WasteLAnd marked the opening of their sixth season with a packed venue for a concert titled Biomes, featuring three pieces by Chicago-based composer Katherine Young. Katherine Young’s pieces are multimedia electroacoustic works. She incorporates not only sounds, but lights, movement, interactive performance, and anything in between. The first piece of the night, Earhart & the Queen of Spades performed by LA-based guitarist Nicholas Deyoe, uses a variety of sounds on the electric guitar. Hearing an electric guitar make unusual noises isn’t anything new, but the way Deyoe created the sounds is. Instead of a guitar pick, Deyoe used an array of hand-held objects such as small battery-powered fans, strings of pearls, keys, and bobby pins. These objects, Young explained in the program notes, reference lost objects and myths and femininity. When the fans hover above the amplified strings, the guitar creates an eerie hum; when the fan blades strike the strings, it makes a sizzling effect. The pearls, as you might guess, sound somewhere between raindrops and hail. Each sound emanation was intriguing in its own right. Young pulled out all the stops to create a twenty-minute piece of interwoven sounds, pitches, and rhythmic motifs.
The second piece of the night displayed a completely different approach to music. The Wurlitzer part (performed brilliantly by Wells Leng) used relatively typical twentieth-century techniques like whole tone scales and cluster chords. Combined with Matt Barbier whispering and crooning microtones into the euphonium, Underworld (Dancing) reminded me of an eerie yet meditative take on an old-timey calliope dance. Basically, it’s how I imagine music in the Upside-Down à la Stranger Things. And it was rad.
The final piece of the night was the world premiere of Biomes 1.0. This piece combines acoustic instruments (two trombones+ and a bassoon, played by RAGE THORMBONES Weston Olencki & Matt Barbier, and Katherine Young herself, respectively) with electronics and lights. The lights change over time, sometimes slowly and sometimes in the span of a heartbeat, and represent the smaller ecosystems present in the encompassing biome. The instrumentalists improvise within the ecosystem, building the scene with notes, whispers, whistles, and metallic clacks and clangs, further developed by the electronics reacting to the instruments’ paths. Some segments sounded like the soundscape you almost expect: the dark green light briefly feels and sounds like a sleepy rainforest with croaking frogs and rustling vines, and then transforms into something unrecognizable but no less beautiful and comprehensive. The stark white light evokes the sharp chill of the Arctic, but instead of polar bears we find gasping tubas and huffing bassoons. Throughout the piece, the light segregated the biome into ecosystems, but the steady undercurrent of electronic noise and human breath united the parts into the whole. Biomes clocked in at over half an hour long, but I was so enchanted that time nearly stopped.
Katherine Young took LA under her spell with these three incredible pieces, especially Biomes 1.0. She is WasteLAnd’s featured composer this season, so be sure to attend the rest of the concerts to hear more of her and the incredible musicians of the contemporary music scene of LA.
WasteLAnd‘s sixth season kicks off tonight at ArtShare tonight with a concert focused on this year’s featured composer, Katherine Young. Katherine makes electroacoustic music using expressive noises, curious timbres, and kinetic structures to explore the dramatic physicality of sound, shifting interpersonal dynamics, and tensions between the familiar and the strange. As an improviser, Katherine amplifies her bassoon and employs a flexible electronics set up for solo and collaborative performances. The LAPhil’s Green Umbrella series, Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW, Ensemble Dal Niente, Third Coast Percussion, Spektral Quartet, Weston Olencki, Nico Couck / Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt, Fonema Consort, others have commissioned her music. She’s excited about coming-soon projects with Lucy Dehgrae for Resonant Bodies Festival, WasteLAnd and RAGE, Distractfold Ensemble’s Linda Jankowska, Callithumpian Ensemble, and Yarn/Wire. She’s releasing new music this year with Michael Foster & Michael Zerang, Wet Ink, and Amy Cimini (as Architeuthis Walks on Land).
Ahead of the show, we got WasteLAnd artistic director Nicholas Deyoe, who has a lot of experience with Katherine’s work, to interview the composer. Here are Nick and Katherine:
Nick: Some of the following questions relate to your monodrama When stranger things happen and the three pieces that it draws from: Earhart and the Queen of Spades, where the moss grows, and just water, no lemon. Would you share a little bit of the background on this project?
Katie: Sure! All of four of the pieces – the three concert pieces and the monodrama – are inspired by a short story called “The Girl Detective” by Kelly Link, which is a noir meditation on loss and a creative coming-of-age-story that follows a girl detective on various cases / adventures. The story takes a very fragmented, nonlinear form, and contains lots of lists of lost objects, references to myths of femininity (Nancy Drew, fairytale princesses, Demeter and Persephone, etc.), and a noir atmosphere. Each of the pieces in my cycle formally explore experiences of loss and modes of detection and creative reassembling.
For Earhart & the Queen of Spades, all of the guitar preparations – fans, bobby pins, keys, jewelry, etc. – are drawn from a list I compiled of lost items the girl detective comes across, plus things that the performers involved in the premieres had lost. So, for example, the fans are a reference to Amelia Earhart (mentioned in the story), and several of the performers told me about losing pieces of jewelry that had lots of personal significance.
It’s funny – I actually borrowed the title for Underworld (Dancing) from “The Girl Detective,” too. So I’d been thinking about that story for a long time!
Nick: While learning the Earhart, I developed my own emotional attachment to all of these objects and how they interact with my guitar.
On Friday night, we’re presenting a world premiere (BIOMES 1.0), something relatively new (Earhart & the Queen of Spades, 2016) and something “old” (Underworld (Dancing), 2008). You mentioned the other day that you feel a certain connection between these three pieces. Would you tell us a bit more about the connections that you feel between these pieces?
Katie: Listening to the rehearsal of Underworld (Dancing) it occurred to me that each of these pieces to different degrees and in different ways blur out of a linear “musical” forms and into sonic meditations through the use of drone, saturating textures, and/or spatialization.
Nick: You are an active improviser, and you also produce meticulously notated scores full of nuanced details. Looking at Friday’s program, BIOMES 1.0 is driven by improvisation between you, Matt, and Weston; Underworld (Dancing) is fully notated, but filled with freedom between the euphonium and the Wurlitzer, and Earhart is very clear in its instructions, but often feels like you’re inside of a structured improvisation including recurring fragments. All of the styles feel very much like “Katie Young,” despite the range of approach. What are the differences in your own mindset when you work in these different realms?
Katie: I think I’m always looking for ways to infuse a little bit more surprise into my notated scores – to give them the energy of real-time exploration that is one of the things I love about improvised music. As you point out, that can be achieved in a lot of different ways and to different degrees. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the function or need the piece is serving for the people I am making it for / with, and then I use whatever notation is best for making that happen. There are things you can achieve with open forms that are really difficult to get from hyper specified notation, but there are things that that notation can make happen that more open forms can’t. But in all cases I start with the people and the sounds and go from there.
Details for tonight (October 5, 2018) are available at wastelandmusic.org/biomes, and the series is currently running a fundraiser with stretch goals of making every concert this season free. You can support their work at wasteland.wedid.it/campaigns/5108.
WasteLAnd continues to impress audiences with a program of new music, most of it from LA-based composers. Each performer has their respective claim to fame in LA and is closely associated with wasteLAnd, and each composer is a long-time favorite of wasteLAnd’s. New to the scene, however, is Allison Carter, a poet whose words found their way into Deyoe’s new piece. Her work made quite the stir among the audience members, and I have a feeling we will begin to hear her name more in the future.
Before I review the concert itself, I find something worth mentioning: the gender representation. It was an even split. In my day job, I currently have my students writing a paper on 19th century gender roles and women composers in the Romantic era, so this has been on my mind a lot. One hundred years ago, women could not vote in the United States, and it was nearly impossible to earn respect as a composer or performer. Nowadays, female representation in the music scene is gaining. It is not yet even, but progress is happening. WasteLAnd’s October concert featured six composers; three were women and two were men (Erik Ulman had two pieces, so the ratio of compositions is 3:3). There were seven performers (including Allison Carter reading aloud), and four were women. The best part was that I didn’t notice until afterwards. I have come to recognize that gender equality is already quite common in the LA new music scene. So much so that this is the first time I put it together. I looked back over some old programs I’ve reviewed, and every concert has women as composers, performers, directors or all three.
Ok. Feminist aside complete. Moving on, because there is so much good about this concert to discuss.
The night opened with Kaija Saariaho’s Folia, performed by Scott Worthington on double bass and electronics. Like many compositions from the end of the 20th century, this piece focuses on dynamics and timbre over pitch and harmony. Sometimes the bass whistles like an icy wind, other times it rumbles like an earthquake, putting palpable pressure on your ears. Scott saws out some kind of textural melody, phrases build and climax and fade – textural intensity carries the musical line. The electronic aspect augments and echoes the timbres. It overlays overtones, resulting in both a more ‘open’-sounding composition and greater complexity overall.
Next on the docket was the duet Tout Orgeuil… by Erik Ulman. Stephanie Aston and Elise Roy are always an amazing team, and their performance on this piece was no exception. It begins with a piccolo solo, and Roy gradually descended down the flute family to alto flute. Aston sang sleepily about pride smoking in the night. Given that the text is from a Stephan Mallarmé poem, my mind turned to Debussy. Ulman is no Impressionist, but I feel Debussy would have approved of the modern counterpoint and expressive extended techniques. The pitches bent down, down, down into sleep, and the flutes became larger and the words grew heavier. Erik captured the good sinking feeling, the kind you feel in a cozy armchair while drifting to sleep.
Third up was Matt Barbier on trombone and electronics performing puddles and crumbs by Katherine Young. For me, this piece created a very specific soundscape: I, the listener, am a koi in the pond on a rainy day and the daily miracle of food raining from heaven is happening. Three of the major elements that contribute to this soundscape are 1. Sharply sucking air through the trombone, 2. Sharp plosives into the mouthpiece that are amplified by the electronics, 3. Dynamic tempi. Matt’s deep breathing combined with the electronic influence reminded me of snorkeling, the plosive pops like rain on water’s surface when I swim underwater. These are instinctive memories, of course, and it may be a coincidence that they play so well together. Now you understand my watery theme. The push and pull of the tempo took me a while to incorporate into my soundscape idea. At first I thought it felt like seasickness, but I eventually concluded it was more like watching fish dart in a pond. They sprint only a few inches or feet, depending on the size of the fish, and then hesitate. The tempo seemed to do exactly that. And then it all became clear, that the soundscape was from the point of view of a koi in a pond in the rain during feeding time. I’m sure many will disagree, whether they had another idea or didn’t find it so blatantly programmatic at all; one of the wonders of music is how everyone experiences things differently. For what it’s worth, I did come up with a secondary interpretation that involves heavy breathing, plosive pops, and sprinting-and-stopping: Darth Vader playing basketball. So really it’s all relative. Regardless of the loftiness or pop art-iness of my personal experience, Barbier proved yet again that the trombone is more than just a brass instrument in a marching band. He played every color in the palette, and demonstrated rigorous control over his body and his instrument to perform such a demanding piece.
Fittingly the 100th piece wasteLAnd has programmed, Erik Ulman’s this until is a flute solo, and Elise Roy absolutely nailed it. I’ve said before that she has superhuman control of her instrument, and she proved it again with this piece. She made her flute sing, speak, howl, wail and whisper. Though a solo composition, I could sometimes here a ghost of counterpoint when she effected heavy harmonics. I honestly couldn’t say if that was Ulman’s intention or Roy’s execution, but every so often a particularly turgid note would quietly sound the octave or fourth below, creating a beautiful, haunting harmony. this until was the only solo acoustic musical composition of the night and it was right in the middle of the program; Elise managed to keep up the energy on her own, and carried us into the final pieces of the evening.
The program ends with a sort of binary piece. First, Allison Carter read her Poems from A Fixed, Formal Arrangement; Nicholas Deyoe used the text for his piece Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, a line from the poem. I can’t say I have ever attended another concert that had the poet read their work first before the musical product, and I wish this would become the norm everywhere. As a general rule, increased understanding leads to increased appreciation, so knowing the text ahead of time (and from the author herself, no less) helped Deyoe’s work succeed. The instrumentation sounded like speech slowed down by a factor of ten. The melodies felt like they wanted to resolve up to a tonic, but they kept bending downwards, defying expectations. One thing I love about Deyoe’s style is that it’s always interesting and it never fulfills your expectations. Once you think you have it figured out, he changes it again. This piece feels like your mind wandering and getting lost – when it’s 4am and you have to wake up in two hours but you’re caught up in the twilight zone that is four in the morning. Knowing composers, that is probably the mindset he was in while writing. Also, knowing composers, that is a hard composition to pull off. I commend Nicholas Deyoe for a well-constructed and evocative ensemble composition.
WasteLAnd concerts are on the first Friday of every month at ArtShare. Check out Weights and Measures on November 4.
Editor’s note: WasteLAnd is currently running their annual fundraiser. Take a minute to support them at https://squareup.com/store/wasteland/