The second concert of WasteLAnd’s sixth season featured guest artists Adrianne Pope & Linnea Powell (collectively known as Aperture Duo) and Ashley Walters. The three artists curated the program, as well as commissioning two new pieces. It was a well-balanced mix of rising contemporary composers and the greats of the late twentieth century. I had assumed a collaboration between Ashley and Aperture Duo would feature string trios, so was surprised that they only collaborated on two. But the balance they struck by having two trios, two duets, and two solos had its own kind of perfect symmetry. The duo and soloist had space to express themselves in their familiar identities, and also as a powerful trio of collaborators.
The first piece of the night was Georges Aperghis’s Faux Mouvement (1995) for string trio. No surprises there, seeing as Aperghis is L.A.’s second favorite Greek composer after Xenakis, under whom Aperghis studied at IRCAM. Faux Mouvement is a curious little piece with modules of musical character that seem to exist in separate universes with little connective tissue. One measure whispers, another measure screams, and a third one sounds like footsteps crunching in the snow. Little by little, however, motifs and sounds harken back to earlier sections, and like puzzle pieces falling into place, the picture comes into view. The performers were flawless. They brought out the musicality of a complex piece, and they acted as a coherent stringed organism.
Following the opening trio, Ashley took center stage with Trevor Bača’s cello solo Nähte (2018). Bača explains in the program notes that ‘Nähte’ is German for stitches. The music is about the joining together of body, movement, color and time, over and over in rows. It’s like knitting a blanket with an image. Initially, changing color or stitch pattern feels arbitrary, but after several rows, the image begins to emerge. Like delicate stitches, the art palette relies on subtlety and cohesion. I also noted the unconventional use of a cello’s natural resonance space in this composition. Whether Walters played a straight pitch, a whispery harmonic, or a growling overpressured double stop, the musical sound seemed to emanate from the echoing resonance of the cello’s body. It could sound velvety, like a theremin, or earthy like a drum.
In terms of the A(sh)perture concert, Nähte was the calm before the storm. We had our quietude, and it was time to turn it up to eleven.
Aperture Duo took the stage next with crowd-pleaser Limun (2011) by Clara Iannotta. It’s a fun piece and one which I have heard them play before. The whole effect of Limun is the experience of eating a lemon, stretched out and amplified. In the first half, the violin and viola crunch and whistle, always ascending, sometimes in tandem and other times in counterpoint. It is musical, but it does set one’s teeth on edge. In the second half, the page-turners take up harmonicas and hold piercing chords. The first time I heard this piece the harmonicas were, to put it lightly, annoying. With Rachel Beetz and Erin Rogers playing them, however, I found them almost haunting. The end of the piece is my favorite moment: the violin performs a high ostinato melody among the stratospheric harmonicas while the viola slides downward, and all fade out in a beautiful consonance. To complete the lemon metaphor, it is the lingering freshness after the initial sourness. To Clara Iannotta and Aperture Duo: Bravissimo.
After a brief intermission, the concert resumed with the oldest piece of the night, cello solo Kottos (1977) by Iannis Xenakis. Ashley gave a textbook-perfect performance of this canonic work. Kottos requires the cellist to employ dozens of extended techniques and switch between them in very little time. The piece sounds like it could have been performed on a synthesizer just as well as on cello. It creates an uncanny valley between technological and acoustic sounds. At times, it even sounds like a voice. The middle section felt unmoored from the rhythm and tempo, but Walters brought it back together for the final portion. In contrast with Bača’s delicate solo for cello, the Xenakis is downright bombastic. It provides an excellent counterbalance to the quieter first half of the concert.
Erin Rogers’s commission for Aperture Duo was hands down my favorite piece of the night. Travelogue (2018) uses the violin and viola as musical instruments, foley objects, and the strange sounds accompanying everyone’s internal monologue while traveling. Pope and Powell got to speak, sing, recite, and argue throughout the piece. There was a bit of theatricality. At one point the two musicians are sitting too close together. They bump elbows and snap, “Excuse me, do you mind switching?” They then stand and wander around the stage space as far apart as they can. At another time, they set down their instruments and tap on iPads instead, playing with the very act of playing. When playing their instruments, Pope and Powell sound out the train doors, the clunks & bumps of railroad tracks, and the hiss of the engine and doors opening and closing at different stops. Like many “radio show” type pieces, it was a delight. I would even say that Rogers pulled out all the stops (Thank you, I’ll be here all night).
The final piece of the evening was Sofia Gubaidulina’s String Trio (1988), bringing the three performers together once again. Gubaidulina is a popular contemporary composer among string performers, and (I hope) she is well on her way to becoming a permanent member of the concert canon. If you aren’t familiar with Gubaidulina’s work, String Trio is a great entry point. String Trio sounds like one instrument cycling through timbres when in fact it is the three instruments playing two or three notes in turn. This establishes a sort of spatialization effect. When the three instruments play in harmony together, it feels seeing a Patrick Hughes painting in “superduper perspective.”
On the whole, the production was well-balanced inside and out. The six pieces flowed well together, beginning calm and quiet and gradually upping the energy and volume. The balance of performers – 3 1 2 1 2 3 – fed back into the atmosphere’s energy. All that, and the perfect split of the previous generation of avant-garde composers and the contemporary generation of composers embodies everything that the new music scene represents.
WasteLAnd marked the opening of their sixth season with a packed venue for a concert titled Biomes, featuring three pieces by Chicago-based composer Katherine Young. Katherine Young’s pieces are multimedia electroacoustic works. She incorporates not only sounds, but lights, movement, interactive performance, and anything in between. The first piece of the night, Earhart & the Queen of Spades performed by LA-based guitarist Nicholas Deyoe, uses a variety of sounds on the electric guitar. Hearing an electric guitar make unusual noises isn’t anything new, but the way Deyoe created the sounds is. Instead of a guitar pick, Deyoe used an array of hand-held objects such as small battery-powered fans, strings of pearls, keys, and bobby pins. These objects, Young explained in the program notes, reference lost objects and myths and femininity. When the fans hover above the amplified strings, the guitar creates an eerie hum; when the fan blades strike the strings, it makes a sizzling effect. The pearls, as you might guess, sound somewhere between raindrops and hail. Each sound emanation was intriguing in its own right. Young pulled out all the stops to create a twenty-minute piece of interwoven sounds, pitches, and rhythmic motifs.
The second piece of the night displayed a completely different approach to music. The Wurlitzer part (performed brilliantly by Wells Leng) used relatively typical twentieth-century techniques like whole tone scales and cluster chords. Combined with Matt Barbier whispering and crooning microtones into the euphonium, Underworld (Dancing) reminded me of an eerie yet meditative take on an old-timey calliope dance. Basically, it’s how I imagine music in the Upside-Down à la Stranger Things. And it was rad.
The final piece of the night was the world premiere of Biomes 1.0. This piece combines acoustic instruments (two trombones+ and a bassoon, played by RAGE THORMBONES Weston Olencki & Matt Barbier, and Katherine Young herself, respectively) with electronics and lights. The lights change over time, sometimes slowly and sometimes in the span of a heartbeat, and represent the smaller ecosystems present in the encompassing biome. The instrumentalists improvise within the ecosystem, building the scene with notes, whispers, whistles, and metallic clacks and clangs, further developed by the electronics reacting to the instruments’ paths. Some segments sounded like the soundscape you almost expect: the dark green light briefly feels and sounds like a sleepy rainforest with croaking frogs and rustling vines, and then transforms into something unrecognizable but no less beautiful and comprehensive. The stark white light evokes the sharp chill of the Arctic, but instead of polar bears we find gasping tubas and huffing bassoons. Throughout the piece, the light segregated the biome into ecosystems, but the steady undercurrent of electronic noise and human breath united the parts into the whole. Biomes clocked in at over half an hour long, but I was so enchanted that time nearly stopped.
Katherine Young took LA under her spell with these three incredible pieces, especially Biomes 1.0. She is WasteLAnd’s featured composer this season, so be sure to attend the rest of the concerts to hear more of her and the incredible musicians of the contemporary music scene of LA.
Monday Evening Concerts is the longest running contemporary music series in the world. The series began in 1939, and has programmed the world premieres of pieces by Stravinsky, Boulez, Sciarrino, and Kurtag, as well as U.S. premieres of just about every major 20th century composer you can think of. Their concert on April 16th was not a momentous occasion for premieres, but it was my first time hearing Isabel Mundry performed live, and first time hearing a Sciarrino performance in the United States. I was giddy with excitement. Spoiler alert: the concert lived up to expectations. I am absolutely amazed by the talent of the performers, and I wish to commend concert curator and conductor Jonathan Hepfer on a marvelously selected and executed program.
Aptly named “Labyrinths and Enigmas,” the concert offered intricate, intimate works by Isabel Mundry (b. 1963) and Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947). First, Mundry’s Dufay Bearbeitungen [translation: Dufay Machining or Machination] (2003/4) delivered familiar Dufay chansons (familiar if you’re into Renaissance motets, at least) in a 21st century way. The text and musical motifs themselves were largely unchanged from the original – the staging and light work made the performance new. In the first section, the instrumentalists sat around the reciter in the dark. The lights only rose when the clarinetist played his first note, swelling and brightening like a sunrise. When the music fully enters, it manifests in ways Dufay never could have dreamed: on bass marimba, on fluttering alto flute, on dulcet chimes. Mundry used quite a bit of low end to make the music feel substantial, but also delicate touches and staccato to give it an ethereal lightness. In each section, the instrumentalists moved farther away from the reciter. First they moved to the edges of the stage and almost into the audience. For the third section, they went up into the balcony surrounding the stage and audience, playing down like angels from on high. As the musicians moved farther from center stage, the music moved farther from the original Dufay sound. And yet it felt less like the musicians moving away and more like the audience zooming in on the reciter. Mundry applied dissonance, harmonics, and unfamiliar timbres and spectral techniques like plucking the strings inside the piano to gradually move Dufay to the present day. At the same time, the modern staging techniques moved the audience into Dufay’s world.
After the intermission to reset the stage and the audience’s ears, we were engulfed in Salvatore Sciarrino’s Perduto in una città d’acque (translation: Lost in a city of water) (1990/91). His program notes indicate that the piece is largely inspired by visiting the composer Luigi Nono in Venice near the end of Nono’s life. He notes that death resonates through our hearts, like pitch resonates in our ears; the meanings of both are illusive. In Perduto, I felt like I was underwater as a rush of quiet notes flooded my ears. Occasionally, the flood was broken by an Ablinger-esque burst of notes. I imagined I could hear words in the piano, but I just couldn’t understand the language. Pianist Richard Valitutto managed to splash the keys and swirl the notes just right so to keep the illusion of treading water, swimming through the melody and eddying through the harmony.
This was not my first encounter with Sciarrino, but it was my introduction to his operatic work. The audience was provided with the Italian libretto and its English translation. It was still difficult to keep pace with the pointillist singing style. Eventually I gave up keeping track and finally relaxed into the music. Aspern Suite (1979) is a condensed version of The Aspern Papers, an opera based on the eponymous novella by Henry James about Lord Byron’s affairs. The surprisingly sassy songs include snippets of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and gondolier songs reworked into Sciarrino’s mystical compositional language. Alice Teyssier, the amazing soprano who brought these songs alive, sang from a cozy armchair, and sometimes from offstage. Whether she was sitting, standing, or backstage, the orchestra changed their timbres to match her vocal timbre and environmental filtering. It seems like a trick that can only work in certain spaces, but the ensemble pulled it off very well.
On the whole, the concert showcased incredible talent and a variety of compositional styles and textures. Clocking in at a full two hours, it wasn’t for the faint of heart or the tepid contemporary music aficionado. For those seeking the cream of the crop in late 20th – early 21st century music programming and performance, you will not go wrong with Monday Evening Concerts.
This was my first time seeing a Jacaranda concert. I always look for an excuse to hear Messiaen and Debussy live, so I jumped at the chance to attend “Extrasensory.” Based on the title, I was expecting a focus on synaesthesia, and probably some multimedia works. After all, in the 21st century, one comes to expect some electroacoustic elements or re-tunings. I was a little surprised that the entire program used acoustic instruments in traditional systems with nary a quartertone or key-slap in sight. It was different to hear 20th-century music that does not rely on the bells and whistles of the modern era.
Only one piece on the program was younger than me, and the oldest isn’t even 20th century. The program notes provided a history lesson in a nutshell. Rather than giving each piece a paragraph or two, Patricia Scott provided an entire essay that tied together all the pieces on the program. She tied together Debussy’s compositions and audience reception to Messiaen’s early works and development, and how he, in turn, trained and inspired the next generation of composers, like Betsy Jolas.
Though the beginning of it all, Debussy was put at the end as the show-stopper. Debussy is often called the father of modern music, and his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) is touted the beginning of the twentieth century. As a flutist, I have a deep-seated adoration of Prélude and Debussy’s flute pieces in general, and it was a great joy to hear the 1920 arrangement for a smaller ensemble plus harmonium. To our 21st-century ears, Prélude can sound tame and a little sappy, but it was an absolute scandal to the 19th-century audience. Think “Victorian woman showing ankles” scandalous. The extended tonality and the unique timbres it built in addition to the erotic source material left listeners either appalled or ecstatic. And thus began the noble tradition of 20th-century music.
Besides the Debussy, the Messiaen was even better than I had hoped. I always enjoy Oiseaux Exotiques (1956), and it was just as good as any other performance or recording I have heard. I have to give Aron Kallay a gold star for his performance, as always. My absolute favorite piece of the night was Messiaen’s La Mort du Nombre (1928). It is an unequivocally stunning lament, and it felt as though the violinist (Jessica Guideri) were drawing her bow across my heartstrings rather than her violin strings.
Andre Jolivet’s Chant de Linos (1944) is a flute piece with accompaniment, in this case, harp and string trio, written for the famous Jean Pierre Rampal. Again, as a flutist, I was in love. Rachel Beetz is a master of Rampal’s French style, and a worthy successor to play this beautiful piece. The story Chant de Linos tells is that of Linus, the son of Apollo (who you all know is the god of music, poetry, art, medicine, the sun, light, and knowledge – so, just a few things). Linus himself is credited with inventing melody and rhythm, the two most fundamental elements of our Western music tradition. The story goes that Heracles killed Linus with his own harp after one too many tutoring sessions gone sour. The flute represents Linus, while the accompanying quartet performed a quasi-recitative part for plot points and mood changes. The trick in the piece is the continuously shifting tempo on top of wild rhythms and intricate melodies. The music flipped on a dime between calm repose and fleeing from an enraged god. It is an astoundingly trying piece, and a beautiful way to start the concert.
Next, Eric Tanguy’s Sonata for Two Violins (1999) was an intellectually stimulating piece. His spectral training shows in the way he treats sound versus music. The violins sawed away without a break, never allowing the audience’s ears to rest. Debussy once said music is the space between the notes, but there wasn’t much space to be had. The music was not so much the quasi-minimalist violin duet, but rather the difference tones that squeezed out between the violins like juice from a lemon.
The remaining piece did its part to fill out the narrative of Debussy’s influence on the twentieth century, but I could take it or leave it. Betsy Jolas’s Quatour III “Nine Etudes” (1973) is the product of several inspirations coming together in her mature period. It stems from her love of Josquin des Prez, Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp (1915), Messiaen and Milhaud, and finally Boulez’s improvisation and Cage’s aleatoricism. The result is a quilt of nine movements, each with its own identity based on techniques like harmonics and tremolo. The ninth movement, “Summing up,” combines the eight traits into one final etude. I like the concept behind the piece, and the quartet executed the notes well enough. But frankly, it didn’t do much for me. I think it was too many flavors in one pie, so to speak.
It’s great that Jacaranda is able to program less familiar 20th-century composers alongside the 20th-century greats. I love what Jacaranda is doing for the community in this way. I encourage anyone who wants to hear more acoustic 20th century works to check out the rest of Jacaranda’s series. The next concert, titled “Science,” features works by Xenakis, Messiaen, and Barraqué.
Happy Valley Band’s debut album, ORGANVM PERCEPTVS, is described as a virtuosic decomposition and reconstruction of the Great American Songbook. Think of it as American Classics + The 21st Century. In this album, you will hear a microtonal version of “You Make Me Feel,” a distorted funk version of “Like a Virgin,” and a crunchy, grungy, middle-school band-esque take on “Jungle Boogie” that I am convinced is an actual recording of my high school’s pep band at a snowy football game when every brass instrument detuned after five minutes out of their cases. This album is fresh, deceptive, and insanely fun to listen to.
ORGANVM’s raison d’être is to encourage the listeners to examine biases and expectations. For example, we all know “Ring of Fire.” Listening to “Ring of Fire” that’s been put through a learning algorithm is a different experience. This is not just covering or reimagining music. This is hearing music as machines hear and interpret music. The artistic license is not so much an artist’s personal flair as it is their personal algorithm choice and process.
Love it or hate it, this is the age of algorithmic music and computers creating art from intelligent programs. I’ve heard some crazy things come from algorithms, some of which I loved. It often boils down to what the composer wants the algorithm to accomplish, lest ye worry about a lack of human musicians in our future. David Kant, the head composer and director of the Happy Valley Band, says in liner notes, “We should use machines to hear differently, not to reinforce our expectations – because whose expectations are they anyway?” Don’t hate the process, hate the preconceived notions and preferences. Or something like that.
David Kant also confronts the notion of intellectual property in the perspective of deconstruction and manipulation. If anything can be extracted, sampled, reworked, and replicated, then is the result The Thing-Changed, or A Different-Thing? By rooting itself in familiar territory and turning these songs on their heads, ORGANVM gives us a glimpse through the looking glass.
The Happy Valley Band is in LA on April 29th at Human Resources. You can check out more on ORGANVM PERCEPTVS here at Indexical’s website, and the sale options via bandcamp (digital download album or 12″ vinyl plus booklet) are here.
People Inside Electronics (abbreviated PIE) performs and promotes electroacoustic music in LA. Often, concerts go beyond music and present interdisciplinary multimedia collaborations with dancers, actors, scientists, and so on. PIE focuses on the artists, and electronic synthesizers and modulators are the media. The more time passes, the more I appreciate the name of the series. Today, we live in a world where music can be created entirely by programs and algorithms, without people at all. Furthermore, an increasing portion of the population has electronics inside them, from pacemakers to RFID implants (yes, really). To turn the lens from the machines’ ability to the people’s, and what they can make the machines do, is something to behold.
Beginning the concert on a fantastic note was The Deep State by Isaac Schankler (2017), performed by Scott Worthington on bass and Isaac Schankler on electronics. Right from the start, I could hear Pauline Oliveros’s influence and inspiration on the piece. She is one of my favorite pioneers in electronic music, and I know she is an influence to Schankler as well. Her pieces change slowly, like delicately bending metal into a sculpture. Like Schankler, she often provokes contemplation.
Schankler writes in the program note, “This piece is ‘about’ both the necessity and seeming impossibility of this kind of contemplation in our…current situation.” It is not difficult to interpret what he was getting at by ‘current situation.’ The ambiguity of the phrase also allows the listener to turn to any other situation, perhaps one more personal and probably less dismal. Regardless of any narrative one applies to the piece, Schankler’s genius composition, performed by my favorite bassist in southern California, is sure to stimulate a deep state of contemplation and peace in anyone who hears it.
Next on the program, pianist Aron Kallay and percussionist Yuri Inoo performed Elliptic by Caroline Louise Miller (2012). Elliptic paints the landscape of a “particularly beautiful dream” Miller had about “our pre-apocalyptic, neoliberal world.” (Compared to Schankler’s The Deep State, we can infer that the apocalypse has occurred sometime between 2012 and 2017.) Miller’s program notes describe an enchanting ellipsoid planet with a golden moon, orbiting a pink star. Monoliths appear on the water and break the spell.
The monoliths were the harbingers of change. The Earth appears on the horizon and destroys the reverie with an onslaught of media noise. In the music, Kallay’s otherworldly electronic piano depicts the beautiful planet, while Inoo’s bombastic snare and gong invoke the Earth’s cacophony. The Earth vanishes, and the music freezes for a second…and then quietly resumes, as if tip-toeing through the wreckage. The third movement, “Exodus,” sounds like flying into the unknown. It is different than the beginning, but there is a similar sense of being, of existing. I would recommend listening to this piece on its own once, then with the program notes, and then a third time on its own again. Close your eyes if you wish to visualize the alien landscape, just don’t forget to open your ears to the sonic landscape Miller crafts.
After intermission, PIE introduced BitPanic, a computer music collective based in LA. In a computer music collective, performers improvise on networked composition systems on laptops. Mark Trayle cofounded The Hub, the godfather of computer music collectives, dating back to 1986. BitPanic took on Trayle’s semi-aleatoric piece Pins and Splits (2004). In this piece, the background sound is fixed, and the foreground allows improvisation. The players affect each other’s timing, like a music game of duck-duck-goose. The result of the game is a constant transformation from chaos to order and back again. The program note says the title comes from an email thread with Trayle’s Hub-mates. To me, this is delightfully meta. Like an email thread, in Pins and Splits each participant takes turns at the lead, asking questions and resolving conflicts.
After Trayle’s piece, BitPanic concluded the concert with a totally improvised set. The quartet set loose on keyboards, knobs, and violins. Each player seemed to exist in their own little bubble. Sometimes they coincided with another player, and sometimes seemed like polar opposites. One performer played the violin normally, albeit hooked up with wires to the laptops for sound processing. Another performer laid his violin on the table and treated it no differently than the laptop. The other two stared stoically at their screens, clicking and typing and twiddling away. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before. That’s the beauty of electroacoustic music. The limit is your imagination, and my thoughts and experiences were certainly not the same as the members of BitPanic. New music, in the hands of PIE and BitPanic, will continue to surprise and delight.
I had never heard of Battle Trance before attending this show. What little I did know was what I read on the Facebook event page, and gleaned from talking to other concert goers. I don’t believe I even knew their instrumentation. Like seeing a movie without seeing a trailer, this can be a better experience. Hype can set a bar too high. All I knew was that Equal Sound was putting on the concert, and that some quartet called Battle Trance would play Blade of Love. 10/10 for the names, but would the performance live up to these vague expectations?
A string quartet – Madeline Falcone and Emily Call on violin, Diana Wade on viola, and Betsy Rettig on cello – performed the first half of the concert, which consisted of Medieval and Medieval-inspired music. They opened with Hildegard Von Bingen’s O Virtus Sapientiae, a pensive, simple polyphonic work. Its texture was so lush, yet at the same time, so bare. In light of the women’s marches worldwide, particularly the 750,000-strong march in LA on January 21st, I appreciated that the most prolific Medieval female composer had the honor of opening. I always love von Bingen’s work, and this was no different. O virtus Sapientiae praises the power of wisdom, a lesson we can all value in this age.
The next piece, Valencia (2012), by New York composer Caroline Shaw, had clear roots in Medieval style. The strings pass around ostinato rhythms and simple melodies, intercut with striking glissandi and dense harmonic swells. Shaw wanted to evoke the texture of a Valencia orange. Such a synesthetic feat may be impossible (I must admit I did not get the connection between the title and the piece until reading about it later), but the music by itself was pleasing and its textures were interesting.
Third, My Desert, My Rose (2016) by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, featured low and slow cello like a cantus firmus while the higher strings played aimless harmonies, muddled like a fine cocktail. It feels like wandering through a busy marketplace; each step brings a new wave of sounds, and while there is a goal to reach, the journey wanders. It’s a flawless interpretation of Medieval inspiration for a 21st-century style.
Finally, the quartet concluded the first half of the concert with Guillaume de Machaut’s Kyrie I. The Kyrie is the first sung prayer of the Mass Ordinary, and it is most appropriate during penitential seasons like Lent and Advent. The quartet saved the Kyrie for the last piece in their set, but it also served to introduce Battle Trance, thus keeping with tradition. While we were not actually in a penitential season, something about the timing and the mood of the audience made it fitting.
After intermission, we got what we came for: the tenor saxophone quartet Battle Trance performing Blade of Love. Here’s my short review first: it was bananas. And I love bananas.
Now here’s the longer review. First, you must realize that each segment flowed from one to the next, sometimes overlapping or splitting half and half between the players. The players never rested. The performance was one uber-piece, and the energy ebbed and swelled but never ceased. Sometimes three players would provide an upbeat, looping harmony for the soloist to howl over. Other times, all four would whistle through their reeds. There was impressive counterpoint. There was intense sound blending. There were intergalactic lasers and interstellar spaceships. There were intrepid explorers in jungles. There was an immeasurable ocean. There was an insane profession of love. There was also insufferable honking – but so it is with saxophones, I suppose, and it didn’t last too long.
Most impressive of all, in my eyes (ears?), was that there were difference tones. Those happen resonances combine and modulate in your ear so that your ear itself creates new sound. It’s a curious sensation, and rare for acoustic instruments to pull off. So not only did the four gentlemen of Battle Trance play for an hour straight, on memorized music (somewhat improvised, but mostly structured for sure), and was the music incredible, but they also caused your ear to invent its own music, using acoustic instruments. This illustrates why I love writing these reviews; every time I think I’ve heard it all, that I’ve heard every extended technique, I go to another concert and I’m absolutely floored.
Battle Trance’s music is available on their Bandcamp page. You have the upper hand compared to me; you already know what to expect. I’ll be upfront: I’m told that their recordings don’t have the same chutzpah. So this is what I recommend: buy a CD. Hear how good they are recorded. Then see them live. Fly to New York if you have to, but experience them in person. It’ll be bananas.
Cipher Duo consists of soprano Justine Aronson and violinist Sarah Goldfeather. This week, they commence their West Coast tour. I was fortunate to see their Wednesday night performance in Geiringer Hall at UC Santa Barbara. They will perform in Pasadena with gnarwhallaby on Thursday, USC on Friday, and then head north to the Bay Area on Sunday. Wherever you are in California, do not miss this concert.
The program starts with something a little familiar. Though I did not know this piece, I am well acquainted with a variety of Kaija Saariaho works. If you haven’t listened to Saariaho, start now. Changing Light (2002) is the is the perfect introduction to Saariaho, and to the Cipher Duo. The text is an English translation from Hebrew and explores the subject of the fragility of uncertain existence. Beginning simply enough, on the line “Light and darkness,” Aronson sings chilling poetry while Goldfeather floats above on harmonics. Like many Saariaho pieces, each part has a purpose and a goal, but their paths are unclear and meandering. The fact that this concert features only 21st-century works confirms, at least to me, that Kaija Saariaho is in line for Debussy’s crown as the essential composer to bridge the century gap.
The duo then takes on another English piece, also a philosophical musing. Rebekah Driscoll was inspired to write January: Brin’s Mesa (2016) when she observed new life emerging from the ashes of a forest fire in Arizona. From page to performance, Aronson and Goldfeather breathe life into the contemplative score. Listen for the small, organic changes – one can almost hear tendrils of plant life growing and emerging.
The middle piece of the program is a crowd-pleaser for the Californians. Even if you missed the event, you know about Hopscotch (2015). Cipher Duo performs Hopscotch Tarot by Veronika Krausas. In the Hopscotch holistic performance, the audience members could only hear two or three fortunes before getting ushered into the next limo. Here, Aronson and Goldfeather perform all twelve short movements, each one a tarot card reading from Fortuna. If you wanted more insight into the plot of Hopscotch, watch Aronson’s expressions, particularly when she smirks. Each fortune has its own character and style, and Aronson captures them all exquisitely.
The fourth piece of the show comes from Goldfeather herself. Come Back (2017) showcases Goldfeather’s experience as a singer/songwriter with an indie band. Though not in a typical verse-chorus form, the rest of the key elements to an indie song are present: simple lyrics, repetitive gestures, and a distinct sonority. For the first half of the piece, Aronson sings five words on five notes. But it isn’t minimalism. Goldfeather overlaps and dovetails the motives within and between the instruments. When a verse finally arrives, it hits the audience like a bucket of water. The first time a minor chord replaces a major chord, a collective chill went down the audience’s spines. I won’t give away what happens at the ending, but I can tell you it was perfect. After so many minutes of intricate looping, layering, and rearranging of motives, Goldfeather pulls off the perfect ending.
Finally, the duo ended on their namesake. Kate Soper’s Cipher (2011) is one of the most breathtaking violin and soprano pieces I have ever heard. The duo told the audience that Cipher explores timbre. As well as exploring musical dynamics and human dynamics, it wends between music, meaning, and language. The violin and the voice become shared objects. Sometimes both performers sing, speak, or finger the violin together. At times, they even swap. Each movement features conflicting voices and temperaments, such as Wittgenstein, Freud, and Guido d’Arezzo. The conjoining line, “People can understand you when you say something,” is frequently obscured. If nothing else has convinced you to see Cipher Duo this weekend, go for this. Cipher will blow your mind.
As a fellow Miyazawa flutist, I could hardly contain my excitement about this review. Thrive is Areon Flutes’ third full album release and innova Recordings debut. The flute chamber music ensemble upholds a dogma of revitalizing chamber music for 21st-century audiences. In May 2008, Areon Flutes was awarded the Bronze Medal at the prestigious Fischoff Chamber Music Competition in Notre Dame, Indiana, the first flute chamber music ensemble to do so in thirty-five years. In 2015 they were hailed as one of the most memorable live performers by the San Francisco Examiner. This album Thrive features compositions by Elainie Lillios, Cornelius Boots, and Mike Sempert, and performances by the core trio of Areon Flutes: Jill Heinke, Kassey Plaha, and Sasha Launer.
Lillios’s Summer Sketches, the winner of Areon’s 2014 International Composition Competition, begins with a playful, wandering flute solo. Two more flutes join in and engage in an aural game of hide-and-seek. At times the music describes an action like skipping and diving, and other times seems more onomatopoetic. The two movements, “Skating on Discs of Light” and “Dry Wind,” follow ants running past a picnic, mosquitos buzzing past your ear, spiders creeping toward their prey, and dragonflies dive-bombing the lazy river. Unorthodox tone color, hums, trills, percussive tongue and finger slaps, flutters and growls used on the whole flute family evoke these quintessential insectoid summer sounds. This broad exploration of sounds and soundscape makes sense for an electroacoustic composer flexing her flute trio muscles. Lillios gives a voice to every insect, spider, and bug. Summer Sketches evokes a 21st-century variation of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux combined with a modernized Das Jahr (Hensel), compacted into two movements.
Cornelius Boots’s Chthonic Flute Suite, commissioned by Areon Flutes, takes the listener on a journey through the underworld. The first movement, “Root of Ether,” begins with a calm, solo meditation. About a minute in, the player exhales poignantly; upon this ‘last breath,’ the tempo picks up and the listener approaches the allegorical rabbit hole. The next movement, “Enantiodromia,” kicks off with a loud chord, and then the three flutes move in and out of sync with each other, taking turns with the melody and turning counterpoint on its head. This middle movement of Chthonic Flute Suite suggests diving down the rabbit hole and finding the underworld. ‘Enantiodromia’ is the concept that any force inevitably produces its opposite, usually towards equilibrium. This is quite possibly my favorite piece on the album for the sheer amount of fun I had listening to the twists and turns. As the name suggests, the piece moves in cycles of turning, reversing, and toppling – on an unrelated note, I just found the perfect word to describe politics. The third movement of Boots’s journey, “Void of Day” opens with a wan panpipe solo. The anemic yet cheerful tune gives way as the trio volleys melodies between each other, forming a collage of scenes from the underworld. At the midpoint, the music suddenly becomes somber and churchlike. Boots changes the mood on a dime. A great gravity overcomes the prior mystique. This does not last until the end, for as the name suggests, the void is coming! After nearly a minute of frantic chordal chuffing, the flutes arpeggiate up and…nothing. Boots saw the opportunity and took it – the void swallows the piece before it can conclude.
The last piece on this album is Uncanny Valley by Mike Sempert, commissioned by Areon Flutes. This gentle three-part counterpoint in the beginning evokes relaxing video games like Journey, Flower, and Thomas Was Alone. I choose this comparison conscientiously. The video games listed are all simple stories concerning man versus machine and are renowned for their unique (and pleasant) soundtracks. When the synthesizer enters, the piece takes on its own soul. Stumbling rhythms, harmonious electronic dance sounds and waltz-like melodies in the flutes offer a glimpse into a halting conversation between artificial intelligence and organic beings. The two halves of this multi-sided duet (organic flutes vs artificial synthesizers seek and fail to find common musical ground. The synthesizers eventually cut out, and the three flutes come together more united than before. This is a track I put on repeat and imagine a different story for each playthrough. It feels like a science fiction story put into music, and I have the pleasure of deciphering it.
Thrive easily earns a spot in my top five albums of 2016. Every track is easy to listen to, and the more you listen, the more levels of appreciation you gain. There is very little showing off, which frankly is something of a relief. So many compositions and performances are downright acrobatic nowadays. Finding a composition without virtuosity for flashy virtuosity’s sake is becoming a rare treasure. It is said that a true master makes something difficult seem easy; Areon Flutes embodies this concept and makes modern compositions for chamber ensembles accessible and pleasurable to all.
Thrive is available from Innova Music at innova.mu/albums/areon-flutes/thrive, and from iTunes, Amazon, and other music retailers.
“Is that 8-bit game music?” My boyfriend asked, overhearing the song Karina Kallas. His question was surprisingly apt. Alexander Noice’s Music Made With Voices, published by Orenda Records, features eight pieces created out of the same eight voices singing the same note. As there are exactly eight elements, it is indeed, in a sense, 8-bit. The songs showcase characterizing traits of eponymous friends and family through only their voices.
Noice manipulates the pitch, attack, decay, and so on, and layers these modifed sonic elements into melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. Human ears fail to recognize sound as a voice if it has been altered by more than a major third (the span of the first two notes in Kumbaya). Since most of the notes are indeed outside that range from the original pitch, it is nearly impossible to recognize the sounds as vocal. Depending on the timbre of the individual singer, and the manner in which Noice alters the voice, they can sound like an electronic beep, a shawm, a kazoo, or an electric bass. Noice orchestrates according to each voice’s unique properties, and presumably according to the singer’s personality.
Some works, like Frank Noice, sound relatively more acoustic; it could probably be done with a choir of shawms and sackbuts (if you don’t know what a sackbut is, it’s as funny as it sounds. Google it). In other words, though it does not sound like a choir, it does sound instrumental. Others, like Masatoshi Sato, sound more electronic. The third category is, of course, those that retain their voice. Ihui Wu is a clever mix of female voices whooping out a melody while other voices chirp and thrum like old-school synths.
This technique is ingenious in itself, but it requires a certain skill to pull off such intricate polyphony with it. Here, Noice’s expertise with ensemble work shines through. Every track exhibits novel rhythms, interesting harmonies, a clear and unique melody, and a variety of textures. This is especially impressive given his minimal source material of a single note. Then again, a single note in a digital audio workspace contains infinite potential. Making the right choices to concoct a series of engaging pieces is the real challenge, over which Noice triumphs.
Noice uses technology to chop, warp, bend, stop, drop, and roll, cha cha real smooth. You get the picture. Software turns the original sound clip into something almost-but-not-quite-completely different. And that was his inspiration. “[Music Made With Voices] parallels our modern relationships and interactions, both with communication, and the cherry-picking portrayal of our daily lives through texting, Facebook, Twitter, etc. At times it’s hard to get a fully realistic, honest view of people with our relationships are so filtered through digital outlets,” Noice explains. This is a keen insight to our 21st century culture. Many adults miss the days of communicating by voice instead of text, as many believe actual talking breeds deeper connection. Some people believe a voice is the most honest part of any person; some cultures believe the soul resides in the throat, not the heart or the brain, for exactly this reason. By digitally afflicting the voice, Noice transforms this human essence into art, thus destroying the very thing that made it human.
At the same time, he creates a community. The voices were recorded alone, and Noice joins them in an ensemble. Say what you will about technology filtering interaction, it does have the wonderful power to bring people and voices together. Though transformed, the essence remains, and now the voices interact. In continuing the parallel to cyber interactions, Noice succeeds in uniquely uniting eight people for the sake of art.
Noice has created a thought-provoking and aurally stimulating album. Each song proves again and again his prowess with intricate ensemble work, a sense of interesting melody, and his understanding of the subject’s personality. As reliant on digital effects as this album is, it exhibits a rare organicism. Music Made With Voices encapsulates creativity, humanity, and the digital age.