Posts Tagged ‘Stephanie Aston’

Review: wasteLAnd’s “Tout Orgeuil” at ArtShare LA

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 ArrangementNicholas 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/

MicroFest: Accordant Commons @ Automata

Now in its twentieth year of celebrating microtonality and non-standard tunings, MicroFest takes place sprinkled throughout Los Angeles over the course of multiple weekends. The fourth of seven concerts featured LA-based Accordant Commons, a contemporary vocal chamber music group dedicated to performance and collaboration founded by Stephanie Aston and Argenta Walther, joined by Marja Liisa Kay and Tany Ling for a concert featuring four composers, five pieces, and a heck of a lot more than just twelve notes.

Squeezing into the teeny venue tucked into the Chung King Court in Chinatown, the concertgoers immediately saw that the wall wa covered with pieces of sheet music. Lo and behold, it’s two of the works about to be performed, and they showcase two hugely different approaches to achieving and notating microtonal music. There’s the traditional notation + method, or the graphic score. It’s up to the composer to decide how best to communicate their artistic ideas. If you haven’t seen a graphic score before, just look it up in google images for top notch examples. That’s what new music musicians often deal with, including Accordant Commons.

The show opened with Three in, ad abundantiam by American composer Evan Johnson, for a trio of singers. The music was exquisitely gentle, reminiscent of hearing a church choir practicing from the next hill over while the wind snatches the sound away sporadically. A sustained note grounded the other two voices like a tonal gravity, but the other voices never quite managed to meet it, instead dancing around on either side of it, fitting the fragments of text from Petrarch: “Alone and pensive…my life, which is hidden from others…with me, and me with it.” Johnson never jars the listener, but instead makes the notes rub up against your ears like an overly friendly cat with overly long claws. The threads of music mingle to create brief islands of tonality in the ocean of microtonal possibility.

The second piece was less singing and more vocalizing and other bodily sounds (don’t get too excited, I just mean claps and snaps), plus kazoos and slide whistles. Stanford-based Leah Reid’s Single Fish is an aphoristic composition for three sopranos and hand percussion, in which the phonemes from Gertrude Stein’s eponymous poem are repeated, segmented, shuffled and turned upside down to explore timbre more so than pitch. In this piece, there is no single fish or timbre, but a whole school of them, weaving in and out of each other, shimmering and fluctuating, in a great celebration of the sounds three humans can make together.

Nomi Epstein is a Chicago-based composer and professor, and her song Four Voices features microtonal glissandi in a notation she has been developing for several years which resembles a graph that allows pitch to freely but measuredly move about the pitch space. The four voices move in pairs and sometimes meet together. The form of the piece is dictated by the combinations of singers at a given time. Not unlike Johnson’s first piece on the program, the vocal lines are spotty, like steam venting from cracks in the earth to resist a great eruption. The conductor moves the voices forward with stop and go motions, a musical game of red-light-green-light, and thus the motion atemporal as time has nothing to do with the timing. By the end, all four singers sounded like ghosts, whispering and coughing and holding low moans that rose and fell by a barely perceptible dozen cents (~1/8 of a pitch) at a time, microscopically shifting the tonality. They all ended together on a downward lilt, reaching for heaven and missing only to land back on earth.

The fourth piece brought us back to Evan Johnson, this time for A general interrupter of ongoing activity. The name does not lie. It began with the sound one makes when holding back a laugh, and then progressed into air leaking from a tire, evolving into purrs, clicks, chirps and slurps. Like Reid, she explores the human airways on a timbral odyssey, but unlike Reid she does not use the vocal chords as much. In the middle I was struck by how much it started to remind me of trips to the dentist, and occasionally of radio static. I had no idea a single person could make such convincing and provoking sounds, and I applaud Johnson for this compelling journey.

Fifth and finally, Space-time by LA-based Daniel Corral and commissioned by Accordant Commons was a rollicking jam of minimalist grooves a la Philip Glass. It was accompanied by recorded drums and marimbas and the text from +|’me’S-pace by Christine Wertheim, projected on the wall behind the singers. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Wertheim during the concert (and of borrowing her pen), and she is exactly the kind of darkly draped, elegant woman you would expect to write a poetic exploration of space time. The mood set for meditation and rhythmic swaying and shifting, the singers clapped and recited and sang and slurred and whooped. The words philosophize about reading and comprehending, and shift tiny elements to change entire meanings, like changing “time” to “+ime,” and shifting that to “ta ta ta ta ta ta I’m me,” atomizing the language and investigating the relationships of its components. The music plays along, going upside down and backwards when necessary, and implements La Monte Young’s Well Tuned Piano tuning system. The result reframes consonance and dissonance, making the audience rethink on the fly what they think is pleasant and what clashes. What is usually instinctive to our ears here required conscious thought, fitting the space journey of +|’me’S-pace. The beat was constant but the meter shifts, making the steady time feel like it was swaying in the wind. Between the sonority and the flux of time, it is all the listener can do to hang on and enjoy the ride. The recapitulation at the end brings the roller coaster to a conclusion and returns the audience back to reality, whatever that may be.

The concert was a triumph for Accordant Commons and for the future of microtonality and non-standard tuning. LA is one of the best places to find new techniques and new music, and MicroFest is the concert series to explore rarer tonalities in gamelans, pianos, and more. Three concerts remain in the 2016 series. The next is Saturday, May 14th at Boston Court in Pasadena, featuring The Isaura String Quartet. Need some more of Accordant Commons’ exquisite singing in your life? Check their website for concert dates and recordings: accordantcommons.com.

Review: WasteLAnd’s Future of Terror

There’s something fitting about the fact there was a zoetrope of the Artic Circle upstairs above the stage during the performance. When the show is called the future of terror, the ensemble is named wasteLAnd, and there’s a stag head mounted on the wall staring at you the entire time, you know it’s going to be bleak and beautiful.

My initial thought on Emergence by Elise Roy for flute and soprano saxophone was, “I need this for my alarm clock!” Beginning literally and figuratively like a train pulling out of a station, Emergence features multiphonics, key clicks, vocal fry and hiccups from the flutist. There was even a section of vocal fry duet between Elise on flute and Elise on the recorded tape. Both the flutist and saxophonist exhibited more and more extended techniques over the course of the piece, seeming to emerge from their shells as mere instruments and becoming something more. Given the title, I constantly wondered what was emerging; sometimes it sounded like an egg hatching, and other times like a rift in time and space (I watch too much Dr. Who), and anything in between. The ending on a sustained vocal fry, no diminuendo or crescendo, left the piece feeling deliciously incomplete.

Multiplicities for solo flute by Jason Eckardt bounces off the walls like a game of registral tag. This piece sounded like an argument between different personalities, perhaps between a shoulder angel and shoulder devil. Or Smeagol and Gollum. After the last note fades out, there is one final tiny “I told you so” that made me laugh out loud. The sheer amount of energy and technique Elise put into this solo is superhuman. She exhibits superhuman control and stamina over every note, gliss, click and hum, and it was utterly spellbinding.

elise roy stephanie aston

Elise Roy and Stephanie Aston premiere Kurt Isaacson’s “The Future of Terror”

I idly wondered who miscalculated that the concert would be almost two hours long, because I estimated the first two pieces to be approximately ten minutes each. Never underestimate the future of terror. Kurt Isaacson weaves a desolate wasteland with piccolo (and then flute), simple percussion, and soprano Stephanie Aston singing words by Matthea Harvey. The music of the piece lies not in the spoken words alone, or in fact in any one sound, but in the electronic artifacts on tape, the phonemes of the poem, the tapping of the snare like heartbeats or rainfall, and the whispering and tweeting of the piccolo. It seems to transcend melody and harmony, and only the rhythm and the sounds in each moment matter. It’s a tapestry of children’s chants, white noise and growling snare drum, screech owl imitation by piccolo, and thought-provoking lyrics. Almost a solid hour in length, the music was exhausting even for the audience. It never let up. The intensity of the sounds and intricate detail in motifs never allowed the mind to wander. We the audience existed on the Twilight Zone line between watching and participating, and the end felt like waking from a dream only to realize we had been awake all along.

Review: WasteLAnd Summer Concert Series Finale

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.

How Stephanie Aston learns music by Ferneyhough

On February 27, WasteLAnd presents a concert titled Terrain at ArtShare. It’s a heavy-duty program of music by Brian Ferneyhough, Elizabeth Lutyens, and Brian Griffeath-Loeb, featuring Mark Menzies as violin soloist on Ferneyhough’s Terrain (see concert title) and soprano Stephanie Aston singing Etudes Transcendantales. I was lucky to be invited to a rehearsal, and the ensemble (which also includes Rachel Beetz, Ashley Walters, Richard Valitutto, and Paul Sherman, conducted by Nick Deyoe), let me film a few snippets of them preparing.

Nick had an extra copy of the score for me. If you’ve never seen Ferneyhough’s music, well, here’s a photo I took:

One measure of Ferneyhough's Etudes Transcendentales

One measure of Ferneyhough’s Etudes Transcendentales

The whole score – all of his scores, really – is similarly difficult. I asked Stephanie how she approaches music like this (in this case, the measure above) and her answer was enlightening:

Here’s a copy of the same section, this time with Stephanie’s markings:

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And now the part you’ve all been waiting for, this excerpt with the ensemble. The measure in question hits at 0:06:

Want to hear to the rest? Come to the concert at ArtShare on February 27. Details are available at wastelandmusic.org/concert-archive/february-27-2015.