Art should make you feel something. Be it the discomfort of eye contact, mirth at the absurdity of a bitterly happy man (nope, not a typo), or literal vibrations in your skeleton, the winning pieces of the 2015 American Composers Forum National Composition Contest dealt it all through wild Up. The concert began with When Eyes Meet by Nina C. Young, a variably atonal work narrating the palpable awkwardness of eye contact with a stranger. Segments of pointillism and others of smooth lyricism portray sneaking glances and the development of silent rapport, cut short audibly by one party guiltily turning away. In short, an aural captivation of “the struggle is real.” Next up was The Man Who Hated Everything by Alex Temple. The title alone speaks volumes on what this tribute to Frank Zappa contains. It’s a witty collage of quotations barreling through a train of thought that could exist equally in Zappa or Temple’s heads, and spills out in jazz improvisation and big band bellows and words spoken by the performers assuming characters almost but not quite themselves. The performers have entirely too much fun, and it afflicts the audience delightfully, and laughter mingles with the applause. The third and final piece is Chiaroscuro by William Gardiner. Beginning with two notes in the middle range of a vibraphone, the sound seems to come physically forward from the stage into your body as the sound is transformed into sound waves with subharmonics. The other instruments play high and light over the thick, visceral vibrations, and though there is a rhythm in the high end only the harmonic rhythm in the bass is truly observed. Each chord moved a different part of myself; first my feet, then my knees, and then my chest and finally my face. Have you ever had your sinuses stuffed from the LA haze, and then inexplicably and gently stirred by pure bass notes? It is a strange thing to claim, and an even stranger thing to experience. It was emotional without emotions, and utterly spellbinding. I wanted to hear it at least a dozen times more over the course of the night.
My wish was partly granted. After the three pieces were presented in this order, the composers came down and answered a few questions with Chris Rountree, the conductor of wild Up. As a former Seattlite who has only lived in California for a year, I am still pleasantly surprised that the whole creative process seems present in the end product; the composers and artistic directors are always at the shows and still involved. This seems, forgive my poeticism, to give the art the loving support it needs to be a real triumph, not just one more modern, off-the-wall sound coming out of crazy ol’ LA.
But, it just wouldn’t be LA without being a little off the wall. After the chat with the composers and intermission, the second half of the concert was the same set, just in a different order. The best part of this experiment was that I could move seats, and thus experience the pieces from a different perspective. Also, about half the audience departed, leaving only those who seriously love their modern music. To be fair, usually after finishing a meal you don’t jump right into eating the same meal again. But this wasn’t a meal; it was more like finishing a good book and wanting to read the whole thing again. The energy was different and the room felt smaller, but there was more rapport between all the audience members. So we heard William’s piece again, and from my new vantage point I could feel the vibrations move me in different places than before, and I could imagine seeing the floor in rings of emanating pulses, which had not occurred to me before. I heard more themes and patterns in Nina’s work, and I wished I could have followed along in the score but I was mollified by this second listen through. Alex’s piece was also enhanced by the fact I could finally see the pianist’s and reed player’s faces and better hear their words. The cellist and flutist hammed it up at the very end, and the audience, as small as we were, ate it up. The second round was a stroke of genius. The stress and reverence of the big, bad world premiere was over and we were graced with the best encore we could hope for: something exactly the same but different. And it felt great.
On Wednesday, August 12, (a while ago now; please excuse this reviewer, gentle readers) wild Up presented a unique collaboration between the American Composers Orchestra, the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, and the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University: specifically, the final concert of the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute, a workshop geared toward giving jazz composers the opportunity to learn about writing for orchestra. If this description alone is hard to follow, it’s because there were so many forces at play here – wild Up’s intuitive and intense grasp of chamber music, Rountree’s dynamic conducting, and a wide range of experience in jazz and classical composition. The marketing of this concert seemed a bit misleading – as the culminating concert of the workshop, one might expect to find some student pieces on the program. This was, however, a showcase of faculty pieces, with a single piece by a member of wild Up – all pieces that, in their varied and skillful ways, played with the intersections between jazz and orchestral music. According to the program, up to 16 of the composers participating in this workshop will present symphonic works in the second phase of the program in 2016.
The concert was held in the Ensemble Room at the UCLA Ostin Music Center, which had lovely, rich acoustics, especially appropriate for the stripped-down chamber orchestra resources of wild Up. The environs strongly conveyed “workshop”, with all the camaraderie and vibrancy thus implied. This camaraderie was echoed in some opening remarks by director James Newton, when he asked audience members to join hands and experience the collaborative moment as one, chuckles and smiles all around. The obvious care and passion poured into this program was moving to behold.
The concert opened with a piece by this same director. Elisha’s Gift, described by the composer as dealing with direct spiritual experience of the Northern Lights, surprisingly began with a wholly intellectual dryness. wild Up’s well-poised players presented a bevy of dramatic gestures in rhythmically interlocking clothing. There was a jazz tautness here; although in classical garb, the precision of rhythmic trajectory was influenced by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gilespie, as described in the program notes. Executions were sharp, and hocketed phrases intersected with great intimacy; one’s ears were being sharpened for contrasts to come. This dryness gave way to an unexpected depth, as phrases opened up with more space, long tones and harmonics began to make an appearance. The dry, tense landscape flowered into a richer spectrum of time, and suddenly, harmonics pulled, what was intellectual became imperative, reactions slowed, and the conversation expanded. This awareness of how to resolve tension seemed quietly but powerfully from the jazz tradition. Rountree’s conducting was effective and natural, with a director’s ease. Finally, the last elements of tension gave way and the piece shone with the spiritual purity described by Newton. Motives traversed the full range of string registers, refined with ever-more delicacy, and when phrases finally elongated into lyricism, our ears had been refined by all the previous filigree to truly appreciate the melodic grace. The final, large group statement breathed strength and spiritual engagement, unified and tangible in the present.
Next up was One Modular Future by Chris Kallmyer of wild Up, a distinct about-face. After Rountree’s short introduction to the piece, a member of wild Up held up a small collection of cards, chirping, “And here’s the score!” The piece did betray this casual form of improvisation-influenced composition, but in the best possible ways. The piece started out of the hall, with wild Up members striking single tones on shimmering gamelan-like homemade percussion instruments – and listeners were quickly welcomed into that idiomatic frame of mind, a particular kind of openness. In a traditional manner, the single melodic line telescoped into double-time, and back again. The line lacked traditional gamelan contours however, as the order of tones was randomly based on the musicians’ placement on stage. In this way, the melody had the pleasing linearity of something like a modular electronic sequencer loop. Percussionists changed order, milling around the front of the stage with a fun, casual theatricality, and then played a sequence of new tones. During this, the clarinet and piano inhabited a different space, presumably the space of a different card from the score. The clarinet played improvisatory textures and multiphonics, while the inside of the piano was scraped and struck. Percussion lines broke down, a few unison clangs resonated, 3 and 4-note fragments remained, and the percussionists receded. There was a hard transition here, which was nicely handled. The next section opened with a small wind ensemble droning reedy unisons and fifths, pungent and resonant, contrasted with a light clattering of orchestral percussion. Winds in groups always seem to evoke the outdoors, and with the improvisatory percussion background, we were quickly propelled into the forest, or a field. Once we settled into this landscape, electric guitar entered with a heavy dose of Americana, and we were sure that we were somewhere with sky. The guitar improvisation continued on repeated motives, substantial and moving, and the piece ended with a (perhaps surprise?) abruptness. There were so many tropes here that could have been poorly handled: Partch-esque homemade percussion that could have been goofy, extended techniques that could have teetered into cliché, and an unabashedly beautiful guitar solo that could have been indulgent. The wealth of compositional ideas was compellingly presented however. The lack of cohesion worked as a series of tableaus, and every idea was well-explored.
Tempest, by Steve Coleman, was a completely different dish as well, direct and potent. wild Up was joined by saxes, and jazz trumpet, and came together as a strikingly alive big band. The program notes describe the piece as evocative of the ebbs and flow of a squall, and it did not disappoint. At least this reviewer had a sudden wish for the revival of the warmth and presence of live pop music that big band jazz epitomized, and that we seem to have permanently lost. The wild Up strings performed the typical big band sax role of fleshing out rich jazz harmonies, while the composer on solo sax navigated deftly and movingly in tandem with muted trumpet. The warmth here was palpable, the hall resonant. The structure was natural and well-formed; there was the feeling of a jazz “head” at important returns. The alto sax constantly commented on the textures but also lead to new territories. One was reminded, in case one had forgotten by listening to so much new music, that harmony can have grammar. Harmonies didn’t just move and shift, tonalities anchored us with physical security. Pivot points between these tonalities were navigated by a composer well-versed in extended tonal gravity, as only a jazz player really is, now. After a while, the rises and falls of the storm began to lack dramatic effect through extended repetition, but the overall texture remained compelling and fresh, through the “rainbow chord” which ended the piece.
Sinovial Joints, by the same composer explored different facets of the jazz idiom, through a distinctly physical lens. In stark contrast to the intellectualism of Elisha’s Gift, African polyrhythm and arrhythmicism here were strongly tied to the body, encouraging one to just be. As the composer describes, “sinovial joints … function as a means of connecting bones, binding tissues and providing various degrees of movement for our bodies.” How quickly wild Up transformed into a fully functioning, churning jazz organism! The political fervency of jazz was in full evidence – there was not only toe-tapping, but sweat. Melodic lines were stated and recapitulated deftly and vibrantly, the strings functioned beautifully in their harmonic choral role, and the blend of arrhythmic and polyrhythmic elements felt totally natural, toothsome. We were not in speculation mode, we were in reality. There were unexpectedly interesting piccolo and clarinet melodies in layers, the trumpet shouted with inevitability, and an eventual transition out of polyrhythm and into orchestra textures brought us back into the intellect, with final, reflective gestures.
After a well-deserved intermission, wild Up returned with String Quintet No. 1: Funky Diversions, by Vince Mendoza. The rhythmic strength here mimicked that of Joints, but in a tighter, leaner ensemble. In a delicate opening, the strings responded to one another, pulling, yawning. Pretty diatonic lyrical motifs contrasted with tight, cerebral runs and leaping, disjunct gestures. The bass was used well, separated enough to ground the ensemble, but still “of” the quintet texture, and at 30 seconds in, ushering in a distinct funkiness. Here we were rooted not by tonal gravity, but by a solid four on the floor rhythmic inevitability. Rountree was fun to watch in this piece, obviously enjoying grooving with the ensemble. The piece as a whole still had a strong classical influence, however, with violins and viola handled idiomatically. Pretty themes were traded and hocketed, and the texture at times seemed to breathe a post-minimal air of shifting diatonic harmonies before settling into bold funk grounding. There were a few transitions to long droning tones, with traded and built in intensity back to the impact of strong, funk rhythm. This “verse-chorus” approach to form seemed to emanate from jazz traditions as well, and overall the piece was solid, self-assured.
Journey of the Shadow, by Gabriela Lena Frank, was unique on the program, as a narrated story, with a fully orchestrated backdrop. The story is a magical realist tale of a boy sending a letter to his father at war in Afghanistan, and of the boy’s shadow that slips into the envelope, and has various poignant adventures and eventually arrives back home. The work is geared toward children and adults alike, and Lena Frank’s narration is good-natured and clear. The opening oboe melody heralds the character for the entire piece: so charismatically mid-century classical, beaming with poise and charm. South American influences soon creep in, Ginastera-influenced rhythmic interactions contrasting with well-shaped clarinet lyricism. One hates to call an entire work charming, but that’s what it was: not a superficial piece, but one that exuded real charm, that awareness of how to create audience delight. Word painting was indulged with abandon throughout – for example in the description of the many kinds of letters in the mail. There were interludes of pure cuteness, including woodblock, pizzicato strings trading with staccato on piano, and wind flourishes. Erin McKibben’s flute tone was particularly rich and haunting. The form generally follows the text, as the shadow encounters various adventures, and the whole work seems built for listening as a recording, at home. The piece is familial. The jazz influence is evident, with rich extended harmonies and perfectly crafted melodies. The cartoony quality of this word painting actually conceals impressive technical strength – orchestration of this kind is actually quite difficult and requires intimate knowledge of the resources at hand. The test of this kind of piece is whether the orchestration is effective in making the story vibrant and it definitely works: one wants to know what happens next, and by the end of the story, the darker nuances of the touching tale have quietly been understood.
The final piece on the program, Time’s Vestiges by Anthony Cheung explored, according to the program notes, “metaphors drawn from geological ‘deep time’. The rumbling, buried texture wasn’t just an evocation of the earth, however; the audience was presented with a fabric of activity so dense and dynamic that it seemed to reflect the complexity of nature itself. Rhythmic counterpoint towered on top of textural effects. There were so many threads here, it was impossible for a listener to follow every contrapuntal statement, so multiplicitous were the lines. Jazz influences here were subtler than in the other pieces, if they existed at all – the most salient jazz element could have simply been the emphasis, as in all these pieces, in the immediacy of the present and the pleasure to be found in textural interplay. The melodic gestures in themselves carried a 19th century kind of angst, or surface expressivity, but the subterranean forces at work were not sentimental; they pushed and ruptured with cold precision. This unique approach to orchestration brought to mind some of the duality of Classical forms, where surface-level expression can bely a more ironic or detached foundation. The composer in fact may take this texture for granted, having lived in it for so long, as the piece starts immediately with this kind of dense patchwork, but for a new listener, the varied surface texture is fresh and enjoyable. Texturally, the piece doesn’t explore extended techniques as much as traditional effects, with tremolos and glissandi expertly layered. The piece eventually transitions from this flurry of activity to quieter moments: pizzicatos are traded with more space for reflection, and tones lengthen. We have been desensitized by the previous complexity, however, and these quiet moments seem to pass us by as we are glazed with glacial indifference. This oddly neutral respite is short-lived. The piece moves quickly to swooping, diving gestures, moving throughout the ensemble, and eventually ends with a rising line that resolves into a surprising vulnerability, given the powerful direction in the rest of the piece.
With its raucous brew of influences, the concert was a fulfilling procession of courses. wild Up’s contributions were as always, singular: no other local ensemble could have handled the diverse demands here, both technical and aesthetic. And naturally, the execution seemed effortless. One can only look forward to the next installment, in 2016, when students will be able to display the fruits of this vibrantly fertile collaboration.