Last Sunday evening, a 20-odd crew quietly gathered at Automata in Chinatown for Southland Ensemble’s first concert of the season, a presentation of works by Manfred Werder and Jürg Frey. What works about Southland is their commitment to making space for a delicate strain of experimental music that requires care to present well. As the audience settled into their folding chairs and the lights dimmed in the compact gallery, a peculiar hush spread through the room.
The program’s three pieces were judiciously selected explorations of an attenuated sound world – more or less: unison cued harmonies, each lasting between half a breath and a full breath, floating into one another, and into silence. This kind of program is especially exciting because the audience can settle into a certain kind of careful listening, appreciating the nuances between each piece, and between each composer.
When materials are this bare, fluctuation is content. This is music about gesture, and the multiplicities of meaning that the tiniest variations in gesture can encode. The physicality of the music approaches dance, or theater. Maybe some would describe popular or folk dance as the height of physicality. But here, so many more revealing movements of the body are transcribed. Hidden personal rituals, telling missteps.
The first piece by Frey was 60 Pieces of Sound for bassoon, alto saxophone and flute. The 60 musical events begin simply: unison cued dyads with impeccable intonation, sans vibrato, lasting roughly half a breath, expanding into triads or clusters. If that sounds like a performance direction for a structured improvisation, it’s because the production here is so transparent that just being an audience member feels like being part of the creative process. All music depends on its audience for completion, but this music especially seems to require the audience as container. It’s nice to be needed.
The harmonies expand and contract, gently leaning and pulling. Silences are not uncomfortable, attention can ebb and flow. Gagaku comes to mind – a heightened atmosphere in which declamations have meaning, can take root.
In this context, harmonic grammar carries real weight. This music is not abstracted from canonic music, it’s stripped. The house is not rendered in multiple perspectives, it’s just the furniture has been taken out. History is still richly in evidence, if one cares to find it, speaking through temperament and timbre, harmonic expectation. Much care is given to pleasure – silences are perfectly satisfying, not intimidating. Switches to minor harmonies seem more powerful, emotional shifts more salient. The alto sax tone was especially exquisite and well-controlled for such a bare context. Intonation between all was precise, reverberating just right in the intimate acoustics of Automata. It’s hard to say what kind of spiritual food this is exactly, but it’s certainly toothsome.
stück, by Manfred Werder, brings similar concerns to an ensemble of flute, violin, bassoon, viola, cello, and alto sax. In uniformly blue lighting, Southland’s focused performers were like specters, communicating from another plane. Again, limited materials are at play here – half to full-breath length drones. The difference here is that the larger ensemble creates a new meaning. No longer are we exploring the intimate thoughts of a single person; this music is inherently social. There’s a ‘we.’ Register-wise, the pitches explored are much higher and lower, and although the basic form is similar to 60 Pieces, this feels like a completely different personality. More emphasis on intellect, a little less generosity, a little sharper, not inherently more dissonant, but voiced more harshly. There is less pleasure. The contrasts between high, piercing tones and sul pont whispers are especially interesting – the strings are functioning as a section here, and the play on tradition is satisfying. Haunting, piercing intonation. As the piece develops, the contrasts feel more dialectic. Here we don’t have a described narrative, we are grappling with opposites, in real time. The overall feeling is so solid. The heritage of experimental music has produced a vocabulary not comprised of idiomatic phrases, but a way of approaching temporality, the perception of time.
All this music deals with meaning – intensifying or distilling it. It’s not typical to describe experimentalism as concerned with psychological meaning. In fact, performance instructions on the Werder are “für sich, klar und sachlich. einfach.” (to itself, clear and objective. simple.) But what is objectively being described? It seems: experience.
And for an even richer kind of experience, the star of the show was Frey’s String Quartet No.3. Although again we were presented with simple successions of harmonies, the tones here were instantly meatier, uniquely-voiced dissonances, all sans vibrato, by the superbly balanced Koan Quartet. The group is aptly named; their commitment feels squarely placed in the mysteries of the work rather than showiness.
The piece is theatrical, self-referential — a character, a monologue, setting the scene in the city, telling us about an experience before we dive into the epic. Then, traditionally, there’s a secondary theme. Rather than just hinting at the idea of a narrative, the whole story is here, impossibly: a character, a conflict, even a love interest, a journey. Schubert comes to mind. Suspended chords bleed into one another, extended tonality unexpectedly tilts into rapturous shimmering textures. The story stops at points at glassy pools of sul pont. The explorations here examine all textural possibilities without being glib. These points of interest are selected, chosen with care, composed! “Themes” return. Perhaps most interestingly, the work grapples with the history of the string quartet itself. There’s a Beethovenian sense of fate. Silences are used here to mark sections and narrative transitions, rather than as expressive means in their own right, as in the first piece. It’s uncanny how the meaning of silence can be shaped so strongly by a composers’ intent. The piece doesn’t play with extremes of register, as in the Werder. Instead, the contrasts are between harmonic progression and unexpected leaps into extended techniques. It’s genuinely surprising when the quartet turns from phrases to textures, and a third of the way through, into a whispering wintry sul pont landscape with solo tones emerging as voices. The piece as a whole is striking in its sincerity and seriousness of purpose.
The project in these pieces is, if not absolutely clear in intent, then perfectly clear in execution. What works about such harmonic play is that, more than melody or rhythm, harmonic grammar is deeply intertwined with cultural conditioning of Western music history. Hopes and expectations formed by acculturation battle reality, mirroring so much of experience.
Frey’s String Quartet No. 3 was extraordinary, and one felt that it should have been appreciated by more than 20-or-so lucky souls. The ending fades with long breath-like tones, receding into the ether. This is Romantic music, but in a way we can really hear, today. There are concerns about identity, hope, belonging, clothed in garments we understand. These composers take their task seriously and that is perhaps the most moving thing of all.
While wild Up clattered, reoriented itself, and clattered again downtown on Friday night, a much quieter kind of recapitulation of materials took place at Curve Line Space in Eagle Rock: Southland Ensemble, known for their careful presentations of underrepresented composers, performed intimate works by composers Gerhard Stäbler and Kunsu Shim. The pieces titillated and occasionally challenged, and as violist Cassia Streb commented, consistently offered an “intellectual puzzle.”
A particular pleasure was the stark simplicity of In Zwei Teilen, or In Two Parts, by Shim. The Teils, or parts, bookended the concert, an appropriate metaphor for the concert overall; in music this purified, when materials are stripped to their essence, structure becomes content. Teil 1, conducted by the composer, consisted of two tableaus: rain-like pianissimo plinks from a thumb piano against a sustained tone in the cello, alternating multiple times with long, glassy dissonant chords through a dispersed ensemble of recorder, cello, violin, and viola. The same tableaus ended the concert, presented as Teil 2. When our ears are bombarded daily, it’s gently fulfilling to apprehend something as fundamental as binary form. One forgets, there is clarity and power in simply reconsidering an idea after another has been presented.
Another highlight was Southland Ensemble’s a playful interpretation of Hart Auf Hart by Stäbler, a graphic score comprised of a bar-coded grid with coordinates. Ensemble members turned handheld radios and cassette decks off and on to Battleship-style coordinates shouted over a megaphone, rewinding and piping in tinny AM radio, bringing to mind Cage. More like Cage, some grid squares contained nothing at all, and silence delimited the material with an uncomfortable objectivity.
]and on the eyes black sleep of night[ by Stäbler presented more thoughtful juxtapositions, for piccolo, clarinet, and violin, in which breath-like cadences on piercing intervals alternated with passages of dissonant activity. Piccolo amplified the higher partials of the clarinet, as overtones interacted in the beating atmosphere, and the piccolo seemed to take on aspects of the clarinet, its woodiness suddenly apparent in the lower dynamics. Violin, a mediating force, held these fast.
Shim’s luftrand for violin, viola and cello continued the theme of self-contained scenes, but in a darkened tone. While Stäbler explores a taut, considered objectivity, in Shim, things loosen, junctures come apart. Wavering sul pont harmonics and unsure gestures are suspended precariously in short, motivic units. Each scene is presented as an aphorism, but an apprehensive one, made by somebody lost on some bleak shore. The form occurs within these aphorisms, musical meaning leaping between lilypads, bounded by silence. The dual structure evokes an individual voice, weighing options, assessing alternatives, all with emotional intensity.
Happy for No Reason by Shim, in contrast, was a straightforward conceptual exploration of noise and quietude – buckets, boxes, and bags of bells were dropped and thrown at random intervals, before a B section in which players reconfigured with deft, tiny gestures, while the Stäbler slowly pulled a roll of masking tape from wall to wall, around various players. Again, the simplicity of the binary form was remarkably effective.
X (February ’94) by Stäbler, “for closures and fasteners” featured the ensemble working with ziplock bags, Velcro, tape, zippers, shoelaces, staplers, boxes and clamps, manipulating each according to dice rolls. All of these items can only exist in one of two states: open, or closed. As dry as the content and structure seemed to be here, this choice of materials, and their implied states, suggested a subtle poeticism.
There is plenty of academic work on Stäbler and Shim’s music, exploring its theoretical and political underpinnings, but for the average, curious concert-goer, this music more than speaks for itself, with its careful emphasis on form, expectations, and purity.
Odeya Nini is an experimental vocalist and composer. At the locus of her interests are textural harmony, gesture, tonal animation, and the illumination of minute sounds, in works spanning chamber music to vocal pieces and collages of musique concrète. Her solo vocal work extends the dimension and expression of the voice and body, creating a sonic and physical panorama of silence to noise and tenderness to grandeur. Odeya’s work has been presented Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, Odessa, Mongolia and Vietnam.
This Friday, Odeya performs music from A Solo Voice, an investigation of extended vocal techniques, resonance and pure expression, exploring the relationship between mind and body and the various landscapes it can yield. The work is a series of malleable compositions and improvisations that include field recordings and theatrical elements, aiming to disassociate the voice from its traditional attributes and create a new logic of song that is not only heard but seen through movement. We caught up with Odeya to discuss her work.
First up, what’s on the show at Human Resources this week?
Yes, the show this Friday is a double bill with members of the Southland Ensemble – they will be performing works by Cassia Streb, Eric KM Clark, Manfred Werder and Taku Sugimoto. I will be performing a 40 minute set of solo vocal compositions and improvisation with movement and theatrical elements I call A Solo Voice. This work has evolved over the last 4 years, always morphing, into something new under the same title. In this iteration I include some pieces from my albumVougheauxyice (Voice) which was released exactly a year ago.
Your music as a vocalist deals with the body in a very direct way. While of course most singers are aware that their body is their instrument, you take it farther with the voice and movement workshops, voice bath meditations, and incorporating yoga, movement, and your whole body into your work. Did those interests (voice and the body) develop separately and you’ve found a way to combine them over time, or were they always intertwined for you?
My path and intentions as a vocalist began in a very different place from where they are now. I began as a theater major in high school singing in musicals, followed by a life as a singer songwriter performing around NY with my guitar, which led me to the New School for Jazz and Contemporary music where I later discovered free jazz and new music. During those years of song singing I was always challenged by my voice. I didn’t have enough air, I was told my vocal chords didn’t close completely while I sang, I wouldn’t be able to hit certain notes comfortably and phrased the way the song asked for. There were numerous things I was dealing with vocally. When I started free improvising I began to find my comfort zone by realizing that I could make any sound by changing the shape of my mouth, that I could dictate my own rhythm and phrasing, and let my singing be dictated by my body, senses, and pure expression. It was during that time that I began to feel I could own my voice and discovered it in new ways.
My journey as a yoga teacher developed during this time as well, except I was in search of different things to strengthen and heal, which kept the two worlds separate. It took about 5 years for me to integrate yoga and music, and although I felt a profound growth in both of them, I still didn’t quite connect that music was completely in the body. As a vocalist you cannot separate the body from the voice, they are interconnected from your heels to your finger tips to the crown of your head and of course to your emotions and imaginations. After years of developing this understanding and finding a new way of vocalizing that was truly a full body experience I began to share this with others. The workshops and lessons I teach often take on a therapeutic nature, since one really needs to peel layers, release, find strength, meditate, and have deep awareness towards an inner and outer self to be able to work this incredible instrument. We all have the potential to allow our voice to reveal things to us and others and I am trying to spread that good vibration in my way.
Your identify as both vocalist and composer. I’ve heard a bit of your chamber music, and seen you perform, and it seems like your music is very different depending on which of those contexts it’s for.
It’s true that my instrumental music is different from my vocal music. A main difference is that I write vocal music only for my own voice, and instrumental music only for others. Another main difference is that you can jump and roll on the ground while singing, but you can’t quite do that with an instrument. My vocal work has a strong performative practice. I write for my body and voice and for the tension that is held when I look into the audience’s eyes, its a completely different quality of communication. There is also an inherent drama in the voice: it’s human, and shares a collective history with every other person. My instrumental music is a world that is already in interaction with itself, in harmony, inviting the audience to enter and travel as another layer of the tapestry. Chamber music is for an audience to lose themselves in while solo voice is for them to see themselves as.
I am currently working on a piece that brings both those worlds together, which I began during a residency at the Banff Centre in February.
And when you write for your own voice, how do you balance improvisation and being-in-the-moment-and-space against pre-composed material? Is that assumed divide even a useful way of approaching your work?
The balance is very organic, and actually where I feel that yoga really comes in to my experimental contemporary work. At jazz school they taught us that improvisation is composition in real time. When you are in a state of commitment and focus, a flood of very clear ideas that flow from one to the next come through intuitively. I think a lot about the pieces I write, I spend a lot of time writing text about them, their meaning, why and how I am performing them. I have some pieces that are graphically written movement to movement, and some that are words, descriptions and concepts. Before a performance I usually meditate for a while, I meditate on my day, on where I am on what I want to express and perform those piece from that point. I let everything channel through me organically. Its funny but when I perform for artists, dancers, and other non musicians, some of the first comments are – “you’re so brave”. With classical musicians it’s usually – “How much of that was improvised?” When they discover in disbelief that it was about 80 percent, that’s when I start gaining their respect 🙂
What are you working on now? What’s coming up after this show?
I did a lot of traveling in the last few months performing A Solo Voice, so I feel I am at a brewing point. I just want to settle and let new inspiration come though. With that said, I am working on this piece for voice and chamber ensemble, a monodrama of sorts, I also have some shows in Europe in June and I am performing and composing music for a new theater piece which is based on a traditional Korean Shaman ceremony which will be presented in August.
Full details on Odeya’s concert at Human Resources are up at facebook.com/events/1586249551630860. Her debut album, Vougheauxyice, for solo voice, was released in April of 2014 and is available at odeyanini.com.
Southland Ensemble and guest duelist Jake Rosenzweig as we explore the work of Pauline Oliveros on Tuesday September 9th at Human Resources!! From tape pieces to a duel for Double Basses (with referee), these are some very beautiful and odd pieces by the wonderful Pauline Oliveros.
Ticket price: $12
Double Basses at Twenty Paces
Bye Bye Butterfly
Song for Margrit
For those of you who like your metal drone-y and minimal, these guys are not to be missed.
Synchromy returns in 2014 with re: Launch, a concert of 21st Century chamber music at Occidental College’s historic Bird Studio in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles. The program includes the works of Jason Barabba, Tom Flaherty, John Frantzen, Vera Ivanova, Shaun Naidoo, Nick Norton, Ben Phelps and Mark Robson.
Synchromy is proud to be partnering with Brightwork newmusic, a recently-formed sextet of world class instrumentalists on reLaunch. Brightwork will be bringing Shaun Naidoo’s Ararat to the program, as well as participating in several other works, marking the beginning of a long-term collaboration between the two organizations. Brightwork newmusic is Sara Andon, Aron Kallay, Roger Lebow, Tereza Stanislav, Nick Terry and Brian Walsh.
Free parking is available in the structure, entrance on Campus Road, one half block up the hill from Bird Road on Campus Road.
Following his success choreographing for the 2014 Sochi Olympics opening ceremonies, Daniel Ezralow brings his LA based Ezralow Dance to the Ford, featuring a commissioned premiere with live music by contemporary music collective wild Up. “Unforgettably gutsy” (NY Times) and hailed as “One of the best American dancer-choreographers now working on an international scale” (Chicago Tribune), Ezralow has created choreography and aerial choreography for theatre, film, opera and television around the world. He choreographed The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil, Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, the film Across the Universe and for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Batsheva Dance Company and Paris Opera Ballet among others. Ezralow is a co-founder of ISO Dance and an original dancer/choreographer of MOMIX.