As the guy who runs the concert calendar website, I’ve been in a unique position to both hear a lot of musicians and help them connect with each other. Helping deserving music get heard has always been a passion for me, so I’m starting up a series of essays that I’m calling Notes Under The Underground. I hope to capture the essence and the energy of this LA scene that is thriving yet rarely reported on, and to show the deep connections between superficially disparate segments of it. In short, I’d like to make the Los Angeles I live in, the one where musicians and listeners are open minded, free spirited, hard working, friendly and supportive of each other, and ready and willing to take risks, one that anyone reading this can find and enjoy for themselves. You can check out all of the essays in this series at newclassic.la/notes-under-the-underground.
Winter in Los Angeles this year has been a dreary couple of months of oil-slick streets from first rains causing more traffic than usual, wildfires destroying homes, a mass shooting (maybe two or three?), shabby-chic holiday parties with friends you rarely see, austerity measures in personal finance to recover from travel season, and staying home to catch up on Oscar contenders and year-end best-of lists, sometimes punctuated by the sunny days we use to justify via Instagram what we pay for housing. Against this grey backdrop it’s easy to imagine musical life burrowing underground for warmth like so many Seattle indie bands in basements, making plans for spring.
That’s not Los Angeles, though, or at least it’s not my Los Angeles. Politics in America being what they are, the artists and institutions here seem to take the dour weather—both figuratively and literally—as a chance to say “let’s show everyone else how this is done,” like an art-making version of the way California handles environmental regulations. Through this winter many groups in town, from the established and well funded (the LA Phil, The Industry, wild Up) to the scrappy pick up bands playing in warehouses and lofts where all the musicians take home $7, free beer, and artistic fulfillment, have put on concerts and events on a weekly basis that would be the high point of many other cities’ cultural years.
The difference here? LA’s major cultural institutions, even our civic bureaucracy, are extremely well attuned to and prepared to advocate for the underground, and underground/independent/whatever-word-you-want-to-use artists are surprisingly well organized and seem positioned to take advantage of many of the opportunities this town provides.
Let’s look at a few examples of this. Way back in November the LA Phil, with Christopher Rountree’s curation, kicked off their Fluxus Festival with FLUXCONCERT, an evening featuring the works of Fluxus composers such as Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, and Ken Friedman (and Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, which made complete sense in context). Ken Friedman’s Sonata for Melons started the event, with watermelons being dropped off the roof of Disney Hall onto a small wooden platform covered in contact mics. The effective sound was like hitting a steel oil drum with a brick fired out of a cannon, reminding me of Pauline Oliveros’ Burst. Burst, however, doesn’t end with a tropical cocktail made out of the piece.
Inside the hall, visitors were asked to take part in Rountree’s piece Commitment Booth, in which they could make a commitment to “hear all of this as music,” or decide not to, though I think those folks are missing out. Copies of Chris Kallmyer’s DIY-style zine Jelly (Journal of Ecstatic LListening Y’all) were on hand with essays by Allison Knowles, Ryoji Ikeda, and an epic visual guide to the Fluxus movement. The concert itself vacillated between the performance art practices we’ve come to expect from Fluxus composers and their lineage (smashing a violin, bopping one’s head on a wall, all delivered with aplomb) and frankly stunning music, including a building-wide performance of John Cage’s Apartment House, 1776. The whole evening was, in short, a bold, joyous mess. Any attempts to reign it in in the name of decorum would have undercut the mission and the effect.
Compare that with what happened a few nights later in the same hall when the same organization (the LA Phil) presented Kubrick’s Sound Odyssey, a live performance of score excerpts to picture cataloguing much of the master filmmaker’s career, cleverly hosted by Malcolm McDowell. Everything about the evening was as tightly controlled as a Kubrick montage, as was necessary for the literal montage of Penderecki scores pulled from the soundtrack of The Shining, in which Kubrick had layered five pieces on top of one another. Conductor Jessica Cottis was virtuosic in her execution, and I’ve rarely felt as much energy in that hall as I did during her Also Sprach Zarathustra with the opening of 2001 projected above.
What do these evenings have in common (aside from the obvious “same hall, same band”)? It seems to me that the unifying theme between seemingly diverse programs and concepts, and perhaps the unifying theme of our scene, is complete dedication to craft and end goal and the practical resources to pull off said end goals. Kubrick is known to have funded and toured films himself and had such a complete investment in his vision that he burned the models used for the spaceships in 2001 so that no one else could make the same magic. Anyone can throw watermelons off of a roof, but the practical and craft-related skills necessary to making such an action worthy of artistic consideration (re: the contact mics, the cocktails, the schedule, the marketing, and most crucially, the genuine belief that throwing watermelons off of a roof is important and worthy of serious contemplation) only comes with deep dedication and years of practice.
Thankfully that dedication and years of practice isn’t hard to come by here. As I type this from the cafe at the downtown Whole Foods I’m reminded of the time, years ago, when Archie Carey and Saul Alpert Abrams, the musician-artist-founders of Solarc Brewing, held a beer release in this very room that featured keg gamelan and amplified cactus (full disclosure–I played on that concert). Archie, a bassoonist, as well as his wife the experimental vocalist and composer Odeya Nini, are strongly connected with Rountree’s work through wild Up, and thus now connected to the LA Phil. The institutions, it seems, aren’t going around picking pieces and people they like at random or by whatever might fit on an event, but are actively trying to support the artists who have found their own ways and developed their own voices for a good long while.
Perhaps we’re focusing too much on one group of people, though as we talk about connections one may start to see that we are indeed talking about one giant, decentralized group of people. Six degrees of separation in music in LA are, in most cases, more like one or two. Returning from my holiday travel at the beginning of January I was treated to a week of shows in which every single one was a stand out—I recognize the problem with that concept—and which started to expose the scene’s connective tissue of ambitious, demanding, and unapologetic art-making by people who support each other.
This started with Monday Evening Concerts’ presentation of Julius Eastman’s Gay Guerrilla, for four pianos, alongside composer Sarah Hennies’ Contralto, for a mixed ensemble with electronics and video. Musically speaking Gay Guerrilla hit my taste a bit better (I do like minimalism and multiple pianos quite a bit, plus some friends were back in town to play it), but both pieces showcased the endurance of the performers or composers. The pianists in Gay Guerrilla certainly went home exhausted after the large scale, cathartic soundbath they hammered out nonstop for thirty minutes, while contralto brought home the exhaustion of merely trying to get by in a rigid society as a trans person through frustratingly repetitive—I mean this as a sign of the piece’s effectiveness—videos of trans womxn’s sessions in speech therapy to learn “how to talk like a woman.” Perhaps society at large could take a hint from the success of these artistic pursuits and simply support people doing what they do, rather than focusing as hard as we do on the edges of the boxes we so often categorize people or ideas into (I’m looking your way, “classical” music).
Two nights later found me at REDCAT for Vicki Ray and Carole Kim’s collaboration entitled Rivers of Time, inspired by the Daniel Lentz piece River of 1000 Streams featured on the program and the premiere of Ben Phelps’ Sometimes I feel like my time ain’t long . Vicki is the head of performance at Cal Arts and a mainstay musician throughout the scene. Carole is a visual artist working with projections. The Lentz piece was an inverted waterfall of piano tremolo, rising from the depths of the instrument while the stage and audience were washed in compelling light from Kim. But the real story on that concert was the Phelps piece. Sometimes I feel like my time ain’t long is a massive gospel spiritual for piano and electronics. Ben had used a recording of the titular spiritual from the Lomax catalogue as the basis for a virtuosic but lyrical piano part. Each time the recording repeated it was slowed down, and each repeat was exponential, so while the first copy was perhaps less than a minute long, the final one came in around twenty. The astounding thing was how clearly Phelps expressed that idea in every part of the whole. The listening experience was like being inside of a fractal–as you zoomed in on musical gestures in the piano, you’d find more related gestures inside of them. It was like hearing on multiple time scales at once, while being warmly hugged by Ben’s traditional harmonic sensibilities and Vicki’s unquestionable performance abilities. Or like Charles Ives on LSD. It’s a major work, and one that deserves more performances and much more attention.
The same could be said of the Miller Wrenn Large Ensemble, who held their first show the next night at the mortuary, a loft space in Lincoln Heights that invites artists to try out works in progress and have conversations with focused listeners afterwards. Miller, a bassist and composer (more full disclosure: we’ve played in bands together. This “everything is connected and that’s cool” thing is kind of the point of this whole essay) came up in the jazz and improvisation world, went to Cal Arts, played in Vinny Golia’s band, recently did an improv show with the aforementioned Vicki Ray presented by Synchromy and Tuesdays at Monk Space, went to Banff to work with Tyshawn Sorey, and came home to start a few projects related to conduction, a mode of improvising as a conductor developed by Butch Morris. The guy does a lot, and it showed during that concert, which was the premiere of A Family History of Floods, a 90+ minute structured improvisation for 19 musicians.
At times meditative and lyrical, with vertical chorale harmonies reminiscent of Messiaen, and at times violent in the way that only free jazz can be, the piece smoothly transitioned between musical subgroups, with noise/jazz/punk/something band with saxophones Off Cell occasionally taking lead for extended sections, and a solo bass cadenza that made me wish improvisation was still the norm among concerto soloists. A Family History of Floods was a serious musical accomplishment–and just a first run through in a room full of friends.
Perhaps the feeling of a room full of friends is the elusive thing I’m really trying to capture here. The night after Miller’s show a couple of other composers and I went to go hear wild Up’s show with Nadia Sirota at the ACE hotel. We knew it was some sort of live taping for Nadia’s new podcast and that Caroline Shaw and Andrew Norman were involved, but not much beyond that. The set up was a lot like a late night talk show: a living room with Nadia in an armchair (a mid-century modern armchair, of course), Caroline and Andrew on the couch talking about what they think about when they compose. Wild Up served up live examples and accompaniment, with a particularly sensitive take on Shaw’s looping four chord music the she said she’d developed on the road with Kanye, and the tightest performance of Andrew Norman’s Try I’ve yet heard.
Following the show the band and as many people as they could invite headed over to Mikkeller DTLA for drinks, and after wild Up’s recent return from tour it felt a bit like high fiving friends on what they’d built (in cases of high fives, it was exactly that). Here was Chris Rountree, the guy I mentioned at the beginning running a Fluxus festival for the LA Phil, reveling in the ongoing national success of the group he started in an Echo Park rec center with a bunch of musicians and a credit card. I have every expectation that before long we’ll be seeing Miller’s projects on the same major stages as the so called next generation fills in at the DIY venues and rental spaces all over town.
The thing that makes me constantly happy about all of this, and that I hope to leave you with, is how much the people in our scene love their work, are open to helping each other out, and how welcoming they are. When I first moved back to Los Angeles, knowing zero musicians in town, I cold emailed some artistic planners at the LA Phil and got not only a response, but an invitation in for coffee to talk about music. Along these lines, wild Up now runs a happy hour every couple of weeks at Highland Park Brewery in Chinatown (facebook event here), and even if you’ve never met any of them I can guarantee you they will be happy to see you. The same seems to be true of everyone in the audience or onstage at any Tuesdays @ Monk Space show, or Monday Evening Concert (founded by Stravinsky, still open to young upstart composers), or People Inside Electronics, or the blue whale, or Late Breakfast, or Triptronics Research Institute, or Art Share, or Basic Flowers, or Battery Books…this list could continue almost indefinitely.
One word that gets tossed around a lot to describe our city is “decentralized.” Geographically this may be accurate—artists have long been troubled by the lack of an obvious gathering place, and I will take any excuse I can get to link to this map—though the social geography says the opposite. To that end, I’d argue that a huge network of diverse musicians who have all found their own ways to negotiate this artistic megalopolis have found each other, and by working and playing together are in fact a centralizing force in the music scene in LA. It works because, in the words of James Murphy, “they’re actually really, really nice.” As listeners, and as people, we all get to reap the benefits.
Thanks, LA. I love you. See you at a show,
Every now and then someone comes along and smacks you in the head with something you already knew. Sometimes this hurts, like when a teacher calls you out on a skill you know is weak, or when congress validates your fears about the state of the union by confirming a sexual predator to the supreme court (again). Thankfully, however, this isn’t always a negative experience. Once in a blue moon an artist finds a way to show you your own world in a new light. Oneohotrix Point Never’s MYRIAD, performed at Disney Hall on Monday, did just that.
I’ve enjoyed Oneohotrix Point Never’s work since first hearing the artist on their (his?) album Replica back in 2011, but the concert experience they’ve crafted with MYRIAD is a tongue-in-cheek, hyper self-aware hour of complete joy if you get it—and still genuinely interesting music if you don’t—that relies on its ability to illuminate our usually unconscious schizophonic experience of music. Let me unpack that a bit for you.
Schizophonia refers to the separation of sound from source that became possible with early recording technology. The mere concept of “recording-to-play-back-later” is a very basic example. When you record a cellist playing Bach, and then listen to the recording the next day, the cellist (the source) is no longer there, only the electronically reproduced sound. This is, of course, so basic to the way we listen to music in our daily lives as to be invisible and hardly worth commenting on. We walk around all day listening to music in headphones or through our car stereos. We only really notice it when something goes wrong, for instance in an amplified live concert setup where the left and right sides get switched and a performer on the right side of the stage has their instrumental sound coming from the left. It does rely on visual information as well; you can see this at home by plugging in your TV speakers backwards and trying to watch a sitcom while sitting directly centered in front of your screen. It kind of breaks your brain.
When an artist uses schizophonia as a tool rather than a given, however, and goes in with the assumption that most of their audience has quite a bit of musical knowledge (much like a painter assumes that most viewers aren’t colorblind…and let’s be honest, Oneohotrix Point Never isn’t really for Top 40 listeners), the results can be profound. MYRIAD began, as many electronics-heavy shows do, with the lights out, complex drones, and psychedelic video projections that reminded me of the wormhole sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. That transitioned pretty smoothly to the four piece band onstage, two members surrounded by synths, with the other two at a grand piano and a drum set. Music descended from 80s pop and modern day autotuned R&B (Frank Ocean, anyone?) gradually took over, though the effect was one of disorientation with oddly misaligned phrase lengths from the pop sounds blending in and out of the ongoing drones.
At this point I was under the impression that we’d be getting a through-composed set without any breaks. Then the band stopped and said thanks to the audience like so many arena bands do (both my date and I were caught off guard by this) before launching into what could have been a twisted Toto cover with DX7 brass sounds and a synth flute from a keyboard that sounded like it would fit in mid-90s Celine Dion track, accompanied by a drum beat of sliced up extended technique string samples accompanied by Han Bennink-esque stick rolls on shells in the drums and a pre-recorded upright bass line.
As the lights moved around the stage (musicians were generally lit in a way that reminded me of Depeche Mode or Kraftwerk), however, I was struck by both the lack of an upright bass onstage and the fact that the drummer didn’t seem to be playing any of those stick rolls, instead keeping to trigger pads for basic synth drums. Why bring a grand piano and a drum set and then pre-record bass and drums in a production that obviously cost a lot of money? This is where the schizophonic confusion really started, though I was holding out hope that it wouldn’t be laziness or lack-of-understanding underlying it, though, and was thankfully proven right a few songs later when the same stick rolls returned, this time being played live by the drummer.
This is the moment when it started to hit me that Oneohotrix Point Never was, rather than playing music, playing with the entire concept of live performance. WHOA, I thought. They just moved from recorded to live in a way that SOUNDS identical. Fascinating. It’s almost like they’re commenting on how live performance in our current era of technology is really just for show. Wonder if that will continue. And oh boy, did it continue, and morphing into a near-satire of big budget pop concerts. A troupe of dancers appeared in the aisles during one track (song? piece?) dressed a bit like USC cheerleaders if USC cheerleaders wore cowboy hats decorated in caution tape and surgical masks, but proceeded to repeat a few pretty simple dance steps as they marched around the hall for what couldn’t have been more than three minutes, never to return. For the last two pieces of the evening a cellist joined the band onstage, but played first only a few extended techniques that were indistinguishable from the previously mentioned extended technique string track now backing her again, and then a pretty well worthless string of whole notes for the final number.
Let me clarify that: the notes and the performance of said notes was perfectly good, but in the context of a sample-filled electronic concert, having her appear live was more like the band saying “see? this doesn’t really add anything, but it’s pretty to look at,” in a takedown of the low-hanging fruit “live with orchestra” tokenism that so many bands use to build cultural capital for themselves. Is this the other side of the coin for classical pieces that add a four-on-the-floor drum beat to try to prove their own relevance? I believe so. Had it been in a standalone piece, the appearance of the cellist may have been merely pointless and confusing (as it often is in electroacoustic concerts). In the context of a concert using sonic and visual confusion as a narrative, her mere appearance onstage hammered home the band’s point about live performance. It almost would have been more effective to have her sit there and do nothing.
This may all be speculation on my part, of course, and the problems of the intentional fallacy in this reading of the show’s content are myriad (ha). During that cellist’s appearance at the end, however, came a projected rotating skull eating a VHS tape. Like Nathan Fielder’s glance at the camera in the season finale of Nathan For You when a mark pointed out that “this is all for a TV show,” that skull eating a VHS tape screamed “the old way of doing concerts is dead. You just watched us kill it. And wasn’t it fun?”
This summer I heard composer Martin Bresnick give a talk on the idea that modern composers will really, really have to reckon with the loudspeaker in their work. It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about a lot, and I’m pleased to hear bands like Oneohotrix Point Never who are reckoning with it in their own creative ways. After seeing MYRIAD I dare say this band is on the forefront of a musical future we should all be excited about. If they are touring anywhere near you, get tickets immediately.
Sunday evening found me listening to the familiar rumble of bass frequencies through walls as I passed through security at The Hollywood Bowl. William Brittelle, Wye Oak, and the Metropolis Ensemble had just begun their set, a collection of songs exploring secular spirituality titled Spiritual America that Brittelle composed in collaboration with the band, the ensemble, and an impressively long list of presenters and producers.
Three days previously I had played a set opening for Metropolis Ensemble’s bassist, Evan Runyon, whose bowed strings were now being broadcast to the 17,000 in attendance, largely drawn by Bon Iver’s collaboration with TU Dance. Being far more used to the not-at-all-hard-to-get-into venues associated with the experimental and contemporary classical music scenes, I was a bit embarrassed to have misjudged my arrival and missed the first song. But even hearing the bass from a contemporary music ensemble cum indie rock band cut through the walls at a venue like the bowl felt in many ways like a win for this scene under the underground.
It was tragic, then, upon entering, to find Spiritual America beset by the fate that befalls most openers at large scale rock concerts. Audience members in the bowl’s box seats had their backs turned to the stage to finish their meals. A reviewer from another publication, seated next to me, first asked “what is this, music?”, then if we were all smoking something. This was in response to what I thought to be an extremely clever use of the seagull effect for cello harmonics set against an 80’s new wave style delay effect on what sounded to me like a TR-909 drum machine. That, and many other juxtapositions in the songs comprising Spiritual America, were, in a word, awesome. When Wye Oak singer Jenn Wasner announced that there was one song left on the set, this reviewer said she was glad that there was only one left, because this music was not her style.
The tragedy here was in the pairing, because Spiritual America was fantastic, rich with both nuanced writing (technically and thematically) and indie emotional sensibility, while grammy darling Bon Iver’s collaboration with TU Dance, Come Through, which pulled the crowd, was a phoned in mess and though admirably ambitious and a worthwhile exploration for the artist mainly served to cause me to continually ask myself “what the hell did I just watch?” and regret leaving my car in stacked parking.
To be clear, I’m a big fan of Bon Iver. 22, A Million was one of my favorite records of 2016, and it’s been gratifying to listen to Justin Vernon’s work develop from the college days of torrenting For Emma, Forever Ago to now. I love Vernon’s other band, Volcano Choir, as well. The previous two times I’ve seen Bon Iver I’ve been impressed, with the exception of those moments where they reach for sound worlds that they seem to have little to no experience working in. Bon Iver’s music, and in this case the accompanying video art, thrives on mood, while dance, writ large on a stage like the bowl’s, often requires music with some narrative direction. The result of the pairing, in Come Through, felt as if the collaborators didn’t know what to do with each other, with Bon Iver seeming to back down from every opportunity to take his music anywhere in order to give the dancers space to create, and TU Dance’s choreographer and dancers making a valiant effort to give narrative life to what were, in essence, a bunch of loops that sounded like B-sides and scratch tracks from 22, A Million. A spoken word ending having something to do with Martin Luther King and the new (or old? it wasn’t clear) Jim Crow laws, while incredibly prescient in our current cultural climate, felt tacked on with the “I’m not sure how to end this so I’ll add something new” of an undergraduate music student. The “video art,” which looked a bit like what you might do by the end of an Apple store class on how to use iMovie if you’re a person who is into memes, seemed to exist in order to keep your eyes off of the dancers.
I don’t wish to demean artistic exploration like this, though. The composer Ted Hearne, a New Amsterdam labelmate and post-genre brother in arms of Brittelle’s, said in an interview that he thinks “it’s OK, even preferable, for art to be problematic. We live in a problematic world. Artists should own that. It’s the loose ends and unanswered questions, and even the misfires and unintended consequences, that provoke the best questions about what art is doing in the first place.” Although “Bon Iver writes for dance,” in this case, ended up a bit like Taylor Swift’s out-of-place rap in Shake It Off, there were a few gracefully executed moments (in particular a trio for three male dancers accompanied by not much more than a drum machine and, for the only time during the set, a mellow backdrop). I very much believe that with more time spent collaborating and refining his work with dancers and multimedia artists, Justin Vernon will give us something spectacular.
So let’s talk Spiritual America. With this collaboration it feels like Brittelle’s working methods and interest in cross-genre or post-genre collaboration have come to a head. Perhaps it’s that he, unlike Bon Iver with regard to dance, is steeped in many traditions. When he writes for Wye Oak, it sounds like an authentic indie rock songwriter exploring ways of bringing other sound worlds into the fold because he is an authentic indie rock songwriter bringing other sound worlds into the fold. When, in the interludes between songs he aims for some of the extended techniques of the contemporary classical world (there was, in fact, feathered bowing), you hear a contemporary classical composer doing his thing, because he is that composer, too. How open Brittelle’s ears are is impressive. Choosing indie rock as a vehicle for his explorations of American spirituality makes perfect sense as the norms of the genre are so largely based on traditional songwriting, blues forms, and the not-often-enough discussed basic connections between the European traditions of folk song and traditional harmony and the slave spirituals and dances that make American vernacular music its own form of genre synthesis. Brittelle smartly uses the genre synthesis not as the point of his work, but as the medium.
Spiritual America is a lovely piece of work, that deserves to be performed in better conditions than as an opening act in front of a crowd of seemingly disinterested Bon Iver fans. Yes, the Hollywood Bowl is a get for this band, but perhaps lacks the personal connection to performers and performance that is so integral to the genres Brittelle pulls from. A record of the piece is on the way (a crowdfunding campaign for it is here). I, for one, hope that the next time they tour the piece in LA they’ll consider visiting The Echoplex or The Wiltern so we can really sing along.