reaching inside the piano to pluck several of the strings in the lower registers. This required an awkward posture, but the results were amazing. A series of bell-like tones – almost electronic in timbre – issued out from the piano in a pleasant sonority, complimenting a quiet melody of conventional notes. This combination was both unusual and engaging and Plainsound Lullaby received sustained applause from the audience at the conclusion.
After intermission Heavy Sleep (2013) by Timo Andres began with a singular series of deep, questioning chords that were answered similarly in the higher registers. As the piece continued it became, by turns, warm, reaffirming, settled and connected until it arrived at an expansively grand sound. At times, Heavy Sleep exhibited great power, like a piano concerto without an orchestra. The playing here was accurate and the changing dynamics were negotiated effectively.
The final two pieces of the concert, A Nocturne (1995) by Linda Caitlin Smith and Lullaby 2 by Nicholas Deyoe were performed continuously. A Nocturne started quietly and there were long stretches of silence between the phrases that let the notes ring out and slowly die away. Familiar chords followed, producing a questioning, introspective feel. The stillness and quiet of this work made for a good segue to the Deyoe piece, and this began with deep, solemn chords in the lowest registers of the keyboard. Answering chords followed with higher pitches and the low chord returned again with added mystery and power. The fine touch by Valitutto brought out the delicate contrast here.
The prepared keys again made an appearance in the form of a rhythmic knocking that held the attention of the listener. This knocking dominated as the piece progressed and the supporting chords built up a dreamy atmosphere that terminated in a series of roiling runs up and down the keyboard and a sharp thunder clap. At one point the keyboard cover was closed and a soft rapping sound was made upon it. A dreamy fragment of a romantic melody appeared, conjured up so quietly and mysteriously that it seemed to be coming out of the mist in the far distance. A sudden closing of the keyboard cover brought Lullaby 2 to a final, satisfactory finish.
Richard Valitutto brought his many talents to bear on the wide variety of contemporary pieces in Nocturnes and Lullabies, consistently delivering just the right blend of passion and artful technique.
With a name like “FACE|RESECTION,” you know it’s going to mess with your head. The album title is a merging of the two track names, Facesplitter and Bowel Resection, performed by Matt Barbier and released on populist records. Both use extended techniques transform the trombone into much more than a mere instrument.
The first track, written by composer and guitarist Nicholas Deyoe for solo trombone, imitates machine noises. A lawnmower here, a band saw there, and an electric drill and sink disposal in between evoke a soundscape of quotidian noise as music. Rarely is there a sound produced by Nicholas which does not have some parallel which can be heard from your own kitchen. This catalogue of techniques moves the listener to appreciate these noises more as music than something to be ignored. In short, I would call this music by a human about inhuman subjects for humans.
Clint McCallum’s piece is another technically startling trombone solo called “bowel resection.” It emphasizes circular breathing and uses the sniffs to remind the listener of the human behind the mechanism, of the organic being in machine. Another set of extraordinary trombone techniques, this piece brings a new emotion with each listen, one of which is, as you may guess from the name, disgust. But, like spectacular gore in a horror film, you won’t want to turn away. To compare this track to gore seems both blasphemous and fitting. You’ll have to listen for yourself.
On Saturday evening, August 1, 2015, the final concert of the WasteLAnd summer series was given in Clausen Hall at Los Angeles City College in Hollywood. The music consisted of works for piano and voice, with Stephanie Aston, soprano and Leslie Ann Leytham, mezzo-soprano the featured singers. Richard Valitutto and Brendan Nguyen accompanied.
The first piece on the program was Got Lost (2007/2008) by Helmut Lachenmann and this began with whooshing and breathy sounds from Stephanie Aston while a series of low solitary notes issued from the piano, played by Richard Valitutto. This continued for a some minutes but gradually some humming was heard along with a few musical fragments of tunes. This escalated, and rapid runs on the piano keyboard collided with powerfully sustained pitches by Ms. Aston as the dynamic balance shifted back and forth between them. As the piece continued the voice parts became more musical and the piano took on a split personality with Richard Valitutto skilfully executing a number of extended techniques. The piano strings were variously strummed, plucked and stopped by hand as a note was played and this gave rise to a number of interesting effects in quick succession; it actually seemed as if there were two different instruments accompanying the vocals. Perhaps the most intriguing effect was when the piano was silent but with the sustain pedal held down. Ms. Anston gave out a short fortissimo passage that was caught by the piano strings and heard as a ghostly echo. Lachenmann’s unconventional techniques were on full display in this piece – all the more impressive as none involved electronics or amplification of any kind.
Got Lost is without any sort of beat and the performers were seen to be cuing each other as they worked their way through. Their timing and coordination were admirable given the unorthodox demands of the score. The various clicks and pops of the vocal sounds were like a frustrated foreign language, just on edge of intelligibility. The piano added to the alien, anxious feeling with sharp, stabbing notes and loud crashes at unexpected intervals. Got Lost astonishes the listener with its ever-changing series of complex sounds, textures and dynamics and the performance on this occasion was smoothly and skillfully realized.
5 McCallum Songs (2011) by Nicholas Deyoe followed, again featuring Stephanie Aston and Richard Valitutto. This piece consists of five sections, each a setting of the text from the series Love Poems, by poet Clint McCallum. The opening section begins with deep, solemn chords from the piano and the airy soprano voice above singing “I want you to look at me with throbbing eyes…” This sets the tone – plaintive, yet with a smoldering passion. High soprano notes arced gracefully above the piano accompaniment and with the words “I want to show you the cover, and snatch the book away” Richard Valitutto slammed shut the keyboard cover on the piano to end this section.
The second section seemed yet more sorrowful and the quiet vocals had a feeling of lonely sadness about them that hinted at distress. In section three the singing was stronger and more active with soft piano notes and chords underneath. The text “Your begging eyes free my soul, I’ll never let you go” was especially moving. Section four had a single line that was repeated: “to convince you” and this was beautifully sung by Ms. Aston in a small, soft voice. For the final section the piano was tacet and the emotion from the soprano voice singing “ and as I turned you grabbed me and kissed me” was very moving. 5 McCallum Songs filled the spacious hall with a quiet economy of sound yet completely imparted all of the sentiment embedded in the text.
The final piece in the concert was Canti della tenebra (2011) by Swiss-born composer Beat Furrer and this was the US premiere. The featured singer was Leslie Ann Leytham, mezzo-soprano and the pianist was Brendan Nguyen. Canti della tenebra, a setting of text by Dino Campania, was sung entirely in Italian and proceeded in a series of sections. The first began with a deep rumble in the lower registers of the piano that dominated the soft vocals and this established the feeling of faint tension that suffuses throughout the entire work. The voice line soared briefly above, but the piano became more agitated, with notes running rapidly up and down the keyboard. The voice retreated into low, quiet tones, as if subdued, and this added an understated color to the overall texture. Eventually, the piano dropped back a bit as if to give the vocalist some space for a final declarative statement to conclude the opening section.
There were moments that overcame the early bleakness. In a later section, the singing of Ms. Leytham took the lead with a lovely chromatic melody line with the piano in a supporting role. This produced a more introspective feeling, aided by some masterful singing in the lower registers. Still another section had a more uplifting feel as a line of single piano notes was followed by warm, sustained tones in the voice that made for some lovely harmony. The later sections restated the initial sense of anxiety with waves of active piano notes and a series of strong vocal passages filled with tension. Towards the close an extended piano solo moderated the disquiet and the singing became gentle and reassuring. Some very lovely singing and playing followed as the piano slowly faded away at the finish.
Canti della tenebra contains a wide range of emotions that must flow through the voice and piano. The singing of Leslie Ann Leytham – especially in the lower, darker registers – was admirably suited to this task and the playing of Brendan Nguyen provided the ideal accompaniment.
This final concert of the WasteLAnd summer series proved how powerful and evocative the simple combination of voice, piano and poetic text can be in the right artistic hands.
Gnarwhallaby open their season tonight at Boston Court, with premieres from Colin Wambsgans and Nick Deyoe, and music by Martin Smolka, Edison Denisov, and Henryk Gorecki.
These guys rock. Here’s an example of why:
Tickets are at http://www.bostoncourt.com/events/221/gnarwhallaby, and you get $5 off with the code “MUSIC2014”.