Ahead of their August 22 concert at Monk Space, premiering pieces by Jessie Marino and Thomas Kotcheff, I asked Pope and Powell a few “why” questions about the music, themselves, and what it means to play everything but your instrument.
Richard: Why Jessie Marino?
One of the most enjoyable performances I’ve seen in the last couple of years is your performance of ‘Rot Blau’ by Jessie Marino, which I can’t imagine many people have performed besides Marino’s own ‘On Structure’ duo with Natacha Diels. You’ve performed this piece several times, and notably, you don’t play any instruments in it. There is something captivating enough about this piece that compels you two to eschew your traditional instrumental practice, and to pick up red and blue wigs instead.
Indoctrinate the reader into the Church of Marino!
Aperture Duo: (on Rot Blau and taking risks)
We’re so glad you enjoyed it! Some of our favorite memories on stage have been during Rot Blau performances. It’s a feat to learn the piece, and so unbelievably fun to perform it.
We decided to learn Rot Blau at a time when we were in between commissions and looking to find pre-existing repertoire for our upcoming season. But there was (and still is!) only a limited amount of rep for the violin and viola duo ensemble, and we were ready to think outside the box. We were no strangers to pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones – we regularly perform new works that utilize tons of extended techniques – so we were excited to take the leap and learn a piece that was completely off of our instruments. Not only does Rot Blau utilize props, lights, wigs, and gloves, it is written in an entirely new musical notation for body percussion and choreography.
And through learning Rot Blau, we became better chamber musicians. Back on our instruments everything from cueing, to our internal pulse, to body communication, to rehearsal techniques was all incredibly strengthened. It’s amazing what happens when you strip away the instrument that you’ve played for 25ish years!
AD: (on Jessie Marino, Murder Ballads, and commissioning new works)
What we love about Jessie as a composer is not only her creative musical language, but the way she throws herself fully into her conceptual ideas. So it was a no-brainer to ask her if she’d like to write us a piece. We had no idea that she’d write anything like Murder Ballads – you really never know what you’re going to get with a commission, the mystery is part of the fun!
Murder Ballads is a song cycle that combines experimental soundscapes, traditional Sacred Harp hymns, and Appalachian folk ballads. It’s by far the most singing while playing that we’ve ever done. And in a way, Murder Ballads feels like a perfect evolution from Rot Blau. Where Rot Blau requires perfection for its choreography and timing, Murder Ballads is written to be imperfect. We are not trained singers, as Jessie knows, and singing while playing is not a perfect science. So, just the way the piece is written requires us to trust each other, to listen like we’ve never listened before, to be vulnerable, and to catch each other in performance. To us, these are the epitome of chamber music skills.
AD: (on Thomas Kotcheff)
Interestingly, when we commissioned Thomas Kotcheff to write us a piece for this concert we specifically asked for an off-instrument piece. Thomas writes fantastic percussion music, so we thought this would be a fun fit. As it turned out, Thomas had something entirely else in mind for us that he was excited to dig into. The piece that he wrote us is not like anything we could have imagined. Not only is it specifically for our instruments, it also has playback, amplification, and has us playing around (literally!) with a few pop culture themes that everyone will know. It’s nostalgic, dreamy, weird, and wild, and we can’t wait to premiere it.
R: Why a duo? Why this duo?
There’s something about playing with exactly one other person that is special; there’s a simplicity of social hierarchy, a direct communication of ideas, and a clear intimacy and immediacy that is lost even when you add even, simply, a third person. In seemingly every aspect of performance, planning, collaborating and rehearsing, I’ve always noticed that you just get shit done as a duo.
Can you describe if and how the dynamic of a “duo” shapes the way you make art together as Aperture?
We always say that a duo is a conversation. Every moment playing together is an opportunity for listening, reacting, agreeing, disagreeing, questioning, or supporting each other. It’s like having a conversation with your closest friend, and it’s unbelievably rewarding! Performing in a duo requires being present in a way that we haven’t experienced in other chamber ensemble configurations. We each have to bring 50% to the table at all times.
This accountability also spreads to every other aspect of the ensemble, from rehearsal strategies, to concert preparations, programming logistics, and all the nitty gritty details that go into running a chamber group. We each have different strengths – both in performance and on the administrative side – which compliment each other really well. Utilizing our strengths and different skills allows us to divide and conquer in a very compatible way that makes our ensemble sustainable.
R: Why this duo? (violin/viola)
Essentially every chamber ensemble has to reckon with “the past,” a body of work that will always loom over your decision-making in programming, commissioning, the ensembles of your type that exist. This is most true for string quartets, which now has three hundred years of repertoire to reckon with, but this exists even for newer configurations; a group like Yarn/Wire (two pianists and two percussionists), which has a repertoire list almost entirely commissioned and created by themselves, still has Berio, Bartok and Crumb as part of its early canon.
How has the history of violin + viola music affected the way that Aperture operates?
AD: (on Mozart and the duo universe he created)
At first glance, a violin and viola duo seems like it would have a very homogenous sound. The instruments themselves are very similar, so how interesting can a violin and viola duo really be?
When we first began to make music together, we read through the Mozart violin and viola duos. The pieces are well known and well loved, but we didn’t expect them to be so inspiring. As two new music string players who also love traditional repertoire, we thought it would just be a fun experience to read them together. But what we learned is that inside of each of the Mozart duos is an entire string quartet, written for just two people! Nothing is missing, it’s like a compositional magic trick.
Working on the Mozart duos made us realize that anything is possible for two instruments, and made us excited to commission and expand the repertoire for the ensemble. Nine years later we’ve commissioned over fifteen new works that do exactly just that. Not only are they new works for violin and viola, but all of the pieces expand the expectations of what a violin and viola duo can be. Sometimes that means sounding like one instrument, sometimes two, and sometimes four (especially when including our voices!) It’s been a very fun ride and we can’t wait for more new sounds.
Join Aperture Duo (Adrianne Pope, violin and Linnea Powell, viola) in an evening of boundary-pushing new music featuring world premieres by Berlin-based composer Jessie Marino and LA-based composer/pianist Thomas Kotcheff. Join LA’s own Aperture Duo as they explore the shiny, surreal, and sometimes scary depths of chamber music for violin and viola.
7:00pm. Tuesday Aug 22, 2023 at Monk Space (4414 W 2nd St, Los Angeles, CA 90004)
On May 26, 2023, Maura Tuffy led a choir of 17 singers in a full performance of Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills.
Joby Talbot’s musical output is eccentric; scores for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Sing adorn his resume, right next to a large number of music for dance, arrangements for pop stars Paul McCartney and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as well as purely ‘concert’ works such as Path of Miracles. Visiting his website, his landing page simply reads “Joby Talbot is a composer of music for concert, stage and screen,” the brevity of which seems to belie the depth at which he is involved with all three.
A single, low, unison note begins in the tenors and basses – who are the only singers seen on stage – its resonance shifting through changes in vowel shape. Another pitch coming from below, then rising through it, begins a pattern that will become clear in just a moment; Talbot is evoking a Shepard tone, an auditory illusion which seems to continually rise without ever ending. From the BBC’s Bang Goes the Theory, “it’s like a barber’s pole of sound.”
The sopranos and altos proclaim from the balcony behind the audience. The crotales, performed by Yuri Inoo, signal the higher voices to join the lower. They walk through the aisles, flanking left and right, until they find their marks. This (and all future) transitions are tightly choreographed; the ensemble occasionally loosens their rigid lines to flex into a slightly different configuration. Without cues, singers depart from the group to form solo quartets, and, at the very end, the singers flank left and right once again, beginning the piece as it started.
On the way, Path of Miracles visits Roncesvalles, Burgos, León and Santiago along the Camino de Santiago, an (in)famous pilgrimage route in the Roman Catholic tradition; some members of the choir and the audience, in a brief pre-concert talk, raised their hands when asked who had made the trek themselves. In some moments, parallel whole tone and octatonic scales evoke Debussy; in others, you can hear a “Dies Irae” melody snuck in.
I must praise Maura Tuffy’s conducting here; full disclosure, Maura and I met in the choral department at USC, and are friends. In a few words, choral conducting is difficult; you need to show clear beats and gestures while making sure singers don’t disengage their breath support, an issue which is usually not present conducting instrumentalists; choral conductors often don’t use batons, seemingly to prioritize the nuance of the hands at the expense of visibility and the “resolution” of beat that the pointed tip of a baton can provide. Compound that with the fact that Maura is often cueing singers she can’t see, behind her head (in the balcony, or flanking the sides of the sanctuary), and you can get an idea of the immensity of the achievement.
In speaking with the singers after the performance, I found that this group put together the nearly-70 minute work in just four rehearsals. This is about as tight as a non-static choral group of this size could possibly be, performing a work of this size and complexity. Maura’s work with the singers is monumental, and readers should look forward to when this group will perform this work next.
Maura Tuffy and Kiyono McDaniel met last year while working together for the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. With Maura’s affinity for choral conducting, and Kiyono’s ambition for arts development, they have combined their skills to make this performance possible. From fundraising and marketing, to recruiting and rehearsing, Maura and Kiyono have self produced this performance to highlight the beauty that is Path of Miracles.
7:30pm. Friday May 26, 2023
The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra performed a program featuring a sitar concerto by Ravi Shankar (performed by Anoushka Shankar), a new Sound Investment commission from composer Marc Lowenstein, and a (seemingly) old staple from Georges Bizet.
Marc Lowenstein and I have interacted quite a few times – informally as ships in the night in the hallways at CalArts, where Marc is officially on faculty in the Experimental Pop department – then formally, with Marc as music director/conductor in The Industry’s Sweet Land. I was told of his talent as a tenor; composer Juan Pablo Contreras, who I knew through singing in the same tenor sections at USC, hearing of my admittance into CalArts’ MFA program, immediately told me to study voice with Marc, who had apparently had a “former life” as an operatic tenor with more than 25 roles under his belt. I’ve graded his students’ theory exams, with a joke-per-sentence rate so dense it was dizzying; the extra credit question had something to do with wallabies.
And yet, through all this, I had never heard any of his own music; he was so involved in employing his talents to help sharpen the aural skills of CalArtians and direct operas with The Industry, that I had somehow missed yet another hat on his rack. On your Facebook profile, you only really have enough space to put a short description or role at the institution for which you work. Marc’s Facebook profile says “Shortstop/Second Base at CalArts.”
“HaZ’màn HaZèh הזמן הזה” begins with the sound of a singing bowl and a bed of plucked strings underneath an oboe melody. The music is immediately dynamic; searing string lines give way to an explosive, thick bed of low frequency activity. In an introductory video posted online, Marc describes the piece as mystical, fusing samba, Buddhist mysticism, Jewish klezmer and Balkan music, the last two of which becomes most obvious as a squealing clarinet dances atop an insistent groove in 7. A cello solo, shimmering trills in piano, and finally the piece ends in a devastatingly simple two note refrain, sung out over a lush string chorale, unchanging from its identity despite the twisting harmony around it. The vocalist is hidden, singing from within the ensemble rather than as a soloist.
The work is enigmatic, a view into the influences and interests of an even more enigmatic musician; the cacophony of musics somehow blending together could have only come from someone as varied as Marc Lowenstein. The work deserves repeat listenings and I look forward to the life the piece will have beyond this concert; I can’t help but feel that Marc’s piece was buried in the curation of this concert; ‘Shankar plays Shankar,” makes it clear what the intended draw is, but Marc deserves equal billing.
I get the feeling that people attended this concert for one of two reasons, and the Bizet wasn’t necessarily one of them. Certainly, it’s not quite the draw that a new work or a sitar concerto is for most people, and yet, though this work isn’t necessarily in the focus of this publication, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning how much I enjoyed listening to Bizet’s Symphony no. 1 in C.
The comparisons to Beethoven are easy to make – the piece was written in the span of about a month, shortly after Bizet turned 17, in 1855. At the time, Bizet was studying with Charles Gounod at the Paris Conservatoire, whose first two symphonies bear well-documented influences from Beethoven. Beethoven had already died by 1827, which would have granted ample time for his legacy to proliferate amongst his students and followers throughout Western Europe. Many of the early Romantic trademarks of Beethoven are there; a tendency to separate the strings from the winds and brass, assigning melodic or accompaniment roles to each half of the orchestra and only occasionally blending the two. The piece, a student work, was suppressed by Bizet to the point that he had never heard it performed in his lifetime; it is now one of his most frequently performed pieces, with some of its solos used as orchestral excerpts.
Music Director Jaime Martín conducts with an infectious, joyful exuberance. He invigorates, and when he’s not needed, he invites, then steps out. The connection between Martín and the orchestra is evident; cues are often given with the slightest opening of his fingers, a gesture that is perhaps an inch wide, yet marvelously clear in its intent. It’s not realistic to say this with any certainty, but his music-making hints at a warm demeanor, devoid of much ego.
A platform, draped with a thick red and black rug, was brought forward and placed in the concerto soloist’s position. A sitar was placed on top, prompting many excited families to walk up to the Royce Hall stage; doubtless many young beaming faces with Maestra Shankar’s sitar were posted online and sent to family that night.
Ravi Shankar’s work is most well known to the world outside of the Indian subcontinent through his collaboration with George Harrison of the Beatles, and is credited with introducing much of the western world to North Indian classical (Hindustani) music. Part of his work in bringing his music to the West also involved writing three concerti for Sitar and orchestra, the third of which was performed tonight.
The trademarks of a North Indian classical recital were immediately recognizable; not only in the solo instrument and the scales (ragas), transcribed and rebuilt for the orchestral instruments, but also in the structure of the composition. The first movement began with a short virtuosic phrase, completed by an ending cadence, played three times and timed precisely to line up with the beginning, beat 1, of the next section. If you’re familiar with this musical tradition, then those descriptions should be familiar; this was likely a mukhra (a short, one cycle composition often at the beginning of a solo recital) marked at the end with a characteristic tihai (a “cadential” figure marked by its [usually] verbatim repetition, three times, which [usually] precisely hits sam, or beat 1 of the next rhythmic cycle). Then came what I would label a peshkar section (a type of theme-and-variation composition which has a kind of lilt, differentiating it from the similar qaida), then, after some developmental material, closed with a chakradar – a longer composition which is characterized by repeating the entire thing three times, not just the tihai.
In a work that bridges two musical traditions together, attention must be paid to how the two musics are blended, and especially in how these ideas are to be communicated. How much can we expect a patron of western orchestral concerts in London or Los Angeles to know of the Hindustani classical tradition? How much should a LACO string player know of the tintaal theka, a 16 beat rhythmic cycle which makes up at least half of their 3rd movement?
A well crafted piece and performer can communicate these ideas to an audience despite the differences in their assumed knowledge. A great one does so while entertaining its listeners. Shankar and Shankar, on Sunday night, wowed, by finding the aspects of a music that is common to both, if not all musical traditions. A solo is a solo in any language. Virtuosic fireworks communicate through all practices, and the collective musical output of LACO and Anoushka Shankar wowed, not in spite of, but thanks to the nexus of two musics coming together.
‘Shankar plays Shankar’
LACO’s 2022/23 season concludes with a celebration of global and local traditions! GRAMMY-nominated sitar virtuoso Anoushka Shankar performs her father Ravi Shankar’s Third Sitar Concerto. The concert also features a world premiere by LA-based composer Marc Lowenstein, the final Sound Investment premiere of the season, and a brief excursion to France with Bizet’s Symphony No. 1 in C major.
7:00pm. Sunday May 21, 2023