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 Monday Night, the composer-performers of Invisible Anatomy are bringing their unique take on the new music experience to The Blue Whale in Little Tokyo, in a concert with the Ben Phelps’ new project, The B Band. Ben had a chance to sit down with two members of Invisible Anatomy, Dan Schlosberg and Brendon Randall-Myers, and interview them about the “slash” (composer / performer), and how that does or doesn’t fit into the modern classical music model. Here’s Ben with Dan and Brendon:
So you are all composers from Yale. Why start your own group? What does Invisible Anatomy do differently?
DS: IA grew out of the time we spent at Yale performing each other’s music. We found that, as time went by, we increasingly chose the music of other composer colleagues who were also performers to play our music in the new music concerts. The system at Yale was such that it required all instrumentalists to perform in those concerts, which can and does have huge benefits but also some drawbacks relating to the extent of certain players’ passion to play new work. We found that, when we worked with each other, everything just clicked. We instinctively knew how to inhabit each others’ music, so to speak, which made for thrilling performances and just overall an intense joy.
BRM: Many aspects of the group also grew out of a project of (member) Fay Wang’s through Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Arts in 2014. She was commissioned to write a piece after observing members of the microbiology department over the course of a year, and basically had free reign to make her own ensemble and hire whoever she wanted. That group ended up including almost all of the future members of IA, and she wrote this huge 30-minute piece that we performed wearing lab coats with props and lighting and projections. So that ended up kind of being a template for what a lot of what we’re doing now.
Do you feel like you have a “musical style” that unites you? Or is it something else?
BRM: I think our music all sounds really different, but we do all work with aspects of tonal harmony, and we all have performing backgrounds in music other than classical in addition to our classical training. We’re all interested in altered states and narrative, and making vivid and direct music. As a composer/performer ensemble, we’re fascinated by the weirdness and amazingness of performing bodies, and our first couple shows have dealt explicitly with the mind/body relationship.
When you design a program like Dissections, what ties it all together? Where does it start?
BRM: Dissections grew out of the idea of digging deeper into things, of examining and questioning and looking below the surface. Ha, honestly all these things start with a lot of late-night hangs over dinner and booze. We kind of just get together and throw ideas around until we start zeroing in on something that’s interesting to all of us, then flesh out the concept over the course of months of conversations, Skype sessions, and group emails. We’re checking in with each other at every step of the writing process and talking about ideas and writing/revising even through the rehearsal process (which was a little bit of a problem this time around). We also are incredibly lucky to collaborate with two amazing lighting designers – Solomon Weisbard and Daisy Long – and an awesome director in Dustin Wills – that help us tease out the arc of the show and make visual sense of it.
How long have you been working on this then?
BRM: Both Dissections and our first program Body Parts had 8-10 month gestation periods culminating in frantic 3-4 week periods of writing and rehearsing.
Seems like you have some ideas on what the composer’s job is today. How do you see yourself as “composers” fitting into classical music and modern American culture?
DS: It’s hard for me to say what the job of “composers” as a whole is. I am a firm believer in what Hans Eisler and Theodor Adorno called “railing against the cult of unobtrusiveness,” which is a fancy way of saying never giving people what they think they want, what they’ve been conditioned to want. I think part of an artist’s goal should be to bring people up short, to expose things that reach into the deepest parts of our psychosis, things that may be (very) uncomfortable to confront. After all, if we’re just following the norms laid out for us by society or, in this case, the music or new-music establishment, is that truly art?
BRM: Oh god, I have way too many thoughts on this, but I’ll try to stay focused.
As a composer, my job is to make people think about and feel something that’s unfamiliar and challenging, but also provide moments of beauty and catharsis. This is what music has always been to me – at its best it can create a space outside our routines where there’s a window between minds and worlds. I also view it at as my job to create music that I want to listen to, that’s interesting and meaningful to me, that reflects the world I live in, interacts with all the traditions I grew up with, and can speak to a lot of different people.
In terms of modern American culture, who knows. Now that Kanye West has collaborated with Caroline Shaw, all bets are pretty much off.
Invisible Anatomy joins The B Band monday night at The Blue Whale in Little Tokyo. $10.
Ben Phelps, who has been a great help to this site, suggested that we start posting tracks by LA composers and musicians. To thank him for the idea, he gets the first one. Check it out:
Yep, you read that right. New ClassicLA is having a house party. This Friday at 8, Aron Kallay and Rafael Liebich will be premiering piano pieces by Ben Phelps, Jason Barabba, and yours truly (along with a few other locals) at my
house apartment in Santa Monica. I’ll also be opening the first bottle of my homemade amber ale (fingers crossed that carbonation is going as it should), and I believe a friend is bringing up a keg of something awesome that he made too. And Jason has agreed to make some kind of cakes, which I can tell you from personal experience will be utterly delicious. But yeah, the music! It’s going to be killer, and nice and loud, and you should come. I’m not so hot on posting my address on here, so email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send it to you.
Then, Saturday, at 3:00 pm (more than enough time to get the shrimp omelette at Literati on the way over from my couch), Abagail Fischer presents ABSYNTH at the Hammer as a part of wild Up‘s residency there. Here’s the info from the facebook event page:
ABSYNTH is a constantly evolving multi-media program for electronics and voice, conceived by mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer and directed by wild Up founder Christopher Rountree. Hailed as “riveting” (New York Times) and “sumptuous” (Boston Globe), Ms. Fischer makes her premiere performance in Los Angeles here. This program will include commissioned works by Nico Muhly, Caleb Burhans, Kevin McFarland, Florent Ghys, and interspersed by other works by Missy Mazzoli, Wes Matthews, Kurt Weill, Milton Babbitt, and more. Richard Valitutto will assist on keyboards.
ABSYNTH has been performed in varying lengths since 2007, in locales from John Zorn’s Lower East Side venue- the Stone, to Brooklyn’s Galapagos Art Space, presented by American Opera Projects.
When I started this blog, Ben Phelps wrote to me almost immediately, to thank me, in a way, for covering LA’s new music scene, but also, it almost seemed, to take up arms together, ask “what can we do to make things even better?” and then go out and do it. I am sure as hell glad that he did. In addition to becoming a friend, Ben has been an enormous advocate for new music here in LA, and we do, in fact, have some rad stuff in the works. Ben had talked about writing a post/essay in which to consider our local scene and offer some suggestions to take it from good to great to extraordinary. Man, am I glad that he came through and wrote what follows. Read on, then head to a concert and start talking. Here’s Ben.
Two anecdotes to set the stage:
An untold number of years ago, back when I was involved in my first upstart entrepreneurial new music project here in Los Angeles, one of my collaborators thought it would be a good idea to reach out to one of the older, more established new music groups in town to ask, you know, for advice on what the heck we’re doing. To seek any kernels of wisdom from those older and wiser on the highs and lows of striking out on your own to form a new arts non-profit.
The response: “we can’t help you, you’re our competition.”
This has stuck with me for years since because I can’t get over what a tragic answer it is. Not to get all Shakespearean, but it cuts straight to the core of one of man’s fatal flaws- the misperception of self interest. I get it: the scraps of money seemingly available to the new music musicians are so small, our instinct is to fight ever more viciously over the precious crumbs of audience members. It’s human nature. But in reality, this attitude is actually grossly self-defeating. It’s like the individual Easter Islander fighting for the right to cut down a tree in order to roll a massive stone statue miles away to erect it facing the ocean. Yeah sure it might make the individual chief seem totally awesome- until there are no more trees and the civilization collapses. It’s the tragedy of the commons – somebody should write an opera about it.
Composers in Los Angeles love to complain about never getting played by the LA Phil. They do have a point, at least in terms of the data. Esa-Pekka earned accolades and worship from New York critics for his adventurous programming of (mostly) Finnish composers + John Adams and the audiences that attended said concerts and applauded, but very few if any Los Angeles based composers ever received much (if any) love. As if adding insult to injury, The LA Phil now plans a “Brooklyn Festival” of new music, and the LA Chamber Orchestra continues to parade a familiar batch of young Brooklyn based composers across their stage.
On the other hand, we the Los Angeles composer might stand back a second and ask if we deserve it. We might individually believe our music more than worthy to grace the baton of our boy wonder conductor, but who collectively do we hold up as the best we have to offer? This should make apparent the bigger problem: there is no collective from which to choose our representative. I do believe Los Angeles and its new music makers have a wealth of exciting ideas and music. But it’s Balkanized. At least compared to the current gold standard of Brooklyn (cue choir “ahhh”), what I see is great potential in search of scene.
Maybe this is the reason why Brooklyn keeps poaching some of our best prospects. Young composers move to New York for the scene, not the weather.
So what do they got that we don’t? What are the components of a thriving new music scene? Starting from the assumption that New York has a thriving scene, as their PR people constantly tell us via twitter, we might think a good place to start would be to list all the things New York has.
1. Music publishers
2. Performance Rights Organizations (BMI and ASCAP)
3. Lots of New Music Ensembles
4. Centenarian composers with amusing stories about meeting Stravinsky
5. Lots of other composers
6. PR people
7. An audience (?)
8. Record Labels
9. Music Schools
10. Venerable blue blood investment in music
12. Agents and managers
OK. So there’s a bunch of random stuff. New York has a lot of things, neat. As the classical music business center of the country, it better. But actually this list is quite useless. It’s a business list, and Los Angeles is not about to compete with New York as the center of the classical music business, just as New York is not about to compete with LA as the center of the movie making business. Basic economic geography tells us that like businesses tend to cluster- there is mutual benefit to it. It’s why all the new tech companies are in Silicon Valley, it’s why there are all those furniture stores on La Brea. But I’m talking about artistic clustering- an art scene- and the number of agents your city has don’t matter. Basically, this list is utterly irrelevant to the fact of the LA Phil’s “Brooklyn” festival. What LA composers and musicians need to foster is a clustering of artistic creation. The agents will follow.
An art scene has a lot in common with the industrial clustering of Detroit or Boston or New York. But let’s think about what it is actually important to cluster. Seattle had a thriving grunge indie-music scene, and produced a lot of famous bands. The major record labels came to them. That should be the model.
So what is a thriving art scene? It’s a bunch of people clustering together and doing art. And then talking about it.
Here’s a new list:
1. Lots of new music ensembles
2. Lots of composers
3. Lots of people (mostly the same people from parts one and two) talking about it
4. An audience (?)
Now most likely this is something that happens organically, and can’t be prescribed for a city by a central planner writing an obscure blog article. But think of this as descriptive rather than prescriptive. And it’s already starting to happen. Enough elements of this list start firing, and what does it add up to? Hype. And what follows hype? All the other stuff from list one. Larger monied institutions. Audience members who aren’t actually musicians themselves. PR people. Hipsters. All looking to milk some of hype for themselves.
There’s something to this about the biological imperative for creating art in the first place. That’s another blog post.
Here’s what you can do to help: first, stop sitting in your room complaining that nobody is playing your music or that you have no where to play your instrument. Get out there and make it happen. We need a lot of ensembles looking to put on concerts. This is a lot of work. But as groups trail blaze a path, venues start to learn, and it gets easier. The next step is easy though: where there are new music bands putting on concerts, composers will follow like attorneys chasing ambulances. And the two actually form a symbiotic relationship. The composer looking to get his or her own piece played by an ensemble is a reliable audience member. In fact, they are probably the early adopter audience member. When you only have three audience members, two are the significant others of the band members, and the third is a composer.
But don’t get depressed. We all have to start somewhere. Just remember, one or two bands playing in isolation a scene does not make. Don’t forget about step three. It’s the most important. LA already has a bunch of groups and a bunch of composers.
Talk about the concerts you see. Put on lots of concerts, and talk about them. If you are so inclined, blog or tweet about it. Or just talk to people in the old fashioned way, like in the middle ages. It’s the appearance of activity that counts, but not just your activity. The scene’s activity.
It’s ok that your motives are selfish- you hope to get plucked out of the cutting edge scene by monied institutions who can help your music reach wider audiences. But to have any chance of that, you first need a hyped scene and you need to be an active part of that scene. Go to concerts! I simply cannot understand composers (and they are numerous) who do not go to concerts. Don’t you like music? Why the heck are you putting yourself through all of this work if you don’t? And once you do, be selfless in your promotion of others’ work. Especially if you like it.
The more it seems like something is going on, the more others will want to be a part of it. It’s human nature. Nobody wants to be left out.
The crazy thing about thinking of two small fledgling new music groups in the same city as each others’ “competition” is that a single group could never possibly meet the musical needs of any true music fan. We are bands, not soft-drink companies. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are not each others’ competition, at least not like Coke and Pepsi are. People might choose Coke exclusively over Pepsi as the cause of their Type II diabetes, but nobody chooses The Beach Boys as their band to the exclusion of all music. Nobody has ever said “Nico Muhly is my composer, please take your business elsewhere.”
It is through the confluence of artistic activity that aesthetic direction is established, a scene is hyped, and ultimately, young talented composers stop moving away from Los Angeles to start their careers but to it. So if you want a true scene, it’s time to come down out of your closely guarded aesthetic towers, your new music fiefdoms, and start attending each others’ concerts. It’s already happening. You are the audience and the creator. You are also the publicist. Talk about what you’re doing. Argue about it. Remember, you’re selling cool. It’s the perception of cool that the audience and money will follow.
And oh yeah, there might even be some great music made in the process. Who knows.
Ben Phelps is a composer and percussionist based in Los Angeles. Visit him at benphelpscomposer.com.
Dennis Tobenski is a composer, vocalist, business owner, and blogger living in New York. Don’t worry, I’m not about to start preaching the Brooklyn scene as gospel, though what they are accomplishing there is impressive and, for what it’s worth, pretty rad. He’s been publishing a weekly series of articles titled The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business. They’ve been pretty insightful, and at the very least provide some good food for thought that all composers should take into account.
A good friend of ours here at the site, Ben Phelps, has been promising me a guest post on the idea of competition in the new music community, and how thinking we’re competing really hurts us. Really, when one of us does well, everybody benefits. Ben, I want my article! The reason I’m mentioning this today is that this week’s post in The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business deals with this pretty well, and although it doesn’t cover all of the bases Ben and I have discussed, it does make a great case for promoting each other and building a scene, and is certainly worth a read. Dennis says that, ultimately,
…concert music is not a zero sum game. We’re not really competing with one another – we’re in this together. And a rising tide lifts all boats.
He also offers up nice list of ideas, including:
• Linking to one another on your websites
• Mentioning one another in your newsletters
• Recommending each other’s scores to performers you know
• Recommending each other’s recordings to your own fan bases
• Placing score samples of one another’s works in instrumentationally-related scores of your own
• Guest blogging on each other’s websites
And goes on to explain how these ideas can benefit both you as a composer (or performer, or really as anyone interested in this) and the composers around you.
Check out the article over at dennistobenski.com/news/2012/05/17/the-composers-guide-to-doing-business-cross-promotion/. And hey, don’t forget to mention to him that you read it here.
When I started New ClassicLA, Ben Phelps wrote to me almost immediately. Aside from being very complimentary, he told me how excited he was about LA finally forming a proper new music scene, with ensembles like What’s Next? and others performing in clubs and alternative spaces far outside of Disney Hall. Ben has played all over town, from gigs as a percussionist at Disney Hall to a principal position with the American Youth Symphony. The music he’s been writing has been getting him a lot of attention throughout Southern California and beyond.
This Wednesday, What’s Next? Ensemble (of which Ben is a founding member) premieres his new work Six Ways to Be Alone at Royal/T in Culver City. After watching him nearly impersonate an octopus with the percussion parts at their last concert, I wouldn’t want to miss it. Plus they have good beer and cupcakes.
At What’s Next? Ensemble’s concert a few weeks ago, I overheard you talking to a composer about writing for marimba. You said something along the lines of “we need more real composers interested in writing for percussion. Mostly it’s percussionists trying their hand at writing something.” You, however, are both a percussionist and a composer. Tell me about how your two practices influence each other, and whether you have trouble balancing them or making sure you’re in top shape for both.
Talk with me about Six Ways to Be Alone, the piece you’ll be premiering. What was its genesis? What are you trying to do with the piece?
Not having heard it yet, the title implies a very personal meaning. How do you feel about putting yourself into your music? Do you want to represent your own emotions and worldview and such, or let the music take on a character independent of yourself?
With the previous questions in mind, do you prefer to explain and discuss your work with audiences, or let your music speak for itself? I ask because of the minimal (and quite eye-catching) program notes that What’s Next? used at their last concert, and because it seems like there are artistic and experiential implications when you discuss a work before listeners hear it.
Since you’re both composer and performer, and a very virtuosic and capable one at that, I’d like to know your feelings on the performer-composer relationship, and the role of individual virtuosity these days.
What else is on the horizon for you?
As always, since we are in fact promoting LA as place for people to come for music and beyond, what is your favorite:
2. Place to hear music
Hmm. Wherever it’s good? I guess I’m seen most at Disney concert hall, and the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo.
Well, I’ll give a plug to Malibu Seafood, in Malibu obviously.
4. Bar/hang out
I liked Wurstkuche before it was cool. My new favorite is BeerBelly, little Tokyo. Apparently they have lucky charms pancakes. I haven’t had those.
I’ve never considered having a favorite store.
6. Thing to do/see