In an era marked by emphasis on thematic programming, sometimes it seems the theme counts more than the music, or that the music serves the theme. When all goes well, however, a theme can lend insight and bring pieces together synergistically, where they are better together than apart.
The latter is what happens on Nadia Shpachenko‘s new CD, Quotations and Homages. Noticing that some of her favorite composers had written pieces based on existing music, she conceived of a program to celebrate the practice of composing with quotation. The next step was to select the right repertoire, and to commission the rest.
“I approached composers I know and like and commissioned the music to fit this programming concept,” explained Shpachenko on the program’s genesis.
The result was a body of works that simultaneously looks backward and forward—a program that honors existing traditions while venturing forth into new terrains of composition.
Opening the recording with an uplifting brilliance–by turns motoric and ecstatic–Tom Flaherty’s Rainbow Tangle draws on the seventh movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which “immediately came to mind” when Shpachenko commissioned the work. Flaherty transforms the gentle waves of Messiaen’s piano writing into a mosaic of rapid-fire repeated notes, interspersed with rapturous chordal outpourings. Electronics heighten the piano part and add unexpected dimension, much as that of the original quartet’s instrumentation.
The program takes a turn for the dark and stormy in Missy Mazzoli’s Bolts of Loving Thunder, an offshoot of the Rhapsody in G minor by Brahms. Recounting her own “enthused but sloppy” renditions of the work as a developing pianist, Mazzoli draws on many of the same gestures Brahms used in the Rhapsody: chordal crashes, energetic surges of arpeggiation, and flurries of tremolando activity. A unique statement emerges, at once Mazzoli’s, yet clearly welling up from the work’s guiding source material–a kind of séance of Brahms through music.
Next up, Peter Yates’s Epitaphs and Youngsters, proves how dynamic and flexible Shpachenko’s homage concept turns out to be. The work contrasts in mood and means with the preceding music, and that to follow. Generally introspective, the work draws on varying musical styles to convey the essence of figures important to Yates, in this case, John Muir, W. C. Fields, Glenn Gould, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Shpachenko intones text quotes in a lyrical sprechstimme with feeling and understanding. The artwork of Shpachenko’s own sons also served as inspiration, hence the “youngsters” in the work’s title.
In another commission by Shpachenko, Vera Ivanova’s Six Fugitive Memories reflects on a range of piano repertoire in a collage of six short movements. Ivanova cleverly reinterprets essential fragments by Debussy and Satie (whose music coalesces like two colliding galaxies in “Debutie”), Prokofieff, György Kurtág, Morton Feldman, and Galina Ustvolskaya at her most formidable.
In a reverse palette-cleanser of sorts, Nick Norton’s startlingly compact work, Piano Piece for Mr. Carter’s 100th Birthday, iterates every note on the piano exactly once. The highly virtuosic work of nine seconds in length effectively divides the album down the middle, sending the second half off in an energetic burst of raw pianistic power.
Taking the album down a surreal turn, Adam Borecki’s Accidental Mozart injects a healthy dose of humor with his terse variation set after Mozart’s Sonata Facile, K. 545. Each variation is inspired by an alcoholic beverage (never mind that most who play the Mozart are underage), including Dirty Martini, Cheap Boxed Wine, and Absinthe. Borecki conveys the spirit of each drink in vivid musical depictions, proving that homage need not be serious. Shpachenko has performed the work with a slideshow of clever pop-art slides to accompany each variation. The slideshow adds significantly to the work, but even as audio alone the work belongs on the disc and including it was the right decision. Shpachenko’s sensitive rubato and probing creativity fill the gap of missing visual cues.
The genius of this album is in its effortless flow. Each work follows naturally from one to the next. Though unified by the common theme of homage, each piece is wholly individual and unrelated to the others, enabling continuous listener attention.
Daniel Felsenfeld contributed in an area heretofore untouched on the album: rock, with all its drive and defiance. The seventies band Velvet Underground served as impetus for his Down to You is Up, where Felsenfeld channels the spirit of his younger years driving the streets of Los Angeles while listening to the subversive band. The work, and Shpachenko’s committed rendering, satisfy in the visceral sense expected of rock at its best.
Shpachenko is joined by top pianists in their own right (Genevieve Feiwen Lee, Vicki Ray, Aron Kallay, Sarah Gibson, and Thomas Kotcheff) for the final two numbers on the disk.
James Matheson’s Bagatelle commemorates Beethoven, composer of many bagatelles, though here it is the Eroica symphony that provides the quotation vocabulary. Perhaps also an homage to Sonata form, the piece “pulls apart, recontextualizes, stacks, and layers” the quoted music, and does so on a distinctly Beethovenian scale: 6 pianists on 3 pianos.
The album concludes impactfully and intuitively in a work by Tom Flaherty, his Igor to Please. Commemorating Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the work stems from the famous “Augurs of Spring” chord, but only hints at it. A work as inherently diverse as the album itself, it is scored for six pianists on two pianos, two toy pianos, and electronics.
Though derived from the Rite, Flaherty’s Igor bears little resemblance to the music of Stravinksy. Instead, it conjures the macabre world of pagan Russia and its barbaric springtime rituals in a way that resonates with contemporary ears. Utilizing differing musical languages and very different musical forces, the two composers attained similar achievements: to edify, dazzle, perhaps trouble, and certainly please.
Quotations and Homages undoubtedly comes at great effort on Shpachenko’s part. The concept is creative, the program well constructed, and Shpachenko’s pianism is of the highest caliber. The recording is sure to remain a mainstay of the contemporary discography for posterity.
Quotations and Homages is available on Reference Recordings at referencerecordings.com/recording/quotations-homages and from all major online music retailers.
String quartets have an extensive tradition, not only in their repertoire and performance practice, but also in characteristic sound. Accordingly, mixing electronics with string quartet is tricky because the balance has to be just right: Too much electronics and the strings are felt as accompanying the speakers, too little and the electronics are commenting beneath a string quartet. Indeed composers might want those effects from time to time, but creating them effectively and intentionally is a delicate procedure. On December 16th, People Inside Electronics presented the Eclipse Quartet in a program of electroacoustic works—all from within the last eight years—that addressed various approaches to handling this precarious balance.
Several pieces took the approach of quartet writing supplemented by subtle electronics that became part of the ensemble itself, often felt rather than heard explicitly. Kojiro Umezaki’s (Cycles) what falls must rise benefitted greatly from this atmospheric type of electronics, which consumed the strings and shakuhachi (performed by the composer) in a scored reflection of touching, personal energy. Ian Dicke’s Unmanned wove granular soundscapes into the agile ebbs and flows so natural to string quartets. The ensemble’s deep understanding of contemporary music was especially apparent in the careful unfolding of Dicke’s textures; straying further and further from the acoustic realm, the quartet gradually withdrew musically and physically until repeating harmonies devolved into electronic noise amid an empty stage.
Among this group of works, Tom Flaherty’s Recess best showcased Eclipse Quartet’s precise and invigorating virtuosity: Driving rhythmic hockets and frenzied, fragmented melodies sandwiched a gorgeously slow middle movement. Flaherty’s work can be performed with or without the electronics and so it is not surprising that it employed the most inconspicuous electronics of the program. And the piece was all the better for its electronic restraint; the writing achieved brilliant, contrapuntal balance between foreground and background throughout. The quartet returned the favor by savoring every raucous tutti and playful imitation with both composure and excitement, thrusting the audience into an intermission of wine-drinking fueled by enthusiasm rather than by awkward, idle small talk.
The bookends of the concert were works of more experimental nature, treating the electronics as an independent—even oppositional—feature rather than an integrative one. Especially striking was the opening piece, the world premiere of Zeena Parkins’s Spirit Away the Flesh. A mosaic of romantic, shimmering and agitated moments emerges from a broadly spatialized atmosphere of field recordings and voices. Recorded spoken texts address the creative process of abstract artists Eva Hess, Hilma Af Klint, and Richard Serra; inquisitive and curious creative impulses are voiced in densely-packed aphorisms. The performers cleverly emphasized the music’s own synthetic and exploratory nature, conveying a coherence among Parkins’s many appropriated influences that felt fresh, individual, and hip from beginning to end.
Parkins’s spacious and unforced writing made way for a Mari Kimura’s I-Quadrifoglio, an active and linear four-movement prayer in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. Kimura’s movements (“Faith,” “Love,” “Hope,” and “Luck”) each playfully interacted with the electronics, ranging from subtle synthetic backgrounds in the first movement to hopping echoes, sweeping filters and harmonizing lines in the later movements. An improvisatory style was delineated by a few moments of stunning cohesion: A melodic doubling between first violin and cello, the violin inheriting soaring, ascending sweeps from the electronics, and a teasing callback to the elegant opening harmonies in the final movement.
The program closed with Missy Mazzoli’s haunting ode to the Brooklyn Bridge, Harp and Altar. Electronics also play against the ensemble here, most of all in the moments where Gabriel Kahane’s voice materializes, singing lines from the Hart Crane poem from which the piece takes its title. But the synthesis of the two contradicting sound worlds is seamlessly brokered by Mazzoli’s signature language: Static yet driving, eerie yet loving, simple yet complex. The use of a clicktrack left something to be desired, but the performance by Eclipse Quartet unfurled dramatic waves of suspense and resignation throughout. The result was an emotionally tumultuous conclusion to the concert, but also one that poignantly reaffirmed the fundamental question of the night: When the performers can themselves convey such deep musical meaning, what role can (or should) technology play? Is it accompanist? Performer? Sound effects?
If you looked around the room at Throop Church during the performance, the incredible amount of work People Inside Electronics did to stage this program was readily apparent. The chairs, performance space and speakers were thoughtfully laid out. The space created was intimate but exciting. The people, cables, mixing boards, computers, light stands and video cameras waiting at the ready betrayed the incredible amount of care afforded every detail. And it payed off: The sound was excellent, the electronics seemed flawless, the concert carried an air of comfortable professionalism that put the audience in the right frame of mind for an adventurous program. At musical commencement, the audience witnessed the members of the Eclipse Quartet do their part, leaping around the fingerboard and pulling the bow heavily through the strings. But like so many modern concerts, that other, binary, member of the ensemble was invisible save a coy, glowing apple hovering above a table of audio equipment. We didn’t see her sweat. We didn’t see her frantically reach to execute the code, or run out of breath as she swept filters across delay lines. She was the buffering, multi-channel elephant in the room, but we didn’t get to see her balance tenuously on the ball.
I enjoyed the program immensely, but it seems to me that this is the missing aspect we must reconcile in order for electroacoustic music performance to move forward. The music is already there: The writing and use of electronic sounds was intricate and balanced and clever, and the Eclipse Quartet showcased impressive chops and huge ears. But the audience needs to experience the exertion, the risk, the capacity to fail of all essential elements of a performance—we need to see the jungle of cables, to doubt them, in order to really appreciate when they work. Of course, sometimes a composer wants to hide technical facets of a performance from the audience, but the impact experiencing a performance has on an audience’s perception of the music must be rightfully acknowledged and incorporated into compositional practice. I left “Electric Eclipse” encouraged that electronics have matured beyond mere exploration in contemporary music–they were meaningful, emotional and powerful musical-rhetorical devices. But I also left confident that the performance practice of electroacoustic music is now the pressing limitation to its further development. It is time to abandon the stoic, screen-lit face as an acceptable prime form of electronic music and explore ways for technology to critically enhance the performance of music, rather than just the sound of it.
Next Tuesday, December 12, violist Diana Wade will be performing a solo recital at Monk Space, with some guest appearances from violist Linnea Powell and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Beattie. I had the opportunity to ask Diana some questions about the program, working with composers, and thoughts about performing and composing. Here’s what she had to say:
The title of the program is “You Made It Weird.” So, how weird is it?
SO WEIRD! HA. Actually, I think weird is in the eye (or ear, as the case may be) of the beholder and on some level I don’t think anything on my program is weird. It’s only weird if you make it weird. That being said, there’s some pretty strange stuff on the docket: I don’t imagine most people have heard an entire vocal duo in vocal fry, let alone anticipate hearing that at the top of a “viola recital.” What I love about this program is that no two pieces really embody the same aesthetic, so I’m really trying to go down the rabbit hold of each sonic world so far that maybe the strange, at very least, starts to make sense? I get bummed out when I hear that people feel alienated by new music or classical music, in general. I’m not at all planning on doing a lecture-recital, but I have taken into consideration the entertainment value of what I’ve programmed as well as thinking about what is an effective way to communicate and present these strange beautiful sounds to the connoisseurs and newbies, alike.
Can you tell us a bit more about your own piece, fry on fry? What was the inspiration behind it?
fry on fry was borne out of a “hey, wouldn’t it be funny if….” situation: I met Jen Beattie (who will be performing with me) at New Music on the Point, a new music festival in Vermont. Jen mentioned that she was talking to the singers there about vocal fry and I just said “hey, what if there was a piece in vocal fry, solely notated in types of fries?!” She and I giggled about it and over a beer (or three) came up with the general performance practice- a french fry will sound like this, a curly fry like that, etc. I didn’t think I would write the piece ever. Fast forward a few months and I get an email from Jen “I’m coming to LA, write the fry piece!” So I did, and it has strangely taken off. It’s been performed a handful of times on both coasts and just recently had its Australian premiere! While it is certainly a funny piece, from the minute I started writing I couldn’t get out of my mind some old podcasts and npr stories I’d heard about people complaining about the sound of women’s voices on the radio and, in particular, any use of fry in their voice. This just added a layer for me: considering all of these complaints about women’s voices and then choosing to write a piece that just bombards the listener with this supposed awful sound for a few minutes is really empowering. The last thing I’ll say about that is that Jen and I premiered the piece, but she has also performed it with a male duo partner and the Australian premiere was with two men: it’s so cool to experience the piece in each iteration. It takes on a new life with each combination. I will be projecting the score while Jen and I perform it, so everyone can see all the fries!
You’ll be performing the world premiere of a piece by Adam Borecki for viola, electronics, and projection. Can you tell us more about the piece?
Ok I don’t want to give away all the craziness that is Adam’s piece BUT I’m really excited about it. This is the first time I’ve had a solo piece so specifically written for me. Adam and I started working together on it in the summer – he recorded those early conversations and some of the movement titles are actually quotes of things, or references to things I said. Most of this piece was written with me sitting in the room next to Adam which was a luxury to both of us and led to a really beautiful collaboration. The piece is in 5 movements and some of the parts I’m most excited (and nervous) about require me doing things beyond playing the viola. I want to remain mysterious so I will just list things that are involved: video camera, lazy Susan, two pocket synthesizers, an mbira, office supplies, a quarter sized violin bow, a wooden frog and SO MUCH MORE.
In a way, this is a dream program for me: for example, I’ve wanted to play Viola, Viola (Benjamin) for a decade, but at first at seemed too daunting and then it was hard to find the right time and place to do it. I’m super thankful to my friend Linnea Powell for learning it with me, we’ve been chipping away on it for a few months and it’s been so fun to work with her.
I mean, all of these pieces are rad but the Sciarrino was one of the first pieces I knew I wanted to program- I had heard recordings of it and was completely enamored with sounds and textures I was hearing and I immediately knew I wanted to use them as connecting material throughout a program. Then, I got the music, and realized how wickedly hard this beautiful music was. So, there was an extended banging my head against the wall phase of learning it, but I think they are going to be a really special feature of this program.
In many ways, this program is incredibly personal and represents a fairly accurate snapshot of what’s going on in my mind right now from the beautiful to the completely bizarre.
What are your thoughts about working with and/or playing the music of living composers?
Whether it’s playing music by a friend or a living composer I’ve never met (like Sciarrino), I think it is of the highest importance to be playing music of our time. I absolutely love playing the “standard” repertoire, but being able to have conversations with composers: whether about a specific piece, or just getting to know them, informs so much about how I want to approach their music. Having the opportunity to bring a piece to life for the first time is an extra special thing to be a part of- getting to see and hear abstract ideas turn into a reality is completely thrilling.
What do you enjoy most about solo performance versus working with ensembles, such as Wild Up, Jacaranda, and others?
Well, this concert feels like a stepping out for me as an artist. For the majority of my professional life, I have seen myself in reference to an ensemble whether that’s an orchestra or chamber ensemble and so it’s really exciting (and a little scary) to take full ownership of a program to let people know who I am and what I’m about. I don’t have schemes or illusions that I’m on the road to becoming a famous viola soloist (I know, that’s sort of an oxymoron), but I see this as a step in the direction of carving out a little space for my voice in Los Angeles and, hopefully eventually, in the greater musical world.
Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information on the December 12 concert or to purchase tickets.
On Saturday, September 30, 2017 People Inside Electronics presented HOCKET along with special guests Vicki Ray, Aron Kallay and Derek Tywoniuk at the historic Throop Church in Pasadena. The varied program included a world premiere by Samuel Wells, a minimalist landmark work by Steve Reich from 1970, and an unusual piece for three toy pianos. The auditorium was filled to capacity for the first People Inside Electronics concert of the fall season.
The first part of the concert was given over to the world premiere of The Lacuna (2017), by Samuel Wells. HOCKET – Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff – were seated at the piano while the composer manned a computer behind the audience. Soft, dreamy electronics filled the stage to open the piece. A strong chord marked the entrance of the piano, followed by a series of sparse notes adding to the solitary, remote feeling coming from the electronics. The four hands of HOCKET soon began producing a great profusion of notes from the piano, accompanied by the sound of lapping water. As the piano went silent for a moment, a more tentative and uncertain feeling prevailed as if we were standing on some distant shore. A series of softly repeating arpeggios then began in the piano – reprocessed by the computer and echoed through the speakers – and this was very effective in creating a quiet, settled feeling. At length the piano became more rapidly active and a sort of conversation ensued with the electronic reprocessing of the acoustic sounds.
At one point a dance-like groove broke out, growing in volume and generating a pleasantly warm feeling, much welcomed after the prior remoteness. The cycle of emotions continued, sometimes animated and with counterpoint, sometimes hopeful and at other times dramatic and anxious. The piano and electronic processing were amazingly well-coordinated, each complimenting the other to generate a wide range of expressive sensations. The electronics became a natural partner to the excellent playing by Hocket, even in the fastest and most intricate stretches. The Lacuna is a cutting edge work that does much to validate the capability of electronic reprocessing when joined in real time with skilled piano playing.
qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq (2009) by Tristan Perich followed the intermission and three toy pianos equipped with three-channel 1-bit tones were occupied by Vicki Ray, Kotcheff and Gibson. They opened with an unexpectedly bright and vivid sound, full of rapid passages and precise counterpoint that filled the space with a pleasingly playful energy. The 1-bit electronics augmented the normally modest dynamics of the toy pianos, adding a whimsical arcade game sensibility. There was some minimalist DNA in all of this, but the phrasing was more compact and the harmonic changes more engagingly frequent. Intricate layers of notes poured forth from the players, with sudden stops and grand pauses sprinkled throughout. All of this was skillfully performed, a feat made more remarkable by the cramped postures necessitated by sitting at the small instruments. qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq is a surprisingly attractive and inventive piece for unlikely musical forces, delivered with precision and style by HOCKET and Ms. Ray.
Orizzonte (2004) by Missy Mazzoli for solo piano and electronics was next, performed by Gibson. A clear, slowly pulsing tone issued from the speakers to begin, followed by a series of single piano notes that were close in pitch to that of the electronics. Open chords were soon heard in the piano producing a somber feel and as the piece proceeded the phrases by Ms. Gibson turned more complex and darkly dramatic. The playing here was satisfyingly expressive as the texture gradually became more dense and colored by variations in the dynamics. The piano wove intricate passages in and around the electronic tone which remained more or less constant in pitch and timbre. The simple electronics proved to be surprisingly effective as the foundation for the strongly plaintive mood. Orizzonte artfully combines skilled playing with a straightforward electronic accompaniment in a way that augments each to the benefit of the whole.
Musique de Tables (1987) by Thierry De Mey contained three solid tablets equipped with contact mics on a narrow table. Ray, Gibson and Kotcheff were seated so that their hands, fists and fingers could easily contact the surface of the tablet. The auditorium was completely darkened and the players wore LED head lamps so that the motion of their hands was highlighted as they performed. All of the possibilities of hands and fingers on a flat surface were adroitly explored in this piece, often with striking results. There was, of course, drumming with all three players in unison or separately weaving complex passages and this was often reminiscent of a marching band drum line. There was the tapping of fingers and pounding with fists. There was rubbing of palms and scratching on the surface of the tablets as well as hands clapping, all making for an effective contrast with the more dominant percussive sounds. In the darkness it often felt as if we were witnessing some primal ceremony in a remote village. Musique de Tables is a wonderfully imaginative piece made all the more impressive by the simplicity of the materials, the staging and the ingenious lighting.
The final work on the program was Four Organs (1970) by Steve Reich. Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay joined HOCKET at keyboards on a table in the center of the audience. Derek Tywoniuk began the piece with a steady and continuous eighth-note pulse from two maracas. Four Organs is early Reich, and it was one of his first pieces to be performed for a large audience at a concert by the Boston Symphony in 1971. In his book Writings on Music, Reich wrote that Four Organs was “…composed exclusively of the gradual augmentation of individual tones within a single chord. From the beginning to the end there are no changes of pitch or timbre; all changes are rhythmic and simply consist of gradually increasing durations.” The process-driven feel of this piece is immediately apparent from the beginning and it slowly unfolds with an unrelenting rigor. As the pitches lengthened, the chord took on a sort of grandeur as the tones were allowed to ring out. The playing by all was both accurate and disciplined as Four Organs uncoiled along its deliberate course – a nice reminder of the early days of minimalism.
People Inside Electronics continues to explore the many possibilities of acoustic and electronic collaboration in ways that consistently create good music. Their concert will be Sunday, October 15, 2017 at the Throop Church and will feature cellist Ashley Bathgate.
Delivered with an authority and unhesitating know-how that left no room for doubt, Shpachenko’s virtuoso program of new music for piano—both solo and electronically fleshed—revealed how convincingly present-day composers can match the prestidigital feats of Liszt and Chopin. Simultaneously, universal statements on life and art, expressed in a heartfelt lyricism still resounding almost audibly, emerged to elevate the afternoon event into something profound.
Vacating the ostensibly far-flung protectorate of Pasadena in favor of a more central Downtown Arts District, the Sound and Fury season touched down at Art Share LA, a flexible creative environment serving as gallery, workshop, and performance space. The venue’s edgy, industrially rustic atmosphere and attention-arresting exhibition comingled for the ideal new music terroir. Warm, supportive acoustics brought out the best of a dubious Kimball grand, whose surprisingly sweet, singing tone belied its dilapidated exterior.
At a hearty seventy-five minutes in length, Shpachenko’s thoughtfully ordered offering of uniformly winning pieces, centered on a theme of “quotations and homages,” was an homage to the audience—an inviting, overflowing musical cornucopia, impacting listeners all the more directly in its uninterrupted flow:
“Once I begin a program, I prefer to maintain intensity through to the end, rather than leave the stage midway,” commented Shpachenko in post-recital remarks. As if leading by example, the pianist’s sustained energy bolstered listeners into progressively deeper engagement throughout, up to the concluding work which seemed to arrive ahead of schedule.
Commissioned by Shpachenko herself, the program’s opening piece, Vera Ivanova’s 6 Fugitive Memories, set the tone for what was to follow in its variety, aphoristic wit, and evocative imagery. A festschrift of sorts, six clever pastiches perceptively comment on composers with anniversaries in 2016, year of the work’s premiere. Ivanova sensitively alluded to musical identifiers of each composer in concise reinterpretations of quoted material, leaving listeners hungry for more at every turn.
Calling listeners to attention in a torrent of thunderous tone clusters punctuated by intermittent treble range chirps, the opening sketch draws on the uncompromisingly modernist sixth sonata of Galina Ustvolskaya, a relentless procession of raw, barbaric sonority with only the faintest suggestion of anything resembling melody.
Committed classicist Prokofieff served as impetus for the next number, “Fugitive No. 2,” a response to the picturesque Visions Fugitives. A bubbly, effervescent accompaniment supported sweeping, rhapsodic gestures in the foreground for a contrasting emotional foil against the cool preceding and subsequent movements.
Palettes were cleansed in meditation and clarity, as only Feldman, the next movement’s guiding example, can organize into being. Gentle, bell-like note-moments melted to mark the passing of time, like the falling of delicate icicles.
Shortly, aromas of goulash and sun-scorched paprika came to mind in a movement after Hungarian composer Gyögy Kurtág, “Playing Cimbalom.” Shpachenko adroitly manipulated a fine wooden mallet on the piano’s strings, as if playing the Cimbalom—a Hungarian hammered dulcimer for which Kurtág provided the bulk of the repertoire.
The suite concluded in a surreal collision of two tensely co-existing icons of post-Romantic French music—Debussy and Satie, in “Debutie.” The famous opening chords of Satie’s first Gymnopédie are subtly paired with the initial whole-step cascade of Debussy’s prelude Voiles (“Veils” or “Sails,” or both…Debussy wouldn’t say). The two works find a peaceable if strained cohabitation. Satie’s soothing major sevenths meld with Debussy’s bleak, directionless whole-tone environment for a musical synthesis of Ivanova’s conception, a whole as great but different from its parts’ sum.
In Shpachenko’s dedicated hands, 6 Fugitive Memories proved a fully satisfying, complete listener experience in itself, without need of enhancements or additions. Yet the opening electronics of Tom Flaherty’s Rainbow Tangle, next on the program, signaled new sonic dimensions emerging to compliment and enrich the piano.
Setting out with a clear vision for her program, Shpachenko approached composers with a specific request: write a piece inspired by another composer. “I approach composers I know and like, and commission music to fit my programming concept,” the pianist articulated from the post-concert receiving line.
Her concept struck a chord with Flaherty, composer of two works on the program, who “immediately recalled a passage from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and relished the excuse to play with some its elements.” The Quartet’s seventh movement, “Tangle of rainbows for the angel who announces the end of time” provided the thematic vocabulary for Flaherty’s 2015 work. Vibratory repeated chords course up and down the piano’s range, expanding upon the gentle undulations in the piano part of Messiaen’s “Tangle.” Brilliant, original electronic elements as striking as the original Quartet’s instrumentation, heightened the ecstatic topic, while a crisp, interlocking hocket texture lent a drive and acerbic bite, galvanizing Messiaen’s otherworldly atmosphere.
Spun of more contemporary inspiration, Daniel Felsenfeld’s Down to You is Up, harkens back to the composer’s own early years, which were filled with the subversive sounds of The Velvet Underground. Felsenfeld’s three-movement work for piano solo draws on source material from the band’s debut album, “Velvet Underground and Nico.” The opening movement is a free adaptation of key melodic fragments and the piano part from “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”
Belting the work’s energetic opening chords with the self-forgetful abandon of a rock star, Shpachenko set a decidedly rebellious mood, rousing listeners to heated attention. A contrastingly introspective mood shortly followed in “So Cold/So Lonely,” movement two of the cycle. Repurposing Velvet Underground’s song “Pale Blue Eyes” as a musical loom, a collage of delicate chords started life as accompaniment to the original song—then the song was removed, leaving the accompaniment self-standing.
The final movement, “Everything Was Alright,” quoted more strictly, this time from “Beginning to See the Light.” Fiery charge returned to the hall as Underground’s darker elements rose up, channeled through a motoric bass ostinato and a blaze of squeezed, descending arpeggios, terminating resolutely.
Least quotational but equally relevant, the program’s next work, Close Ups (Through Tiny Eyes) by Stephen Cohn derives inspiration from Realist painting: “The art of depicting nature as seen by toads…,” notes Cohn. Augmentation and diminution—contrapuntal devices extant from Palestrina to the present—power the work in an interplay of expansion and contraction, ultimately heightening listener perception.
Meditative sonorities alternated with crashing chords and driving scalar figuration in 15ths. A cute, understated tremolo figure between the hands recurred continually, unifying contrasting elements and restoring listener orientation at regular intervals, finally returning in full forte for a decisive last word.
Forging ahead indefatigably, industrious Shpachenko spryly prepped the upcoming number, donning ear bud and microphone headset and issuing a brief sound-check. A conspicuous white screen instantly grew functional as the first slides of an art show materialized. Epitaphs and Youngsters, by Peter Yates, a cycle of melodramas (in the original meaning of the term: spoken word over music), honors four creative figures of intangible relation, connected by their meaning to the composer. Inspired by Shpachenko’s “absorbing presentations of eternal moments,” each movement is cast in a harmonic language reminiscent of the honoree, complimented by Shpachenko’s resonant sprechstimme on pertinent texts, and images by young artists Yates admires, Shpachenko’s own sons. A movement for naturalist John Muir features rugged quartal harmonies, while intricate contrapuntal lines accompany a quote by Glenn Gould, and an overflowing stream of words by juggler W. C. Fields stretches past a Gershwin-inspired musical tapestry, ending the work openly, in a tender moment of wonder.
Shpachenko resumed her seat at the piano—briefly—turning a sharp musical corner to ground listener sensibilities in the terse, steely brilliance of Nick Norton’s Piano Piece for Mr. Carter’s 100th Birthday. The aphoristic work, a reflection on the sinister sparkle of Elliot Carter’s Caténaires, uses all 88 keys exactly once in rapid-fire succession for a jolt of musical adrenaline to the senses.
The homage offering by Missy Mazzoli, Bolts of Loving Thunder, next on the lineup, is especially personal for pianists. Written for Emmuel Ax’s “Brahms then as now” project of 2014, the piece is an homage to Brahms, based closely on the Rhapsody No. 2 in G minor, op. 79, a repertoire staple of student and seasoned pianists alike. Reminiscing on her own “enthused but sloppy” renditions of the piece as a budding pianist, Mazzoli reinterpreted the Brahms Rhapsody by emphasizing its tempestuous effects in dense, thundering chords, dramatic hand-crossings, and lighting-like ascending arpeggios. Shimmering accompanimental tremolos recall the Rhapsody’s mysterious development section, while the key heartbeat rhythm of the Rhapsody’s second theme palpitates the new Bolts into an intense, vibratory finish.
The rhythmic drive quickly resurfaced in Tom Falherty’s Igor to Please—occupying final position in the program (officially). An eagerly awaited world premiere, Igor to Please immediately sets out to show Stravinsky as the great liberator of pulse, where Schönberg might be called liberator of pitch. Highly charged syncopations and sharp interplay of piano and electronics fill out source material from the famous “Augurs of Spring,” the startling moment in The Rite of Spring, where dancers lunge and stamp to throbbing blows of dissonance. Initially polarizing—indeed inciting a riot at its premier—the work is now canonical. Yet the “Augurs” retains its power to revitalize and stimulate, like an invigorating deep-tissue massage.
Scored for piano and electronics, Igor benefits from a rich palette of sonorities, including harpsichord and toy piano, as well as stereo-sonic effects. The work is slated for performance in an alternate, assuredly impressive instrumentation of two pianos and two toy pianos, with six pianists (among them Shpachenko). Hopefully the unique electronic effects will find expression in the acoustic version, for an equally pleasing rendition.
Billed a “bonus/encore” piece, Adam Borecki’s Accidental Mozart, the final musical number of the afternoon, was a good natured, zany parody of Mozart’s piano Sonata in C major, K. 545. In the ilk of Satie’s sardonic Sonatine Beauroctratique or the poignant Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum by Debussy—parodies of equally obligatory teaching repertoire—Borecki’s “set of very serious various,” breathes new life into the ubiquitous, tradition-encrusted classic. Each variation is modeled after a particular alcoholic potable, whether imported beer, boxed wine, rare whisky, or even stronger spirits. Evidently an expert in libations, Borecki conveyed the essence of each beverage with clear musical gestures, punctuated by humorous pop art slides. Audience members emerged a little closer, having shared a round of drinks.
Shpachenkos’s generous program was preceded by music of Sound and Fury founders, Christian Dubeau and Christine Lee. Lee performed her Crystal Glass, a piece about pure sound depicting the breaking of glass through the sparkling pops and crackles of granular synthesis. A haunting melody is accompanied by, and later accompanies, the tasteful electronic effects.
Dubeau presented the first four of his forthcoming set of twelve preludes for piano and electronics. The opus’s promising initial numbers treated of weighty environmental issues in the San Gabriel mountains, where Dubeau grew up. Recorded material and live processes infused depth and additional meaning to the piano writing, complimenting it naturally.
Musical proceedings concluded, a cordial Shpachenko greeted enthused attendees. Stragglers later coalesced into an ad hoc reception at nearby Wurstküche, where gracious Stephen Cohn toasted to the pianist’s success, thanking her for “giving composers a reason to go on writing.” Shpachenko tasted her first sip of beer, pronouncing it smooth. A Chimay ale, the question arose whether it would figure in Adam Borecki’s next piece.
The Neighborhood Church in Pasadena was the venue for the latest People Inside Electronics concert titled Music for String Quartet and Electronics, featuring the San Francisco-based Friction Quartet. Six pieces of new music were performed, including one world premiere.
Universe Explosion (2014) by Adam Cuthbert was first, undertaking the ambitious task of presenting a musical biography of the universe from its beginning to the present. This opens with a rapid, repeating figure in the high register of the violin that is soon joined by the other strings in a frenetic, yet rhythmically coherent, outpouring of notes. The electronics joined in, adding to the bustling, cosmic feel. The playing by the Friction Quartet was precise and accurate, producing a strong, satisfying groove that suggested the music of Steve Reich. The tempo gradually slows as the piece progresses and smooth passages appear that contrasted nicely with an active, syncopated counterpoint. Still later, as the tempo again slows, a strong melody emerges containing some lovely harmonies. The sweeping arc of the rhythm and tempo changes convincingly portray the vast scale of the subject. As the piece concludes, the texture decomposes into several slow, wayward fragments that quietly fade at the finish. Universe Explosion is a remarkable work, ably performed by the Friction Quartet, perfectly integrated with the electronics and fully exploiting a combined sonic palette that convincingly captures its monumental subject matter.
Harp and Altar (2009) by Missy Mazzoli followed, and the title is taken from a poem by Hart Crane about the Brooklyn Bridge. This begins with a warm, affectionate cello line that is soon joined by the other strings, becoming busier and suggesting the crossing patterns of the cables of the bridge as seen from a distance. The tutti passages soon turn forceful and assertive, alluding to the strength and massive presence looming over the Brooklyn and Manhattan waterfronts. About midway through, a recorded voice is heard singing lines and fragments from the poem, underscoring the heartfelt sincerity of music. The skillful orchestration here was carefully observed by the playing, allowing space for the recorded vocals to be heard clearly. After a dynamic and dramatic climax in the strings, the piece concludes with smooth vocal tones that fade to a finish. Harp and Altar is a genuine and unpretentious valentine to the iconic New York landmark, carefully crafted and pleasingly performed.
Unmanned (2013) by Ian Dicke was next and for this piece the acoustic sounds of Friction Quartet were reprocessed through a computer and sent to speakers on the stage. There were some software adjustments needed for this, giving Mr. Dicke a chance to remark that subject for Unmanned was the use of military drones and that his major influence for this was, tellingly, the 8th String Quartet of Dmitri Shostakovich. The opening of Unmanned is a forcefully strident tutti passage, with a pounding rhythm in the electronics and a palpable sense of tension in the strings. This shifts quickly to a series of slow, poignant phrases that evoke a quiet melancholy. As the piece progresses, feelings of uncertainty and anxiety creep back in, gradually building the tension. The ensemble through this stretch was excellent, slowly building the energy level and creating a sense of menacingly purposeful motion. About two thirds of the way through the slower, solemn feeling returned, but with a stronger undercurrent of sadness. As this continued, the string players left the stage one by one, while the electronics gradually raised in pitch and volume, arriving at a sense of profound disquiet and dread. The sounds, coming only from the speakers now, became more mechanical and increasingly disorganized, like a machine tearing itself apart – until a sudden silence marked the finish. Unmanned is a powerful musical experience with a troubling message about the use of deadly force by remote control and the Friction Quartet brought this challenging vision to a masterful realization.
The world premiere of Hagiography (2015) by Isaac Schankler followed the intermission. Hagiography is a form of historical biography, usually of a monarch or Christian saint, where the less attractive aspects of the subject are glossed over in favor of pleasant stories that highlight good works and accomplishments. In this piece, the Friction Quartet was accompanied by electronics, and this supplied the hagiographic element. Hagiography opened with a complex, swirling ebb and flow of sound that surged like a restless tide. There was a choppy, rhythmic feel that was busy, but always engaging to the ear. As the piece progressed, stretches of dissonance would creep in, never alienating, but clearly noticeable – only to be replaced by more consonant passages reinforced by the electronics.
The texture and pace were consistent throughout, like a fast-flowing stream full of rapid gestures. Hagiography was true to its form – at times there was a roughness and tension in strong tutti passages, but these were invariably superseded by some really lovely harmonies and soft colors. The blend of acoustic instruments and electronics was seamless and well-balanced, perfectly fitted to the intentions of this piece. Although fast-moving and often complex in character, this is a well-structured and skillfully crafted piece with all the details precisely under control. Hagiography offers hope that the good we do can outlive our failings.
Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites (2010) was next, an arrangement of the music of Skrillex by Friction cellist Doug Machiz. This began with an active, busy feel that bounced pleasantly along until a sharply dissonant chord suddenly changes the entire direction and feel from ‘nice sprite’ to ‘scary monster’. After a few bars of moderately frightful music, the nice sprite regained control and a lovely melody emerged against artful counterpoint. As the piece proceeds, the music passes back and forth between scary and nice, although scary never approaches the truly frightening.. At several points, while in monster mode, the stomping of the players feet in unison added a clever accent to the proceedings. There is an exotic, almost Asian feel to this that portrays what could be the good and the evil characters of some ancient folk tale. Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites is an accessible and engaging work that achieves a charming intensity when realized through the unique capabilities of this quartet.
The concert concluded with another Doug Machiz arrangement, this time Where Are Ü Now (2015) by Jack Ü and Justin Bieber. This has a formal, almost courtly sensibility at times, but also includes a strong beat and other identifiable pop influences. Just a few minutes in length, but with some nicely complex passages and strong harmonies, Where Are Ü Now has an upbeat optimism and familiar feel that makes this piece a favorite when the Friction Quartet plays before younger audiences.
This concert of string quartet music combined with electronics was well-balanced – the electronics never dominated by raw power or sheer volume – and the equal partnership with the strings made the combination all the more effective.
The next People Inside Electronics concert is at 8:00 PM April 2, 2016 at the Neighborhood Church and will feature the Southland Ensemble with a live performance of Rain Forest IV by David Tudor as well as the world premiere of a new composition by Carolyn Chen.
Photos by Adam Borecki
This Saturday evening People Inside Electronics bring San Francisco’s Friction Quartet to LA for a program of works by Ian Dicke, Adam Cuthbert, Missy Mazzoli, Skrillex, Diplo, and PIE director Isaac Schankler. Tickets and more info are available at peopleinsideelectronics.com/friction-quartet.
Ahead of the show, Isaac has had a chance to sit down with the quartet’s cellist, Doug Machiz, for an interview.
How did Friction Quartet form? What’s the history of the group?
Kevin and I were working on Philip Glass’ third quartet at the Zephyr Chamber Music Festival in the Italian Alps. The experience was incredibly moving and Kevin and I really enjoyed working on this non-traditional classical music together. I had recently had my first experience playing contemporary classical music and I found that my background in improvised music made for a smooth transition into performing music that had not been performed before. I was deciding in real time what something should sound like and that was exhilarating.
I was studying at UT Austin and became close friends with the Miro and Aeolus Quartets. There was something special and family like about their dynamic. I spontaneously decided that I could devote my life to performing string quartets that had never been played before and also that I could have Kevin as my partner in this endeavor. I also knew from being at BU with Ari from JACK quartet that this could be a viable career option. So I asked Kevin if he wanted to do this and he said he has always wanted to do this. So we decided that if I ended up in SF that we would go for it. A year later I was accepted to SF Conservatory of Music and Friction was born. Otis joined half a year after our formation and Taija joined 2 1/2 years ago. Now we have that stable familial feeling that I loved about the Miro and Aeolus Quartets and we are deciding what new string quartets can sound like.
Can you tell us a little about the program you’ll be performing?
We will be performing some of our favorite works we have commissioned that also happen to be electro-acoustic. Ian Dicke’s Unmanned was one of the first pieces we commissioned and really became a flagship piece for us. Adam Cuthbert’s Universe Explosion exists because I met Adam at the Bang on a Can Festival and played his Universe Explosion for large chamber ensemble. I loved the piece so much and we collaboratively came up with the idea to have Adam arrange it for double quartet. Isaac Schankler’s Hagiography is one of our recent commissions and this will be the world premiere. It’s a stunning, ambitious work and we can’t wait to share it. We will close the program with two of my own arrangements of music by Skrillex.
Friction Quartet is known for championing new music — was that part of the quartet’s mission from the beginning? What made you want to focus on new music, and especially commissioning new music? There’s no shortage of string quartet music already out there, after all.
As I mentioned before, the quartet formed with the intention of specializing in new music. Old music is fantastic, but it can’t possibly address what is happening in our lives and what we are feeling the way new music can. We also believe in pushing the boundaries of what sound can do. We want to share new sound worlds with people and move them in ways they never thought possible. To quote the great Living Earth Show, we want to be a “megaphone for composers” who have important things to say about the world right now.
Initially we planned to only play music written after 1900 (we couldn’t possibly exclude our favorite 20th century giants). But over the years we decided to bring the old stuff into our repertoire because it’s too good not to. Also we don’t believe in excluding any music from our possible repertoire because we would just be missing out on potentially great music and new audiences. There is something to learn from and enjoy in music of all styles and time periods.
I’m curious about your pop covers. A lot of quartets have taken stabs at covering pop music, but it seems to me there’s something special about the way you approach it, both in terms of the music you chose to cover, and the care and creativity that go into your arrangements. How do you decide what songs to cover, and what’s your thought process in terms of how to arrange them?
I try to find a balance between songs that I like and songs that are going to resonate with new audiences. All of the songs I arrange fall somewhere on that spectrum. I’m on a mission to recruit new audiences simply because I don’t want anyone to miss out on how fucking awesome classical music can be. But the arrangements are also self-serving. I want to provide extremely fun repertoire for the quartet to play and I want a creative outlet for myself as a performer of music written by other people. I’ve dabbled in free improv, jazz, electronic compositions and playing in bands. These arrangements let me explore all of my musical interests in the context of my main project.
The most amazing and unintended consequence of making these arrangements is consistently getting huge crowds of young children to go absolutely ape shit. It’s like we’re the fucking Beatles all of a sudden when we play Michael Jackson’s Thriller (check out our documentary, Friction, by Meridian Hill Pictures). And this makes no sense because Michael Jackson’s career was all but over when these kids were born. I feel confident that a lot of these kids are going to find more ways to be creative through music because of our performances. I also think some of these kids will become fans of music when they otherwise may not have.
What’s next up for the Friction Quartet? Any upcoming projects you’re particularly excited about?
After our So-Cal tour we head to NYC for a performance of a favorite commission of ours, Juiced by Brendon Randall-Myers, at Roulette. We will also make our Carnegie Hall debut as part of the Kronos Quartet Workshop performing classic and new Kronos commissions. Then we head to Seattle to shoot a video, produced by Second Inversion, of In/Exchange for Steel Pan and Quartet by Andy Akiho with Andy himself on steel pan. We have residencies at Cornish College and Western Washington University. At WWU we are premiering a new string quartet concerto by Roger Briggs. After returning to SF we have an onslaught of various awesome projects that all happen before we head back east to Detroit in June for the Shouse Institute at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival. I’m most excited about our SF Jazz debut in August with Fabian Almazan’s trio.
Tickets for the Friction Quartet show are available at peopleinsideelectronics.com/friction-quartet
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.
I can imagine no better way to be introduced to the LA Opera than by this show. I had no idea what to expect, only hope that it might be a nice way to spend a Friday evening. Of all the shows in LA, I figured I might as well check out something brand new. I was in for a treat.
Isabelle Eberhardt, played by the incredibly talented Abigail Fischer, had several distinct lives and deaths, recollected through cobbled diary pages. Missy Mazzoli wanted to give her a proper homage through equally cobbled yet bleakly beautiful music. Using distorted guitars, stuttering electronic sounds, pure voices, and a wailing cello and flute tell Isabelle’s tragic stories. Videos on transparent scrims add further layers of emotion to the story, complementing the music. The chorus sometimes acted as a reflection of Isabelle, and other times sang duets with her. The musicians and their instruments were as much characters in the story as Isabelle. The cello cried, the flute sang, and clarinet drank coffee and the piano just drank.
One of my favorite moments was when Isabelle moved off her pillow in an opium den and sat with the pianist on his bench. He abandoned her there, and she carried on the tune the best she could. A melody usually implements small intervals for easy singing, but the song in the opium den had enormous intervals, which I imagined represented the highs and lows of drug use. My favorite song overall was “One Hundred Names for God,” when she goes through her religious phase near the beginning. The choreography was stunning, and the many different names dripped like glittering water from Isabelle’s mouth while the instruments lilted along deferentially.
Other songs featured amplified flute signaling a period of exploration, and guitar performing a heartbeat emulating blood rushing to one’s ears in a moment of high tension and fear. At the very end, when Isabelle dies in a flash flood, the guitar swells and grows like a physical presence, and cuts short the instant her life does. This perhaps sounds cliché, and rereading this review sheds light on what made the music so subtly effective in the moment. It’s a silken beauty like seeing the ocean in the moonlight that makes one wax poetic and at the same time fail to find the words. Through such a short but intense opera, the audience falls in love with Isabelle Eberhardt and our hearts break when the music ends her life.
In short, I cannot rave about this opera enough, especially the musicians. It only ran for the one weekend, but there will be many more performances by the LA Opera and from the Beth Morrison Projects this season. Buy your tickets early!