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,
One Body, by Berkeley-based composer John Kennedy was performed February 15, 2019 at Boston Court in Pasadena as part of their Winter Music Series. This five movement cantata combines texts by Walt Whitman, St. Augustine, Native Americans and several contemporary poets with the formidable vocal skills of Timur, the masterful playing of the Isaura String Quartet and multi-talented percussionists Yuri Inoo and Sidney Hopson. Conducted by the composer, this five-part work explores the spiritual implications of the earth as a living entity, divisions by species, the limitations of race and stereotypes of gender. The composer writes that One Body seeks to create “a modern liturgy of secular humanism which joins spirituality with intellectual freedom.” There was hardly an empty seat in Boston Court’s Branson performance space despite the heavy Friday night traffic and a driving rain.
The five movements of One Body are performed without pause and all have a similar form. There is a prelude of string solos, quartet music or percussion, followed by one or more sung texts. Kennedy’s music is calmly tonal. This work strives for the transcendental and succeeds convincingly. The opening movement begins with a sustained, but ragged tutti chord, suggesting a formless chaos at the beginning of creation. The sounds gradually become organized as Timur’s voice enters with two sustained notes that float airily above the strings and percussion. Texts by Walt Whitman and Kenneth Patchen were sung, at times in greatly differing registers. Timur’s amazing range is capable of full baritone, tenor, countertenor and higher – all seamlessly connected with no breaks or boundaries. There is a comforting and uplifting feeling that persists over the entire work, and the lush harmonies in the strings, the understated percussion, and the expressive vocals all come together flawlessly. The text by St. Augustine, preceded by an expressive viola solo, was particularly appropriate:
If we are members of one body, then in that one body
there is neither male nor female;
or rather, there is both;
it is an androgynous or hermaphroditic body,
containing both sexes.
As the five movements continued, Timur moved gracefully about the small stage, taking up different positions. Although barefoot, his tall stature made for an imposing but never intimidating presence. At certain points during the string preludes and solos, Timur stooped to light a series of votive candles arranged in front of the quartet. This added a ceremonial dimension to a performance that, although devoid of overt religiosity, imparted a decidedly humanist and secular spirituality.
Movement II featured a particularly lush low register cello interlude. Later, the gently animated string quartet embodied Joy Harjo’s Eagle Poem text, sung in this section. Movement III contained an extended stretch of subtle percussion that perfectly complemented the Mohawk prayers in the text. The singing here was particularly impressive, with Timur changing registers on alternate verses, jumping effortlessly from baritone to countertenor, and back again. Movement IV was perhaps the most dynamic, with strong percussion that subsided into a sweetly calming string section.
The final movement was preceded by yet another lovely string interlude, full of quiet assurance. The final text was heard first in the baritone range, a formal and declarative summation with just the right amount of ringing in the accompanying triangles. The singing was completed in the countertenor range, slowing and with just a touch of melancholy. A projection of what seemed to be a goddess was seen on the rear of the stage as the strings quietly faded at the finish. The stage went dark, and a full 10 seconds of silence followed before enthusiastic applause and loud cheering rang out from the audience.
One Body, despite its manifest brilliance, is fated to receive few performances, depending as it does on the uncommonly gifted vocal soloist. There is no way to break the various texts into the conventional ranges; if there were soprano, alto, tenor and bass singers, it would simply cease to be One Body. There was some speculative talk in the lobby afterwards about mounting another performance. Should that materialize, do not fail to miss it. One Body must be heard to be believed.
The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra sounded as good as ever under conductor Peter Oundjian on Sunday evening in Royce Hall at the University of California, Los Angeles. Opening with the world premiere of Sarah Gibson‘s warp & weft served as a reminder of what LACO does so well: careful and consistent programming that feels balanced, approachable, and keenly aware of what repertoire best showcases their style and sound. Gibson herself proved to be a fitting choice for the commission of a new work, tempering the curious vocabulary of modern music with a thoughtful, intentional sense of timing and form. That sense of linear clarity in the work brought out the best in the ensemble, encouraging a commitment by the ensemble to even the most exploratory moments.
Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings had a strong performance, though it may have suffered for the same reasons the Gibson succeeded; its more open approach to time and its compressed musical language sometimes were lost in translation (an issue shared with the original quartet form of this work, and which partially inspired its re-orchestration). Similar to the handling of Pärt’s meditative song on Dausgaard’s program with LACO earlier this season, Andante for Strings was emphasized by its pairing with a bold and formally-defined closer–this time Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Together these two works of the second half strengthened each other and reiterated a savvy attention to programming.
Guest pianist Jonathan Biss joined in a nuanced performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G Major (K.453). Sensitive and operatic, this concerto reminded the audience how strange and exploratory Mozart can be while remaining utterly polished and grounded by a musical language that is always conversational, always shimmering. Biss’ playing was precise and clear, particularly during the moments of Mozart’s treacherous–if subtle–rhythmic deceptions. Some of the details in the piano were lost in Royce Hall, though the intention of contrasts was clear in Biss’ playing; he might have benefited from some ears in the hall during rehearsal. Overall, though, the performance was well-balanced with the orchestra, and rounded out a program with a little something for everyone.
On Friday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed music by two of the most prominent American composers of late twentieth-century classical music: John Adams and Philip Glass. The evening sported a short-ish program with a single work by each composer, first Adams’ Grand Pianola Music followed by the world premiere of Glass’ Symphony No.12, “Lodger,” which borrows its lyrics from David Bowie and Brian Eno and functions more as an orchestral song cycle than a traditional symphonic work. The weight of names on the program created an obvious buzz in the concert hall, but artistically the performances fell short of the quality that the LA Phil has established as a (perhaps unrealistic) new norm with this centennial season.
The performances were not especially poor, though they did suffer some messy moments—particularly in regards to rhythmic and balance issues. The musicians of the LA Phil sounded, predictably, good, but the overall vision was unclear and felt somewhat stale compared to their typical programming. For the works themselves, Grand Pianola Music might be a stronger piece were it ended after the slow second movement, and Glass’ new work seemed to lack the gradations of detail that usually propel repetitive minimalist textures. Of course, both had compelling moments that epitomized the style and orchestration of these composers’ respective generations. And more generally, a short orchestral concert comprised completely of living composers should be reason enough to celebrate; at many large institutions, this would be a headlining program (and a major achievement). The Los Angeles Philharmonic, however, has sent a precedent that is becoming increasingly clear: local, young, and forward-looking programs that build excitement and interest in orchestral music in the twenty-first century. Of course, this is the same orchestra creating buzz with recent performances of Brahms, and who excelled on ambitious, imported modernist programs under Susanna Mälkki. So why did this program—at least in the opinion of this listener—fail? Law of averaging. The names were big, but Adams’ musical direction was very weak. The performers were good, but the program lacked variety. Perhaps more than anything, the idea of “casual Friday” is enticing, but this evening asked too much of an audience by placing two (nearly) post-minimalist pieces, each lasting thirty to forty-five minutes, on either end of an awkwardly-placed and awkwardly-lengthed intermission. This failure, though is excellent news. To me, it indicates that as an institution, the LA Phil has tapped into something with their artistic programming that goes far beyond simply plopping historically important names onto a marquis. They have their collective finger on the pulse of how to achieve truly relevant programming; smart, ambitious, and risky music, with a touch of production magic to instill the audience with a sense of witnessing a beginning rather than touring the museum. This program’s shortcomings, to me, served as a reminder of this incredible standard that has been developed here in Los Angeles
Sanctuary looms large in Ellen Reid’s p r i s m, now in its opening run at LA Opera Off Grand at REDCAT. The two-character opera is a taut psychological journey communicated in color, movement, and song. Tenuous moments of security crumble with every act, illuminating the harsh truth of our supposed safe spaces.
Ailing Bibi and her doting mother, Lumee, live together in seclusion — a transparent room onstage that lets light in while conveying to the audience feelings of claustrophobia. Locked away from the world, they ward off dangers with games, mantras, and medicines. The scene is an unnerving mix of fluorescent light and gauzy fabrics; Impressionistic melodies that refuse to settle in their downward trajectory; and flecks of golden yellow for our gilded cage to contrast with the impending danger represented by blue.
Soprano Anna Schubert is convincing as Bibi, capturing her lost innocence in pure, heartbreaking tones. A quartet of dancers plus choir members from Trinity Wall Street add depth to Bibi’s narrative, moving where she cannot and uttering remembrances that have been blotted out for the sake of survival.
Schubert’s acting is first-rate. Opera characters run the risk of being nothing more than caricatures if executed poorly, held together by scenery and costume. Not so with Schubert, whose role demands physical strength coupled with fragility. Whether crawling from bed to chair on her damaged legs or hurtling her weight against dancers holding her aloft, Shubert held nothing back in her emodiment of the protagonist.
Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb provides an excellent foil for Bibi to rebel against as mother Lumee. At turns caring and careless, you want to hate her but can’t quite bring yourself to do so. With a sickening feeling akin to Stockholm syndrome, Reid and librettist Roxie Perkins show the many sides to this mother-daughter bond gone astray.
The music anchors these disparate feelings and propels the narrative forward. Pulling from a wide range of influences, Reid put the ensemble through its paces in a tour-de-force that moved from lush and tender harmonies to urgent whispers and batutto textures, throbbing bass designed to engulf the venue, and glissandi that served to oscillate between soundscapes of hearth and horror.
Ultimately, the choice exists to accept an unfolding past or remain steadfast in one’s current knowledge of the world. In deciding, we learn along with Bibi that rays of truth are not so easy to put back together.
p r i s m closes Sunday, December 2nd at 2pm at REDCAT before moving on to the PROTOYPE festival in New York City for its East Coast premiere in January of 2019.
The second concert of WasteLAnd’s sixth season featured guest artists Adrianne Pope & Linnea Powell (collectively known as Aperture Duo) and Ashley Walters. The three artists curated the program, as well as commissioning two new pieces. It was a well-balanced mix of rising contemporary composers and the greats of the late twentieth century. I had assumed a collaboration between Ashley and Aperture Duo would feature string trios, so was surprised that they only collaborated on two. But the balance they struck by having two trios, two duets, and two solos had its own kind of perfect symmetry. The duo and soloist had space to express themselves in their familiar identities, and also as a powerful trio of collaborators.
The first piece of the night was Georges Aperghis’s Faux Mouvement (1995) for string trio. No surprises there, seeing as Aperghis is L.A.’s second favorite Greek composer after Xenakis, under whom Aperghis studied at IRCAM. Faux Mouvement is a curious little piece with modules of musical character that seem to exist in separate universes with little connective tissue. One measure whispers, another measure screams, and a third one sounds like footsteps crunching in the snow. Little by little, however, motifs and sounds harken back to earlier sections, and like puzzle pieces falling into place, the picture comes into view. The performers were flawless. They brought out the musicality of a complex piece, and they acted as a coherent stringed organism.
Following the opening trio, Ashley took center stage with Trevor Bača’s cello solo Nähte (2018). Bača explains in the program notes that ‘Nähte’ is German for stitches. The music is about the joining together of body, movement, color and time, over and over in rows. It’s like knitting a blanket with an image. Initially, changing color or stitch pattern feels arbitrary, but after several rows, the image begins to emerge. Like delicate stitches, the art palette relies on subtlety and cohesion. I also noted the unconventional use of a cello’s natural resonance space in this composition. Whether Walters played a straight pitch, a whispery harmonic, or a growling overpressured double stop, the musical sound seemed to emanate from the echoing resonance of the cello’s body. It could sound velvety, like a theremin, or earthy like a drum.
In terms of the A(sh)perture concert, Nähte was the calm before the storm. We had our quietude, and it was time to turn it up to eleven.
Aperture Duo took the stage next with crowd-pleaser Limun (2011) by Clara Iannotta. It’s a fun piece and one which I have heard them play before. The whole effect of Limun is the experience of eating a lemon, stretched out and amplified. In the first half, the violin and viola crunch and whistle, always ascending, sometimes in tandem and other times in counterpoint. It is musical, but it does set one’s teeth on edge. In the second half, the page-turners take up harmonicas and hold piercing chords. The first time I heard this piece the harmonicas were, to put it lightly, annoying. With Rachel Beetz and Erin Rogers playing them, however, I found them almost haunting. The end of the piece is my favorite moment: the violin performs a high ostinato melody among the stratospheric harmonicas while the viola slides downward, and all fade out in a beautiful consonance. To complete the lemon metaphor, it is the lingering freshness after the initial sourness. To Clara Iannotta and Aperture Duo: Bravissimo.
After a brief intermission, the concert resumed with the oldest piece of the night, cello solo Kottos (1977) by Iannis Xenakis. Ashley gave a textbook-perfect performance of this canonic work. Kottos requires the cellist to employ dozens of extended techniques and switch between them in very little time. The piece sounds like it could have been performed on a synthesizer just as well as on cello. It creates an uncanny valley between technological and acoustic sounds. At times, it even sounds like a voice. The middle section felt unmoored from the rhythm and tempo, but Walters brought it back together for the final portion. In contrast with Bača’s delicate solo for cello, the Xenakis is downright bombastic. It provides an excellent counterbalance to the quieter first half of the concert.
Erin Rogers’s commission for Aperture Duo was hands down my favorite piece of the night. Travelogue (2018) uses the violin and viola as musical instruments, foley objects, and the strange sounds accompanying everyone’s internal monologue while traveling. Pope and Powell got to speak, sing, recite, and argue throughout the piece. There was a bit of theatricality. At one point the two musicians are sitting too close together. They bump elbows and snap, “Excuse me, do you mind switching?” They then stand and wander around the stage space as far apart as they can. At another time, they set down their instruments and tap on iPads instead, playing with the very act of playing. When playing their instruments, Pope and Powell sound out the train doors, the clunks & bumps of railroad tracks, and the hiss of the engine and doors opening and closing at different stops. Like many “radio show” type pieces, it was a delight. I would even say that Rogers pulled out all the stops (Thank you, I’ll be here all night).
The final piece of the evening was Sofia Gubaidulina’s String Trio (1988), bringing the three performers together once again. Gubaidulina is a popular contemporary composer among string performers, and (I hope) she is well on her way to becoming a permanent member of the concert canon. If you aren’t familiar with Gubaidulina’s work, String Trio is a great entry point. String Trio sounds like one instrument cycling through timbres when in fact it is the three instruments playing two or three notes in turn. This establishes a sort of spatialization effect. When the three instruments play in harmony together, it feels seeing a Patrick Hughes painting in “superduper perspective.”
On the whole, the production was well-balanced inside and out. The six pieces flowed well together, beginning calm and quiet and gradually upping the energy and volume. The balance of performers – 3 1 2 1 2 3 – fed back into the atmosphere’s energy. All that, and the perfect split of the previous generation of avant-garde composers and the contemporary generation of composers embodies everything that the new music scene represents.
As part of the LA Phil’s FLUXUS festival the LA Phil New Music Group teamed up with The Industry to produce John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2—a late work by the American Experimentalist that submits Europe’s great operatic repertoire to a radical fracturing and re-compiling that divorces all aspects of the music, production, and lighting from one another (and even from itself in the case of the orchestra and singers). As independent voices, music, lights, and staging overlay one another in a new, atomized context, the audience is left “wandering through the forest of opera” as director Yuval Sharon put it in a promotional interview with music advisor Marc Lowenstein.
Europeras 1 & 2 were originally conceived by Cage as a sending-back of the robust opera repertoire imported to American opera houses from Europe–albeit after undergoing a particularly Cagean postmodern treatment. Now staged at Sony Pictures Studios some 30 years later, it was perhaps appropriate that this imagining of the work introduced a further degree of de- and re-construction in which the audience was privy to action taking place off-stage, to the sides and behind the stage. This was effective in helping to incorporate the sounds of production (e.g., ropes and pulleys, rolling props, actors entering and exiting the stage) into the sound world of the work, though the pre-recorded tape component would have better suited the production had it been panned across the stage (perhaps even through separate speakers on stage) rather than across the audience. As it stood, the recording felt too removed from the action of the production to be perceived by the audience as an incorporated part of the work. The taped excerpts aside, though, the sound was good and The Industry rightfully resisted the urge to micromanage the balance of particular combinations for more traditional aesthetic effects. It was a clean and measured performance that carried a calm, well-rehearsed sense about it. If there was something to criticize musically, the performers themselves might have been given license for a bit more of the “delight in noticing” that Sharon and Lowenstein mention in the taped interview; instead of the wonder of unexpected moments of collision and harmony between elements, the various components felt very separate and compartmentalized.
Admittedly, I understand the impulse to let the individual components speak for themselves without heavy-handed coordination. But I think the trap that a work like Europeras confronts is that the absurdity can easily become admired for its disjunct comedy rather than for the beauty of its composite subtleties. It is no doubt that a work of this length and style will have moments that are funny, chaotic, disjointed. But other moments must be allowed to breathe, to embrace, to demonstrate that beauty and art arise naturally and without our intervention if we are open to experiencing them.
To quote Sharon once more, as he described this sentiment so eloquently: “Opening up to chance allows us to see that our perspective of things being as they are limits us to the potential of how things can be.” At moments I felt the production focused too heavily on the importance of chance itself as an anti-rhetoric or aesthetic, rather than as a tool for exploring and embracing new coincidences that resonate with us as humans. The moments that did revel in that admiration of how things can be, of suprise, of resisting ego, though, were powerful.
At this Tuesday’s installment of the Green Umbrella series, Susanna Mälkki led the LA Phil New Music Group in a program of some of the freshest avant-garde voices from across the pond. Representing composers from Germany, France, Italy, Finland, and the Czech Republic, the works shared a certain foregrounding of detail and reservedness that resonated with the spirit of the mid-late century European avant-garde. And yet, each composer brought a distinct style and set of tricks to the night; the result was a well-curated program that was both challenging and rewarding.
The first two works of the evening defined the outer ends of the night’s spectrum. Francesco Filidei’s Lamento for organ offered a murky display of the sonic boundaries of the organ, from earth-rumbling lows to shimmering flourishes smeared by the hall’s natural reverberance. On the other hand were six (of the dozen) songs from Arnulf Herrmann’s chamber song cycle, The Call. Marc Lowenstein stepped in to conduct on the Herrmann, joined by baritone Sean Michael Plumb who was excellent, both in the quality of his voice and the artistic choices he made to convey the longing, fear, and paralysis of the text. Where the Filidei approached an abstract and observational piece of sound art, Herrmann’s work invoked a more traditional approach to both the overarching form and the vocal writing—an effective choice given the content and medium.
The remaining works lived somewhere between, distinguished less by difference of intention than by their subtle sonic magic tricks (partially responsible for the program conveying a strong sense of European rather than American avant-garde). Rounding out the first half was Lotta Wennäkoski’s Hele, an eccentric and energetic respite from the broodiness of the first two works. Wennäkoski utilized the slide whistle amid frantic and agile ensemble writing to sometimes atmospheric, sometimes cartoonish, but always surprising effect. In Miroslav Srnka’s Overheating, it was instead the sweeping percussion and the accordion sustaining through musical ebbs that charged the sound world of the ensemble with something extra. Both works demonstrated careful attention to orchestration and technique on the part of the composers, which the LA Phil New Music Group and Mälkki highlighted with clear, transparent performances.
The standout of the program was the final work, Yann Robin’s Übergang II. It too employed some tricks—not only in the use of the piano, percussion, and harp but also in the combinations of extended techniques used throughout the ensemble—but what enraptured the audience was the genuineness of its musical gestures and ideas; Robin’s writing felt less like an artifact of the potential sounds embodied within an instrumentation, and more an effort to musically approximate something more personal, emotionally complicated, and human. There was a lot of the composer in the work, so to speak, which is often absent in modern music (and perhaps why it can feel alienating to the audience), and the ensemble (too) seemed moved by this connection. The result was a performance equally poised, yet infused with a certain emotional weight that encouraged a bit more risk on the part of the ensemble. That risk combined with the score’s intelligent use of textures and careful timing of events to produce an outstanding performance that embodied so much of the tension embedded in the avant-garde; how (or if) to remember the past, how (or if) to proceed in a tradition.
The red paper lanterns above Chinatown’s Chung King Court bobbed in the nighttime wind and bathed Automata Arts in a warm glow during Southland Ensemble’s season opener celebrating Fluxus on November 10. As the audience gathered in twos and threes around the courtyard, the performers suddenly took off, holding tapered candles aloft that invariably died in the wind. Unperturbed, the players repeated the action several times over before careening into the gallery, concluding Larry Miller’s 200 Yard Candle Dash. A passerby stopped me as the audience, delighted and equally unperturbed, filed into the space. “What’s going on here?” she queried. “A music show,” I replied, before hastily clarifying ‘an art show’ when my first answer illuminated nothing based on what had just transpired. Of course, this perfectly encapsulates the Fluxus movement: that intermedia experience for both artist and audience valuing process over product.
The rest of the evening passed in an equally enjoyable fashion with selections from the Fluxus canon involving aspects of light. Some used it as a means to an end, as in Yoko Ono’s 1955 Lighting Piece: light a match and watch it until it goes out. Others used the cover of darkness to begin the process, as Tomas Schmit’s Sanitas No. 2 (of which there are 200) instructs the players to drop items on the floor and search for them. Audience members gamely made way for the artists as they searched with flashlights on the dimly lit floor for coins, corks, and other paraphernalia. Edison’s Lighthouse by Ken Friedman invites the creation of a gleaming passage of mirrors whose lights were slowly rearranged to mesmerizing effect.
On the sonic side of the Fluxus spectrum, Takehisa Kosugi’s Organic Music from 1964 calls upon the performers to utilize breath with or without incidental instruments. Southland Ensemble decided to encircle the audience while breathing in and out of harmonicas for a deeply meditative state. Candle Piece for Radios by George Brecht produced a medley of sonic events from white noise, radio ads, and praise for Jesus Christ.
The pièce de résistance was Robert Bozzi’s Choice 1, whereupon the performer brought out and unwrapped a bakery box containing a round, white frosted cake; affixed his safety goggles; and proceeded to light the cake’s candles with a blowtorch. He then blew out the candles and planted the cake in his face to close out the program.
The intrepid Southland Ensemble performed these and other tasks with a seriousness that avoided pretension yet gleefully embraced the more playful aspects of the evening. It was a refreshing take on a genre that can be anti-art and anti-audience, daring spectators to make sense out of seemingly nothing. With their welcoming spirit and engaging program, Southland Ensemble embarked on a communal journey to question the nature of performance; examine the mundane; and shine a light on a period of creativity that continues to remain fresh and relevant decades later.
With election day just a week away, Tuesdays@Monk Space offered Midterms: This Will Hurt Someone, a concert program devoted to contemporary music with a political viewpoint.
Grab it, by Jacob TV opened the show, preceded by a recorded track of coarse street talk that blended into an equally angry video. The four hands of HOCKET accompanied, and the raw stream of words was perfectly matched by a dense and powerful outpouring of piano notes. The music reflected the passionate resentment of those caught up in the wheels of a system intent on punishing the small time street criminal. Scenes of prison life and enraged inmates gave way at the finish to a hymn-like stretch that spoke hopefully of a life reclaimed after incarceration. Grab it is a stark reminder of the failings of American justice and how it perpetuates a violent underclass.
This Will Hurt Someone, by the late Matt Marks followed, arranged by pianist Thomas Kotcheff who accompanied vocalist Gregory Fletcher. The text for this piece is the final statement of R. Bud Dwyer, State Treasurer of Pennsylvania, asserting his innocence upon conviction of bribery in 1987. The music has an easy, sweet feel, and the entrance of a toy piano played by Sarah Gibson added a childlike innocence to the words. Fletcher sang calmly and gently, navigating the higher registers with a steady confidence. The music turned darker at times with lines such as “But in this nation, the world’s greatest democracy, there is nothing they can do to prevent me from being punished for a crime I did not commit.” Yet the placid character of the music continued, underlining the disconnect between the reality of conviction and Dwyer’s enduring sense of innocence. “This will hurt someone” were the last words spoken by Dwyer before committing suicide on-camera during the press conference. This piece is Matt Marks’ testament to an often misplaced confidence in our judicial system.
Counterpundit by Ian Dicke was next, a work that for piano and video performed by Aron Kallay. This opened with a quietly introspective piano line that attained a nostalgic sensibility at times. As the tempo increased, the music became more active and the video displayed a flag waiving in the breeze. Strong percussive beats were heard on the sound track of the video as the images became halting and choppy. As the piece proceeded, images of Hulk Hogan became increasingly intermingled with the flag until the video was dominated by wrestling personalities striking patriotic poses. Counterpundit was written during the 2016 election campaign and is an astute observation of how spectacle has replaced reasoned political discourse. The outcome of the election and the subsequent behavior of the present administration only amplifies Dicke’s central premise from 2016. The piece ended with a quiet introspective feel that seemed to be longing for a return to a more enlightened past.
Following the intermission Tonality, a ten-voice choir that specializes in music about justice issues, took the stage to perform “Her beacon-hand beckons”, the third movement of Caroline Shaw’s To the Hands. Lush four-part harmonies filled Monk Space with beautiful a cappella sounds and a peaceful sentiment. This perfectly matched the text, a freely paraphrased version of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. The final line, “I will be your refuge…”, was particularly moving.
Philosophy of Furniture, by Natalie Dietterich followed, performed by speaking percussionist Derek Tywoniuk. A video projected a series of statements – ostensibly on the ideology of interior decoration and fashion – accompanied by loud, primal drum strokes. Tywoniuk shouted out the texts as they appeared on the screen, punctuating them with booming blasts and sharp raps. The contrast with the previous piece could not have been greater and the thunderous percussion created a compelling emphasis on the otherwise mundane stream words on the screen. The drift of the argument seemed to be that contemporary taste is overly influenced by money so that expensive furniture invariably acquired a higher status. “We proceed on false principals and imagine we have done a fine thing…” All of this unfurled seamlessly and Tywoniuk’s dexterity of was on full display as he attended to the many percussive elements while shouting out the spoken words at the correct instant. The text then took a most interesting turn. By describing the same processes that are at work in fashion, money was shown to similarly exert a decisive leverage on one’s political opinion. Philosophy of Furniture combines the quiet of subtle reasoning with explosive percussion to make a telling point.
Two pieces from widely known contemporary composers completed the concert program. “Which Side are you on?” the second movement of Four North American Ballads by Frederic Rzewski, began with a recorded vocal rendition of a Harlan County miners’ protest song. Rzewski’s take on the song, arranged for piano, followed immediately, full of strong chords and a sturdy texture that was ably realized by Thomas Kotcheff. The complexity and power of the music seemed to increase with each variation on the simple folk tune, filling the cozy Monk Space with a robust militancy and ending with a vigorous crescendo that drew cheers from the audience. Tonality closed the concert with Make Peace by David Lang, a composer known for his sensitivity and a strong sense of empathy. The close harmonies and delicate balance in the music were complimented by the house acoustics and excellent intonation by the singers. Make Peace was a gracefully tranquil ending to an often raucous examination of our current politics through contemporary music.
Midterms: This will Hurt Someone was a carefully curated and timely collection of diverse musical commentary on our political culture.