Record label New Ovation Music has just completed a modern classical recording project with the Formalist Quartet, nationally acclaimed tenor Kerry Jennings, and other Los Angeles locals on the music of LA-based composer David Arbury. From bottom to top, this showcases the excellence of the Los Angeles music scene. This record features beautiful melodies and lush harmonies. I absolutely recommend headphones and minimal distractions. The recording feels intimate and magical, but you won’t turn iron to gold if you don’t put down your phone.
David Arbury’s aesthetic lies somewhere between Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Schubert, and Iannis Xenakis. This makes sense given his background in music technology, choral composition, and bass and percussion performance. In the notes, Arbury writes, “Alchemy is a collection of music written for different performers in different styles at different times in my life but all of which tries to express a similar idea: that transformation and change are an inherent part of our being no matter our course through life.” This idea of alchemy is evident between works and also within movements of pieces. With each listen, you hear more and deeper connections between the motifs.
The record begins with his second string quartet, performed by the Formalist Quartet. The first movement initially struck me as reminiscent of Schoenberg’s string quartets, but the way the notes ebbed and flowed was unique to Arbury. The second movement is a pleasant change of pace from the push and pull of the first movement. You can almost touch the lush texture of the strings. The third movement features harmonics in a way I have come to expect from John Luther Adams. You can hear the scratching of the bow on the string, making it feel like you the listener are inches from the performer. Everything suddenly changes for the final movement, which sounds like a page from an old Western soundtrack. The notes chase each other up and down, and the performers tap out percussion on the hollow bodies of their instruments. Overall, the full quartet feels like a series of vignettes. Alone they are good. Together they create an unexpected dish better than the sum of its parts.
The next set of the pieces is a song cycle titled “If I Shall Ever Return Home: Seven Chinese Poems” written specifically for tenor Kerry Jennings. Jennings is garnering a lot of attention right now on the international circuit because of his focused energy on performing new works. I admire this work for its Neoromantic feel; Arbury was surely channeling Schubert, Schumann, and Liszt when writing this one. Kerry Jennings’s dulcet voice and Andria Fennig’s expressive piano skills bring the score to life and transport the listener to a simpler, more pastoral world apart from the hustle and bustle of busy LA.
The eponymous track is something different altogether. Two percussionists, Douglas Nottingham and Brett Reed, create strings of motives on various percussion instruments and quilt them together into a tapestry. The enchanting piece is 20 minutes long, but it goes by quickly. This piece is one of the few times words fail me – I want to go on and on about how I hear something different every time I listen, and how the space between the notes is the real music, and how the interplay between timbres makes for a unique sound, but everything I say sounds flat in comparison to what I mean. This is one I will just take the easy way out and say you need to hear it for yourself.
Wrapping up the album, Arbury’s third string quartet sounds like a blend of Ralph Vaughn Williams and Elliott Carter. There’s something about the way Arbury expresses and moves time that can only come from an accomplished percussionist, the rumbling low end plays tribute to his knowledge of double bass, and the thick textures move from polyphonic to homophonic and everywhere in between. The final notes lift and drift away. There is no resolution, no conclusion, just beautiful dissipation.
I was struck by the carefully curated variety of composition and performance on one record. Arbury doesn’t let himself get pigeon-holed in one genre. The performers are not robotic perfectionists, but artists breathing life into the music. This is the kind of record that earns New Ovation’s place as the center of progressive music-making. The next project you can look forward to from David Arbury, collaborating with Kerry Jennings, Andria Fennig, and Charles Stanton is a multi-sensory presentation of many these works in cities across the country. Such an experience seeks to engage new and diverse audiences, and Arbury’s cinematic feeling cultivates successful execution. Before they come to your city, check out “Alchemy” for yourself.
Alchemy is available from most online music retailers, but CD Baby pays artists more than most, so buy it here: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/davidarbury.
wasteLAnd opened their first Friday concert, U/L, at Art Share LA on September 2, 2016. For the coming season, wasteLAnd will perform there on the first Friday of the month. An overflow crowd turned out on the start of the long Labor Day weekend to hear the music of Todd Lerew and wasteLand featured composer Erik Ulman.
Reading the Dictionaries, by Todd Lerew, began the proceedings with Movement Q and Movement V. Five performers stood in a semicircle on stage, each holding a copy of a different dictionary. Given a starting signal, they began reading the entries from each dictionary in unison, starting with those for the letter Q. At first the words were identical and the slight differences in pronunciation made for ragged, but intelligible speech. Soon the words in each dictionary began to vary – as might be expected for several different editions – and the words became less understandable. Those listening focused their attention, but was soon possible to hear and comprehend only a single word at a time. Eventually the words differed to the point that what was perceived was not language but the overall shape of the sound. The Q words from each performer came in and out of synchronization, as it were, and your brain was constantly hopping back and forth between comprehending the words as speech or simply hearing the texture and colors of the sound. About three-quarters of the way through Q, one of the performers – Matt Barbier – simply ceased speaking as the abridged edition of the dictionary he was given apparently ran out of words. The others finished as each dictionary dictated, and soon just a single voice was heard finishing up.
Movement V proceeded in the same way, each of the words spoken simultaneously at intervals of about one second. The initial sound of a word beginning with V has a sharper attack, and this made for more dramatic intonation. The V words also seemed to have a greater variety of letters and lengths so that the arc of their soundings was richer in sonic detail. All of this worked to sharpen the listener’s hearing so that by the end of the piece the ear became sensitized to even minute variations. Several of the dictionaries contained long lists of vitamins – Vitamin A, Vitamin B, Vitamin C, etc – and when these were encountered there were invariably some giggles from the audience. Matt Barbier once again finished first and stoically awaited the conclusion of the piece some minutes later.
Reading the Dictionaries proved to be an insightful experience, transforming a seemingly dry recitation of words into an engaging exercise in perception, language and comprehension.
String Quartet No. 3, by Erik Ulman, followed, performed by the Formalist Quartet. Ulman is the featured composer for wasteLAnd and will contribute works throughout the current season. String Quartet No. 3 began with a series of high squeaks and chirps followed by an energetic burst of sound in all the parts. The phrases seemed to alternate between sustained tones in one part and a flurry of complex sounds by the others. There was an underlying feeling of tension in all of this, but there were also smoother and more placid stretches. Most of the activity seemed to be centered in the middle registers with the cello typically blending into the texture. Midway through, a series of high, syncopated pitches were followed by sustained tones creating a sort of ebb and flow to the rhythm that made for a good contrast with the more complex passages. Towards the finish a low growling tutti effectively escalated the sense of tension and suspense – this music has a mysterious feel, like walking in an alien landscape. String Quartet No. 3 constantly challenges the listener and performer with its intricate and independently moving lines. The Formalist Quartet delivered to their usual high standard, and the audience responded with strong applause.
After an intermission, Spherical Harmonics, by Todd Lerew, was performed by six singers and conducted by Matt Barbier. This began with a low unison humming tone that soon broke into various related harmonics. The singers then began whistling their tones while humming – something we have all idly done at one time or another – and this combination added a convincing perception of depth. The humming gradually diminished, leaving mostly whistling sounds turning the feeling somewhat desolate and a bit lonely. All of this was reminiscent of the Rhyolite sound installation in the Nevada desert where the sound of the wind blowing across dozens of old glass bottles was recorded by Chris Kallmyer and Andrew McIntosh. At times Matt Barbier could be seen striking a tuning fork and holding it close to his ear as he set the pitch for the other singers. The group repeated this sequence with different several tones before quietly finishing. Spherical Harmonics artfully mixes the simple acts of humming and whistling to fashion an intriguing amalgamation of harmonic possibilities.
The final piece on the program was Bowing to Pressure, also by Todd Lerew, and this was a solo piece for violin performed by Andrew Tholl. As the title suggests, Andrew applied the maximum amount of pressure as he began a vigorous bowing action across the violin strings. This produced an active, muscular set of tones that were reminiscent of the more primal country music pieces sometimes heard from historical archives. The pressure began to take a toll and strands of hair could be seen streaming from the bow. The tone coarsened, settling into a drone-like sound and the audience held its collective breath as if waiting for the violin bow, strings or bridge to self-destruct. Andrew Tholl powered on, the sounds becoming rougher and almost desperately violent. The forcefully crude intonation carried the audience into uncharted violin territory, completely removed from the delicacy and smoothness normally expected from this instrument. At the end, the bow was in tatters and Tholl was clearly fatigued by the effort. Bowing to Pressure might be a metaphor for the stress of contemporary life, but it is surely a vivid demonstration of the powerful feelings a violin can convey when pushed to its physical limit.
The next appearance of wasteLAnd will be at the Green Umbrella Noon to Midnight concert, Disney Hall, on October 1, 2016.
Performers for the this concert were:
Reading the Dictionaries:
Matt Barbier, Nicholas Deyoe, Brian Griffeath-Loeb, Todd Lerew, Élise Roy
String Quartet No. 3 – The Formalist Quartet:
Andrew Tholl, Mark Menzies, Andrew McIntosh, Ashley Walters
Nicholas Deyoe, Brian Griffeath-Loeb, Andrew McIntosh, Cody Putnam, Élise Roy
Matthew Barbier, conductor
Bowing to Pressure:
Monk Space, in the Koreatown district of Los Angeles was the venue for a concert titled Crazy Quilt, string music from the Cold Blue recording label as performed by the Formalist Quartet. A nice midweek crowd turned out on March 10, 2015 – Crazy Quilt being part of the monthly Tuesdays@Monkspace series of new music concerts.
Hymn of Change (2010) by David Rosenboom was first, in an arrangement by Andrew Tholl, one of the violinists in the Formalist Quartet. This piece derives from an earlier work by Rosenboom, as he writes in the program notes: “In my 1998 work for piano, Bell Solaris- the Sun Rings Like a Bell, initiating waves of influence that traverse, shape, and create space, time and life – twelve movements emerged from subtle and grand transformations of the Hymn of Change, which I had written earlier in 1992. Some years later, after hearing Bell, Andrew Tholl was inspired to arrange the Hymn, a kind of slow, gospel waltz, for string quartet.” The result of Andrew’s efforts is a warm, traditional sound with full four part harmony and good balance that perfectly recalls the sunny days of late-19th century Americana. Although not a long piece, the careful playing of the Formalist Quartet and accommodating acoustics of Monk Space combined to bring Hymn of Change into a vivid realization that brought complete tonal satisfaction.
Music for Airport Furniture (2011) by Stephen Whittington was next, and this was a US premiere. An Australian musician with a long history of involvement with contemporary composers, Whittington gave the first performances in Australia of music by Christian Wolff, Terry Riley, James Tenney, Peter Garland, Alan Hovhaness and Morton Feldman – among many others. Whittington’s extensive travels were the inspiration for Music for Airport Furniture – which owes far more to Erik Satie than to Brian Eno. This is not music to fill public spaces but rather tailored for the interior of the human heart. Whittington writes: “I was interested in the airport departure lounge as an arena for human emotions – boredom, apprehension, hope, despair, loneliness, the tenderness of farewells – all taking place within a bland, often desolate space.”
Music for Airport Furniture consists of a series of long sustained phrases, lush and warm, broken only by the occasional pizzicato arpeggio in the cello. The sweet sadness of farewell is slowly released with a distant, introspective feel. The string quartet is the perfect ensemble for this music. The delicate texture was nicely realized by the Formalist Quartet who kept the long, quiet passages interesting by infusing just the right amount of energy while at the same time carefully controlling the dynamics. The brick wall acoustics of Monk Space allowed the intimate and heartfelt sensibility of this piece to reach all parts of the audience. Music for Airport Furniture slowly unpacks all the emotions of the lonely traveler waiting for an airline boarding call.
After an intermission the concert concluded with a world premiere – String Quartet No. 4 Crazy Quilt (2014), by Peter Garland. Crazy Quilt is based on an earlier work for solo cello – Out of the Blue – written the year before, which consisted of a rising, then descending arc of 44 pitches. The other instruments of a string quartet were then added to this foundation to increase the timbrel possibilities. As Garland writes, “I chose different basic time units: with the cello maintaining its 60-second unit, the viola uses a 75 second unit, violin 2 uses a 90 second unit; and violin 1 uses two different units – first a 45 second one, then shifting to a 30 second unit, and finally going back to 45 seconds. The common denominator for all these is that they add up evenly to 45 minutes (2700 seconds). I.e. what starts together, ends together…” For this performance page turners were employed as the players were continuously engaged in sounding the long, sustained tones called for in the score.
The beginning of Crazy Quilt is a quiet, sustained chord in the lower registers of each instrument. The bowing by the players was, of necessity, achingly slow – but the sound produced was warm and full. As the time units rolled by, the chord would change slightly, – generally rising in pitch – but very slowly and deliberately. Each change of tone by a player would reveal an entirely new feeling in the sound, sometimes adding tension or anxiety and sometimes resolving into mellowness and warmth. There was no beat per se; the players had to concentrate and be in good communication as each was working to a different time unit. Overall the effect was very engaging – like watching a slow-motion kaleidoscope. In the lower registers the feelings were mostly smooth and reassuring, but as the pitches increased the more stressful and anxious sensations predominated. At the very top of the arc the violins soared above the rest of the ensemble – sometimes heroically and sometimes with great angst – but always bringing another interesting variation to the sound. As the piece floated gently downward in pitch, the chords seemed to become gradually more consonant and consoling. The familiarity and harmonic cohesion in the middle registers added to the feeling of solace, and by the conclusion of this piece there was a comforting sense of return.
Crazy Quilt is an ambitious work, attempting as it does, to conjure so many different colors and feelings from the sound. It is also a difficult piece to play given the different time units and sustained pitches required – with no conventional tempo or harmonic progressions to follow. Despite these challenges, the Formalist Quartet brought this piece fully alive so that the vision of Peter Garland was fully articulated.
The Formalist Quartet is:
Andrew Tholl, violin
Mark Menzies, violin/viola
Andrew McIntosh, violin/viola
Ashley Walters, cello
The next concert at presented by Tuesdays at Monk Space will be on Saturday, March 21, 2015 at 8:00 PM at Villa Aurora, featuring The Varied Trio (Yuri Inoo, Aron Kallay, and Shalini Vijayan). Music of Lou Harrison, Bill Alves and others will be performed.
The Southern California Resource for Electro-Acoustic Music is putting on a show at REDCAT tonight that sounds completely awesome. Here’s the rundown from the event page:
The venerated annual music festival—begun in 1986—signs off in style, with works by four masters of the electro-acoustic idiom. The program opens withPacific Light and Water/Wu Xing—Cycle of Destruction(2005), which features solo trumpet by creative music luminary Wadada Leo Smith “overlaid” on a fixed electro-acoustic composition by SCREAM founder Barry Schrader. Next is Anne LeBaron’s Floodsongs (2012), a choral setting of three poems by Douglas Kearney performed by the Santa Clarita Master Chorale conducted by Allan Petker, with live electronics by Phil Curtis. Played by the Formalist Quartet, David Rosenboom’s Four Lines (2001) for string quartet and electronics experiments with “attention-dependent sonic environments.” The concert—and the series—concludes with the world premiere of three electro-acoustic movements from Barry Schrader’s opus The Barnum Museum (2009–2012) inspired by Steven Millhauser’s short story which describes a fantastical museum of the imagination.
Details are available at redcat.org/event/scream-finale