On October 24, the Isaura String Quartet performs Machines and Strings at REDCAT. Billed as “an immersive concert experience,” the program features works by artists including Chrysanthe Tan, Stephanie Smith, Ajay Kapur, Sarah Belle Reid, April Gerloff, and Jules Gimbrone performed in collaboration with interactive lighting and projection by alumni artists from the 2018 CalArts Expo creative team. The evening also includes the world premiere of Ulrich Krieger’s completely revised quartet Up-Tight II and a new work by Amy Knoles featuring the KarmetiK Machine Orchestra, directed by Ajay Kapur, who also created the custom-built robotic musical instrument Lydia.
I caught the original version of Ulrich’s piece when Isaura played it back in February at Human Resources and was really taken with the piece and their approach to it. Here’s a video from that performance:
Needless to say, I’m excited to hear the revised version and hear and see everything that the quartet is promising us for the 24th, so asked if the members would be down for an interview. Violinists Madeline Falcone and Emily Call and cellist Betsy Rettig kindly answered my call. Here’s our conversation:
You just performed at CalArts and are now bringing Machines and Strings, Part II to REDCAT. The show has been billed as an “immersive concert experience.” I know you’ve got a deep interest in production. Could you talk a bit about what, beyond performing music, this program is all about?
Madeline: These concerts are about community, musical language, and elevating voices that we believe are important. Many artists are struggling with the current state of art and struggling to contextualize their art within the current social and political climate, and it is wonderful to find these ways in which we can support each other. We feel very proud of our team of amazing artists including performers, composers, lighting designers, video artists, and technological innovators. We have learned from each of these artists over the course of this production and the quartet has expanded our musical language through the process of working on each of these pieces.
We have developed an interest in production because we are used to self-producing, which is how most of these shows featuring experimental sounds/weird ideas/emerging artists tend to happen, but also because production relates directly to the music. The audience experiences sounds, lights, energy—all of those are essential to bringing the thing to life. For both of these concerts we have been working with Lauren Pratt as a producer and mentor, and she has been wonderfully supportive.
What attracts you to the work of the composers you’ve programmed?
Emily: When we started thinking about putting together a program featuring strings and music tech, the theme of order and disorder kept coming up: strings as disorder—going out of tune, breaking a bow hair, the natural human nature of playing an instrument where error is a factor—and machines as order, completing tasks, following functions, the precision with which a machine can act. At the same time, you can think of strings as orderly and machines as disorderly. Disorderly machines have actually come up quite often during our preparation for this concert! We kept this idea in mind when we were looking for composers and pieces to perform, and that idea has really shaped the program. We’re excited to showcase so many composers who are using technology and strings, sometimes together and sometimes not, in really innovative ways.
I know Isaura has a heavy focus on working with local composers, and that you’ve also taken quite a few gigs in the rock and popular music world, such as your residency at Emo Nite LA. How do those performance practices inform each other in your work? Do you approach them very differently as players?
Betsy: In many ways all of these different musical worlds need each other, and musically, we use the same tools for approaching every genre. As an ensemble we work together the same way to communicate time, expression, musicality, intonation, etc. Most of the pop and rock projects we have been part of have involved the artist specifically wanting players who were well-versed in a variety of playing styles and extended techniques.
Our crossover experience has been particularly helpful in our work with Ulrich Krieger, developing his quartet Up-Tight II. When he approached us about playing this piece, it was because of a prior collaboration with opera singer Timur called Love, Honor, Obey. Ulrich arranged an Elvis song for that project and really wanted us to go crazy with it. Up-Tight II is dedicated to Lou Reed and inspired by the Velvet Underground. We’ve been working a lot in rehearsals developing the physicality of the piece, which is so often present in rock music.
What are your favorite concerts you’ve attended in LA in the past year?
This is an almost impossible question to answer because there is so much exciting music happening in this city all of the time… but a few stand-outs include:
Emily: James Tenney’s Changes: Sixty-Four Studies for Six Harps presented by SASSAS at The Box last November and Dog Star 14’s concert of pieces by Eric Heep, Corey Fogel, and Erika Bell. (Side note: Eric Heep is actually one of the co-creators of Lydia, the robotic piano featured on our concert!).
Madeline: Matmos at The Broad’s Summer Happenings; Dolores: Our Lady of the 7 Sorrows with Ron Athey and Nacho Nava; and Quartetto Fantastico with visuals by Jesse Gilbert for the Mars Festival earlier this month.
Betsy: Michael Webster and the Breath Control Orchestra, Nice Day for the Races from a radio play by Samuel Beckett at the Box, and Southland Ensemble: Ruth Crawford / Ruth Crawford Seeger at Automata
Can you tell us more about Lydia?
Madeline: Lydia is a modified mechatronic instrument built on an upright piano created by CalArts students and faculty in 2013 under mentorship of artist and MacArthur fellow Trimpin. The instrument uses motors rather than hammers to create sound on the piano strings, and also includes other tools such as a saw that scrapes against the bottom of the instrument to introduce new piano sound worlds. We have enjoyed getting to know her as our chamber music partner over the last couple months.
What’s next for the quartet?
Emily: We will be ending 2018 with a few recording projects, and we have some exciting collaborative projects for 2019 in LA and New York, which we look forward to announcing soon!
Anything else you’d like to add?
Betsy: Thanks for chatting with us!
Tickets for Machines and Strings are available at redcat.org/event/machines-and-strings.
The Isaura String Quartet, based in Los Angeles but too rarely heard, appeared in Chinatown on Sunday, February 18, 2018, at the spacious Human Resources venue. The concert program consisted of five contemporary chamber pieces, including first performances of works by Scott Worthington and Ulrich Krieger.
Valencia (2012), by Caroline Shaw, was first. The audience – appropriately enough – snacked on orange slices thoughtfully provided at the door and this simple token worked on the imagination of the listener, even before the first note sounded. As the composer writes of the Valencia orange: “It is a thing of nature so simple, yet so complex and extraordinary.” The opening arpeggios are light and breezy and some very high squeaks in the violin suggest a gentle breeze blowing in the branches of an orchard. A twittering of birds is heard and a solid optimism prevails in the tutti passages. The feeling is warm and earthy, and taking the orchard metaphor further, it is as if we are watching the fruit ripening in the sunshine. The pizzicato phrases towards the finish even suggest oranges plucked from the tree. The Isaura Quartet played with their accustomed sensitivity, deftly extracting all of the elements present in this inventive work.
Next was Decay One (2015), by Amy Golden. A quiet, sustained chord was followed by a slow, downward glissando in the cello and this imparted an increasing sense of anxiety. The others joined in, sliding up and down the strings at different rates and increasing in volume, much like a slow motion siren. Each string instrument independently varied its pace, pitch direction and register, neatly simulating a group of sirens and adding to the sense of discomfort. Every Angelino immediately understands that many sirens coming from different directions amounts to a major problem. The sudden stop at the finish only inflated this sense of urgency – when the sirens stop you know that trouble is close at hand. The playing throughout was disciplined and cohesive even as the score lacked any melody, pulse or formal harmonic structure. Decay One artfully invokes one of the more instinctive anxieties of contemporary urban living.
The first performance of Scott Worthington’s The Landscape Listens (2016) followed. Long, quietly sustained tones opened this piece, building into luminous harmonies. No pulse or melody intruded on the delicately introspective sensibility. As the chords progressed smoothly upward, small changes in their construction and some unconventional pitch combinations continuously recast the sound into a beautifully calming ambiance. There is a timeless feel to this piece – it slowly unfolds at its own pace, yet never loses the listener’s interest. With everything depending on precise intonation, the poise and concentration of the Isaura Quartet never faulted. Towards the finish, the top pitches in the violin were very high and thin, but these were played squarely in tune and with a very fine touch. The Landscape Listens is a radiant piece that is a superb addition to Worthington’s already impressive body of work.
Darkness is Not Well Lit (2016), by Nicole Lizée was next and for this the Isaura String Quartet entered a large metal cage made from small aluminum tubes, as you might see in a tent frame. The players arranged themselves, each sitting behind a circular fan placed just in front of their music stands. The fans were powered up and rotated at a fairly low speed so that when a note was played the sound partly reflected back and partly passed through the fan. This effect added a cheerfully alien character to the music as it proceeded in a series of two or three note phrases and by sustained tones. The shorter notes tended to acquire an echo from reflection by the fan blades while longer notes could interact in various ways with their own standing waves. Some syncopated vocalizing was occasionally heard, broken up by the fans, and this added to the unorthodox feel. The low throbbing of the four fans was heard most effectively in the mechanical processing of the string sounds, and not as a separate component of the ensemble. For the finish of the piece the fans were turned off and the players froze in mid-motion as the sounds slowly faded away. Darkness is Not Well Lit is remarkable for the simplicity of this novel concept and the unexpectedly powerful way that the sound of the string quartet was transformed.
The first performance Up Tight II (1999/2010/2018), by Ulrich Krieger completed the concert program, a work some 19 years in the making. This latest edition for string quartet began with a great busy chord, roiling and bubbling outward into the audience. The players were all using two bows applied to open strings, creating an active texture of breathtaking proportions. It was like hearing a great primordial soup of sounds, very dense and often rough, yet surprisingly cohesive. After a few minutes the viola and violin players shouldered their instruments and everyone began playing with a single bow. This thinned the texture somewhat, but it continued flowing outward as a hot, swirling cloud of anxious sound. Following a grand pause, the quartet restarted, this time in a somewhat more organized fashion. A steady beat appeared and a stream of accelerating tutti notes suggested a steam locomotive gathering speed. The tempo increased again after a second grand pause, adding to the sense of powerful kinetic movement and high velocity. The playing was as precise as the composer’s intentions; the extended techniques, JI tuning, and lack of conventional structure were all masterfully navigated throughout.
Another grand pause, several seconds in length, signaled a turning point in the piece. A series of strong gestures gave way to softer tutti chords and slower tempos. High, thin tones in the violins – played perfectly in tune with the darker pitches in the lower strings – gave the feeling of a failing machine in need of lubrication. After a short burst of frenetic activity the piece came to a sudden halt, having finally broken down completely. Up Tight II is a remarkably acute vision of the forces of genesis and entropy as expressed in sound, expertly performed by very talented musicians.
Following the Accordant Commons in this 2016 season of Microfest is the Isaura String Quartet, with “Slightly Irregular Tuning: Another adventure in microtonal music offered as part of this quintessential Los Angeles festival.” The theme of this program was Just intonation. Today, the trending intonation is equal temperament, in which every step is exactly the same distance as the next. Microtonality, in brief, means using the areas around and between those spaces. Just Intonation stems from the overtone series, the sounds you get blowing progressively harder over a coke bottle (or the opening of Thus spake Zarathustra). It is the grandfather of our modern tuning, and so does not sound foreign but a keen ear will notice the difference. The Isaura String Quartet promotes both traditional and contemporary chamber music through live performance, workshops, and collaborative projects with composers and interdisciplinary artists. If any quartet is the perfect team to tackle alternate intonation, it’s these fantastic four ladies.
The evening kicked off with Kraig Grady’s Chippewayan Echoes. He explains in the program notes that he has not attempted to reproduce an authentic historical rendition of Chippewan songs, but rather has sought an emphasis on their melodic qualities of vocal song, translated onto strings. The effect was striking. It began like wailing, in canon, at a carefully measured tempo. The tempo never swayed, and the notes marched forward at quarter and eighth note speeds. The notes wandered and explored the space, never dissonant but always just missing each other. Some sections sounded like Ralph Vaughn-Williams, others like your archetypical Western showdown, and everything in between. After several meditative minutes, the four instruments finally converged and greeted each other, and the piece concluded on a single, pure high note.
Tread Softly by Andrew McIntosh was written as a gift for the ISQ mere months ago. What started out as a chorale became a song with speech-like rhythms as if reciting the W.B. Yeats poem from which the phrase originates. The first ten seconds of the work hint at the chorale beginnings, and quickly melted into the song. The instruments swell together and fall apart, and chords sink and bend away from each other. The middle was call and answer in whispering strings, like kids at a slumber party pretending to be asleep. That faded away like a waking dream, and two lines appeared: the see-sawing cello and viola and the piping sustaining and bending violins. If listening to the music somehow failed to transport you to a secret garden, the extravagant bowing of the performers would hypnotize you instead. These evocations and metaphors of dreams and sleep are no accidents; the poem suggests that, having no worldly rugs to line the floor, he provides his dreams instead, a sentiment any artist and composer (or strapped graduate student) will understand.
John Luther Adams, the environmentally conscious composer, is becoming a household composer name, not to be confused with John Adams the minimalist composer (nor the second POTUS). His The Wind in High Places is a homage to his friend Gordon Wright, who loved Alaska and music as much as Adams. Inspired by Aeolian harps, instruments that draw their musical directly from the wind, the performers may not stop the strings on their instruments; everything is natural harmonics, the quintessential Just Intonation. Three movements unfolded gently rolling and steadily pulsing music. The first movement was a calm ocean, the second was a summer zephyr, and the third was Sisyphus pushing his stone and reaching a little higher every time but never reaching the zenith. Other flowery metaphors I came up with included: lying on a sailboat in summer, watching a sunset on a hill, drifting on a loose flower petal. I hold John Luther Adams’ music in high esteem, and this performance from Isaura confirmed that.
Following a short intermission, the audience geared themselves up for the final piece of the night. Gloria Coates’s String Quartet No. 9 premiered in Germany almost exactly nine years ago. This was the most technically challenging piece of the night, implementing extended techniques like col legno, bowing behind the bridge, and drumming on the body of the instrument. The first movement is a mirror canon, separated by a glissando canon that comes across as a quasi-shepherd tone (the aural illusion that a sound is constantly rising or falling, likened to a barbershop pole stripe). The second movement was, as Coates describes, the more experimental one. It too has elements of the mirror canon, taking a motive and turning it backwards or upside down. The performers had to throw themselves into the music to keep up with the composer’s demanding technical challenges, and the audience was utterly spellbound.
And thus concluded my whirling introduction the Isaura String Quartet. As the 2016 season comes to an end, I look forward to what both MicroFest and Isaura will bring us in the future.