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.
Here at New Classic LA we love it when musicians and composers talk with each other about their work. In what is becoming an ongoing series, flutist and wasteLAnd executive director Rachel Beetz had time to speak with the performers, composers, and poet involved in their concert this Saturday at 8pm at Art Share. Tickets and details are at wastelandmusic.org. Here’s Rachel:
Happy Valentine’s Day!
wasteLAnd’s upcoming concert on Saturday includes collaborations and realizations of some quirky and weird love songs. We’re featuring Stephanie Aston throughout the program, including a premiere by Nicholas Deyoe. I asked some questions of composers Katherine Young and Nicholas Deyoe, performers Stephanie Aston and Dustin Donahue and the author of the text of Deyoe’s new work, Allison Carter. We hope you can join all of us to celebrate all of the weird types of love this program has to offer!
Manoalchadia – Chaya Czernowin
Love Letter – Liza Lim/Dustin Donahue
and I am responsible for having hands (five Allison Carter songs) – Nicholas Deyoe (world premiere)
Cellogram – James Tenney
Folk Songs – Luciano Berio
Master of Disguises – Katherine Young
RB: Stephanie, this concert involves a huge range of vocal colors! Can you talk a bit about how you’re approaching each different style? Are there connections between pieces in your approach at all?
Stephanie Aston: A lot of what I do is based on not just the indications given by the composer, but also the text. The text I sing in Manoalchadia is very aggressive for the first two thirds of the piece, so everything I do, be it low notes in full chest register, vocal fry, breathy singing, etc. has an aggressive and raw feeling behind it. Later in the piece the text becomes loving rather than aggressive, so everything I do comes from a gentle place.
Deyoe’s settings of the Allison Carter texts are very much in his style of setting text. There’s an ease of production and moderation of sound, in a certain sense. I have “poco vib” or “no vib” written in several times because nothing should be taken to excess; it’s just a clear beautiful ringing sound. In a way that allows me to bring out the nuances of the text as they come by and respond to them uniquely each time I sing it.
Young’s piece has mostly extended techniques until the end. It feels like an arrival piece of sorts because there was a time when I couldn’t do a tongue trill. The piece gives you hints along the way. Then at the end, when the text is fully there, it still isn’t, because it’s quiet and divided. I have the vowels and Leslie has the consonants.
The Berio Folk Songs have a wide variety of texts, so each movement has its own character. I try to keep my approach simple, thinking of how someone in the countryside of each piece might go about singing it and just try and have some fun.
RB: Dustin, Liza Lim’s Love Letter for solo hand drum asks the performer to “write a letter to your beloved” and “translate the letters of each word into rhythmic information.” Could you describe your encounter with this process? Was there anything that was particularly challenging in realizing this piece?
Dustin Donahue: The open-ended nature of this brief score was particularly daunting. There is no suggested process for translating letters into rhythmic information – this must be a system of my own design. As a first step, I created my text, where my own “love letter” runs in counterpoint with texts by Margaret Atwood and Simone de Beauvoir which were read at my wedding.
Emphasizing the score’s instruction to make rhythms from letters themselves, I explored a range of coded methods for translating individual letters into sounds; these, at first, included standardized practices like Morse code and ASCII, all of which felt impersonal and mechanical. Ultimately, as I analyzed and copied these texts, I became enchanted by the sound of handwriting. This was an intimate, highly personal method of producing sounds from letters; I recorded myself writing each text, and then transcribed in meticulous detail the exact rhythms of my writing and the articulations created with each stroke. In my performance, these rhythms and articulations are reproduced on the frame drum not with the intent of imitating the sound of writing, but instead to create a new kind of percussive language based upon the idiosyncratic movements of the hand in writing.
RB: Katherine, Could you talk a bit about the connection of the tape players to Kelly Links’ “The Girl Detective?” To me, with the idea of searching, it reminds me of old times looking for a particular song on a tape and having trouble if the tape wasn’t in a clear spot to begin with.
Katherine Young: Absolutely – I had the same association from my childhood in mind – looking for that one particular spot on a tape that you remember… and then there were for me, those special investigations when you never find what you’re looking for. It’s like that part of the song never existed, or maybe it only existed in your imagination.
For me, the tape recorders could also signify searching in terms of research, the way people used to conduct interviews with small tape recorders.
But at some point, the machines stopped being directly related to the story, and I was just interested in the sounds they made. I love the whirring and murmuring of the rewind and fast forward and the percussive clicks and clicks of the eject.
These sounds then became the basis for the instrumental sounds. The percussive tape recorder sounds, in particular, they circle back and inform how I treated the text when it is finally sung completely, breaking up the attack of the sound (word) and the sustain and splitting it between the two voices. To me this displacement relates to the ideas of elusiveness in the text.
RB: What other ways does this piece “search?”
Katherine: In my experience, playing many extended techniques in a woodwind instrument feels like a form of searching. Unstable multiphonics and the overblown squeaks are very hard to find and control. They will be a little different every time. These are my favorite kinds of sounds – the ones that surprise you!
RB: Allison, Nick has written a lot of music with your text at this point! Have you had text set before? Has it changed your approach? How has that shaped your approach to writing or your creative process?
Allison Carter: Yes! I love that Nick has composed multiple pieces using text I have written. His music teaches me about the text and sort of opens up the perimeter around the text. Like – oh, yes, it can sound like that! It can feel like that! It can be about… something like that! I have had text set before. Several years ago Gabriel Kahane composed music using my work. The experience of hearing how the text is met and built on by a new composition opens my mind to new directions the writing could go, almost as though the music turns the light on in an adjacent room. Hearing the text sung also confirms and pushes some elements of my writing process, like always editing out loud.
RB: Allison Carter, the author of the poetry you set in “and I am responsible for having hands” mentioned that this piece really captures the ambience or aura she had while making these works. You also seem to capture and feed off of skills of specific players. Can you talk a little bit about how these worlds collide into this piece? How did you consider the text and then the players while composing this work?
ND: I was really touched (and relieved) when Allison said that in rehearsal last night. I wasn’t setting out with the assumption that I fully understood the essence of what Allison was feeling when she wrote those words, but was responding to what they made me feel. Reading Allison Carter’s poetry resonates with me because her words elicit in me the same difficult-to-define emotions that are driving a lot of the music that I write.
When setting the words into a vocal line, I try to respect what is printed as much as possible. Punctuation, grammar, space on the page, and line breaks all guide how I pace the text. I don’t repeat words, I don’t change orders, and I don’t intentionally distort anything regarding the words. My aim is to present the text in the way that most closely resembles how I read it and then to create a musical context around it. For Allison to say that this piece has captured the aura that she was feeling when writing it makes me feel even more connected to her words, because my goal with the musical setting is to capture my own emotional state reading the words. It feels very personal to me. This is definitely related to the way that I like to work with performers. When I write music for you, Ashley, or Stephanie, the process becomes so rooted in our histories with each other. The whiskies and teas we drank together, the times we’ve spent sitting in a room and exploring sound with each other, the experiences we’ve had performing in ensembles together. I’m not writing for flute, cello, and voice. It’s for Beetz, Walters, and Aston. It’s about the way you interact with each other, how you sound as individuals, and the smartass remarks you make in rehearsals. This is the first time I’ve composed music for Alison Bjorkedal, but having her as a part of this ensemble has felt completely natural. After our experience of preparing Tenney’s massive Changes for six harps in 2017, Alison has felt like a good friend and a similar musical spirit.
Working with Allison Carter’s poetry makes me feel closer to her on a certain level, but also makes me feel like I understand myself a little better. I feel the same way working on a project like this with close friends. The openness and honesty present in these collaborations deepens my connection to all of you, but also sparks a self-reflection that continues to define who I want to be as an artist. And I am responsible for having hands is a cycle that engages poetry with an uncanny resemblance to my inner thoughts and is composed for some incredible friends. This is music designed to be created with people I love.
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
On Wednesday night pianist Vicki Ray and visual artist Carole Kim combine forces at REDCAT for two huge new works for piano, electronics, and projections. The evening includes the world premiere of Ben Phelps’s exponentially expanding Sometimes I feel like my time ain’t long, based on the Alan Lomax recording of the eponymous tune. Also featured is Daniel Lentz’s Yellowstone-inspired River of 1000 Streams, which was named a top recording pick of 2017 by Alex Ross in The New Yorker.
Vicki has been a major player in the LA scene for years as a pianist, improviser, composer, and teacher. With all she does I’m glad she had a few minutes to answer some questions about this show. Tickets and full details are available at redcat.org/event/vicki-ray-and-carole-kim-rivers-time.
Rivers of Time focuses on two “monumental” new works. How do you approach large scale pieces, as both performer and concert programmer?
In terms of programming it really depends on the piece(s). Usually with one long work I’ll put something contrasting on the other half of the concert like miniatures or just feature the single work itself. But this concert is different. Each piece is almost exactly a half hour. They seemed like perfect book ends. And then there is the thematic linkage between the pieces in terms of their focus on time. So it seemed a natural pairing. As a performer my approach has to vary depending on the demands of the piece. Ben’s piece is very rigorous – it is extremely mercurial and there are many fast shifts of tempo and mood. It’s technically virtuosic. A lot of the challenge is about knowing what’s going to happen next. Daniel’s piece is equally demanding but in a completely different way – it uses an almost constant tremolo which can be really exhausting for the body. So I had to work up to complete run-throughs of it…sort of like training for a marathon. With this piece it’s about staying relaxed (well, when isn’t it?) and keeping the long arch of the piece always in the forefront of my mind.
What really excites me about this Wednesday night’s concert at REDCAT is the opportunity to share Ben Phelps’ new work Sometimes I Feel Like My Time Ain’t Long. It has been a total pleasure to learn this piece, or I should say continue learning this work. Like all great pieces it has layers to uncover and explore and everytime I sit down to work on it I find something new. Technically and musically it’s incredibly satisfying. The way Ben exponentially expands the piano part in correspondence with the time-stretched folk tune is ingenious. But rather than be some kind of purely cerebral exercise the totality of the piece is quite mystical and haunting. I feel very honored to get to give the premiere and I hope to play it many more times.
Could you discuss your collaboration with Carol for this project?
I started hearing about Carole’s work years ago when she was at CalArts. And then shortly after that she did some work with my brother, Scot, up in Montana. He was raving about her work and I saw some clips from the evening that blew me away. Finally here in Los Angeles I had several opportunities to see her work, most notably at an Open Gate Concert with some stellar improvisers. What impressed me was how she is able to join the musical conversation by weaving visuals into the texture without dominating it. It’s incredibly unique and thoughtful. Elegant. For this concert she’ll be projecting onto scrims that envelop the piano.
Your career as a soloist, collaborative pianist, improviser, composer, teacher is, to put it mildly, wildly diverse. How do your various musical practices inform each other? Is balance a challenge, or are they more like different aspects of the same work and interests?
I don’t really see it “various musical practices.” When I was a kid I played pop music, I sang in choirs, I acted in plays, I wrote little tunes, I improvised, and I learned classical pieces. They weren’t all squared away in separate boxes. So I’ve always been that sort of player even though there was a long stretch during my college years where a lot of the improvising and composing got put on a back burner. I feel much more creatively energized when I can work both as a creator and a re-creator.
You began in Los Angeles as a graduate student at USC. You’re now the head of keyboard studies at Cal Arts. To some extent, I view these schools as existing on completely opposite ends of the musical spectrum, at least aesthetically. Could you comment a bit on this dichotomy in the LA scene, if it even is one?
I can’t really comment on USC. I graduated from there a million years ago and I’m sure it’s changed since then. But what I do know without a doubt is that I wouldn’t be the artist I am if it weren’t for my years at CalArts. The place has had an enormous impact on me. My colleagues and my students are so gifted and interesting that I often feel like a permanent student rather than faculty. I’m so grateful to be a part of it. It continues to stretch and challenge me every day.
How has the new music scene in Los Angeles changed over your career thus far? I know we’re quite proud of ourselves in recent years, with good reason, and wonder if that has always been the case or if this is the renaissance it seems to be.
It’s definitely a great city to be in right now if you’re into new music! There’s so much going on and yes, much more than when I first arrived in the 80’s. Back in the 80’s and 90’s there was the EAR Unit and Xtet. The Green Umbrella concerts were always great. And the Monday Evening Concerts were there too of course! And there was always something interesting going on at the Schoenberg Institute at USC. Also there used to be those fantastic soirees at Betty Freeman’s house…wow…those were incredible evenings. But in terms of the number of groups playing and the diversity of musics being offered right now – it’s fantastic. I just wish we had a few more good, small to mid-size venues that were dedicated to new music (AND had a good piano…!)
What was your favorite concert you’ve attended or played on in the past year?
Oh that’s too hard! But the first thing that comes to mind is hearing Andrew McIntosh’s piece Shasta on the Green Umbrella. Just gorgeous. [editor: I too have that piece near the top of my list.]
What’s next for you after this show?
Next up is Feldman’s For John Cage with violinist Tom Chiu and dancers Oguri and Roxanne Steinberg. I’m really looking forward to it! February 26 on Piano Spheres.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I just want to thank YOU and all the folks at New Classic LA for what you do!!
Tickets for Rivers of Time are available at redcat.org/event/vicki-ray-and-carole-kim-rivers-time.
On Thursday, December 20, contemporary violin duo The Furies, along with their friends Joanna Lynn-Jacobs, Rhea Fowler, Theodosia Roussos, Grecia Serrano-Navarro, and Jordan Curcurturo, present A Cure For Hysteria at Art Share. A Cure for Hysteria is a performance piece that explores the history and relevance of the gendered word ‘hysteria’—its social connotations and consequences—through the lens of contemporary music. This fits right in with The Furies’ mission to bring intersectional feminism into the concert hall through immersive performance experiences that challenge their audience and community, encourage audience members to demand more diverse programming from their musical institutions, and to learn more about the histories of women in a white male dominated canon. We caught up with violinists Maiani da Silva and Kate Outterbridge to talk about their new project.
How did you two meet, and what was the impetus for starting The Furies?
Kate: It was totally love at first sight; I was visiting Bang on a Can Summer Festival, when Mai was a fellow/ the summer before I moved to LA, and we chatted briefly about living in Los Angeles, and when I got out here, we just started hanging out all the time! It was so great to be in a new city, know nothing about what I was doing, go through some shit, and have a friend that was there for me in so many ways. I think that made it really easy for us to work together as musicians; we are just on the same page about a lot of things, so when we decided to play together, it just came really naturally.
When The Furies was starting out, we both just had a common interest in exploring music explicitly by composers that identify as women and non-binary, but since then, we have really transformed our vision to be something that really is about experiences and issues.
You are of course extremely skilled violinists. What do you mean by immersive performance experiences, though?
Maiani: Several collaborations, both in our past and present-day lives, have made us more curious and open to exploring new ways of performing. For instance, Kate and I both studied dance very seriously in our teens and into our early 20s, so our relationship to performing goes beyond the traditional classical music form. Another example is that both Kate and I are Blackbird Creative Lab alumnae (‘17, and ‘18, respectively), and as we all know, Eighth Blackbird is super innovative and inspiring when it comes to incorporating other aspects of performance into their concerts. At the Lab, we were lucky to also work with choreographers Mark DeChiazza and Ros Warby. Another inspiration for diving into the experimental performance realm is performance artist Taylor Mac. I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with Taylor for almost three years as a violinist in the band, and Kate has also performed with Taylor and the band here in L.A. But the opportunity to create something personal came to fruition thanks to the generous and fantastic Elizabeth Baker, who gifted us “A Cure For Hysteria” last spring! We are hoping this will be the beginning of many performative-type collaborations with other composers and fellow performers.
I normally try to avoid any mention of gender in interviews because work should speak for itself and there’s usually no reason to point it out (aside from calling out bias). In your case, however, you explicitly state that bringing intersectional feminism to the concert hall is key to the ensemble’s mission. Could you discuss, in broad terms, how you do that?
Kate: Yeah, I think that is an important question. To us, The Furies is really about the process of creating performances that express issues and experiences that are important to us. Our aim in calling ourselves intersectional feminists is to call attention to the fact that classical and contemporary classical music isn’t always inclusive, and we want to hold ourselves accountable and ask questions: how are we perpetuating problems within our community, how can we listen better, how can we avoid tokenism and be super transparent about what we want to achieve?
Maiani: We challenge ourselves and each other to ask lots of questions, and listen with care in approaching all things #life. We do this as people and as friends, so naturally this seeps into our Furies work. It’s our foundation, really. It’s a lot of homework, and it’s very rewarding.
And how about for this concert? Am I right in remembering that “a cure for hysteria,” referring to masturbation, was the Victorian equivalent of “you should smile more”? How do the pieces you’ve programmed relate?
Maiani: That’s an interesting perspective, I hadn’t made that connection. Yes, with both we’re reminded to exist in a fashion that makes others at ease, that puts others’ needs above our own. If we show how we really feel, we’re considered unwell and are thus in need of intervention, whether by a modern-day strange man on the street, or a Victorian (male) “doctor” holding a vibrator to our clits.
Kate: When we decided to use Elizabeth’s piece, A Cure for Hysteria, as the centerpiece for this show, it was because the complexity of the term hysteria really reflects something that many marginalized people have to put up with: that feeling of never fully feeling like you can be yourself, that feeling of needing to appear to act a certain way, to make sure everyone around you is always at ease at the expense of your own comfort, and also how we are at a point where more and more people are saying “enough.” Being explicit about being intersectional feminist performers is empowering to us, it feels good to stand up and say LISTEN TO US, THIS IS OUR EXPERIENCE, but also keeps us honest about what it means to listen to others’ experiences in the process.
Maiani: Elizabeth’s work is centered around what it meant to be a hysterical woman in Victorian England. What we strive to convey with the other pieces in the program is the many layers and nuance of the term “hysteria.” In classic Mai-and-Kate style, we dug deeper to know how our friends and family felt about the term “hysteria.” By sampling the recorded one-on-one interviews, ThunderCunt created a track that will be premiered at our concert!
Details on the show are at facebook.com/events/2240445589321248.
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.