Hi everybody. Nick Norton here, founder, editor, designer, and sometimes-subject-of-reviews of New Classic LA. And I just signed the necessary documents to transfer ownership of the website to Equal Sound. This post is to explain why that is, and let you, dear readers and supporters, know what I’ve got planned for New Classic LA’s next decade.
Yeah, decade. I set up New Classic LA more than ten years ago now. When I moved home to LA after my first round of grad school for composition and started trying to make connections in the new music scene, the first thing I noticed was that there was no central concert calendar. While I was in college I had written for a site called San Diego Punk that had a calendar of every punk or hardcore show in San Diego. You could check the site every Monday and decide what bands you were going to see that week. It made it incredibly easy to get connected with the punk scene.
I’ve always thought that shows are the bread and butter of any music scene. In addition to being the main outlet for artists, they’re also a place for musicians and community members to meet, hear something new, make connections to people who might inspire them, have their ideas and preconceptions challenged, and—increasingly important in this age of daily political terrorism—do something enjoyable.
Writing for San Diego Punk, and having their calendar as a resource, introduced me to a ton of musicians in the San Diego scene when I first moved there. When I got to LA and needed to meet musicians, I thought “hey, I’m passable enough at building websites to throw a basic calendar page together, and that would be a good way to meet people.”
So I did it. Mostly on downtime at my day job. Within days I received emails from five or six ensembles asking me to list their shows and offering me press tickets.
“Whoa,” I thought, “this is actually working!” But as a composer, this presented me with a massive conflict of interest. Could I accept free tickets to shows if I didn’t write about them? If I wrote about them, would that turn me into a critic rather than a composer? If I said nice things would they be interpreted as syncophantic attempts to get my pieces played? If I said mean, or at least critical, things, would that keep my pieces from getting played?
My solution was to ask people who seemed interested in the New Classic LA if they wanted to write for it. I didn’t have a budget, so the payment was free tickets to shows or free CDs (this was when CDs were still a thing). That way we could post things regularly to keep traffic up, they could struggle with the inherent conflicts in reviewing their peers, and I could focus on the calendar aspects of the site.
This model worked pretty well for a while. For a long while, actually—it’s more or less what we still use. At one point I think I had ten writers contributing semi-regularly, and two friends helping out with maintaining the calendar. Things were cool. But as I grew and found more opportunities as a composer, I had less and less time to pay attention to all of the review and interview requests and necessary updates and maintenance to the site. Plus I had a new project to which I was devoting the large majority of my free time and energy: the concert series Equal Sound.
Producing concerts with Equal Sound is, for me, an artistic process akin to composition. In fact, I believe running New Classic LA is a form of composition as well. Music, for me, is a way of listening, and unique to every listening individual. My job as a composer, then, is to help people hear things. I always ask myself what the best way to do that is in any given situation: if there’s something that I want people to hear that doesn’t exist yet, perhaps I have to write that piece and have it performed or recorded. If that thing that I want them to hear already exists, then maybe the best way for me to help a listener hear it is to put on a concert of that thing, or to make a mixtape with that thing on it, or, in the case of New Classic LA, to write about that thing or get some publicity for an event featuring it.
With this in mind, more and more of my time and energy has been going to Equal Sound. Last year we received our 501c3 letter from the IRS, and I went all in on trying to grow the series. Realizing I didn’t have time for both, I started asking trusted friends if they’d be interested in taking over New Classic LA. I even looked into having bigger music sites acquire it. While I was putting effort into this, the site itself began to flounder as I wasn’t chasing down writers for updates. You might have noticed that things here have been lacking lately. I simply didn’t have time for both Equal Sound and New Classic LA. One had to go, and it wasn’t going to be Equal Sound.
But I didn’t, and don’t, want New Classic LA to die. It just needs a better infrastructure and more resources to continue to run well and serve our community.
Thankfully, we came up with a solution. The lawyers who got Equal Sound’s 501c3 set up advised us to make our mission broad so that we could partake in a wide range of musical activities. Equal Sound’s mission, as it were, is “to introduce listeners to new music by breaking down the traditional confines of musical genres.”
In case you don’t see where this is going, writing about music and running a concert calendar is a great way to introduce listeners to new music. Equal Sound has an infrastructure, and a bank account, and a board. And the board just approved Equal Sound taking ownership of New Classic LA.
Now, instead of splitting my attention between projects, I can refocus it to make New Classic LA work within the context of Equal Sound’s mission.
So I’m rebuilding the site. The concert calendar will still be front and center, but it will live alongside a public database of LA musicians, ensembles, venues, presenters, and resources, which many people in the scene have said they want. The reviews and features will continue with our staff writers, though to facilitate better journalism we will also create a separate set of community pages where people can post their own reviews and interviews, to give other concert series and musicians a platform to say what they want to say. We will also solidify a fundraising program to help cover the site costs and pay the writers. We’re going to grow this thing to be sustainable and to help our music community thrive.
This is going to be a huge project. It will take time. Things might look dead for a while while I build the new site on a testing server. But this is something I am extremely excited to work on, which is something that I haven’t felt in a while about working on the site. I believe this will be better for all of us in the LA scene. If you have thoughts or comments or ideas, I’d be very pleased to hear them too. Just comment below, or use the contact page. If you’re into making a now TAX DEDUCTIBLE contribution toward the site expenses, visit this page.
I really appreciate your taking the time to read this, and can’t wait to share the next decade with you.
TL;DR: Equal Sound now owns and operates New Classic LA. I’m making a massive overhaul and the site will look a bit outdated until it’s done, at which point it will again become the best resource for new music in LA.
This Saturday, Spacepants perform on a bill alongside Electric Soundbath and Luther Burbank at the California Institute of Abnormalarts, or CIA, on a show presented by Synchromy. According to the pants, while Jennifer Beattie was singing and Diana Wade was playing viola at a music festival in Vermont, they met, realized they shared a life-long dream of wearing as many sparkles as possible, and ran joyfully out into a field to celebrate. Their enthusiasm attracted the attention of some rad aliens who invited us to party and jam with them. As luck would have it, they were having a full-on sparkle party. When Jen and Diana woke up the next day, groggy and disoriented, they discovered the rad aliens had left us three parting gifts: a 25-foot long tube, a mission, and several pairs of spacepants. The tube would of course become a central focus of their music-making. The mission, which they accepted, is to wear spacepants while bringing both their own and other earth-bound beings’ works of music, poetry, multi-media, storytelling and art to life. There was also something about crystals.
Ahead of the show Spacepants had time to answer a few questions and send us a photo of space whales cuddling.
My understanding is that Spacepants found their beginnings in a field in Vermont with some aliens and a lot of sparkles. Could you expand on that?
The thing is, this was one. serious. party. We were completely unprepared for the life-changeingness of this party. At the party was the tube. And honestly, nothing else mattered once we saw that thing. The aliens were maybe doing telepathy, but anyway they had this great welcoming attitude and inclusive energy, and there was this music that we just couldn’t ignore. The aliens and the music were totally rad. We never wanted that Sparkle Party to end.
It seems like you’ve taken the 25 foot drainage tube they left you quite seriously, where some groups might do one piece with it and move on. I’ve heard you a few times and know what a range of sounds it can make…but can you sell us on tube?
Sales are not required. The tube is the perfect instrument. The tube is life. Sounds of the tube will enter your dreams and re-arrange your subconscious formats so you can hear the sounds of the universe really really good. We show our gratitude to our friends the rad aliens with tubular celebration at every show.
Periscope, your current live set that you’re playing this weekend, is anchored by the Spacepants arrangement of Garth Knox’s Jonah and the Whale. What went into making this arrangement? Are Spacepants down on whales?
We got the idea to make this arrangement by hearing the original version with tuba, and then we were like well, Jen could be a tuba too, so we called the aliens and they sent us a tube harness so we could strap the tube to our bodies, and then Diana slayed on viola and then we were pretty much there. The existence of our best friends, Spacewhale 1 and Spacewhale 2, proves that we’re not down on whales.
The pants have one leg on each coast of the US. How do you prepare pieces? Are meetings most convenient in the loins?
Actually, there is an intergalactic rehearsal space, but it’s expensive, as you can imagine. Spacepants gets a huge discount cause we know a guy. We also like Miami, which is kind of like meeting in the foot, or Sea Ranch, which is in the shoulder-zone. But yeah, it’s different! We often do that thing called planning ahead, which is weird; we dream up ideas on long phone calls, practice on our own, and delight in the unexpected. We have a huge amount of trust in each other on stage, and whatever happens, we’re wearing spacepants, so we know we’ll be fine.
Before you met these aliens you were on what seems like a very traditional path in classical music, and now you are featured on prayer candles. This seems like a win to me. But you’ve certainly still got connections to the classical world. Are folks there, if there is a there, as receptive as you’d hope to this project?
Let’s get one thing straight: we’re not on the prayer candle, the tube is on the prayer candle. Tube is life.
It seems as though wherever we go, the reputation of the tube precedes itself. We’re surprised and delighted to say that many of our colleagues seem surprised and delighted by the tube. We’re pretty sure cellists are into us, but we’re cornering the tuba market, so there might be some animosity there.
Pre-alien sparkle party, were you as interested in performance art? That’s a major part of what Spacepants does.
It’s basically like this: after the Sparkle Party we realized that we had not only gained a tube and Spacepants, we had also gained a new perspective. What the rad aliens had was curiosity, and in honor of that we are just letting our curiosity and enthusiasm direct the development of Spacepants. So we’re pretty much interested in everything, and everything is an idea waiting to be celebrated and explored.
Talk to me about the CIA.
Well, Diana’s dad was in it.
Also, there’s a clown corpse, and you can drink beer in there!
How can people find you?
Anything else you’d like to add?
If you come to our show, you can make yourself a tinfoil hat. Or, you can make yourself TWO tinfoil hats. One to wear now, and one for later. Also, we are lucky enough to be playing next to two other *fabulous* acts: Electric Sound Bath and Luther Burbank. Doors are at 8:30, 18 and over, full bar at the venue. We always encourage sparkles – get your best Sparkle Party outfits on and wear ‘em to the show!
You heard the pants. See you Saturday night. Details on the facebook event page at facebook.com/events/405850136893675.
In honor of International Women’s Day, this Friday, March 8th, Femme Frequencies are putting on a festival throughout spaces of Art Share LA. The festival, which runs concurrently with opening night for Art Share’s new exhibition Female Gaze, celebrates spontaneous creation, experimental expression, and music for inner and outer harmony created by the hands and voices of those underrepresented in their sound-making fields. In an effort to affect direct action via art, they’ll also be collecting goods to donate to the Downtown Women’s Center.
Organizer Breana Gilcher found time this week to answer some questions about the festival. Complete details are on the facebook event page at facebook.com/events/2157131481018938. Here’s Breana:
First off, your lineup is fantastic, and fantastically diverse. I see a heavy dose of bass and electronics, some experimental pop, no shortage of classical instrumentation….there’s even some stand up. How’d you go about reaching out to such a wide ranging group?
The idea of presenting a festival like this first occurred to me a couple years ago when Vinny Golia, a teacher of mine from CalArts, wrote me with the name of an improvising oboist named Catherine Plugyers. There aren’t many oboe players who are also improvisers, so I was very interested and sought out her work. I discovered that not only is she an incredible musician, but she has been a part of annual concerts celebrating womxn in improvisation in London on International Women’s Day. It sparked something in me.
Though I’ve only been in LA a few years, that is enough time to have noticed the gender imbalance in the performing communities and the absence of concerts like ours. From that moment the concert was already happening for me, and I saw it happening in Art Share. It was loud, with music spilling out of every corner, creating currents that guided visitors through Art Share’s art galleries and music rooms. An aural tipping of the scales in the opposite direction. Now it’s all happening, this week!
Initially, my concept of the festival was centered around free improvisers, but this issue of representation is not just present in niche or avant garde genres – it’s everywhere. It became important to me to honor as many musical communities as possible and create a multi-representational event in which not only the performers are from a wide range of communities, but the audience as well. So often we go to shows and see the same people, and remain within our own sonic bubbles. I want the audience to show up and see some faces they know and many the don’t.
I chose the lineup by intentionally seeking out musical communities I was not well-acquainted with in addition to my own community. It turns out you don’t have to look hard to find incredible womxn artists in LA. I started with a short but substantial list, and very quickly found many years worth of festival headliners. It was difficult to narrow down for this one evening!
It’s important for me to admit that I was surprised by this. I too had been tricked into thinking that there wasn’t as large a community of womxn making work in LA because I was not seeing womxn filling the shows I was going to. In reality, womxn are innovating, creating and producing all over the place, in every field. Every one of the womxn you will see in the show on Friday is a headliner.
What can listeners expect, and what do you hope they’ll take from the show?
Listeners will experience an immersive, vibrant environment. There will be two performance spaces, a large open gallery for audience members to explore, and drinks so they don’t wander empty-handed! Musically, there will be something for everyone – attendees are encouraged to try it all. There is also a festival-wide sound healing event in the middle of the evening that everyone will be able to participate in, no experience necessary. Our hope is that you will walk away feeling inspired by the incredible sonic explorations of these womxn and compelled to find the femme frequencies in your own communities.
The goal is #balanceforbetter, this year’s International Women’s day theme. The angle of the show is to tip the scales. For one night, experience a rich dive into the voices of womxn in a submersive way. I want audience members to have the same feeling I did when I finished (or at least, stopped adding to) my list of possible performers: inspired and more closely connected to our diverse greater-Los Angeles musical community!
What are the biggest challenges you face curating and producing this event? How do you overcome them?
My co-producer Rachel and I have done a lot of small DIY show stuff (she also runs Classical Revolution) but neither of us had taken on as big a production as Femme Frequencies. We’d never done anything with so many artists, never fundraised on this level, never dealt with obtaining sponsorships. It was a harrowing undertaking at times, but our strong belief in the necessity of this event pushed us forward. The enthusiasm we have already received throughout this process is reassurance that a wide spectrum of musical communities in LA have been craving an event like this for some time.
As two cis white women, we were particularly self-conscious about our expression of radical inclusivity within this event. The celebration of womxn to us means ALL womxn, of all colors, ages, abilities, wherever they place their throne on the femme gender spectrum. Our hope is that we can build an environment that fosters healthy dialogue and the opportunity to learn about being supportive allies for all womxn.
Could you talk a bit about how the work of the partners you’ve cultivated for it, such as the Downtown Women’s Center and Art Share, relates to the show? [this is the spot to talk up the women’s center if you’d like, glad to link to them]
As a performer and oboe player predominantly, my work does not always directly take on an activist’s function. I wanted to take that opportunity with this show and create an event for Los Angeles and ALL of its womxn.
The Downtown Women’s Center (DWC) is the only organization in Los Angeles focused exclusively on serving and empowering women experiencing homelessness and formerly homeless women. Their mission states: “We envision a Los Angeles with every woman housed and on a path to personal stability. Our mission is to end homelessness for women in greater Los Angeles through housing, wellness, employment, and advocacy.” And since Art Share has partnered with DWC before, they were able to help connect us. So far we’ve raised over $3,600 and our goal is to break $4,000 by the end of Femme Frequencies!
I knew, from meeting you through Kristen Klehr, that you had an interest in concert production and putting on shows, but have mainly heard you around town as a performer. Do you see your role running Femme Frequencies as a contrast and alternative to your performance practice, or are they two expressions of the same interest?
Performing and teaching have been my primary roles in the last few years, yes. I occasionally put on small DIY improv shows for my ensemble Petrichor, and I wouldn’t say producing is a large part of my creative practice, though it became a part of it in the process of creating this show. My common motivation has been to do what I can to help foster community, and that drove my idea for Femme Frequencies in the first place. When the inspiration behind Femme Frequencies hit, I was compelled to make it happen and so the producer hat appeared in service of this event. In the words of my co-producer Rachel: Trying to balance performance, teaching, and producing (the last of which is still fairly new) takes a lot out of you, but it is also the first time I’ve felt like I am authentically expressing myself. In each of these three vocations, I’m 100% driven by the need to curate experiences that offer a deeper level of connection and authenticity for everyone involved.
Perhaps it’s far off in your mind as this first Femme Frequencies approaches, but do you see this as the start of an ongoing series?
We’re not sure yet. After having listened to so many incredible artists, we do feel compelled to showcase them. But the long-term goal is not to have an annual celebration of womxn in music like this, but to have shows like this integrated into our music culture. Our goal is more to inspire our community to choose their collaborators from the rich well of local femme artists, and increase the likelihood of more shows like Femme Frequencies happening organically.
Where can people get more info on what you’re up to?
People can check out our Facebook event and our instagram account @femmefrequencies, where we’ve been posting all about our artists, Art Share’s gallery opening, and the other exciting facets of this show we have in store!
Anything else you’d like to add?
If there is doubt remaining for anyone about the pervasiveness of incredible fem-identifying artistry in Los Angeles, this show should do the trick. We need to have these kinds of events in order to begin tipping the scales. We need to have the voices on stage reflecting a diverse audience. We need to experience and be made uncomfortable by perspectives foreign to our own.
This festival, being 100% defined by and comprised of womxn, also provides a safe space, which is still desperately needed. This show is also a place for people who don’t regularly play with womxn to discover new possible collaborators, and a place for womxn to experience camaraderie. It is a place for all to feel inspired.
To support Femme Frequencies you can make a tax-deductible donation via Fractured Atlas at fundraising.fracturedatlas.org/femme-frequencies. Details on this Friday’s festival are at facebook.com/events/2157131481018938.
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,
Here at New Classic LA we love it when musicians and composers talk with each other about their work. In what is becoming an ongoing series, flutist and wasteLAnd executive director Rachel Beetz had time to speak with the performers, composers, and poet involved in their concert this Saturday at 8pm at Art Share. Tickets and details are at wastelandmusic.org. Here’s Rachel:
Happy Valentine’s Day!
wasteLAnd’s upcoming concert on Saturday includes collaborations and realizations of some quirky and weird love songs. We’re featuring Stephanie Aston throughout the program, including a premiere by Nicholas Deyoe. I asked some questions of composers Katherine Young and Nicholas Deyoe, performers Stephanie Aston and Dustin Donahue and the author of the text of Deyoe’s new work, Allison Carter. We hope you can join all of us to celebrate all of the weird types of love this program has to offer!
Manoalchadia – Chaya Czernowin
Love Letter – Liza Lim/Dustin Donahue
and I am responsible for having hands (five Allison Carter songs) – Nicholas Deyoe (world premiere)
Cellogram – James Tenney
Folk Songs – Luciano Berio
Master of Disguises – Katherine Young
RB: Stephanie, this concert involves a huge range of vocal colors! Can you talk a bit about how you’re approaching each different style? Are there connections between pieces in your approach at all?
Stephanie Aston: A lot of what I do is based on not just the indications given by the composer, but also the text. The text I sing in Manoalchadia is very aggressive for the first two thirds of the piece, so everything I do, be it low notes in full chest register, vocal fry, breathy singing, etc. has an aggressive and raw feeling behind it. Later in the piece the text becomes loving rather than aggressive, so everything I do comes from a gentle place.
Deyoe’s settings of the Allison Carter texts are very much in his style of setting text. There’s an ease of production and moderation of sound, in a certain sense. I have “poco vib” or “no vib” written in several times because nothing should be taken to excess; it’s just a clear beautiful ringing sound. In a way that allows me to bring out the nuances of the text as they come by and respond to them uniquely each time I sing it.
Young’s piece has mostly extended techniques until the end. It feels like an arrival piece of sorts because there was a time when I couldn’t do a tongue trill. The piece gives you hints along the way. Then at the end, when the text is fully there, it still isn’t, because it’s quiet and divided. I have the vowels and Leslie has the consonants.
The Berio Folk Songs have a wide variety of texts, so each movement has its own character. I try to keep my approach simple, thinking of how someone in the countryside of each piece might go about singing it and just try and have some fun.
RB: Dustin, Liza Lim’s Love Letter for solo hand drum asks the performer to “write a letter to your beloved” and “translate the letters of each word into rhythmic information.” Could you describe your encounter with this process? Was there anything that was particularly challenging in realizing this piece?
Dustin Donahue: The open-ended nature of this brief score was particularly daunting. There is no suggested process for translating letters into rhythmic information – this must be a system of my own design. As a first step, I created my text, where my own “love letter” runs in counterpoint with texts by Margaret Atwood and Simone de Beauvoir which were read at my wedding.
Emphasizing the score’s instruction to make rhythms from letters themselves, I explored a range of coded methods for translating individual letters into sounds; these, at first, included standardized practices like Morse code and ASCII, all of which felt impersonal and mechanical. Ultimately, as I analyzed and copied these texts, I became enchanted by the sound of handwriting. This was an intimate, highly personal method of producing sounds from letters; I recorded myself writing each text, and then transcribed in meticulous detail the exact rhythms of my writing and the articulations created with each stroke. In my performance, these rhythms and articulations are reproduced on the frame drum not with the intent of imitating the sound of writing, but instead to create a new kind of percussive language based upon the idiosyncratic movements of the hand in writing.
RB: Katherine, Could you talk a bit about the connection of the tape players to Kelly Links’ “The Girl Detective?” To me, with the idea of searching, it reminds me of old times looking for a particular song on a tape and having trouble if the tape wasn’t in a clear spot to begin with.
Katherine Young: Absolutely – I had the same association from my childhood in mind – looking for that one particular spot on a tape that you remember… and then there were for me, those special investigations when you never find what you’re looking for. It’s like that part of the song never existed, or maybe it only existed in your imagination.
For me, the tape recorders could also signify searching in terms of research, the way people used to conduct interviews with small tape recorders.
But at some point, the machines stopped being directly related to the story, and I was just interested in the sounds they made. I love the whirring and murmuring of the rewind and fast forward and the percussive clicks and clicks of the eject.
These sounds then became the basis for the instrumental sounds. The percussive tape recorder sounds, in particular, they circle back and inform how I treated the text when it is finally sung completely, breaking up the attack of the sound (word) and the sustain and splitting it between the two voices. To me this displacement relates to the ideas of elusiveness in the text.
RB: What other ways does this piece “search?”
Katherine: In my experience, playing many extended techniques in a woodwind instrument feels like a form of searching. Unstable multiphonics and the overblown squeaks are very hard to find and control. They will be a little different every time. These are my favorite kinds of sounds – the ones that surprise you!
RB: Allison, Nick has written a lot of music with your text at this point! Have you had text set before? Has it changed your approach? How has that shaped your approach to writing or your creative process?
Allison Carter: Yes! I love that Nick has composed multiple pieces using text I have written. His music teaches me about the text and sort of opens up the perimeter around the text. Like – oh, yes, it can sound like that! It can feel like that! It can be about… something like that! I have had text set before. Several years ago Gabriel Kahane composed music using my work. The experience of hearing how the text is met and built on by a new composition opens my mind to new directions the writing could go, almost as though the music turns the light on in an adjacent room. Hearing the text sung also confirms and pushes some elements of my writing process, like always editing out loud.
RB: Allison Carter, the author of the poetry you set in “and I am responsible for having hands” mentioned that this piece really captures the ambience or aura she had while making these works. You also seem to capture and feed off of skills of specific players. Can you talk a little bit about how these worlds collide into this piece? How did you consider the text and then the players while composing this work?
ND: I was really touched (and relieved) when Allison said that in rehearsal last night. I wasn’t setting out with the assumption that I fully understood the essence of what Allison was feeling when she wrote those words, but was responding to what they made me feel. Reading Allison Carter’s poetry resonates with me because her words elicit in me the same difficult-to-define emotions that are driving a lot of the music that I write.
When setting the words into a vocal line, I try to respect what is printed as much as possible. Punctuation, grammar, space on the page, and line breaks all guide how I pace the text. I don’t repeat words, I don’t change orders, and I don’t intentionally distort anything regarding the words. My aim is to present the text in the way that most closely resembles how I read it and then to create a musical context around it. For Allison to say that this piece has captured the aura that she was feeling when writing it makes me feel even more connected to her words, because my goal with the musical setting is to capture my own emotional state reading the words. It feels very personal to me. This is definitely related to the way that I like to work with performers. When I write music for you, Ashley, or Stephanie, the process becomes so rooted in our histories with each other. The whiskies and teas we drank together, the times we’ve spent sitting in a room and exploring sound with each other, the experiences we’ve had performing in ensembles together. I’m not writing for flute, cello, and voice. It’s for Beetz, Walters, and Aston. It’s about the way you interact with each other, how you sound as individuals, and the smartass remarks you make in rehearsals. This is the first time I’ve composed music for Alison Bjorkedal, but having her as a part of this ensemble has felt completely natural. After our experience of preparing Tenney’s massive Changes for six harps in 2017, Alison has felt like a good friend and a similar musical spirit.
Working with Allison Carter’s poetry makes me feel closer to her on a certain level, but also makes me feel like I understand myself a little better. I feel the same way working on a project like this with close friends. The openness and honesty present in these collaborations deepens my connection to all of you, but also sparks a self-reflection that continues to define who I want to be as an artist. And I am responsible for having hands is a cycle that engages poetry with an uncanny resemblance to my inner thoughts and is composed for some incredible friends. This is music designed to be created with people I love.
On Wednesday night pianist Vicki Ray and visual artist Carole Kim combine forces at REDCAT for two huge new works for piano, electronics, and projections. The evening includes the world premiere of Ben Phelps’s exponentially expanding Sometimes I feel like my time ain’t long, based on the Alan Lomax recording of the eponymous tune. Also featured is Daniel Lentz’s Yellowstone-inspired River of 1000 Streams, which was named a top recording pick of 2017 by Alex Ross in The New Yorker.
Vicki has been a major player in the LA scene for years as a pianist, improviser, composer, and teacher. With all she does I’m glad she had a few minutes to answer some questions about this show. Tickets and full details are available at redcat.org/event/vicki-ray-and-carole-kim-rivers-time.
Rivers of Time focuses on two “monumental” new works. How do you approach large scale pieces, as both performer and concert programmer?
In terms of programming it really depends on the piece(s). Usually with one long work I’ll put something contrasting on the other half of the concert like miniatures or just feature the single work itself. But this concert is different. Each piece is almost exactly a half hour. They seemed like perfect book ends. And then there is the thematic linkage between the pieces in terms of their focus on time. So it seemed a natural pairing. As a performer my approach has to vary depending on the demands of the piece. Ben’s piece is very rigorous – it is extremely mercurial and there are many fast shifts of tempo and mood. It’s technically virtuosic. A lot of the challenge is about knowing what’s going to happen next. Daniel’s piece is equally demanding but in a completely different way – it uses an almost constant tremolo which can be really exhausting for the body. So I had to work up to complete run-throughs of it…sort of like training for a marathon. With this piece it’s about staying relaxed (well, when isn’t it?) and keeping the long arch of the piece always in the forefront of my mind.
What really excites me about this Wednesday night’s concert at REDCAT is the opportunity to share Ben Phelps’ new work Sometimes I Feel Like My Time Ain’t Long. It has been a total pleasure to learn this piece, or I should say continue learning this work. Like all great pieces it has layers to uncover and explore and everytime I sit down to work on it I find something new. Technically and musically it’s incredibly satisfying. The way Ben exponentially expands the piano part in correspondence with the time-stretched folk tune is ingenious. But rather than be some kind of purely cerebral exercise the totality of the piece is quite mystical and haunting. I feel very honored to get to give the premiere and I hope to play it many more times.
Could you discuss your collaboration with Carol for this project?
I started hearing about Carole’s work years ago when she was at CalArts. And then shortly after that she did some work with my brother, Scot, up in Montana. He was raving about her work and I saw some clips from the evening that blew me away. Finally here in Los Angeles I had several opportunities to see her work, most notably at an Open Gate Concert with some stellar improvisers. What impressed me was how she is able to join the musical conversation by weaving visuals into the texture without dominating it. It’s incredibly unique and thoughtful. Elegant. For this concert she’ll be projecting onto scrims that envelop the piano.
Your career as a soloist, collaborative pianist, improviser, composer, teacher is, to put it mildly, wildly diverse. How do your various musical practices inform each other? Is balance a challenge, or are they more like different aspects of the same work and interests?
I don’t really see it “various musical practices.” When I was a kid I played pop music, I sang in choirs, I acted in plays, I wrote little tunes, I improvised, and I learned classical pieces. They weren’t all squared away in separate boxes. So I’ve always been that sort of player even though there was a long stretch during my college years where a lot of the improvising and composing got put on a back burner. I feel much more creatively energized when I can work both as a creator and a re-creator.
You began in Los Angeles as a graduate student at USC. You’re now the head of keyboard studies at Cal Arts. To some extent, I view these schools as existing on completely opposite ends of the musical spectrum, at least aesthetically. Could you comment a bit on this dichotomy in the LA scene, if it even is one?
I can’t really comment on USC. I graduated from there a million years ago and I’m sure it’s changed since then. But what I do know without a doubt is that I wouldn’t be the artist I am if it weren’t for my years at CalArts. The place has had an enormous impact on me. My colleagues and my students are so gifted and interesting that I often feel like a permanent student rather than faculty. I’m so grateful to be a part of it. It continues to stretch and challenge me every day.
How has the new music scene in Los Angeles changed over your career thus far? I know we’re quite proud of ourselves in recent years, with good reason, and wonder if that has always been the case or if this is the renaissance it seems to be.
It’s definitely a great city to be in right now if you’re into new music! There’s so much going on and yes, much more than when I first arrived in the 80’s. Back in the 80’s and 90’s there was the EAR Unit and Xtet. The Green Umbrella concerts were always great. And the Monday Evening Concerts were there too of course! And there was always something interesting going on at the Schoenberg Institute at USC. Also there used to be those fantastic soirees at Betty Freeman’s house…wow…those were incredible evenings. But in terms of the number of groups playing and the diversity of musics being offered right now – it’s fantastic. I just wish we had a few more good, small to mid-size venues that were dedicated to new music (AND had a good piano…!)
What was your favorite concert you’ve attended or played on in the past year?
Oh that’s too hard! But the first thing that comes to mind is hearing Andrew McIntosh’s piece Shasta on the Green Umbrella. Just gorgeous. [editor: I too have that piece near the top of my list.]
What’s next for you after this show?
Next up is Feldman’s For John Cage with violinist Tom Chiu and dancers Oguri and Roxanne Steinberg. I’m really looking forward to it! February 26 on Piano Spheres.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I just want to thank YOU and all the folks at New Classic LA for what you do!!
Tickets for Rivers of Time are available at redcat.org/event/vicki-ray-and-carole-kim-rivers-time.
On Thursday, December 20, contemporary violin duo The Furies, along with their friends Joanna Lynn-Jacobs, Rhea Fowler, Theodosia Roussos, Grecia Serrano-Navarro, and Jordan Curcurturo, present A Cure For Hysteria at Art Share. A Cure for Hysteria is a performance piece that explores the history and relevance of the gendered word ‘hysteria’—its social connotations and consequences—through the lens of contemporary music. This fits right in with The Furies’ mission to bring intersectional feminism into the concert hall through immersive performance experiences that challenge their audience and community, encourage audience members to demand more diverse programming from their musical institutions, and to learn more about the histories of women in a white male dominated canon. We caught up with violinists Maiani da Silva and Kate Outterbridge to talk about their new project.
How did you two meet, and what was the impetus for starting The Furies?
Kate: It was totally love at first sight; I was visiting Bang on a Can Summer Festival, when Mai was a fellow/ the summer before I moved to LA, and we chatted briefly about living in Los Angeles, and when I got out here, we just started hanging out all the time! It was so great to be in a new city, know nothing about what I was doing, go through some shit, and have a friend that was there for me in so many ways. I think that made it really easy for us to work together as musicians; we are just on the same page about a lot of things, so when we decided to play together, it just came really naturally.
When The Furies was starting out, we both just had a common interest in exploring music explicitly by composers that identify as women and non-binary, but since then, we have really transformed our vision to be something that really is about experiences and issues.
You are of course extremely skilled violinists. What do you mean by immersive performance experiences, though?
Maiani: Several collaborations, both in our past and present-day lives, have made us more curious and open to exploring new ways of performing. For instance, Kate and I both studied dance very seriously in our teens and into our early 20s, so our relationship to performing goes beyond the traditional classical music form. Another example is that both Kate and I are Blackbird Creative Lab alumnae (‘17, and ‘18, respectively), and as we all know, Eighth Blackbird is super innovative and inspiring when it comes to incorporating other aspects of performance into their concerts. At the Lab, we were lucky to also work with choreographers Mark DeChiazza and Ros Warby. Another inspiration for diving into the experimental performance realm is performance artist Taylor Mac. I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with Taylor for almost three years as a violinist in the band, and Kate has also performed with Taylor and the band here in L.A. But the opportunity to create something personal came to fruition thanks to the generous and fantastic Elizabeth Baker, who gifted us “A Cure For Hysteria” last spring! We are hoping this will be the beginning of many performative-type collaborations with other composers and fellow performers.
I normally try to avoid any mention of gender in interviews because work should speak for itself and there’s usually no reason to point it out (aside from calling out bias). In your case, however, you explicitly state that bringing intersectional feminism to the concert hall is key to the ensemble’s mission. Could you discuss, in broad terms, how you do that?
Kate: Yeah, I think that is an important question. To us, The Furies is really about the process of creating performances that express issues and experiences that are important to us. Our aim in calling ourselves intersectional feminists is to call attention to the fact that classical and contemporary classical music isn’t always inclusive, and we want to hold ourselves accountable and ask questions: how are we perpetuating problems within our community, how can we listen better, how can we avoid tokenism and be super transparent about what we want to achieve?
Maiani: We challenge ourselves and each other to ask lots of questions, and listen with care in approaching all things #life. We do this as people and as friends, so naturally this seeps into our Furies work. It’s our foundation, really. It’s a lot of homework, and it’s very rewarding.
And how about for this concert? Am I right in remembering that “a cure for hysteria,” referring to masturbation, was the Victorian equivalent of “you should smile more”? How do the pieces you’ve programmed relate?
Maiani: That’s an interesting perspective, I hadn’t made that connection. Yes, with both we’re reminded to exist in a fashion that makes others at ease, that puts others’ needs above our own. If we show how we really feel, we’re considered unwell and are thus in need of intervention, whether by a modern-day strange man on the street, or a Victorian (male) “doctor” holding a vibrator to our clits.
Kate: When we decided to use Elizabeth’s piece, A Cure for Hysteria, as the centerpiece for this show, it was because the complexity of the term hysteria really reflects something that many marginalized people have to put up with: that feeling of never fully feeling like you can be yourself, that feeling of needing to appear to act a certain way, to make sure everyone around you is always at ease at the expense of your own comfort, and also how we are at a point where more and more people are saying “enough.” Being explicit about being intersectional feminist performers is empowering to us, it feels good to stand up and say LISTEN TO US, THIS IS OUR EXPERIENCE, but also keeps us honest about what it means to listen to others’ experiences in the process.
Maiani: Elizabeth’s work is centered around what it meant to be a hysterical woman in Victorian England. What we strive to convey with the other pieces in the program is the many layers and nuance of the term “hysteria.” In classic Mai-and-Kate style, we dug deeper to know how our friends and family felt about the term “hysteria.” By sampling the recorded one-on-one interviews, ThunderCunt created a track that will be premiered at our concert!
Details on the show are at facebook.com/events/2240445589321248.
On Friday, November 16th, wasteLAnd will present a guest-curated concert at ArtShare combining the incredible work of Aperture Duo and Ashley Walters. Aperture and Ashley have each commissioned new pieces for this concert, from Erin Rogers and Trevor Bača, and have created a wonderful evening of solos, duos, and trios.
After our last WasteLAnd interview with Katie Young, I asked the WasteLAnd directors if they’d like to make a regular thing of interviewing their guest performers and composers. I think it’s illuminating to hear musicians interviewed by the people they’re working with; they have a far more detailed understanding of their projects than any outside journalist will. This is an ongoing project and one I hope to include other series and organizations in, so some details and formatting may change…but enough of me! The concert on the 16th at ArtShare is free and starts at 8, with free parking in the lot across Hewitt Street from the entrance.
Questions from wasteLAnd to A(sh)perture
wasteLAnd: All of us at wasteLAnd are big fans of the work you do in your separate projects as Aperture Duo and Ashley as a soloist. You’ve obviously played together a lot in wild Up and in other mixed chamber settings. What has it been like to work as a trio on a project where the curation is left to you? Flow of the evening, rep decisions, the rehearsal process, etc?
Ashley: I have long admired Aperture’s performances and their repertoire choices; it was a pleasure to be involved in this process with them! As three performers who value working with composers — performing on a series that promotes new works and also values collaboration — we thought it was appropriate to commission new pieces for this concert. Both Aperture and myself chose composers (Erin Rogers and Trevor Bača) with whom we already had a personal connection. Aperture will perform two works as a duo and I, two solos; these sets showcase each entity’s aesthetic. Choosing trio repertoire was quite easy! We all had a mutual love for the episodic writing of Apergis’ trio and the lush writing of Gubaidulina. Because we have performed together in the past I think we had a vision of what pieces would suit this ensemble. Thank you wasteLAnd for bringing us together!
wasteLAnd: Aperture as a duo, and Ashley in solo performances both have strongly formed identities. Everything feels decided and cared for to me. I’ve never seen Aperture or Ashley perform something that didn’t feel to me like you had already made it your own. How was the process of bringing your approaches together for the Gubaidulina and Aperghis trios that you’ve included on this concert?
Aperture: We’ve had so much fun working on these trios with Ashley! We all share an attention to detail, an eye for large shapes and structures, and a curiosity for sound. These traits have led to very productive and satisfying rehearsals. We have been able to really dig into this repertoire together, as Ashley is so well versed in the languages of the composers that she performs. As a duo, we each fill many musical roles in our repertoire. But with a third player, our roles are much more “tried and true” with high, medium, and low registers. Exploring this has been very enjoyable for us and we can collectively play so much louder, which is a treat!
wasteLAnd:Would you share a bit about your relationship with Erin Rogers and Trevor Bača and their world premieres written for this show?
Aperture: We met Erin Rogers in 2016 while sharing a bill with her saxophone/percussion duo Popebama at the Home Audio concert series in Brooklyn. We were blown away by their theatricality, virtuosic musicality, and communication as performers. We were smitten, and we’ve been following Erin’s work as a performer and composer ever since. She has since worked with Nicholas Deyoe and Ashley Walters, and this WasteLAnd show felt like the perfect opportunity to premiere her new work for us.
Ashley: In March of 2017 the Formalist Quartet presented the west coast premiere of Trevor’s work Akasha on the Monday Evening Concerts series. This challenging, 30 minute quartet has a large arc full of complex and beautiful sounds that shift subtly from one to the other. I was particularly taken with Trevor’s writing for the low range of the cello, which is highlighted in his new solo cello piece, Nähte. My experience working with Trevor was moving and memorable and I have since hoped that we would have the opportunity to work together again. I am honored that he has written Nähte for me.
The process of learning Nähte has been a true joy. It requires experimenting with sounds and crafting gestures, and then weaving one to the next. While the outward virtuosity of the Xenakis’ solo cello piece, Kottos, is in the left hand and its extroverted sounds, the virtuosity in Trevor’s piece is in the right hand and in the subtlety of sounds transitioning from one to another.
Ashley Walters – Deyoe – another anxiety
Questions from A(sh)perture to Erin and Trevor
Aperture: Can you tell us a little about this piece? What is it like to write for a duo as a member of a duo yourself?
Erin Rogers: Travelogue (2018) was written while touring Europe on a series of planes, trains, and buses. The title is a tribute to Joni Mitchell’s album of the same name, featuring an extensive collection of her songs that have been orchestrated. Theatricality is built into the piece through staging, text, and actions, both players doubling as train commuters and practicing musicians, while encountering a variety of notational geography.
Composing for duos is fulfilling. As a member of a duo myself, there is an accountability that comes from being 50% of a team and a fully committed band-member. The level of difficulty can increase, especially technically and rhythmically. Knowing that the musicians will rehearse with a familiarity of process and of each other, typically results in a dialogue and synchronicity not common in larger ensembles.
Ashley: What can you tell us about the process of writing, or the inspiration for, this piece?
Trevor: Collaborating with Ashley on the new cello solo — Nähte, the title is one of the German words for “stitches” — for the concert in November grew out of our work together last year when Ashley’s quartet — the Formalist Quartet — did the LA premiere of Akasha, my first string quartet, at the Monday Evening Concerts. The string quartet retunes the cello’s lowest string from C down to A, and it was during our rehearsals together then that I came to understand just how intensely Ashley’s cello — and her technique — glow, especially in the lower compass of the instrument’s range. I knew even then what materials I wanted to write the next time we worked together, and I knew too the sort of gestural (and even choreographic) language I wanted to invite Ashley into when it came time to work on a new piece. Fast forward to this year and Nähte is the result. The materials in the piece derive from some very precise workings-out of how the speed of the cello’s bow can be made to make very fast gestures even faster, and also from suffusing that type of thinking about the physics of the instrument with imaginings of Ashley’s body moving in, near, over and around the instrument: Ashley moves like a dancer when she plays, and so I wove a certain type of back-and-forth negotiation between left hand, right hand, arms, elbows and torso into the materials of the piece. When you listen to the music and watch Ashley at the same time, you’ll hear (and see) these wisps of very delicate sound flying from the lowest part of the instrument’s range, something like watching sparks or aerial contrails from a blue flame. The ‘tailoring’ of the music in this way was an important part of our working together, with the reward coming in the ways Ashley effects the music’s materials with both precision and a deep commitment to the sensuousness of the way the music moves.
wasteLAnd – A(SH)PERTURE at ArtShare-LA on November 16th is free, thanks to wasteLAnd successfully meeting the first tier of their fundraising goal. If they reach the next goal, the entire season will be free to all.
Every now and then someone comes along and smacks you in the head with something you already knew. Sometimes this hurts, like when a teacher calls you out on a skill you know is weak, or when congress validates your fears about the state of the union by confirming a sexual predator to the supreme court (again). Thankfully, however, this isn’t always a negative experience. Once in a blue moon an artist finds a way to show you your own world in a new light. Oneohotrix Point Never’s MYRIAD, performed at Disney Hall on Monday, did just that.
I’ve enjoyed Oneohotrix Point Never’s work since first hearing the artist on their (his?) album Replica back in 2011, but the concert experience they’ve crafted with MYRIAD is a tongue-in-cheek, hyper self-aware hour of complete joy if you get it—and still genuinely interesting music if you don’t—that relies on its ability to illuminate our usually unconscious schizophonic experience of music. Let me unpack that a bit for you.
Schizophonia refers to the separation of sound from source that became possible with early recording technology. The mere concept of “recording-to-play-back-later” is a very basic example. When you record a cellist playing Bach, and then listen to the recording the next day, the cellist (the source) is no longer there, only the electronically reproduced sound. This is, of course, so basic to the way we listen to music in our daily lives as to be invisible and hardly worth commenting on. We walk around all day listening to music in headphones or through our car stereos. We only really notice it when something goes wrong, for instance in an amplified live concert setup where the left and right sides get switched and a performer on the right side of the stage has their instrumental sound coming from the left. It does rely on visual information as well; you can see this at home by plugging in your TV speakers backwards and trying to watch a sitcom while sitting directly centered in front of your screen. It kind of breaks your brain.
When an artist uses schizophonia as a tool rather than a given, however, and goes in with the assumption that most of their audience has quite a bit of musical knowledge (much like a painter assumes that most viewers aren’t colorblind…and let’s be honest, Oneohotrix Point Never isn’t really for Top 40 listeners), the results can be profound. MYRIAD began, as many electronics-heavy shows do, with the lights out, complex drones, and psychedelic video projections that reminded me of the wormhole sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. That transitioned pretty smoothly to the four piece band onstage, two members surrounded by synths, with the other two at a grand piano and a drum set. Music descended from 80s pop and modern day autotuned R&B (Frank Ocean, anyone?) gradually took over, though the effect was one of disorientation with oddly misaligned phrase lengths from the pop sounds blending in and out of the ongoing drones.
At this point I was under the impression that we’d be getting a through-composed set without any breaks. Then the band stopped and said thanks to the audience like so many arena bands do (both my date and I were caught off guard by this) before launching into what could have been a twisted Toto cover with DX7 brass sounds and a synth flute from a keyboard that sounded like it would fit in mid-90s Celine Dion track, accompanied by a drum beat of sliced up extended technique string samples accompanied by Han Bennink-esque stick rolls on shells in the drums and a pre-recorded upright bass line.
As the lights moved around the stage (musicians were generally lit in a way that reminded me of Depeche Mode or Kraftwerk), however, I was struck by both the lack of an upright bass onstage and the fact that the drummer didn’t seem to be playing any of those stick rolls, instead keeping to trigger pads for basic synth drums. Why bring a grand piano and a drum set and then pre-record bass and drums in a production that obviously cost a lot of money? This is where the schizophonic confusion really started, though I was holding out hope that it wouldn’t be laziness or lack-of-understanding underlying it, though, and was thankfully proven right a few songs later when the same stick rolls returned, this time being played live by the drummer.
This is the moment when it started to hit me that Oneohotrix Point Never was, rather than playing music, playing with the entire concept of live performance. WHOA, I thought. They just moved from recorded to live in a way that SOUNDS identical. Fascinating. It’s almost like they’re commenting on how live performance in our current era of technology is really just for show. Wonder if that will continue. And oh boy, did it continue, and morphing into a near-satire of big budget pop concerts. A troupe of dancers appeared in the aisles during one track (song? piece?) dressed a bit like USC cheerleaders if USC cheerleaders wore cowboy hats decorated in caution tape and surgical masks, but proceeded to repeat a few pretty simple dance steps as they marched around the hall for what couldn’t have been more than three minutes, never to return. For the last two pieces of the evening a cellist joined the band onstage, but played first only a few extended techniques that were indistinguishable from the previously mentioned extended technique string track now backing her again, and then a pretty well worthless string of whole notes for the final number.
Let me clarify that: the notes and the performance of said notes was perfectly good, but in the context of a sample-filled electronic concert, having her appear live was more like the band saying “see? this doesn’t really add anything, but it’s pretty to look at,” in a takedown of the low-hanging fruit “live with orchestra” tokenism that so many bands use to build cultural capital for themselves. Is this the other side of the coin for classical pieces that add a four-on-the-floor drum beat to try to prove their own relevance? I believe so. Had it been in a standalone piece, the appearance of the cellist may have been merely pointless and confusing (as it often is in electroacoustic concerts). In the context of a concert using sonic and visual confusion as a narrative, her mere appearance onstage hammered home the band’s point about live performance. It almost would have been more effective to have her sit there and do nothing.
This may all be speculation on my part, of course, and the problems of the intentional fallacy in this reading of the show’s content are myriad (ha). During that cellist’s appearance at the end, however, came a projected rotating skull eating a VHS tape. Like Nathan Fielder’s glance at the camera in the season finale of Nathan For You when a mark pointed out that “this is all for a TV show,” that skull eating a VHS tape screamed “the old way of doing concerts is dead. You just watched us kill it. And wasn’t it fun?”
This summer I heard composer Martin Bresnick give a talk on the idea that modern composers will really, really have to reckon with the loudspeaker in their work. It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about a lot, and I’m pleased to hear bands like Oneohotrix Point Never who are reckoning with it in their own creative ways. After seeing MYRIAD I dare say this band is on the forefront of a musical future we should all be excited about. If they are touring anywhere near you, get tickets immediately.
On October 24, the Isaura String Quartet performs Machines and Strings at REDCAT. Billed as “an immersive concert experience,” the program features works by artists including Chrysanthe Tan, Stephanie Smith, Ajay Kapur, Sarah Belle Reid, April Gerloff, and Jules Gimbrone performed in collaboration with interactive lighting and projection by alumni artists from the 2018 CalArts Expo creative team. The evening also includes the world premiere of Ulrich Krieger’s completely revised quartet Up-Tight II and a new work by Amy Knoles featuring the KarmetiK Machine Orchestra, directed by Ajay Kapur, who also created the custom-built robotic musical instrument Lydia.
I caught the original version of Ulrich’s piece when Isaura played it back in February at Human Resources and was really taken with the piece and their approach to it. Here’s a video from that performance:
Needless to say, I’m excited to hear the revised version and hear and see everything that the quartet is promising us for the 24th, so asked if the members would be down for an interview. Violinists Madeline Falcone and Emily Call and cellist Betsy Rettig kindly answered my call. Here’s our conversation:
You just performed at CalArts and are now bringing Machines and Strings, Part II to REDCAT. The show has been billed as an “immersive concert experience.” I know you’ve got a deep interest in production. Could you talk a bit about what, beyond performing music, this program is all about?
Madeline: These concerts are about community, musical language, and elevating voices that we believe are important. Many artists are struggling with the current state of art and struggling to contextualize their art within the current social and political climate, and it is wonderful to find these ways in which we can support each other. We feel very proud of our team of amazing artists including performers, composers, lighting designers, video artists, and technological innovators. We have learned from each of these artists over the course of this production and the quartet has expanded our musical language through the process of working on each of these pieces.
We have developed an interest in production because we are used to self-producing, which is how most of these shows featuring experimental sounds/weird ideas/emerging artists tend to happen, but also because production relates directly to the music. The audience experiences sounds, lights, energy—all of those are essential to bringing the thing to life. For both of these concerts we have been working with Lauren Pratt as a producer and mentor, and she has been wonderfully supportive.
What attracts you to the work of the composers you’ve programmed?
Emily: When we started thinking about putting together a program featuring strings and music tech, the theme of order and disorder kept coming up: strings as disorder—going out of tune, breaking a bow hair, the natural human nature of playing an instrument where error is a factor—and machines as order, completing tasks, following functions, the precision with which a machine can act. At the same time, you can think of strings as orderly and machines as disorderly. Disorderly machines have actually come up quite often during our preparation for this concert! We kept this idea in mind when we were looking for composers and pieces to perform, and that idea has really shaped the program. We’re excited to showcase so many composers who are using technology and strings, sometimes together and sometimes not, in really innovative ways.
I know Isaura has a heavy focus on working with local composers, and that you’ve also taken quite a few gigs in the rock and popular music world, such as your residency at Emo Nite LA. How do those performance practices inform each other in your work? Do you approach them very differently as players?
Betsy: In many ways all of these different musical worlds need each other, and musically, we use the same tools for approaching every genre. As an ensemble we work together the same way to communicate time, expression, musicality, intonation, etc. Most of the pop and rock projects we have been part of have involved the artist specifically wanting players who were well-versed in a variety of playing styles and extended techniques.
Our crossover experience has been particularly helpful in our work with Ulrich Krieger, developing his quartet Up-Tight II. When he approached us about playing this piece, it was because of a prior collaboration with opera singer Timur called Love, Honor, Obey. Ulrich arranged an Elvis song for that project and really wanted us to go crazy with it. Up-Tight II is dedicated to Lou Reed and inspired by the Velvet Underground. We’ve been working a lot in rehearsals developing the physicality of the piece, which is so often present in rock music.
What are your favorite concerts you’ve attended in LA in the past year?
This is an almost impossible question to answer because there is so much exciting music happening in this city all of the time… but a few stand-outs include:
Emily: James Tenney’s Changes: Sixty-Four Studies for Six Harps presented by SASSAS at The Box last November and Dog Star 14’s concert of pieces by Eric Heep, Corey Fogel, and Erika Bell. (Side note: Eric Heep is actually one of the co-creators of Lydia, the robotic piano featured on our concert!).
Madeline: Matmos at The Broad’s Summer Happenings; Dolores: Our Lady of the 7 Sorrows with Ron Athey and Nacho Nava; and Quartetto Fantastico with visuals by Jesse Gilbert for the Mars Festival earlier this month.
Betsy: Michael Webster and the Breath Control Orchestra, Nice Day for the Races from a radio play by Samuel Beckett at the Box, and Southland Ensemble: Ruth Crawford / Ruth Crawford Seeger at Automata
Can you tell us more about Lydia?
Madeline: Lydia is a modified mechatronic instrument built on an upright piano created by CalArts students and faculty in 2013 under mentorship of artist and MacArthur fellow Trimpin. The instrument uses motors rather than hammers to create sound on the piano strings, and also includes other tools such as a saw that scrapes against the bottom of the instrument to introduce new piano sound worlds. We have enjoyed getting to know her as our chamber music partner over the last couple months.
What’s next for the quartet?
Emily: We will be ending 2018 with a few recording projects, and we have some exciting collaborative projects for 2019 in LA and New York, which we look forward to announcing soon!
Anything else you’d like to add?
Betsy: Thanks for chatting with us!
Tickets for Machines and Strings are available at redcat.org/event/machines-and-strings.