This Saturday night, People Inside Electronics present Nothing is Real: psychedelia for piano and electronics at Pierre’s Fine Pianos in Westwood. Amid preparations for the show, artistic director and founder Isaac Schankler managed to find a moment for an interview.
Tell me a bit about this weekend’s concert. You’ve got a ton of pianists on it, and what looks like a cool mix of pieces by local (Shaun Naidoo) and seriously established (Alvin Lucier) composers.
Yes! We’re really happy to have a bunch of amazing pianists involved: Vicki Ray, Vatche Mankerian, Genevieve Feiwen Lee, Louise Thomas, Aron of course, and Rafael Liebich, who also happens to be our new assistant director.
As far as the music goes, part of our mission all along has been to program works by established composers alongside newer works, to show that there’s a kind of history that’s there that people are continuing to build on. For this concert the classic pieces are Alvin Lucier’s Nothing Is Real (Strawberry Fields Forever) and Charles Dodge’s Any Resemblance Is Purely Coincidental. Lucier’s piece is a kind of stripped-down arrangement of the Beatles tune, which you hear first from the piano and then emerging from a teapot, which the performer is able to play with onstage to control the resonance of the sound. Dodge’s piece takes an old recording of the tenor Enrique Caruso and digitally manipulates it — it was one of the first pieces to use digital manipulation in this way.
One of the things that these pieces have in common, we realized, was the illusory nature of the electronics. There’s this idea that, once you record something, it becomes detached from our ordinary reality and becomes this kind of putty that can be shaped at will. A liberating and scary thought! Hence the “psychedelic” theme that the concert is loosely organized around, though the selection is pretty diverse within that. Linda Bouchard’s Gassho is very meditative, and Mike McFerron’s Torrid Mix is inspired by hip-hop. Pierre Jodlowski’s Serie Noire is based on clips from old noir films, and Shaun Naidoo’s Voices of Time is based conceptually on a J.G. Ballard story. Those last two are quite virtuosic, by the way.
Oh! And I should mention that we just added yet another piece to the program, Benjamin Broening’s Nocturne/Doubles.
How did People Inside Electronics get started?
PIE got started in 2009, when Aron Kallay and I were both graduate students at USC, and we noticed that while there was a lot of new music in LA, there wasn’t a whole lot of electroacoustic music being performed (aside from the efforts of a few groups like SCREAM and Sonic Odyssey). And we had the thought, well, if the venue doesn’t exist, why not create one?
You’ve collaborated not only with artists working in other mediums, but with scientists and engineers as well. Could you discuss some of your collaborative efforts, how you got people involved, and what the reaction was like?
Sure, I can give a couple examples. In 2010 we worked with Alexandre François and Elaine Chew, who were both engineering professors at USC at the time and part of a research group called MuCoaCo (Music Computation and Cognition Laboratory). Alex designed this really cool piece of software called Mimi (Multimodal Interaction for Musical Improvisation). Mimi is a kind of improvisational partner, and there’s also a visualization aspect to it that allows you to see what Mimi is up to. I was really taken with the software, and performed with it at our June 2010 concert. The reaction was great, because it piqued the interest of science-minded people beyond the usual new music crowd. I think it’s exciting for people to see unusual and artistic uses of technology — even though they work with it day in and day out they don’t necessarily know what it’s really capable of.
Then there’s our collaborations with other artists. For example, on that same concert we presented Veronika Krausas’ Waterland, which included video by Quintan Ana Wikswo and text by Andre Alexis. Veronika is curating a concert in April that we’re co-presenting with the interdisciplinary arts organization Catalysis Projects, so you can expect a lot more of that in the future.
What has the reaction to your concerts been like in general? Do you feel that there’s a strong and supportive scene for electroacoustic composition here, or is it something that could use some improvement?
Yes, I would say people have been very supportive! For example, we’ve started to have funding campaigns for our last couple of concerts, and raised over $2000 total through that, so that’s been really encouraging. (You can still donate to our current fundraiser at indiegogo, actually.) We pour a lot of time and energy and money into making these concerts happen, and it would be really hard to do that if people hadn’t responded in the way they have. So if you’re reading this and you’re one of those people who has donated or come to our concerts in the past, thank you!
What do you see as the challenges to running a concert series here and now?
LA presents some unique challenges for a concert series because of the size of the city and the fact that there’s always so much going on. You have to present a really compelling reason for people to come out, especially if they’re driving across town! But I think in the long run it’s actually helped us by pushing us to really finely hone what we do, both in terms of the quality of the music and in how we present it.
I have to say that I think LA is a really fantastic place for new music right now. I’ve seen so many great concerts in the past year, and I’ve missed so many more. I feel terrible every time I miss a concert I want to see, but it’s practically unavoidable.
This is a big question, but it often feels like electroacoustic music somehow gets separated from other genres in an almost unfair way. As in, symphonic or traditional concert music connoisseurs seem to see it as novelty, whereas listeners more familiar with popular electronic music tend to think of it as a separate, experimental thing. Do you perceive that at all? And if so, is it something that concerns you?
I don’t particularly see this kind of thing happening, at least not any more than with other kinds of new music. It may be that I’m just insulated from this kind of talk. But electronics have played such an important role in the development of new music, and so many great 20th and 21st century composers have at least dabbled in the medium, that I think most people who at least know about it don’t view it as a niche at all. It’s been with us almost a century, after all, so it’s not really a novelty at this point.
The exception to this might be those people who view classical music as some kind of final stronghold, the only place where “real” music is still made with “real” instruments. They might say that technology is slowly chipping away at that. But every musical instrument was new technology at some point. Or, to shamelessly quote Brian Eno, “technology is just the name we give to things that don’t work yet.”
I think that’s why PIE has been focused on pieces that just work, pieces that are aesthetically compelling regardless of the technology involved. That’s what’s really striking to me about those pieces by Lucier and Dodge. Whether or not they were technically innovative at the time they were composed, that’s not really why we programmed them or what you notice when you hear them. The technological medium almost melts away, and you’re just listening to a beautifully constructed piece of music.
I’m very curious about your take on electronic performance practice, especially since it says in your biography that you’re interested in how people interact with electronics. Let’s be blunt: watching people press buttons is pretty boring. Having the live pianist and visual elements helps immensely, but are you also pushing new modes of performance for the electronic portions of these concerts?
Well, performance with electronics can be frustrating to watch because it’s kind of a black box; the performance isn’t really visible in the same way it is with an expressive instrumentalist (despite the best efforts of head-bobbing DJs everywhere). It’s a kind of disembodied performance. I think putting live instrumentalists front and center helps, as you said. And when programming newer works, we try as much as possible to incorporate live electronics that react to what the performers are doing, so the electronics become a kind of extension of the instrument. The electronics in Shaun Naidoo’s piece that Aron is premiering, for example, are incredibly responsive to what Aron’s doing at the piano. It just looks and feels like a natural extension of his performance, and it’s really fun to watch.
I also think we can still learn a lot from Lucier, the oldest composer on the program. The lifting of the teapot lid is such a straightforward action, but you immediately understand what it means sonically; you know exactly what the performer is doing to manipulate the sound, and that’s one of the simple joys of experiencing that piece.
I can’t help but notice that People Inside Electronics only puts on one or two shows a year. I’m sure you and your partners are quite busy with other projects. As such, have you hit a happy frequency with that, or are you hoping to increase the number of shows you do?
Two per year (one in the fall and one in the spring) seemed ideal in the past, but lately we’ve had a hankering to do more, which is one of the reasons we asked Rafael to be a part of PIE. We actually have 3 concerts this season: the one with Eclipse Quartet last fall, the one coming up on February 11th, and the one on April 28th called “Misfits and Hooligans” that’s being co-presented with Catalysis Projects. And we already have something in the works for this fall that I’m very anxious to talk about when it’s finalized!
Find more information or purchase tickets to this weekend’s concert at peopleinsideelectronics.com/nothing-real-psychedelia-piano-and-electronics, and donate to the fundraising campaign at indiegogo.com/People-Inside-Electronics.