On February 3, 2017 wasteLAnd presented the second in a series of four concert appearances – titled 4:7 – by master violinist Mark Menzies. A long time presence on the Los Angeles new music scene, Menzies was in town on a visit from his native New Zealand and the four concerts also marked the violinist’s 47th birthday. The spacious downtown Art Share venue was filled to capacity despite a rainy Friday night on the local freeways. Three solo pieces were heard, by Ching-Wen Chao, wasteLAnd resident composer Erik Ulman and the Italian utopian Luigi Nono.
Elegy in Flight by Ching-Wen Chao was first, inspired by Buddhist sacred texts and the ‘wheel of life,’ as described in the program notes: “This piece starts with a statement of a 59-note set, which is derived from a 59-syllable mantra used in recitation for the dead. The set subsequently expands itself through the multiplication of its own intervals… This expansion/compression process is stated 6 times over the course of the piece with variations of speed and emphasis.” Elegy in Flight opened with a strong, declarative statement followed by a series of softer runs. Menzies is extremely adept at dynamic contrast and this added to the underlying sense of anxiety and building tension in the complex passages. A stretch of soft, sustained tones followed that changed the feeling to one of a quiet remoteness, only to change again with a series of rapid runs full of spikes and squeaks. In all of this Menzies was in full command of the intonation and expressiveness pouring out from his violin. Some lovely playing was heard in the lower registers while several short, stabbing phrases marked the finish. Elegy in Flight is a dynamic, evolving work that makes many demands on the soloist; all artfully met in this performance.
The world premiere of Lake, by Erik Ulman followed, and this solo viola piece was dedicated to Mark Menzies. Soft, sustained tones in a rich viola register filled the space, making for an elegant contrast to the preceding work. Lake has an introspective feel, nicely conveyed by the series of long tones that decrescendo to pianissimo. High-pitched phrases added a rhythmic movement that evokes a more alien feel, but this changed yet again to an active bubbling propelled by the pop of rapid of pizzicato notes. All of this was managed adroitly by Menzies, and as the final notes faded quietly away, sustained applause filled the room. Taking full advantage of the viola’s range and timbral possibilities, Lake is a worthy contribution to the solo repertoire.
After the intermission, La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura by Luigi Nono was performed by Mark Menzies along with Scott Worthington at the controls of the electronics. This piece was seemingly inspired by a stray piece of graffiti that Nono happened to see while visiting Toledo: “Traveler, there is no pathway, there is only traveling itself.” Accordingly, several music stands holding copies of the written score were scattered throughout the venue – on stage and in or around the audience – and Menzies traveled, as it were, from stand to stand during the performance. Speakers were also positioned in various places effectively filling the space with the recorded electronic accompaniment.
La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura began with Menzies at a music stand on stage, violin at the ready, while the speakers filled the room with the ambient sounds of what seemed to be string players warming up or tuning. There was a few odd words heard, then some thumps and squeaks before a strong upward glissando unleashed a series of complex runs that established an air of mystery and tension. Menzies then added short bursts of high, anxious notes and rapid passages that increased the ominous feel. The recorded sounds often came from single speakers in opposite corners of the space, and this added spatial perception to the overall experience. More rumbles and rattles came from the speakers as if large cases or cabinets were being moved. Menzies walked slowly and thoughtfully across the stage, settling at another music stand, and began playing a new set of quietly anxious tones along with the electronics.
The piece proceeded in this manner – the sounds from the recording continuing, full of riddles, while the soloist contributed variously fast phrases or slow, sustained tones. There was little form or structure evident – at times the sounds were fast and intense while at other times slower and softly atmospheric. The overall result was a remarkably good blend of electronics and live playing, with excellent fidelity from the speakers that perfectly matched the soloist. The dragging and thumping sounds in the recording were most convincing and the violin playing was controlled and precise throughout. Menzies made his way around to the various music stands at certain defined points in the score, but not in any preset pattern. There was a microphone at the final music stand and the piece concluded with a strong, steady violin pitch that persisted for a moment, then faded away as Menzies slipped offstage. La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura is a journey unto itself, full of mystery and uncertainty, yet always inviting the listener to formulate context from multiple combinations of sonic clues.
WasteLAnd continues to impress audiences with a program of new music, most of it from LA-based composers. Each performer has their respective claim to fame in LA and is closely associated with wasteLAnd, and each composer is a long-time favorite of wasteLAnd’s. New to the scene, however, is Allison Carter, a poet whose words found their way into Deyoe’s new piece. Her work made quite the stir among the audience members, and I have a feeling we will begin to hear her name more in the future.
Before I review the concert itself, I find something worth mentioning: the gender representation. It was an even split. In my day job, I currently have my students writing a paper on 19th century gender roles and women composers in the Romantic era, so this has been on my mind a lot. One hundred years ago, women could not vote in the United States, and it was nearly impossible to earn respect as a composer or performer. Nowadays, female representation in the music scene is gaining. It is not yet even, but progress is happening. WasteLAnd’s October concert featured six composers; three were women and two were men (Erik Ulman had two pieces, so the ratio of compositions is 3:3). There were seven performers (including Allison Carter reading aloud), and four were women. The best part was that I didn’t notice until afterwards. I have come to recognize that gender equality is already quite common in the LA new music scene. So much so that this is the first time I put it together. I looked back over some old programs I’ve reviewed, and every concert has women as composers, performers, directors or all three.
Ok. Feminist aside complete. Moving on, because there is so much good about this concert to discuss.
The night opened with Kaija Saariaho’s Folia, performed by Scott Worthington on double bass and electronics. Like many compositions from the end of the 20th century, this piece focuses on dynamics and timbre over pitch and harmony. Sometimes the bass whistles like an icy wind, other times it rumbles like an earthquake, putting palpable pressure on your ears. Scott saws out some kind of textural melody, phrases build and climax and fade – textural intensity carries the musical line. The electronic aspect augments and echoes the timbres. It overlays overtones, resulting in both a more ‘open’-sounding composition and greater complexity overall.
Next on the docket was the duet Tout Orgeuil… by Erik Ulman. Stephanie Aston and Elise Roy are always an amazing team, and their performance on this piece was no exception. It begins with a piccolo solo, and Roy gradually descended down the flute family to alto flute. Aston sang sleepily about pride smoking in the night. Given that the text is from a Stephan Mallarmé poem, my mind turned to Debussy. Ulman is no Impressionist, but I feel Debussy would have approved of the modern counterpoint and expressive extended techniques. The pitches bent down, down, down into sleep, and the flutes became larger and the words grew heavier. Erik captured the good sinking feeling, the kind you feel in a cozy armchair while drifting to sleep.
Third up was Matt Barbier on trombone and electronics performing puddles and crumbs by Katherine Young. For me, this piece created a very specific soundscape: I, the listener, am a koi in the pond on a rainy day and the daily miracle of food raining from heaven is happening. Three of the major elements that contribute to this soundscape are 1. Sharply sucking air through the trombone, 2. Sharp plosives into the mouthpiece that are amplified by the electronics, 3. Dynamic tempi. Matt’s deep breathing combined with the electronic influence reminded me of snorkeling, the plosive pops like rain on water’s surface when I swim underwater. These are instinctive memories, of course, and it may be a coincidence that they play so well together. Now you understand my watery theme. The push and pull of the tempo took me a while to incorporate into my soundscape idea. At first I thought it felt like seasickness, but I eventually concluded it was more like watching fish dart in a pond. They sprint only a few inches or feet, depending on the size of the fish, and then hesitate. The tempo seemed to do exactly that. And then it all became clear, that the soundscape was from the point of view of a koi in a pond in the rain during feeding time. I’m sure many will disagree, whether they had another idea or didn’t find it so blatantly programmatic at all; one of the wonders of music is how everyone experiences things differently. For what it’s worth, I did come up with a secondary interpretation that involves heavy breathing, plosive pops, and sprinting-and-stopping: Darth Vader playing basketball. So really it’s all relative. Regardless of the loftiness or pop art-iness of my personal experience, Barbier proved yet again that the trombone is more than just a brass instrument in a marching band. He played every color in the palette, and demonstrated rigorous control over his body and his instrument to perform such a demanding piece.
Fittingly the 100th piece wasteLAnd has programmed, Erik Ulman’s this until is a flute solo, and Elise Roy absolutely nailed it. I’ve said before that she has superhuman control of her instrument, and she proved it again with this piece. She made her flute sing, speak, howl, wail and whisper. Though a solo composition, I could sometimes here a ghost of counterpoint when she effected heavy harmonics. I honestly couldn’t say if that was Ulman’s intention or Roy’s execution, but every so often a particularly turgid note would quietly sound the octave or fourth below, creating a beautiful, haunting harmony. this until was the only solo acoustic musical composition of the night and it was right in the middle of the program; Elise managed to keep up the energy on her own, and carried us into the final pieces of the evening.
The program ends with a sort of binary piece. First, Allison Carter read her Poems from A Fixed, Formal Arrangement; Nicholas Deyoe used the text for his piece Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, a line from the poem. I can’t say I have ever attended another concert that had the poet read their work first before the musical product, and I wish this would become the norm everywhere. As a general rule, increased understanding leads to increased appreciation, so knowing the text ahead of time (and from the author herself, no less) helped Deyoe’s work succeed. The instrumentation sounded like speech slowed down by a factor of ten. The melodies felt like they wanted to resolve up to a tonic, but they kept bending downwards, defying expectations. One thing I love about Deyoe’s style is that it’s always interesting and it never fulfills your expectations. Once you think you have it figured out, he changes it again. This piece feels like your mind wandering and getting lost – when it’s 4am and you have to wake up in two hours but you’re caught up in the twilight zone that is four in the morning. Knowing composers, that is probably the mindset he was in while writing. Also, knowing composers, that is a hard composition to pull off. I commend Nicholas Deyoe for a well-constructed and evocative ensemble composition.
WasteLAnd concerts are on the first Friday of every month at ArtShare. Check out Weights and Measures on November 4.
Editor’s note: WasteLAnd is currently running their annual fundraiser. Take a minute to support them at https://squareup.com/store/wasteland/
Over the years I’ve spent running New Classic LA, I’ve heard time and time again the narrative that the torch of new music in Los Angeles is being passed down from our venerable old institutions like Monday Evening Concerts and the LA Phil’s Green Unbrella series to newer, more agile ensembles and series like wild Up and WasteLAnd. Old wisdom had it that the best way for a composer to get played in LA was to move to New York. I hope, with the massive triumph and all-inclusive nature of the LA Phil’s Noon to Midnight event on Saturday, these narratives can finally be put to rest. The torch isn’t being passed down, it’s being shared, and everyone is invited.
First, let’s talk scale. Disney Hall’s spaces were opened up to many of LA’s ensembles and series, and the 12 hour marathon, in which it was impossible to catch everything, featured the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, Piano Spheres, wild Up, gnarwhallaby, WasteLAnd, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Monday Evening Concerts, the USC Percussion Ensemble, The Industry, Jacaranda, Chris Kallmyer, Lucky Dragons, the LA Phil Bass Quintet, the LA Phil New Music Group, as well as a slew of food trucks and a small tasting area for a few beers from SolArc, a brewery that began life catering wild Up parties.
Programming was the spirit of inclusiveness itself, though with a somewhat surprising slant toward sounds and big works from the European, harder, avant-garde. Piano Spheres presented Messiaen’s complete, three-hour, Catalogue d’oiseaux in the garden’s Keck Amphitheatre, calling on pianists Vicky Ray, Susan Svrcek, Thomas Kotcheff, Aron Kallay, Steven Vanjauwaert, Nic Gerpe, Danny Holt, Mark Robson, Joanne Pearce Martin, Sarah Gibson, Richard Valitutto, and Nadia Shpachenko. The playing was top notch, as expected with a roster like that, and the sounds floating in from the garden and street actually served the piece well, putting Messiaen’s birds in a context where you might actually find a few of them.
Other euro-avant picks for the day included the USC Percussion Ensemble’s performance of Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique with a restoration of the original Léger film, and gnarwhallaby’s even-more-aggressive-than-usual delivery of Gorecki’s Muzyczja IV, a brief, crushing, aleatoric sort of trombone concerto that was the original impetus for the group’s formation. With the LA Phil’s penchant for Gorecki’s later, more accessible, work, hearing this punch in the face in Disney Hall was a serious treat, and a highlight of the day.
But let’s get to the new stuff. Wild Up has built a National Composers Intensive in partnership with the LA Phil, in which young composers get to write for the chamber orchestra on a fast deadline, with mentorship from established personalities in the field. Wild Up picked four works for their 1 pm show, from Tina Tallon, Thomas Kotcheff, Katherine Balch, and Ali Can Puskulcu. All showed off unique voices and impressive command of orchestration. Thomas Kotcheff’s gone/gone/gone beyond/gone beyond beyond was the highlight, a riotous, overtly physical, totally insane, “total excess in all things all the time” piece that only a band like wild Up could pull off. It was convincing, self indulgant, and I loved it. I was also unaware before hearing it that guitarist Chris Kallmyer could shred that hard.
Tina Tallon’s Sear, which delved into her life with tinnitus after rupturing an ear drum a couple years ago, was a wrenching and effective listen, and my favorite piece of hers yet. Bowed styrofoam and a power drill could have been gimmicky, as could the whole idea of basing a piece on high drones and sounds disappearing – but Tina handled them with aplomb. It’s a dangerous artistic line she chose to walk with Sear, and she nailed it.
Turning back to the heavier avant-garde, WasteLAnd’s set in BP Hall had the premiere of Nicholas Deyoe’s Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, with text by Allison Carter sung by soprano Stephanie Aston. This seemed to show a slightly simpler and more direct side of Deyoe’s writing, as his vocal music sometimes does – but I say seemed to because the bleed of crowd noise into BP Hall became a real problem for the chamber music sets as the day went on. I am sure Ashley Walters’ performance of Liza Lim’s Invisiblity was utterly stunning, and Erik Ulman’s Tout Orgueil… seemed delicate and thought provoking – but we’ll have to go to WasteLAnd’s repeat of the performance this Friday at Art Share to be sure.
Not at all affected by the crowd noise was the LA Percussion Quartet’s performance in the same space later in the day. Daniel Bjarnason and Ellen Reid presented pieces in line with their dominant aesthetics. This is by no means a bad thing – Bjarnason’s Qui Tollis had a few ideas about varying ostinati and loops from his piano concerto Processions and was similarly thrilling, and Reid’s Fear / Release was covered in decorative flourishes reminiscent of her rooftop scene from Hopscotch, a highlight of that massive opera. Jeffrey Holmes’ Ur, on the other hand, was a break through premiere. With the ensemble surrounding the audience, each musician surrounded by similar set ups of gongs, toms, bass drums, flower pots, and cymbals, we listeners were bathed in swirling cascades of sound, as players echoed each others gestures a few beats apart. I’m not sure that the piece would work as well without the spatialization – but with it, it was magic. Thankfully LAPQ tends to record in surround sound, so the effect won’t be lost when they get around to Ur.
Surprisingly, the evening Green Umbrella concert, with its more traditional format, felt significantly less interesting than the rest of the day. The music was perfectly good – Kate Soper’s The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract was wonderful, as was the composer/singer’s assured and entertaining delivery of the text, and Ingram Marshall’s Flow was lovely as expected – but sitting in the hall, being quiet between movements somehow felt like a comedown from the high of running around from show to show, seeing friends from across the new music spectrum enjoying all sorts of different things.
Wild Up’s 10 pm set changed that. Conductor/composer Christopher Rountree’s Word. Language. Honey., a violin concerto commissioned for Jennifer Koh who tore into it with abandon, was unequivocally the best thing Rountree has written yet. Days later, as I type this, I still get chills thinking about the unison bass drum hits decaying into the distance, and the frantic shredding of strings at the opening giving way to more lyrical passages throughout, and the clever use of text (the piece began with misdirection, as the band started playing while Rountree was seemingly introducing the program), his words coming back in recorded form later. I’ve always liked his music, but Word. Language. Honey. takes his composing from “assured, effective, solid, I like it” to stunning, unique, and powerful. It’s a piece not to be missed.
This review could easily continue for another thousand words. Andrew McIntosh’s Yelling Into The Wind was clever and effective, a sort of play on the whole concept of the virtuoso concerto, as pianist Richard Valitutto traded simple lines with individual soloists from the rest of the ensemble. The Industry’s installation, Nimbus, with music from Rand Steiger, clouds floating above the elevators, musicians and singers walking around (also reminiscent of the last scene of Hopscotch) was whimsical and fun and gave life to an unusually dead space in Disney Hall. Jacaranda’s performance of Steve Reich’s Eight Lines was solid – Donald Crockett’s conducting is impossibly clear, useful for minimalism – and the crickets in the literal spotlight of Chris Kallmyer’s Crickets sang their little cricket hearts out.
The support from a major institution like the LA Phil of all these smaller, grassroots organizations is a huge boon to the LA scene. The phil knows that they wouldn’t have an audience for new music without the work of all these other presenters, and despite the right-leaning shade of the phrase “a rising tide lifts all ships,” every new music group in town will benefit from days like these, whether they were on the program or not.
A day after the event, I saw an instagram post from Kallmyer, a photo of his crickets being released into the wild. They sang together in his little box. Maybe now they’ll go spread all over LA and keep singing, inspired by what they did when they were together. As for the zillion musicians and ensembles and composers that the LA Phil invited into their home on Saturday, I know they will. LA Phil, thanks for having us.
wasteLAnd opened their first Friday concert, U/L, at Art Share LA on September 2, 2016. For the coming season, wasteLAnd will perform there on the first Friday of the month. An overflow crowd turned out on the start of the long Labor Day weekend to hear the music of Todd Lerew and wasteLand featured composer Erik Ulman.
Reading the Dictionaries, by Todd Lerew, began the proceedings with Movement Q and Movement V. Five performers stood in a semicircle on stage, each holding a copy of a different dictionary. Given a starting signal, they began reading the entries from each dictionary in unison, starting with those for the letter Q. At first the words were identical and the slight differences in pronunciation made for ragged, but intelligible speech. Soon the words in each dictionary began to vary – as might be expected for several different editions – and the words became less understandable. Those listening focused their attention, but was soon possible to hear and comprehend only a single word at a time. Eventually the words differed to the point that what was perceived was not language but the overall shape of the sound. The Q words from each performer came in and out of synchronization, as it were, and your brain was constantly hopping back and forth between comprehending the words as speech or simply hearing the texture and colors of the sound. About three-quarters of the way through Q, one of the performers – Matt Barbier – simply ceased speaking as the abridged edition of the dictionary he was given apparently ran out of words. The others finished as each dictionary dictated, and soon just a single voice was heard finishing up.
Movement V proceeded in the same way, each of the words spoken simultaneously at intervals of about one second. The initial sound of a word beginning with V has a sharper attack, and this made for more dramatic intonation. The V words also seemed to have a greater variety of letters and lengths so that the arc of their soundings was richer in sonic detail. All of this worked to sharpen the listener’s hearing so that by the end of the piece the ear became sensitized to even minute variations. Several of the dictionaries contained long lists of vitamins – Vitamin A, Vitamin B, Vitamin C, etc – and when these were encountered there were invariably some giggles from the audience. Matt Barbier once again finished first and stoically awaited the conclusion of the piece some minutes later.
Reading the Dictionaries proved to be an insightful experience, transforming a seemingly dry recitation of words into an engaging exercise in perception, language and comprehension.
String Quartet No. 3, by Erik Ulman, followed, performed by the Formalist Quartet. Ulman is the featured composer for wasteLAnd and will contribute works throughout the current season. String Quartet No. 3 began with a series of high squeaks and chirps followed by an energetic burst of sound in all the parts. The phrases seemed to alternate between sustained tones in one part and a flurry of complex sounds by the others. There was an underlying feeling of tension in all of this, but there were also smoother and more placid stretches. Most of the activity seemed to be centered in the middle registers with the cello typically blending into the texture. Midway through, a series of high, syncopated pitches were followed by sustained tones creating a sort of ebb and flow to the rhythm that made for a good contrast with the more complex passages. Towards the finish a low growling tutti effectively escalated the sense of tension and suspense – this music has a mysterious feel, like walking in an alien landscape. String Quartet No. 3 constantly challenges the listener and performer with its intricate and independently moving lines. The Formalist Quartet delivered to their usual high standard, and the audience responded with strong applause.
After an intermission, Spherical Harmonics, by Todd Lerew, was performed by six singers and conducted by Matt Barbier. This began with a low unison humming tone that soon broke into various related harmonics. The singers then began whistling their tones while humming – something we have all idly done at one time or another – and this combination added a convincing perception of depth. The humming gradually diminished, leaving mostly whistling sounds turning the feeling somewhat desolate and a bit lonely. All of this was reminiscent of the Rhyolite sound installation in the Nevada desert where the sound of the wind blowing across dozens of old glass bottles was recorded by Chris Kallmyer and Andrew McIntosh. At times Matt Barbier could be seen striking a tuning fork and holding it close to his ear as he set the pitch for the other singers. The group repeated this sequence with different several tones before quietly finishing. Spherical Harmonics artfully mixes the simple acts of humming and whistling to fashion an intriguing amalgamation of harmonic possibilities.
The final piece on the program was Bowing to Pressure, also by Todd Lerew, and this was a solo piece for violin performed by Andrew Tholl. As the title suggests, Andrew applied the maximum amount of pressure as he began a vigorous bowing action across the violin strings. This produced an active, muscular set of tones that were reminiscent of the more primal country music pieces sometimes heard from historical archives. The pressure began to take a toll and strands of hair could be seen streaming from the bow. The tone coarsened, settling into a drone-like sound and the audience held its collective breath as if waiting for the violin bow, strings or bridge to self-destruct. Andrew Tholl powered on, the sounds becoming rougher and almost desperately violent. The forcefully crude intonation carried the audience into uncharted violin territory, completely removed from the delicacy and smoothness normally expected from this instrument. At the end, the bow was in tatters and Tholl was clearly fatigued by the effort. Bowing to Pressure might be a metaphor for the stress of contemporary life, but it is surely a vivid demonstration of the powerful feelings a violin can convey when pushed to its physical limit.
The next appearance of wasteLAnd will be at the Green Umbrella Noon to Midnight concert, Disney Hall, on October 1, 2016.
Performers for the this concert were:
Reading the Dictionaries:
Matt Barbier, Nicholas Deyoe, Brian Griffeath-Loeb, Todd Lerew, Élise Roy
String Quartet No. 3 – The Formalist Quartet:
Andrew Tholl, Mark Menzies, Andrew McIntosh, Ashley Walters
Nicholas Deyoe, Brian Griffeath-Loeb, Andrew McIntosh, Cody Putnam, Élise Roy
Matthew Barbier, conductor
Bowing to Pressure:
A question I hear often is “why should people go to concerts?” It can be expensive,* it takes time out of your busy evening,** and high fidelity recordings make it easy to pipe music directly to your own headphones.*** If you have ever asked this question, this review is for you.
*Big symphonies in big venues can be upwards of $100, especially famous orchestras on tour. Small ensembles in smaller venues, especially doing contemporary music, can be $5-$20, which is comparable to buying a CD.
**In light of a certain app that came out on July 6, I am inclined to believe anyone can be convinced to go outside if they have enough of a reward. Every concert is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For me, that’s a pretty good reward.
***Don’t get me started.
WasteLAnd is run by five SoCal-based composers (all of whom I have reviewed in some regard at some point in the past year). Alex Ross calls it “one of the country’s most far-sighted new-music series.” The music is performed mostly by LA-based performers, but also brings in internationally renowned players and composers. WasteLAnd programs 21st century music, generally for soloists or small ensembles. This is the first show of their fourth season, featuring internationally acclaimed Icelandic flutist Berglind Tómasdóttir.
Berglind Tómasdóttir is a flutist and interdisciplinary artist living in Reykjavik, Iceland, and has ties to the SoCal music scene through her time achieving a DMA from UCSD and working with LA- and SD-based composers. She is now an associate professor in contemporary music performance at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, and her music has been featured in festivals and conventions across the northern hemisphere. Her performance for WasteLAnd featured her own recent flute pieces, played with minimal break so they blend into one hour-long piece.
After taking my seat, I noticed an array of flutes on a table. The lights dimmed. Berglind picked up the headjoint of a bass flute, and began to whisper. Behind her shone a projection of a camera inside a flute. Or maybe it was an esophagus. Or rain, incredibly close up. It was impossible to make out the shapes on the screen, just as it was difficult to grasp the sounds coming out of Berglind. What Berglind made with the headjoint was not dulcet music, but rather a soundscape. She wheezed and sucked and whispered into the aperture. I keenly remember a moment when it sounded like animalistic slurping, right as the projector showed something that looked vaguely organic. It was a completely spell-binding moment, but was whisked away as Berglind relentlessly squeezed and squeaked. There was an electroacoustic element, and a ghostly amplified flute generated by processing Berglind’s original sound accompanied her like a duet partner. She eventually put the headjoint on the bass flute and had a wider range of notes. She didn’t need them; I would have been content to hear her headjoint-only timbral play for hours. But applying pitches added a new element to the music. She eventually picked up a C flute for the finale, the standard size with a higher register than the bass flute, and the opportunities increased yet again. Between the two flutes, a video played on the projector of her in a grassy field playing her C flute. She was attacking the music vigorously, jerking her head emphatically, but it was silent. It is a curious thing to watch music without sound. I could almost hear it. I could see what she was doing with her fingers and mouth, and having just watched and listened for half an hour, I had become attuned to her style. But even the wind was silent. When the video faded out, the real her faded back in on flute, and the audibility was startling.
All that would be an impressive performance by itself, but Berglind wasn’t out of tricks yet. It took me completely by surprise when I realized the echoes surrounding me were not just her amplified flute on the speakers, but flutes and voices coming from performers hiding in the shadows. I had never experienced anything like it before, and I am not sure if I ever will again. The precision of blending multiple flutes and voices, matching and blurring microtones and timbres like they did, was unreal. The realization came when they started to spread; they no longer matched, but they took on their own identities. Out of one came many, and in ways the listener wouldn’t expect. The performers landed together on a sweet chord and faded away. Now, you know a performance is amazing when people don’t want to clap and break the spell. The stunned silence is the best compliment to give a performer. Berglind took a timid bow and we finally broke out in applause.
This concert was not an album you can put in the background while reading the new Harry Potter book. This was an experience that only happened once. Nothing can ever replace the wonderment of being there enveloped by sounds from another reality. And that, dear readers, is why you should go to concerts.
The final wasteLAnd concert of 2015, Nocturnes and Lullabies, featured Richard Valitutto at the piano and was presented on Friday evening, December 11, 2015 at Los Angeles City College’s Clausen Hall in Hollywood. An enthusiastic crowd turned out on a chilly night to hear piano music by Wolfgang von Schweinitz, Bunita Marcus, Nicholas Deyoe, Timo Andres, Helmut Lachenmann, Salvatore Sciarrino, and Linda Caitlin Smith.
NCTRN (2014) by Nicholas Deyoe started things off, opening with a sharp rap followed by a sudden, crashing chord. The piece immediately turned quiet and a series of dense, atmospheric chords drifted up, creating a shimmering undercurrent of anxiety. This continued and soon a quiet rapping was heard, as realized by several prepared keys in the uppermost notes of the keyboard. The rapping became more insistent as the piece progressed, adding another level of tension that contrasted nicely with the dark chords coming from the lower registers. The persistent knocking became louder – like a ghost trapped in a closet – ceasing suddenly at the finish.
Notturno crudelo no. 1 (2000), by Salvatore Sciarrino was next with a march-like rhythm dominating, almost mechanical in its repetition and regularity. Complex passages consisting of rapid runs and skips intervened – less strident and at times even tentative – but the forceful marcato texture invariably returned. Valitutto managed all of this with high efficiency, effectively portraying the vivid contrast between the sections.
Three pieces were then played continuously: Wiegenmusik (1963) by Helmut Lachenmann, Lullaby (2000) by Bunita Marcus and Plainsound Lullaby (2014) by Wolfgang von Schweinitz. The Lachenmann piece felt restrained, full of quiet notes and short stretches of silence. Some sharp, rapid figures were heard in the upper registers at times, but the overall feel was remote, tentative and mysterious. Lullaby by Bunita Marcus had an altogether more settled sound and featured repeating phrases combined with conventional chords, producing a more introspective feel.
The von Schweinitz piece called for Valitutto to play from the keyboard while depressing the sustain pedal and reaching inside the piano to pluck several of the strings in the lower registers. This required an awkward posture, but the results were amazing. A series of bell-like tones – almost electronic in timbre – issued out from the piano in a pleasant sonority, complimenting a quiet melody of conventional notes. This combination was both unusual and engaging and Plainsound Lullaby received sustained applause from the audience at the conclusion.
After intermission Heavy Sleep (2013) by Timo Andres began with a singular series of deep, questioning chords that were answered similarly in the higher registers. As the piece continued it became, by turns, warm, reaffirming, settled and connected until it arrived at an expansively grand sound. At times, Heavy Sleep exhibited great power, like a piano concerto without an orchestra. The playing here was accurate and the changing dynamics were negotiated effectively.
The final two pieces of the concert, A Nocturne (1995) by Linda Caitlin Smith and Lullaby 2 by Nicholas Deyoe were performed continuously. A Nocturne started quietly and there were long stretches of silence between the phrases that let the notes ring out and slowly die away. Familiar chords followed, producing a questioning, introspective feel. The stillness and quiet of this work made for a good segue to the Deyoe piece, and this began with deep, solemn chords in the lowest registers of the keyboard. Answering chords followed with higher pitches and the low chord returned again with added mystery and power. The fine touch by Valitutto brought out the delicate contrast here.
The prepared keys again made an appearance in the form of a rhythmic knocking that held the attention of the listener. This knocking dominated as the piece progressed and the supporting chords built up a dreamy atmosphere that terminated in a series of roiling runs up and down the keyboard and a sharp thunder clap. At one point the keyboard cover was closed and a soft rapping sound was made upon it. A dreamy fragment of a romantic melody appeared, conjured up so quietly and mysteriously that it seemed to be coming out of the mist in the far distance. A sudden closing of the keyboard cover brought Lullaby 2 to a final, satisfactory finish.
Richard Valitutto brought his many talents to bear on the wide variety of contemporary pieces in Nocturnes and Lullabies, consistently delivering just the right blend of passion and artful technique.
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.
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.
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.
WasteLAnd’s third concert in their first summer series continued the theme of meditations on altered time, with a concert devoted entirely to Scott Worthington’s Space Administration. The piece is Worthington’s doctoral dissertation piece, an extended setting of Ken Hunt’s poem, Apollo Spacecraft. The venue was the Velaslavasay Panorama, a community cinema built in 1911 that’s gone through a number of incarnations before its current cozily dilapidated state. The piece shares a number of features with The Cartography of Time, but is most definitely a different beast.
Firstly, the piece includes a video which projects the text of the poem, and provides structure for the hour-long concert experience. The poem itself is an important player in the success of the piece, and deserves careful consideration. The text is taken from NASA’s voice transcription of the first day of the Apollo 11 moon mission, complete with timestamps. Hunt has erased words throughout, however, leaving a skeleton of fragmented phrases, combined and reconsidered through the poet’s lens to form a contemporary ode to Apollo and a meditation on space travel. The poem is quite strong, and even in the fewest phrases, the poet manages to convey convincing vulnerability, will, and longing. It’s to Worthington’s credit that he chose a strong poem to set. Often, poems that are worthy on their own merits can actually be difficult to set, as a powerful text has its own priorities. In this case, however, the absences in the text, as well as Worthington’s thoughtful pace in displaying them, provide enough room for the music’s own dialogue to flower. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:
The piece itself begins with a launch countdown in the video, which is effective in preparing the listener for the relentless march of timestamps that mark the piece. In the previous week’s The Cartography of Time, time stood still. Here, time is inexorably but weightlessly moving forward. Taken individually, the component parts are actually rather simple – samples have been recorded and processed from a Moog in use around the time of the Apollo mission, the green text fades quietly in and out of view, and the contrabass comments on the proceedings with a bank of recurring subjects and themes that bring to mind the frankness and inevitability of a rondo or ritornello. These rudimentary elements combine, however, to create something that does not just hold a listener’s interest, it feels substantial.
What really holds the piece together are the various conceptual tensions throughout. Many of the materials are traditional – recurring themes and motifs that arise with the introduction of key words or ideas, an ode to an ancient god, but these elements are unmoored, floating in a vast space. The poem purports to be about space travel, but there is so much in the imagery that is earthbound, quotidian. There are conflicts in the text between the known that is clung to, and the unknown, which is wholly undifferentiated. There is even a tension between Apollo’s realm – that of ordered music and light, and the occasionally malicious Moog context in which the piece takes place.
When Apollo actually does makes an appearance in the text, he is all of a sudden present. Worthington does an excellent job here at conjuring the sense of an ode in these moments, with variations and intensifications of musical material. We are all trying to communicate with the gods.
The form of the piece is actually somewhat difficult to follow. The form does change, and there are lighter and heavier moments, but transitions feel so inevitable that it’s hard to even keep track of the many locations we’re visiting. This can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on the intent of the composer. In this case, being without a goal is quite effective.
Most importantly, the overall effect is not really galactic so much as subjective. We are weightless, but are we really in outer space? The text is so powerful and the setting so passive that the listener’s reflections collapse in on themselves. This is hardly an outward looking conquest of the final frontier. We are definitely looking inward, and upward, with an ancient desire for the heavens.
EDITOR’S NOTE: an interview with Scott Worthington, whose album Prism will be out next week on Populist Records, is on the way too.
The inaugural summer series of WasteLAnd is an exciting addition to the innovative concert series – over the span of eight days, four concerts explore facets of WasteLAnd’s aesthetic. Summer casts a more languid hue on concert-going, and WasteLAnd’s thoughtful programming, and aptly named Waste(d)LAnd limited edition beer, seem to take advantage of this seasonal atmosphere.
On Saturday, July 25th, WasteLAnd teamed with the forces of Gnarwhallaby at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena for the second of these summer performances. The Neighborhood Church has been home to a number of Gnarwhallaby concerts, and it was a refreshing surprise to find that the space had been transformed by the arrangement of the ensemble in the middle of the sanctuary, seats and speakers closely surrounding them, all lit by paper lamps and music stand lights. This subdued atmosphere had a noticeable effect on the experience of these pieces. Visual aspects are often distracting when trying to focus on sound worlds of great detail, and this staging facilitated an un-self-conscious concentration, which is lacking in many audience environments.
The first two pieces, DSCH by Edison Denisov and avance|impulsions mechaniques by Adriana Hölszky, are part of Gnarwhallaby’s standard repertoire, and were executed with characteristic familiarity and care. The pieces were both lovely in their jaggedly taut way, with surprisingly similar languages although separated by a number of decades (1969 to 1997). Both pieces use a vocabulary of ‘classic’ extended techniques, post-tonal, rhetorical gestures, and an abstracted sense of form, but explore different concerns. DSCH is form-driven, with clear demarcations of gesture and response, complex interaction and moments of reflection, while the Hölszky is more unified in its brutality and trajectory, building and exploring a singular kind of momentum with 90’s additive intensity. The experience of these pieces was also made different by the unique arrangement of the ensemble. Contrapuntal sections were clearer and more obviously social, rhythmic interactions more defined and intimate.
The focus of the night, however, was the premiere by composer David Brynjar Franzson, The Cartography of Time, commissioned specifically for Gnarwhallaby.
The commission has been a long time coming. Gnarwhallaby has been in consultation with Franzson since 2012, when the group first heard a piece by the composer at The Industry’s First Take concert. The quartet agreed that Franzson’s piece was their favorite of the evening, and began corresponding with him about writing for the group. In 2013, Franzson came to see the ensemble in New York, as well as in Iceland in 2014. The length of this association is evident in the extraordinarily subtle treatment of the ensemble.
The Cartography of Time begins imperceptibly, with electronic clicks and percussive effects in surrounding speakers gently immersing the audience in the three-dimensional world that is to unfold. Gradually, the ensemble enters with extended, strained tones built from an expertly orchestrated vocabulary of harmonics, multiphonics, and subtly colored intonation. A look at the score shows that the entire piece is organized with exact metrical shifts, and a tempo click heard in a headphone by the cellist who cues the ensemble, but this structural underpinning is completely hidden. Ensemble tones and percussive gestures combine seamlessly with the audio track, building and waning in dynamics from indiscernible to a mezzo-forte at the loudest.
The composite effect is mesmerizing and convincingly organic. Something is definitely living and breathing – if not a human being, then the landscape itself swells. The bass clarinet seems to lead in many areas, even if this is unintended, as its versatility allows for a range of expression that naturally contrasts with the other parts. From impossibly strained high tones, blending with the electronics, to low growls and multiphonics at the bottom of the range, the bass clarinet provides a frame and impetus for the rest of the ensemble. Muted trombone swells are insistent, but self-possessed. The piano is used economically, in a percussive manner. Franzson carefully chooses to forgo the enormous gestural capabilities of the piano. No cliché registral leaps are in evidence here: sharp attacks on single tones with subsequent ringing or damped harmonics fit beautifully into the texture. Cello tones are somehow simultaneously woody and glassy and blend imperceptibly with the electronics. Gnarwhallaby is at its best here; the execution was precise, integrated, and beautiful.
Rather than building from this texture or jostling the listener in another direction, however, Franzson remains in this temporality for the entirety of the thirty-or-so minute piece. Where other composers may have easily been tempted to exploit the materials here, quickening the pace, or exploring all electronic possibilities, Franzson’s approach is more receptive, and decisively so. The remarkable restraint here is by far the strongest feature of the piece; by focusing on a single experience of temporality, Franzson truly creates an altered sense of time, rather than simply the idea of one.
Many works of this scale and intent miss this crucial distinction. When a sense of immersive, suspended time is attempted, audiences are too often left adrift. A composer can easily disregard the natural ebb and flow of attention, demands on the listener are too great for the aesthetic reward, or the suspension of expectations in a piece breaks down, forcing attention elsewhere.
Here, Franzson has displayed the true craft of the composer – informed attenuation of the audience’s attention. The organicism and looseness of the landscape allows for real fluctuations of audience attention and perception, without dogmatic demands or meretricious ploys for listener interest. A glance around the room showed evidence of this skill: the energy in the room had dropped, people’s breathing had slowed, many had eyes closed and almost all wore contemplative expressions.
Rather than a first effort, Cartography is obviously the work of a composer experienced in creating this particular experience of time. Ironically, the title The Cartography of Time seems a bit misleading – cartography is the detailed cataloguing of uncharted territory, but in this piece, we have already arrived. We know exactly where we are, planted firmly in a single temporality in which gray, smoky landscapes seem to come in and out of focus, approach and recede around us. The world we inhabit is not the two-dimensional world evoked by maps, however allegorically intended, but a very real and vibrant three-dimensional world, crafted by an extraordinarily capable composer.