As part of the LA Phil’s FLUXUS festival the LA Phil New Music Group teamed up with The Industry to produce John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2—a late work by the American Experimentalist that submits Europe’s great operatic repertoire to a radical fracturing and re-compiling that divorces all aspects of the music, production, and lighting from one another (and even from itself in the case of the orchestra and singers). As independent voices, music, lights, and staging overlay one another in a new, atomized context, the audience is left “wandering through the forest of opera” as director Yuval Sharon put it in a promotional interview with music advisor Marc Lowenstein.
Europeras 1 & 2 were originally conceived by Cage as a sending-back of the robust opera repertoire imported to American opera houses from Europe–albeit after undergoing a particularly Cagean postmodern treatment. Now staged at Sony Pictures Studios some 30 years later, it was perhaps appropriate that this imagining of the work introduced a further degree of de- and re-construction in which the audience was privy to action taking place off-stage, to the sides and behind the stage. This was effective in helping to incorporate the sounds of production (e.g., ropes and pulleys, rolling props, actors entering and exiting the stage) into the sound world of the work, though the pre-recorded tape component would have better suited the production had it been panned across the stage (perhaps even through separate speakers on stage) rather than across the audience. As it stood, the recording felt too removed from the action of the production to be perceived by the audience as an incorporated part of the work. The taped excerpts aside, though, the sound was good and The Industry rightfully resisted the urge to micromanage the balance of particular combinations for more traditional aesthetic effects. It was a clean and measured performance that carried a calm, well-rehearsed sense about it. If there was something to criticize musically, the performers themselves might have been given license for a bit more of the “delight in noticing” that Sharon and Lowenstein mention in the taped interview; instead of the wonder of unexpected moments of collision and harmony between elements, the various components felt very separate and compartmentalized.
Admittedly, I understand the impulse to let the individual components speak for themselves without heavy-handed coordination. But I think the trap that a work like Europeras confronts is that the absurdity can easily become admired for its disjunct comedy rather than for the beauty of its composite subtleties. It is no doubt that a work of this length and style will have moments that are funny, chaotic, disjointed. But other moments must be allowed to breathe, to embrace, to demonstrate that beauty and art arise naturally and without our intervention if we are open to experiencing them.
To quote Sharon once more, as he described this sentiment so eloquently: “Opening up to chance allows us to see that our perspective of things being as they are limits us to the potential of how things can be.” At moments I felt the production focused too heavily on the importance of chance itself as an anti-rhetoric or aesthetic, rather than as a tool for exploring and embracing new coincidences that resonate with us as humans. The moments that did revel in that admiration of how things can be, of suprise, of resisting ego, though, were powerful.
At this Tuesday’s installment of the Green Umbrella series, Susanna Mälkki led the LA Phil New Music Group in a program of some of the freshest avant-garde voices from across the pond. Representing composers from Germany, France, Italy, Finland, and the Czech Republic, the works shared a certain foregrounding of detail and reservedness that resonated with the spirit of the mid-late century European avant-garde. And yet, each composer brought a distinct style and set of tricks to the night; the result was a well-curated program that was both challenging and rewarding.
The first two works of the evening defined the outer ends of the night’s spectrum. Francesco Filidei’s Lamento for organ offered a murky display of the sonic boundaries of the organ, from earth-rumbling lows to shimmering flourishes smeared by the hall’s natural reverberance. On the other hand were six (of the dozen) songs from Arnulf Herrmann’s chamber song cycle, The Call. Marc Lowenstein stepped in to conduct on the Herrmann, joined by baritone Sean Michael Plumb who was excellent, both in the quality of his voice and the artistic choices he made to convey the longing, fear, and paralysis of the text. Where the Filidei approached an abstract and observational piece of sound art, Herrmann’s work invoked a more traditional approach to both the overarching form and the vocal writing—an effective choice given the content and medium.
The remaining works lived somewhere between, distinguished less by difference of intention than by their subtle sonic magic tricks (partially responsible for the program conveying a strong sense of European rather than American avant-garde). Rounding out the first half was Lotta Wennäkoski’s Hele, an eccentric and energetic respite from the broodiness of the first two works. Wennäkoski utilized the slide whistle amid frantic and agile ensemble writing to sometimes atmospheric, sometimes cartoonish, but always surprising effect. In Miroslav Srnka’s Overheating, it was instead the sweeping percussion and the accordion sustaining through musical ebbs that charged the sound world of the ensemble with something extra. Both works demonstrated careful attention to orchestration and technique on the part of the composers, which the LA Phil New Music Group and Mälkki highlighted with clear, transparent performances.
The standout of the program was the final work, Yann Robin’s Übergang II. It too employed some tricks—not only in the use of the piano, percussion, and harp but also in the combinations of extended techniques used throughout the ensemble—but what enraptured the audience was the genuineness of its musical gestures and ideas; Robin’s writing felt less like an artifact of the potential sounds embodied within an instrumentation, and more an effort to musically approximate something more personal, emotionally complicated, and human. There was a lot of the composer in the work, so to speak, which is often absent in modern music (and perhaps why it can feel alienating to the audience), and the ensemble (too) seemed moved by this connection. The result was a performance equally poised, yet infused with a certain emotional weight that encouraged a bit more risk on the part of the ensemble. That risk combined with the score’s intelligent use of textures and careful timing of events to produce an outstanding performance that embodied so much of the tension embedded in the avant-garde; how (or if) to remember the past, how (or if) to proceed in a tradition.
The 2017 edition of The Industry and wild Up’s First Take is right around the corner. On February 24, the world’s most audacious opera company presents scenes from works-in-progress by six composers. Full details on that are up at theindustryla.org/projects/first-take-2017. Over here at New Classic LA, we’ll repeat our tradition of one composer interview per day in the week leading up to it. You can read all of the interviews – including the 2015 interviews – at newclassic.la/firsttake.
Today we’ve got composer, conductor, and Industry music director Marc Lowenstein.
Describe the work you’ll be presenting at First Take.
The work I’m presenting at First Take is an excerpt from a new opera called The Little Bear. It’s an opera about the power of children’s stories and what those fairy tales can reveal about the psychology of time, change, loss, and love. So it’s a family opera: not really a children’s opera, though hopefully understandable by older children. In this wonderfully re-invigorated era of new operas, I’ve noticed that there are not many works being written about or for families and I am very drawn to the subject and the challenge it presents in bringing those themes to the operatic musical stage.
What’s your background in writing opera, or for voice?
I grew up as a singer and later became a conductor and a composer and finally a teacher as well. So, I’ve always lived in and around the operatic world. I wrote an opera about ten years ago based on the movie The Fisher King, and it was a good learning experience. Someone somewhere once said something like “everyone should be forgiven their first opera” and I still feel fondly about that one, and think of it as a learning experience. And I’ve always been interested in new operas, and feel very fortunate to work as Music Director of The Industry with Yuval. At The Industry, I’ve worked with a wonderful array of composers with different approaches to opera and I love seeing wildly differing effective ideas of how to bring music and drama to life in our present day. I particularly enjoy seeing other composers frame their individual voices in this world of amazingly diverse musical styles, and I’m enjoying the process of finding the right compositional voice for The Little Bear.
Does your composition process change at all when writing in this medium?
Not really. A lot of my non-operatic music is in fact a bit operatic. One thing, though, about writing opera is a slight uncertainty as to how all the pieces really do fit together in real life: in an actual, staged opera there seems to be a need for some accommodation for how dramatic storytelling contributes to and shapes the perception of musical time. That is a fun conversation to find oneself in the middle of, and one great thing about First Take is that it can show you relatively early in the process what in that dialog is merely theoretical and what might actually work.
What else are you working on that you’d like people to know about?
I’m already expanding the Little Bear a little bit for a concert at REDCAT on April 6th that will also include a solo cantata for Jodie Landau and the premiere of a cello concerto for Derek Stein. And then there is the rest of The Industry’s exciting 2017 season that will include Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar with the LA Phil Green Umbrella series and the premiere of Andy Akiho’s and Yuval Sharon’s Galileo in September, two projects that I feel particularly passionate about!
Check back tomorrow for our next interview, and get your First Take tickets at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/first-take-2017-and-second-take-bonnie-clyde-tickets-27916364598.
Composer, singer, and percussionist Jodie Landau‘s new record with wild Up is now out on Bedroom Community records. There was a great listening party at Pieter Space last weekend (photo below), and the official release concert is this Friday at 9 at the Bootleg. Jodie’s been busy. In addition to commissioning works from fellow composers for this album — guess that was a while ago now, actually — he’s been world hopping to perform with Valgeir Sigurðsson and other Bedroom Community musicians, re-arranging the record for live performance, getting ready for wild Up’s NY debut next week, and, thankfully, answering questions from me. Here’s Jodie.
So what’s happening this weekend?
This Friday, we’re celebrating the release of our new album you of all things at The Bootleg Theater presented by Live Arts Exchange. I’ll be joined by members of wild Up and four singers to perform my pieces from the album, other original compositions, arrangements of Bjork and My Brightest Diamond, and a piece written for me by Valgeir Sigurðsson.
Featured in this performance are Andrew Tholl, Adrianne Pope, Linnea Powell, Derek Stein, Brian Walsh, Archie Carey, Erin McKibben, Richard Valitutto, Alison Bjorkedal, Ivan Johnson, Sam KS, and singers Anna Schubert, Justine Aronson, Sarah Beaty, and Lacey Jo Benter. With sound by Nick Tipp.
About the record: can you share the backstory on how this multi-part collaboration came to be?
I met Graduale Nobili, the Icelandic choir featured on the album, in 2013 while they were performing with Bjork on her Biophilia residency in LA. We got to hang out after the shows, and even had a pool party, at which they performed, I performed, and we sang a little thing together.
After hearing their beautiful, unique sound, and getting to know them, started to think, what if I went to Iceland to work with them? A few months later I sent them a message asking if they’d be interested in doing a concert and/or recording. At the time I wasn’t sure what this could be. When I mentioned this possibility to Chris Rountree, he eagerly said “I’ll conduct!” and we then both agreed that we should bring members of wild Up. With Chris and wild Up on board suddenly this crazy idea was legitimate.
But then… where do we record? We thought of no one else but Valgeir and Greenhouse Studios. To our pleasant surprise, Valgeir had a few available days and was intrigued by this ambitious project.
In July 2013, we ran an Indiegogo campaign to help cover the costs of the recording, the choir and our travel. We are so forever grateful to all those who donated to help make this project come to fruition.
You picked a diverse group of composers to write for you for this project, yet the album sounds very cohesive. Was that Valgeir’s doing? Or did you discuss a certain sound or direction with the composers you worked with?
Beyond the options of instrumentation/players, I actually made a point not to give Ellen, Marc, or Andrew any specifications regarding what they wrote. I wanted them to write anything their hearts desired.
The cohesiveness, I think, stems from a several things. For one, all of these pieces were written with these players in mind. They each have such a distinct sound and ways of interpreting the written material and moments of improvisation. And of course, the choir’s presence and unique sound throughout definitely helps to tie these all together. And then there’s all the exceptional work that Valgeir and his co-engineer Paul Evans did in capturing, editing, mixing this record.
I heard a bit about the choir learning everything by rote rather than reading parts. Can you talk a bit about working with them?
Working with them was unlike anything we’ve done before. Many of them have been singing together since they were very young and they have this impeccable unified, pure, and gorgeous sound. It was quite insane and wonderful teaching them an hour of new music… in a week. And some of this music is really hard. But they all pulled through so excellently. As group, they were fascinating. Some of them seemed to have perfect pitch, while others didn’t really read music, or at least music this complex and often polyrhythmic, but yet learned it all by ear.
There’s a certain androgyny in your singing voice, and some of the lyrics discuss gender – particularly striking is the line “I am neither boy nor girl.” We’ve been friends a while, yet gender or sexuality have never come up in our conversations. It’s not so much that I’m interested in your particular preference or identification, but I’m very interested in how whatever that may be influences your art making.
Ellen chose Mandy Kahn’s text for her piece based on one of the first conversations she and I had. We were talking about writing operas, and she asked what topics I was interested in. Ideas of gender, gender fluidity and transgender came up. And, I think, both she and I relate so heavily to these words “I am neither boy nor girl, I am a figure that has known and lost a love.”
Gender is definitely a major topic in my life, and yes I’m surprised it hasn’t come up in our conversations. So thanks for asking about it. And I’m happy to be quite open about it and give you a bit of my personal history.
To start, my parents tried to have a girl and they got me, “the boy with long eyelashes” as my mom says. Also, my name is Jodie. As a kid, I occasionally received girl’s trophies in sports leagues (I’m a little bummed I didn’t keep them). In high school, the class roster had an M or F next to each name, and mine mistakenly had an F next to it. Substitute teachers would get very confused when they called “Jodie” and I raised my hand. Their double takes were priceless. And, I’m occasionally asked if Jodie’s my real name, or if it’s a nickname or short for something.
Most Halloweens I dressed up in some combination of my mother’s clothing (which unfortunately doesn’t fit me any more). I even went to prom in a dress, because I wanted to go as a girl without a date, because it strongly upset me that a few friends hadn’t gone the year before because they didn’t have a date and/or a guy hadn’t asked them. Also, for whatever reason, I felt more comfortable and was able to have more fun going to prom in a purple dress and heels.
Last anecdote. From 8-13 years old I played hockey. My teammates listened to music together, often rock and rap. We’d sit in the back of the car and curse along with Eminem. But I also taught a few of them some choreography to dance and song “I’m gonna ruge my knees and role my stockings down…” and the rest of the Chicago musical soundtrack.
Anyway… all of this to say that I’ve never quite felt like “boy,” “guy,” “man,” or “male” accurately represents all of me, as I don’t always relate to meanings people associate with them, and I’ve received a lot of, let’s say, interesting, or maybe influential comments about my gender and/or sexuality based on the way that I behave and interact with the world, simply because of my name, or even my singing voice. (A youtube comment from several years ago reads “He sounds like a little gay girl”. I found this oddly flattering.)
These are all certainly a major part of my identity.
Now, I’ll stop myself from continuing with the anecdotes — I could go on forever — let’s talk about gender as it relates to my music.
All of my pieces on the album, are sung from the “I” perspective and sung to you. I, myself, never directly bring up gender or gendered pronouns. I hope that they can be sung, or heard, or felt from any one perspective to another. So I think this adds to the sense of androgyny, along with my own personal androgenic tendencies, and the fact that I’m quite often singing in my upper range.
Along with these ideas of gender and androgyny, sexuality is also certainly an influence. Though, by sexuality, I don’t quite mean sexual preference, especially not in relation to questions like “do you like men or women?” as the nature and structure of this type of question is quite limiting (and super binary). Rather, a lot of this music is about allowing for any type(s)—or maybe, my type(s)—of sexuality and sensuality.
You’ve been, from a career standpoint, on the up and up lately, and of course signing with Bedroom Community is going to be huge for both you and wild Up. Has anything changed in how you work as a result? Does music making feel any different to you now than it ever did?
What a great question. Certainly remains to be seen. But, thus far I certainly feel my music making beginning to enter the “professional realm,” whatever that means. In some ways, both in joining Bedroom Community and just in working with wild Up, there is a different sense of care and thought into what I’m presenting to the world and why.
I recently performed in London with Bedroom Community, and it was such a warm welcoming and a wonderful experience. It was so fascinating to thrown in the midst of this tight-knit group. They played new music, and older music, and new versions of older pieces that are in their BedCom “repertoire”. They way they engaged with the music and the charts, was some beautiful hybrid between an ensemble and a band. This made me feel right at home. So in regards to your question, maybe joining Bedroom Community is actually going to help keep music making that beautiful hybrid that I so enjoy… while of course elevating it quite a lot, as they are so wonderful and incredible!
What’s next for you?
This Sunday I head to the east coast with wild Up for our NY debut. Then, I go to Iceland to perform off venue shows during Iceland Airwaves with Bedroom Community. After that, we’ll just have to wait and see 🙂
Anything else you’d like to add?
Info on the release concert this Friday is up at liveartsexchange.org/event/jodie-landau-wildup-you-of-all-things. More on the record is up on Bedroom Community’s site, at bedroomcommunity.net/releases/you_of_all_things.
I was about to post something about KCRW streaming The Industry’s recording of Christopher Cerrone’s Invisible Cities (which you can check out by clicking here) when I discovered that a track is already available via bandcamp, and that they’re releasing a gorgeous-looking wooden box set, designed by Traci Larson.
So, here’s that track:
And here’s a bunch of info about ordering the record (produced by – you guessed it – Nick Tipp), which comes out on November 4: