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Posts by Leaha Maria Villarreal

First Femme Frequencies Festival a powerful and inclusive success

Art Share LA opened its doors on March 8 for International Women’s Day, featuring music and the opening of the visual arts exhibit “Female Gaze.” The unified theme drew a packed gallery, with donations raised to support the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles. Performances were organized by Femme Frequencies visionaries Breana Gilcher and Rachel Van Amburgh. The goal was to honor as many musical communities as possible, and, with two stages, the sonic spectrum was well represented. Gilcher admitted that free improvisers anchored her initial concept of the evening, and this could be heard in the lineup. The creations of these female-identifying artists were able to move in so many directions, from more formal arrangements to loops and patterns, beats, choreography, and spoken word, which made for a powerful and inclusive Femme Frequencies festival.

Highlights from the evening included a performance by Lauren Elizabeth Baba: violinist, violist, composer, and improviser. Her multi-media performance of “always remember to stop and play with the flowers” involved string scratch tones, dancing, and a hypnotic ostinato interlaced with double stops that worked in tandem with the live visuals by Huntress Janos. A computer rendering of an ant loomed large onto the projected main stage in a grid of purple. What could have been interpreted as a non sequitur worked well with the music as it crawled, danced, and rotated slowly through the air, equally hypnotic in its journey.

Bonnie Barnett’s “Femme HUM” turned listeners into singers as we gathered in a circle to meditate on a single pitch. The singular note blossomed as the overtone series was introduced into the hum, allowing for the sonic partials to take shape and move across the room. Performers contributed to the fundamental in a soft yet supportive fashion, remaining a part of the circle rather than occupying a solo space.

While experiences created by Baba and Barnett resonated on the main stage, the secondary room possessed a more intimate quality. Poetry and storytelling by Argenta Walther transported listeners to vistas containing farms and big sky; Topaz Faerie gave a soulful set of beats and rhymes; and Audrey Harrer’s experimental pop and amplified harp managed to be both folksy and edgy.

Percussionist and vocalist Gingee closed out the evening with a high-energy set that showcased her skill on the kulintang, a set of pitched gongs native to the Philippines. Her hands flew over the metallic kettles, creating patterns that interlocked with her pre-produced beats and projected visuals. While the crowd remained appreciative, it had naturally petered out over the course of the four-hour festival. The dancing that Gingee encouraged didn’t quite evolve the way it might have if placed earlier in the set, but that didn’t deter her from owning the space and providing a spirited conclusion to the Femme Frequencies evening.

In a series of delightful events, none stood out more than MAIA, renowned vocalist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist on flute, harp, and vibraphone. She emerged from the back of the hall, using the flute to signify her presence. What came next was a rich blend of languages, songs, and modalities to express herself on harp and vocals that evoked a mix of jazz and world music. Call and response techniques brought the audience into her set, built around “Nature Boy,” first made popular by Nat King Cole. “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn” she advised, “is just to love and be loved in return.” It was a poignant takeaway on Femme Frequencies, where the long-term goal is not to have an annual celebration of womxn in music but to make it more commonplace — certainly something to celebrate.

P R I S M DAZZLES AT REDCAT

 

Anna Schubert as Bibi in the world premiere of "p r i s m"

Anna Schubert as Bibi in the world premiere of “p r i s m” presented by LA Opera Off Grand. (Photo: Larry Ho / LA Opera)

Sanctuary looms large in Ellen Reid’s  p r i s m, now in its opening run at LA Opera Off Grand at REDCAT. The two-character opera is a taut psychological journey communicated in color, movement, and song. Tenuous moments of security crumble with every act, illuminating the harsh truth of our supposed safe spaces.

Ailing Bibi and her doting mother, Lumee, live together in seclusion — a transparent room onstage that lets light in while conveying to the audience feelings of claustrophobia. Locked away from the world, they ward off dangers with games, mantras, and medicines. The scene is an unnerving mix of fluorescent light and gauzy fabrics; Impressionistic melodies that refuse to settle in their downward trajectory; and flecks of golden yellow for our gilded cage to contrast with the impending danger represented by blue.

Soprano Anna Schubert is convincing as Bibi, capturing her lost innocence in pure, heartbreaking tones. A quartet of dancers plus choir members from Trinity Wall Street add depth to Bibi’s narrative, moving where she cannot and uttering remembrances that have been blotted out for the sake of survival.

Schubert’s acting is first-rate. Opera characters run the risk of being nothing more than caricatures if executed poorly, held together by scenery and costume. Not so with Schubert, whose role demands physical strength coupled with fragility. Whether crawling from bed to chair on her damaged legs or hurtling her weight against dancers holding her aloft, Shubert held nothing back in her emodiment of the protagonist.

Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb provides an excellent foil for Bibi to rebel against as mother Lumee. At turns caring and careless, you want to hate her but can’t quite bring yourself to do so. With a sickening feeling akin to Stockholm syndrome, Reid and librettist Roxie Perkins show the many sides to this mother-daughter bond gone astray.

The music anchors these disparate feelings and propels the narrative forward. Pulling from a wide range of influences, Reid put the ensemble through its paces in a tour-de-force that moved from lush and tender harmonies to urgent whispers and batutto textures, throbbing bass designed to engulf the venue, and glissandi that served to oscillate between soundscapes of hearth and horror.

Ultimately, the choice exists to accept an unfolding past or remain steadfast in one’s current knowledge of the world. In deciding, we learn along with Bibi that rays of truth are not so easy to put back together.

p r i s m closes Sunday, December 2nd at 2pm at REDCAT before moving on to the PROTOYPE festival in New York City for its East Coast premiere in January of 2019.

Southland Ensemble Shines a Light on Fluxus

The red paper lanterns above Chinatown’s Chung King Court bobbed in the nighttime wind and bathed Automata Arts in a warm glow during Southland Ensemble’s season opener celebrating Fluxus on November 10. As the audience gathered in twos and threes around the courtyard, the performers suddenly took off, holding tapered candles aloft that invariably died in the wind. Unperturbed, the players repeated the action several times over before careening into the gallery, concluding Larry Miller’s 200 Yard Candle Dash. A passerby stopped me as the audience, delighted and equally unperturbed, filed into the space. “What’s going on here?” she queried. “A music show,” I replied, before hastily clarifying ‘an art show’ when my first answer illuminated nothing based on what had just transpired. Of course, this perfectly encapsulates the Fluxus movement: that intermedia experience for both artist and audience valuing process over product.

The rest of the evening passed in an equally enjoyable fashion with selections from the Fluxus canon involving aspects of light. Some used it as a means to an end, as in Yoko Ono’s 1955 Lighting Piece: light a match and watch it until it goes out. Others used the cover of darkness to begin the process, as Tomas Schmit’s Sanitas No. 2 (of which there are 200) instructs the players to drop items on the floor and search for them. Audience members gamely made way for the artists as they searched with flashlights on the dimly lit floor for coins, corks, and other paraphernalia. Edison’s Lighthouse by Ken Friedman invites the creation of a gleaming passage of mirrors whose lights were slowly rearranged to mesmerizing effect.

On the sonic side of the Fluxus spectrum, Takehisa Kosugi’s Organic Music from 1964 calls upon the performers to utilize breath with or without incidental instruments. Southland Ensemble decided to encircle the audience while breathing in and out of harmonicas for a deeply meditative state. Candle Piece for Radios by George Brecht produced a medley of sonic events from white noise, radio ads, and praise for Jesus Christ.

The pièce de résistance was Robert Bozzi’s Choice 1, whereupon the performer brought out and unwrapped a bakery box containing a round, white frosted cake; affixed his safety goggles; and proceeded to light the cake’s candles with a blowtorch. He then blew out the candles and planted the cake in his face to close out the program.

The intrepid Southland Ensemble performed these and other tasks with a seriousness that avoided pretension yet gleefully embraced the more playful aspects of the evening. It was a refreshing take on a genre that can be anti-art and anti-audience, daring spectators to make sense out of seemingly nothing. With their welcoming spirit and engaging program, Southland Ensemble embarked on a communal journey to question the nature of performance; examine the mundane; and shine a light on a period of creativity that continues to remain fresh and relevant decades later.

In with the Old and the New at Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra

Can “new” music and “old” music co-exist? Are the audiences the same, or do mixed programs aim for the intersection of our childhood Venn Diagrams, seeking the similarities?  These were the questions considered as I listened to Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, now in their fourth season, who performed a set of concerts on April 28 and 29.  Featuring a trio of works by Balch, Hertzberg, and Shostakovich, the ensemble effectively showcased its range and blended the old with the new..

Responding to the Waves by Katherine Balch skittered with restless, high-pitched energy.  The west coast premiere highlighted the prowess of solo violinist Nigel Armstrong as he skillfully moved through the program opener. The violin indeed shivered, hummed, and jittered its way through three musical movements as the composer envisioned. The output pleased audiences and garnered applause, with Balch arising for her bow from the seats.

The orchestral Spectre of the Spheres by David Hertzberg was wildly well received and propelled him onstage with a standing ovation. As Hertzberg explained from the stage, the breathy strings invoked the phenomenon of the Northern Lights as inspired by The Auroras of Autumn by Wallace Stevens, punctuated by increasing levels of percussive intensity.

The lion’s share of the program went to Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich.  In keeping with Kaleidoscope’s mission, this 20th-century staple was played sans conductor. It was well and ably played, but I wished for the Venn Diagram identification: why was it in the program? Was there a commonality amongst the composers to listen for, perhaps in its aesthetics or the musical conception?  Was it the contrasting styles that cleansed the sonic palette and created a balanced show? Is it to put contemporary music on equal footing with an established master? Or is it just a celebration of quality music, regardless of the era?

The whole program was favorably received by an enthusiastic and diverse audience, followed by an outdoor reception. I discovered by conversing with a few patrons that the Shostakovich was the sole reason for attending. Moreover, the earlier half of the program was eschewed in favor of hearing the concert-closer. I inquired as to why that was: familiarity. Here’s hoping that by consistently combining contemporary art with historical masterpieces, Kaleidoscope and its listeners find common ground.

Perishable Music Remains: Now Hear Ensemble at PMCA

The Now Hear Ensemble presented composer and bassist Federico Llach’s Perishable Music as a part of ArtNight Pasadena on Friday, March 9, performing for all four hours of the late night reverie. Billing itself as an installation rather than a performance, the quintet of clarinet, saxophone, viola, bass, and percussion took up residence in the Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA) to explore issues of impermanence in music.

Six stations were distributed throughout the museum space, which the majority of the ensemble rotated through over the course of the evening. Performers shredded their pages as they were completed in a growing heap on the floor with no bin to catch the detritus: another sculpture in the making and a nod to the fleeting nature of music.  A street-level installation projected images unto graffitied walls in the parking structure, rotating from footage of the performers playing to reciting text with changes spurred on by the spectator’s shredding of the score.

The music was well designed to stand alone and work in this alternate mode of presentation. Certain sections sounded interchangeable even with idiomatic lines: the ghost of a bowed vibraphone from Jordan Curcuruto, warm clarinet trills by Amanda Kritzberg, and Jonathan Morgan’s glissandi that skittered across the viola. The material was well planned despite no conductor and little communication amongst the players as dyads traded corners of the room, seemingly coordinated yet hard to discern the truth of the score. Far from being frustrating, the effect was quite liberating. Floating colors of sound and atonal melodies cleverly resisted standard harmonic progressions, allowing the music to sidestep resolutions and feel complete on its own as the hours passed.

Being in the main space for so long encouraged an amorphous fourth wall. Performers became art sculptures and docents as they interacted with the crowd. Museum-goers stood close to capture pictures and video. When the ensemble took staggered breaks their stands and instruments remained, creating silent works like found objects amongst the paintings. The nature of the work shone through, however, as the musicians steadily created, destroyed, and resumed their practice. Perishable Music lived up to its name but the experience was one to remember.

Playing Like a Girl at REDCAT with Eve Beglarian

Saturday night at REDCAT treated a full house to Play Like A Girl, an evening of works by American composer Eve Beglarian. CalArts students and faculty explored music from her ever-evolving Book of Days. Hailed by the Los Angeles Times as “a grand and gradually manifesting work in progress,” this latest installation did not disappoint.

Examples of “playing like a girl” abound in stories of justice, strength, regret, and courage. Highlights included Vera Weber’s Fireside rendition of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s poetry with block chords that cycled through harmonies from Crawford’s fifth prelude. The choice to have the pianist recite the text instead of a vocalist lent the work an intimacy it would otherwise be without; as the pianist played with her back to the audience, illuminated yet still not fully visible, you felt the singularity of her efforts and hung on to every word, unsure when the next iteration would begin. The program’s opener I will not be sad in this world for flute and pre-recorded voice based on the Armenian song Ashkharumes Akh Chim Kashil left audience members spellbound by CalArts faculty member Rachel Rudich on the shakuhachi, whose melodies rose and fell with a mystery and grace only matched by the timelessness felt by Beglarian’s setting of the traditional text.

The titular pieces delivered on their taunt with energy and style. Performed by a quartet of pianists (Vera Weber, Yaryn Choi, Vicki Ray, and Sarah Voshall), the variations on Kaval Sviri from the Bulgarian Women’s Chorus can be played in any combination for either toy pianos, grand pianos, or both. This evening presented two variations with mixtures of grand piano, toy pianos, celeste, melodica, and harmonium. The propulsive lines floated and spun, glittering with the metallic bite of the celeste and the elongated vibrations of the harmonium.

The program closed with The bus driver didn’t change his mind from 2002. Beglarian’s Bang on a Can commission constructed a world taut and rhythmic led by pianist Vicki Ray, with references to Mahler’s second symphony and Berio’s Sinfonia. Laced with pre-recorded material constructed from pipa samples, the band intoned bluesy ululations from the clarinets by Phil O’Connor and Tal Katz on cello. Vocalist Meltem Ege was strategically reserved for the end, cutting through the texture with a “keep going” mantra inspired by poetry from the Bangladeshi troublemaker Taslima Nasrin and closing the event with the perfect message.