LA scene regulars likely know pianist Nadia Shpachenko, whose tireless concert and recording schedule is a model to live up to. Nadia has premiered more than 60 works by Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Daniel Felsenfeld, Tom Flaherty, Annie Gosfield, Vera Ivanova, Leon Kirchner, Amy Beth Kirsten, Hannah Lash, James Matheson, Missy Mazzoli, Harold Meltzer, Adam Schoenberg, Lewis Spratlan, Gernot Wolfgang, Iannis Xenakis, Peter Yates, Jack Van Zandt, and others. This Saturday, March 10, she teams up with People Inside Electronics for a show at Throop Church in Pasadena featuring both premieres and works from her upcoming album, Quotations and Homages. Nadia had a minute to answer some questions, so we asked some:
PIE’s concerts tend to focus on the interaction between human performers and electronics. Do you have a background in this type of performance, or is this new ground for you?
I have been performing pieces with electronics for many years now, this is an area of great interest for me! I love to explore how composers use their imagination to complement the acoustic instruments with all kinds of additional timbres and sound sources. I think the very first piece with electronics that I commissioned was Airdancing by Tom Flaherty. Airdancing was written for my first album of brand new works titled Woman at the New Piano. This piece was written for me and Genevieve Feiwen Lee on piano and toy piano, and has since become quite a favorite with performers and audiences! I have performed works with live electronics and with fixed media. The works on Saturday’s PIE concert will include diverse approaches to electroacoustic writing, from Annie Gosfield’s bold and wild Phantom Shakedown featuring malfunctioning short-wave radios, grinding cement mixers, and detuned and prepared piano samples, to Isaac Schankler’s poignant and heartbreakingly beautiful Future Feelings, featuring gentle piano passages reinterpreted through ambient synths and filtered noise, to Alex Temple’s captivating incorporation of pre-recorded interviews with her friends, colleagues, former students and family members sharing very personal and at times extremely painful experiences. Also, my husband Barry Werger is a recording engineer and a roboticist. When we met in Boston more than 20 years ago, he was working on his PhD at Brandeis University and part of his artistic output was touring the world with his robotic theatre troupe. The plays often featured my performances and robot actors, so the interaction between human performers and AI was an interest for me even then, although in a form quite different from what I will presenting this Saturday.
I see some old friends and some new ones on this program. What do you look for when you’re programming a concert?
This program features many composers who I worked with closely on multiple projects, and also some composers whose works I haven’t played before. When I commission pieces, I usually perform them dozens of times (often as many as 40 times for each commissioned piece), especially when the pieces are recorded and I then tour the programs to promote the works and the albums. Since I often create thematically inspired programs, it can be challenging for me to program single compositions not already part of my larger projects. My upcoming PIE concert presented me with a great opportunity to both showcase the works I commissioned most recently, and also to select works by composers with whom I did not collaborate before, all united by the common inspiration of the electronics component in the music. Tom, Annie, Vera, and Jack all wrote pieces for me that I premiered in the past. I was eager to work with Isaac Schankler for a long time now, and finally I got a new piece from him that I will be premiering on Saturday, inspired by Isaac’s baby boy, noise music, Romantic/teen angst, the melancholy of Chopin, and the composer’s worries and hopes for alternate future possibilities. This concert will be my first collaboration with Alex Temple and Julia Wolfe.
Vera’s piece is the only one that lists multimedia. What can we expect from it?
Vera’s piece exists in several versions and at the PIE concert it will be performed with all possible components – projections of the text of the poems over images, and the fixed audio part, which interjects the piano part. The fixed audio part makes use of original recordings of the poems (The Echo, In the Fog, Wind, and The Lake Isle of Innisfree) read by the poets themselves (Anna Akhmatova, Herman Hesse, Boris Pasternak, and William Butler Yeats). Overall the multimedia is created to bring back the presence of these poets and to connect the text of the poems directly to the music. And there will be one more piece with multimedia. Jack Van Zandt wrote his Sí in Bhrú for my upcoming Poetry of Places album, which will be released on Reference Recordings in Spring 2019. My Poetry of Places album will feature newly-written works by Amy Beth Kirsten, Hannah Lash, James Matheson, Harold Meltzer, Andrew Norman, Lewis Spratlan, Nina C. Young, and Jack Van Zandt, all inspired by unique buildings. Jack’s piece was inspired by the oldest building in the world, built in Ireland during the Neolithic period, about 5000 years ago. This building, Sí in Bhrú (or Newgrange in English), is fascinating on so many levels. Like the passageway and the interior chamber of Sí an Bhrú itself, the electronic elements of the work (created in dozens of layers from several sources) resonate at a frequency of 110 hertz in support of the piano part that does the same. I will perform this work with an accompanying video that features images of this unique stone age monument.
Looks like you have a consortium commission on the concert, which seems like a great way for performers to bring new works into the world. Could you talk a little about how that process works, for our readers who may not be familiar with it?
The consortium commissioning is somewhat common in orchestral, wind band and choral worlds, but is relatively new for solo music. It was realized through the Global Premiere Commissioning Consortium, an organization which accepts applications from composer/performer teams and a group of commissioning consortium members who split the composer’s and the project leader’s fee. This approach makes it affordable for the selected teams to commission new music. A relatively small commissioning fee allows the consortium members to secure the premiere performance rights on their respective territory for a fixed amount of time and help the composer to get his/her work performed globally. It is a great project which is focused on promoting the composer and his/her performers. We currently have 25 members who will premiere Vera’s new piece in 10 countries and 16 USA states.
Tom Flaherty’s piece is on your upcoming CD, Quotations & Homages. Want to talk a little about the album?
My upcoming album Quotations and Homages will be released on Reference Recordings in early April (next month). This album features newly-written works inspired by a variety of earlier composers and pieces, from Mozart to Brahms to Stravinsky to Messiaen to Carter to Ustvolskaya to The Velvet Underground. It’s a program that’s both serious and lighthearted. Older works are brought to new light through piano/s, toy pianos and electronics by living American composers Tom Flaherty, Missy Mazzoli, Peter Yates, Vera Ivanova, Nick Norton (you!), Adam Borecki, Daniel Felsenfeld, and James Matheson. At my PIE concert on March 10 I will be performing the two works with electronics from my album. The first piece, written for me by Tom Flaherty, is titled Rainbow Tangle. It captures the otherworldly ecstasy of the seventh movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, using live electronic delays, transpositions, and reverberation to expand the sonic palette. I will close my PIE concert with Tom’s Igor to Please, a piece constructed using only the notes of Stravinsky’s “Augurs” chord from the Rite of Spring (an unusual spacing of an Ab harmonic minor scale). This piece exists in multiple versions for solo piano, solo toy piano, duo piano, and the original version for two pianos four-hands and two toy pianos, each with pre-recorded electronics. My album features the original version of this piece for 6 pianists, recorded with my amazing colleagues Ray-Kallay Duo, HOCKET, and Genevieve Feiwen Lee. On Saturday I will be performing the solo piano and electronics version of Igor.
What’s next on your schedule after this one that readers can look forward to?
After this week, which is keeping me busy with 2 days of recording sessions and six concerts (four of them at ArtNight Pasadena on Friday, previewing my PIE program, I will be going to Canada to promote the upcoming album release. Local performances next month will include collaborations with the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, bassoonist Judith Farmer, and clarinetist Edgar Lopéz (performing Gernot Wolfgang’s Trio WINDOWS, which we will be recording in May). My concert schedule is updated at nadiashpachenko.com/event and interested readers can subscribe to my newsletter to be invited to future performances at nadiashpachenko.com/contact.
Tickets for this weekend’s show are available at peopleinsideelectronics.com/nadia-shpachenko.
On November 18th Walt Disney Concert Hall transformed into a showcase of the community, talent and swagger of Los Angeles new music. The second annual Noon to Midnight event was as much an exhibition as a festival: An overlapping schedule of pop-up performances populated the building’s many nestled spaces, encouraging attendees to wander and casually sample the day’s various offerings. The music-making spilled over Gehry’s grand titanium shipwreck onto the sidewalk and plaza, but the main stage served as a central hub for major performances, punctuating the day with moments of communion between curious ears scattering outwards toward the bustling amphitheater, beer garden, and cozy nooks and crannies of the hall.
In truth, this collar-loosening was the first successful performance of the day. Among younger audiences, the glitzy, glass-enclosed posters of Dudamel might seem out of touch with the Phil’s superimposed tagline “our city, our sound” as his immaculate white bow tie and baton are a far cry from the flimsy band posters that litter telephone poles around Echo Park. But something about licking food truck drippings off of your fingers while listening to electric guitars compete with traffic noise really tempers the imposing austerity of the concert hall. And so, from the very onset, Noon to Midnight transformed the space from a venue for witnessing art into a home-base for engaging with it.
And engaging it was. Yuval Sharon and Annie Gosfield’s new performance piece, War of the Worlds was a fitting centerpiece for the event, occupying both the hall and remote sites in a sprawling, tech-savvy production that cleverly balanced national and local relevance (see Nick Norton’s review here). Wild Up performed two separate sets. The first was a showcase of the collaborative works born of the LA Phil’s National Composers Intensive, featuring new pieces by six young composers. As one might expect, the music reflected an excited exploration of the ensemble’s open-mindedness, navigated by some promising compositional voices. The second set utilized the ensemble’s larger forces to premiere several new works that best demonstrated the ensemble’s agile, performative charm—sometimes dance-y, sometimes delicate, sometimes asking “how did I end up waist deep in this swamp” and “are trombone multiphonics the only way out.” But whether shimmering or sloshing, Christopher Rountree and wild Up were always committed, always convincing, and always a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
The smaller ensembles offered a more intimate experience, including a noisy, forward-looking set by gnarwhallaby, installation performances by HOCKET and Southland Ensemble, jazzy moments with the LA Signal Lab, and a tight, driving performance by Jacaranda. Outdoor spaces hosted less traditional instrumentations like RAGE THORMBONES and Los Angeles Electric 8. The performance that perhaps best encapsulated Noon to Midnight as a whole was Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Etoile: red fish blue fish, spread among the serene beer garden atop Disney Hall, animated the crisp evening air and city views with a radically virtuosic performance in which audience members strolled between and around the performers to create a consuming, fluid and completely individual experience of the colossal work. Here the performance and experience of the music were inseparably entangled, defined by the audience’s direct engagement with the production. The same could be said of Chris Kallmyer‘s Soft Structures, almost a festival in itself.
In total, the day included more than twenty separate programs, and it would be impossible to speak to each set individually. But parsing the experience into discrete parts would betray the atmosphere the LA Phil took such care to create in the first place; Noon to Midnight is a monument of local music that generates all the electricity and none of the pomp of the traditional concert. The music, performers, spaces, drinks and food all embodied an LA personality that manifested in every detail. Having spent most of my life in Silicon Valley, what strikes me most since moving to Los Angeles is the physicality of the city: people don’t just philosophize about things, they make them. There is a reverence for the man-made and the hand-made: What the east side lacks in blooming nature it replaces with colorful graffiti, what towering buildings of Hollywood obscure from your view they replace with blinding LEDs and enormous marquis. In a field of new music that can all too easily slip into intellectualism, this combining of upstart and established groups alike was a heartening account of the range of artists getting their hands seriously dirty making art. It is clear that music here is being made not only in pristine halls, but also in aged, mixed-use buildings with shoddy plumbing. And so, rather than hanging the the local art on a white wall, standing back and rubbing its beard to pontificate, Noon to Midnight was instead an invitation to come together, wash hands, and admire the buildup of dirt in the sink. A glorious, silver sink in the middle of downtown.
While that particular fantasy didn’t quite happen, War of the Worlds did manage to blast through my rather high expectations. It is in many ways the most fully realized version of Yuval’s unique brand of opera theatre, a project perhaps more deeply connected to Los Angeles than even Hopscotch. Rather than take the essential Wells/Welles story/broadcast and stage it, the new libretto (by Sharon himself) engages with contemporary LA life, politics, and a lot of sci fi fandom. Its layers of metacommentary on cultural life in 2017 are a joy to unpeel.
Let’s begin with the premise. Audiences were seated both inside the concert hall and at three “siren sites” around LA. The opera began with Sigourney Weaver as a guest celebrity host for an LA Phil concert, which was broadcast to the three sites. For the first performance I was at site one, where a pair of scientists were listening to the broadcast on the radio while doing some experiments, and for the second I was in the hall. Before we go any farther, let’s think about the setup. The Industry’s other productions, as ambitious and wild and creative and postmodern as they are, often run into a fourth wall problem. In Hopscotch, for instance, yes, you were in a car with the singers and actors, but it still felt as if they were performing for a large audience, or for a camera, as if it didn’t matter that you were there.
That’s not exactly a knock on Hopscotch or its performers, but it was definitely odd to be sitting two feet from someone singing their heart out but not actually interacting with you. The fourth wall is a tricky thing, though – break it too obviously and it can completely ruin the narrative, like the remote scene in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Such breaks have to serve the story rather than spice it up. In the cases of Hopscotch, Invisible Cities, and Crescent City, I think Yuval was right in his avoidance of dealing with the fourth wall in the drama, much as the staging might make it seem like the obvious device to manipulate.
That the actual plot of War of the Worlds included a concert broadcast being interrupted, however, finally gave Yuval the legitimate justification to start playing with that fourth wall. It’s normal to have a bunch of celebrities show up and hang out at LA Phil concerts — hell, it’s almost a marketing device — so having Sigourney Weaver show up and participate brought the opera’s narrative into our normal experience as LA Phil concertgoers. It seemed to say “this is actually happening to you,” rather than “watch and listen to this thing we are performing,” and it was convincing.
The choice to cast Weaver as the all-knowing person in a science fiction situation itself is a trope we’re also familiar with. It’s almost a requirement for a self-aware sci fi film these days to give her a cameo or have her show up at the end to explain to the characters what is actually happening. This casting decision further brings War of the Worlds into our world, and isn’t lost on Yuval’s libretto, with the scientists (read: lovable nerds) at site one geeking out over getting to talk to Ellen Ripley. Sitting at site one and listening to an LA Phil broadcast is what both the audience and the scientists are doing, so it makes perfect sense that they would interact. And interact we did, with Professor Pierson and his assistant (perfectly portrayed by actors Hugo Armstrong and Clayton Farris, respectively) bantering with the audience before the concert, and Professor Pierson developing a celebrity crush on Weaver.
When the music and story get rolling, though, the metanarrative helps the opera to get real, and real important. Jorge Luis Borges once pondered,
Why does it disturb us that…the thousand and one nights be [included] in the book of the Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.
I believe that with War of the Worlds, the inverse is true. As the sirens around Los Angeles wake up from their machine slumber to coordinate the martian attack, mayor Eric Garcetti himself walks onstage to tell the audience that – paraphrasing – “these things have been hiding in plain sight for 70 years, and that we’ll fight them to defend our way of life in Los Angeles.” In case it wasn’t clear that this is an opera about America and LA in 2017, when the Mexican shop owner portrayed by hometown opera hero Suzana Guzmán gets asked about the aliens, she immediately launches into a panicked defense of her legal immigrant status. It’s not that we, the audience, can be fictitious, but that the fiction can be fact.
Sometimes with Industry productions it can feel like the music, while important, takes a backseat to the setting. While the narrative structure and libretto are integral to War of the Worlds, in this case it is clearer than ever that they are in support of Annie Gosfield’s score and the performers. Yuval has said that gathering a community for artistic purposes can be a form of sociopolitical action, and the mere premise of this opera is that we’re getting together to listen to a piece of music. That literally happens here, as being at a concert, with a tongue-in-cheek name check to Frank Gehry’s silver building, ends up saving the listeners from the invasion.
Christopher Rountree’s muscular but agile conducting style was a perfect match for Gosfield’s synth-laden orchestral score with occasional dips into popular idioms. Furthering our theme of music-as-community here, one got the feeling that not only did most of the people in the hall actually know Rountree from around town, but that he was having a blast being exactly who he is, even getting to act a little with the sound guy, “Dave,” in a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. At least one other critic wrote that he was hoping for an orchestral suite of movements from the opera; I’ll second that request. And coloratura soprano Hila Plitmann’s portrayal of La Sirena, or the wordless, musique concrète instrumentale of the alarm sirens – broadcast through the actual alarm sirens – was utterly stunning.
Making art together in a diverse community is our hometown’s calling card. The Industry’s past productions have done that splendidly for their audience. With War of the Worlds, the LA Phil and The Industry do it with their audience. To live in LA is to be a part of this story and project.By embracing that, War of the Worlds becomes not only engrossing and entertaining as hell, but a vital piece of opera theatre.
Disclosure: the author of this review is friends with some of the subjects, and sometimes works for The Industry. Rather than pretending this is some piece of unbiased writing in the name of journalistic integrity, I think being actively involved allows for deeper insights while writing. Make of that what you will.