Now in its twentieth year of celebrating microtonality and non-standard tunings, MicroFest takes place sprinkled throughout Los Angeles over the course of multiple weekends. The fourth of seven concerts featured LA-based Accordant Commons, a contemporary vocal chamber music group dedicated to performance and collaboration founded by Stephanie Aston and Argenta Walther, joined by Marja Liisa Kay and Tany Ling for a concert featuring four composers, five pieces, and a heck of a lot more than just twelve notes.
Squeezing into the teeny venue tucked into the Chung King Court in Chinatown, the concertgoers immediately saw that the wall wa covered with pieces of sheet music. Lo and behold, it’s two of the works about to be performed, and they showcase two hugely different approaches to achieving and notating microtonal music. There’s the traditional notation + method, or the graphic score. It’s up to the composer to decide how best to communicate their artistic ideas. If you haven’t seen a graphic score before, just look it up in google images for top notch examples. That’s what new music musicians often deal with, including Accordant Commons.
The show opened with Three in, ad abundantiam by American composer Evan Johnson, for a trio of singers. The music was exquisitely gentle, reminiscent of hearing a church choir practicing from the next hill over while the wind snatches the sound away sporadically. A sustained note grounded the other two voices like a tonal gravity, but the other voices never quite managed to meet it, instead dancing around on either side of it, fitting the fragments of text from Petrarch: “Alone and pensive…my life, which is hidden from others…with me, and me with it.” Johnson never jars the listener, but instead makes the notes rub up against your ears like an overly friendly cat with overly long claws. The threads of music mingle to create brief islands of tonality in the ocean of microtonal possibility.
The second piece was less singing and more vocalizing and other bodily sounds (don’t get too excited, I just mean claps and snaps), plus kazoos and slide whistles. Stanford-based Leah Reid’s Single Fish is an aphoristic composition for three sopranos and hand percussion, in which the phonemes from Gertrude Stein’s eponymous poem are repeated, segmented, shuffled and turned upside down to explore timbre more so than pitch. In this piece, there is no single fish or timbre, but a whole school of them, weaving in and out of each other, shimmering and fluctuating, in a great celebration of the sounds three humans can make together.
Nomi Epstein is a Chicago-based composer and professor, and her song Four Voices features microtonal glissandi in a notation she has been developing for several years which resembles a graph that allows pitch to freely but measuredly move about the pitch space. The four voices move in pairs and sometimes meet together. The form of the piece is dictated by the combinations of singers at a given time. Not unlike Johnson’s first piece on the program, the vocal lines are spotty, like steam venting from cracks in the earth to resist a great eruption. The conductor moves the voices forward with stop and go motions, a musical game of red-light-green-light, and thus the motion atemporal as time has nothing to do with the timing. By the end, all four singers sounded like ghosts, whispering and coughing and holding low moans that rose and fell by a barely perceptible dozen cents (~1/8 of a pitch) at a time, microscopically shifting the tonality. They all ended together on a downward lilt, reaching for heaven and missing only to land back on earth.
The fourth piece brought us back to Evan Johnson, this time for A general interrupter of ongoing activity. The name does not lie. It began with the sound one makes when holding back a laugh, and then progressed into air leaking from a tire, evolving into purrs, clicks, chirps and slurps. Like Reid, she explores the human airways on a timbral odyssey, but unlike Reid she does not use the vocal chords as much. In the middle I was struck by how much it started to remind me of trips to the dentist, and occasionally of radio static. I had no idea a single person could make such convincing and provoking sounds, and I applaud Johnson for this compelling journey.
Fifth and finally, Space-time by LA-based Daniel Corral and commissioned by Accordant Commons was a rollicking jam of minimalist grooves a la Philip Glass. It was accompanied by recorded drums and marimbas and the text from +|’me’S-pace by Christine Wertheim, projected on the wall behind the singers. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Wertheim during the concert (and of borrowing her pen), and she is exactly the kind of darkly draped, elegant woman you would expect to write a poetic exploration of space time. The mood set for meditation and rhythmic swaying and shifting, the singers clapped and recited and sang and slurred and whooped. The words philosophize about reading and comprehending, and shift tiny elements to change entire meanings, like changing “time” to “+ime,” and shifting that to “ta ta ta ta ta ta I’m me,” atomizing the language and investigating the relationships of its components. The music plays along, going upside down and backwards when necessary, and implements La Monte Young’s Well Tuned Piano tuning system. The result reframes consonance and dissonance, making the audience rethink on the fly what they think is pleasant and what clashes. What is usually instinctive to our ears here required conscious thought, fitting the space journey of +|’me’S-pace. The beat was constant but the meter shifts, making the steady time feel like it was swaying in the wind. Between the sonority and the flux of time, it is all the listener can do to hang on and enjoy the ride. The recapitulation at the end brings the roller coaster to a conclusion and returns the audience back to reality, whatever that may be.
The concert was a triumph for Accordant Commons and for the future of microtonality and non-standard tuning. LA is one of the best places to find new techniques and new music, and MicroFest is the concert series to explore rarer tonalities in gamelans, pianos, and more. Three concerts remain in the 2016 series. The next is Saturday, May 14th at Boston Court in Pasadena, featuring The Isaura String Quartet. Need some more of Accordant Commons’ exquisite singing in your life? Check their website for concert dates and recordings: accordantcommons.com.
All week we’ve been posting an interview a day with the composers on The Industry and wild Up’s First Take event, taking place on February 21. Most of those composers have written operas. Nomi Epstein, today’s guest, seems to have broken opera down and potentially created something entirely new.
Describe the work you’ll be presenting at First Take.
TRANSLATION: a conceptual chamber opera is a work which distills the conceptual material of opera- a complex layering of translations-while dismissing the tradition of opera’s expressivity, dialogue, and narrative/dramatic structure.
The topic of translation has been important in my work since 2007 when I began dissecting the compositional process by looking at how an idea for a piece materializes or translates itself into an actual sonic piece of work (i.e. the various steps/types of translation this idea takes in order to get to its sonic point). I am fascinated by how the end point is so far from the beginning, clearly demonstrating distortion of the initial idea due partly to translational processes the composer can’t control -the brain processing and translating material/ideas into other formats, the interaction between the performer and the score, the sonic realization, the listeners perception, and what we can control- the type, specificity and character of notation.
When something is translated, it changes language, (be it spoken, structural, temporal, media type), and distortion is unavoidable. TRANSLATION raises questions regarding the nature of language, representation, perspective, (mis)communication, imitation, human thought process and the ontology of the individual.
Inherent in the process of translation, or changing one language into another, is some degree of loss of content, metaphor, or marker from the original language. In opera, a plot is translated into a durational structure containing text, sonic language (instrumental and vocal), characterization, scenery, casting, costumes, and acting, each attempting reinterpretation, communication, or translation of this original idea. Each of the choices the composer/librettist makes in how to notate and characterize the plot is a way of communicating or translating the initial idea, and translational processes follow on the part of the performers while changing the written (score and libretto) into the sonic.
In TRANSLATION there are also multiple translation layers. These layers can be perceived aurally and visually through a complexity of distorted relationships that the individual and group performers must navigate both from score directives, and performative means. The score challenges the performers to attempt their own forms of translation, but within very strict confines or structures that I have given them.
The most evident type of translation in this work is found between members of the ensemble. Individually, each performer will explain/define her/himself to the group of performers (albeit abstractly), after which the remainder of the group will attempt to read/understand the individual. While defining her/himself, each performer uses a language, whose syntax is created by the composer, unique to her/himself including the specificity of the voice/language, and the perspective of first person, among various other musical parameters. When others try to “know” this performer, they each must translate information using their own tools, interpreting their findings, and realizing them sonically.
What’s your background in writing opera, or for voice?
Though I haven’t written an opera before, I’ve written a lot for voice, and also several large scale structures.
Does/did your composition process change at all when writing for this medium?
No. For several years I’ve been focusing on translation as a structural inquiry and as pre-compositional thought, and have also worked with text score notation.
What else are you working on that you’d like people to know about?
Right now I’m working on a trio for Sonic Hedgehog, a US/European ensemble, a text score for my ensemble a.pe.ri.od.ic, and a large ensemble work for this year’s Dog Star Orchestra.
Here’s a solo piano work of Nomi Epstein’s, recorded by Eliza Garth.
Recordings of more of Nomi’s recordings are available at nomiepstein.com/Sounds.
LA opera powerhouse The Industry just announced the list of composers who have been selected for their 2015 First Take event. The afternoon opera-thon gives first readings to new pieces and, if I’m not mistaken, one is usually chosen for The Industry to produce. 2015’s will be at the new Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 21 at 1 pm, with wild Up serving as house orchestra.
The composers are:
Jason Thorpe Buchanan
Jenny Olivia Johnson
A more detailed post about the project is up at http://theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php
The Industry is also holding open auditions for singers interested in First Take and Hopscotch. Interested singers should submit their resume, headshots, and performance sample web links to auditions@TheIndustryLA.org.