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Interviews

LA Phil at 100: Looking Backward & Looking Forward

Thursday evening is the LA Phil’s Centennial Birthday Concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Recovering from a whirlwind previous season that saw volumes of new works, artists and commissions, this birthday concert looks to distill the Philharmonic’s past, present, and future into a tidy package. By bringing together conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen, Zubin Mehta, and Dudamel, the program highlights Los Angeles history from Stravinsky to Lutosławski, culminating with a bold glance into the future in the premiere of a newly-commissioned work by Daníel Bjarnason.

Bjarnason’s From Space I Saw Earth comes highly-anticipated, and rightfully so: the Icelandic composer has produced outstanding work in his residence with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, as well as in his collaborations with the LA Phil itself. But this new work pushes even those bounds, with all three of the towering conductors of the evening performing simultaneously on the new piece—a logistical undertaking rare in its conception, and made even more rare by the caliber of musicians involved. The idea is bold and beautiful, local and global, nostalgic and forward-looking, in a way that lends a sense of “ah, there she is” to the LA Phil that we know and love.

I had the opportunity to speak briefly to Bjarnason about the commission for From Space I Saw Earth, which is inspired (as many of his works are) by science and space. He says the piece plays on perspectives, the same musical material being stretched and compressed into parallel timelines which intersect and diverge over the course of the piece–me makes the analogy of how fermatas bring the breath back together in chorales, before they depart again. This effect is an interest reflected in much of his music, so the idea for multiple conductors presented a way to achieve it quite organically, albeit magnified by the considerable amount of freedom Bjarnason offers each conductor in how they move through the material. With this whole complex routine contained to the stage, the natural choreography of the performance, Bjarnason says, reinforces and dramatizes the effect of these independent sections diverging and converging.

The new work’s role in the program as a whole is well thought out. The freedom and resulting cumulative effect pairs well with the ad libitum sections granted to the conductor in the Lutosławski’s symphony (commissioned and premiered by the Phil in 1993 under the composer’s baton), which alternates smeared orchestral textures with tightly-coordinated passages. And, compared to the narrative drive of Stravinsky’s Firebird, I anticipate that Bjarnason’s rich sense of space and knack for detailed, bubbling orchestrations may wrap up the night with an opulent sonic blanket. Before any notes are even played, this concert already promises to be a fitting celebration of 100 years, to the day, since this philharmonic sprang to life, and a statement that it plans to lead us into the next 100.

Jaime Martín, flute virtuoso and conductor, takes the reins of LACO

LACO Music Director Jaime Martín PC: Ben Gibbs

LACO Welcomes Jaime!
Jaime Martín, Conductor
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano
September 28th, 8:00 pm at Glendale’s Alex Theater
September 29th, 7:00pm at Royce Hall

*See LACO.org for more information on open rehearsal, reception, and pre-concert festivities in honor of the opening of the season


On September 28th, flute virtuoso and conductor Jaime Martín will officially take the baton as Music Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. LACO is one of the institutions at the heart of the Los Angeles music scene, balancing excellent traditional programming with the commissioning of new works and a wildly adventurous SESSION series. The commencement of Martín’s role is, on the surface, a sensible import of the European tradition for an ensemble which shines in that repertoire—and certainly, this season does not shy away from tried-and-true major works, nor from utilizing Martín’s relationships with world-class soloists like Anne Sofie von Otter and Christian Tetzlaff. But there is more to this appointment than simply a conductor with deep ties to the global classical music scene: Martín is a sensitive and curious leader, whose passion for collaboration is already coming into focus for LACO. And in a moment when Los Angeles has an abundance of musical talent, creativity and energy, this combination might make Martín just the person to harness west-coast excitement into world-class refinement.

In anticipation of LACO’s opening concerts on September 28th and 29th, I was able to sit down with Martín to talk about his appointment as Music Director. He is charismatic and energetic, and he speaks about the ensemble and Los Angeles with a genuine spark in his eyes. Over the course of our conversation, the importance of relationships, trust, and freedom in his music-making emerged as clear through-lines. Looking at the programs and music of this coming season,  you get the sense that these are not just ideals, but foundational to the way he engages with and creates music.

With his background as a performer, it is natural that Martín treats his role at the podium with a deep sense of trust for the musicians in front of him. One of the things he values most, he says, is “if the musicians tell me after the concert that they had the feeling of being free; that they feel I let them breathe with the music.” And with a chamber orchestra of LACO’s caliber, that freedom has created some wonderful moments, already, under Martín’s baton. “There are no passengers in an orchestra, everybody is driving in a way,” Martín explains–and this core belief is evident in his responsiveness while leading the musicians, as well as in his commitment to bring world-class soloists and commission works to celebrate the ensemble.

Martín conducting LACO
PC: Jamie Pham

Which brings us to another facet of Martín’s relationship-building: Composers. Besides an impressive lineup of soloists, the new works presented this season include the beginning of a prolonged collaboration with Andrew Norman, a commission and SESSION curation for Missy Mazzoli, and collaborations with Juan Pablo Contreras, Christopher Rountree, and Derrick Spiva Jr., among others. An emphasis on Los Angeles talent is clear, but the half-dozen commissions (one for each of the six concerts Martín will conduct this season) articulate an overall support for living composers that itself feels Angeleno at heart. Of course, placing new works alongside staples of the canon risks the forced, awkward juxtapositions that other orchestras have tried in recent years, where intermission is marked by donors leaving and students arriving. But somehow LACO’s 2019-2020 program feels genuine in putting forth new and established works with equal esteem.

This sense of genuineness comes in part from an emphasis on building longer-term relationships with composers like Norman, Reid and Mazzoli, who are already becoming widely accepted as worthy companions to the great masters of old. But the intent to find and support new masterworks is also a broader impulse on Martín’s part, who hates the word “routine,” and sees what is happening in Los Angeles right now as a unique opportunity to bring great new works forward:

I don’t think we need to find excuses to program. We have to make people excited and curious; I think that is the starting point. In the end, the ideal situation is when you create a relationship of trust with the audience. Then, that audience looks at the program in five years and maybe they don’t recognize any of the pieces, but they say “you know what, I’m going to go because if they’re performing that, it must be worth listening to—and maybe I’ll be surprised!” If we could achieve that, it would be fantastic. But you cannot demand that trust, you have to earn it.

Martín conducting LACO
PC: Jamie Pham

The opening concert of the season is a clear signal of Martín’s seriousness about earning this trust: Andrew Norman—a Los Angeles composer who probably knows LACO better than any other—will premiere the first part of a three-year collaboration with the orchestra, alongside Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’été  (featuring renowned mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter), and Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. Fusing old and new, local and global, this season at LACO is poised to pick up the baton left by the LA Phil’s astonishing centennial season, and in doing so, it may help define the livewire that is the Los Angeles music scene today.

Aliens, the tube, and the CIA: an interview with Spacepants

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.

Space whales. Photo provided by Spacepants.
Space whales. Photo provided by Spacepants.

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?

Spacepants about to go on stage. Photo by Spacepants.
Spacepants about to go on stage. Photo by Spacepants.

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?

@spacepantsmusic on Instagram; Facebook.com/spacepantsmusic

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.

Breana Gilcher on Femme Frequencies

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:

Femme Frequencies organizers Breana Gilcher and Rachel Van Amburgh.
Femme Frequencies organizers Breana Gilcher and Rachel Van Amburgh.

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.

WasteLAnd talks with Stephanie Aston, Dustin Donahue, Nicholas Deyoe, Katherine Young, and Allison Carter

Soprano Stephanie Aston
Soprano Stephanie Aston

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!

Program:

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.

Vicki Ray talks Rivers of Time

Vicki Ray

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.

Meet The Furies ahead of their show at Art Share

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

WasteLAnd talks with A(sh)perture ahead of this Friday’s show

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.

Below are a few questions from wasteLAnd to Aperture and Ashley as well as a few questions to from the performers to composers Erin Rogers and Trevor Bača.

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygmUiPqmNHs

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.

The Isaura String Quartet on Machines and Strings

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.

Track premiere: Alexander Elliott Miller’s “Zanja Madre” from To….Oblivion

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.

Alexander Elliott Miller performing To....Oblivion!

Alexander Elliott Miller performing To….Oblivion!

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.

Composer and guitarist Alexander Elliott Miller

Composer and guitarist Alexander Elliott Miller

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.