Joep Beving’s towering stature and flowing beard command a certain attention that is softened by his charming, slightly awkward, stage demeanor. The Dutch composer/pianist gained a formidable following after the 2015 release of his debut album, Solipsism—a collection of intimately personal music curated into bite-size chunks. Two years later, the release of Prehension suggested a promising development of style; a little more minimalist and a little less Chopin, but maintaining Beving’s accessibility and a more-polished version of his soft-pedal, compressed piano sound throughout. The projects he has since embarked on with Rahi Rezvani (music video), and with the various artists tasked with re-imagining his music on his latest album, Contatus, offer insight into the allure of his sound world: In a time of loaded, impassioned rhetoric, Beving’s offerings are stripped-down journal entries, unencumbered by any specific intention for conclusion or definition. His music defines its emotional narrative by looking inwards and backwards from within a culture obsessed with pointing outward and forward.
The spirit of his performance at the Lodge Room on October 23rd embraced the branding so carefully promoted by his promoters and reviewers—one of a reflective, if reclusive, lumberjack, plucked from obscurity for his grand resonance among a generation of online music anthropologists. There is certainly some truth to the myth, evidenced by a few especially enthusiastic audience members, but the implication of his “genius” and the insistence on his role as a bridge to classical music completely misses the mark: the potency of his work lies in its utter simplicity, its transportive removedness from intellectualism, it’s transparency as music for his own enjoyment. The audience connects with Beving because some part of us can imagine ourselves hovering over a late-night piano, repeating a sentimental chord progression with just the right amount of eeriness to perpetually warrant one more pass. Where classical form usually takes us on a journey of discovery, this music lies patiently in wait, attaching to passing feelings and memories before itself moves on.
My difficulty with Beving’s performance is that this type of music doesn’t always lend itself to a full concert by itself. Admittedly, the sound at the Lodge room was excellent, and Beving’s decision to pair groups of pieces together without intermittent applause was smart. The piano could have been cleaner had Beving treated his louder/denser passages with a bit less pedal or reverb, but the larger issue was that in Beving’s sound world, the melody is more an artifact of the chord progression than a vocal-type line that drives the texture and development. This isn’t an issue in itself, but it means that after a while the pieces start to blend together, and the mellow respite quickly becomes a taxing exercise in zazen. There is some (subtle) variety of texture in Beving’s catalogue, but those moments were saved for the final two pieces—one which used live processing to add a warped, nostalgic atmosphere, and another which featured a distinct physicality and momentum through rapidly alternating chords between hands. Those works might have been better placed in the program order to introduce a more interesting overall shape to the concert, but I think the whole performance would have benefitted from additional media—even just some simple accompanying video or audio content from his computers—scattered throughout the evening.
Instead, at moments it felt that the only play borrowed from the “classical” book was the expectation on the audience to sit quietly and pretend to ignore the rumbling from the dishwasher in the back of the bar. For me, that is too much to ask of this set and this music; traditional concert halls are built specially for people who want to participate in that expectation and still those performances fail regularly at curating an ideal concert experience. Moreover, while I appreciate the impulse to suggest musical credibility through the classical bend of his branding and representation, the relationship of Beving’s music to the classical tradition is surface-level at best; which isn’t at all a criticism (in fact, quite the opposite) but I think many may find the connection an empty and unnecessary gesture (especially given the trend of highly-trained musicians away from “classical” self-branding at the moment). If I see Joep Beving perform again—and I sincerely hope I do—I hope his performance abandons that misguided adoption of classical performance practice and instead finds creative ways to mirror the distinct ambience, intimacy, and reflectiveness of his music. His musical genuineness deseves a concert experience like-mindedly personal.
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.
WasteLAnd marked the opening of their sixth season with a packed venue for a concert titled Biomes, featuring three pieces by Chicago-based composer Katherine Young. Katherine Young’s pieces are multimedia electroacoustic works. She incorporates not only sounds, but lights, movement, interactive performance, and anything in between. The first piece of the night, Earhart & the Queen of Spades performed by LA-based guitarist Nicholas Deyoe, uses a variety of sounds on the electric guitar. Hearing an electric guitar make unusual noises isn’t anything new, but the way Deyoe created the sounds is. Instead of a guitar pick, Deyoe used an array of hand-held objects such as small battery-powered fans, strings of pearls, keys, and bobby pins. These objects, Young explained in the program notes, reference lost objects and myths and femininity. When the fans hover above the amplified strings, the guitar creates an eerie hum; when the fan blades strike the strings, it makes a sizzling effect. The pearls, as you might guess, sound somewhere between raindrops and hail. Each sound emanation was intriguing in its own right. Young pulled out all the stops to create a twenty-minute piece of interwoven sounds, pitches, and rhythmic motifs.
The second piece of the night displayed a completely different approach to music. The Wurlitzer part (performed brilliantly by Wells Leng) used relatively typical twentieth-century techniques like whole tone scales and cluster chords. Combined with Matt Barbier whispering and crooning microtones into the euphonium, Underworld (Dancing) reminded me of an eerie yet meditative take on an old-timey calliope dance. Basically, it’s how I imagine music in the Upside-Down à la Stranger Things. And it was rad.
The final piece of the night was the world premiere of Biomes 1.0. This piece combines acoustic instruments (two trombones+ and a bassoon, played by RAGE THORMBONES Weston Olencki & Matt Barbier, and Katherine Young herself, respectively) with electronics and lights. The lights change over time, sometimes slowly and sometimes in the span of a heartbeat, and represent the smaller ecosystems present in the encompassing biome. The instrumentalists improvise within the ecosystem, building the scene with notes, whispers, whistles, and metallic clacks and clangs, further developed by the electronics reacting to the instruments’ paths. Some segments sounded like the soundscape you almost expect: the dark green light briefly feels and sounds like a sleepy rainforest with croaking frogs and rustling vines, and then transforms into something unrecognizable but no less beautiful and comprehensive. The stark white light evokes the sharp chill of the Arctic, but instead of polar bears we find gasping tubas and huffing bassoons. Throughout the piece, the light segregated the biome into ecosystems, but the steady undercurrent of electronic noise and human breath united the parts into the whole. Biomes clocked in at over half an hour long, but I was so enchanted that time nearly stopped.
Katherine Young took LA under her spell with these three incredible pieces, especially Biomes 1.0. She is WasteLAnd’s featured composer this season, so be sure to attend the rest of the concerts to hear more of her and the incredible musicians of the contemporary music scene of LA.
With this week’s kickoff of LA Fest and the LA Phil’s centennial season, the country’s most ambitious orchestra offered a program reflective of the past, as well as an ambitious glance into the future.
Sandwiched between two modern works, a casual and tight-knit performance of Beethoven’s triple concerto (Op. 56) featured Martin Chalifour on violin, Robert deMaine on Cello, and Joanne Pearce Martin on piano. The soloists conversed easily with a Dudamel-led orchestra, and what the performance may have lacked in theatrical sparkle it gained in a focus that highlighted its more intimate chamber elements. It was a fitting pairing with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s LA Variations, which itself constituted a study of clever orchestrations navigated as only a conductor could, but which was particularly notable for the chamber groupings that evolved within the sizable aggregate forces of his instrumentation. Salonen’s work betrays a deep love for romantic orchestral music, but with a modernist vision that sometimes growls, sometimes shimmers in stunning, delicate, intimacy.
The second half was dedicated to the premiere of Andrew Norman’s Sustain, a monumental work of fresh, forward-looking ritual in the deconstruction of sound. While the sound world of Sustain gives a nod to the mid-century orchestra, the form throughout feels daringly original—not necessarily singular in its approach, but in Norman’s ability to immerse in the hypothetical and, more importantly, to trust in his own musical instincts once there. The result is a music that is nostalgic for a time unknown; a remembering from the future where some fiber of our concert experience remains, becomes sacrosanct, while others dissolve away in the solvent of time and relevance. What remains is something primal in its force and refined in its treatment, a reimagining of how our relationship to communal listening might evolve. I, for one, hope I am around to see that day; to reminisce of Sustain and what came after in a newly-antiquated, corrugated steel shipwreck on the corner of 1st and Grand.
This week, Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School hosted the latest installment of the Piano Spheres series, a concert by pianist Mark Robson entitled “The Debussy Project.” Specifically, the program placed Debussy’s Douze Etudes against a set of compositions by living composers—each responding in their own way to a particular etude from Debussy’s set.
Robson’s command of the Debussy was stunning: watching his performance, one could get lost in the theater of fingers built into the work. But beneath the virtuosic flurries was a technical mastery that highlighted Debussy’s emphasis on texture, and amplified the orchestral spirit of his piano writing. The simplicity of concept that underpins each etude might have risked sounding like a progression of, well, studies, but in Robson’s hands they provided a window into how various musical materials were treated by Debussy to create a musical language rich with contrast, layers, and detail.
The twelve accompanying composer reactions constituted the second half of the recital, and the range of styles and approaches indicated the degree to which Debussy’s language continues to serve as musical inspiration, continues to provide a bridge between past and future. Some focused on his style: Kotcheff’s work evoked virtuosic and dramatic contrasts, and Ivanova’s explored the commenting, often brash, musical interruptions. Bansal and Kohn both tapped into Debussy’s proclivity for sheathing his musical ideas with layers of sparkling textures—a foregrounding of detail taken to the extreme by Gates, whose piece unfolded flurries and sheets of sound until a final, tender conclusion.
Others focused on exploding those details out of time completely, exploring harmony and texture carefully and without Debussy’s liberated, roaming abandon. Rothman and Gibson used low piano harmonics to create a patient, meditative atmosphere anchored by the resonance of the piano. Norton’s response utilized two pianos (Vicki Ray joined Robson on stage for this) for spacious, overlapping textures that in their freedom managed to capture something of Debussy’s penchant for fleeting sentimentality, that return later as tinted, softly-distorted memories. Also in this vein was Robson’s own reaction, a magic act of sorts, summoning rich timbres and sonorities that moved seamlessly between the piano and electronics.
It might have been interesting to have seen the works paired directly with their inspirational counterpart, but hearing the progression of Debussy’s original twelve etudes in direct sequence, in my opinion, better prepared the audience by giving a framework to identify and appreciate the various types of inspiration and influence employed by the commissioned works. It is rare that a solo piano recital of this length can maintain my interest throughout, but the quality of Robson’s performance and the strength of the music was certainly worthy of the audience’s attention. And from what I could hear in muffled murmurs around the hall between pieces, Piano Spheres has succeeded in building an audience that is willing to give that attention, and which is appreciative of the talent presented.
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.
The 21st annual MicroFest season finale featured a performance of Daphne of the Dunes, by Harry Partch, as well as quartets by Ben Johnston. Every seat was filled at REDCAT for the June 16, 2018 concert, the second of two shows on consecutive days.
The program opened with Johnston’s String Quartet No. 9 (1988), performed by the Lyris Quartet. A one-time Partch apprentice, Johnston absorbed the theory of just intonation, but lacked the practical skills to create new instruments in the manner of his mentor. Johnston, however, successfully applied the new tuning to more traditional forms, and String Quartet No. 9 is one of his later and most accomplished examples.
The first movement, Strong, calm, slow begins appropriately with a long viola tone, soon joined by the other strings in beautiful harmony. A more lively stretch follows, pleasantly complex with some fine counterpoint. The playing by the Lyris Quartet here is characteristically precise and balanced. Strong sustained chords are again heard, and tutti tremolos begin a stretch that includes an uplifting, ethereal harmony at the finish of this long, invigorating movement. Fast, elated, the second movement, has a busy feel in the violins with a nicely syncopated melody in the cello. The violins take up the melody and it acquires an actively strident feel with a faster pace and interleaving parts, all carefully played by the Lyris Quartet.
The third movement, Slow, expressive, is just that, with a smoothly flowing feel reminiscent of an old hymn tune. The harmony is wonderfully balanced and full; Johnston’s mastery of the classical form is on full display. The final movement, Vigorous and defiant, is full of strong tutti phrasing and briskly interwoven passages. A perfect contrast to the reserved third movement, this unleashes the full technical range of the Lyris Quartet. At one point a fugue breaks out among the players as the piece seesaws between resolute declaration and intricate lines among the parts in a rousing finish. String Quartet No. 9 is a masterwork, artfully bridging the brave new world of just intonation with the familiar form of the string quartet – and doing credit to both.
The American premiere of Octet (1999/2000), also by Ben Johnston, followed, and the Lyris quartet was augmented by a flute, clarinet, bassoon and bass. Octet is based on Ashokan Farewell, the 1982 composition by folk musician Jay Unger, and is the tune that gained wide recognition as the theme for The Civil War miniseries, by Ken Burns. The structure of Octet is a straightforward theme with variations, beginning with the familiar melody in a flute solo, accompanied by a low drone in the bass. The melody is picked up by the clarinet with a lovely flute descant and soon the strings enter in a warm harmony. All is soft and sweet as the bassoon enters for an extended variation that adds just a hint of tension. A strong tutti section with new and unusual harmonies is heard, but this flows as a natural extension of the previous variations. The flute, expressively played by Sara Andon, dominates once again with the opening melody, as the piece quietly concludes. Octet is a masterful combination of formal structure and innovative harmony, grounded in solid fundamentals yet guiding the listener to entirely new, yet comfortably reassuring surroundings.
Daphne of the Dunes (1967), by Harry Partch, followed the intermission on a stage crowded with his amazing musical inventions. There was the Gourd Tree, Cloud Chamber Bowls, Boo and Diamond Marimba as well as many others. Choreographers Casebolt and Smith began with a preamble describing the outlines of the plot, based on a Greco-Roman myth of uncontrolled desire and pursuit. A large screen at the rear of the stage displayed classic paintings relating to the story in a video by Joel Smith. The music begins, full of motion and distress as Apollo, smitten by Cupid’s arrow, begins his quest of Daphne, the beautiful river sprite. The predominance of percussive sounds and the exotic tuning created the perfect primal accompaniment to this ancient story. At the entrance of Daphne, the music becomes more strident and purposeful but turns tentative and solemn as she also receives an arrow from Cupid. The pace picks up again as the chase begins, and the images on the screen are taken from the movie ‘North by Northwest.’ On stage, Daphne is seen disguised as a modern spy, complete with sunglasses and kerchief, moving about and even hiding among the musicians. The chase continues as the two make their way out into the audience and towards the exits.
The musicians, meanwhile, are seen moving from station to station, playing new combinations of instruments. The intriguing colors and textures of the music are always engaging, and the precision in the playing was remarkable given the fast tempos and unfamiliar instruments. As Apollo closes in on Daphne the music becomes tense and anxious. In an inspired bit of staging, Daphne retreats to Partch’s Gourd Tree and, merging herself into the wood of the tree, finally eludes her lustful pursuer. In the poignant final scene, a woman is seen gardening with her husband, and together they are planting small trees. Daphne of the Dunes is an amazing retelling of an old story that succeeds brilliantly with contemporary instrumentation, imagery and choreography. That MicroFest LA could mount a technically complex production of such high quality was recognized by the enthusiastic applause from the big crowd
The concert concluded with Partch’s Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions (1968). Based on Partch’s own experiences as a hobo, Barstow is a colorful account of the challenges and personalities encountered on the open highway. The difficulties and frustrations of a Depression-era tramp would seem better served by dramatic tragedy, but Barstow is full of goodnatured banter and sharply drawn characterizations that are completely absent of malice. The music is surprisingly lively and upbeat, with the narrations and playing perfectly paired. A great cheer went up from the audience upon hearing those immortal words: ”Gentlemen: Go to five-thirty East Lemon Avenue, Monrovia, California, for an easy handout.” Barstow was the perfect ending to an impressive concert of works by two of the pioneers of just intonation.
On Wednesday, May 23rd, Los Angeles-based concert series wasteLAnd presented the premiere of Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s piece Cantata, or You are the star in God’s Eye at the REDCAT Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Originally composed for radio broadcast in 2002, Schweinitz recomposed the bulk of the material with an expanded instrumentation for wasteLAnd, featuring conductor Nicholas Deyoe, Sara Cubarsi on violin, Andrew McIntosh on viola, Scott Worthington on double bass, Matt Barbier on euphonium, Allen Fogle on french horn, Luke Storm on Eb tuba, and soprano Stephanie Aston. Throughout the piece, the ensemble resides within an overarching narration of the libretto, written and recited by poet Friederike Mayrocker.
The piece begins with a short prelude of narration, which is quickly emboldened by an immediately rich texture of contrapuntal gestures as the ensemble enters assertively. Schweinitz’ nuanced rhythmic material and wasteLAnd’s thoughtful phrasing presented the listener with the option to enter a space of fluid and unstable structure, with perhaps once familiar material placed on the far side of a distorted lens. Although aided by amplification, the acoustics of the hall were not entirely suited to the texture of the piece. The brass were often rendered somewhat obscured and the narration occasionally became a dominating presence.
Exceptional instrumental ability was on clear display, with Cubarsi, McIntosh, and Worthington generating a warm and articulate lattice of incredibly precise harmonics and dyads, and the brass trio of Barbier, Fogle, and Storm deftly maneuvering through a jigsaw puzzle of minutely shifting microtones and interlocking gestures. Aston’s vocal line served as an anchor for the instrumental material and voice-over, simultaneously contributing to the existing texture and gently presenting a clear path through the development of the epic 80-minute piece. Her performance was stunningly controlled, well-executed, and emotionally dynamic.
The lengthy piece — eleven distinct sections — was well-paced and generated a captivating environment for the listener and a subtle momentum of narrative that made the piece’s 80 minutes belie a work of smaller proportion. The intimacy of REDCAT seemed to engender a willingness in the audience to stay with the ensemble intently, which I believe contributed greatly to the overall experience feeling not only like entertainment but also somehow artistic productivity.
The world of the piece seemed to behave contrary to entropy, gradually accruing order like a system trending toward a viscerally satisfying cosmic architecture. It feels massive in scope — like it’s operating within a greater universal logic rather than some simpler earthly system. The title’s imagery of star and god fit neatly in that universal logic, and imply scale more biblical than contemporary. During the seventh aria, the distorted lens shifted sharply into focus. Heralded by Cubarsi’s violin, the ensemble presented an incredibly effective moment that wouldn’t be inaccurately described as triumphant, but still in a manner distinct to Schweinitz’ refreshingly idiosyncratic and effective voice.
When the piece ended, the audience sat silently, taking a moment to shift from the flow-state of the piece back to reality.
On Friday, the LA Opera’s Off Grand initiative hosted a concert version of Matthew Aucoin’s 2015 opera, Crossing. The performance took place at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, with the composer at the podium in front of members of the LA Opera Orchestra, a men’s chorus, and the work’s principal cast. “In-Concert” performances of opera rely to some extent on enlisting the audience’s imagination to fulfill the drama, and this presented some difficulties for a work more contemplative than physical. Among a few misses, however, were dazzling moments brought to life by talented leads.
Looking around the audience during the opening moments of the opera, you might have been surprised to learn that Off Grand’s stated mission is to encourage diversity in music and audience. Any effort to “embody the diversity, pioneering spirit and artistic sensibility unique to Los Angeles through the art of opera” was lost on me—especially when compared with the success of The Industry and the LA Phil to exactly this end (War of the Worlds, in particular, comes to mind). Of course, performing any major new work is an accomplishment in itself, and the audience response suggests that it was an undertaking worth the effort.
Aucoin’s language in Crossing reflects a love for the sprinkled voyeurism of operatic form; from lush swells to anxious minimalist passages, the music oscillates between atmosphere and introspection. There was a fair coherence and smoothness in the progression of material, suspending the audience in a death-stenched tranquility, reflecting the opera’s inspiration from Walt Whitman’s volunteer work with battle-worn soldiers during the Civil War. The emotional palette occasionally felt somewhat two-dimensional, missing the orchestral characters that usually distort, lead, and reflect tacit internal drama in romantic opera. In a full staging, such emotional communication might have been assisted through attention on the choreography, lighting, or stage design, but in this particular performance the messiness of the orchestra obscured the musical and dramatic intention at times.
The principal cast were excellent, with Rod Gilfry (Walt Whitman) and Brenton Ryan (John Wormley) maintaining the storyline with strong performances throughout. Most striking was Davóne Tines’ extraordinary performance as Freddie Stowers—a role he created for the opera’s 2015 premiere. Tines was deeply engaging, with a rich bass-baritone voice, and a sense of musicality both singular and personal. The Messenger comprised the sole female role of the opera, performed by the talented Liv Redpath with soaring soprano lines that aptly marked the concluding sections. A strong chorus of a dozen men complemented the soloists, and together they brought to life Aucoin’s vision of human intimacy and tenderness amid the inhumanity of war.
Can “new” music and “old” music co-exist? Are the audiences the same, or do mixed programs aim for the intersection of our childhood Venn Diagrams, seeking the similarities? These were the questions considered as I listened to Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, now in their fourth season, who performed a set of concerts on April 28 and 29. Featuring a trio of works by Balch, Hertzberg, and Shostakovich, the ensemble effectively showcased its range and blended the old with the new..
Responding to the Waves by Katherine Balch skittered with restless, high-pitched energy. The west coast premiere highlighted the prowess of solo violinist Nigel Armstrong as he skillfully moved through the program opener. The violin indeed shivered, hummed, and jittered its way through three musical movements as the composer envisioned. The output pleased audiences and garnered applause, with Balch arising for her bow from the seats.
The orchestral Spectre of the Spheres by David Hertzberg was wildly well received and propelled him onstage with a standing ovation. As Hertzberg explained from the stage, the breathy strings invoked the phenomenon of the Northern Lights as inspired by The Auroras of Autumn by Wallace Stevens, punctuated by increasing levels of percussive intensity.
The lion’s share of the program went to Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich. In keeping with Kaleidoscope’s mission, this 20th-century staple was played sans conductor. It was well and ably played, but I wished for the Venn Diagram identification: why was it in the program? Was there a commonality amongst the composers to listen for, perhaps in its aesthetics or the musical conception? Was it the contrasting styles that cleansed the sonic palette and created a balanced show? Is it to put contemporary music on equal footing with an established master? Or is it just a celebration of quality music, regardless of the era?
The whole program was favorably received by an enthusiastic and diverse audience, followed by an outdoor reception. I discovered by conversing with a few patrons that the Shostakovich was the sole reason for attending. Moreover, the earlier half of the program was eschewed in favor of hearing the concert-closer. I inquired as to why that was: familiarity. Here’s hoping that by consistently combining contemporary art with historical masterpieces, Kaleidoscope and its listeners find common ground.