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A love letter to winter in LA

As the guy who runs the concert calendar website, I’ve been in a unique position to both hear a lot of musicians and help them connect with each other. Helping deserving music get heard has always been a passion for me, so I’m starting up a series of essays that I’m calling Notes Under The Underground. I hope to capture the essence and the energy of this LA scene that is thriving yet rarely reported on, and to show the deep connections between superficially disparate segments of it. In short, I’d like to make the Los Angeles I live in, the one where musicians and listeners are open minded, free spirited, hard working, friendly and supportive of each other, and ready and willing to take risks, one that anyone reading this can find and enjoy for themselves. You can check out all of the essays in this series at newclassic.la/notes-under-the-underground.

Winter in Los Angeles this year has been a dreary couple of months of oil-slick streets from first rains causing more traffic than usual, wildfires destroying homes, a mass shooting (maybe two or three?), shabby-chic holiday parties with friends you rarely see, austerity measures in personal finance to recover from travel season, and staying home to catch up on Oscar contenders and year-end best-of lists, sometimes punctuated by the sunny days we use to justify via Instagram what we pay for housing. Against this grey backdrop it’s easy to imagine musical life burrowing underground for warmth like so many Seattle indie bands in basements, making plans for spring.

That’s not Los Angeles, though, or at least it’s not my Los Angeles. Politics in America being what they are, the artists and institutions here seem to take the dour weather—both figuratively and literally—as a chance to say “let’s show everyone else how this is done,” like an art-making version of the way California handles environmental regulations. Through this winter many groups in town, from the established and well funded (the LA Phil, The Industry, wild Up) to the scrappy pick up bands playing in warehouses and lofts where all the musicians take home $7, free beer, and artistic fulfillment, have put on concerts and events on a weekly basis that would be the high point of many other cities’ cultural years.

The difference here? LA’s major cultural institutions, even our civic bureaucracy, are extremely well attuned to and prepared to advocate for the underground, and underground/independent/whatever-word-you-want-to-use artists are surprisingly well organized and seem positioned to take advantage of many of the opportunities this town provides.

Let’s look at a few examples of this. Way back in November the LA Phil, with Christopher Rountree’s curation, kicked off their Fluxus Festival with FLUXCONCERT, an evening featuring the works of Fluxus composers such as Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, and Ken Friedman (and Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, which made complete sense in context). Ken Friedman’s Sonata for Melons started the event, with watermelons being dropped off the roof of Disney Hall onto a small wooden platform covered in contact mics. The effective sound was like hitting a steel oil drum with a brick fired out of a cannon, reminding me of Pauline Oliveros’ Burst. Burst, however, doesn’t end with a tropical cocktail made out of the piece.

Inside the hall, visitors were asked to take part in Rountree’s piece Commitment Booth, in which they could make a commitment to “hear all of this as music,” or decide not to, though I think those folks are missing out. Copies of Chris Kallmyer’s DIY-style zine Jelly (Journal of Ecstatic LListening Y’all) were on hand with essays by Allison Knowles, Ryoji Ikeda, and an epic visual guide to the Fluxus movement. The concert itself vacillated between the performance art practices we’ve come to expect from Fluxus composers and their lineage (smashing a violin, bopping one’s head on a wall, all delivered with aplomb) and frankly stunning music, including a building-wide performance of John Cage’s Apartment House, 1776. The whole evening was, in short, a bold, joyous mess. Any attempts to reign it in in the name of decorum would have undercut the mission and the effect.

Compare that with what happened a few nights later in the same hall when the same organization (the LA Phil) presented Kubrick’s Sound Odyssey, a live performance of score excerpts to picture cataloguing much of the master filmmaker’s career, cleverly hosted by Malcolm McDowell. Everything about the evening was as tightly controlled as a Kubrick montage, as was necessary for the literal montage of Penderecki scores pulled from the soundtrack of The Shining, in which Kubrick had layered five pieces on top of one another. Conductor Jessica Cottis was virtuosic in her execution, and I’ve rarely felt as much energy in that hall as I did during her Also Sprach Zarathustra with the opening of 2001 projected above.

What do these evenings have in common (aside from the obvious “same hall, same band”)? It seems to me that the unifying theme between seemingly diverse programs and concepts, and perhaps the unifying theme of our scene, is complete dedication to craft and end goal and the practical resources to pull off said end goals. Kubrick is known to have funded and toured films himself and had such a complete investment in his vision that he burned the models used for the spaceships in 2001 so that no one else could make the same magic. Anyone can throw watermelons off of a roof, but the practical and craft-related skills necessary to making such an action worthy of artistic consideration (re: the contact mics, the cocktails, the schedule, the marketing, and most crucially, the genuine belief that throwing watermelons off of a roof is important and worthy of serious contemplation) only comes with deep dedication and years of practice.

Thankfully that dedication and years of practice isn’t hard to come by here. As I type this from the cafe at the downtown Whole Foods I’m reminded of the time, years ago, when Archie Carey and Saul Alpert Abrams, the musician-artist-founders of Solarc Brewing, held a beer release in this very room that featured keg gamelan and amplified cactus (full disclosure–I played on that concert). Archie, a bassoonist, as well as his wife the experimental vocalist and composer Odeya Nini, are strongly connected with Rountree’s work through wild Up, and thus now connected to the LA Phil. The institutions, it seems, aren’t going around picking pieces and people they like at random or by whatever might fit on an event, but are actively trying to support the artists who have found their own ways and developed their own voices for a good long while.

Perhaps we’re focusing too much on one group of people, though as we talk about connections one may start to see that we are indeed talking about one giant, decentralized group of people. Six degrees of separation in music in LA are, in most cases, more like one or two. Returning from my holiday travel at the beginning of January I was treated to a week of shows in which every single one was a stand out—I recognize the problem with that concept—and which started to expose the scene’s connective tissue of ambitious, demanding, and unapologetic art-making by people who support each other.

This started with Monday Evening Concerts’ presentation of Julius Eastman’s Gay Guerrilla, for four pianos, alongside composer Sarah Hennies’ Contralto, for a mixed ensemble with electronics and video. Musically speaking Gay Guerrilla hit my taste a bit better (I do like minimalism and multiple pianos quite a bit, plus some friends were back in town to play it), but both pieces showcased the endurance of the performers or composers. The pianists in Gay Guerrilla certainly went home exhausted after the large scale, cathartic soundbath they hammered out nonstop for thirty minutes, while contralto brought home the exhaustion of merely trying to get by in a rigid society as a trans person through frustratingly repetitive—I mean this as a sign of the piece’s effectiveness—videos of trans womxn’s sessions in speech therapy to learn “how to talk like a woman.” Perhaps society at large could take a hint from the success of these artistic pursuits and simply support people doing what they do, rather than focusing as hard as we do on the edges of the boxes we so often categorize people or ideas into (I’m looking your way, “classical” music).

Two nights later found me at REDCAT for Vicki Ray and Carole Kim’s collaboration entitled Rivers of Time, inspired by the Daniel Lentz piece River of 1000 Streams featured on the program and the premiere of Ben Phelps’ Sometimes I feel like my time ain’t long . Vicki is the head of performance at Cal Arts and a mainstay musician throughout the scene. Carole is a visual artist working with projections. The Lentz piece was an inverted waterfall of piano tremolo, rising from the depths of the instrument while the stage and audience were washed in compelling light from Kim. But the real story on that concert was the Phelps piece. Sometimes I feel like my time ain’t long is a massive gospel spiritual for piano and electronics. Ben had used a recording of the titular spiritual from the Lomax catalogue as the basis for a virtuosic but lyrical piano part. Each time the recording repeated it was slowed down, and each repeat was exponential, so while the first copy was perhaps less than a minute long, the final one came in around twenty. The astounding thing was how clearly Phelps expressed that idea in every part of the whole. The listening experience was like being inside of a fractal–as you zoomed in on musical gestures in the piano, you’d find more related gestures inside of them. It was like hearing on multiple time scales at once, while being warmly hugged by Ben’s traditional harmonic sensibilities and Vicki’s unquestionable performance abilities. Or like Charles Ives on LSD. It’s a major work, and one that deserves more performances and much more attention.

The same could be said of the Miller Wrenn Large Ensemble, who held their first show the next night at the mortuary, a loft space in Lincoln Heights that invites artists to try out works in progress and have conversations with focused listeners afterwards. Miller, a bassist and composer (more full disclosure: we’ve played in bands together. This “everything is connected and that’s cool” thing is kind of the point of this whole essay) came up in the jazz and improvisation world, went to Cal Arts, played in Vinny Golia’s band, recently did an improv show with the aforementioned Vicki Ray presented by Synchromy and Tuesdays at Monk Space, went to Banff to work with Tyshawn Sorey, and came home to start a few projects related to conduction, a mode of improvising as a conductor developed by Butch Morris. The guy does a lot, and it showed during that concert, which was the premiere of A Family History of Floods, a 90+ minute structured improvisation for 19 musicians.

At times meditative and lyrical, with vertical chorale harmonies reminiscent of Messiaen, and at times violent in the way that only free jazz can be, the piece smoothly transitioned between musical subgroups, with noise/jazz/punk/something band with saxophones Off Cell occasionally taking lead for extended sections, and a solo bass cadenza that made me wish improvisation was still the norm among concerto soloists. A Family History of Floods was a serious musical accomplishment–and just a first run through in a room full of friends.

Perhaps the feeling of a room full of friends is the elusive thing I’m really trying to capture here. The night after Miller’s show a couple of other composers and I went to go hear wild Up’s show with Nadia Sirota at the ACE hotel. We knew it was some sort of live taping for Nadia’s new podcast and that Caroline Shaw and Andrew Norman were involved, but not much beyond that. The set up was a lot like a late night talk show: a living room with Nadia in an armchair (a mid-century modern armchair, of course), Caroline and Andrew on the couch talking about what they think about when they compose. Wild Up served up live examples and accompaniment, with a particularly sensitive take on Shaw’s looping four chord music the she said she’d developed on the road with Kanye, and the tightest performance of Andrew Norman’s Try I’ve yet heard.

Following the show the band and as many people as they could invite headed over to Mikkeller DTLA for drinks, and after wild Up’s recent return from tour it felt a bit like high fiving friends on what they’d built (in cases of high fives, it was exactly that). Here was Chris Rountree, the guy I mentioned at the beginning running a Fluxus festival for the LA Phil, reveling in the ongoing national success of the group he started in an Echo Park rec center with a bunch of musicians and a credit card. I have every expectation that before long we’ll be seeing Miller’s projects on the same major stages as the so called next generation fills in at the DIY venues and rental spaces all over town.

The thing that makes me constantly happy about all of this, and that I hope to leave you with, is how much the people in our scene love their work, are open to helping each other out, and how welcoming they are. When I first moved back to Los Angeles, knowing zero musicians in town, I cold emailed some artistic planners at the LA Phil and got not only a response, but an invitation in for coffee to talk about music. Along these lines, wild Up now runs a happy hour every couple of weeks at Highland Park Brewery in Chinatown (facebook event here), and even if you’ve never met any of them I can guarantee you they will be happy to see you. The same seems to be true of everyone in the audience or onstage at any Tuesdays @ Monk Space show, or Monday Evening Concert (founded by Stravinsky, still open to young upstart composers), or People Inside Electronics, or the blue whale, or Late Breakfast, or Triptronics Research Institute, or Art Share, or Basic Flowers, or Battery Books…this list could continue almost indefinitely.

One word that gets tossed around a lot to describe our city is “decentralized.” Geographically this may be accurate—artists have long been troubled by the lack of an obvious gathering place, and I will take any excuse I can get to link to this map—though the social geography says the opposite. To that end, I’d argue that a huge network of diverse musicians who have all found their own ways to negotiate this artistic megalopolis have found each other, and by working and playing together are in fact a centralizing force in the music scene in LA. It works because, in the words of James Murphy, “they’re actually really, really nice.” As listeners, and as people, we all get to reap the benefits.

Thanks, LA. I love you. See you at a show,

Nick

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