Composer/guitarist Alexander Elliott Miller‘s debut solo album, To….Oblivion comes out everywhere on October 20. The record and historical photography project deals with lost spaces in Los Angeles, and to celebrate the release Alex is playing three sets at the Bendix Building that day as part of the LA Conservancy‘s architecture walking tours. A few standing room tickets are still available.
I first heard To….Oblivion in its nascent stages at a What’s Next? Ensemble show a few years ago, and then caught the full piece at Oh My Ears! in Phoenix back in January. My favorite track/movement was the “Zanja Madre,” which is the original aqueduct that brought water to El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Rio Porciuncula (L.A. is a useful abbreviation, isn’t it?). I asked Alex if we could premiere the track when the album was ready, and he said yes. So, feast your ears!
Alex also had time for some interview questions about the project. Here’s our conversation:
Okay, so talk to me about To….Oblivion
To….Oblivion is an album all about historic landmarks in Los Angeles. It’s for solo electric guitar, which I play myself, with electronics and a video slideshow. The electronics include both live processing of the guitar as well as recorded sounds which aim to capture an impression of the acoustic environment of each site. The album will be released along with videos of the recording with the slideshow both projected behind me and intercut directly.
There are six historic sites: the Belmont Tunnel, Dunbar Hotel, Zanja Madre, Tower Records, Long Beach’s Pike Amusement Park and Anaheim’s Center Street.
When you were writing the pieces for the record, were there any direct or obvious connections between the places and your composing (for instance, tracing the curve of the LA river in a melody), or was each location more of a loose inspiration for your work?
There’s nothing as literal as tracing the curve of the river and interpreting it as a melody. With each movement, I found myself wanting to make the slideshow and soundtrack first, finding the right order for the photographs to convey the story of each site, then matching up the sounds to those images where appropriate. Usually the guitar part was the last thing to be written, almost like a film score, though I usually had pretty strong ideas of what I wanted beforehand.
Some of the movements suggested particular types of guitar playing or sound worlds. Certainly the movement about the Dunbar Hotel, at the hub of LA’s mid-20th Century jazz scene gave me a chance to try my own take on jazz as a composer, and the Tower Records movement let me return some classic rock guitar playing that I grew up with.
The Belmont Tunnel, about an abandoned subway tunnel from the early 20th Century suggested certain sound effects: there’s an effect I create with an eBow and some pitch shifting that is a heavy, loud, roaring sound that reminds me a train, there’s a ton of reverb, almost like the echoes I imagine down in that abandoned tunnel.
Was there anything in particular that acted as a deciding factor in whether or not to use a location? Did any places not make the cut?
I was interested in locations that either seemed like symbols of larger issues in the city, or perhaps had interesting sonic or even musical implications.
The Belmont Tunnel, for me, is a symbol of public transportation’s role in shaping the city, and presents a great “what if:” what if LA’s original subway had been allowed to grow, in place of or in addition to expansion of the freeways, how would the city have been different?
The Zanja Madre movement was written at the heart of the drought, and deals with LA’s complicated relationship with water. I also liked that the original Zanja Madre was a project that dated from 1781, constructed within weeks of the original establishment of the city. It was right there at the beginning of Los Angeles, and dealt with our major problem: water.
Two movements venture further outside downtown LA, to Orange County and Long Beach, but these are also two of the sites to which I have a more personal connection. “Anaheim’s Center Street” looks at urban blight and redevelopment, and has a scene were the heart of the old downtown is demolished with bulldozers. I loved the idea of including bulldozers in the soundtrack, and felt that scene, perhaps more than anything else in the piece, captured the sadness of the title “To….Oblivion.” I live on Anaheim’s Center Street and got to know my own neighborhood much better by doing this piece. The Long Beach movement tells a similar story of urban decay, but I left out the violence of the bulldozers in this movement, and focused more on the happy memories of the old amusement park. I’ve worked in Long Beach for six years, and I think this movement is probably the most hopeful in the set, being a sort of expression of my gratitude to the city.
Then there are two sites in which music itself is an important part of the historic site’s identity. The Dunbar Hotel was at the heart of LA’s Central Avenue jazz scene. This location also has a complicated history representing the status of race relations in LA, as the Dunbar was one of the few hotels were African American celebrities were welcomed. One has mixed feelings about it: on one hand, it’s an exciting cultural focal point where numerous jazz heroes were present (Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, countless others all stayed there), and yet, a regrettable place, existing primarily because of segregation laws. Secondly, the Sunset Strip’s Tower Records obviously represents a kind of celebration of music in its day, but also may have become, since its closing, a kind symbol of all of the changes the music industry has experienced in the last two decades.
When I first started the project, I think there were some other historic sites that I considered very briefly, but the shape of the piece with the six now part of the final version emerged quickly. Still, other locations that I may have considered at the beginning which didn’t make the cut included the Nestor Film Studio (the very first ever movie studio in LA), the Pan Pacific Auditorium (which burned to the ground and is now the site of Pan Pacific Park), and, of course, the Ambassador Hotel. I discovered Gabriel Kahane’s album “The Ambassador,” after this (it’s an album I love and one which shares an “LA location” concept with my project), so honestly, I’m glad I didn’t include it. I already had a hotel in the project anyway, in the Dunbar Hotel.
You once told me that when you visit places you like to enter via different modes of transportation to give yourself a different perspective or idea of “home base” for a city. For instance, coming into LA on the 10 from the desert is a very different experience than taking the train down from Nor Cal to start at Union Station or arriving by boat in San Pedro. Could you talk a bit about your perspective on LA now that you’re often coming up from Anaheim, or your take on the city as a person raised in the midwest and northeast?
Well, I was born in Boston and raised in Kansas City. I still have family in both places, and I’m fortunate to have lived in other places as a student or for temporary jobs in my twenties, but most of my life as an adult has been here in the greater LA area. I’ve never taken a boat into San Pedro or Marina del Ray, but obviously driven, flown and taken trains into LA many times; I think I see all the same problems that everyone else does, first the strangeness of its location coming out of the desert when you drive here from the east, and then once you’re here, the high rents, homelessness, gentrification, traffic and access to water.
On the positive side, LA has always seemed like a place that is what you make of it (or how much you’re able/willing to drive through it). Maybe what I mean, more specifically, is that LA is a place where I feel I’ve met many people who share my interests – like you if I may say so – a place where I feel I’ve been welcomed into a communities both with musicians in the city and the schools where I work. I haven’t had the opportunity to live as an adult, work, pay rent, and be a working musician or teacher in Boston or Kansas City so couldn’t compare those experiences.
Lastly, part of the joy of writing this piece really had to do with exploring LA itself. Much of the time when I’m composing, I’m isolated at home with a computer, piano or guitar. This piece presented an opportunity to get out into the city, partly because I wanted to hang out at each site a little bit, but also because I needed to record so many sounds of the city for the soundtrack and wanted to do everything authentically. So for the Belmont Tunnel, for example, I found a Saturday to take a handheld mic and record subway sounds while circling the system all day, exploring new neighborhoods all the while. For the Dunbar Hotel, I took that mic to a jazz club and recorded ambient crowd noise during a set change between bands. The water sounds in Zanja Madre are actually the LA River in Los Feliz, and the sounds of the Sunset Strip were actually recorded on Sunset near Tower Records’ site, with some of the sounds of CDs clicking against each other recorded at Amoeba Records. For Anaheim’s Center Street, I went to a mall at 1:00am where an old Macy’s was being demolished and recorded bulldozers; the amusement park sounds for Long Beach were a mixture sounds of the Santa Monica Pier, Knott’s Berry Farm rollercoasters and the Griffith Park Merry Go Round. The whole thing took years, but experiencing LA in so many places and different ways was one of the things that made the experience of writing this piece so much fun.
Who are you working with to present this project live?
On the day of the album release, Oct. 20th, I’ll be performing the work as part of an event co-presented by two organizations: Synchromy and the LA Conservancy.
The LA Conservancy organizes frequent walking tours of various neighborhoods in the city, exploring historic architecture. This October, their Walking Tour will go through the Fashion District downtown, and include the Bendix Building. My performance, which will be on the penthouse floor of the Bendix, will essentially be a stop along that tour, so I’ll be playing selections from the album all day long for various groups coming and going. The tours themselves are sold out but a limited number of concert-only tickets will be sold. It was the idea of Synchromy’s director, our friend Jason Barabba, to get in touch with them about this project.
Two weeks later I’ll be playing selections from the album in San Francisco at the Center for New Music. I’m splitting the program with a wonderful guitarist in the Bay Area, Giacomo Fiore.
What’s next for you? Although the album is finished and coming out this month, are you continuing to add tracks to the project?
I think I’m happy with where the project is now. I like the six movements I have, I’m not opposed to adding more but am not ready yet. Also, once, the idea occurred to me that I could, instead writing new movements about new locations, perhaps revisit these same locations in ten years or so to see how they’ve continued to change. Just a thought….
I will say this is the first work I’ve done that had a video component, and even though it is a simple video consisting of a slideshow, I did greatly enjoy having that element to further the storytelling potential of each work. I don’t have plans for new video works, nor plans to collaborate with a video artist, but that’s something I’m interested in. And the electric guitar, that will remain an important part of my voice as composer. That ain’t going anywhere.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I got a lot of help on this project! Rychard Cooper, my colleague at CSULB, recorded the project and edited the final video, and there are also a number of other musicians who play on the soundtrack in the background of the movements about the two “musical” locations. On the Dunbar Hotel, underneath my guitar playing, you’ll hear recordings of jazz musicians: that’s Jamond McCoy on piano and Zaq Kenefick on saxophone. And in the Tower Records movement, you’ll hear Tom Kendall Hughes on drums as well as some singing from Mikey Ferrari. I recorded all of them, giving them minimal instruction, and they definitely all gave me a ton of inspiration, steering me in particular directions for my own guitar playing.
Lastly, thank you, Nick, for the interview and everything you do for our new music community on this site and around town!
Keep up with the release over at Alex’s website, alexanderemiller.com.
This Saturday, May 5th, soon-to-be-Dr. Nick Norton is premiering the first evening length concert of his music at Art Share, in an event titled Music for Art Galleries that is doubling as his PhD recital. Nick is the founder and editor of New Classic LA so felt a bit conflicted about covering his own event, but asked the other writers and me what we thought and we agreed that an interview would be appropriate so that we readers and listeners might have at least some background information on him, as well as some sense of his musical thoughts and activities. I know Nick from casual conversations but only in preparation for this interview did I immerse myself in his music. It was time well spent. Suffice to say, I urge you to check out his online recordings and, if you can, come to his concert on Saturday.
What was your entrée into music? At what age did you realize that music was a part of you? What kind of music spoke to you first and how did your stylistic identification evolve over time?
Whoa, we’re starting with a big one. Okay! I certainly started young with some piano and guitar lessons that didn’t stick. My mom was in film and TV, so I was always surrounded by all sorts of arts and entertainment. I expected I’d eventually become an artist of some sort, maybe a photographer or filmmaker, and I did always like music quite a lot – I remember how excited I was the first time I got to buy CDs for myself. I think things changed late in elementary school, when we moved from Los Angeles to a much smaller town called Newbury Park. It was a sports-centric town that was, at least at the time, pretty cut off from culture, and with how horrible and cliquey little kids are, I immediately became an outcast loner. I’d pretty much watch TV or read every day after school, and would leave MTV on all night back when they used to play music videos nonstop, I think mainly to distract myself from how lonely I was. Though I was totally unhappy for a lot of years, in hindsight I’m incredibly grateful for how that led me into music.
I’m not totally sure of the timeline here, but I remember two very specific events that got me into taking music seriously. The first was a school assembly where high schools kids came and played instruments for us. I heard someone play a saxophone and said “yes, I’ll take one of those please,” and joined the school band. Suddenly I had something to do other than watch TV or read after school! It was magical. The other, perhaps more important one, was discovering punk, probably sometime in middle school. This is cliche, at least among punks, but I went to a couple of shows in garages and at the Thousand Oaks Teen Center and Ventura Theater and thought “whoa, other loners! Maybe we have something in common! And they don’t seem to think I dress weird!” Plus the music was SO different from anything on the radio or that the “outside world” knew about, and so much more raw…I was just immediately in love. Punk isn’t technically hard to play – in fact it’s so focused on community and breaking down the audience/band barrier that it’s not supposed to be – so I started thinking “hey I can probably do that” and picked up guitar again.
It’s funny that you ask how my stylistic identification evolved over time, because as far as I’m concerned I’ve never actually left punk. The thing I realized, though, was that the things that defined the genre for me had less to do with music and more to do with ethics. I was reading all of Greg Graffin’s writings sometime early in high school, where he was discussing freedom of thought and self-determination and how the corporate desk jockey from a family of hippies might be just as much a punk as those of us in studded belts and safety pins, and something really stuck for me. I love punk music, and still do, but the thing I loved most about it was how self-driven it was, and how it didn’t care that it was different from what the masses (read: popular kids) were into. Following that line of interest, rather than the power chords/kick kick snare aspects of the sound (which I do love), I eventually got into hardcore, then really experimental rock. I’d never left the school band though, so was playing some jazz and classical music there, and when I got to college double majored in music and political theory. The timing and environment just worked out in that I was at UCSD and we started studying Cage and the downtown New York scene right around when I was getting into noise and drone bands, so the jump to the “classical” world felt totally natural. Even calling it a separate world of some sort seemed incorrect to me. I probably would have gotten there myself via La Monte Young and the minimalists if school hadn’t done it for me first. I was just like “whoa, there’s a path where you can get a degree in this?” That’s when I started taking theory and history and composition classes seriously, and like to say that I worked backwards into the canon from there. Nowadays if I’m writing a piece with, say, a very traditional classical vibe, I’m still thinking of it as an extension of my relationship with and growth in punk.
Europe. I’m a native New Yorker whose lived in a number of European cities, and as such, it’s something I’m instinctively aware of. But as someone who’s now been in LA for 20 years, my awareness of it is diminishing. I see that you did some of your studies in Paris (at Ecole Normale de Musique, a school I also attended!) and London. How important were those years to your musical development and how did they jibe with, or contrast with, the musical aesthetic you were developing and experiencing in California?
Attending a conservatory-style school in Paris was huge for me. For one thing, it made me realize that if I was going to do the composer thing, I had a LOT of work to do to catch up to these students who had been at it since age 3. I went in with my bachelors and was essentially a remedial charity case compared to the Juilliard kids in attendance. “Sorry, modulation is what now? Why do Germans have their own augmented chord?” At UCSD – like a lot of undergrads, I now know – I had tried to slide through the earlier parts of theory and history to get to the stuff I was into doing, which was largely either total serialism 60 years late or basically minimalism, which I still dig into here and there.
Anyway! I learned a lot there, though perhaps most important was learning how much I had to learn, or how little I knew. Socratic wisdom, if you will. That’s probably the first time I felt a real drive to analyze Bach, and do counterpoint exercises, and actually work hard on ear training. I’ll almost certainly never be as good at that stuff as a lot of those people, but at least it made me bone up on everything that I thought I’d need, which continues to this day.
There’s another side to this first Europe sojourn too: oh my god their music was boring! Other students could run circles around me in class, but if I asked them about a current artist they liked they’d draw a blank, and 90% of their music sounded like Hindemith lite. It was like they were only doing music because they had degrees in it and didn’t know what else to do, and weren’t even particularly interested in it. That’s not true of everyone there – I did make some great friends whose work I continue to respect and enjoy now – but it was definitely the general vibe. I wrote what I now consider to be a childishly-shallow attention-getter of a string trio. Harmonically it was really boring, and the teachers there didn’t seem into it, but it used, like, one extended technique and ended in a surprising way, and at the final concert of the program people – including the teachers – went totally nuts. Like they’d never heard someone tap on a soundboard before and I was a genius. That was completely insane to me, and gave me some resolve to say “okay, you’re doing something that doesn’t really fit with what the people in this classical slice of the world know, and if they don’t get it and they’re uncomfortable with it, fuck em.” But to say fuck them I’d have to catch up with them a little too, and make sure I was doing it well. Hence deciding to go to grad school in Europe and try to get the super traditional training I felt I’d missed.
King’s College, where I did my MMus, went as expected, which was wonderfully. I learned a ton! I loved London and went to concerts every night! I wish I’d kept in better touch with my friends and teachers there, because a lot of them are doing awesome things and I miss them. Rob Keeley in particular was a huge influence on my work today. I once spent like 30 minutes describing the system I was using to generate pitch and rhythmic material to him, and he said “okay, but what does it sound like?” I’d been writing stuff for my bands using my instincts, but most of my concert music up until then was still using algorithms or serialism as a crutch, or a shield against what I thought of as a lack of traditional classical abilities. Rob asking me that kind of made me re-assess my whole “I am in two worlds” view. I think my concert music, if we want to call it that, got a lot better very quickly, or at least suddenly felt a lot more like me than it had up to that point. There’s definitely a “before” and “after” to that lesson with Rob in thinking about my own musical past.
To prepare for this interview, I gave myself something of a crash course in “The Music of Nick Norton.” First of all, let me say that I very much enjoyed that, so thank you. I was familiar with a few of your pieces before but this immersive study made me realize the scope of your musical activities, especially with respect to genre. There are some composers whose music is poly-stylistic within a given piece. I didn’t find this to be the case with your music. Rather, I heard works, compositions, songs, whatever term works, that seemed rather pure with respect to the genre of that particular piece. Is that a fair observation?
I would say so. I try not to be too conscious of genre norms because they can be quite limiting, and instead try to ask “what does this piece need? Will this idea make the piece stronger?” In a lot of cases the result of that is something that makes a lot of musical sense – at least to me – and part of making musical sense is coherence. That said, while there are some polystylist pieces I dig a lot, I am wary of using genre signifiers in an obvious way, which is somewhat necessary in a polystylist piece. It can very easily become “guess the reference” rather than living in the world of the piece you’re hearing.
Genre, for me, has a lot more to do with socioeconomic circumstances or, at best, tone color and instrumentation, than with anything musically abstract, and in writing I often think in musical abstracts. For instance, when I’m writing with my bands Honest Iago or The Newports, I’m not asking “does this fit with a punk sound,” but am instead concerning myself with if enough tension has been built up to justify a release, or if a chord progression has repeated too many times in too exact a way, or something like that. One thing my bandmates have commented on, particularly in The Newports, is my obsession with not giving away your entrances. In almost every single Bach fugue the voice that is about to re-enter rests for a few bars before it does, which makes the entrance that much more exciting. Just like the trombones at the end of Beethoven 5. The other guitarist in The Newports now knows that if we’re gonna write a new section, I’m very likely going to take something out of the previous section so that the new one is fresher. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m the very same composer, using the very same skill set. If I’m wearing black denim and it’s distorted and amplified people call it punk, and if I’m wearing a blazer and there are program notes people call it contemporary classical music, and if the audience is lying on their backs they call it ambient. Whatever.
I will admit that I really enjoy messing with these discrepancies. ASCAP, for instance, arbitrarily divides their divisions into “concert music” and “pop/rock” and “country” and “rhythm & soul.” Concert music pays A LOT more per performance than the popular genres, so I tend to register my bands’ albums as song cycles for voices, two guitars, bass, and percussion, and let them figure it out. I can’t imagine what they would do with Ted Hearne’s piece for Saul Williams and string quartet.
You seem very busy, very willing to divide your creative psyche into multiple personae and work hard on all of them. Is this a conscious choice or just what feels good, right, fun, etc.? Is that something that is or should be more important to today’s musical participants?
It’s all an expression of the same basic passion. My first job, in high school, was as a counselor at Camp Emerald Bay on Catalina Island. I discovered that I LOVE introducing people to new things. Perhaps my favorite feeling is seeing someone else have a moment of realization about a new experience, of having their preconceptions challenged and ending up happy about what they learned. When I began composing and learning about the classical world, I essentially wanted to be the gateway drug between musical worlds for people from both, to let what I thought of as the conservative classical folks hear something in popular music and say “whoa, that actually is very good” and to show the people who are used to rock shows that what happens in the concert music world is vibrant and interesting. At a young age I thought I was unique for having this view, but it sure seems like a lot of interesting musicians are ignoring traditional boundaries these days, and I think that makes for better music for all of us.
It’s really beyond that, though: I started New Classic LA and Equal Sound for the same reasons, and I don’t think I necessarily need to be the composer or performer to allow someone to have that moment. Maybe a piece already exists that would mean a lot to someone, or open someone’s mind, in a way my music wouldn’t. If I think that’s the case, then the best thing I can do is send them a mixtape or take them to a show. This even extends into my love of craft beer, and starting the beer recommendation app Barly with my friends. The number of people who say “I hate beer” and have never had anything aside from a light lager kind of astounds me. Give them a sip of a Belgian quad, or something that fits their palate, and you often get a “whoa, I didn’t know beer could taste like that.” Their mind opens a little, and I really, truly see this as a way to improve the world. “I didn’t know beer could taste like that” or “I didn’t know that music could sound like this” or “I didn’t know that I like kayaking” might, for someone, somewhere, eventually lead to “I didn’t know not all Muslims are terrorists” or “I didn’t realize women are my equals” or, from my own perspective, “I didn’t know some Republicans aren’t horrible.” I’m still working on learning that one. But yeah, it’s really all the same, and I just try to do whatever seems most useful in any given moment or situation.
As to what “should” be more important, I don’t think I’m in a position to judge that for other people. And shoulds are dangerous anyway.
From what I can see, you play in at least two rock/punk bands. Are they side projects for fun or an integral part of your musical persona?
Absolutely integral. However, in both of those bands, the other members have very full non-musical lives, so the bands themselves are becoming a little more like “very very serious hobbies” than anything I’ll be able to do in a full time way. That’s talking from a career standpoint though. As far as writing music goes they’re incredibly important to me. I learn a ton through playing with them, and have a great time – perhaps we don’t talk about having fun enough, but it’s pretty damn important – so I don’t see my work with them really slowing down anytime in my life.
Would narrowing your focus (e.g., just writing “concert music” or just creating electronic works) spoil the fun of it all?
I think I’m incredibly narrowly focused on music. The things that sometimes get neglected are my health, finances, and personal life. That seemed like a worthwhile trade in my twenties. Now, especially with non-musician friends buying houses and having kids and stuff like that, I’m trying to put a little more emphasis on, say, making time to hang out with my girlfriend and her dog, or taking some down time here and there, or caring a bit more about what I am paid than I like to admit. Whenever I’m at home trying to take a break and watch a movie or something on a night when there’s a show somewhere in town (i.e. every night), I do have to turn off the little voice that says “you should really be at that show.” That’s a struggle.
You’ve mentioned community to me. I can’t tell you how important that word, that concept is to me. (I decided to go back to grad school not because I wanted to pursue an academic career but rather I needed to be immersed in a musical community and I wasn’t finding it in the real world.) You’ve got a big recital coming up on May 5th and it seems to me that a large part of your musical community is helping you realize this concert. Who do you consider to be the primary members of your community and what defines it as such?
I don’t really want to name people for this answer, because I am sure I would make someone feel left out, and that is something I am sensitive to. That said, I think the people in the community who I am most inspired by, and most want to work with, are the ones who are working hard to help other people in the community. I think – aside from great programming and performances – the thing that makes wild Up, the LA Phil, WasteLAnd, MonkSpace, and a bunch of our series and institutions here in LA so fantastic, are that they are focused on helping other people. WasteLAnd is NOT the Nick Deyoe show, it’s the “how can we provide opportunities for interesting music to get heard in a compelling way” show. Dudamel and John Adams may be the faces of the LA Phil, but the organization is great because of how many composers they program. They don’t focus on themselves. Hell, I feel weird about not having music by anybody else on my own PhD concert.
You and I have also mentioned the state, if not also the fate, of the musical scene, the community, I guess you could say, of our fair city. At the risk of flattering you (which I’m honestly not trying to do) I would go so far as to say that you are one of the people, one of the factors advocating for, shaping said community. What drives that?
That is incredibly kind of you to say. I am not sure I know what drives it, aside from the whole life-mission thing of trying to open minds that I talked about earlier. The thing is, community is a necessity. You can’t do all the things I want to do without involving other people. And you’ve gotta have humility and recognize that you’ll never be the best at everything, if at anything. You and I were talking about websites once, and you said that my personal one was really solid. That’s because I recognized that someone else, in this case Traci Larson, is way, way better at designing websites than I am. Of course she is! She’s a designer, and I’m a composer. I’d have to be pretty hard headed to think that I can make something as good as it can be when whatever that thing is is not part of my main skill set. If I want to make an awesome record, sure, I can learn a bit about mixing and engineering, or I can recognize that Nick Tipp is better at that than I will ever, ever be. But I’m better at writing music than he is. If the goal is to make a great record, we’d better work together. If the goal is to inflate my own name then I can do it all myself. And it will not be nearly as good. If the work truly comes first, before your ego, the community sorts itself out.
For all the talk of “music” as existing, even thriving in an environment where genre, style, underlying aesthetic or political motivations might seem to create a fractured landscape, I really feel like we’re living in something of a Golden Era. It is certainly not unified stylistically yet I do see it as a rather coherent, happily-multi-headed creature. Do you agree?
I think we’ve always lived in that era, and big institutions are just getting better at recognizing it. That said, the idea of being stylistically unified is a bit scary to me. It implies that some kind of Platonic asymptote for music may exist, and if it does then we can all just quit now. It doesn’t, though. The varying views of what makes music good are what makes music good.
One thing that I found really refreshing about LA’s “classical” scene is the relative abundance of non-traditional venues. One of my first classical encounters here outside of the major venues was through the folks at Classical Revolution. I believe you’re interested in similar issues, involved with similar issues as well, right?
This is something I think about a lot. Here’s the thing: what people in the classical scene call non-traditional venues are actually traditional venues. We have it backwards. How is putting music on at a bar or art gallery or outdoor festival in any way unique or interesting? I go hear bands and songwriters at bars all the time. Those are the places where 99% of the music in the world is performed. That’s normal. It’s weird that a traditional classical venue requires you to dress nicely, pay a lot, and sit there in silence. As far as I’m aware classical music in the modern era is the only genre where audiences aren’t expected to dance or move or react in some way.
I think this is, at its core, a marketing problem for the classical world. People say “we’re playing Haydn – in a bar!!!” and expect the public to show up, because “in a bar” is supposedly the interesting part. It’s not. I can’t stress enough how normal playing music in a bar is. If I asked you to come hear my band, and you asked why, and I said “because we’re playing with amplification and you can drink a beer,” you’d look at me like I was insane. The music has to be the key.
This is a big part of why Andrew Glick and I founded Equal Sound. A lot of the music in the new classical world is fucking awesome, and no one hears it because people have all these preconceptions about what classical music is. The fact that Tristan Perich is on the same shelf at a record store as Clara Schumann, and is marketed in much the same way, is completely absurd. What we want to do with Equal Sound is to essentially hide the fact that what we’re presenting comes from the classical world. Instead of saying “isn’t it interesting that we are putting a string quartet in a cool gallery space,” we are saying “come hear this rad show of music by these interesting artists!” We don’t see ourselves as competing, insofar as there is competition among presenters for attention, with series like WasteLAnd and Monday Evening Concerts and Green Umbrella. We see ourselves competing with Spaceland Presents and FYF and Goldenvoice. We just usually have more violins.
We basically stole this idea from wild Up, and probably from others before them. When they got started they were playing at the Echo Park Rec Center. DIY hipster heaven. If they’d started up with shows at the Broad Stage or something, they’d be just another chamber orchestra playing new music and begging for donations. By putting themselves into the popular music world, they stood out as incredibly interesting and worth seeing. My understanding is that their publicist came up with the idea to never use the word “classical” or “new music” or even talk about “the tradition” and a lot of the members were uncomfortable with it at first, but wow did it work. “Wait, your band has a huge string section? I have got to see that!” But they’ve got the musicianship and programming down to back it too. Sometimes that gets lost in these conversations, but it’s really at the core. A good frame can’t save a bad painting, but a bad frame can ruin a great one.
OK, a quick tangent pertaining to my own music-philosophical anxiety, if I may: Whether there is a unified “scene,” or even if it’s fragmented, positively or negatively, to me, the underlying and more important, even terrifying question is this: What is the role of music, for the individual and in society? Do we need it?
Of course we need it. Or at least I need it – I don’t want to speak for others. But if I had any questions about that I probably wouldn’t be doing this. I love my life in music, and I’m insanely lucky that I get to spend a lot of my time and energy on it. It can, though, at times be incredibly taxing. If I didn’t believe it was a necessary thing for me to be doing, I’d probably relax a little, get a job at a nonprofit or something that has a slightly more tangible or obviously measurable effect on the world or pays a lot more, and just make music as a hobby. That’s not me, though.
How much of music, your music and the music of our community, is political or in any way a critique of our society? (And how much should it be?)
I think hearing music as a critique of society would be up to each individual listener or musician, but I tend to think that for just about everything the meaning is defined by the individual experiencing it, so any sort of objective answer is really impossible.
I will say, though, that to me virtually everything I do is political. Fact is I get to try to make a living in music because I don’t have to worry in my daily life about shelter, food, clean water, being enslaved for human trafficking, getting shot when I walk out my front door, having a front door…I have a fucking iPhone that I get annoyed by when it is slow. The fact that I get to be annoyed by that, compared to how a lot of people live, makes me into an ungodly rich person who gets to make music. And I am very, very far from rich by Los Angeles standards. I think I have to use that privilege responsibly, and use these skills that I am so, so lucky to have the opportunity to have to try to do some good in the world.
At the same time, we do want to recognize sacrifices of people that allow us to do this. My great grandparents crossed Europe on foot with no money. We have to think that they went through a hardship like that so that someday someone like me could be more comfortable, and do something that makes them happy. If I get to draw some dots on a line that I think sound nice instead of going to work in hellish conditions to earn barely enough to eat, then in some way I feel like I’m honoring the aims of all the people who have struggled for better lives for everyone. And in whatever way we decide to approach it, we have to keep up that struggle for others. We owe it to people.
I think to understand the value, the excitement, the momentum towards polystylistic appreciation and acceptance (Kendrick Lamar’s recent Pulitzer win comes to mind), I think it would be wise to understand where that comes from. Was it not borne, decades if not centuries ago, of a strict, urgent stratification, categorization of the various musics? If so, why do you think that was? Is it racist? Classist? And not to be glib, but does it even matter?
It’s absolutely racist and classist, and it absolutely matters. When, to your previous question, I said that I am lucky to have had the opportunity to try, I wasn’t kidding. An artist like Kendrick – and I don’t know his whole history – probably didn’t have a lot of money for music lessons. He also probably – certainly actually – had a far higher risk of getting shot by a cop than I do. Yet he’s making incredibly creative and vital music that is complex and connected to a huge portion of society that many of us with money and degrees often ignore.
The thing we’ve seen in people’s reactions to the win, at least in racist assholes’ reactions, is like a fear of invasion. It’s not totally unfounded, as classical music as a “genre” is, at its heart, a tradition of wealthy European landowners or the most powerful churches in the world paying people to make things for them to put their names on. It is literally designed to be insular and exclusionary. That makes some people feel secure. Someone like Kendrick getting recognized by a big institution for making, I don’t know, really cool art? is a threat to the people who have felt secure with their institutional support.
The funny thing here is that this all actually lines up quite nicely with the “little tiny genre” thing we were talking about earlier. There’s so much awesome music in the world that some classical institutions love to pretend doesn’t exist. And let’s be honest, a lot of traditional academic composers would not really be surviving their own careers without grants and commissions and teaching positions. The socioeconomic structure of classical music is not the way most music-making works, but some of us who work in it or write about it treat it like the way the everything is. And a minority always wants to protect itself.
That all sounds glib, but I’m actually hopeful. Sometimes you need a good kick in the face. Maybe a few people got one and we can all be a bit more open in our listening and understanding now. And it’s not a competition. It’s very possible to love black metal and the Romantic era and hip hop and blues and noise rock and Frank Sinatra with the same passion. Music is just, you know, rad.
So this recital of yours is, if I’m not mistaken, part of your doctoral work as you complete your academic studies. When I was a student, it seemed like the academic path was practically a requirement if you were to function in the modern classical world. But for better or worse (much better, in my opinion) academic participation is considerably less crucial than it was just a couple decades ago. How do you see this, and is teaching and/or additional academic involvement part of your plan?
There are definite advantages to an academic career, or at least the promise of one: economic stability, getting to talk about music with students and colleagues, having summers off, all that. It sounds pretty cool. Unfortunately this is 2018 and actually getting one of those cushy jobs is incredibly unlikely. A lot of people end up teaching adjunct at five universities and having no time for actually making music. Did you see that university in Illinois advertising “volunteer” teaching positions for people with PhDs? That’s exploitation on the face of it, and maybe unions will do something useful, but much as we try to fight it we can’t really ignore the free market. If people are willing to take those unpaid positions there are going to be more of those unpaid positions. As far as I’m concerned the stable academic career path for composers is basically over, and people are just taking a while to realize it. I’m working on other options to essentially get out ahead of the rush.
One thing that I see as a problem is that a lot of people who are tenure track faculty now came up in the world when that was a viable option, and are still advising their students as if it is. I think it’s a disservice to students to let them think that there’s a stable career path there that they can access without an giant amount of work. I respect the people who make it in, but I don’t think it’s for me, at least not yet. It would be an enormous amount of work for something that isn’t my main focus.
The ironic thing here is that I teach at Chapman University and I’m lucky to have that gig. But it has shown me, to some extent, how limiting doing the adjunct life thing can be. I was never late delivering a piece before I started teaching. It’s a little like if I say “I want to be a musician!” and someone responds with “cool, you can be a teacher!” That just sounds so incongruous to me, it’s like telling a kid who wants to be a scientist that they can be a lawyer, or telling a kid who wants to be a lawyer that they can be a farmer. If someone offers me a cool teaching job I’m likely not going to turn it down, but I think my energy is better spent on writing pieces and putting on concerts.
Let’s discuss the actual music, shall we? I’ve seen the program for your recital. You’re presenting quite a varied program. There are many works that are not afraid to be, dare I say, beautiful. Are “beauty” and “beautiful” loaded words? What do they mean to you and how do they (or don’t they) pertain to your music?
I’m not sure. I try to be honest about what I think a piece needs, and take my own ego or any ideas about what I want listeners to think about me out of the equation when I write. Lately that’s had me turning to writing more “traditionally beautiful” music. I will say that, as a person who grew up in weird rock and went to UCSD, that it scares me a bit. Whenever I write an elegant line I’m still like “wait, isn’t this supposed to be more aggressive?” I’m not totally comfortable with that sound yet. If I was, though, it probably wouldn’t be very interesting to me. I can make horrible noises all day if I want to – and I don’t mean horrible in a bad way! Sometimes we need a bit of horror. But right now writing music that is somehow comforting is something I seem to be doing. Wonder what that means.
I feel like I started composing at the tail end of an era where you were either decidedly atonal or dissonant, or you were equally-decidedly consonant, usually in the form of something akin to what was called “The New Romanticism.” I found the stratification limiting, not to mention polarizing. Between your “classical” works and your various electric/electronic/rock/punk, such excluding stratification, compartmentalization, seems considerably less present. Is this a conscious decision rooted in revolt or simply the natural way of your musical expression?
Well, the pieces I sent you were pretty consonant as it’s what I’ve been doing lately. I think I started out being quite inspired by modernist anti-populism, which UCSD is still quite into. Early Boulez was my favorite stuff for a long time, and I definitely have pieces that stem from that tradition, though I haven’t written one in a little while….these days I try not to be conscious of things like that, though, and just write honestly. Sometimes the music gets pretty thorny, but that hasn’t happened in many recent pieces.
Actually I do have a really gnarly mixed chamber quartet that I think I want to rewrite as a piano concerto. That’ll be a cool one.
You seem comfortable with music that is virtuosic and difficult to play (your All The Wrong Notes and Mirror Smasher come to mind) as well as music that is not particularly challenging on a technical level. Do such things, as such, enter into your compositional calculus or is that, as an isolated criterion, not of interest to you?
As artistic expression it’s not particularly interesting to me, except to say that I do think hard-to-play music requires a certain energy level that is harder to attain in stuff that is easy to play. If I want something to feel really intense, I want the musician to feel really intense about it. Making it challenging can be a way to achieve that, but it’s not really the goal. It’s a means to the thing I am interested in, which is more like a musical-final-product sort of thing. I care a lot about that, and whatever means get me there in the most effective way are cool by me.
To follow up, you have a number of really lovely pieces that exist in various guises, whether acoustic or electronic. Quiet Harbor is a simple, peaceful chamber piece with acoustic instruments, evoking the sounds of the water, boats, foghorns, general mood of pastoral, calm space.. On Geology for electric guitar and electronic sounds is similar in its simplicity, its adherence to tonal centers, yet obviously created by a different sonic palette. Beach Song is almost shocking in its folk simplicity. (It reminds me of early 20th century Americana, with a hint of Ives’ modernism. Also some brash rock and jazz inflected interjections towards the end!) Is this simplicity a statement, a reaction, or just how music goes?
Well, it’s somewhat related to what I said about means in the previous answer. Those jazz and rock interventions in Beach Song are there because I wanted some dramatic contrast, and instead of merely using different harmony or rhythms or whatever, I thought I could get an even stronger contrast by mixing in things that are entirely foreign to what it seems like the language might be. I once heard Ted Hearne use the phrase “genre counterpoint” and that stuck with me. I kind of ask myself what my goal is, and then try to figure out the best way to achieve it, regardless of where that leads or comes from.
A note on On Geology: everything in that piece is guitar with some effects pedals. None of the sounds are synthesized. I don’t really care that they are or aren’t, and I’m happy to use whatever sounds are effective for the piece…but aren’t guitar pedals rad?
Anything else you’d like to add?
Just that this is far and away the most in-depth anyone has ever gone into my music, and I really, really appreciate it! Answering these questions was a lot of fun, and very interesting, and made me think about a lot of things. Thank you!
I also just want to take a minute to express my thanks to you, and the other New Classic LA writers, for contributing to this site. I had no idea when I started a concert calendar whenever that was that it would turn into this. And I’m thankful every day for the energy you all put in to keep it up.
Just in case anyone is curious about conflict of interest – I am, after all, the editor of this website – I wrote to all the writers and said “I’m having a concert that I want to have covered, but I’m very concerned about posting my own stuff on the site. I don’t want it to be self-serving or biased. Tell me what to do.” What you and Leaha came up with was the fact that if another composer putting on a show like this came to New Classic LA for an interview I would definitely say yes to them and put them through our normal process for getting coverage, which I was about to put myself through, so it felt okay. But if people don’t dig that I get it.
The next Tuesdays at Monk Space concert will feature a unique opportunity to hear almost all of Luciano Berio‘s famous Sequenzas – all in one place! Berio wrote these solo pieces throughout his life, starting in the 1950s up until his death in 2003. Numbering fourteen in total, they speak to the unique possibilities of almost every orchestral instrument. The concert will take place in the warehouse at Monk Space, with a simultaneous performance happening in the Annex across the hall. Audience members are invited to move between the halls at their own pace (and maybe stop for some wine in between).
An all-star cast of performers will be lending their talents to these works, and are graciously donating their performances to this fundraising concert. I asked some of the performers about their challenges, triumphs, and overall experiences with these pieces. Here’s what they had to say:
Elizabeth Huston – Sequenza II (Harp)
I find it fascinating how Sequenza II uses nearly every known extended technique for the harp, while simultaneously making the piece cohesive using thematic material. Often, when composers use too many effects and bizarre techniques, it comes off as just a showcase of weird sounds, not a thoughtful piece of art. This is not the case with Sequenza II, however, which really showcases Berio’s skill as a composer. I also find it incredible how many new rhythmic, melodic, and dynamic themes I find every time I practice the piece. It’s incredibly dense.
I first performed it on my own showcase of all the Sequenzas. Like any piece with this level of complexity, you can practice it indefinitely and it always has room for improvement, which is simultaneously frustrating and rewarding. It’s very significant to me because the challenge of putting together the showcase was, like the piece, incredibly frustrating and rewarding, and resulted in one of the most fun projects of my life. The research put into all of the pieces to create a cohesive show made me really understand the incredible thing that is the Sequenzas, and how the evolution of the Sequenzas in many ways maps the evolution of western music as a whole. I applaud Aron for taking this on!
Stacey Fraser – Sequenza III (Voice)
I think the most interesting and challenging thing is that you need to remain humble and continue to revisit the score despite the number of times you may have performed it! There really are so many notes, subtleties and nuances that it is essential for one to continue to study the score, vocal and silent practice are critical. This is not an improvised piece, Berio notated every note and every vocal gesture. I have been singing the piece since I was a student in the late 90’s and I think the fun thing for me is to see how the piece has matured in my voice over the last 22 years. I have the technical facility to do a lot more in the way of actually making tone yet the “young me” somehow still emerges every time I take the piece out to practice. Those were the days of rock and roll – Nirvana, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and BERIO!
I first performed the piece on the stage of Borden Auditorium at the Manhattan School of Music on February 25, 1995 as part of their annual Festival of New Music. I was the first act on the program and the concert closed with Tan Dun’s Circle with Four Trios and he was indeed in attendance, I of course had no idea who he was at the time. Not only was it my first time performing the Sequenza III but this also marked my New City debut. I was a young soprano from Nova Scotia, Canada having just completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. I found myself enrolled in the Master of Music program at MSM and among a sea of 90 amazing sopranos, graduate and undergraduate combined. I figured out within my first month that if I wanted a solo opportunity in my first semester at MSM, it would likely only happen if I sang music that the other 89 sopranos would not be so interested in learning. I hoped and prayed that that my U of T training would allow me to tackle such a challenging work. Claire Heldrich, percussionist and Director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble entrusted me with the piece, she hadn’t even heard me sing but somehow my passion for new music convinced her that I could do it.
A few days before the concert I came down with sinusitis/laryngitis but by some miracle I was able to sing – I didn’t realize until my teacher Cynthia Hoffmann called me the following Saturday morning to tell me that a photo of my performance and a favorable review by Allan Kozinn was gracing the front page of the Arts Section of the Saturday edition of the New York Times. Although not a new music aficionado of contemporary music herself, Ms. Hoffmann was proud and felt that the piece was the key to me opening up my operatic voice; I believe she was correct. It is always fun revisiting the work, and I can’t help but feel like that 20 something year old naive soprano from Canada is somehow reflected in even my latest rendition of the piece.
Mari Kawamura – Sequenza IV (Piano)
This piece casts of variety of small sections with different characters that are sequenced one after another, and this demands of the pianist a great deal of concentration and delicate control. As the section move on, you have to change the technique immediately: the touch, speed of attack, amount of body weight…these constant shifts are the most difficult thing about this piece.
I first performed this piece last March, so our relationship is rather new. The more I learn it, the more charming and playful I find it to be.
Matt Barbier – Sequenza V (Trombone)
For me the most interesting parts about the trombone sequenza relate primarily to it’s place in the canon. It’s really the first piece in the trombone repertoire that asks a player to redefine their relationship with one’s instrument. It also has an interesting, and somewhat dubious, history, but I suppose it’s best to leave somewhat off the record. The biggest challenge for me is picking the sequenza back up as these moments arise. I always find it an interesting dichotomy when I return to the piece because the it’s ingrained on my memory for the view of a much less skilled trombonist, so my return visits always find me questioning if I’ve made the musical choice I’m remembering to cover a lack of skill or to embrace a past vision. I always enjoy trying to access my 22 year oldish brain and try to sort what was going on in there.
I first performed it in the fall of 2007. For me it’s gone from a piece that I thought would, at one point, be a repertoire cornerstone, but, as my relationship to traditional new music has changed, has really become something I view as quite old (it’s 51 years old). As something of that age, I came to feel that it’s important to know, but ultimately something to be moved past. Now my relationship with it is primarily in teaching it as a jumping off point with students who are more interested in exploratory techniques. That said, the piece does have a very nostalgic place for me as when I started to learn it I ended up having about ten days to do so for a master class with Mike Svoboda. That moment laid the foundation for our relationship and Mike has been an incredibly helpful resource as I’ve found my own creative path.
Trumpet player Daniel Flores has his mentor’s copy of Sequenza X, with handwritten markings from Berio himself.
Daniel Flores – Sequenza X (Trumpet)
For me, Sequenza X represents a unique blend of both technical challenge, and an opportunity to express oneself in a freer manner than one might find on a standard piece of trumpet literature. As you can hear throughout the different sequenze, Berio offered both a consistent set of textures and effects he wanted created, ranging from trilled notes on one pitch, frantic scale runs, and extreme dynamic contrasts, to more instrument native ideas. In the case of Sequenza X, Berio had both the great jazz trumpeter’s Miles Davis and Clark Terry on his mind, and really, jazz was certainly on the mind of Berio throughout. Whenever you hear the interval of a minor third from D natural to F natural in the first gesture of the piece, you are actually hearing Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You,” sang by Nancy Wilson in 1964! So, what I find most interesting about Sequenza X is the blend and balance of the evolution of Berio’s original ideas, coupled with the taste and information of what makes sense in the trumpet tradition.
I first performed this piece in 2015 at the Chosen Vale International Trumpet seminar, which was quite a year! I had the opportunity to learn the piece from two very special artists, the great Thomas Stevens, former principal trumpet of the LA Philharmonic, who premiered the first iteration of the piece, as well as the famous Italian trumpet soloist, Gabriele Cassone. In fact, I had to perform the piece in masterclass for both of them, which made me quite nervous, but things seemed to work out! That night, Thomas Stevens gifted Berio’s manuscript of the third iteration of the piece, which we play today, to Gabriele…what a special night that was!
So, Sequenza X has a very close place to my heart in that my teacher in Italy, Gabriele Cassone, worked directly with Berio in the recording studio, to create what many of us consider to be the benchmark recording of the piece. In fact, the score in front of me on stage is a copy of Gabriele’s part with Berio’s personal hand markings, as well as penciled in meters that were the genesis of what would become Chemins VI, otherwise known as Kol-Od, which Berio wrote specifically for Cassone.
I would definitely consider myself a 2nd generation student of Berio in that the information Cassone received was directly passed to me, and my relationship with the piece certainly has evolved from one of understanding the basic architecture of the work to that of being able to interpret the piece on a much more personal level, really striving to play it from the heart…to not worry about being surgical with the technique, but to play each and every gesture with as much freedom as possible. It never will sound the same twice, and in my opinion, that is the beautiful result of Sequenza X!
Mak Grgic – Sequenza XI (Guitar)
I find that the most interesting characteristic of the Sequenza written for guitar is also its biggest challenge. This might be the case with the others as well, but amongst the plethora of notes used in all the crazy permutations, which sometimes seem a bit repetitive, there is a clear progression and pathway from one “tonal” center to another. These tonal centers are sluggish to shift, as each lasts for a few pages easily. Battling through all the virtuosic material with grace while underlining such a global progression of musical mass is what intrigues me most with this piece and is also a very tasking thing to do well.
I performed this piece for the first time at Jacaranda Series, and had less time to prepare it than I would have hoped for. At that time, which I believe was a year and a half ago, I had told myself that it will be impossible to land every single of the notes, so I went for “the gestures”. The performance was just as nerve wracking as it was successful. Now, a year or so later, I have had the opportunity to play it a few times around, and have grown fond of its intricacies, which I hope will speak with grace and vigor at the performance on Tuesday.
Ashley Walters – Sequenza XIVa (Cello)
As a kid, I grew up playing both cello and percussion and I think part of why I love this piece so much is because it allows me to play both! In many ways, Berio set the precedent for composer/performer collaboration making the unique characteristics and capabilities of each dedicatee a central theme in many of his Sequenzas. In the case of this final Sequenza, Berio incorporates these Kandayan drumming cycles, which were shown to him by the great Sri Lankan cellist, Rohan de Saram. I first learned this piece 10 years ago and it has been a staple of my repertoire since.
Tom Peters – Sequenza XIVb (Double Bass)
Sequenza XIVb is a re-imagining of the cello Sequenza, by double bassist Stefano Scodanibbio with the blessing of Luciano Berio. The most challenging part is learning Stefano Scodanibbio’s crazy pizzicato harmonic techniques, something he was famous for. This will be my first performance of Sequenza XIVb.
Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information about this event.
If there were any doubts that the LA new-music scene is in the midst of a surfeit of musical and aesthetic diversity, Synchromy and HOCKET’s evening of music, titled Crusoe, on November 5 should certainly quell them. The playing, centering on Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff of the piano duo HOCKET, and later adding a larger ensemble, was truly exceptional: precise, expressive, virtuosic where needed, yet playful, even comedic where possible.
The concert’s first half was comprised of four compositions for piano-four-hands by four local, living LA composers.
Alexander Elliott Miller’s Clock Smasher made for a striking and auspicious beginning. As its title might suggest, the opening motif, in four hands in ascent, burst open a vivid sonic palette that would traverse and transmogrify in interesting and musically satisfying ways.
In his program note Miller makes mention of the “… polyrhythms, many of which do have a sort of ‘tick-tock’ quality, like a room full of out-of-sync clocks.” This is most certainly accurate but it only begins to suggest the variety and vitality of harmonic and gestural realms it creates and explores. Clock Smasher teases us at first with a metronomic, pulsed music which evolves into something ominously hovering, then interrupted by syncopated rhythms infused with quasi-jazz harmonies. Even the mention of the “J Word” is sometimes frowned upon – personally, I don’t frown upon it – but regardless of what that might suggest to you, this is certainly not a jazz composition. But that isn’t to say that it doesn’t flirt with tonality, some very lovely melodies and, at times, even hints at something Bill Evans might have mused about at the keyboard. This music, as Miller’s notes suggest, does subvert its own idiomatic tendencies with those irregular rhythms, to my ear something of a this-is-definitely-NOT-jazz insistence, which then somehow, artfully evolves into a spacious, airy coda, punctuated by big, long and spacious chords. A poignant, striking work.
The next piece on the program was Marc Evans’ One Wandering Night. This piece was for a slightly varied configuration of HOCKET in that Ms. Gibson remained on the piano while Mr. Kotcheff moved to an electric keyboard and they were augmented by the addition of two melodicas (played by the composer and Nick Norton).
Fun fact: I went to a Joe Jackson concert when I was a kid, probably around 1980. He whipped out a melodica and declared it “The Instrument of the Future!” Perhaps he was right. I do hear a lot of melodica at new music concerts these days.
Evans’ piece was inspired by Bartok and that came through clearly enough. There is always the danger of being on the wrong side of the line separating homage from uninspired imitation. Fortunately, One Wandering Night falls decidedly on the right side of that line. While the melodicas played a sort of wheezing Eastern European Bartokian ostinato, definitely and pleasantly reminiscent of Bartok’s own take on modal folk melody, the piano and electric keyboard sputtered and interjected their own contrasting bits. I found this particularly satisfying as it reminded me, on a simple level, of Bartok’s own 2-handed piano trickery, where the two hands remain, stubbornly, in their own domain (key, mode, register) despite any discord that stubborn autonomy might produce. And on a more complex level, it reminded me of one of my very favorite pieces of music, Messiaen’s jardin du sommeil d’amour, a movement from his Turangalîla-Symphonie. While the melodic and harmonic technique is quite different in Messiaen’s masterpiece, a similar bifurcation and their disorienting affect is in play.
And playful it is. As the piece progresses, the tempo of the melodicas’ pumping melody increases and the interjections become more intense until, like a tired Hungarian hiker on the banks of the Danube, all four instruments slow down until they reach total repose. I must admit to being completely unfamiliary with Evans’ work but if this piece is at all representative of his musical sensibilities, then I definitely want to hear more.
Nick Norton told us from the stage that his Mirror Smasher was a number of things. He said it was “minimalisty” (and as such, “easy to write”), loud, and a work in progress. This piece was, again, for the four deft hands of HOCKET, and in fact even the pitch material itself was produced and ordered by them. The unordered (or, to quote the program, “played about a zillion different ways, as if looking at it in a broken mirror”) pitch set is:
H O C K E T = B G C D E F#
Yet again, HOCKET played beautifully. The piece begins with a clear tonal center, pulsing along as “minimalisty” pieces often do. But not long into the playing, a pre-recorded track of electronic sounds makes its presence known.
Norton’s choice of electronic sounds – both their timbre and idiomatic qualities – were a highlight for me. The combination of the smooth, hypnotic four-handed piano combined with the somewhat Kraftwerky buzzes, gently evolving into higher pitched electronic sounds reminiscent of some of the organ work in Einstein on the Beach really made for a powerful electro-acoustic marriage.
About halfway into Mirror Smasher the volume cranks up significantly. (The composer warned us of this before the performance. There will be no lawsuits.) If there was a hint of Einstein before the knob was turned, now the Einsteinian character felt married to something more like Heavy Metal, even Rock Opera. (Norton’s program note says that the title is a nod to Alex Miller’s Clock Smasher but I couldn’t help wonder if it might, even subconsciously, have any connection to The Who’s Do I Smash The Mirror, from Tommy. OK, probably not, but still…) OK, Rock Opera is misleading at best, demeaning at worst. But Mirror Smasher’s loud second half is formidable, powerful, and I could easily imagine it, as the composer suggested, being extended into a much longer Minimalist work. While different in pitched/melodic material, it reminded me, in a very good way, of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music in its powerful, gyrating and relentless sonic attack.
The program’s first half concluded with Jason Barabba’s The Distance of the Moon. The piece takes its title from a story in Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics of the same name. Calvino’s work is a collection of clever, fanciful tales, sometimes mischievous, sometimes romantic and nostalgic, often subverting our expectations if not the laws of nature as we’ve come to understand them. Calvino’s Distance of the Moon is a story about the moon, which, once upon a time, existed but a hop away from the Earth, but is now gradually moving farther and farther away. As the two spheres continue to distance themselves from each other, the inhabitants abandon the moon for the Earth. All but one of them, who decides to remain, forever, stranded alone on the moon.
Barabba’s musical interpretation of the story is itself a clever, fanciful tale. But unlike the rather light quality of the short story, it is a significant, weighty work. This is not to say that it isn’t imbued with moments of lightness – it is! – but it is not a mere bagatelle, but rather a significant musical and pianistic undertaking. Distance of the Moon was originally composed for a single pianist (presumably the two-handed kind) but as such it was almost impossible to play. I can all too easily believe this. Even in its two-person version, it is quite challenging.
Stylistically, it manages to explore a number of moods and idiomatic gestures yet still most definitely feel like a coherent, unified work. Moments of romantic, almost tonal passages intermingle deftly with strong, almost Schoenbergian dissonances. Lugubrious night music passages transition into stumbling, irregular rhythms with almost-BeBop melodic lines.
In the end, analogous to the story on which its based, Distance makes us feel the separation, the yearning, the tension hoping, however in vain, for a resolution. It ends, fragile and sparse, in a delicate and beautiful diad. Two notes at either end of the piano keyboard. A deep work, and one that I suspect would definitely reward repeat hearings and analysis.
Then came an intermission. If this had been a meal, I would have felt not full but satisfied. This was a chunk of concert that delivered four works of diverse character yet not, as a whole, illogically incongruent. But wait, there’s more…
The second half began with Mayke Nas’ DiGiT #2. (For the curious, I don’t think there’s a DiGiT #1.) For those who don’t know (I didn’t), Ms. Nas is a Dutch composer, born in 1972. I don’t know how her work wound up on this program but it was a perfect palette cleanser. DiGiT is, to my ear, entirely devoid of a single specified pitch for any of the four hands, or four forearms, or two foreheads that activate the piano keys. It is, to be clear, a humorous bit of performance, perhaps a commentary on what we consider to be “high art.” It also allows a piano duo to highlight a different take on virtuosity.
DiGiT centers itself around a variation of our childhood schoolyard hand jive or clapping game that involves an intricate collaborative clapping between two people (usually young girls), while simultaneously singing a rhyme. (Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Pop! was the one the Black girls bussed into my Queens elementary school taught me). DiGiT, however, is inspired by another favorite, Oh Little Playmate. It is not only a charming work – one that HOCKET obviously enjoyed immensely – but even a virtuosic one, albeit in a very different way. Piano keys are only played in clusters, but other sounds arise from the intricate interplay of the two pianists’ strikes against the palms, arms, and thighs of themselves and each other. The rhythms are at times satisfyingly smooth, even evoking soft shoe dance moves in their elegance and grace. It’s very much a performance piece, and, if you like, you can see an older performance of it (not by HOCKET, but by eighth blackbird, here:
The concert itself was billed under the title of CRUSOE. The grand finale, so to speak, was Frederic Rzewski’s composition of that name. Rzewski, born in 1938, is seen as a somewhat enigmatic figure of the 20th century avant-garde, someone who studied with “Uptown” and Princeton figures (Babbitt, et al.) yet whose own musical output butterflied effortlessly among genres widely, from serialism to minimalism. His works are coherent and easy to describe in and of themselves. But to describe what a “Rzewski piece” might be is near impossible.
As for Crusoe, where to begin? First of all, it was a delight! Which is not to say that it was necessarily such a delight on the page, but Synchromy upped the dose for our viewing pleasure. The stage was adorned with a backdrop of a deserted island, inflatable palm trees and beach balls. A large ensemble adorned themselves a la Castaway, with everything from light headgear to a stuffed parrot on a shoulder to, in the case of one player (Mr. Norton, on guitar) a full-on shark suit! It was most definitely an aesthetic choice, not one dictated by the score, and I found it to be a wise one which bore much (tropical?) fruit.
Crusoe employs a performing force of unspecified instruments, requires its players to sing and chant various lines about Robinson Crusoe, play percussion instruments, and do other things that might make a Musicians Union bristle. The vocal sections are interspersed among bright, quite lovely pointillistic instrumental episodes. As such, Crusoe is reminiscent at times of some of Harry Partch’s better works, albeit without the microtonal schema.
After various chants, instrumental interludes, spilling of doubloons, breaking of branches, dusting off of hands, tinkling of toy pianos, swords whirred as they are raised in the air, heads patted, feet stomped, the Narrator (sung by Justine Aronson) comes forth to chant the last line. At which point she is pelted by the ensemble with beach balls. The End! (I won’t call the Union if you don’t.)
As I said, Rzewski is enigmatic. And Crusoe is no less an enigma. Did this performance, and this piece, provide any insight into the tale of Robinson Crusoe? No, not really. Did it give me a sense of what Rzewski’s compositional voice was? Well, kinda sorta, inasmuch as only one of his pieces might. But more importantly, it was a perfect end to Synchromy’s ambitious concert, a perfect counterweight to an already diverse and profound selection of our community’s musical wealth.
Hungarian showstoppers took center stage at Disney Hall last night, in the second performance of the last concert program the LA Philharmonic is presenting in their 2015–16 season. The evening opened with Kodály Zoltán’s charming Dances of Galánta from 1933. Written on commission for the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society, the Dances draw on Hungarian folk tunes collected from the area around the town of Galánta (which is now located in Slovakia, not Hungary), where Kodály’s father worked for many years as a station–master. An elegant work that combines rustic vigor with neoclassical grace, Dances of Galánta falls into two sections: a plaintive, lyrical introduction lush with delicate woodwind solos, and a breakneck dance that leaps and tumbles with endless agility. The Philharmonic covered this territory with supreme élan, making its numerous virtuosic pyrotechnics seem transparently effortless.
Underappreciated instruments tend to stick together, so as a bassoonist, I’ve always had a soft spot for works for solo viola. I felt quite vindicated in that stance with the next work on the program, Bartók Béla’s viola concerto, completed posthumously from 1945–49 by Tibor Serly, the solo part here covered by the LA Philharmonic’s principal viola, Carrie Dennis. Following a similar pattern to many of Bartók’s later works, the viola concerto begins mired in snarling dissonances and progresses over the course of its twenty–minute span through a transcendent hymn–like space to a rousing finale blazing with life–affirming energy. The scoring is thin, almost ghostly at times, but this only makes the tutti passages even more thrilling when they arrive. I have been impressed with Dennis’s playing on numerous previous occasions at the Phil — her sinuous interpretation of the solo in the passacaglia from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes stands out in particular in my memory — but last night outclassed them all. Dennis played like a woman possessed, swaying and dancing with the music, at several points all but leaping into the air with the intensity of her playing. Bartók’s craggy chromatic lines can sometimes sound stagnant in less capable hands, but Dennis sculpted each of them into a gripping utterance, by turns lashing out, sulking away, and bursting forth with manic exuberance. Summoned repeatedly back to the stage by roaring applause, Dennis played an improvisatory paraphrase of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” as an encore — it may have seemed an incongruous fit for the rest of the program, but given Gershwin’s interest in European modernism, I thought it was subtly, and cleverly, fitting. If you ever get the chance to see her live, take it.
Next, after the intermission, came Apparitions (1959), Ligeti György’s breakthrough work of midcentury European Modernism. If the Bartók was sparse, the Ligeti was almost not there at all — the piece is built from scraps of sound of almost vanishing quietude. The strings whisper a twisting line of microtones, the winds hold a pungent chord, silence punctuates everything. Even in the livelier second movement, which includes moments of loudness indeed, there’s still a sense of breathlessness, a sense that the music is only just barely clinging together, a hair’s breadth from disintegrating into nothing. For all this, though, there’s a profound feeling of cheeky joy just beneath the music’s surface. This is something of a signature in Ligeti’s works; even at his most severe and strident, I always have the feeling that he’s simply overjoyed to be able to play with such a malleable thing of endless possibilities as musical sound. Stuffy purists might have turned up their noses at the quiet chuckles that ran through the audience at numerous points during its unfolding, but I think they had the right idea.
Ghostly textures were cast aside in the finale, Bartók’s suite from The Miraculous Mandarin (1919/24). The story of the original ballet, with its blatant orientalism and undercurrent of sexism, hasn’t aged well, but the concert suite has held up somewhat better, even if the trombones at the Chinese Man’s entrance are still uncomfortably pentatonic. Unlike most of the rest of the program, this is a dense score, bristling with multi-layered textures and aggressive discords, summoning up a disintegrating world on the brink of collapse. (The scandalous première may have taken place in 1926, but the bulk of the composition was done in 1919, just after the end of the First World War, a time when artists of all stripes were reeling from the psychic shock of the blood–drenched pointless horror of that conflict and still grappling with what it meant to make art in its wake.) With shrill woodwinds imitating car horns and jittery percussion marking an unconscious body being tossed down a flight of stairs, this is not a comforting score, and the Phil brought it to life with a grim brutality that matched the ballet scenario’s grime. Shortly after beginning the work, Bartók opined that the score “[would] be hellish music”; nearly a century on, the demons have not lost any of their power.
At one point towards the middle of Theatre of the World — a new opera with music by Louis Andriessen and a libretto by Helmut Krausser that received its world première on Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall with the LA Philharmonic playing under the baton of Reinbert de Leeuw — Pope Innocenzo IX asks cantankerously “how long is this going to last?,” followed not long thereafter by a petulant “I just want to leave!” Setting such lines in a contemporary opera always seems a bit like tempting fate, as there’s a very real chance some members of the audience will genuinely feel the same way. But the house was free of nervous chuckles at that moment, and no one seems to have taken it as their cue to leave.
Not that there wasn’t laughter at other points over the bizarre course of the evening. The Pope (played by Marcel Beekman) says those lines shortly after being transported to Egypt around 1400 BC, along with Athanasius Kircher (Leigh Melrose), a German Jesuit polymath of the 1600s; a twelve-year-old boy (Lindsay Kesselman), who later turns out to be the Devil; and Janssonius (Steven Van Watermeulen), Kircher’s publisher in Amsterdam. This follows mercurial scenes set variously in Rome and Amsterdam, and is followed in turn by a visit to Babylon, a phantasmagorical lovers’ duet, and a gristly scene where the Boy/Devil eats Kircher’s heart — just cut out of his recently deceased body — only to discover that Kircher’s soul has escaped his clutches and gone up to Heaven. If this sounds a tad bewildering, it was, though perhaps not unintentionally. In an extensive program note, the composer is quoted explaining that his score “is intended to provide a jostling, surreal, Bosch-like world summed up in the work’s description as ‘a Grotesque.’”
Demanding sense and orderliness from this, then, is probably a fool’s errand. The historical Kircher was a man of many interests, and over the course of his life published dozens of monumental tomes in a determined effort to summarize every piece of knowledge known at the time. Much of this “knowledge,” being based on 17th–Century methodologies, hasn’t exactly been supported by subsequent inquiry, but his works were wildly popular in his day, and there has been a recent resurgence of interest in his books, not the least because of their beautiful illustrations. The opera ostensibly takes Kircher as its subject, pairing his scholarly interests with the Jesuit conception of the world as a stage on which a cosmic play authored by God unfolds (hence the title), but the character of Kircher Krauser and Andriessen present takes the historical person more as a starting point for fantasy than as a goal to capture. They gives us a Kircher plagued by visions and demons, and while this seems like a clear reference to tropes associated with various Christian mystics, I can’t find any evidence that Kircher would be an appropriate fit for such things. The staging (by Pierre Audi) adds another uncomfortable wrinkle, with Kircher twitching and stimming as though he has some (unspecified) mental illness. It was a strange decision, and one I don’t really understand.
Regrettably, it wasn’t the only questionable staging choice. At numerous times, both Kircher and the Pope grope, grind up against, and otherwise molest both each other and various other characters. Only once is this even mentioned in the libretto, and even then has no impact on the rest of the plot, such as it is. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the director was using sexual content in a cliched attempt to be shocking and outré, with no deeper meaning in mind. The nadir for this was probably when three witches entered to disrupt the love scene in the second half. If you were deliberately setting out to write a scene to illustrate various Queer Theory ideas about how non-normative sexualities have been demonized in media, you could hardly come up with a clearer example than this. The two lovers — identified only as He and She (Martijn Cornet and Nora Fischer, respectively) — sing a rustic, folksy duet of rapturous devotion, the picture of monogamous heterosexual bliss. They are then set upon by the three Witches (Charlotte Houberg, Sophie Fetokaki, and Ingeborg Bröchler) who, dressed in dominatrix garb, sing a jazz–inflected diatribe against the male gender, urging the female lover to join their decadent world of liberated female sexuality and ultimately striking the male lover dead. (He gets better.) To drive the point home, the Witches are working directly for the Devil himself, and make their first entrance by climbing up out of a trapdoor in the center of the stage. Subtle.
In spite of all this, there is much that is attractive in this score. Andriessen weaves together numerous influences with a deft touch, producing something that feels like a thoroughly integrated whole for all the disparate sound worlds it integrates. If some contemporary composers have opted for a path of pastiche, blithely pasting patches of different styles together without evening out any of the seams (a choice which, needless to say, can be powerfully effective at times), Andriessen instead seems to be bending his masterful craftsmanship to smoothing over the gaps until it’s impossible to tell just where one style stops and the next begins. At one point, a brass fanfare that could have been quoted directly from Gabrielli bypasses centuries of music history in mere seconds to morph effortlessly into a figure Copland could have penned — this fanfare being built around the drooping, all but atonal trombone motive that opens the work, and that elsewhere is transfigured in the woodwinds into a march that keeps threatening to become the passage from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen Mahler recycles in the first movement of his first symphony. And yet it all feels like one; the unity of the musical fabric never feels in danger of coming unwoven.
Even more astonishing is the balance Andriessen has struck between the density of his orchestrational colors and the underlying transparency of the texture. Many of the sounds Andriessen deploys are gnarly composites of several instruments, rich treats for the ear to unpick as they pass by, duets for bass and contrabass clarinet alternating with electric guitars, synthesizers, and a large percussion battery, among many other sonic resources. And yet the complexity never goes to far; the score is never muddy, even in the ferocious tutti passages that erupt at various climax points. This music is a virtuosic display of the compositional dexterity needed to balance an intricate net of details at the smallest level against overarching clarity at the largest.
Still, at times it felt like I was listening to an incredible orchestra piece that someone had, for some reason, pasted an opera on top of. There’s a long tradition of composers cobbling together instrumental suites from their operas, and I sincerely hope Andriessen continues that practice. Theatre of the World is full of attractive music, any of which I would very much like to listen to again without having to watch a Baroque Pope dry humping one of Europe’s last Renaissance men while a sarcastic publisher looks on with a Devil wearing a Batman shirt and exercise pants. Unlike Innocenzo IX, I didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to close my eyes.
[NB this review discusses Fascism, Islamophobia, and sexual assault. The views expressed are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of New Classic LA]
A gentle undulation in the strings, a murmur of woodwind melodies, the suggestion of burbling water under a quiet, rural sunrise. So begins Ottorino Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, the 1919 tone poem that opened Friday night’s concert at Disney Hall and helped secure the composer’s fame. Under the baton of John Adams, whose “dramatic symphony” with solo violin Scheherazade.2 comprised the second half, the LA Philharmonic gradually blazed to majestic life as Respighi’s focus shifted from dawn to morning to high noon before ebbing back into the stillness of night. Perhaps because of the conductor, I found myself focusing less on Respighi’s sweeping dramatic gestures (though the low brass were truly electrifying at the Trevi fountain’s climax) than on the small repeated figures that make up much of the musical texture. The Fountains of Rome is not a minimalist piece by any stretch of the imagination, but under Adams’s baton, it felt like it could easily be rewritten as one.
Dispensing with the opening tranquility of Fountains, the next work on the program was the second of Respighi’s Roman pieces, The Pines of Rome (1923–4). Despite its reputation as a flashy, even trashy showstopper, the Phil found a remarkable depth of feeling, the ghastly collapse from the giddy Villa Borghese to the gaunt Catacombs opening a yawning chasm of grief and loss. Between Tom Hooten’s offstage trumpet and Burt Hara’s delicate-as-breath clarinet solo, the Janiculum offered a harrowing path to acceptance and resolution before the Appian Way returned to end the first half with brilliant splendor.
Adams made a point to refer to this ending as an act of aggression in his speech to the audience after intermission, as though to imply that The Pines of Rome is part of the world of male violence against women that Scheherazade.2 is supposedly pushing back against. If so, it would be the only specific instance he pointed to outside the Middle East, a choice with an uncomfortable tinge of Islamophobia to it. I certainly don’t mean to imply that the Middle East is a feminist utopia, but listing Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan as the only specifically named places where men commit violence against women plays into a pernicious trope that pits a more “civilized” West against a more “barbaric” Islamic world, blaming a religion for the evils of patriarchy and ignoring the history of Western intervention and destruction of progressive regimes in the area. It was not the only regrettable moment in the talk — at one point Adams seemed to imply that rape can develop into a healthy, consensual sexual encounter, which is a notion that cannot be condemned strongly enough. I’m not sure if that was Adams’s intent — I sincerely hope it wasn’t — but that it was unclear was one of many things that offered reason to doubt Adams’s full understanding of the feminism he is claiming to espouse.
Maybe it was for the best, then, that his piece was less charged that his rhetoric. The first movement was a slalom of irregular plonks and quiet rumbles, with the solo violin carving out jagged, irregular lines above the fray. In continuing his evolution away from minimalism, Adams seems to be picking up the mantle of texturalists like Unsuk Chin, though her tapestries cohere more and gleam with greater transparency than Adams’s offering — fans of his Naïve and Sentimental Music will be familiar with this language, even if the accent is altered somewhat. Towards the end, the music coalesces into a violent convulsion, the first obviously continuous line in the work.
Soft, overlapping string chords started the second movement, projecting less the violence Adams described than the religious ecstasy of Bernini’s Theresa. Likewise, the movement’s end was less a warm and heartfelt intimacy than a wan and colorless exhaustion. The third movement picked up where the first left off, violent unisons for the full orchestra alternating with inert lines from the violinist and discordant interjections from smaller sections of the orchestra. These included everything from a happily burbling conference of bassoons and oboes to a xylophone–led percussion display that could have come from a less avian Messiaen. This quasi-programmatic depiction of a group of “bearded men” condemning Scheherazade to death (because apparently beards correlate with misogyny?) was certainly rousing at times, but even by the end, Josefowicz’s lines were too abstract and disjointed to convey much in the way of noble resistance to an unjust fate.
Returning to a looser sense of narrative constraint, the last movement was the strongest of the four by far. Even so, despite Josefowicz’s consummate playing and some deftly intriguing klangfarbenmelodie between the tuned gongs and the cimbalom, the music felt sluggish and bedraggled. The whole piece clocks in at nearly 50 minutes, and it does not make good use of that time. There are many excellent moments scattered throughout the score — surprising timbres, spot-on chord changes, intricate rhythmic games — but they don’t add convincingly to a larger whole. In fact, they don’t really add at all. They merely happen, in sequence, continuing on with no clear goal or direction. The moments are fresh enough to keep the piece from being boring, but they don’t gel well enough to make it actually interesting.
Even though Adams seemed to be being rather tongue-in-cheek when he described “The Pines of the Appian Way” as being an act of aggression, I think he’s absolutely correct in this. In 1922, the year before Respighi began writing that piece, Benito Mussolini marched his army into the city of Rome to stage a Fascist coup d’état. In that historical context, it’s not hard to understand why Respighi’s militaristic celebration of imperial triumph was often co-opted as propaganda by the Fascist regime. It’s impossible not to get swept up in this triumphal conclusion — all doubts are swept aside in an unstoppable wave of cymbals and brass — and it’s only later, on reflection, that the chilling realization of how easy it is for music to sweep away such doubts casts the resolutely upbeat ending in a more sinister light. (It is comforting to imagine that we would be able to see through propaganda and remain unseduced by its charms, but a piece like The Pines of Rome should give us pause.)
Sadly, Adams misses this subtlety. His villains aren’t the heroes of their own story, they’re just villains. There is no equivalent, in Scheherazade.2, of beginning to be moved by a rousing speech only to pull back in horror when we realize its central argument; everything is marked clearly from beginning to end. In a piece ostensibly about a clever, wily figure who uses plot twists and cliffhangers to change her fate, there is precious little wit indeed. It’s not exactly a moralizing piece, but it does move with some of the same plodding predictability, motivated less by guile and cunning than a worn–out sense of dutiful obligation. Adams has done better in the past; let’s hope he does better yet again.
There are concerts that are intellectually stimulating, if a little emotionally dry. There are concerts that are perfectly unobjectionable, pleasant ways to fill otherwise empty evening hours. And then there are concerts that are just plain fun. The David Orlowsky Trio, performing last night in the Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, fell decidedly into the latter category. It’s been a long time since I’ve been at a concert that was so lively and engaging from start to finish.
Hailing from a small town in Germany, David Orlowsky — the trio’s clarinetist and frontman — began his musical career playing drums, but when his mother took him to a klezmer concert, he fell in love with the emotional and musical ambiguity of the style and switched tracks. In a pre-performance talk with Cantor Don Gurney of the Wilshire Blvd Temple, Orlowsky explained how these ambiguities — the ability to make a minor scale sound happy, or a major scale sad — reflect the ambiguities of life. “With this music, as in life, there’s always a tear in your eye even when you’re laughing.” (In the same conversation, he suggested that his mother might have encouraged this switch to get a reprieve from the noise of a teenager practicing drum kit.) Not long after, he joined with guitarist Jens-Uwe Popp and bassist Florian Dohrmann to form the David Orlowsky Trio, a group dedicated to performing klezmer-infused music they describe as “chamber.world.music”.
Even if that descriptor sounds noncommittal or half-baked, the performance was anything but. Orlowsky is an electrifying presence on stage, projecting an air of easy confidence built on a foundation of seemingly effortless technique. Vaulting from the earthy low register to the piercing upper notes with grace and agility, it’s hard to decide what’s most impressive about Orlowsky’s playing. It may be the range of his tone, from a clean, languid, expressive line to a raucous, growling squawk. Or it may be his dynamic control — upper-register clarinet gymnastics can easily become earsplitting in less deft hands, but Orlowsky can dance wildly in the stratosphere at a delicate pianissimo without sacrificing musical expressiveness. Either way, he does all this while also physically embodying the musical impulse, by turns standing in meditative stillness, strutting forward for a self-assured solo break, and breaking into gleeful foot-stomping little dances.
Despite his virtuosity, there was plenty of room for the other members of the Trio to shine. Popp’s guitar playing ran the gamut from full-bodied volleys of dense chords to delicate contrapuntal filigree, with a few choice percussive interludes thrown in for good measure. Dohrmann provided a solid harmonic and rhythmic foundation on bass, but also enjoyed some solo breaks of his own, nimbly working his way around an instrument that can sometimes be lumbering and ungainly. Like Orlowsky, they both do this without breaking a sweat, as though such dazzling displays are mere accidental by-products of casually jamming for fun.
A good ensemble, of course, is more than just the sum of its members, and here the David Orlowsky Trio shines as well. That they have been playing together for nearly 20 years now is apparent in their deep and automatic connection — they hand off melodies and shift the spotlight with an intuitive ease, and can turn on a dime from wild party to intimate prayer. Guitar, bass, and clarinet are obviously rather different instruments, but at times it seemed like they were all being played by one collective mind. (There was, for example, the striking opening and closing of their rendition of “Volach”, a traditional klezmer tune, where they all moved together in eerie and exact parallel motion, their eyes shut and calm, as though invoking a deep and ancient ritual known by heart.)
Virtuosity aside, the program was an excellent mix of music: Varied enough to avoid monotony, but similar enough to maintain cohesion. There were traditional klezmer tunes, homages to great klezmer clarinetists of previous generations, and a few original compositions by each member of the Trio itself. Many of the songs ran together into larger sets, but Orlowsky would periodically step forward to provide a lively mix of historical context and personal anecdotes. When introducing a set of arrangements by Naftule Brandwein, a klezmer clarinetist from the 1930s, for example, Orlowsky explained that Brandwein would turn his back to the audience during intense technical passages so that his competitors couldn’t steal his fingerings; in the set that followed, Orlowsky jokingly turned his back to the crowd, inspiring the bass player to do the same despite playing the simplest of stock basslines — Orlowsky then cheekily chased Dohrmann almost full circle, trying to get a clear look at what the bassist was doing. Scripted or not, it felt spontaneous, and was hilarious.
It seems unnecessary to describe every single arrangement played that evening, but some general comments are in order. In both the more lyrical first half and the rowdier second, there were some pieces that fell solidly into the klezmer genre, but there were others that lived up to the boundary blurring that the group’s “chamber.world.music” suggests. In the context of a klezmer-infused program, they felt right at home, but they could fit equally well into a number of different contexts besides. Orlowsky, who is not Jewish, is fairly explicit about not wanting to claim the mantle of Authentic Klezmer Musician — in the pre-performance talk he took pains to make clear that he’s not doing or claiming to do authentic, historically accurate klezmer music; rather, he said, the group plays “klezmer-infused music”, taking something of the spirit without making any claims of belonging to the underlying culture. (Some may still feel that this is an inappropriate appropriation. The lines between influence, appreciation, and appropriation are not always clear-cut, and reasonable people may well come down in different places when considering specific cases. I can only speak for myself when I say that the Trio’s use of klezmer sources didn’t bother me, though I freely admit to not being the most connected to my own Jewish heritage.) The results, by and large, felt truly syncretic: Not a mere gluing together of disparate bits and pieces, but a thorough blending, a construction of something genuinely new, with many threads weaving seamlessly into a multi-faceted whole.
Doubling back to where I began, this was a thoroughly delightful evening. If the David Orlowsky Trio ever passes through your area, it is well worth making the time to catch their show.
Andrew Norman’s star has been on the rise recently, and last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, curious listeners got a taste of what all the fuss is about. The LA Philharmonic, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, opened their program with the first movement of Play, a work he wrote for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in 2013. (The Phil will be playing the complete work in their next season.) While the movement’s designation as “Level One” may seem whimsical, the music is anything but. Without preamble, it plunges into a skittish, disjointed soundscape, an inhuman maelstrom of digital glitch and grain. There are no electronic instruments in the orchestra, but there might as well have been: the Norman is the closest thing I’ve ever heard to making live players sound like MIDI simulations.
Mixed in with the frenetic tumult are several slower interludes, but even here tenderness is not forthcoming. These interludes feel like examinations of the seams of something that has been pulled apart, as though Norman has stripped away all the flashy graphics of a big-budget video game sensation to show us not the human beings who poured their hearts into making it but the dry code they had written instead. Nevertheless, towards the end something human does seem to be trying to emerge. Several times an aching, arcing line rises up from the depths of the orchestra, a warm gesture that struggles at every moment to retain its integrity in the face of the digital wash, a feeble signal repeatedly lost to onslaughts of noise. Towards the end there is a brief moment of triumph when the woodwinds and brass burst into a Higdon-esque fanfaric dance, but the percussion — who, as per Norman’s program note, have been “playing” the orchestra in much the same way that the conductor “plays” the percussionists and the score “plays” the conductor — join forces in a coordinated attack, forcing the dance higher and higher until it disintegrates into a panicked mess, leaving only a few blips and bloops to bring the piece to a grim, heartless close.
Exhaustion reigns at the start of the next piece on the program, Alberto Ginastera’s first piano concerto. (Sergio Tiempo covered the ferociously demanding solo part from memory with admirable panache.) The first movement is essentially an accompanied cadenza for the soloist, and it shifts easily and casually between heavy, groaning interludes that barely move and whirlwind outbursts of helter-skelter activity. Although resolutely 12-tone in conception, there are repeated hints of late Romanticism peeking out from just below the musical surface. They never fully blossom — a harsh dissonance always drives them away — but their lurking presence adds an air of almost familiarity to an otherwise astringent score.
Rustled whispers dominate the second movement, which picks up in tempo but drops in volume to the very edge of audibility. Ginastera called the movement a “hallucinatory scherzo”, but given the way twists and winks out of sight, it’s more a mirage than a hallucination, the shimmer of air over asphalt on a scorching summer’s day. Disney Hall has the unfortunate effect of amplifying noise from the audience, and while that’s often inconsequential, here there were times where the music on stage was considerably quieter than the ambient volume of the house, causing several of the quieter flutterings to disappear completely, ghosts imagined instead of observed.
In the expansive third movement, calm reigns supreme. An opening viola solo leads to an impassioned outburst, but the subsequent music is sparse and quiet, a pointillistic wash of scattered tones. It is almost as if Ginastera has pulled apart a single one of Norman’s twitchy pixels and found an entire world to explore inside, stretching a single moment out towards eternity.
Coming directly on the heels of this gaunt meditation, the finale bursts forth with explosive vigor, a blistering, relentless toccata that calls to mind the thunderous scherzo of Aaron Copland’s Organ Symphony. The program notes quote Ginastera’s claim that “[t]here are no more folk melodic or rhythmic cells” in the music of his piano concerto, but the music of the finale has more than a few echoes of his earlier nationalistic ballets. Many of its practitioners might push back against this claim, but serial music is confined to a narrow emotional range. Its powers of joy and catharsis are limited, and when it tries to overstep those bounds, it often falls flat. Ginastera recognizes how tightly he is hemmed in by the musical language he is using, and doesn’t try to burst out of this box. Instead, he explores every inch of it and insists, resolutely and unapologetically, that even in these tight confines, there is still room to celebrate, to dance.
After the modernist onslaught of the first half, the second was a bit of a let-down. This half opened with John Williams’s Soundings (initially slated to start the program, but switched with Play at the last minute), a piece written to celebrate the opening of Disney Hall in 2003. I wanted to like it. Many in the classical community have an anti-populist bias that all film composers are inherently hacks, and I often find myself defending people like Williams, because I do think that much of his work is legitimately great. Unfortunately, Soundings isn’t. It feels half-baked, as though Williams couldn’t quite decide what he wanted the piece to be. At twelve minutes in length, it’s a little too long to be a simple celebration, but a little too short to fully grapple with all the material that Williams has in play. Especially with the Ginastera so fresh in our ears, the dissonances sounded wan and half-hearted, wrapped in cloying softness to avoid offending those with more conservative tastes. Had it opened the concert as originally planned, it might have held up better, but slotted in where it was it wound up falling rather flat. (If Soundings is ammunition for those dead set against film music, the encore was a strong rejoinder: A searing rendition of the “Love Theme” from Bernard Hermann’s score to Vertigo, an agonizing mix of loss and desire. I can’t help but wish that that had opened the second half instead.)
Still, Soundings did provide a nice transition from the caustic world of Ginastera to the diatonic evenness of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. I confess that I still prefer the lightness and transparency of the original chamber version, but there’s something to be said for the power that the full orchestra can bring to the brasher moments of the score. There were a few moments where the ensemble seemed on the verge of losing cohesion — despite its outwards simplicity, it’s a surprisingly tricky piece to put together — but on the whole the Phil gave a rousing account of an iconic work in the canon of American concert music.
We found the place all right, though it took a minute to find the door. It’s frankly genius, using a dance studio as a concert venue at night, since it functions like a blackbox theater. It even had a balcony, with squishy sofas to view the performance. It was completely sold out, standing room only. The lights dimmed and Nick Norton, one of Equal Sound‘s directors, ran up to the stage to make an announcement: the Michael Gordon piece, originally written as a reaction to 9/11, was moved to the beginning of the set as tribute for the recent attacks on Paris and Beirut. This simple and meaningful gesture hushed the audience, and the piece began.
Light Is Calling is pure and beautiful, just a solo violin and electronic sounds. It began with the thump of a slow heart, a tiny ray of hope in light of a tragedy. It sounded like music heard through pounding ears, muffled and throbbing like there’s too much adrenaline to calm down enough to pay attention. The violin cut through the pulsating track, the only pure and uninterrupted sound, singing, like glass rubbing on glass. At the end of the song, the sounds through the speakers were clearly manipulated synths, and yet they sounded human, like a choir singing underwater and far away. It was both an elegy for the lost and a paean for the survivors.
John Cage’s Radio Music is a (relative) oldie but a goodie. Oddly enough, it carried over the mood from Gordon’s song. The trick with Cage music is that one often hears what one wants; aleatoric music is more or less a blank slate, the most famous example being 4’33” of silence. I like to say that Cage’s music lets the listener put in more of themselves, sort of like paint by number rather than a filled in piece. Radio Music had the performers holding radios and taking turns twiddling the dial on AM and FM stations and turning up and down the volume. There were commercials for car dealerships, live reports on various sports games, a few pop songs, and a talk radio segment. More than half the piece was static. At the best of times, static and white noise have a kind of mystery, a potentiality to become or be imagined as anything else. Coming immediately after Light Is Calling, the static seemed like a metaphor for waiting to hear from people at the sites of the attacks, or the silence of the fallen.
Next up was Missy Mazzoli’s Harp and Altar. Having first been introduced to her work through her opera the LA Opera put on a month or so ago, it was affirming to hear a quartet piece that solidifies what I now recognize as her style of strident strings, tasteful pitch bends and slides, highly motivic, pounding syncopation in exciting sections, and recorded sounds blending and sometimes overtaking the live sounds. At first I thought the recorded voices were an illusion from open strings from the quartet. After a segment of minimalism in the middle, the voices crescendoed until it all but set the quartet in the background. The ending was absolutely turgid with the quartet grinding on their strings and the voices growing ever louder, and one could practically hear the grain in the wood of the cello. It ended suddenly, like inhaling after holding your breath for almost too long, just a cut and ringing out to nothing. I say here again that my mind was still on Paris and Beirut, and the fading resonance at the end was to me another reminder.
One cannot remain sad forever and the show will go on. I would describe Fog Tropes II by Ingram Marshall as if Stephen Sondheim wrote Lark Ascending as a track for use in the movie Pan’s Labyrinth during the rain scenes. The recorded sounds became windy, dissonant, and haunting; the strings gradually caught up from pastoral air to grim dirge, as if it only slowly dawned on them to change. Chattering birds added to the foggy forest mood, followed by didjeridoo and scratchy strings to make it more foreboding. A woman’s voice in the recorded sounds turned into an unreal animal. Near the end was a kind of double duet, with the violin and viola hocketting pitches and the other violin and cello intertwining melodies. The sound as a whole is how I always imagined a cursed forest would sound. Being from Seattle where the landscape is vastly dim forests, it felt weirdly like a slice of home.
You have probably heard M83‘s Grammy-nominated Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, which contains their hit “Midnight City,” one of their more danceable songs. A French electronic band now local to LA, their niche lies in chill grooves and ephemeral minimalism, often similar to Sigur Rós or Balmorhea. There were ten tracks in total, and given the seamless flow from one piece to another I inevitably got off in keeping track of where I was in the program. That said, Digital Shades is decidedly an album that ought to be heard together in one sitting, so maybe it is even better this way.
My notes from the performance stand as testament to the distinct sonority M83 possesses in each of their songs. It started with ocean waves, synth waves, and string quartet waves. It moved on to vocals moving softly like a stream, drops in the water, over tremolo cello, in the form of a passacaglia; the vocals never change, but the strings move around them. The performance featured a viola plucked like a ukulele, bird song, and white noise, and always sounded natural. Certain sections strongly reminded me of Iceland. Others sounded like people bumping into each other on a New York sidewalk.
An essential takeaway from this concert is that modern music is not inaccessible. While writing this, several people implored me to make this clear, for even they were surprised. It seems that many stereotype new music to be constantly unyieldingly harsh. Yes, I am one who enjoys hearing extended trombone technique solos and experimental jazz. I will be the first to admit that much modern music is an acquired taste. That said, a substantial corps of music in general, from Perotin from the Medieval era to Buxtehude from the Baroque to Milhaud at the turn of the century, can sound alien to our ears attuned to Nirvana and Taylor Swift, when all we listen to from ‘Classical music’ is Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. There is so much more. Live performers can play tonally and in tandem with recorded sounds and it can sound simply beautiful, no qualifiers attached. Some composers push the limits of possibility with sound, and they are, quite literally, the fringes. Equal Sound reminded everyone in the audience that modern music is not dissonant, just new.