This past Saturday afternoon found me hiding from the heat under a tree at the base of a small hill listening to cellist Jennifer Bewerse playing composer Brandon J. Rolle’s Call and Echo, inspired by the call of the Hermit Thrush. While Rolle’s piece didn’t incorporate the bird’s call directly, it imitated and built upon its structure of distinct phrases and interruptions, with alternating textures of arpeggios, high harmonics with quiet singing, and slowly developing more lyrical material in the cello’s low end. And this was only one composer/performer duo’s take on one bird from the flock of ten that Synchromy presented in their program Urban Birds.
The concert was spread throughout the Audubon Center at Debs Park, just south of the 110 in Montecito Heights, a hidden gem of trails just northeast of downtown LA. Performers perched along said trails, repeating their pieces at intervals so as not to overlap with their immediate neighbors, but to create a sensation of distant sounds to search out—not unlike the bird call hunting theme of the entire event. Guests were handed not programs, but “musical birding field guides,” and children who managed to find all ten birdsong-inspired performers were rewarded with stickers reminiscent of a junior ranger program at a national park.
Behind the aforementioned tree — shade was at a premium — trails wrapped up the hill to the left and right. On the first plateau, one came to a clearing with bassist Scott Worthington performing Jen Wang’s Monster, with sliding harmonics imitating the call of the Mourning Dove. Alongside him stood composer/performer Christopher Adler with a khaen, a southeast Asian mouth organ for which Vera Ivanova had written Mockingbird Hopscotch, a piece that grew from the uncertainty of a nervous bird learning a new song into a filled out tapestry of synth-like repetitions.
Across a bridge at the other side of the clearing stood an oboist Robert Walker, leaning hard into Diana Wade’s Pyschopomp. Inspired not by the song of the Common Raven, but of the raven’s status as a guide to the underworld, the piece’s fast and high ostinati alternating with aggressive multiphonic material made for a piece that should become a staple of the solo oboe repertoire. Behind the oboe, coming from somewhere below, one could pick out virtuosic runs on the high end of a flute (Dante De Silva’s Heat Thrasher performed by Rachel Beetz), and occasional growls through the underbrush above from Brian Walsh’s bass clarinet performing Pamela Madsen’s Owl’s Breath.
Suddenly the whole event clicked. Intentionally or otherwise, trying to take in the diverse approaches to birdsong inspiration in the height and space of the venue brought to mind the legendary clashing marching bands Charles Ives listened to in his youth, the vertical symphonies of Henry Brant, or, to state the obvious—an uncomposed version of Messiaen’s own Exotic Birds. I found myself looking for places between performers to hear interesting and perhaps unintended combinations of sounds and melodic lines, an outdoor polyphony of monophonic instruments.
The spread throughout the park was a welcome way to dip toes back into real concerts after months of isolation—it certainly felt better than diving back into a crowd, and bridged the individual experiences we’ve become used to with a communal live one with sensitivity. What more there is to say should be heard, and to this end, Synchromy has developed a website with videos of all of the pieces, spread around a map of the park (just click on the birds) at synchromy.org/urban-birds.
Brightwork newmusic (Sara Andon – flute, Aron Kallay – piano, Maggie Parkins – cello, Nick Terry – percussion, Tereza Stanislav – violin, and Brian Walsh – clarinet), joined by soprano Stacey Fraser, will be performing an eclectic set of works by Southern California composers on June 27 at Monk Space. I had the chance to hear some of Maggie Parkins’ thoughts about the upcoming concert and more:
The program includes a diverse set of works by Southern California composers. Can you tell us about your experience with these works? What do you hope to convey to the audience?
We are very excited to present these pieces by LA composers at Monk Space. We have performed all the works on the concert before, which is fantastic. Doing repeat performances of a new work is a great way for us to go deeper into the piece. Of course, the better you know a piece the easier it is to bring to life the composer’s vision. It is also more fun to present things you are familiar with because you can let go more in performance. It is great to play works by local composers because it strengthens our already burgeoning new music community. Also, you find yourself developing a bond with the composers that can last for years.
On the program are works by William Kraft, Chris Cerrone, Shaun Naidoo, Pamela Madsen, and Tom Flaherty (whose piece, Internal States,is a Brightwork commission). Have you worked with these composers before? What is the process usually like between the composer and performers when commissioning a new work for the ensemble?
We performed William Kraft’s Kaleidoscope at the annual Hear Now Festival a few years ago. Bill coached us before that performance. This is the second piece by Chris Cerrone we have performed. Last season we played the Night Mare with guest violist Cynthia Fogg. It’s great to collaborate with top notch guest artists! Soprano Stacey Fraser will join us for this concert on i will learn to love a person. She is a friend of the band and is amazing to work with. Shaun Naidoo of course was a dear friend of both percussionist Nick Terry and pianist Aron Kallay. It is still hard to believe that he passed away so suddenly five years ago. He was a larger than life fixture on the new music scene for years. His raucous energy lives on in his music, and we are honored to keep his memory alive by performing his music. In Pamela Madsen’s piece, Why Women Weep, for cello and electronics, I recorded myself speaking a text provided by the composer that I then play along with. I get to be my own accompaniment! Internal States is vintage Tom Flaherty; gorgeous lush harmonies, biting wit, rhythmically intricate ‘dancing’ figures. It’s a blast to play.
Brightwork newmusic is known for performing cutting-edge music from emerging composers, as well as classics from 20thcentury literature. What do you find similar/contrasting between these two areas?
The great thing about playing new music is the ability to work ‘hands on’ with the composer. Getting feedback and working through performance issues makes realizing their piece in front of their eyes a very satisfying process. The classics are like milestones; performing them is an honor. It’s like living with a piece of history when you perform a piece that has stood the test of time to become a cherished work.
Any future projects on the horizon you’d like to share?
The most exciting thing we have coming up is a recording project featuring three of the pieces on this concert!
Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information about the upcoming concert on June 27.