Art should make you feel something. Be it the discomfort of eye contact, mirth at the absurdity of a bitterly happy man (nope, not a typo), or literal vibrations in your skeleton, the winning pieces of the 2015 American Composers Forum National Composition Contest dealt it all through wild Up. The concert began with When Eyes Meet by Nina C. Young, a variably atonal work narrating the palpable awkwardness of eye contact with a stranger. Segments of pointillism and others of smooth lyricism portray sneaking glances and the development of silent rapport, cut short audibly by one party guiltily turning away. In short, an aural captivation of “the struggle is real.” Next up was The Man Who Hated Everything by Alex Temple. The title alone speaks volumes on what this tribute to Frank Zappa contains. It’s a witty collage of quotations barreling through a train of thought that could exist equally in Zappa or Temple’s heads, and spills out in jazz improvisation and big band bellows and words spoken by the performers assuming characters almost but not quite themselves. The performers have entirely too much fun, and it afflicts the audience delightfully, and laughter mingles with the applause. The third and final piece is Chiaroscuro by William Gardiner. Beginning with two notes in the middle range of a vibraphone, the sound seems to come physically forward from the stage into your body as the sound is transformed into sound waves with subharmonics. The other instruments play high and light over the thick, visceral vibrations, and though there is a rhythm in the high end only the harmonic rhythm in the bass is truly observed. Each chord moved a different part of myself; first my feet, then my knees, and then my chest and finally my face. Have you ever had your sinuses stuffed from the LA haze, and then inexplicably and gently stirred by pure bass notes? It is a strange thing to claim, and an even stranger thing to experience. It was emotional without emotions, and utterly spellbinding. I wanted to hear it at least a dozen times more over the course of the night.
My wish was partly granted. After the three pieces were presented in this order, the composers came down and answered a few questions with Chris Rountree, the conductor of wild Up. As a former Seattlite who has only lived in California for a year, I am still pleasantly surprised that the whole creative process seems present in the end product; the composers and artistic directors are always at the shows and still involved. This seems, forgive my poeticism, to give the art the loving support it needs to be a real triumph, not just one more modern, off-the-wall sound coming out of crazy ol’ LA.
But, it just wouldn’t be LA without being a little off the wall. After the chat with the composers and intermission, the second half of the concert was the same set, just in a different order. The best part of this experiment was that I could move seats, and thus experience the pieces from a different perspective. Also, about half the audience departed, leaving only those who seriously love their modern music. To be fair, usually after finishing a meal you don’t jump right into eating the same meal again. But this wasn’t a meal; it was more like finishing a good book and wanting to read the whole thing again. The energy was different and the room felt smaller, but there was more rapport between all the audience members. So we heard William’s piece again, and from my new vantage point I could feel the vibrations move me in different places than before, and I could imagine seeing the floor in rings of emanating pulses, which had not occurred to me before. I heard more themes and patterns in Nina’s work, and I wished I could have followed along in the score but I was mollified by this second listen through. Alex’s piece was also enhanced by the fact I could finally see the pianist’s and reed player’s faces and better hear their words. The cellist and flutist hammed it up at the very end, and the audience, as small as we were, ate it up. The second round was a stroke of genius. The stress and reverence of the big, bad world premiere was over and we were graced with the best encore we could hope for: something exactly the same but different. And it felt great.