On April 8th, REDCAT will host a concert of composer Clarence Barlow’s works of the 21st century, including major ensemble, electronic and intermedia works. Tickets and info for that are at redcat.org/event/clarence-barlow. Full disclosure: I’m a student of Clarence’s, as is my friend Brandon Rolle, who interviewed him for UCSB’s website. The university kindly gave us permission to reprint that interview here ahead of this Saturday’s concert. Here are Brandon and Clarence:
Clarence Barlow is a composer and the Corwin Chair of Composition at the University of California, Santa Barbara. While Barlow is recognized internationally for his contributions to electronic music and his pioneering work in algorithmic composition, his voluminous artistic output defies categorization, breaking boundaries of style, genre, and form. Recently, the dynamic and diverse output of Barlow’s career was celebrated by a three-day festival of his works in Cologne, Germany—a city that introduced Barlow to Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the avant-garde music of mid-20th-century Germany from which his distinct compositional trajectory launched. This year Southern California, too, celebrates his career and music: January 28th marked the premiere of his recent major intermedia piece )ertur( in Fullerton, CA, and February 24th saw a program of his early chamber works (from ages 14-22) at UCSB.
Many of your best-known works in the academic community are those which utilize algorithmic processes or your original software, but early on you were an active pianist and conductor and your compositions are markedly more romantic—can you talk a bit about your early musical experience/education?
Well as a young boy, age eight, I used to play in a school band in my then home town Calcutta. Then at the age of 11, I decided to make my own music, though I had no formal teaching. At 13, I got into a general classical mode and at age 15 I got into a historical style at more or less Haydn, Mozart, reaching Rachmaninoff at age 17. Then a music critic heard my stuff and told me I was too conservative, and that there was other music I should listen to—he played me Samuel Barber on the piano—and I did move on. But all of these pieces were written for regular classic acoustic ensembles. My first electronic music was written at age 24, so these early pieces from 50 years ago—of which there will be a concert here at UCSB—are all going to be in styles of Haydn, Mozart, Bartók, etc. There will be two string quartets, and a wind quartet sounding a bit like Prokofiev, or Hindemith. Those pieces are a natural outcome of the process of my historic music development through my teen years and early 20s.
How did that first computer piece at 24 come about?
As one of the few people in India—well, the only one—writing Western contemporary music, I got a scholarship to go to Germany to study composition there. After the interview I was told I could pack already, and it was through this scholarship that I ended up studying with Zimmerman and Stockhausen. The Cologne school where I started my studies in 1968 was the place to study electronic music—it had the only electronic music studio in a school at the time. So that’s where I made my first electronic pieces at 23 (Studies) and my first serious electronic piece at 24 (Sinophony I), gradually easing myself unwittingly into the very avant-garde contemporary music scene in Cologne, where I found my roots. But all the same, I broke with rules of the avant-garde in crazy ways.
When I started to do computer music—I was 24—it was because I understood there were certain algorithmic things I wanted to do which could probably only be realized by a computer. I remember that at the end of 1972, I drove a night and a day to Stockholm where I worked for two weeks in a studio over the Christmas break making my piece Sinophony II. I realized, a computer could do anything I wanted it to do, if I learned to program it properly.
In your teaching and lectures you talk about algorithms as a means to an end, compositionally. In the beginning, were you primarily experimenting to find new sounds?
No, I knew what I wanted. I could imagine the first stages of the compositional process and said ‘okay, let me work on that and listen to it’. For instance, my piece …or a cherish’d bard… is written for piano, but it’s highly algorithmic. I computer-programmed a first version of the piece, listened to the result and thought ‘boring, what do I have to change?’ I moved my program in a new direction and thought the result was a lot better, but now this gave me new ideas, which changed the process further until I finally said ‘this is it’. I had my piece.
I can’t imagine everything at the beginning, but listening to test results always gives me new ideas. The imagination is always the carrot, and I am the horse following it, as it were. And this holds for my algorithmic piano, ensemble, and electronic music alike. My electronic music is inspired even in its timbre by algorithms—someone told me recently that there is no such thing as algorithmic timbral composition; I said that isn’t true, I do it all the time.
A major component of your teaching, writing, and composing are your theories on tonal and metric functions as a continuum.
I came to Germany at age 22 writing conservative early 20th century music. But at the age of 24 my style broke completely and I became radical. My piano piece Textmusic was unlike anything I had done before; it was accorded a 20-minute response from the audience at Darmstadt—boos and applause; it was one of the big scandals of Darmstadt that year. From then on I was no longer writing in any historical style, unless I wanted to deliberately.
At 29, I first imagined a variably tonal music, not as in the past where it was simply tonal or semi tonal or atonal—I wanted tonality to go from 0% to 100% and back. It became clear that if I wanted to make this variable tonality—and variable metricity—that I had to develop a theoretical fundament. So I got into prime number theory, looked at Pythagoras and Euler and found my way through algebraic formulae which I programmed all summer in Cologne at the Institute of Phonetics. That is how these formulae became the cornerstone of a lot of my work.
Why was it important to be able to move between tonal/atonal styles as a parameter or variable?
One of my great heroes in literature is James Joyce. He absorbed culture into his work, which is not only fantastic literature but is also a commentary on culture. Looking at music culture of the past—tonal, atonal—I wanted to use all of that. I saw tonality as a kind of magnetic field, the strength of which I wanted to change at will. Joyce often writes in historic styles with a twist—I do that too, in my derived music. But in my algorithmic music I also conjure up and generate styles which might or might not make you remember past history.
What about the incorporation of extra-musical elements into your music?
I have been synesthetically oriented for most of my life. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with it, but I’ve always been very interested in the visual. And language—when learning German at 22, I discovered my great love of language. So I think it is because I love all these things that I start to perceive bridges between them and music.
As a composer for both fixed media and human performers, what is it that you look for in a performance of your acoustic work?
For me it is important to listen to the result—now the humanly played result may not be 100% accurate as in a MIDI rendition, but if it were, it would be without soul. A great human performance has expression, phrasing, nuances. If it comes across as something fresh, something with musical spirit, then I’m happy.
Then do you find it problematic for electronic music that it lacks such human “spirit”?
No, it’s not a problem. It is like being in a planetarium, looking at exact moments in time, exactly placed, with exact frequencies.
Like much modern music, your compositions can be challenging to listen to for many people. Is there ever temptation to adjust the musical language to make the concept more accessible?
I don’t need to be accessible. I believe in the grand body of culture we have behind us, and in the propagation and extension of it. You cannot make it accessible to everyone. You don’t doctor art to propagate it. I love James Joyce: should Joyce have written in a simpler style to be more accessible? I believe very strongly you stick to your guns, you do what you have to do.
So what would you suggest to a listener in order get the most out of your music? Out of modern music in general?
I would say first of all, frequency of listening is very important. You have to listen often. You’ve got to go to lots of events, you’ve got to have an open mind. Get to know the music.
We couldn’t agree with that more. Check out Clarence’s music at REDCAT on Saturday at 7. Tickets and more information are up at redcat.org/event/clarence-barlow
The 13th annual New Original Works (NOW) festival, presented at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theatre (better known as REDCAT), drew to a convincing close last weekend in a diverse program of Body Demonstration, Music, and Dance.
The hotly anticipated summer festival is a local oasis of artistic innovation in the creatively dry months of the year. The festival of three interdisciplinary programs over as many weeks featured works by early career artists, selected with an eye to new projects in development.
REDCAT Directors Mark Murphy and Edgar Miramontes opened the program with contextualizing remarks, citing the festival’s mandate and methods. “The NOW Festival allows emerging artists to use this theater as a laboratory for taking risks,” Miramontes articulated.
Filling the house to its 200 seat capacity, a decidedly risk-on audience had no objection to being subjects in tests that proved largely successful.
Energetically bounding into view, self-styled performance art ensemble I AM A BOYS CHOIR took the stage for the first, longest, most outrageous work of the program, Demonstrating the Imaginary Body or How I Became an Ice Princess.
Oddly coinciding with the current Summer Olympic games, Ice Princess chronicles the enmeshed paths of three figure skaters competing in the 1992 Winter Olympics through film and the art of “body demonstration,” an experimental genre blurring the boundaries of dance, theater, and spoken word.
The piece unfolds through a series of vignettes, each named and modeled after steps on Kristi Yamaguchi’s checklist for success: “beauty, stamina, fearlessness,” and others. Through funny, rambling stories, neatly choreographed fitness routines, and mock auditions, all reinforced by gender-bending costumes and driving 90s-era disco music, a clear sense of an ice princess culture begins to emerge, “without a narrative” as collective member Adam Rigg stated upfront.
Emotional intensity mounted throughout the work, moving from the cerebral to the emotional in a kind of exploration of Chakras. Communication evolved from ordinary speech, to body language, to sense-defying videography, followed by a hedonistic frenzy of activity complete with animal costumes, nudity, and other-worldly lighting.
Strongly camp informed, the three-member, queer-identified collective knowingly disregards conventional notions of artistic territory. Banal, self-critical chatter punctuated by an intermittent “what time is it now?” among other seeming trivialities, challenged observers to accept a new standard of artistic merit. “Our goal is to present the truth above all, at all times,” recited member Kate D’Arcus Attwell at one juncture in the performance. Audaciously direct, natural, and unrestrained, I AM A BOYS CHOIR convinces on a visceral level, even as it befuddles logically.
Audience analyses percolated up along the pilgrimage for half-time restoratives. A view proliferated that “much did not make sense,” but the collective clearly delivered on its opening claim to “blow your minds.”
Following a leisurely intermission (and extensive cleanup), composer Daniel Corral arrived on stage to perform his new work Comma in an innovative usage of existing technology.
Presenting the only expressly musical work of the festival, Corral faced the dual duty of satisfying artistically, as well as representing the art of music before the NOW audience.
A darkened hall suddenly flared with iridescent swatches, pulsing and changing with each note in streams of electronic sound reinforced by vigorous minimalist rhythms.
Congruent in purpose with the foregoing Ice Princess, Corral’s Comma reverses traditional musical priorities in a celebration of the Pythagorean comma, the bane of tuning systems since the middle ages.
Pythagoras gets the credit for codifying an intonation based on just fifths, pure and without “beats” (a canceling out of soundwave crest and trough). Beatless fifths are gentle, euphonious harmonies, but the sum of such intervals is greater than their parts, leading to a small but significant inequity in the tuning system. That hair’s breadth of dissonance is the comma (“hair” in Latin), and for centuries, the question was what to do about it.
Today’s intrepid listener accepts the comma, enjoying the dissonant crunch of “wolf intervals,” originally named for the howling of wolves. Comma draws on a pitch vocabulary derived from just-tuned fifths, exploiting their inherent beauty, and cognitively reframes dissonances as sumptuous umami flavors.
Striving for “something that could be experienced on multiple levels,” as Corral notes, a whimsical light show of shifting colors and shapes complements beguiling harmonies and timbres for a “total work of art.” Building on accordion-playing chops, Corral dispatched a dizzyingly intricate drum machine part on Novation’s Launchpad Pro, triggering sound and light with agility and speed.
Comma’s multiple paths of engagement and balanced blend of cooperative elements worked to hold audience attention consistently, slowing time against a steady stream of activity. Enthusiasm for the concluded piece reverberated palpably, as a sense of music’s abiding power to enchant and challenge was affirmed once again.
In the moving finish of both program and festival, dancer and choreographer Wilfried Souly integrated disparate movement traditions and original music in On Becoming, an exploration of identity-evolution.
“Reflecting the way physical history shapes Self across life,” writes Souly, On Becoming reflects influences on Souly’s own history, including African traditional dance, contemporary dance, and Taekwondo, fluidly fusing them for a new, unique genre.
An ensemble of musician from at least three countries collaborated in creating new music through shared improvisation: Boubacar Djiga, from Souly’s West African homeland of Burkina Faso, arranged and recorded traditional Burkinan music. Composers Tom Moose and Julio Montero later created new jazz, blues, and Latin folk-inspired music, taking the original African music as an impetus. A mosaic of styles crystalized, each element retaining its identity while harmoniously supporting the others.
The diverse musical backdrop both drove and reflected movement content on stage. An upbeat swing melody accompanied by shimmering tremolos served as springboard for bouncy gaits and playful turns.
A lyrical ballad for violin, guitar, and recorded media supported a tender episode, featuring intimate close embrace and expressive undulatory gestures. Afro-Blues fusion music pulsed rhythmically in a play on space and number: Dancers merged densely then diffused apart, then bifurcated the stage along a striking diagonal. A later number featured Souly in isolation, divided from the ensemble as soloist, as if satellite reflecting ensemble action. “While the others shared a tender moment together, I preferred to stand apart, on my own,” Souly explained in post-performance conversation. A plaintive soliloquy in spoken word, followed by an episode of descriptive facial expressions and subtle hand gestures brought the piece to an ending point, with ensemble exiting unobtrusively into the audience.
An apt closing number for the evening and season, On Becoming acknowledges the evolving of individual identity and the diversity that shapes it. NOW guests witnessed a moment in that flow of impermanence this season, and can expect new, original works of another variety next summer and beyond.
Like many operas, David Lang’s anatomy theater (with a libretto by Lang and Mark Dion) – presented by the LA Opera and Beth Morrison Projects – ends with a woman dead on stage. Unlike many operas, said woman is dead when the curtain goes up, and her status has little impact on her ability to sing. Set ambiguously around the start of the 18th Century in England, the premise of the work is that the audience is the audience for a medical dissection. At the time, the only bodies available for dissection were those of executed convicts, and anatomists believed that the organs of a law-breaker were marked by their crimes, turning public dissections into moral spectacles where law-abiding citizens could see purported marks of evil in a criminal’s corpse. (Needless to say, there was also an element of inflicting further punishment on the convict even after death.)
And so we have our criminal: Sarah Osborne (played masterfully by Peabody Southwell) who, in an aria on the gallows before her execution in the lobby before the show proper begins, confesses to murdering her children and abusive husband, defiantly expresses her expectation that God will forgive her and receive her soul into Heaven — or, failing that, “if [her] Lord and Savior will be so cruel to [her] as men and women have been, [she] had rather burn in the flames of Hell.” The executioner is Joshua Crouch (Marc Kudisch), who also happens to be the impresario for the dissection that is to follow. “Don’t you feel safer?” he bellows at the gathered crowd, gesturing at the limp corpse of the hanged Osborne. The crowd — treated to complementary sausages and beer to better recreate the atmosphere of a public execution — laughed nervously, the first of many deliberate disconnects between the attitudes of the 21st–Century Americans we actually were and the 18th–Century Englishmen (and men were the only people allowed at “public” dissections) the characters treated us as. In the theater itself, Crouch is joined by Baron Peel (Robert Osborne) and his assistant Ambrose Strang (Timur). Strang does the work of cutting up the body and extracting its organs, while Peel pontificates about the nature of evil, the balances of the Four Humors, and other such sundries.
Not surprisingly, this is a gristly affair. Most of us would likely find a human dissection unpleasant to watch under the best of circumstances, but here the air is soured still further by the undercurrent of female objectification taken to its most literal extreme; Sarah Osborne’s body is a literal object for men to toy with, cut to pieces, and condemn. And yet, much to Peel’s chagrin, Strang finds each organ removed immaculate, describing Osborne’s stomach, spleen, heart, and uterus in hagiographic terms and utterly thwarting Peel’s quest to find the mark of Satan’s handiwork. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it is only Strang who seems to hear Osborne when she shudders back to a ghostly simulacrum of life towards the opera’s final third.) After Peel concedes failure and departs, Crouch offers to continue the dissection informally “around the back” — for a fee, of course.
Gristly as these proceedings are, the score is a far cry from a relentless stream of horrors. There are certainly moments of strident dissonance, but there are others of transcendent radiance — much of the dissection itself falls somewhere uneasily in between, torn between the marvelous inner workings of the human body and the raging misogyny and hypocrisy that surround this particular exploration of them. The bulk of the music flits lightly between twitchy recitative and more languorous arioso passages, with hints of minimalism and art pop lurking just out of sight, but there are a few moments towards the beginning that seem to veer closer to pastiche: One, Baron Peel’s first introduction, borrowing the caustic updating of early English operetta found in Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera and the other, a long and bizarre ensemble number announcing the pending description of the anatomist’s tools, poking gentle fun at certain excesses of Philip Glass.
Directed by Bob McGrath and Music Director Christopher Rountree (the Artistic Director of wild Up, which served as the pit orchestra for the show), the four singers brought their roles to powerful life. Southwell’s Osborne was by turns defiant, distraught, and desperate, displaying the full range of the human heart and showing with countless subtleties the overpowering forces that might make someone conclude that murder was their best and only means of escape from an unconscionable situation. Crouch, as played by Kudisch, is a lecherous scoundrel, driven by nothing more than the desire to line his own pockets. Timur brought an air of dazed reverence to the role of Strang, a young man, clearly out of his depth, but standing firmly by what he knows to be true in pronouncing each organ unblemished even in the face of Peel’s considerable displeasure. And Robert Osborne, in turn, was a thunderously self-righteous Peel, genuinely convinced of the justness of his cause and unbending in the face of any possible contradictory evidence. In his final aria, he sends the audience away with a dire warning to be on the lookout for omnipresent evil. “Where is evil?” he snarls, “There it is! There it is! There it is!”, jabbing his finger every which way. He points everywhere except himself.
Tomorrow (Tuesday) night, pianist Nadia Shpachenko has her Piano Spheres Satellite Series debut at REDCAT. Tickets are available at redcat.org/event/piano-spheres-nadia-shpachenko. We reviewed Nadia’s last album here a few months back, and are stoked both for this concert and the fact that she had a minute to answer some questions about the program via email. Here’s Nadia.
So tell me about your Satellite Series show.
Tomorrow I will be performing a recital that features music written for me by six very talented composers with whom I worked closely on the interpretation of the works. It is an incredibly personal program that I can’t wait to share with LA audiences! The second half of the program will present the world premieres of two architecture-inspired works commissioned by Piano Spheres. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Lewis Spratlan’s Bangladesh conveys the transformative hope of Louis Kahn’s National Assembly Buildings in Dhaka. Annie Gosfield, whom the New Yorker called “The Carl Nielsen of Second Avenue,” wrote The Dybbuk on Second Avenue for this recital. Annie’s piece reflects the changing mix of influences in one theater in the Lower East Side’s “Jewish Rialto” over the years: from Yiddish theater to burlesque, from Chekhov to William Burroughs. These are the first two works of a project I am completing, to commission and record works inspired by architectural settings. In 2016 I will premiere four more new works by Amy Beth Kirsten, Hannah Lash, James Matheson, and Harold Meltzer at the Piano Spheres series at Boston Court, all illuminating particular architectural phenomena. The first half of the program will include works written for my albumWoman at the New Piano by Tom Flaherty, James Matheson, Adam Schoenberg, and Peter Yates. I like to humorously call that program Music for a New B’ak’tun, that is music for a newly transformed world, the new 5,125 year cycle according to the Mayan Calendar, which began in 2013 when all those works were written. I will note that the pieces all touch on the themes of transformation, of resonances across time, of cycles of rebirth. Cretic Variations by James Matheson emphasizes lengthy resonances, how momentary events persist, shape new events, and how our memory of the past is revised by events of the now. Whereas Adam Schoenberg’s Picture Etudes take us through a variety of worlds, from placid to energetic, Peter Yates’ Finger Songs take us on a journey through time, playing on our sentiments with flashes and resonances of musics past. Whereas Tom Flaherty’s Airdancing (for which the wonderful Genevieve Feiwen Lee will join me on toy piano) and Adam’s Picture Etudes introduce novel combinations of sound sources, Peter’s Finger Songs feature novel combinations of musical forms and genres. A number of the pieces feature descent into true musical chaos, and emergence into the new – whether momentous, as in the thunder and dawn of Cretic Variations, or thrilling, as in whoops and swirls of Airdancing. I am very excited to perform this program tomorrow!
Here is a sneak peak into the first half repertoire:
Had you selected the In Full Sail piece to begin with, or does the theme really encompass the whole program?
In Full Sail to me means sailing towards my dreams, taking chances and going for it all the way. In Full Sail is also the title of a piece Harold Meltzer is writing for my architecture-inspired program. In Full Sail won’t be premiered until May 2016, but Harold was the first composer I approached for the project and the first one to come up with a title. And thoughIn Full Sail is a critic’s description in particular of the Frank Gehry building to which Harold is responding, the title seems to describe well the theme of the first concert that will feature works from this project (but will also feature works fromWoman at the New Piano), given its wide meaning.
What’s it like being a Satellite Series artist? I’ve heard there’s a bit of mentoring and support from the long-term Piano Spheres mainstays.
I am honored and excited to join Piano Spheres as a Satellite Artist! Vicki Ray has been a wonderful mentor, giving me great advice about programming and career building and I am looking forward to presenting a composition workshop with Vicki this afternoon at Boston Court, together with composers Lewis Spratlan (who just got into town from Massachusetts) and Adam Schoenberg. Vicki’s sparkly personality and infectious energy definitely have a way of rubbing off on me, and all the other Piano Spheres pianists and staff have been very supportive, making my Piano Spheres experience superb!
We’re lucky in LA to have a lot of fantastic pianists. Who else in town inspires you?
I agree, the Los Angeles new music (and older music) scene is thriving! When I go to concerts of new music, I see enthusiastic people of all ages in the audience. There is great appreciation in LA for all things avant-garde, outside the box, with too many wonderful new music ensembles and solo artists to list. Since my twin boys were born 5 years ago, my concert going experience slowed down a bit for a few years, but last year I was able to attend many incredible, inspiring concerts featuring adventurous, innovative music, much of which was actually written by local composers. Since I can’t list everyone who inspires me in town, I would like to focus on the Piano Spheres pianists, who inspire me beyond words. I was fortunate to be able to attend most Piano Spheres concerts last season (and of course the fantastic season opener with Gloria Cheng and Thomas Adès in September). Each of the principal artists, Gloria Cheng, Vicki Ray, Mark Robson and Susan Svrček, presented cohesive, exciting, beautifully-themed programs that featured their exceptional pianism and great imagination in interpreting new works. I was also very impressed by the inaugural Satellite Series last season and still remember vividly Nic Gerpe’s powerful Crumb performance and Aron Kallay’s unforgettable program, which included a piece for speaking pianist and electronics by Vykintas Baltakas, for which Aron recited a text in Lithuanian! I also frequently collaborate with the adventurous pianist Genevieve Feiwen Lee, with whom I recorded two works for my album (Airdancing by Tom Flaherty and Bounce by Adam Schoenberg), and who will be airdancing with me on Tuesdayat REDCAT. I would just like to mention one more pianist who to this day continues to inspire me, my wonderful teacher John Perry, with whom I completed my graduate studies during the late 1990s through mid 2000s. Perry is turning eighty in February and has not slowed down a bit with his teaching and performances, which are moving, powerful and deeply felt. And he just presented a recital at Carnegie Hall to celebrate his 80th birthday!
What’s next after this show?
I have a very exciting season planned, with numerous premieres and exciting collaborations! I will be focusing on two brand new solo programs this season, which I will touring and recording in the near future. One of the programs, which I will start calling The Poetry of Places once it starts presenting only the architecture-inspired works in one recital, will feature six new compositions written for my project mentioned above (two of which I will be premiering). I will be performing these works more than a dozen times this season in California, New York, and Baltimore. For this project I will also be recording Andrew Norman’s Frank’s House for two pianists and two percussionists. Andrew and I were classmates at USC and I am thrilled to collaborate with him on this project! My other program, which I like to call Quotations and Homages will feature new and very recent musical homages by Matthew Elgart, Daniel Felsenfeld, Tom Flaherty, Vera Ivanova, James Matheson, Missy Mazzoli, Nick Norton (you!) and Peter Yates, five of which I will be premiering at Spectrum in New York on December 13. I am also very excited about my upcoming collaborations with Los Angeles Philharmonic’s violinist Vijay Gupta, with whom I will be performing a few local concerts in January, and with Kathleen Supové, with whom I will be performing concerts in three states in December, January and February, including the premiere of Jack Van Zandt’s Regular Division of the Plane for two pianos and a piece selected from ACFLA’s call for scores.
Anything else to add?
For this concert I had the privilege of choosing a beautiful Steinway & Sons concert grand that will be delivered to REDCAT tomorrow! I became a Steinway Artist last February and this was the first time since becoming a Steinway Artist that I had the opportunity to choose an instrument for a specific performance, an instrument that I felt would be a great match for the program on Tuesday. Adam Borecki beautifully filmed the Steinway Selection process, during which I discussed the differences between the instruments and performed short sections from some of the pieces on each piano. You can watch the clip, which was just finished this morning, here:
I can imagine no better way to be introduced to the LA Opera than by this show. I had no idea what to expect, only hope that it might be a nice way to spend a Friday evening. Of all the shows in LA, I figured I might as well check out something brand new. I was in for a treat.
Isabelle Eberhardt, played by the incredibly talented Abigail Fischer, had several distinct lives and deaths, recollected through cobbled diary pages. Missy Mazzoli wanted to give her a proper homage through equally cobbled yet bleakly beautiful music. Using distorted guitars, stuttering electronic sounds, pure voices, and a wailing cello and flute tell Isabelle’s tragic stories. Videos on transparent scrims add further layers of emotion to the story, complementing the music. The chorus sometimes acted as a reflection of Isabelle, and other times sang duets with her. The musicians and their instruments were as much characters in the story as Isabelle. The cello cried, the flute sang, and clarinet drank coffee and the piano just drank.
One of my favorite moments was when Isabelle moved off her pillow in an opium den and sat with the pianist on his bench. He abandoned her there, and she carried on the tune the best she could. A melody usually implements small intervals for easy singing, but the song in the opium den had enormous intervals, which I imagined represented the highs and lows of drug use. My favorite song overall was “One Hundred Names for God,” when she goes through her religious phase near the beginning. The choreography was stunning, and the many different names dripped like glittering water from Isabelle’s mouth while the instruments lilted along deferentially.
Other songs featured amplified flute signaling a period of exploration, and guitar performing a heartbeat emulating blood rushing to one’s ears in a moment of high tension and fear. At the very end, when Isabelle dies in a flash flood, the guitar swells and grows like a physical presence, and cuts short the instant her life does. This perhaps sounds cliché, and rereading this review sheds light on what made the music so subtly effective in the moment. It’s a silken beauty like seeing the ocean in the moonlight that makes one wax poetic and at the same time fail to find the words. Through such a short but intense opera, the audience falls in love with Isabelle Eberhardt and our hearts break when the music ends her life.
In short, I cannot rave about this opera enough, especially the musicians. It only ran for the one weekend, but there will be many more performances by the LA Opera and from the Beth Morrison Projects this season. Buy your tickets early!
Art should make you feel something. Be it the discomfort of eye contact, mirth at the absurdity of a bitterly happy man (nope, not a typo), or literal vibrations in your skeleton, the winning pieces of the 2015 American Composers Forum National Composition Contest dealt it all through wild Up. The concert began with When Eyes Meet by Nina C. Young, a variably atonal work narrating the palpable awkwardness of eye contact with a stranger. Segments of pointillism and others of smooth lyricism portray sneaking glances and the development of silent rapport, cut short audibly by one party guiltily turning away. In short, an aural captivation of “the struggle is real.” Next up was The Man Who Hated Everything by Alex Temple. The title alone speaks volumes on what this tribute to Frank Zappa contains. It’s a witty collage of quotations barreling through a train of thought that could exist equally in Zappa or Temple’s heads, and spills out in jazz improvisation and big band bellows and words spoken by the performers assuming characters almost but not quite themselves. The performers have entirely too much fun, and it afflicts the audience delightfully, and laughter mingles with the applause. The third and final piece is Chiaroscuro by William Gardiner. Beginning with two notes in the middle range of a vibraphone, the sound seems to come physically forward from the stage into your body as the sound is transformed into sound waves with subharmonics. The other instruments play high and light over the thick, visceral vibrations, and though there is a rhythm in the high end only the harmonic rhythm in the bass is truly observed. Each chord moved a different part of myself; first my feet, then my knees, and then my chest and finally my face. Have you ever had your sinuses stuffed from the LA haze, and then inexplicably and gently stirred by pure bass notes? It is a strange thing to claim, and an even stranger thing to experience. It was emotional without emotions, and utterly spellbinding. I wanted to hear it at least a dozen times more over the course of the night.
My wish was partly granted. After the three pieces were presented in this order, the composers came down and answered a few questions with Chris Rountree, the conductor of wild Up. As a former Seattlite who has only lived in California for a year, I am still pleasantly surprised that the whole creative process seems present in the end product; the composers and artistic directors are always at the shows and still involved. This seems, forgive my poeticism, to give the art the loving support it needs to be a real triumph, not just one more modern, off-the-wall sound coming out of crazy ol’ LA.
But, it just wouldn’t be LA without being a little off the wall. After the chat with the composers and intermission, the second half of the concert was the same set, just in a different order. The best part of this experiment was that I could move seats, and thus experience the pieces from a different perspective. Also, about half the audience departed, leaving only those who seriously love their modern music. To be fair, usually after finishing a meal you don’t jump right into eating the same meal again. But this wasn’t a meal; it was more like finishing a good book and wanting to read the whole thing again. The energy was different and the room felt smaller, but there was more rapport between all the audience members. So we heard William’s piece again, and from my new vantage point I could feel the vibrations move me in different places than before, and I could imagine seeing the floor in rings of emanating pulses, which had not occurred to me before. I heard more themes and patterns in Nina’s work, and I wished I could have followed along in the score but I was mollified by this second listen through. Alex’s piece was also enhanced by the fact I could finally see the pianist’s and reed player’s faces and better hear their words. The cellist and flutist hammed it up at the very end, and the audience, as small as we were, ate it up. The second round was a stroke of genius. The stress and reverence of the big, bad world premiere was over and we were graced with the best encore we could hope for: something exactly the same but different. And it felt great.
If you live in Los Angeles and are into new music, chances are high that you’ve crossed paths with pianist Richard Valitutto. Pianist is an understatement, though. His website lists him simply but accurately as “musician,” and he often appears as melodica-player, composer, curator, and more. To get a taste, here’s a live recording of his premiere performance of Ryan Pratt’s On Expansion.
Next week is a big one for him, as he’s got his first full-blown solo recital on PianoSpheres’ new Satellite series, at REDCAT on Tuesday at 8:30. Here’s Richard:
Let’s start with NAKHT. What’s the concert all about?
NAKHT is a major step forward in my exploration of the genre of the piano nocturne. I’ve been imagining and devising programs either largely based on or entirely comprised of nocturnes for the last couple years, and this is my first major solo recital in the process. I guess it’s something that could be called a ‘nocturnes project,’ but I don’t want to get too nerdy about it. I wanted this particular program to be mostly 20th/21st century music, being that it is presented by Piano Spheres, and I wanted to create a program that definitely included certain pieces, particularly the Sciarrino Due Notturni crudeli and the Skryabin Poème-Nocturne. They’ve been on my wish-list for a while now!
Also, several months ago I was hanging out with Nicholas Deyoe having some whiskey (as we do) and we were discussing my nocturne fetish as well as his feeling of closure to his Lullaby series, to which the only other large-scale solo piano work he’s written belongs, Lullaby 2. He said he would love to write another bigger piano piece, and contributing to the nocturne idea would be cool because he’d been thinking particularly about various ways to subvert the idea of a “nocturne” piece, drawing a lot of inspiration from Benjamin Britten’s incredible guitar solo Nocturnal (after John Dowland). So it was then I knew exactly who I wanted to commission as a part of the Piano Spheres Satellite Series.
The program basically developed from these various repertoires and ideas; I think it’s a good representation of my interest in pieces that delve into the complex and volatile relationships between the night and the human psyche.
What attracted you to programming around nocturnes in the first place?
Mostly the music itself, of course: these are some of my favorite pieces of late. But it’s also the fact that I came to realize I had never really heard of a solo piano program (or series of them, for that matter!) comprised mostly or entirely of nocturnes. There are often all-sonatas programs; and I’ve heard many all-prelude, all-dances, even all-etudes (which, in fact, is exactly what Piano Spheres Satellite artist Steven Vanhauwaert will be doing on June 2, 2015)!
Like many people, some of my favorite pieces very early on were Chopin nocturnes. They’re some of the most gloriously melodic pieces we pianists have, and the figurations are so pianistic that it’s like swimming with the hands through maple syrup. On a conceptual level, though, the young me loved the idea of a piece somehow specifically being for night-time – something we don’t get a whole lot of in Western Classical Music. Also, the budding linguist in me loved my understanding etymology of the name itself. But in the last couple of years, I began to notice that not only are there some absolutely wonderful, overlooked gems in the major nocturne oeuvres of Chopin and Fauré, but many composers – often composers unfamiliar to me – will have in their catalogs a nocturne I never knew existed, and many of them just wrote a single one! It became a game, every time I saw a composer’s solo piano catalog I would look to see if they had a nocturne, and many do! It’s alluring: the idea that there was this body of pieces out there – simultaneously limited in scope and largely unknown – that all share the same title, presumably alluding to a similar affect or tradition.
But at the same time, the genre doesn’t really have a set form or tradition, unless you count the original notion of John Field and Chopin of a solo piano aria quasi bel canto, which frankly, a lot of people simply aren’t interested in writing anymore, at all. So what does it then mean for a solo piano piece to be a “nocturne” especially in this century? That’s what I’m trying to find out, mostly by experiencing the music itself.
This might be a big one: when we met we had both just moved to LA, and you were a new student at Cal Arts, and mentioned that you’d heard this guy was starting this orchestra you might help out with. That’s turned into one of the country’s most-acclaimed new music ensembles, and your own notoriety as a performer has grown in parallel, from new student in town to playing at Disney and Carnegie Hall and getting written up by Swed. Could you give us an idea of what that ride has been like for you? And have you thought of your career so far as an artistic narrative, or are you more focused on the project in front of you?
Yeah, that is a big one! Downright cosmic, actually. It’s hard for me to answer that, mostly because that part of all of us that always wants to as humble as possible is currently shoe-gazing and scuffing his toes saying, “Pshaw…” But really, you put it better than I could: I’m just focused on the projects in front of me. It’s certainly exciting to notice the attention and opportunity, not to mention the critical acclaim, of course. But we’re all just people trying to say and do something interesting, from the biggest arts organizations to the smallest independent arts venture or show. During my last year at CalArts and into my first year out of school, I had two rules for myself: The first was, if you can do it, say yes. The second was, even if you have no idea what’s going on, have as much fun as possible. They’ve gotten me pretty far, I’d say, and I’ve certainly done a lot of things that have been really fun (although recently, a couple more rules had to be implemented to temper this unilaterally over-zealous approach)! Most importantly, I truly believe that we’re all students of the world for life, and I try to keep a beginner’s mind throughout it all. The general rule in nature is, “if you’re not growing, you’re dying”. And I think that we’re all called to be constantly bettering ourselves physically, spiritually, emotionally, and artistically so that we may then be a benefit to our community and the world around us simply through our existence and representing our set of values through the things we do for ourselves and others.
Can you share any stories from Gnarwhallaby’s Carnegie Hall concert? I heard a thing about you breaking pianos, which I was actually kind of proud of…
Well, the piano-breaking thing is something I was confused by, more than anything, although in retrospect, it does feel pretty badass. What happened was, our rehearsals were in these recording/rehearsal studios way out in Midtown West, and there were a number of Yamaha grands located in multiple studios. In the course of our few days of rehearsals of Nicholas Deyoe’s Lullaby 4 for the premiere in Zankel Hall, there were no less than three instruments that simply… gave out, I guess is the best way to put it. Like, they were rendered completely unplayable. By me. It had something to do with at a certain point during our rehearsal, the action got jammed and then most of the keyboard just simply didn’t work. At first I thought it was a fluke, but then it happened twice more, and I realized that I must have hands (and forearms) that an ordinary piano simply can’t handle. And just to be clear, this piece had no extended techniques at all – so it’s not like I wasn’t playing the instrument “the right way,” or whatever.
As for other stories, perhaps a better question is, should they be shared! Of course there are stories, but what is appropriate in this context I wonder…?
What excites you about making music here in LA in 2014?
I’m just gonna come out and say it: Los Angeles right now is the most fulfilling and exciting musical environment I could have hoped for, and it’s only looking to get better! What I totally admire about my colleagues and our city is the prolific diversity of style and context as well as the profound commitment to truly interesting and unique modes of art-making. It’s like nowhere else. And most importantly, the level of support within the various artistic community I’ve been privileged to be a part simply feels like family, a home.
What music have you been digging recently?
Andrew McIntosh’s new album Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure is just off the chain beautiful. And speaking of Nicholas Deyoe, I feel like I hear a new piece of his every other month (including the one I’m going to premiere at REDCAT!) and it’s always an experience to which I look forward, both as performer and auditor. Most recently, it’s been exciting for me to discover the composer Ramón Lazkano, whose recent CD Laboratorio de Tizas with Ensemble Recherche has been getting a lot of car play.
Anything else to add?
If you’d like to know more about the program and particularly the new pieces to be premiered, Piano Spheres will be presenting an open forum discussion with Nicholas Deyoe and me facilitated by Mark Robson at the Boston Court Theater in Pasadena the day before the concert [Monday] from 10:30 a.m. – 12 p.m. This event is free and open to the public.
It’s not on the Boston Court website, but it’s definitely happening! Here’s the link to the Piano Spheres webpage about the event: http://pianospheres.org/satellite-series-workshops/
Now Hear Ensemble‘s Made in California project, which commissioned works from 11 Californian composers for a tour and record, is nearing completion. The record came out yesterday, and they’re having a release concert, this Saturday, November 2, at REDCAT. Here’s a preview video:
The whole record is pretty rad. I went to see them in San Diego last weekend (full disclosure: I have a piece in the project), and while all the music they’ve commissioned and perform is impressive, and covers a pretty wide range of styles and ideas (Todd Lerew’s Variable Speed Machine, a drone-based piece custom-made monochords, provide a fantastic and beautiful contrast to the post-minimal groove of a few earlier tracks on the CD), they’ve managed to bring something of a masterpiece into the world with Dan VanHassel’s Ghost in the Machine. It comes across well on recording, but seeing its robot-controlled deconstruction of a drumset onstage, which is far more peaceful and introspective than it sounds, is the rare completely-new-experience-that-actually-sounds-great that we so often fall short of. This piece needs to be heard, seen, talked about, and learned from.
Full info on the record is at nowhearensemble.com/MadeInCaliforniaAlbum. Tickets for the show are at redcat.org/event/now-hear-ensemble. No streaming links just yet, but it’s available on iTunes and Amazon, among all the other standard places.
The Southern California Resource for Electro-Acoustic Music is putting on a show at REDCAT tonight that sounds completely awesome. Here’s the rundown from the event page:
The venerated annual music festival—begun in 1986—signs off in style, with works by four masters of the electro-acoustic idiom. The program opens withPacific Light and Water/Wu Xing—Cycle of Destruction(2005), which features solo trumpet by creative music luminary Wadada Leo Smith “overlaid” on a fixed electro-acoustic composition by SCREAM founder Barry Schrader. Next is Anne LeBaron’s Floodsongs (2012), a choral setting of three poems by Douglas Kearney performed by the Santa Clarita Master Chorale conducted by Allan Petker, with live electronics by Phil Curtis. Played by the Formalist Quartet, David Rosenboom’s Four Lines (2001) for string quartet and electronics experiments with “attention-dependent sonic environments.” The concert—and the series—concludes with the world premiere of three electro-acoustic movements from Barry Schrader’s opus The Barnum Museum (2009–2012) inspired by Steven Millhauser’s short story which describes a fantastical museum of the imagination.
Details are available at redcat.org/event/scream-finale