On Wednesday, May 23rd, Los Angeles-based concert series wasteLAnd presented the premiere of Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s piece Cantata, or You are the star in God’s Eye at the REDCAT Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Originally composed for radio broadcast in 2002, Schweinitz recomposed the bulk of the material with an expanded instrumentation for wasteLAnd, featuring conductor Nicholas Deyoe, Sara Cubarsi on violin, Andrew McIntosh on viola, Scott Worthington on double bass, Matt Barbier on euphonium, Allen Fogle on french horn, Luke Storm on Eb tuba, and soprano Stephanie Aston. Throughout the piece, the ensemble resides within an overarching narration of the libretto, written and recited by poet Friederike Mayrocker.
The piece begins with a short prelude of narration, which is quickly emboldened by an immediately rich texture of contrapuntal gestures as the ensemble enters assertively. Schweinitz’ nuanced rhythmic material and wasteLAnd’s thoughtful phrasing presented the listener with the option to enter a space of fluid and unstable structure, with perhaps once familiar material placed on the far side of a distorted lens. Although aided by amplification, the acoustics of the hall were not entirely suited to the texture of the piece. The brass were often rendered somewhat obscured and the narration occasionally became a dominating presence.
Exceptional instrumental ability was on clear display, with Cubarsi, McIntosh, and Worthington generating a warm and articulate lattice of incredibly precise harmonics and dyads, and the brass trio of Barbier, Fogle, and Storm deftly maneuvering through a jigsaw puzzle of minutely shifting microtones and interlocking gestures. Aston’s vocal line served as an anchor for the instrumental material and voice-over, simultaneously contributing to the existing texture and gently presenting a clear path through the development of the epic 80-minute piece. Her performance was stunningly controlled, well-executed, and emotionally dynamic.
The lengthy piece — eleven distinct sections — was well-paced and generated a captivating environment for the listener and a subtle momentum of narrative that made the piece’s 80 minutes belie a work of smaller proportion. The intimacy of REDCAT seemed to engender a willingness in the audience to stay with the ensemble intently, which I believe contributed greatly to the overall experience feeling not only like entertainment but also somehow artistic productivity.
The world of the piece seemed to behave contrary to entropy, gradually accruing order like a system trending toward a viscerally satisfying cosmic architecture. It feels massive in scope — like it’s operating within a greater universal logic rather than some simpler earthly system. The title’s imagery of star and god fit neatly in that universal logic, and imply scale more biblical than contemporary. During the seventh aria, the distorted lens shifted sharply into focus. Heralded by Cubarsi’s violin, the ensemble presented an incredibly effective moment that wouldn’t be inaccurately described as triumphant, but still in a manner distinct to Schweinitz’ refreshingly idiosyncratic and effective voice.
When the piece ended, the audience sat silently, taking a moment to shift from the flow-state of the piece back to reality.
The Isaura String Quartet, based in Los Angeles but too rarely heard, appeared in Chinatown on Sunday, February 18, 2018, at the spacious Human Resources venue. The concert program consisted of five contemporary chamber pieces, including first performances of works by Scott Worthington and Ulrich Krieger.
Valencia (2012), by Caroline Shaw, was first. The audience – appropriately enough – snacked on orange slices thoughtfully provided at the door and this simple token worked on the imagination of the listener, even before the first note sounded. As the composer writes of the Valencia orange: “It is a thing of nature so simple, yet so complex and extraordinary.” The opening arpeggios are light and breezy and some very high squeaks in the violin suggest a gentle breeze blowing in the branches of an orchard. A twittering of birds is heard and a solid optimism prevails in the tutti passages. The feeling is warm and earthy, and taking the orchard metaphor further, it is as if we are watching the fruit ripening in the sunshine. The pizzicato phrases towards the finish even suggest oranges plucked from the tree. The Isaura Quartet played with their accustomed sensitivity, deftly extracting all of the elements present in this inventive work.
Next was Decay One (2015), by Amy Golden. A quiet, sustained chord was followed by a slow, downward glissando in the cello and this imparted an increasing sense of anxiety. The others joined in, sliding up and down the strings at different rates and increasing in volume, much like a slow motion siren. Each string instrument independently varied its pace, pitch direction and register, neatly simulating a group of sirens and adding to the sense of discomfort. Every Angelino immediately understands that many sirens coming from different directions amounts to a major problem. The sudden stop at the finish only inflated this sense of urgency – when the sirens stop you know that trouble is close at hand. The playing throughout was disciplined and cohesive even as the score lacked any melody, pulse or formal harmonic structure. Decay One artfully invokes one of the more instinctive anxieties of contemporary urban living.
The first performance of Scott Worthington’s The Landscape Listens (2016) followed. Long, quietly sustained tones opened this piece, building into luminous harmonies. No pulse or melody intruded on the delicately introspective sensibility. As the chords progressed smoothly upward, small changes in their construction and some unconventional pitch combinations continuously recast the sound into a beautifully calming ambiance. There is a timeless feel to this piece – it slowly unfolds at its own pace, yet never loses the listener’s interest. With everything depending on precise intonation, the poise and concentration of the Isaura Quartet never faulted. Towards the finish, the top pitches in the violin were very high and thin, but these were played squarely in tune and with a very fine touch. The Landscape Listens is a radiant piece that is a superb addition to Worthington’s already impressive body of work.
Darkness is Not Well Lit (2016), by Nicole Lizée was next and for this the Isaura String Quartet entered a large metal cage made from small aluminum tubes, as you might see in a tent frame. The players arranged themselves, each sitting behind a circular fan placed just in front of their music stands. The fans were powered up and rotated at a fairly low speed so that when a note was played the sound partly reflected back and partly passed through the fan. This effect added a cheerfully alien character to the music as it proceeded in a series of two or three note phrases and by sustained tones. The shorter notes tended to acquire an echo from reflection by the fan blades while longer notes could interact in various ways with their own standing waves. Some syncopated vocalizing was occasionally heard, broken up by the fans, and this added to the unorthodox feel. The low throbbing of the four fans was heard most effectively in the mechanical processing of the string sounds, and not as a separate component of the ensemble. For the finish of the piece the fans were turned off and the players froze in mid-motion as the sounds slowly faded away. Darkness is Not Well Lit is remarkable for the simplicity of this novel concept and the unexpectedly powerful way that the sound of the string quartet was transformed.
The first performance Up Tight II (1999/2010/2018), by Ulrich Krieger completed the concert program, a work some 19 years in the making. This latest edition for string quartet began with a great busy chord, roiling and bubbling outward into the audience. The players were all using two bows applied to open strings, creating an active texture of breathtaking proportions. It was like hearing a great primordial soup of sounds, very dense and often rough, yet surprisingly cohesive. After a few minutes the viola and violin players shouldered their instruments and everyone began playing with a single bow. This thinned the texture somewhat, but it continued flowing outward as a hot, swirling cloud of anxious sound. Following a grand pause, the quartet restarted, this time in a somewhat more organized fashion. A steady beat appeared and a stream of accelerating tutti notes suggested a steam locomotive gathering speed. The tempo increased again after a second grand pause, adding to the sense of powerful kinetic movement and high velocity. The playing was as precise as the composer’s intentions; the extended techniques, JI tuning, and lack of conventional structure were all masterfully navigated throughout.
Another grand pause, several seconds in length, signaled a turning point in the piece. A series of strong gestures gave way to softer tutti chords and slower tempos. High, thin tones in the violins – played perfectly in tune with the darker pitches in the lower strings – gave the feeling of a failing machine in need of lubrication. After a short burst of frenetic activity the piece came to a sudden halt, having finally broken down completely. Up Tight II is a remarkably acute vision of the forces of genesis and entropy as expressed in sound, expertly performed by very talented musicians.
People Inside Electronics (abbreviated PIE) performs and promotes electroacoustic music in LA. Often, concerts go beyond music and present interdisciplinary multimedia collaborations with dancers, actors, scientists, and so on. PIE focuses on the artists, and electronic synthesizers and modulators are the media. The more time passes, the more I appreciate the name of the series. Today, we live in a world where music can be created entirely by programs and algorithms, without people at all. Furthermore, an increasing portion of the population has electronics inside them, from pacemakers to RFID implants (yes, really). To turn the lens from the machines’ ability to the people’s, and what they can make the machines do, is something to behold.
Beginning the concert on a fantastic note was The Deep State by Isaac Schankler (2017), performed by Scott Worthington on bass and Isaac Schankler on electronics. Right from the start, I could hear Pauline Oliveros’s influence and inspiration on the piece. She is one of my favorite pioneers in electronic music, and I know she is an influence to Schankler as well. Her pieces change slowly, like delicately bending metal into a sculpture. Like Schankler, she often provokes contemplation.
Schankler writes in the program note, “This piece is ‘about’ both the necessity and seeming impossibility of this kind of contemplation in our…current situation.” It is not difficult to interpret what he was getting at by ‘current situation.’ The ambiguity of the phrase also allows the listener to turn to any other situation, perhaps one more personal and probably less dismal. Regardless of any narrative one applies to the piece, Schankler’s genius composition, performed by my favorite bassist in southern California, is sure to stimulate a deep state of contemplation and peace in anyone who hears it.
Next on the program, pianist Aron Kallay and percussionist Yuri Inoo performed Elliptic by Caroline Louise Miller (2012). Elliptic paints the landscape of a “particularly beautiful dream” Miller had about “our pre-apocalyptic, neoliberal world.” (Compared to Schankler’s The Deep State, we can infer that the apocalypse has occurred sometime between 2012 and 2017.) Miller’s program notes describe an enchanting ellipsoid planet with a golden moon, orbiting a pink star. Monoliths appear on the water and break the spell.
The monoliths were the harbingers of change. The Earth appears on the horizon and destroys the reverie with an onslaught of media noise. In the music, Kallay’s otherworldly electronic piano depicts the beautiful planet, while Inoo’s bombastic snare and gong invoke the Earth’s cacophony. The Earth vanishes, and the music freezes for a second…and then quietly resumes, as if tip-toeing through the wreckage. The third movement, “Exodus,” sounds like flying into the unknown. It is different than the beginning, but there is a similar sense of being, of existing. I would recommend listening to this piece on its own once, then with the program notes, and then a third time on its own again. Close your eyes if you wish to visualize the alien landscape, just don’t forget to open your ears to the sonic landscape Miller crafts.
After intermission, PIE introduced BitPanic, a computer music collective based in LA. In a computer music collective, performers improvise on networked composition systems on laptops. Mark Trayle cofounded The Hub, the godfather of computer music collectives, dating back to 1986. BitPanic took on Trayle’s semi-aleatoric piece Pins and Splits (2004). In this piece, the background sound is fixed, and the foreground allows improvisation. The players affect each other’s timing, like a music game of duck-duck-goose. The result of the game is a constant transformation from chaos to order and back again. The program note says the title comes from an email thread with Trayle’s Hub-mates. To me, this is delightfully meta. Like an email thread, in Pins and Splits each participant takes turns at the lead, asking questions and resolving conflicts.
After Trayle’s piece, BitPanic concluded the concert with a totally improvised set. The quartet set loose on keyboards, knobs, and violins. Each player seemed to exist in their own little bubble. Sometimes they coincided with another player, and sometimes seemed like polar opposites. One performer played the violin normally, albeit hooked up with wires to the laptops for sound processing. Another performer laid his violin on the table and treated it no differently than the laptop. The other two stared stoically at their screens, clicking and typing and twiddling away. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before. That’s the beauty of electroacoustic music. The limit is your imagination, and my thoughts and experiences were certainly not the same as the members of BitPanic. New music, in the hands of PIE and BitPanic, will continue to surprise and delight.
WasteLAnd continues to impress audiences with a program of new music, most of it from LA-based composers. Each performer has their respective claim to fame in LA and is closely associated with wasteLAnd, and each composer is a long-time favorite of wasteLAnd’s. New to the scene, however, is Allison Carter, a poet whose words found their way into Deyoe’s new piece. Her work made quite the stir among the audience members, and I have a feeling we will begin to hear her name more in the future.
Before I review the concert itself, I find something worth mentioning: the gender representation. It was an even split. In my day job, I currently have my students writing a paper on 19th century gender roles and women composers in the Romantic era, so this has been on my mind a lot. One hundred years ago, women could not vote in the United States, and it was nearly impossible to earn respect as a composer or performer. Nowadays, female representation in the music scene is gaining. It is not yet even, but progress is happening. WasteLAnd’s October concert featured six composers; three were women and two were men (Erik Ulman had two pieces, so the ratio of compositions is 3:3). There were seven performers (including Allison Carter reading aloud), and four were women. The best part was that I didn’t notice until afterwards. I have come to recognize that gender equality is already quite common in the LA new music scene. So much so that this is the first time I put it together. I looked back over some old programs I’ve reviewed, and every concert has women as composers, performers, directors or all three.
Ok. Feminist aside complete. Moving on, because there is so much good about this concert to discuss.
The night opened with Kaija Saariaho’s Folia, performed by Scott Worthington on double bass and electronics. Like many compositions from the end of the 20th century, this piece focuses on dynamics and timbre over pitch and harmony. Sometimes the bass whistles like an icy wind, other times it rumbles like an earthquake, putting palpable pressure on your ears. Scott saws out some kind of textural melody, phrases build and climax and fade – textural intensity carries the musical line. The electronic aspect augments and echoes the timbres. It overlays overtones, resulting in both a more ‘open’-sounding composition and greater complexity overall.
Next on the docket was the duet Tout Orgeuil… by Erik Ulman. Stephanie Aston and Elise Roy are always an amazing team, and their performance on this piece was no exception. It begins with a piccolo solo, and Roy gradually descended down the flute family to alto flute. Aston sang sleepily about pride smoking in the night. Given that the text is from a Stephan Mallarmé poem, my mind turned to Debussy. Ulman is no Impressionist, but I feel Debussy would have approved of the modern counterpoint and expressive extended techniques. The pitches bent down, down, down into sleep, and the flutes became larger and the words grew heavier. Erik captured the good sinking feeling, the kind you feel in a cozy armchair while drifting to sleep.
Third up was Matt Barbier on trombone and electronics performing puddles and crumbs by Katherine Young. For me, this piece created a very specific soundscape: I, the listener, am a koi in the pond on a rainy day and the daily miracle of food raining from heaven is happening. Three of the major elements that contribute to this soundscape are 1. Sharply sucking air through the trombone, 2. Sharp plosives into the mouthpiece that are amplified by the electronics, 3. Dynamic tempi. Matt’s deep breathing combined with the electronic influence reminded me of snorkeling, the plosive pops like rain on water’s surface when I swim underwater. These are instinctive memories, of course, and it may be a coincidence that they play so well together. Now you understand my watery theme. The push and pull of the tempo took me a while to incorporate into my soundscape idea. At first I thought it felt like seasickness, but I eventually concluded it was more like watching fish dart in a pond. They sprint only a few inches or feet, depending on the size of the fish, and then hesitate. The tempo seemed to do exactly that. And then it all became clear, that the soundscape was from the point of view of a koi in a pond in the rain during feeding time. I’m sure many will disagree, whether they had another idea or didn’t find it so blatantly programmatic at all; one of the wonders of music is how everyone experiences things differently. For what it’s worth, I did come up with a secondary interpretation that involves heavy breathing, plosive pops, and sprinting-and-stopping: Darth Vader playing basketball. So really it’s all relative. Regardless of the loftiness or pop art-iness of my personal experience, Barbier proved yet again that the trombone is more than just a brass instrument in a marching band. He played every color in the palette, and demonstrated rigorous control over his body and his instrument to perform such a demanding piece.
Fittingly the 100th piece wasteLAnd has programmed, Erik Ulman’s this until is a flute solo, and Elise Roy absolutely nailed it. I’ve said before that she has superhuman control of her instrument, and she proved it again with this piece. She made her flute sing, speak, howl, wail and whisper. Though a solo composition, I could sometimes here a ghost of counterpoint when she effected heavy harmonics. I honestly couldn’t say if that was Ulman’s intention or Roy’s execution, but every so often a particularly turgid note would quietly sound the octave or fourth below, creating a beautiful, haunting harmony. this until was the only solo acoustic musical composition of the night and it was right in the middle of the program; Elise managed to keep up the energy on her own, and carried us into the final pieces of the evening.
The program ends with a sort of binary piece. First, Allison Carter read her Poems from A Fixed, Formal Arrangement; Nicholas Deyoe used the text for his piece Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, a line from the poem. I can’t say I have ever attended another concert that had the poet read their work first before the musical product, and I wish this would become the norm everywhere. As a general rule, increased understanding leads to increased appreciation, so knowing the text ahead of time (and from the author herself, no less) helped Deyoe’s work succeed. The instrumentation sounded like speech slowed down by a factor of ten. The melodies felt like they wanted to resolve up to a tonic, but they kept bending downwards, defying expectations. One thing I love about Deyoe’s style is that it’s always interesting and it never fulfills your expectations. Once you think you have it figured out, he changes it again. This piece feels like your mind wandering and getting lost – when it’s 4am and you have to wake up in two hours but you’re caught up in the twilight zone that is four in the morning. Knowing composers, that is probably the mindset he was in while writing. Also, knowing composers, that is a hard composition to pull off. I commend Nicholas Deyoe for a well-constructed and evocative ensemble composition.
WasteLAnd concerts are on the first Friday of every month at ArtShare. Check out Weights and Measures on November 4.
Editor’s note: WasteLAnd is currently running their annual fundraiser. Take a minute to support them at https://squareup.com/store/wasteland/
Minimum and maximum shared the stage at Boston Court last Friday, their point of contact being People Inside Electronics—the leading presenter of music involving electronics in Los Angeles. Presenting a program of electroacoustic music by three generations of composers called “Points of Contact,” the PIE team once again demonstrated the vital, transformative power of electricity in music.
“Why use electronics…?” an attendee queried in the populous, enlightening pre-concert talk. Theories, each satisfying in their own right, ranged from an expeditious “because it’s there,” to the discretionary “we need not use it,” settling finally on a more deliberate “to create sounds that could never be heard otherwise.”
“Points of Contact” refers to the centerpiece and concluding work of the program, Kontakte (Contacts), by legendary electroacoustic pioneer, Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007). PIE’s riveting rendition by pianist Todd Mollenberg, percussionist Ryan Nestor, and sound engineer Scott Worthington proved a pan-sensorial, full body delight, captivating listeners and reaffirming Stockhausen’s place alongside the greats.
Kontakte, composed 1958-60, was among Stockhausen’s first space pieces, whereby the element of space plays an integral role in audience perception. “Sit in the middle of the hall for the full experience, as the piece is quadraphonic,” advised PIE director Aron Kallay pre-concert when there were still a few seats left.
Stereophonic sound was used as early as 1940 in the Disney film Fantasia, where Rimsky-Korsakoff’s bumblebee is heard buzzing to-and-fro among increasingly nervous viewers. Such is the effect of a moving sound source on listener perception. Sound takes on dimension, becoming tangible, corporeal.
Kontakte, among other space pieces by Stockhausen, offers a boosted listener experience by multiplying all the usual effects of music—pitch, timbre (itself highly original in Kontakte), rhythm, volume—with the element of sonic rotation, promoting that sense of absorption and self-forgetfulness induced by all great music.
To ensure optimal success, Stockhausen called for specially built halls ideally suited to the demands of space music—something approaching Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Fortuitously, Boston Court’s Main Stage, site of the Summer Music Series, approximates an egg shape and met Stockhausen’s requirements satisfactorily.
The beautiful configuration of instruments on stage, a Western Gamelan of sorts, was prescribed by Stockhausen and is used in all renditions of the piece. The pianist—really a percussionist with piano abilities—begins by striking a gong, dramatically placed center stage, then wades through an obstacle course of percussion instruments to take up temporary residence at the piano. Pianist Todd Mollenberg handily met the extraordinary demands of his role, juggling a virtuoso piano part while nimbly navigating among an extensive collection of percussion instruments (inadvertently enlarged by percussive footwear) with both control and abandon.
Ryan Nestor, dedicated percussionist, glided discretely and efficiently among his instruments, often approaching them at the last moment as if to avoid spoiling the surprise.
Sound engineer Scott Worthington, working from a station in the back row, adjusted levels of each channel independently, continuously adjusting outputs to achieve the ideal balance.
With keen rhythmic sense, Mollenberg and Nestor coordinated the numerous points of contact between electronics and acoustics, articulating sonic hand-offs precisely. Such stretto effects added an additional source of meaning, promoting listener endurance throughout the objectively lengthy piece.
Climactic moments seemed to be followed by additional high points, without loss of impact or credibility. Treats for the listener abounded in every moment, quite by design.
“The piece was conceived in Moment form,” noted Todd Mollenberg in post-concert remarks. “Each moment is self-contained and separate from its neighbors to create an antinarrative,” elaborated Mollenberg.
The completion of each moment—the unforeseeable evaporation of sound followed by fresh sonic germination, a kind of ongoing death and resurrection of sound itself—induced a timeless state, an eternal (or at least 35 minute) present, in listeners.
Far from mere theory, this all happened. There was an atmosphere of excitement in the air that abstract music such as this—undeniably bizarre, space-age music for electronics and acoustic noise-makers—could be so thrilling.
Contrasting so sharply from Kontakte as to be linked only by the use of electronics, the pre-intermission lineup featured a minimalist tasting menu of three pieces by three generations of composers sympathetic to the cause of less being more in music.
If Kontakte drew on the maximum means to induce focus in listeners, the minimalist first half subsisted in narrower bands, allowing space for meanderings of free-association, leaving free rein to the imagination.
Scott Worthington, before donning sound engineer’s hat, took the stage for the opening number as contrabass soloist in Julia Wolfe’s Stronghold.
“I am always thinking about the physical effort involved and what it takes to make sound,” Wolfe (born 1958) has said of her compositional process. The term “stronghold” should refer to the bassist’s bow grip, which is thoroughly tested throughout the ambitious, extensive exploration of bass terrain. A stronghold of musical devices, each finding safe haven in the towering presence of the contrabass, king of strings, the piece unfolds in a steady flow of events including abrupt changes in volume and textural density, microtonal moanings of marine mammals, and crab canons (where a melody is accompanied by itself played backwards) reminiscent of Bach.
Throughout, the work is unified by a disciplined self-referential process, where each idea grows from an initial germ stated in the solo bass, then taken up by additional basses in a recording. The resulting effect is a musical kaleidoscope, with one event type subtly giving way to the next. The piece halts suddenly following powerful, characteristically deep bass tones, bowed on the bridge.
In proper new music form, lights were dimmed to pitch black for the next work, The Light Gleams an Instant, by PIE director Colin Horrocks (born 1992). Horrocks himself performed the work, scored for solo saxophone and live electronics. The title, borrowed from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, refers to the impermanence of life and music. “Music is a temporary art form; the ephemeral nature of sound allows it to exist only in the moment,” explained Horrocks in program notes. Beckett’s “light” is, for Horrocks a metaphor for sound.
Horrocks’s sounds did not merely fade away, however, gleaming an instant only to disappear into oblivion. They were all recorded, electronically reworked with Max, the industry standard for live musical processing, and played back in self-referential accompaniments. “The live notes are transposed, and in some cases the upper partials are played back,” clarified Horrocks in post-concert discussion.
As expressive saxophone tones and their musical fractals emerged from the lights-out backdrop, a surreal calm descended on the hall, calling listeners together in a moment of reflection and recollection.
Steve Reich’s (born 1936) Electric Counterpoint, a contrastingly bright, light piece befitting the season in its carefree summery bounce, drew the program to the halftime mark and off to a busy intermission.
Brian Head, noted guitar leader, performed the piece with refreshing vitality and jazzy flair. Head played the work’s 1987 premiere, thus bringing seasoned insight to the current performance.
Electric Counterpoint, like so much of Reich’s music, is the quintessential minimalist example. Terse, spare motives intermingle with each other, delicately phasing in and out of synch to form mosaics of scintillating mist. Discrete notes, while extremely few in number, seem to interlock in ornate braids of extraordinary richness and complexity, much as a DNA molecule or spiral galaxy.
Amidst the simplicity of musical means, otherwise banal devices like crescendos and modal shifts take on striking impact and purpose, inspiring listeners and lightening spirits.
A satisfied audience departed the hall for intermission amusement—a caption writing contest on a photo of Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Later, a generous post-concert reception included beer and sake (potentially worth the price of admission itself). Artists and audience mingled in enthused conversation, their own electric counterpoint, as another original evening at Boston Court drew to a charged close.
Last weekend, composer collective Synchromy bridged the Nor Cal/So Cal gap and opened the floodgates for inter-state collaboration. In other words, they hosted the incredible San Francisco based new music ensemble Wild Rumpus, down here at ArtShare. After seeing the group perform at last year’s New Music Gathering, Synchromy member Nick Norton said that it was “only a matter of time” before they made their way down to LA. And while building a “California Sound” might be a bit ambitious for a single concert, the performers and composers featured showed an impressive artistic breadth that never felt overwhelming. More importantly, what this concert lacked was pomp. The audience was small (as one might expect for an out of town group) but excited to see what Wild Rumpus had in store. While some of the music was thorny, the whole show ended up fun. Fun isn’t typically the go to description of Contemporary Art Music, but from the noisy neighbors who did not care that “Serious Art Making” was happening downstairs, to Norton’s tie dyed FYF shirt and his band’s logo duct-taped to the front of the bass drum that made its way into the percussionist’s setup, the whole night felt a little impromptu, kind of spontaneous, and a bit like hanging out in a good friend’s garage.
San Francisco provided some amazing composers, and Wild Rumpus brought some killer players. It was a little novel seeing new faces on the Art Share stage that has become a bit of a home base for LA new music. But the novelty was quick to wear off, and the talents of the performers soon stood in full display. For close followers of Synchromy, a pair of trombone solos from last years anti-valentine’s day concert were reprogrammed, this time under the interpretation of Weston Olencki. Both Richard Valitutto’s Walk of Shame and Scott Worthington’s Unphotographable were outstandingly played. The Valitutto was rendered shamelessly and brashly as a piece of its name and nature ought to be. And the Worthington proved an indomitably delicate wall of glissandoing brass against the backdrop of a slowly shifting sine wave.
The two trombone solos were stylistically distinct, as was the rest of the concert. Each piece seemed in a different world than the previous, making each moment fresh, never fatiguing despite a few pieces that lingered in soundworlds for an extended period of time. Despite their stylistic differences, each piece drew from its context on the program and it was interesting to see similar soundscapes explored by different composer. For example, where Walk of Shame started brassy and noisy and had petered itself out by the end, Sonnet XX for solo cello composed by Ursula Kwong-Brown, and performed by Joanne De Mars, started sweet, almost melodramatically so, and slowly peppered in more and more gritty gestures eventually ending in a shimmer of harmonics Unphotographable had an electroacousitc companion on the program too, Spectral Fields in Time by LA based Joshua Carro featured a longer form with slowly shifting masses of sound and the timbres of the full instrumental ensemble of Wild Rumpus. It featured the amplified wash of cymbals, (which harkened to the Lucier-esque LFO of Worthington’s miniature) and heavily amplified piano to accompany the ensemble’s winds, bass, and electric guitar. Both electroacoustic pieces suffered from a logistic issue: the placements of the mains. While ArtShare is a relatively wet hall, it certainly isn’t as reverberant as Zipper or any other recital hall. As such, the high mounted mains really made the electronic elements feel very separate from the ensemble. This was passable for the Carro due to the size of the ensemble, but really took away from the Worthington.
Another gripe on the venue were the neighbors. As the final sounds of Balance of Power by Dan VanHassel (also co-director of Wild Rumpus) faded out, dance music thudded in from a tenant upstairs. (Artshare is an apartment for artists as well as a venue). The piece relied on stark contrasts between more intense moments of percussive groove and lush swelling noisy chords, and while at first the Cagian response of an upstairs boombox seemed a little cute, and almost appropriate for a concert of new music, it continued, ruining more subtle moments both in Walk of Shame and Sonnet XX. Despite the interruption, the VanHassel was executed brilliantly, and was, (to one who is only fleetingly familiar with the composer’s work) quintessential VanHassel, featuring an incredibly well blended ensemble sound and and incredible accuracy within the group.
The Norton and the Barabba utilized the full ensemble along with vocalist Vanessa Langer. Brabba’s cry trojans cry was evocative of the VanHassel, though, with textures peeking in and out of each other a bit more subtly. The piece was extensively theatrical making great use of Langer’s immense stage presence. Beach Song by Norton may have been the only lone wolf on the program, seemingly unpaired. The song is an adaptation of a pop song originally written “after suffering a dramatic New Year’s Eve break up” and then re-re-arranged for Wild Rumpus. The use of classical voice provided an incredibly interesting juxtaposition over the very singer/songwritery text and the timbrally interesting arrangement.
While Wild Rumpus probably won’t be back in town for a while, if you end up up the coast, or they end up down here, I highly recommend coming out to see this incredibly versatile ensemble. The video below features their performance from last year, and the Carro that was on the program last week:
This Sunday, ArtShare LA will be hosting a party celebrating Scott Worthington’s recent release of Prism on Populist Records (out August 14, available for pre-order here), a collection of works spanning 2010-present, all in his singular voice. The program will include pieces from the recording as well as other pieces for bass and electronics. We asked him a few questions about the recording and upcoming party:
How did you go about starting work on this set of recordings? You seem to have developed a unique voice with bass playing and electronics. What do you feel is the relationship here? Are the electronics always more fixed and your bass playing more improvisatory? Do they inform each other? What comes first, and how do you craft the pieces?
Back in 2010 I tried to record At Dusk and Prism. That attempt didn’t turn out very well, so I guess you could say that I started to work on it all the way back then. The recordings on the album are from 2014 and 2015. I didn’t craft the pieces in order to produce the album, but I think I got lucky and they sound nice together.
I’m not sure if there’s a relationship. I just try to make electronic parts that don’t sound like my own *very* reductive stereotype of wiz/band/swoosh electronic music. I like some of that music but I’m just not good at making it and/or am too lazy to try.
Neither of the electronic parts on this disc are fixed. In At Dusk, they end up sounding like a very pitchy reverb chamber. It has an entirely notated bass part. I’ve adjusted some of the rhythms and dynamics as I’ve played it more, but I wouldn’t consider is improvisatory. As for the chicken/egg, I had the idea to get the computer to mimic the sustain pedal on the piano, wrote the bass part with that in mind, and experimented writing some different computer programs until I thought it sounded right.
In Reflections I cue the drones in a way that sort of fakes live processing. It has some melodic fragments and ideas that remain the same from performance to performance, but there is no score. This piece started as a bass ensemble work for five basses and I made a version for solo bass and drones afterwards.
Your work seems to prioritize some traditional musical ideas – there are memorable themes and motifs, as well as more atmospheric materials. Are you concerned with making memorable gestures that can be developed? Or do you have a different way of thinking about thematic material?
I guess I’m a “motive guy” or something like that. Sometimes I like to tell people my music is mash up of Brian Eno and Morton Feldman. I like things that can be remembered but aren’t necessarily played the same every time. I think most of the development in my pieces comes from layering different motives on top of each other, but not necessarily developing the motives themselves. Reflections works exactly like this. I have a bank melodic ideas and I put them together during the performance. I used to just write this kind of thing out in score form, but more recently I’ve been eschewing scores and trying to create environments where these kinds of ideas can live and get a bit of a life of their own from performance to performance.
There are two versions of a quintet, with a note, “After Feldman.” While somewhat static, there is still more trajectory here than what I associate with Feldman. Did you have a specific piece in mind that was influential? I’m curious about the reason for two versions – can you describe the compositional method here?
A specific piece, yes! Piece for Four Pianos. Here’s a youtube recording:
I think I have it right that the pianos each have the same part and progress at their own pace. In my piece, there are five separate parts, but I…borrowed…the “at your own pace” bit. Since it’s not exactly the same every time I thought I’d put two performances on the album. I also think they act as nice palette cleansers between the longer pieces on the album.
I really enjoyed Prism. I can see how you’re working with some potent, dramatic materials that are then refracted and explored, like light through a prism. Your handling of the form here seems really intuitive. Did you have a specific structure in mind, or did the materials themselves suggest the form? Is there anything else you’d like listeners to know about the piece?
Glad you enjoyed it 🙂 I think I did have a little structure mapped out (it’s from 2010, so my memory of writing it is a little fuzzy). There are five parts and I think those parts only had to do with the pitches/chords in the sections. I think that was the extent of the formal plan. So, maybe that means it was intuitive? I don’t think I set out with a plan for how long the sections were. It was towards the end of when I was really concerned with pitch sets and things like that and I was (clearly) moving towards using a lot of repetition and being sparse and droney in general.
Your fifth track is in memory of Stefano Scodanibbio. Can you talk a little bit about what his influence is?
He was one of the most incredible bassists (and perhaps musicians) to walk the planet. I never got to meet him or see him perform, but the kinds of things he was capable of on the bass are unparalleled. I wrote the piece shortly after his untimely death from ALS. It doesn’t use any of the techniques or pyrotechnics he was known for and capable of, but I tried to make a contemplative piece in his memory.
Are you excited about the release party concert? Do the other pieces on the program relate to this recording, or are they just pieces you enjoy performing for other reasons?
Yes, I’m excited! I’m also heading off on a CD release tour playing at the Center for New Music in San Francisco on the 14th, the Wayward Music Series in Seattle on the 19th (with Nat Evans), and at the Wandering Goat in Eugene on the 20th (with a lot of other artists and bands). Lots of miles on the car, but I’m looking forward to meeting people and playing some music for them.
I’ll be playing two new works that Nat Evans and Brenna Noonan wrote for me for these concerts. They don’t relate specifically to the album, but I wanted to make a nice concert and not just play the record for people. I met Nat and Brenna through a project that Nat did called The Tortoise (https://natevans.bandcamp.com/album/the-tortoise). The concert will close with Julia Wolfe’s piece Stronghold which is just an awesome piece–it’s kind of a barn burner.
And finally, if you could sit down with your listeners and tell them anything, what would it be?
Hope you enjoy it 🙂
We hope you enjoy it too. For more information, visit:
Scott Worthington – Prism CD Release Party
8.9.15, 8pm, $10
801 E. 4th Place, Los Angeles, CA 90013
See you there!
WasteLAnd’s third concert in their first summer series continued the theme of meditations on altered time, with a concert devoted entirely to Scott Worthington’s Space Administration. The piece is Worthington’s doctoral dissertation piece, an extended setting of Ken Hunt’s poem, Apollo Spacecraft. The venue was the Velaslavasay Panorama, a community cinema built in 1911 that’s gone through a number of incarnations before its current cozily dilapidated state. The piece shares a number of features with The Cartography of Time, but is most definitely a different beast.
Firstly, the piece includes a video which projects the text of the poem, and provides structure for the hour-long concert experience. The poem itself is an important player in the success of the piece, and deserves careful consideration. The text is taken from NASA’s voice transcription of the first day of the Apollo 11 moon mission, complete with timestamps. Hunt has erased words throughout, however, leaving a skeleton of fragmented phrases, combined and reconsidered through the poet’s lens to form a contemporary ode to Apollo and a meditation on space travel. The poem is quite strong, and even in the fewest phrases, the poet manages to convey convincing vulnerability, will, and longing. It’s to Worthington’s credit that he chose a strong poem to set. Often, poems that are worthy on their own merits can actually be difficult to set, as a powerful text has its own priorities. In this case, however, the absences in the text, as well as Worthington’s thoughtful pace in displaying them, provide enough room for the music’s own dialogue to flower. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:
The piece itself begins with a launch countdown in the video, which is effective in preparing the listener for the relentless march of timestamps that mark the piece. In the previous week’s The Cartography of Time, time stood still. Here, time is inexorably but weightlessly moving forward. Taken individually, the component parts are actually rather simple – samples have been recorded and processed from a Moog in use around the time of the Apollo mission, the green text fades quietly in and out of view, and the contrabass comments on the proceedings with a bank of recurring subjects and themes that bring to mind the frankness and inevitability of a rondo or ritornello. These rudimentary elements combine, however, to create something that does not just hold a listener’s interest, it feels substantial.
What really holds the piece together are the various conceptual tensions throughout. Many of the materials are traditional – recurring themes and motifs that arise with the introduction of key words or ideas, an ode to an ancient god, but these elements are unmoored, floating in a vast space. The poem purports to be about space travel, but there is so much in the imagery that is earthbound, quotidian. There are conflicts in the text between the known that is clung to, and the unknown, which is wholly undifferentiated. There is even a tension between Apollo’s realm – that of ordered music and light, and the occasionally malicious Moog context in which the piece takes place.
When Apollo actually does makes an appearance in the text, he is all of a sudden present. Worthington does an excellent job here at conjuring the sense of an ode in these moments, with variations and intensifications of musical material. We are all trying to communicate with the gods.
The form of the piece is actually somewhat difficult to follow. The form does change, and there are lighter and heavier moments, but transitions feel so inevitable that it’s hard to even keep track of the many locations we’re visiting. This can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on the intent of the composer. In this case, being without a goal is quite effective.
Most importantly, the overall effect is not really galactic so much as subjective. We are weightless, but are we really in outer space? The text is so powerful and the setting so passive that the listener’s reflections collapse in on themselves. This is hardly an outward looking conquest of the final frontier. We are definitely looking inward, and upward, with an ancient desire for the heavens.
EDITOR’S NOTE: an interview with Scott Worthington, whose album Prism will be out next week on Populist Records, is on the way too.
WasteLAnd‘s second season at ArtShare starts this Friday, September 19 (tomorrow) at 8 PM, with percussionist Justin DeHart performing John Luther Adams’ The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies in its entirety. Their first season at the venue was a blast, and drew great crowds for dense and challenging music. We managed to track down the series’ co-directors for an interview about the series and what’s coming up.
What was the impetus to start this series?
Scott: I think we had all individually dreamed of having a series that played music we wished would get played more ’round these parts. Then we realized that multiple heads can be better than one. Our programming is sort of a mash up of all of our desires. For example. I mostly just recommend pieces that are long enough to be the whole concert.
Matt: A lot of the music I really love has a tendency to fall in the cracks between different series in town, so for me, an exciting part of wasteLAnd is getting to focus upon music that I really love that is just outside of the mission of a lot of the series and groups I play with. It’s exciting to get to listen to other performers interested in this type of music and hear what they want to play, but don’t get to, and help provide a space for them.
Nick: I’ve been talking about wanting to do this for years. I’ve never really wanted to run an ensemble, but have wanted to run either a series or a venue for quite a while. In fact, I would love it if, at some point down the road, it became possible for wasteLAnd to have its own space. I had discussed this off and on for some time with Scott, Brian, and Matt, but nothing ever got started until Scott finally found an opportunity through ArtShare that looked promising as a way to launch wasteLAnd.
Is there a central mission, theme, or idea you program your concerts around, or is each one a beast of its own?
Scott: We try to focus on local performers the most (their repertoire interests and, of course, performances), local composers second, and then music that doesn’t seem to show it’s face much around Los Angeles. From there we try to put together concerts that we want to go to.
Matt: Frequently a programming decision is made around the idea of “I really want to hear/perform this one piece, but it’s too much for me to throw together a concert.” With wasteLAnd that’s frequently become a central kernel for a concert. We have an idea for one or two pieces one of us really loves and that gives us a bend and ensemble to build around. Or at least that’s how I think…
Nick: Basically what Scott said… We love LA and want to show how special the things that happen here are while also presenting music by composers around the country/world who excite us. The five of us (Elise, Brian, Matt, Scott, myself) have pretty different aesthetic positions. For anything to be programmed, all five of us have to be on board with it, rather than a simple majority vote. This is something I feel strongly about because it helps to keep our overall output broad and requires that we all give serious consideration to all of the ideas that are brought to the table (or G-chat conference).
I’ve heard Barbier joke that the directors are Deyoe’s minions. How do you guys divide responsibilities?
Brian: This is a classic example of Barbier’s inability to grasp infinite recursion. As one of the directors himself, Deyoe clearly makes this so-called “joke” an ontological cow pie.
Matt: Well maybe I’m just Deyoe’s minion, or at least try to be.
Nick: the division of responsibilities is an ongoing project for us. For season one, everyone kind of did everything. For each set of tasks that came up, we’d email around with a list of “what needs to be done” and divvy up the responsibilities. This will always be some version of how we do it (especially during concert weeks), but we are also working on better defining our individual roles within the organization to make certain aspects more efficient.
What do we have to look forward to in the coming season?
Nick: LOTS to look forward to! We’re excited to finally be at the point of announcing things (coming out this afternoon along with our kickstarter). We’ve been thinking about the concerts (programs/personnel/logistics) since April. We have 25-30 local performers playing and are presenting something around 30 composers. Some highlights are The Formalist Quartet with Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick in October, Mark Menzies and Stephanie Aston with the wasteLAnd musicians performing Ferneyhough’s Terrain and Etud
Matt: What Nick wrote. This year is exciting because it’s a wonderful mix of pieces I’ve wanted to play for a long time (Terrain, Saxony, Hölszky’s WeltenEnden, EARTH) and that I’ve always dreamed of hearing like- particularly Ferneyhough’s Etudes Transcendantales. So for me it’s very exciting and I think this year’s programs will have that for a lot of people.
Is Elise Roy having any issues with being the only beardless member?
Brian: All conditions are impermanent. My beard, for instance, has grown substantially in the last few days. Elise was brought on for her deep existential wisdom; I doubt she’d fall prey to fears of beardlessness as a permanent state of being…
Nick: I think there’s still plenty of beard to go around. Having Elise as a part of the team has been great so far. She came in once most of the season was already planned, but will be instrumental in our planning for season 3 and has also offered a lot of very useful insight as we prepare to raise the funds for the current season.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Scott: Please be on the look out for our Kickstarter which will help prolong wasteLAnd’s life and wellbeing.
Matt: Well one can braid top-of-head hair into a beard with quite successful results.
Elise: If you find yourself at any of our concerts, please introduce yourself or say hi to us. For the five of us, one of the joys of hosting this series is seeing the new music community of Southern California come together!
Though based in San Diego, bassist and composer Scott Worthington is no stranger to the LA scene. UPDATE: SCOTT HAS MOVED TO PASADENA.