Sanctuary looms large in Ellen Reid’s p r i s m, now in its opening run at LA Opera Off Grand at REDCAT. The two-character opera is a taut psychological journey communicated in color, movement, and song. Tenuous moments of security crumble with every act, illuminating the harsh truth of our supposed safe spaces.
Ailing Bibi and her doting mother, Lumee, live together in seclusion — a transparent room onstage that lets light in while conveying to the audience feelings of claustrophobia. Locked away from the world, they ward off dangers with games, mantras, and medicines. The scene is an unnerving mix of fluorescent light and gauzy fabrics; Impressionistic melodies that refuse to settle in their downward trajectory; and flecks of golden yellow for our gilded cage to contrast with the impending danger represented by blue.
Soprano Anna Schubert is convincing as Bibi, capturing her lost innocence in pure, heartbreaking tones. A quartet of dancers plus choir members from Trinity Wall Street add depth to Bibi’s narrative, moving where she cannot and uttering remembrances that have been blotted out for the sake of survival.
Schubert’s acting is first-rate. Opera characters run the risk of being nothing more than caricatures if executed poorly, held together by scenery and costume. Not so with Schubert, whose role demands physical strength coupled with fragility. Whether crawling from bed to chair on her damaged legs or hurtling her weight against dancers holding her aloft, Shubert held nothing back in her emodiment of the protagonist.
Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb provides an excellent foil for Bibi to rebel against as mother Lumee. At turns caring and careless, you want to hate her but can’t quite bring yourself to do so. With a sickening feeling akin to Stockholm syndrome, Reid and librettist Roxie Perkins show the many sides to this mother-daughter bond gone astray.
The music anchors these disparate feelings and propels the narrative forward. Pulling from a wide range of influences, Reid put the ensemble through its paces in a tour-de-force that moved from lush and tender harmonies to urgent whispers and batutto textures, throbbing bass designed to engulf the venue, and glissandi that served to oscillate between soundscapes of hearth and horror.
Ultimately, the choice exists to accept an unfolding past or remain steadfast in one’s current knowledge of the world. In deciding, we learn along with Bibi that rays of truth are not so easy to put back together.
p r i s m closes Sunday, December 2nd at 2pm at REDCAT before moving on to the PROTOYPE festival in New York City for its East Coast premiere in January of 2019.
I’m submitting this as my review of the soon-to-be-released recording of The Industry’s Hopscotch opera project, but here’s the thing: No such thing exists. Conceived by The Industry’s Artistic Director, Yuval Sharon, Hopscotch was an opera presented in the fall of 2015 in twenty four cars driving between a number of locations scattered around Los Angeles. At the start of each performance, a few audience members would get into each of the cars along with a group of performers, and would then experience part of the opera en route to the next physical location, where they’d see another scene before being whisked away in another car. To make matters more confounding, the cars travelled along three different routes, meaning that any given audience member could only see part of the whole in any given performance. Only at the very end did all of the routes converge on a central location for the final scene.
Needless to say, this project doesn’t lend itself easily to a traditional recording. Do you present each of the car routes as a unit to approximate the experience of attending? Do you present the scenes in order to give a view of the work impossible for someone who attended it to have seen? How do you balance the inside of a limo against an open-air concrete bank of the Los Angeles River?
Difficult questions, and ones without obvious answers. Fortunately, with current technology, we can sidestep some of them. With the album released as files on a flash drive instead of tracks on a CD, you’re free to open them in any order and explore the world of this opera as you see fit. You can follow each of the car routes separately, play everything in the order of the plot, or even sort things out by individual composer or lyricist. (There were six primary composers for the project and six primary librettists, all working in a range of different styles in their respective fields.) The liner notes — in the form of a wide-ranging interview with Sharon and Josh Raab, the opera’s dramaturg — encourage this kind of self-guided exploration, though elsewhere in the booklet there are some helpful lists of which tracks to listen to to follow which routes.
Unsurprisingly, given the range of artists that contributed to this project, the tracks cover a lot of ground. “Lucha’s Quinceñera Song” (music by David Rosenboom and text by Janine Salinas Schoenberg) is a sweetly plaintive verse-chorus affair, while “Floats the Roving Nebula” (music by Ellen Reid and text by Mandy Kahn) hovers in an ecstatic crystalline stasis. “Jameson and Lucha in the Park” (music by Mark Lowenstein and text by Erin Young) presents a tightly controlled dance number coordinated with spoken dialogue, while other spoken sections feature music improvised by the contemporary performing group Gnarwhallaby. The plot is a surreally altered (but predictably heterosexual) retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and snatches of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 treatment of the same myth rub up against bristlingly contemporary soundscapes. There are as many contrasts as there are tracks on the album.
Such stylistic diversity can make for an uneven listening experience, especially when paired with the differing qualities of the recordings. Some of the tracks are beautifully mastered studio takes, while others are invaluable field recordings from the site-specific scenes around town. Obviously, there’s room enough in the world for both of these approaches to recording, but repeatedly switching back and forth with such short notice can be a little jarring. (So perhaps another fruitful approach to organizing your listening could be to tackle all the field recordings followed by all the studio takes, or vice versa.)
These slight jars, however, feel in keeping with the nature of the project. Hopscotch the opera wasn’t a singular experience as much as it was a collection of possible experiences, and Hopscotch the album follows suit. There’s no one single recording of the work; there’s a collection of possible recordings all dizzyingly contained on a single flash drive. Elsewhere in the liner notes, Sharon describes the piece not as an opera but as a web, a series of interconnected points with many possible paths leading between them, none more inherently valid than any of the others. The more I listen to the album, the more this description feels right. This album isn’t a documentation or presentation of an artistic event that happened and is now over, it’s an invitation to enter into this world and explore it on your own terms, to find your own way through the work’s myriad winding paths, to make the piece yours as only you can. It’s an opera in twenty four cars, and you’re the one behind the wheel.
You can order the “album” at records.theindustryla.org/album/hopscotch.
The Industry is presenting two events on January 20 to celebrate the release. Details are below:
Friday, January 20 (4 pm)
USC, Wallis Annenberg Hall (ANN), Room L105A
3630 Watt Way, Los Angeles
Panelists include composers Veronika Krausas and Marc Lowenstein, Yuval Sharon of The Industry, and arts journalists Mark Swed and Sasha Anawalt (moderator).
Hopscotch in Concert
Friday, January 20 (7:30 pm)
USC, Newman Recital Hall (AHF)
3616 Trousdale Parkway, Los Angeles
This special evening emceed by director Yuval Sharon will be the first live concert of songs from the opera. Six chapters from the work will be performed (one from each of its six composers), including the expansive choral finale by Andrew Norman.
Over the years I’ve spent running New Classic LA, I’ve heard time and time again the narrative that the torch of new music in Los Angeles is being passed down from our venerable old institutions like Monday Evening Concerts and the LA Phil’s Green Unbrella series to newer, more agile ensembles and series like wild Up and WasteLAnd. Old wisdom had it that the best way for a composer to get played in LA was to move to New York. I hope, with the massive triumph and all-inclusive nature of the LA Phil’s Noon to Midnight event on Saturday, these narratives can finally be put to rest. The torch isn’t being passed down, it’s being shared, and everyone is invited.
First, let’s talk scale. Disney Hall’s spaces were opened up to many of LA’s ensembles and series, and the 12 hour marathon, in which it was impossible to catch everything, featured the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, Piano Spheres, wild Up, gnarwhallaby, WasteLAnd, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Monday Evening Concerts, the USC Percussion Ensemble, The Industry, Jacaranda, Chris Kallmyer, Lucky Dragons, the LA Phil Bass Quintet, the LA Phil New Music Group, as well as a slew of food trucks and a small tasting area for a few beers from SolArc, a brewery that began life catering wild Up parties.
Programming was the spirit of inclusiveness itself, though with a somewhat surprising slant toward sounds and big works from the European, harder, avant-garde. Piano Spheres presented Messiaen’s complete, three-hour, Catalogue d’oiseaux in the garden’s Keck Amphitheatre, calling on pianists Vicky Ray, Susan Svrcek, Thomas Kotcheff, Aron Kallay, Steven Vanjauwaert, Nic Gerpe, Danny Holt, Mark Robson, Joanne Pearce Martin, Sarah Gibson, Richard Valitutto, and Nadia Shpachenko. The playing was top notch, as expected with a roster like that, and the sounds floating in from the garden and street actually served the piece well, putting Messiaen’s birds in a context where you might actually find a few of them.
Other euro-avant picks for the day included the USC Percussion Ensemble’s performance of Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique with a restoration of the original Léger film, and gnarwhallaby’s even-more-aggressive-than-usual delivery of Gorecki’s Muzyczja IV, a brief, crushing, aleatoric sort of trombone concerto that was the original impetus for the group’s formation. With the LA Phil’s penchant for Gorecki’s later, more accessible, work, hearing this punch in the face in Disney Hall was a serious treat, and a highlight of the day.
But let’s get to the new stuff. Wild Up has built a National Composers Intensive in partnership with the LA Phil, in which young composers get to write for the chamber orchestra on a fast deadline, with mentorship from established personalities in the field. Wild Up picked four works for their 1 pm show, from Tina Tallon, Thomas Kotcheff, Katherine Balch, and Ali Can Puskulcu. All showed off unique voices and impressive command of orchestration. Thomas Kotcheff’s gone/gone/gone beyond/gone beyond beyond was the highlight, a riotous, overtly physical, totally insane, “total excess in all things all the time” piece that only a band like wild Up could pull off. It was convincing, self indulgant, and I loved it. I was also unaware before hearing it that guitarist Chris Kallmyer could shred that hard.
Tina Tallon’s Sear, which delved into her life with tinnitus after rupturing an ear drum a couple years ago, was a wrenching and effective listen, and my favorite piece of hers yet. Bowed styrofoam and a power drill could have been gimmicky, as could the whole idea of basing a piece on high drones and sounds disappearing – but Tina handled them with aplomb. It’s a dangerous artistic line she chose to walk with Sear, and she nailed it.
Turning back to the heavier avant-garde, WasteLAnd’s set in BP Hall had the premiere of Nicholas Deyoe’s Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, with text by Allison Carter sung by soprano Stephanie Aston. This seemed to show a slightly simpler and more direct side of Deyoe’s writing, as his vocal music sometimes does – but I say seemed to because the bleed of crowd noise into BP Hall became a real problem for the chamber music sets as the day went on. I am sure Ashley Walters’ performance of Liza Lim’s Invisiblity was utterly stunning, and Erik Ulman’s Tout Orgueil… seemed delicate and thought provoking – but we’ll have to go to WasteLAnd’s repeat of the performance this Friday at Art Share to be sure.
Not at all affected by the crowd noise was the LA Percussion Quartet’s performance in the same space later in the day. Daniel Bjarnason and Ellen Reid presented pieces in line with their dominant aesthetics. This is by no means a bad thing – Bjarnason’s Qui Tollis had a few ideas about varying ostinati and loops from his piano concerto Processions and was similarly thrilling, and Reid’s Fear / Release was covered in decorative flourishes reminiscent of her rooftop scene from Hopscotch, a highlight of that massive opera. Jeffrey Holmes’ Ur, on the other hand, was a break through premiere. With the ensemble surrounding the audience, each musician surrounded by similar set ups of gongs, toms, bass drums, flower pots, and cymbals, we listeners were bathed in swirling cascades of sound, as players echoed each others gestures a few beats apart. I’m not sure that the piece would work as well without the spatialization – but with it, it was magic. Thankfully LAPQ tends to record in surround sound, so the effect won’t be lost when they get around to Ur.
Surprisingly, the evening Green Umbrella concert, with its more traditional format, felt significantly less interesting than the rest of the day. The music was perfectly good – Kate Soper’s The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract was wonderful, as was the composer/singer’s assured and entertaining delivery of the text, and Ingram Marshall’s Flow was lovely as expected – but sitting in the hall, being quiet between movements somehow felt like a comedown from the high of running around from show to show, seeing friends from across the new music spectrum enjoying all sorts of different things.
Wild Up’s 10 pm set changed that. Conductor/composer Christopher Rountree’s Word. Language. Honey., a violin concerto commissioned for Jennifer Koh who tore into it with abandon, was unequivocally the best thing Rountree has written yet. Days later, as I type this, I still get chills thinking about the unison bass drum hits decaying into the distance, and the frantic shredding of strings at the opening giving way to more lyrical passages throughout, and the clever use of text (the piece began with misdirection, as the band started playing while Rountree was seemingly introducing the program), his words coming back in recorded form later. I’ve always liked his music, but Word. Language. Honey. takes his composing from “assured, effective, solid, I like it” to stunning, unique, and powerful. It’s a piece not to be missed.
This review could easily continue for another thousand words. Andrew McIntosh’s Yelling Into The Wind was clever and effective, a sort of play on the whole concept of the virtuoso concerto, as pianist Richard Valitutto traded simple lines with individual soloists from the rest of the ensemble. The Industry’s installation, Nimbus, with music from Rand Steiger, clouds floating above the elevators, musicians and singers walking around (also reminiscent of the last scene of Hopscotch) was whimsical and fun and gave life to an unusually dead space in Disney Hall. Jacaranda’s performance of Steve Reich’s Eight Lines was solid – Donald Crockett’s conducting is impossibly clear, useful for minimalism – and the crickets in the literal spotlight of Chris Kallmyer’s Crickets sang their little cricket hearts out.
The support from a major institution like the LA Phil of all these smaller, grassroots organizations is a huge boon to the LA scene. The phil knows that they wouldn’t have an audience for new music without the work of all these other presenters, and despite the right-leaning shade of the phrase “a rising tide lifts all ships,” every new music group in town will benefit from days like these, whether they were on the program or not.
A day after the event, I saw an instagram post from Kallmyer, a photo of his crickets being released into the wild. They sang together in his little box. Maybe now they’ll go spread all over LA and keep singing, inspired by what they did when they were together. As for the zillion musicians and ensembles and composers that the LA Phil invited into their home on Saturday, I know they will. LA Phil, thanks for having us.
Composer, singer, and percussionist Jodie Landau‘s new record with wild Up is now out on Bedroom Community records. There was a great listening party at Pieter Space last weekend (photo below), and the official release concert is this Friday at 9 at the Bootleg. Jodie’s been busy. In addition to commissioning works from fellow composers for this album — guess that was a while ago now, actually — he’s been world hopping to perform with Valgeir Sigurðsson and other Bedroom Community musicians, re-arranging the record for live performance, getting ready for wild Up’s NY debut next week, and, thankfully, answering questions from me. Here’s Jodie.
So what’s happening this weekend?
This Friday, we’re celebrating the release of our new album you of all things at The Bootleg Theater presented by Live Arts Exchange. I’ll be joined by members of wild Up and four singers to perform my pieces from the album, other original compositions, arrangements of Bjork and My Brightest Diamond, and a piece written for me by Valgeir Sigurðsson.
Featured in this performance are Andrew Tholl, Adrianne Pope, Linnea Powell, Derek Stein, Brian Walsh, Archie Carey, Erin McKibben, Richard Valitutto, Alison Bjorkedal, Ivan Johnson, Sam KS, and singers Anna Schubert, Justine Aronson, Sarah Beaty, and Lacey Jo Benter. With sound by Nick Tipp.
About the record: can you share the backstory on how this multi-part collaboration came to be?
I met Graduale Nobili, the Icelandic choir featured on the album, in 2013 while they were performing with Bjork on her Biophilia residency in LA. We got to hang out after the shows, and even had a pool party, at which they performed, I performed, and we sang a little thing together.
After hearing their beautiful, unique sound, and getting to know them, started to think, what if I went to Iceland to work with them? A few months later I sent them a message asking if they’d be interested in doing a concert and/or recording. At the time I wasn’t sure what this could be. When I mentioned this possibility to Chris Rountree, he eagerly said “I’ll conduct!” and we then both agreed that we should bring members of wild Up. With Chris and wild Up on board suddenly this crazy idea was legitimate.
But then… where do we record? We thought of no one else but Valgeir and Greenhouse Studios. To our pleasant surprise, Valgeir had a few available days and was intrigued by this ambitious project.
In July 2013, we ran an Indiegogo campaign to help cover the costs of the recording, the choir and our travel. We are so forever grateful to all those who donated to help make this project come to fruition.
You picked a diverse group of composers to write for you for this project, yet the album sounds very cohesive. Was that Valgeir’s doing? Or did you discuss a certain sound or direction with the composers you worked with?
Beyond the options of instrumentation/players, I actually made a point not to give Ellen, Marc, or Andrew any specifications regarding what they wrote. I wanted them to write anything their hearts desired.
The cohesiveness, I think, stems from a several things. For one, all of these pieces were written with these players in mind. They each have such a distinct sound and ways of interpreting the written material and moments of improvisation. And of course, the choir’s presence and unique sound throughout definitely helps to tie these all together. And then there’s all the exceptional work that Valgeir and his co-engineer Paul Evans did in capturing, editing, mixing this record.
I heard a bit about the choir learning everything by rote rather than reading parts. Can you talk a bit about working with them?
Working with them was unlike anything we’ve done before. Many of them have been singing together since they were very young and they have this impeccable unified, pure, and gorgeous sound. It was quite insane and wonderful teaching them an hour of new music… in a week. And some of this music is really hard. But they all pulled through so excellently. As group, they were fascinating. Some of them seemed to have perfect pitch, while others didn’t really read music, or at least music this complex and often polyrhythmic, but yet learned it all by ear.
There’s a certain androgyny in your singing voice, and some of the lyrics discuss gender – particularly striking is the line “I am neither boy nor girl.” We’ve been friends a while, yet gender or sexuality have never come up in our conversations. It’s not so much that I’m interested in your particular preference or identification, but I’m very interested in how whatever that may be influences your art making.
Ellen chose Mandy Kahn’s text for her piece based on one of the first conversations she and I had. We were talking about writing operas, and she asked what topics I was interested in. Ideas of gender, gender fluidity and transgender came up. And, I think, both she and I relate so heavily to these words “I am neither boy nor girl, I am a figure that has known and lost a love.”
Gender is definitely a major topic in my life, and yes I’m surprised it hasn’t come up in our conversations. So thanks for asking about it. And I’m happy to be quite open about it and give you a bit of my personal history.
To start, my parents tried to have a girl and they got me, “the boy with long eyelashes” as my mom says. Also, my name is Jodie. As a kid, I occasionally received girl’s trophies in sports leagues (I’m a little bummed I didn’t keep them). In high school, the class roster had an M or F next to each name, and mine mistakenly had an F next to it. Substitute teachers would get very confused when they called “Jodie” and I raised my hand. Their double takes were priceless. And, I’m occasionally asked if Jodie’s my real name, or if it’s a nickname or short for something.
Most Halloweens I dressed up in some combination of my mother’s clothing (which unfortunately doesn’t fit me any more). I even went to prom in a dress, because I wanted to go as a girl without a date, because it strongly upset me that a few friends hadn’t gone the year before because they didn’t have a date and/or a guy hadn’t asked them. Also, for whatever reason, I felt more comfortable and was able to have more fun going to prom in a purple dress and heels.
Last anecdote. From 8-13 years old I played hockey. My teammates listened to music together, often rock and rap. We’d sit in the back of the car and curse along with Eminem. But I also taught a few of them some choreography to dance and song “I’m gonna ruge my knees and role my stockings down…” and the rest of the Chicago musical soundtrack.
Anyway… all of this to say that I’ve never quite felt like “boy,” “guy,” “man,” or “male” accurately represents all of me, as I don’t always relate to meanings people associate with them, and I’ve received a lot of, let’s say, interesting, or maybe influential comments about my gender and/or sexuality based on the way that I behave and interact with the world, simply because of my name, or even my singing voice. (A youtube comment from several years ago reads “He sounds like a little gay girl”. I found this oddly flattering.)
These are all certainly a major part of my identity.
Now, I’ll stop myself from continuing with the anecdotes — I could go on forever — let’s talk about gender as it relates to my music.
All of my pieces on the album, are sung from the “I” perspective and sung to you. I, myself, never directly bring up gender or gendered pronouns. I hope that they can be sung, or heard, or felt from any one perspective to another. So I think this adds to the sense of androgyny, along with my own personal androgenic tendencies, and the fact that I’m quite often singing in my upper range.
Along with these ideas of gender and androgyny, sexuality is also certainly an influence. Though, by sexuality, I don’t quite mean sexual preference, especially not in relation to questions like “do you like men or women?” as the nature and structure of this type of question is quite limiting (and super binary). Rather, a lot of this music is about allowing for any type(s)—or maybe, my type(s)—of sexuality and sensuality.
You’ve been, from a career standpoint, on the up and up lately, and of course signing with Bedroom Community is going to be huge for both you and wild Up. Has anything changed in how you work as a result? Does music making feel any different to you now than it ever did?
What a great question. Certainly remains to be seen. But, thus far I certainly feel my music making beginning to enter the “professional realm,” whatever that means. In some ways, both in joining Bedroom Community and just in working with wild Up, there is a different sense of care and thought into what I’m presenting to the world and why.
I recently performed in London with Bedroom Community, and it was such a warm welcoming and a wonderful experience. It was so fascinating to thrown in the midst of this tight-knit group. They played new music, and older music, and new versions of older pieces that are in their BedCom “repertoire”. They way they engaged with the music and the charts, was some beautiful hybrid between an ensemble and a band. This made me feel right at home. So in regards to your question, maybe joining Bedroom Community is actually going to help keep music making that beautiful hybrid that I so enjoy… while of course elevating it quite a lot, as they are so wonderful and incredible!
What’s next for you?
This Sunday I head to the east coast with wild Up for our NY debut. Then, I go to Iceland to perform off venue shows during Iceland Airwaves with Bedroom Community. After that, we’ll just have to wait and see 🙂
Anything else you’d like to add?
Info on the release concert this Friday is up at liveartsexchange.org/event/jodie-landau-wildup-you-of-all-things. More on the record is up on Bedroom Community’s site, at bedroomcommunity.net/releases/you_of_all_things.