When I started New ClassicLA, Ben Phelps wrote to me almost immediately. Aside from being very complimentary, he told me how excited he was about LA finally forming a proper new music scene, with ensembles like What’s Next? and others performing in clubs and alternative spaces far outside of Disney Hall. Ben has played all over town, from gigs as a percussionist at Disney Hall to a principal position with the American Youth Symphony. The music he’s been writing has been getting him a lot of attention throughout Southern California and beyond.
This Wednesday, What’s Next? Ensemble (of which Ben is a founding member) premieres his new work Six Ways to Be Alone at Royal/T in Culver City. After watching him nearly impersonate an octopus with the percussion parts at their last concert, I wouldn’t want to miss it. Plus they have good beer and cupcakes.
At What’s Next? Ensemble’s concert a few weeks ago, I overheard you talking to a composer about writing for marimba. You said something along the lines of “we need more real composers interested in writing for percussion. Mostly it’s percussionists trying their hand at writing something.” You, however, are both a percussionist and a composer. Tell me about how your two practices influence each other, and whether you have trouble balancing them or making sure you’re in top shape for both.
Talk with me about Six Ways to Be Alone, the piece you’ll be premiering. What was its genesis? What are you trying to do with the piece?
Not having heard it yet, the title implies a very personal meaning. How do you feel about putting yourself into your music? Do you want to represent your own emotions and worldview and such, or let the music take on a character independent of yourself?
With the previous questions in mind, do you prefer to explain and discuss your work with audiences, or let your music speak for itself? I ask because of the minimal (and quite eye-catching) program notes that What’s Next? used at their last concert, and because it seems like there are artistic and experiential implications when you discuss a work before listeners hear it.
Since you’re both composer and performer, and a very virtuosic and capable one at that, I’d like to know your feelings on the performer-composer relationship, and the role of individual virtuosity these days.
What else is on the horizon for you?
As always, since we are in fact promoting LA as place for people to come for music and beyond, what is your favorite:
2. Place to hear music
Hmm. Wherever it’s good? I guess I’m seen most at Disney concert hall, and the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo.
Well, I’ll give a plug to Malibu Seafood, in Malibu obviously.
4. Bar/hang out
I liked Wurstkuche before it was cool. My new favorite is BeerBelly, little Tokyo. Apparently they have lucky charms pancakes. I haven’t had those.
I’ve never considered having a favorite store.
6. Thing to do/see
Continuing our trend of having an insanely packed new music November here in Los Angeles, What’s Next? Ensemble kick off their season next Wednesday, November 23, at Royal/T Cafe in Culver City. Amid preparations for the season, which features a mix of music by local heroes like Don Crockett and Ben Phelps and heavyweights like Andriessen and Takemitsu, Artistic Director Vimbayi Kaziboni managed time for an interview. We did this via email, and his most recent message opened with the phrase “Please kindly forgive my embarrassing tardiness.” With the season you’re working on and the music you’re preparing, please consider it well forgiven, sir.
Please introduce us to What’s Next? Ensemble.
What’s Next? Ensemble is a group of dedicated musicians based in Los Angeles and devoted to championing the music of our time.
How did you get started?
I met my dear friend and colleague Jack Stulz who is a violist and serves as the group’s executive director in our freshman year as undergrads at USC in Morten Lauridsen’s freshman music theory class. It was at some point in that year that we discovered we shared a passion for “contemporary classical music”. We got hyper-animated at the utterance of Cage or Reich in a conversation. We fantasized about starting an ensemble (or ‘band’ as we called it then) and putting on epic new music concerts that music enthusiasts from all over town would make a pilgrimage to every time we had a performance. We were just dreamers then. Young and naive 18 year olds.
Our first concert didn’t happen until 2 years later in March of 2008. We rallied a few musician friends and put on an outdoor evening concert at a pool outside one of the dormitories at USC. The program was the simplest we have ever done: Steve Reich’s ‘Music for Pieces of Wood’ and Phillip Glass’ ‘String Quartet no. 3 (Mishima)’. Even up to this day I think that performance was perhaps the best concert we have ever had. So many people came, (mostly students), sitting in the moonlight, some lounging in the pool, some sitting on the grass and on loan chairs, and plenty more people standing on their apartment balconies above us. What a crowd! Our first concert, our first success. I’ve always wondered, however, if our success that evening wasn’t entirely from the free pizza that was being offered at the event. You know college kids – they’ll show up to any event were there is free food!
Anyway, after many more such guerilla performances on campus and around town in the summer of 2008 we eventually came up with what has become our highest profile signature series, and has propelled us into the world of serious and professional music presentations: the Los Angeles Composers Project (LACP). The LACP is a comprehensive retrospective of music by LA composers featuring the music of both veteran talent and up and coming talent, every summer. It’s usually a series of three concerts that take place within the span of two weeks. Last summer we were at the Royal-T gallery where we are calling home this year.
Royal/T could be considered an “alternative venue” when it comes to classical music. How do you think that affects your audience? Do you find a lot of people who haven’t heard this stuff before get exposed, or is it more like the traditional audience just migrates to the different venue?
It’s certainly both. The traditional audience has loyally and faithfully migrated with us. (Thankfully!) Since performing at the Royal-T last summer we have found that the demographic of our audience has definitely diversified. Now there are visual art lovers who on a different day might have come to see the art at the Royal-T gallery, customers who usually come and eat at the Royal-T café, and even jazz lovers who would have heard about us through the Jazz concert series at Royal-T. We are constantly meeting people who are brand new to us and also new to the music they have come to experience at our shows.
What’s your approach to programming concerts?
Well, if there is sound and we like it, we do it. There is no telling what we will do and we have no limits. However, within such a broad scope there are some fundamental principles that are easily detectable and ever-present in our programs. Performing the works of local composers who are established in our community is very important to us and possibly the most distinct element that has given WNE their voice in this city. Last season we performed the music of William Kraft, Morten Lauridsen, Lalo Schifrin and Don Davis among many others and on the upcoming concert on November 23rd we will be performing the West Coast premiere of a wonderful new work for viola and ensemble by Donald Crockett.
Alongside such seasoned veterans and giants it is very important to us to champion the works of our peers – young, up and coming composers. On the two concerts this fall we will be performing the works of numerous young, talented composers including Sean Friar, Wojtek Blecharz, Laura Kramer and Ben Phelps all of whom are wonderful and very talented up and coming composers and each of whom has a very distinct and independent compositional voice.
Music of the contemporary avant-garde from all over the world and beyond the Western paradigm also interests us very much. In our spring season series we are planning on performing music from the Phillipines, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Venezuela. This allows us to give our audiences a taste of what is happening elsewhere in the world and gives our local community a perspective on how we and our art correlate globally with the world at-large.
And finally, the core repertoire of the 20th and 21st centuries’ avant-garde is of course a staple for groups dedicated to new music. It certainly is for us as well. So, be it music by young and seasoned talent, from near and far away, from today and from yesteryear – you will inevitably find all of these elements as a common thread in all of the programs that we perform.
What’s your take on the scene in LA?
I believe that the LA new music scene is certainly thriving. But we can certainly do plenty more. There is not enough of a cohesive community not only in music but in art in general. Granted, it is perhaps because of the large expanse of this city. In either case, we can definitely do more with what we have. There is not enough sustenance and championing of local talent and there is not enough support and collaboration among the individual groups in town. That’s one of the gaping holes that my band is trying to fill. Let’s embrace our peers and colleagues here in town and really display them to the world instead of jumping onto the band wagon and being mere champions of the art/music that is already trendy and popular everywhere else. We can do much more to support each other and to build a real cohesive community. I believe that such entities like your blog Nick are a good starting point. Thank you for that. We need more people like you to help build and unify the art/music community. [Hey thanks!] We are too isolated from each other and we alienate ourselves too much from local culture. We really need to integrate ourselves and really offer our artistic product as something that is very relevant and integral to our local culture and not a mere supplement to what’s going on at say the Disney Hall or the Music Center. I truly believe that there is hope.
And, following the theme of that question, what is your favorite:
Highland Park-Eagle Rock area
2. Place to hear music
Anywhere. It especially depends on the music.
Thai Eagle Rox in Eagle Rock. I’m there every Monday for lunch with a friend.
4. Bar/hang out
When I have time I find myself at The York in Highland Park.
I’ve been finding myself at the auto body/parts shop too frequently lately… I wouldn’t call it my favorite though.
6. Thing to do/see
Besides music?? Gosh. This rarely happens these days but I suppose it would be alone in thought at Point Dune Beach on a warm evening. The stars bright, the moon white, the glorious tide…
Finally, what’s something you’d like to be asked, and how would you answer it?
People are always asking me about the name of our ensemble and I am always obliged to answer. Besides the obvious allusion to the fact that we are a new music ensemble there is a more profound one to a work by Elliot Carter. Elliot Carter is now what? About 103 years old now? In his very long career spanning well over 80 years he has only managed to write one opera: a chamber opera entitled What Next? written in 1997, when he was already about 90 years old. In the scenario of the opera there has been a car accident of some kind, involving six victims, five adults and a child. They emerge from the wreck unhurt but utterly dazed. They are all unable to remember what happened, who they are, how they are related, where they were going when the accident occurred, or how they came to be in the same place at the same time. One character, a diva, vocalizes and treats the others as admiring fans; one, a would-be seer, dispenses cryptic aphorisms; one cracks absurd jokes; one, an astronomer, is fixated on the stars; and one, evidently a mother, tries to bring order to the situation. The kid, on the other hand, is preoccupied with a more pressing matter: his empty stomach.
This, I believe is the ultimate allegory to the state of music today. The mission of my colleagues and I in What’s Next? Ensemble is to attempt to answer these metaphorical questions as they pertain to art and music and our own lives. And if we fall short, at least shed light to these questions and ask a few of our own. And in the process satisfy our empty stomachs and those of our faithful patrons with wonderful music!
Check out What’s Next? Ensemble’s upcoming season at whatsnextensemble.com.