Composer/guitarist Alexander Elliott Miller‘s debut solo album, To….Oblivion comes out everywhere on October 20. The record and historical photography project deals with lost spaces in Los Angeles, and to celebrate the release Alex is playing three sets at the Bendix Building that day as part of the LA Conservancy‘s architecture walking tours. A few standing room tickets are still available.
I first heard To….Oblivion in its nascent stages at a What’s Next? Ensemble show a few years ago, and then caught the full piece at Oh My Ears! in Phoenix back in January. My favorite track/movement was the “Zanja Madre,” which is the original aqueduct that brought water to El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Rio Porciuncula (L.A. is a useful abbreviation, isn’t it?). I asked Alex if we could premiere the track when the album was ready, and he said yes. So, feast your ears!
Alex also had time for some interview questions about the project. Here’s our conversation:
Okay, so talk to me about To….Oblivion
To….Oblivion is an album all about historic landmarks in Los Angeles. It’s for solo electric guitar, which I play myself, with electronics and a video slideshow. The electronics include both live processing of the guitar as well as recorded sounds which aim to capture an impression of the acoustic environment of each site. The album will be released along with videos of the recording with the slideshow both projected behind me and intercut directly.
There are six historic sites: the Belmont Tunnel, Dunbar Hotel, Zanja Madre, Tower Records, Long Beach’s Pike Amusement Park and Anaheim’s Center Street.
When you were writing the pieces for the record, were there any direct or obvious connections between the places and your composing (for instance, tracing the curve of the LA river in a melody), or was each location more of a loose inspiration for your work?
There’s nothing as literal as tracing the curve of the river and interpreting it as a melody. With each movement, I found myself wanting to make the slideshow and soundtrack first, finding the right order for the photographs to convey the story of each site, then matching up the sounds to those images where appropriate. Usually the guitar part was the last thing to be written, almost like a film score, though I usually had pretty strong ideas of what I wanted beforehand.
Some of the movements suggested particular types of guitar playing or sound worlds. Certainly the movement about the Dunbar Hotel, at the hub of LA’s mid-20th Century jazz scene gave me a chance to try my own take on jazz as a composer, and the Tower Records movement let me return some classic rock guitar playing that I grew up with.
The Belmont Tunnel, about an abandoned subway tunnel from the early 20th Century suggested certain sound effects: there’s an effect I create with an eBow and some pitch shifting that is a heavy, loud, roaring sound that reminds me a train, there’s a ton of reverb, almost like the echoes I imagine down in that abandoned tunnel.
Was there anything in particular that acted as a deciding factor in whether or not to use a location? Did any places not make the cut?
I was interested in locations that either seemed like symbols of larger issues in the city, or perhaps had interesting sonic or even musical implications.
The Belmont Tunnel, for me, is a symbol of public transportation’s role in shaping the city, and presents a great “what if:” what if LA’s original subway had been allowed to grow, in place of or in addition to expansion of the freeways, how would the city have been different?
The Zanja Madre movement was written at the heart of the drought, and deals with LA’s complicated relationship with water. I also liked that the original Zanja Madre was a project that dated from 1781, constructed within weeks of the original establishment of the city. It was right there at the beginning of Los Angeles, and dealt with our major problem: water.
Two movements venture further outside downtown LA, to Orange County and Long Beach, but these are also two of the sites to which I have a more personal connection. “Anaheim’s Center Street” looks at urban blight and redevelopment, and has a scene were the heart of the old downtown is demolished with bulldozers. I loved the idea of including bulldozers in the soundtrack, and felt that scene, perhaps more than anything else in the piece, captured the sadness of the title “To….Oblivion.” I live on Anaheim’s Center Street and got to know my own neighborhood much better by doing this piece. The Long Beach movement tells a similar story of urban decay, but I left out the violence of the bulldozers in this movement, and focused more on the happy memories of the old amusement park. I’ve worked in Long Beach for six years, and I think this movement is probably the most hopeful in the set, being a sort of expression of my gratitude to the city.
Then there are two sites in which music itself is an important part of the historic site’s identity. The Dunbar Hotel was at the heart of LA’s Central Avenue jazz scene. This location also has a complicated history representing the status of race relations in LA, as the Dunbar was one of the few hotels were African American celebrities were welcomed. One has mixed feelings about it: on one hand, it’s an exciting cultural focal point where numerous jazz heroes were present (Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, countless others all stayed there), and yet, a regrettable place, existing primarily because of segregation laws. Secondly, the Sunset Strip’s Tower Records obviously represents a kind of celebration of music in its day, but also may have become, since its closing, a kind symbol of all of the changes the music industry has experienced in the last two decades.
When I first started the project, I think there were some other historic sites that I considered very briefly, but the shape of the piece with the six now part of the final version emerged quickly. Still, other locations that I may have considered at the beginning which didn’t make the cut included the Nestor Film Studio (the very first ever movie studio in LA), the Pan Pacific Auditorium (which burned to the ground and is now the site of Pan Pacific Park), and, of course, the Ambassador Hotel. I discovered Gabriel Kahane’s album “The Ambassador,” after this (it’s an album I love and one which shares an “LA location” concept with my project), so honestly, I’m glad I didn’t include it. I already had a hotel in the project anyway, in the Dunbar Hotel.
You once told me that when you visit places you like to enter via different modes of transportation to give yourself a different perspective or idea of “home base” for a city. For instance, coming into LA on the 10 from the desert is a very different experience than taking the train down from Nor Cal to start at Union Station or arriving by boat in San Pedro. Could you talk a bit about your perspective on LA now that you’re often coming up from Anaheim, or your take on the city as a person raised in the midwest and northeast?
Well, I was born in Boston and raised in Kansas City. I still have family in both places, and I’m fortunate to have lived in other places as a student or for temporary jobs in my twenties, but most of my life as an adult has been here in the greater LA area. I’ve never taken a boat into San Pedro or Marina del Ray, but obviously driven, flown and taken trains into LA many times; I think I see all the same problems that everyone else does, first the strangeness of its location coming out of the desert when you drive here from the east, and then once you’re here, the high rents, homelessness, gentrification, traffic and access to water.
On the positive side, LA has always seemed like a place that is what you make of it (or how much you’re able/willing to drive through it). Maybe what I mean, more specifically, is that LA is a place where I feel I’ve met many people who share my interests – like you if I may say so – a place where I feel I’ve been welcomed into a communities both with musicians in the city and the schools where I work. I haven’t had the opportunity to live as an adult, work, pay rent, and be a working musician or teacher in Boston or Kansas City so couldn’t compare those experiences.
Lastly, part of the joy of writing this piece really had to do with exploring LA itself. Much of the time when I’m composing, I’m isolated at home with a computer, piano or guitar. This piece presented an opportunity to get out into the city, partly because I wanted to hang out at each site a little bit, but also because I needed to record so many sounds of the city for the soundtrack and wanted to do everything authentically. So for the Belmont Tunnel, for example, I found a Saturday to take a handheld mic and record subway sounds while circling the system all day, exploring new neighborhoods all the while. For the Dunbar Hotel, I took that mic to a jazz club and recorded ambient crowd noise during a set change between bands. The water sounds in Zanja Madre are actually the LA River in Los Feliz, and the sounds of the Sunset Strip were actually recorded on Sunset near Tower Records’ site, with some of the sounds of CDs clicking against each other recorded at Amoeba Records. For Anaheim’s Center Street, I went to a mall at 1:00am where an old Macy’s was being demolished and recorded bulldozers; the amusement park sounds for Long Beach were a mixture sounds of the Santa Monica Pier, Knott’s Berry Farm rollercoasters and the Griffith Park Merry Go Round. The whole thing took years, but experiencing LA in so many places and different ways was one of the things that made the experience of writing this piece so much fun.
Who are you working with to present this project live?
On the day of the album release, Oct. 20th, I’ll be performing the work as part of an event co-presented by two organizations: Synchromy and the LA Conservancy.
The LA Conservancy organizes frequent walking tours of various neighborhoods in the city, exploring historic architecture. This October, their Walking Tour will go through the Fashion District downtown, and include the Bendix Building. My performance, which will be on the penthouse floor of the Bendix, will essentially be a stop along that tour, so I’ll be playing selections from the album all day long for various groups coming and going. The tours themselves are sold out but a limited number of concert-only tickets will be sold. It was the idea of Synchromy’s director, our friend Jason Barabba, to get in touch with them about this project.
Two weeks later I’ll be playing selections from the album in San Francisco at the Center for New Music. I’m splitting the program with a wonderful guitarist in the Bay Area, Giacomo Fiore.
What’s next for you? Although the album is finished and coming out this month, are you continuing to add tracks to the project?
I think I’m happy with where the project is now. I like the six movements I have, I’m not opposed to adding more but am not ready yet. Also, once, the idea occurred to me that I could, instead writing new movements about new locations, perhaps revisit these same locations in ten years or so to see how they’ve continued to change. Just a thought….
I will say this is the first work I’ve done that had a video component, and even though it is a simple video consisting of a slideshow, I did greatly enjoy having that element to further the storytelling potential of each work. I don’t have plans for new video works, nor plans to collaborate with a video artist, but that’s something I’m interested in. And the electric guitar, that will remain an important part of my voice as composer. That ain’t going anywhere.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I got a lot of help on this project! Rychard Cooper, my colleague at CSULB, recorded the project and edited the final video, and there are also a number of other musicians who play on the soundtrack in the background of the movements about the two “musical” locations. On the Dunbar Hotel, underneath my guitar playing, you’ll hear recordings of jazz musicians: that’s Jamond McCoy on piano and Zaq Kenefick on saxophone. And in the Tower Records movement, you’ll hear Tom Kendall Hughes on drums as well as some singing from Mikey Ferrari. I recorded all of them, giving them minimal instruction, and they definitely all gave me a ton of inspiration, steering me in particular directions for my own guitar playing.
Lastly, thank you, Nick, for the interview and everything you do for our new music community on this site and around town!
Keep up with the release over at Alex’s website, alexanderemiller.com.
WasteLAnd‘s sixth season kicks off tonight at ArtShare tonight with a concert focused on this year’s featured composer, Katherine Young. Katherine makes electroacoustic music using expressive noises, curious timbres, and kinetic structures to explore the dramatic physicality of sound, shifting interpersonal dynamics, and tensions between the familiar and the strange. As an improviser, Katherine amplifies her bassoon and employs a flexible electronics set up for solo and collaborative performances. The LAPhil’s Green Umbrella series, Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW, Ensemble Dal Niente, Third Coast Percussion, Spektral Quartet, Weston Olencki, Nico Couck / Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt, Fonema Consort, others have commissioned her music. She’s excited about coming-soon projects with Lucy Dehgrae for Resonant Bodies Festival, WasteLAnd and RAGE, Distractfold Ensemble’s Linda Jankowska, Callithumpian Ensemble, and Yarn/Wire. She’s releasing new music this year with Michael Foster & Michael Zerang, Wet Ink, and Amy Cimini (as Architeuthis Walks on Land).
Ahead of the show, we got WasteLAnd artistic director Nicholas Deyoe, who has a lot of experience with Katherine’s work, to interview the composer. Here are Nick and Katherine:
Nick: Some of the following questions relate to your monodrama When stranger things happen and the three pieces that it draws from: Earhart and the Queen of Spades, where the moss grows, and just water, no lemon. Would you share a little bit of the background on this project?
Katie: Sure! All of four of the pieces – the three concert pieces and the monodrama – are inspired by a short story called “The Girl Detective” by Kelly Link, which is a noir meditation on loss and a creative coming-of-age-story that follows a girl detective on various cases / adventures. The story takes a very fragmented, nonlinear form, and contains lots of lists of lost objects, references to myths of femininity (Nancy Drew, fairytale princesses, Demeter and Persephone, etc.), and a noir atmosphere. Each of the pieces in my cycle formally explore experiences of loss and modes of detection and creative reassembling.
For Earhart & the Queen of Spades, all of the guitar preparations – fans, bobby pins, keys, jewelry, etc. – are drawn from a list I compiled of lost items the girl detective comes across, plus things that the performers involved in the premieres had lost. So, for example, the fans are a reference to Amelia Earhart (mentioned in the story), and several of the performers told me about losing pieces of jewelry that had lots of personal significance.
It’s funny – I actually borrowed the title for Underworld (Dancing) from “The Girl Detective,” too. So I’d been thinking about that story for a long time!
Nick: While learning the Earhart, I developed my own emotional attachment to all of these objects and how they interact with my guitar.
On Friday night, we’re presenting a world premiere (BIOMES 1.0), something relatively new (Earhart & the Queen of Spades, 2016) and something “old” (Underworld (Dancing), 2008). You mentioned the other day that you feel a certain connection between these three pieces. Would you tell us a bit more about the connections that you feel between these pieces?
Katie: Listening to the rehearsal of Underworld (Dancing) it occurred to me that each of these pieces to different degrees and in different ways blur out of a linear “musical” forms and into sonic meditations through the use of drone, saturating textures, and/or spatialization.
Nick: You are an active improviser, and you also produce meticulously notated scores full of nuanced details. Looking at Friday’s program, BIOMES 1.0 is driven by improvisation between you, Matt, and Weston; Underworld (Dancing) is fully notated, but filled with freedom between the euphonium and the Wurlitzer, and Earhart is very clear in its instructions, but often feels like you’re inside of a structured improvisation including recurring fragments. All of the styles feel very much like “Katie Young,” despite the range of approach. What are the differences in your own mindset when you work in these different realms?
Katie: I think I’m always looking for ways to infuse a little bit more surprise into my notated scores – to give them the energy of real-time exploration that is one of the things I love about improvised music. As you point out, that can be achieved in a lot of different ways and to different degrees. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the function or need the piece is serving for the people I am making it for / with, and then I use whatever notation is best for making that happen. There are things you can achieve with open forms that are really difficult to get from hyper specified notation, but there are things that that notation can make happen that more open forms can’t. But in all cases I start with the people and the sounds and go from there.
Details for tonight (October 5, 2018) are available at wastelandmusic.org/biomes, and the series is currently running a fundraiser with stretch goals of making every concert this season free. You can support their work at wasteland.wedid.it/campaigns/5108.
Sunday evening found me listening to the familiar rumble of bass frequencies through walls as I passed through security at The Hollywood Bowl. William Brittelle, Wye Oak, and the Metropolis Ensemble had just begun their set, a collection of songs exploring secular spirituality titled Spiritual America that Brittelle composed in collaboration with the band, the ensemble, and an impressively long list of presenters and producers.
Three days previously I had played a set opening for Metropolis Ensemble’s bassist, Evan Runyon, whose bowed strings were now being broadcast to the 17,000 in attendance, largely drawn by Bon Iver’s collaboration with TU Dance. Being far more used to the not-at-all-hard-to-get-into venues associated with the experimental and contemporary classical music scenes, I was a bit embarrassed to have misjudged my arrival and missed the first song. But even hearing the bass from a contemporary music ensemble cum indie rock band cut through the walls at a venue like the bowl felt in many ways like a win for this scene under the underground.
It was tragic, then, upon entering, to find Spiritual America beset by the fate that befalls most openers at large scale rock concerts. Audience members in the bowl’s box seats had their backs turned to the stage to finish their meals. A reviewer from another publication, seated next to me, first asked “what is this, music?”, then if we were all smoking something. This was in response to what I thought to be an extremely clever use of the seagull effect for cello harmonics set against an 80’s new wave style delay effect on what sounded to me like a TR-909 drum machine. That, and many other juxtapositions in the songs comprising Spiritual America, were, in a word, awesome. When Wye Oak singer Jenn Wasner announced that there was one song left on the set, this reviewer said she was glad that there was only one left, because this music was not her style.
The tragedy here was in the pairing, because Spiritual America was fantastic, rich with both nuanced writing (technically and thematically) and indie emotional sensibility, while grammy darling Bon Iver’s collaboration with TU Dance, Come Through, which pulled the crowd, was a phoned in mess and though admirably ambitious and a worthwhile exploration for the artist mainly served to cause me to continually ask myself “what the hell did I just watch?” and regret leaving my car in stacked parking.
To be clear, I’m a big fan of Bon Iver. 22, A Million was one of my favorite records of 2016, and it’s been gratifying to listen to Justin Vernon’s work develop from the college days of torrenting For Emma, Forever Ago to now. I love Vernon’s other band, Volcano Choir, as well. The previous two times I’ve seen Bon Iver I’ve been impressed, with the exception of those moments where they reach for sound worlds that they seem to have little to no experience working in. Bon Iver’s music, and in this case the accompanying video art, thrives on mood, while dance, writ large on a stage like the bowl’s, often requires music with some narrative direction. The result of the pairing, in Come Through, felt as if the collaborators didn’t know what to do with each other, with Bon Iver seeming to back down from every opportunity to take his music anywhere in order to give the dancers space to create, and TU Dance’s choreographer and dancers making a valiant effort to give narrative life to what were, in essence, a bunch of loops that sounded like B-sides and scratch tracks from 22, A Million. A spoken word ending having something to do with Martin Luther King and the new (or old? it wasn’t clear) Jim Crow laws, while incredibly prescient in our current cultural climate, felt tacked on with the “I’m not sure how to end this so I’ll add something new” of an undergraduate music student. The “video art,” which looked a bit like what you might do by the end of an Apple store class on how to use iMovie if you’re a person who is into memes, seemed to exist in order to keep your eyes off of the dancers.
I don’t wish to demean artistic exploration like this, though. The composer Ted Hearne, a New Amsterdam labelmate and post-genre brother in arms of Brittelle’s, said in an interview that he thinks “it’s OK, even preferable, for art to be problematic. We live in a problematic world. Artists should own that. It’s the loose ends and unanswered questions, and even the misfires and unintended consequences, that provoke the best questions about what art is doing in the first place.” Although “Bon Iver writes for dance,” in this case, ended up a bit like Taylor Swift’s out-of-place rap in Shake It Off, there were a few gracefully executed moments (in particular a trio for three male dancers accompanied by not much more than a drum machine and, for the only time during the set, a mellow backdrop). I very much believe that with more time spent collaborating and refining his work with dancers and multimedia artists, Justin Vernon will give us something spectacular.
So let’s talk Spiritual America. With this collaboration it feels like Brittelle’s working methods and interest in cross-genre or post-genre collaboration have come to a head. Perhaps it’s that he, unlike Bon Iver with regard to dance, is steeped in many traditions. When he writes for Wye Oak, it sounds like an authentic indie rock songwriter exploring ways of bringing other sound worlds into the fold because he is an authentic indie rock songwriter bringing other sound worlds into the fold. When, in the interludes between songs he aims for some of the extended techniques of the contemporary classical world (there was, in fact, feathered bowing), you hear a contemporary classical composer doing his thing, because he is that composer, too. How open Brittelle’s ears are is impressive. Choosing indie rock as a vehicle for his explorations of American spirituality makes perfect sense as the norms of the genre are so largely based on traditional songwriting, blues forms, and the not-often-enough discussed basic connections between the European traditions of folk song and traditional harmony and the slave spirituals and dances that make American vernacular music its own form of genre synthesis. Brittelle smartly uses the genre synthesis not as the point of his work, but as the medium.
Spiritual America is a lovely piece of work, that deserves to be performed in better conditions than as an opening act in front of a crowd of seemingly disinterested Bon Iver fans. Yes, the Hollywood Bowl is a get for this band, but perhaps lacks the personal connection to performers and performance that is so integral to the genres Brittelle pulls from. A record of the piece is on the way (a crowdfunding campaign for it is here). I, for one, hope that the next time they tour the piece in LA they’ll consider visiting The Echoplex or The Wiltern so we can really sing along.
I’m pleased to announce that bassist/composer/improviser Miller Wrenn is joining the team of writers here at New Classic LA. You may have seen Miller’s review of WasteLAnd’s most recent show at REDCAT earlier this week.
Miller frequently performs and records with his own ensemble, Escapist, as well as the Vinny Golia Sextet, EnsembleVómma, Off Cell, and many others. His compositions and performances are primarily concerned with the tangibility of artistic intention and unifying elements of composition and improvisation into one essential whole.
Speaking of Escapist, they released their debut album, Alternates, a few weeks ago. Here’s an embed:
Welcome aboard, Miller!
On March 18, Daniel Corral’s latest work, Polytope, premieres at Automata as part of this year’s MicroFest, who have named their season after it. We were lucky that Daniel had a minute to answer some questions about this piece, which he will also be performing on March 23 at Seattle’s Wayward Music Series and March 25 at the Center for New Music in San Francisco. Here’s Daniel:
Tell me about Polytope.
I describe Polytope as a multimedia microtonal performance existing somewhere between a string quartet, Kraftwerk, James Turrell, and an Indonesian dhalang (master shadow puppeteer). Another apt description might be to call it an electronic mixture of Arnold Dreyblatt’s Orchestra of Excited Strings and Philip Glass’ classic Sesame Street video, Geometry of Circles.
Onstage there are four MIDI controllers on a small stand and a single video camera directly above the center, pointed straight down. The controllers are not traditional keyboards, but 8×8 grids of buttons that are turned 45° to make diamond shape rather than squares. One musician stands before each controller. The performance happens in the dark, and the overhead camera captures the interaction between the controllers’ colorful grids of lights and the fast-moving silhouettes of the musicians’ hands. This live feed video is projected in the space, creating a larger than life, colorful multimedia experience inspired by Light and Space art that also acts as an evolving visual score.
Polytope will premiere on Sunday, March 18 at Automata as part of MicroFest. MicroFest liked the piece enough to name the 2018 festival season after it, so I hope that might bring people out. The following weekend, we’ll also play it in Seattle at the Wayward Music Series and San Francisco at Center for New Music.
Was there a collaborative aspect to the composition for this quartet, or was it you delivering parts to be played?
I love collaborations, and have a few in the works right now. However, Polytope came entirely from me, for better or worse. I started working on it in early 2017 during a residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Since then, I’ve slowly developed it in between other projects. I had people in mind that I thought would be great to work with (Erin Barnes, Cory Beers, Andrew Lessman), and once they agreed to play Polytope I completed it with them in mind.
Do you feel that it’s a further exploration of your work on, say, Diamond Pulses, or were you more in a mindset of trying something new and different here? I ask this without intending to put a value judgement on either option.
Polytope absolutely builds on what that I started exploring with Diamond Pulses in 2015. I’ve long been intimidated by knowing so many incredibly knowledgeable composers of microtonal music, and Diamond Pulses was the first microtonal piece that I felt confident sharing. In developing more multimedia pieces that build on Diamond Pulses, one thing that has gotten more sophisticated (or complicated, at least) is the projected visual metaphor/score. Diamond Pulses progresses in one direction through a single visual metaphor of expanding and contracting tonality diamonds. Comma, which premiered at REDCAT in 2016, built on Diamond Pulses by exploring a Pythagorean grid through several different visual metaphors (some go up, some go down, some go in circles, etc.). Polytope builds on Comma by expanding it from a solo piece to a quartet, and by using a more complex tuning system. In contrast, my recent piece One Line (which Vicki Ray will play at Pianospheres on April 3) takes the opposite approach by using a mere 8 buttons in a single horizontal row. It’s important to me that each piece is informed by the successes and failures of past work, even if it’s drastically different.
When I was prepping these questions I was thinking “Daniel’s body of really does defy the concept of genre,” and then I read your bio which says almost exactly that. Is this variety something you actively pursue, and is there some sort of artistic mission associated with it? Or is it more just a consequence of your being a curious and open minded musician?
The musical multiverse is a weird and wonderful place! One of my favorite activities is going to the library and checking out a stack of music that I’ve never heard of. Most of it is depressingly adequate, but occasionally you find something either terribly amazing or amazingly terrible, and suddenly the world is a little brighter. It’s also a product of being in Los Angeles, where there are so many music communities existing right next door to each other that often don’t even know the others exists. It can be very exciting to move between them, like travelling between planets in a solar system.
In addition, the question makes me think of an essay by Trevor Dunn, which was published in one of John Zorn’s Arcana books. In it, he declares the platypus to be the spirit animal of the 21st century musician. My sloppy summary is that much like the diverse appendages of the platypus, a modern musician needs to be literate in the idiosyncrasies of a wide swath of styles and genres.
Have you noticed different audiences reacting to different aspects of your work? If so, how?
I used to consider Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” quote to be a bit of a cop out, but it has become very relevant to my musical identity. I think I’ve both won and alienated various audiences by the diversity of what I do. Some people love the caricatured drama of my music for Timur and the Dime Museum, while the LA Times once referred to an electroacoustic piece of mine as an “antidote” to sentimentality. I can only hope that audiences will recognize meaningful qualities in the music regardless of what manifestation it takes. For most of my work, I try to include multiple points of entry and levels of engagement. The multimedia format of Polytope came out of this approach. Audience members can follow along with the musicians’ fingers playing the projected “score,” or they can listen with informed ears to the tuning, observe the tech setup, or just enjoy the music as a surface-level experience.
What other LA musicians/composers/artists are you into right now?
Wow, this list could go on forever! I’m going to try to keep it relatively short, and refrain from listing groups I play in (like Qamar, Featherwolf, or Timur and the Dime Museum)
Dog Star Orchestra
Timothy Maloof and Rahman Baranghoori duo
Los Angeles Electric 8
A Horse A Spoon A Bucket
Anna Homler’s Breadwoman
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for the thoughtful questions, and for New Classic LA keeping a keen eye on contemporary classical-adjacent music in LA! Many other similar websites have come and gone (including my own Auscultations blog), and it’s great that New Classic LA is still going strong.
Also, I hope people will come out to Automata on March 18 to check out Polytope! I’ve put a lot of work into it and am quite pleased with how it has turned out.
Tickets for that show are available at artful.ly/store/events/14666. Follow Daniel and hear more of his work at spinalfrog.com.
LA scene regulars likely know pianist Nadia Shpachenko, whose tireless concert and recording schedule is a model to live up to. Nadia has premiered more than 60 works by Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Daniel Felsenfeld, Tom Flaherty, Annie Gosfield, Vera Ivanova, Leon Kirchner, Amy Beth Kirsten, Hannah Lash, James Matheson, Missy Mazzoli, Harold Meltzer, Adam Schoenberg, Lewis Spratlan, Gernot Wolfgang, Iannis Xenakis, Peter Yates, Jack Van Zandt, and others. This Saturday, March 10, she teams up with People Inside Electronics for a show at Throop Church in Pasadena featuring both premieres and works from her upcoming album, Quotations and Homages. Nadia had a minute to answer some questions, so we asked some:
PIE’s concerts tend to focus on the interaction between human performers and electronics. Do you have a background in this type of performance, or is this new ground for you?
I have been performing pieces with electronics for many years now, this is an area of great interest for me! I love to explore how composers use their imagination to complement the acoustic instruments with all kinds of additional timbres and sound sources. I think the very first piece with electronics that I commissioned was Airdancing by Tom Flaherty. Airdancing was written for my first album of brand new works titled Woman at the New Piano. This piece was written for me and Genevieve Feiwen Lee on piano and toy piano, and has since become quite a favorite with performers and audiences! I have performed works with live electronics and with fixed media. The works on Saturday’s PIE concert will include diverse approaches to electroacoustic writing, from Annie Gosfield’s bold and wild Phantom Shakedown featuring malfunctioning short-wave radios, grinding cement mixers, and detuned and prepared piano samples, to Isaac Schankler’s poignant and heartbreakingly beautiful Future Feelings, featuring gentle piano passages reinterpreted through ambient synths and filtered noise, to Alex Temple’s captivating incorporation of pre-recorded interviews with her friends, colleagues, former students and family members sharing very personal and at times extremely painful experiences. Also, my husband Barry Werger is a recording engineer and a roboticist. When we met in Boston more than 20 years ago, he was working on his PhD at Brandeis University and part of his artistic output was touring the world with his robotic theatre troupe. The plays often featured my performances and robot actors, so the interaction between human performers and AI was an interest for me even then, although in a form quite different from what I will presenting this Saturday.
I see some old friends and some new ones on this program. What do you look for when you’re programming a concert?
This program features many composers who I worked with closely on multiple projects, and also some composers whose works I haven’t played before. When I commission pieces, I usually perform them dozens of times (often as many as 40 times for each commissioned piece), especially when the pieces are recorded and I then tour the programs to promote the works and the albums. Since I often create thematically inspired programs, it can be challenging for me to program single compositions not already part of my larger projects. My upcoming PIE concert presented me with a great opportunity to both showcase the works I commissioned most recently, and also to select works by composers with whom I did not collaborate before, all united by the common inspiration of the electronics component in the music. Tom, Annie, Vera, and Jack all wrote pieces for me that I premiered in the past. I was eager to work with Isaac Schankler for a long time now, and finally I got a new piece from him that I will be premiering on Saturday, inspired by Isaac’s baby boy, noise music, Romantic/teen angst, the melancholy of Chopin, and the composer’s worries and hopes for alternate future possibilities. This concert will be my first collaboration with Alex Temple and Julia Wolfe.
Vera’s piece is the only one that lists multimedia. What can we expect from it?
Vera’s piece exists in several versions and at the PIE concert it will be performed with all possible components – projections of the text of the poems over images, and the fixed audio part, which interjects the piano part. The fixed audio part makes use of original recordings of the poems (The Echo, In the Fog, Wind, and The Lake Isle of Innisfree) read by the poets themselves (Anna Akhmatova, Herman Hesse, Boris Pasternak, and William Butler Yeats). Overall the multimedia is created to bring back the presence of these poets and to connect the text of the poems directly to the music. And there will be one more piece with multimedia. Jack Van Zandt wrote his Sí in Bhrú for my upcoming Poetry of Places album, which will be released on Reference Recordings in Spring 2019. My Poetry of Places album will feature newly-written works by Amy Beth Kirsten, Hannah Lash, James Matheson, Harold Meltzer, Andrew Norman, Lewis Spratlan, Nina C. Young, and Jack Van Zandt, all inspired by unique buildings. Jack’s piece was inspired by the oldest building in the world, built in Ireland during the Neolithic period, about 5000 years ago. This building, Sí in Bhrú (or Newgrange in English), is fascinating on so many levels. Like the passageway and the interior chamber of Sí an Bhrú itself, the electronic elements of the work (created in dozens of layers from several sources) resonate at a frequency of 110 hertz in support of the piano part that does the same. I will perform this work with an accompanying video that features images of this unique stone age monument.
Looks like you have a consortium commission on the concert, which seems like a great way for performers to bring new works into the world. Could you talk a little about how that process works, for our readers who may not be familiar with it?
The consortium commissioning is somewhat common in orchestral, wind band and choral worlds, but is relatively new for solo music. It was realized through the Global Premiere Commissioning Consortium, an organization which accepts applications from composer/performer teams and a group of commissioning consortium members who split the composer’s and the project leader’s fee. This approach makes it affordable for the selected teams to commission new music. A relatively small commissioning fee allows the consortium members to secure the premiere performance rights on their respective territory for a fixed amount of time and help the composer to get his/her work performed globally. It is a great project which is focused on promoting the composer and his/her performers. We currently have 25 members who will premiere Vera’s new piece in 10 countries and 16 USA states.
Tom Flaherty’s piece is on your upcoming CD, Quotations & Homages. Want to talk a little about the album?
My upcoming album Quotations and Homages will be released on Reference Recordings in early April (next month). This album features newly-written works inspired by a variety of earlier composers and pieces, from Mozart to Brahms to Stravinsky to Messiaen to Carter to Ustvolskaya to The Velvet Underground. It’s a program that’s both serious and lighthearted. Older works are brought to new light through piano/s, toy pianos and electronics by living American composers Tom Flaherty, Missy Mazzoli, Peter Yates, Vera Ivanova, Nick Norton (you!), Adam Borecki, Daniel Felsenfeld, and James Matheson. At my PIE concert on March 10 I will be performing the two works with electronics from my album. The first piece, written for me by Tom Flaherty, is titled Rainbow Tangle. It captures the otherworldly ecstasy of the seventh movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, using live electronic delays, transpositions, and reverberation to expand the sonic palette. I will close my PIE concert with Tom’s Igor to Please, a piece constructed using only the notes of Stravinsky’s “Augurs” chord from the Rite of Spring (an unusual spacing of an Ab harmonic minor scale). This piece exists in multiple versions for solo piano, solo toy piano, duo piano, and the original version for two pianos four-hands and two toy pianos, each with pre-recorded electronics. My album features the original version of this piece for 6 pianists, recorded with my amazing colleagues Ray-Kallay Duo, HOCKET, and Genevieve Feiwen Lee. On Saturday I will be performing the solo piano and electronics version of Igor.
What’s next on your schedule after this one that readers can look forward to?
After this week, which is keeping me busy with 2 days of recording sessions and six concerts (four of them at ArtNight Pasadena on Friday, previewing my PIE program, I will be going to Canada to promote the upcoming album release. Local performances next month will include collaborations with the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, bassoonist Judith Farmer, and clarinetist Edgar Lopéz (performing Gernot Wolfgang’s Trio WINDOWS, which we will be recording in May). My concert schedule is updated at nadiashpachenko.com/event and interested readers can subscribe to my newsletter to be invited to future performances at nadiashpachenko.com/contact.
Tickets for this weekend’s show are available at peopleinsideelectronics.com/nadia-shpachenko.
A couple days ago you might have seen a review of Eve Beglarian’s show at REDCAT by our newest writer, Leaha Maria Villarreal. We’re so excited to introduce her to you! Leaha recently moved back to LA from New York to pursue her DMA in composition at USC. As her bio tells us,
With works described as “visceral” (Lucid Culture), “propulsive” (Bachtrack) and “austere” (New Music Box), composer Leaha Maria Villarreal’s output includes music fordance, film, opera, and the concert hall.
She has worked with organizations and ensembles such as Beth Morrison Projects and the Los Angeles Philharmonic; ETHEL and Friends concert series at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; andPlay; Wild Rumpus; JACK Quartet; Experiments in Opera; and TRANSIT New Music, among others. Past composition teachers include Roger Reynolds, Steven Kazuo Takasugi, and Chinary Ung. Villarreal holds a B.A. from the University of California, San Diego and an M.M. from New York University where she studied with Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon. She is a co founder of contemporary music ensemble Hotel Elefant; a Jerome Fund for New Music recipient; and taught composition with New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers Bridge Program. Villarreal is pursuing a D.M.A. at the University of Southern California.
You can check out Leaha’s music and more at leahamaria.com. Welcome to the team, Leaha.
On Thursday, December 7, night the Calder Quartet will premiere Christopher Cerrone’s new string quartet, Can’t and Won’t, at Walt Disney Concert Hall. It opens hefty program of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. Amid flights and rehearsals I was able to wrangle Chris into answering some questions about the piece and even recording a bit of rehearsal.
When this commission came through, did you know it would be programmed alongside Verklärte Nacht and, perhaps more a propos, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden? It’s hard, reading your score, not to think there’s something these pieces have common with the Ds and the way the polyrhythms work in both openings, the shapes of the lines in Schubert’s presto against your ending…and your program note does say “songs without words” a few times.
I think string quartets have something to do with D! One of the challenging of writing for a string quartet is coming terms to the reality. Though as we speak of this it does make me think of a quote from one of my favorite books, Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West.
“He sat in the window thinking. Man has a tropism for order. Keys in one pocket, change in another. Mandolins are tuned G D A E. The physical world has a tropism for disorder, entropy. Man against Nature…the battle of the centuries. Keys yearn to mix with change. Mandolins strive to get out of tune. Every order has within it the germ of destruction. All order is doomed, yet the battle is worth while.”
Feels a propos of the piece! A lot of the piece is struggling with the basic nature of string instruments and how they work — these open strings — and how to address them in an interesting and creative way.
There’s a fascinating notational/metric trick at bar 226, when three members of the quartet switch to quarter = 76 and the cello keeps up its ostinato at the previous tempo of dotted quarter = 220, which makes for a not-quite-aligned dance. It seems like a super efficient way to get the intended effect, but I have to wonder how the quartet feels about it. In practice, is it executed accurately, or is getting very close workable in this context? And did you approach it this way because the notated polyrhythm would be essentially unreadable?
Oh no it’s super easy. Trust me players are really good at not playing together sometimes ;-). I think the goal was to have this running through line throughout the whole piece, this restless sense of pulsation. I always feel when writing for strings you need to give me a lot of activity, and movement, and through motion do they create sound. But on a simpler level, I didn’t want them obsessing over some kind of really complicated polyrthyms that I didn’t really care about — it’s just about turning foreground and background on one another a bunch.
The piece constantly returns to static harmony around D with various takes on ostinati, and your program note mentions trying to “find a sense of repose in a deeply chaotic time.” Though a literal interpretation of “programmatic” music of course runs into issues, do you find this is something you were intentionally doing in this piece as a reaction to, say, our current political dilemmas, or has it been an unconscious but real trend in your writing in general? I partially ask because I’ve heard quite a few composers over the past year or so suddenly begin writing much more harmonically static, perhaps traditionally-beautiful music, and parts of this certainly remind me of the balance of chaotic vs. static in Invisible Cities or The Pieces That Fall To Earth.
Hmm, sort of. The piece grows out of a melody I wrote years ago, but after I wrote it, so maybe or maybe not. What I found interesting that, even as I wrote the piece at the Macdowell Colony, a place mostly free of distraction, I still have felt distracted. I’ve felt distracted all year, and I’m sure many people have. It’s one of the weird, particularly toxic side effects of the Trump era: all of the news that comes in makes you more distracted, less focused, less able to do deep thinking: and therefore more like Trump.
This work is an inadvertent dramatization of that very fact.
You’ve become a bit of a regular here. Outside of our awesome concert hall, what’s your favorite spot to hang when you visit LA?
Usually my trips to LA are just jam packed with trying to see all the friends I’ve developed around my projects here. And if not that, sitting in the sunless room of a recording studio working on my new album with Wild Up.
But when I do have a few minutes, I’m excited to spend time in the Arts District, at the Hauser and Wirth gallery, and then swing by Wurstkuche after.
Tickets for the December 7 premiere are available at laphil.com/tickets/colburn-celebrity-recitals/2017-12-07.
While that particular fantasy didn’t quite happen, War of the Worlds did manage to blast through my rather high expectations. It is in many ways the most fully realized version of Yuval’s unique brand of opera theatre, a project perhaps more deeply connected to Los Angeles than even Hopscotch. Rather than take the essential Wells/Welles story/broadcast and stage it, the new libretto (by Sharon himself) engages with contemporary LA life, politics, and a lot of sci fi fandom. Its layers of metacommentary on cultural life in 2017 are a joy to unpeel.
Let’s begin with the premise. Audiences were seated both inside the concert hall and at three “siren sites” around LA. The opera began with Sigourney Weaver as a guest celebrity host for an LA Phil concert, which was broadcast to the three sites. For the first performance I was at site one, where a pair of scientists were listening to the broadcast on the radio while doing some experiments, and for the second I was in the hall. Before we go any farther, let’s think about the setup. The Industry’s other productions, as ambitious and wild and creative and postmodern as they are, often run into a fourth wall problem. In Hopscotch, for instance, yes, you were in a car with the singers and actors, but it still felt as if they were performing for a large audience, or for a camera, as if it didn’t matter that you were there.
That’s not exactly a knock on Hopscotch or its performers, but it was definitely odd to be sitting two feet from someone singing their heart out but not actually interacting with you. The fourth wall is a tricky thing, though – break it too obviously and it can completely ruin the narrative, like the remote scene in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Such breaks have to serve the story rather than spice it up. In the cases of Hopscotch, Invisible Cities, and Crescent City, I think Yuval was right in his avoidance of dealing with the fourth wall in the drama, much as the staging might make it seem like the obvious device to manipulate.
That the actual plot of War of the Worlds included a concert broadcast being interrupted, however, finally gave Yuval the legitimate justification to start playing with that fourth wall. It’s normal to have a bunch of celebrities show up and hang out at LA Phil concerts — hell, it’s almost a marketing device — so having Sigourney Weaver show up and participate brought the opera’s narrative into our normal experience as LA Phil concertgoers. It seemed to say “this is actually happening to you,” rather than “watch and listen to this thing we are performing,” and it was convincing.
The choice to cast Weaver as the all-knowing person in a science fiction situation itself is a trope we’re also familiar with. It’s almost a requirement for a self-aware sci fi film these days to give her a cameo or have her show up at the end to explain to the characters what is actually happening. This casting decision further brings War of the Worlds into our world, and isn’t lost on Yuval’s libretto, with the scientists (read: lovable nerds) at site one geeking out over getting to talk to Ellen Ripley. Sitting at site one and listening to an LA Phil broadcast is what both the audience and the scientists are doing, so it makes perfect sense that they would interact. And interact we did, with Professor Pierson and his assistant (perfectly portrayed by actors Hugo Armstrong and Clayton Farris, respectively) bantering with the audience before the concert, and Professor Pierson developing a celebrity crush on Weaver.
When the music and story get rolling, though, the metanarrative helps the opera to get real, and real important. Jorge Luis Borges once pondered,
Why does it disturb us that…the thousand and one nights be [included] in the book of the Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.
I believe that with War of the Worlds, the inverse is true. As the sirens around Los Angeles wake up from their machine slumber to coordinate the martian attack, mayor Eric Garcetti himself walks onstage to tell the audience that – paraphrasing – “these things have been hiding in plain sight for 70 years, and that we’ll fight them to defend our way of life in Los Angeles.” In case it wasn’t clear that this is an opera about America and LA in 2017, when the Mexican shop owner portrayed by hometown opera hero Suzana Guzmán gets asked about the aliens, she immediately launches into a panicked defense of her legal immigrant status. It’s not that we, the audience, can be fictitious, but that the fiction can be fact.
Sometimes with Industry productions it can feel like the music, while important, takes a backseat to the setting. While the narrative structure and libretto are integral to War of the Worlds, in this case it is clearer than ever that they are in support of Annie Gosfield’s score and the performers. Yuval has said that gathering a community for artistic purposes can be a form of sociopolitical action, and the mere premise of this opera is that we’re getting together to listen to a piece of music. That literally happens here, as being at a concert, with a tongue-in-cheek name check to Frank Gehry’s silver building, ends up saving the listeners from the invasion.
Christopher Rountree’s muscular but agile conducting style was a perfect match for Gosfield’s synth-laden orchestral score with occasional dips into popular idioms. Furthering our theme of music-as-community here, one got the feeling that not only did most of the people in the hall actually know Rountree from around town, but that he was having a blast being exactly who he is, even getting to act a little with the sound guy, “Dave,” in a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. At least one other critic wrote that he was hoping for an orchestral suite of movements from the opera; I’ll second that request. And coloratura soprano Hila Plitmann’s portrayal of La Sirena, or the wordless, musique concrète instrumentale of the alarm sirens – broadcast through the actual alarm sirens – was utterly stunning.
Making art together in a diverse community is our hometown’s calling card. The Industry’s past productions have done that splendidly for their audience. With War of the Worlds, the LA Phil and The Industry do it with their audience. To live in LA is to be a part of this story and project.By embracing that, War of the Worlds becomes not only engrossing and entertaining as hell, but a vital piece of opera theatre.
Disclosure: the author of this review is friends with some of the subjects, and sometimes works for The Industry. Rather than pretending this is some piece of unbiased writing in the name of journalistic integrity, I think being actively involved allows for deeper insights while writing. Make of that what you will.
I’m excited to share the news that Brandon Rolle has joined the team of writers contributing to New Classic LA. We posted his first review, of Nicholas Deyoe’s new record, a couple days ago. Here’s Brandon’s bio:
Brandon J. Rolle is a composer and conductor of contemporary music. Fueled by curiosity but informed by classical and experimental traditions, his works employ a singular language that investigates points of connection between old and new, structure and chaos, perception and deception. His diverse compositional output has been performed across the United States and Europe, including orchestral, electro-acoustic and acousmatic music, as well as original interactive computer instruments, intermedia works and installations. Beyond his concert works, Rolle has worked as a composer for videogame, short film, dance, and is an active conductor and ensemble coach. His industry experience includes work as an orchestrator, copyist, editor, audio programmer, and recently as contributor to New Classic LA.
Rolle holds degrees in guitar and political science from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and a Masters degree in composition from Mills College where he studied with Roscoe Mitchell and Pauline Oliveros. He is currently a PhD Candidate in Composition at the University of California, Santa Barbara where he works with Clarence Barlow, Joel Feigin and Curtis Roads. Brandon lives in Los Angeles, California, and teaches composition at the University of California, Santa Barbara.