This past Saturday afternoon found me hiding from the heat under a tree at the base of a small hill listening to cellist Jennifer Bewerse playing composer Brandon J. Rolle’s Call and Echo, inspired by the call of the Hermit Thrush. While Rolle’s piece didn’t incorporate the bird’s call directly, it imitated and built upon its structure of distinct phrases and interruptions, with alternating textures of arpeggios, high harmonics with quiet singing, and slowly developing more lyrical material in the cello’s low end. And this was only one composer/performer duo’s take on one bird from the flock of ten that Synchromy presented in their program Urban Birds.
The concert was spread throughout the Audubon Center at Debs Park, just south of the 110 in Montecito Heights, a hidden gem of trails just northeast of downtown LA. Performers perched along said trails, repeating their pieces at intervals so as not to overlap with their immediate neighbors, but to create a sensation of distant sounds to search out—not unlike the bird call hunting theme of the entire event. Guests were handed not programs, but “musical birding field guides,” and children who managed to find all ten birdsong-inspired performers were rewarded with stickers reminiscent of a junior ranger program at a national park.
Behind the aforementioned tree — shade was at a premium — trails wrapped up the hill to the left and right. On the first plateau, one came to a clearing with bassist Scott Worthington performing Jen Wang’s Monster, with sliding harmonics imitating the call of the Mourning Dove. Alongside him stood composer/performer Christopher Adler with a khaen, a southeast Asian mouth organ for which Vera Ivanova had written Mockingbird Hopscotch, a piece that grew from the uncertainty of a nervous bird learning a new song into a filled out tapestry of synth-like repetitions.
Across a bridge at the other side of the clearing stood an oboist Robert Walker, leaning hard into Diana Wade’s Pyschopomp. Inspired not by the song of the Common Raven, but of the raven’s status as a guide to the underworld, the piece’s fast and high ostinati alternating with aggressive multiphonic material made for a piece that should become a staple of the solo oboe repertoire. Behind the oboe, coming from somewhere below, one could pick out virtuosic runs on the high end of a flute (Dante De Silva’s Heat Thrasher performed by Rachel Beetz), and occasional growls through the underbrush above from Brian Walsh’s bass clarinet performing Pamela Madsen’s Owl’s Breath.
Suddenly the whole event clicked. Intentionally or otherwise, trying to take in the diverse approaches to birdsong inspiration in the height and space of the venue brought to mind the legendary clashing marching bands Charles Ives listened to in his youth, the vertical symphonies of Henry Brant, or, to state the obvious—an uncomposed version of Messiaen’s own Exotic Birds. I found myself looking for places between performers to hear interesting and perhaps unintended combinations of sounds and melodic lines, an outdoor polyphony of monophonic instruments.
The spread throughout the park was a welcome way to dip toes back into real concerts after months of isolation—it certainly felt better than diving back into a crowd, and bridged the individual experiences we’ve become used to with a communal live one with sensitivity. What more there is to say should be heard, and to this end, Synchromy has developed a website with videos of all of the pieces, spread around a map of the park (just click on the birds) at synchromy.org/urban-birds.
Next Tuesday, gnarwhallaby (Richard Valilutto, Matt Barbier, Brian Walsh, and Derek Stein) will be performing an adventurous program at Monk Space, including two world premieres and some recent commissions. I interviewed Matt Barbier (trombone) about the program, the future of gnarwhallaby, commissioning, and more. Here’s what he said:
On June 5, you’ll be performing “Lullaby 4” by Nicholas Deyoe, world premieres by Olga Rayeva and Daniel Tacke, and recent commissions by Elise Roy and Richard Barrett. Can you tell us a bit about the works on the program?
It’s a fairly personal program for us in a lot of ways, especially at the group’s current juncture. Nick’s piece was the first major work written for our iteration of the quartet and what we made our Carnegie debut with, so it’s always been a very special piece that’s at the core of our repertoire and the work that is most closely tied to us as individual players. Dan’s piece is quite exciting for us because we’ve played a pre-exising work of his that had no trombone, but did have voice (the change to trombone is questionable), so we’re looking forward to being able to have a work of his that we all play. His piece is based on Morton Feldman’s Half a minute, it’s all I’ve time for, which is an actual 30 second piece Feldman wrote for the original group that we’ve enjoyed playing over the years, but can be a little odd to program. We look forward to playing something that is based on it, but has a little more room to breathe. Elise’s piece is a bit like Nick’s in the sense that it was written by a friend who we’ve all known quite a while, however we mostly know Elise from performing with her (she’s a very good flutist on top of her great composing). Because of this, her approach to us is from a very different angle than Nick and a very different type of familiarity, but we look forward to them sharing that space. Olga’s piece is a bit of wild card for us. I met Olga when she was a fellow at the Villa Aurora and she came to a concert I gave that included Michelle Lou’s colossal HoneyDripper and really enjoyed it. From there we started conversing a little bit and she asked to write us a piece. It’s really excitingly out and feels, in certain ways, to tie to some of the more ethereal works written for the early Polish group, who, I think, everyone in the group feels a kinship (or fondness?) for. Richard’s piece is probably our ‘biggest’ commission to date and something that was in the works for quite a while. We’re big fans of his music and have been discussing doing a concert of his music for a long time. The idea of getting a new piece came up a few times and so I ended up just asking and he was, very kindly, interested in writing quite a large piece for four people in jumpsuits. His piece is in four movements, each based on an important jazz artist for him: Cecil Taylor, Thelonius Monk, Eric Dolphy, and Miles Davis.
Were all the works you’ll be performing on this program gnarwhallaby commissions? What do you enjoy most about commissioning new works?
Everything on the program was written for us by people we know, or got to know in the process. Commissioning new works for gnarwhallaby has been an especially rewarding process because our group exists as the third iteration of an ensemble founded in Poland in the late 1960’s and we’ve tried to be very cognizant of the instrumentation’s history when contributing new works. The Warsztat Muzyczny had a very particular bend to their own commissions and the Quartet Avance did a lot to keep the repertoire alive while adding their set of works that related but also reflected the generation that they were of. It’s been an exciting challenge to find composers whose music fits into that progression but also reflects our own interests, particularly as the first American group.
How did you get started as an ensemble? Has the group’s goals and/or focus changed since you formed in 2011?
Our origins come from CalArts where we were all students. We weren’t there together but everyone overlapped as MFAs (Brian’s last year was Matt’s first, Matt’s 2nd was Derek’s first, and Derek’s 2nd was Richard’s first). I (Matt) had a very keen interest in this one specific piece by Gorecki, which Brian, Derek, and I all played together before Richard arrived, and that interest led to finding a treasure trove of other works (over 60). At first our focus was to primarily revive that repertoire and occasionally add new pieces. However, over time our focus has really shifted to a much heavier focus on new works by people we like to work in close collaboration with.
What are your thoughts about how gnarwhallaby’s repertoire fits within the existing canon, either in the context of your particular instrumentation or in the wider context of chamber music?
It’s a fun group in a lot of ways given that we’ve got three instruments that can be quite loud and one that can only be…moderate? So our instrumentation has kind of violated some understood orchestration rules from it’s very origin, while also functioning as a micro orchestra. It has a very traditional but also somewhat unique place in the canon in terms of the way the ensemble functions. A huge portion of our repertoire functions as the clarinet, cello, and trombone as a meta instrument that fits with the piano. This isn’t a particularly new idea, but it is something that happens quite consistently from a wide range of composers so one wonders if it is something inherent to the nature of the group. On the personal side (as a trombonist that is), it fits in the canon in a very unique way because of this. Many composers (whether related to range, touch, velocity, color, etc.) demand that the trombone not only do things that’s not quite in it’s understood nature to do, but do them as well as the other three instruments. So it’s fairly unique in the canon of brass music that you’re being held against very idiomatic writing for instruments that do very different things than your own.
What’s in store for the future of the band?
Well we’re entering quite a new and kind of terrifying stage. Very shortly Richard will be leaving LA to get a doctorate at Cornell so we’ll have to sort out a new mode of existing and this will be our last show for a little while. We’re all quite close friends and we rehearse a lot over long periods of time. And drink lots of coffee. So we’ll have to, sadly, find a new mode. We’re planning Exhibit B, however. It’ll include music by Nicholas Deyoe, Michelle Lou, Andrew Greenwald, and Adriana Holszky. We’re also planning some more large scale concerts, including the full Barrett cycle.
For more information about the concert or to get tickets, check out Tuesdays at Monk Space.
Brightwork newmusic (Sara Andon – flute, Aron Kallay – piano, Maggie Parkins – cello, Nick Terry – percussion, Tereza Stanislav – violin, and Brian Walsh – clarinet), joined by soprano Stacey Fraser, will be performing an eclectic set of works by Southern California composers on June 27 at Monk Space. I had the chance to hear some of Maggie Parkins’ thoughts about the upcoming concert and more:
The program includes a diverse set of works by Southern California composers. Can you tell us about your experience with these works? What do you hope to convey to the audience?
We are very excited to present these pieces by LA composers at Monk Space. We have performed all the works on the concert before, which is fantastic. Doing repeat performances of a new work is a great way for us to go deeper into the piece. Of course, the better you know a piece the easier it is to bring to life the composer’s vision. It is also more fun to present things you are familiar with because you can let go more in performance. It is great to play works by local composers because it strengthens our already burgeoning new music community. Also, you find yourself developing a bond with the composers that can last for years.
On the program are works by William Kraft, Chris Cerrone, Shaun Naidoo, Pamela Madsen, and Tom Flaherty (whose piece, Internal States,is a Brightwork commission). Have you worked with these composers before? What is the process usually like between the composer and performers when commissioning a new work for the ensemble?
We performed William Kraft’s Kaleidoscope at the annual Hear Now Festival a few years ago. Bill coached us before that performance. This is the second piece by Chris Cerrone we have performed. Last season we played the Night Mare with guest violist Cynthia Fogg. It’s great to collaborate with top notch guest artists! Soprano Stacey Fraser will join us for this concert on i will learn to love a person. She is a friend of the band and is amazing to work with. Shaun Naidoo of course was a dear friend of both percussionist Nick Terry and pianist Aron Kallay. It is still hard to believe that he passed away so suddenly five years ago. He was a larger than life fixture on the new music scene for years. His raucous energy lives on in his music, and we are honored to keep his memory alive by performing his music. In Pamela Madsen’s piece, Why Women Weep, for cello and electronics, I recorded myself speaking a text provided by the composer that I then play along with. I get to be my own accompaniment! Internal States is vintage Tom Flaherty; gorgeous lush harmonies, biting wit, rhythmically intricate ‘dancing’ figures. It’s a blast to play.
Brightwork newmusic is known for performing cutting-edge music from emerging composers, as well as classics from 20thcentury literature. What do you find similar/contrasting between these two areas?
The great thing about playing new music is the ability to work ‘hands on’ with the composer. Getting feedback and working through performance issues makes realizing their piece in front of their eyes a very satisfying process. The classics are like milestones; performing them is an honor. It’s like living with a piece of history when you perform a piece that has stood the test of time to become a cherished work.
Any future projects on the horizon you’d like to share?
The most exciting thing we have coming up is a recording project featuring three of the pieces on this concert!
Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information about the upcoming concert on June 27.
This Friday, wild Up presents an evening of music curated by and celebrating the work of clarinetist Brian Walsh. Walsh is a staple of the LA scene, most frequently inhabiting the contemporary classical and jazz worlds, and having worked with everyone from the LA Phil and wild Up to Nels Cline and Bright Eyes to his own ensembles (Walsh Set Trio and gnarwhallaby). I’m glad he had time to answer a few questions ahead of tomorrow’s concerts at Boston Court (tickets available here).
This concert on Friday explores and celebrates your musical influences and experiences. Could you talk a bit about the program?
I wanted to present music that I love listening to and love playing. I also wanted to work with some of my best friends who are incredible musicians. The two pieces that first popped into my head when chatting with Chris Rountree were Brian Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study 1 for solo bass clarinet, and Fables of Faubus by Charles Mingus. The program developed out of that initial connection. gnarwhallaby will be performing a wonderful piece by Martin Smolka-Euphorium. This is scored for baritone saxophone, euphonium, cello, and prepared piano. It is both disgusting and beautiful. It also grooves. Magnus Lindberg’s Ablauf features a slithering clarinet solo bombarded by two bass drums. I will play a solo I wrote for clarinet striking assorted small objects. Walsh Set Trio(bass clarinet, bass and drums) will play my compositions that mix absurdist vocals, jazz and contemporary music. The music of the great Charles Mingus will round out the concert.
It’s a really wide-ranging program, and I’ve seen you in many different contexts as a performer. What opened you up to exploring such diverse musics? Do you even see them as diverse, or all part of the same practice?
I grew up only listening to classical music and some 60’s folk rock. When I hit 8th grade I discovered jazz and that opened the flood gates. At first, any music that featured the clarinet really interested me, and that pretty much exposes you to almost every kind of music. Almost. I don’t think so much about the diversity aspect. If I hear something and love it, I do it. The different styles just have slightly different needs. I still listen to a lot of music so my brain is used to moving relatively fluidly between styles.
Is there a particular music that’s your favorite to play? Why?
As soon as I think there is, something else comes along. I do tend to always return to contemporary music and jazz though.
What attracted you to clarinet in the first place? Was it your first instrument?
I saw a wind quintet play in the mall and liked the look of the oboe. The group was wearing tuxedos and socks that looked like shoes. I told my band director that I wanted to play oboe and got a clarinet. I figured it was close enough.
What other musicians in LA inspire you?
I have to say that all the groups and musicians I work with are constantly pushing me and inspiring me. Composers as well. Groups like wild Up and Chris Rountree, gnarwhallaby (Richard Valitutto, Derek Stein, and Matt Barbier), Nicholas Deyoe and all the folks at WasteLAnd. Daniel Rosenboom and Orenda Records just to name a few. Local heroes who are trying to make great art as well as build a strong, supportive community.
I mean this as a compliment: anytime I see you onstage I think, “oh, of course they’d get Brian, he can do anything.” That said, are there any musical goals or projects, that you’re interested in and haven’t yet been able to pursue or accomplish? Anyone you’d like to work with but haven’t yet?
I’m planning on recording an album of music featuring an expanded version of my trio, using strings and guitar. My current dream is to record an album with organist Larry Goldings. He doesn’t know that yet. I’ve also been thinking about recording a solo clarinet album. I usually don’t like listening to a whole album of solo anything so I’m not sure what to do about that.
Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure, the new CD by Andrew McIntosh recently released on the populist records label, consists of three distinct sections of four pieces each. Each group is connected not only by the instrumentation and scoring but also in projecting related sets of feelings. The first and last groups are comprised of the Symmetry Etudes and the middle tracks on the CD are the four movements of Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure.
The first four tracks are Symmetry Etudes V, II, III and IV, composed from 2009 to 2012. These are written for two clarinets – in this case Brian Walsh and James Sullivan – and violin, played by Andrew McIntosh. The first of these, Etude V, starts with a syncopated violin line that is soon joined by smooth, sustained clarinet tones above and below. A sense of purposeful activity in the violin is immersed in tension as the clarinet pitches become stronger and more acute – almost electronic in purity of pitch. The violin struggles and is almost overwhelmed by the loud clarinet tones. There is a sense of virtuous purpose in the violin that contrasts with the emotionless and machine-like clarinet parts. As the piece concludes there is the sense that the two opposing viewpoints remain unresolved.
Etude II begins with a simple but elegant clarinet line that flows out, joined by the second in a higher register. This creates a wonderfully weaving and sinuous feel while the violin adds a thinner sound that provides a complimentary bit of definition in the texture. There is a sense of calmness and nature at work, like walking by a lake early in the morning. A very beautiful piece. Etude III opens with the clarinets warbling together, accompanied by higher, sustained tones in the violin. There is a sense of mystery and anticipation – along with a slightly alien feel. As the piece progresses a feeling of remoteness develops that becomes increasingly agitated, although some nice interweaving harmonies appear that slowly die away at the finish.
Etude IV is a series of slow, ascending scales – there are some lovely harmonies that develop as the three pitches rise upward, like watching warm vapors rising and mixing, forming various combinations. Some occasional syncopation in the rhythm keeps the sound interesting and engaging. There is a wide open – almost Coplandesque – feel to this, like looking out at a far horizon. I first heard this piece performed at Disney Hall in 2013 and much of the finer detail was lost in that cavernous space; this recording is a much more satisfying experience. The clarinets dominate most of these Etudes and the playing by Brian Walsh and James Sullivan is right on target, fitting the various moods exactly.
Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure (2012 – 2013) is a four movement work that occupies the four center tracks of the CD and is performed by Laura Barger and Ning Yu on pianos with Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg on percussion. The first movement starts off with two pianos playing scales in different directions and this evolves into separate lines with differently syncopated rhythms. Now marimbas are added in what becomes an almost random pattern of notes. The pace slows and the feeling is like hearing rain drops. There is an exotic, primal feel by midway through – as if in a rainforest or jungle. A growing sense of tension arises, as if far into deep wilderness, perhaps lost. Now a brief repeat of the first piano lines as the movement ends and it is as if we have traveled deep into the unknown to arrive at a strange place.
Movement II starts off with rapid runs of sixteenth note scales by two pianos – now slowing to single notes spaced a few beats apart with the percussion. A single bell sounds at four second intervals accompanied by a low bottle blow sound. A series of lovely chimes ring out, as if in a Buddhist temple, with piano chords sounding at intervals. There is a serene, meditative feel to this, disrupted by the occasional forceful piano chords. A strong sense of contrast here – restful and menacing at the same time.
A low booming drum roll opens Movement III creating a sense of anticipation. A cascade of piano notes develop into mysterious melody that adds a hint of tension. More ringing percussion now, the same bell chimes from Movement II. There is the feeling of standing on a high, windblown hilltop in Tibet. Lovely, yet vaguely ominous in its mystery.
The final movement opens with a strong piano chord that gives a definite sense of menace. High pitched, sharp tones appear – like shards of glass- and this adds to the anxious feel. Now a bell sounds, restoring some calmness. More chimes arrive – less tension but still an uncertain atmosphere. Stronger chimes now, with lighter, metallic bells above. The piano takes up the theme ending the piece with a feel of anxiety mixed with calmness. There is a definite sense of journey and mystery in Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure that unfolds in a satisfactory arc across the four movements. Tension and restful calm seem to coexist uneasily together and the picture that forms is one of a distant, sacred space suddenly defiled. The playing is remarkable for its range and precision. The percussion was especially artful in both the scoring and the performance.
The second group of Symmetry Etudes begins with Etude I and this starts out with a single clarinet producing a sort of wavy sound. The violin takes this up, and now the other clarinet. The sounds oscillate in and out, eventually escalating to loud and piercing tones. Intense and high in pitch, this becomes almost like a whistling sound by the end. Just two minutes long, Etude I starts low and ends very high, one continuous crescendo of pitch and volume. Etude VI starts out softly but with high, sustained tones in all three instruments. There is a sense of relentlessness – like looking at a bright sunrise on a clear day. As this piece continues the sounds become more strident with zero beating occurring between the pitches. The playing is very precise here – as is needed to attain these exacting sonic effects.
Etude VII begins with a single clarinet playing a simple scale. The second clarinet joins in, but is offset by just a fraction of a beat. This produces a playful syncopation that is quite engaging. The violin now repeats the scale and a clarinet becomes the offset part. Only 1:40 in duration, the success of this etude springs from a simple idea that produces a complex and interesting result. Etude VII begins with a low, sustained clarinet tone that is almost electronic in its purity and constancy. There are slight wobbles in pitch, just as if from an electronic oscillator. A second clarinet joins at almost the exact same pitch to produce some zero beating. The violin joins on what sounds like a harmonic and the the three tones move about to various fixed pitches in a close approximation to the sounds produced by a series of oscillators. The purity and stability of pitch is impressive and this perfectly evokes the cool remote feel of electronics. This second group of etudes has a more synthetic and remote feel where the first group was more organic and pastoral. Overall the Symmetry Etudes are an impressive collection, evoking a wide range of feelings and gestures from just three players.
This collection of pieces in Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure combine impressive playing and excellent scoring with artful storytelling. The mixing and mastering by Nick Tipp, along with Ian Antonio and Ressell Greenberg are state of the art and have accurately captured the widely diverse dynamics and timbres.
Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure is available now from populist records.