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.
This Saturday, Spacepants perform on a bill alongside Electric Soundbath and Luther Burbank at the California Institute of Abnormalarts, or CIA, on a show presented by Synchromy. According to the pants, while Jennifer Beattie was singing and Diana Wade was playing viola at a music festival in Vermont, they met, realized they shared a life-long dream of wearing as many sparkles as possible, and ran joyfully out into a field to celebrate. Their enthusiasm attracted the attention of some rad aliens who invited us to party and jam with them. As luck would have it, they were having a full-on sparkle party. When Jen and Diana woke up the next day, groggy and disoriented, they discovered the rad aliens had left us three parting gifts: a 25-foot long tube, a mission, and several pairs of spacepants. The tube would of course become a central focus of their music-making. The mission, which they accepted, is to wear spacepants while bringing both their own and other earth-bound beings’ works of music, poetry, multi-media, storytelling and art to life. There was also something about crystals.
Ahead of the show Spacepants had time to answer a few questions and send us a photo of space whales cuddling.
My understanding is that Spacepants found their beginnings in a field in Vermont with some aliens and a lot of sparkles. Could you expand on that?
The thing is, this was one. serious. party. We were completely unprepared for the life-changeingness of this party. At the party was the tube. And honestly, nothing else mattered once we saw that thing. The aliens were maybe doing telepathy, but anyway they had this great welcoming attitude and inclusive energy, and there was this music that we just couldn’t ignore. The aliens and the music were totally rad. We never wanted that Sparkle Party to end.
It seems like you’ve taken the 25 foot drainage tube they left you quite seriously, where some groups might do one piece with it and move on. I’ve heard you a few times and know what a range of sounds it can make…but can you sell us on tube?
Sales are not required. The tube is the perfect instrument. The tube is life. Sounds of the tube will enter your dreams and re-arrange your subconscious formats so you can hear the sounds of the universe really really good. We show our gratitude to our friends the rad aliens with tubular celebration at every show.
Periscope, your current live set that you’re playing this weekend, is anchored by the Spacepants arrangement of Garth Knox’s Jonah and the Whale. What went into making this arrangement? Are Spacepants down on whales?
We got the idea to make this arrangement by hearing the original version with tuba, and then we were like well, Jen could be a tuba too, so we called the aliens and they sent us a tube harness so we could strap the tube to our bodies, and then Diana slayed on viola and then we were pretty much there. The existence of our best friends, Spacewhale 1 and Spacewhale 2, proves that we’re not down on whales.
The pants have one leg on each coast of the US. How do you prepare pieces? Are meetings most convenient in the loins?
Actually, there is an intergalactic rehearsal space, but it’s expensive, as you can imagine. Spacepants gets a huge discount cause we know a guy. We also like Miami, which is kind of like meeting in the foot, or Sea Ranch, which is in the shoulder-zone. But yeah, it’s different! We often do that thing called planning ahead, which is weird; we dream up ideas on long phone calls, practice on our own, and delight in the unexpected. We have a huge amount of trust in each other on stage, and whatever happens, we’re wearing spacepants, so we know we’ll be fine.
Before you met these aliens you were on what seems like a very traditional path in classical music, and now you are featured on prayer candles. This seems like a win to me. But you’ve certainly still got connections to the classical world. Are folks there, if there is a there, as receptive as you’d hope to this project?
Let’s get one thing straight: we’re not on the prayer candle, the tube is on the prayer candle. Tube is life.
It seems as though wherever we go, the reputation of the tube precedes itself. We’re surprised and delighted to say that many of our colleagues seem surprised and delighted by the tube. We’re pretty sure cellists are into us, but we’re cornering the tuba market, so there might be some animosity there.
Pre-alien sparkle party, were you as interested in performance art? That’s a major part of what Spacepants does.
It’s basically like this: after the Sparkle Party we realized that we had not only gained a tube and Spacepants, we had also gained a new perspective. What the rad aliens had was curiosity, and in honor of that we are just letting our curiosity and enthusiasm direct the development of Spacepants. So we’re pretty much interested in everything, and everything is an idea waiting to be celebrated and explored.
Talk to me about the CIA.
Well, Diana’s dad was in it.
Also, there’s a clown corpse, and you can drink beer in there!
How can people find you?
Anything else you’d like to add?
If you come to our show, you can make yourself a tinfoil hat. Or, you can make yourself TWO tinfoil hats. One to wear now, and one for later. Also, we are lucky enough to be playing next to two other *fabulous* acts: Electric Sound Bath and Luther Burbank. Doors are at 8:30, 18 and over, full bar at the venue. We always encourage sparkles – get your best Sparkle Party outfits on and wear ‘em to the show!
You heard the pants. See you Saturday night. Details on the facebook event page at facebook.com/events/405850136893675.
Composer/guitarist Alexander Elliott Miller‘s debut solo album, To….Oblivion comes out everywhere on October 20. The record and historical photography project deals with lost spaces in Los Angeles, and to celebrate the release Alex is playing three sets at the Bendix Building that day as part of the LA Conservancy‘s architecture walking tours. A few standing room tickets are still available.
I first heard To….Oblivion in its nascent stages at a What’s Next? Ensemble show a few years ago, and then caught the full piece at Oh My Ears! in Phoenix back in January. My favorite track/movement was the “Zanja Madre,” which is the original aqueduct that brought water to El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Rio Porciuncula (L.A. is a useful abbreviation, isn’t it?). I asked Alex if we could premiere the track when the album was ready, and he said yes. So, feast your ears!
Alex also had time for some interview questions about the project. Here’s our conversation:
Okay, so talk to me about To….Oblivion
To….Oblivion is an album all about historic landmarks in Los Angeles. It’s for solo electric guitar, which I play myself, with electronics and a video slideshow. The electronics include both live processing of the guitar as well as recorded sounds which aim to capture an impression of the acoustic environment of each site. The album will be released along with videos of the recording with the slideshow both projected behind me and intercut directly.
There are six historic sites: the Belmont Tunnel, Dunbar Hotel, Zanja Madre, Tower Records, Long Beach’s Pike Amusement Park and Anaheim’s Center Street.
When you were writing the pieces for the record, were there any direct or obvious connections between the places and your composing (for instance, tracing the curve of the LA river in a melody), or was each location more of a loose inspiration for your work?
There’s nothing as literal as tracing the curve of the river and interpreting it as a melody. With each movement, I found myself wanting to make the slideshow and soundtrack first, finding the right order for the photographs to convey the story of each site, then matching up the sounds to those images where appropriate. Usually the guitar part was the last thing to be written, almost like a film score, though I usually had pretty strong ideas of what I wanted beforehand.
Some of the movements suggested particular types of guitar playing or sound worlds. Certainly the movement about the Dunbar Hotel, at the hub of LA’s mid-20th Century jazz scene gave me a chance to try my own take on jazz as a composer, and the Tower Records movement let me return some classic rock guitar playing that I grew up with.
The Belmont Tunnel, about an abandoned subway tunnel from the early 20th Century suggested certain sound effects: there’s an effect I create with an eBow and some pitch shifting that is a heavy, loud, roaring sound that reminds me a train, there’s a ton of reverb, almost like the echoes I imagine down in that abandoned tunnel.
Was there anything in particular that acted as a deciding factor in whether or not to use a location? Did any places not make the cut?
I was interested in locations that either seemed like symbols of larger issues in the city, or perhaps had interesting sonic or even musical implications.
The Belmont Tunnel, for me, is a symbol of public transportation’s role in shaping the city, and presents a great “what if:” what if LA’s original subway had been allowed to grow, in place of or in addition to expansion of the freeways, how would the city have been different?
The Zanja Madre movement was written at the heart of the drought, and deals with LA’s complicated relationship with water. I also liked that the original Zanja Madre was a project that dated from 1781, constructed within weeks of the original establishment of the city. It was right there at the beginning of Los Angeles, and dealt with our major problem: water.
Two movements venture further outside downtown LA, to Orange County and Long Beach, but these are also two of the sites to which I have a more personal connection. “Anaheim’s Center Street” looks at urban blight and redevelopment, and has a scene were the heart of the old downtown is demolished with bulldozers. I loved the idea of including bulldozers in the soundtrack, and felt that scene, perhaps more than anything else in the piece, captured the sadness of the title “To….Oblivion.” I live on Anaheim’s Center Street and got to know my own neighborhood much better by doing this piece. The Long Beach movement tells a similar story of urban decay, but I left out the violence of the bulldozers in this movement, and focused more on the happy memories of the old amusement park. I’ve worked in Long Beach for six years, and I think this movement is probably the most hopeful in the set, being a sort of expression of my gratitude to the city.
Then there are two sites in which music itself is an important part of the historic site’s identity. The Dunbar Hotel was at the heart of LA’s Central Avenue jazz scene. This location also has a complicated history representing the status of race relations in LA, as the Dunbar was one of the few hotels were African American celebrities were welcomed. One has mixed feelings about it: on one hand, it’s an exciting cultural focal point where numerous jazz heroes were present (Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, countless others all stayed there), and yet, a regrettable place, existing primarily because of segregation laws. Secondly, the Sunset Strip’s Tower Records obviously represents a kind of celebration of music in its day, but also may have become, since its closing, a kind symbol of all of the changes the music industry has experienced in the last two decades.
When I first started the project, I think there were some other historic sites that I considered very briefly, but the shape of the piece with the six now part of the final version emerged quickly. Still, other locations that I may have considered at the beginning which didn’t make the cut included the Nestor Film Studio (the very first ever movie studio in LA), the Pan Pacific Auditorium (which burned to the ground and is now the site of Pan Pacific Park), and, of course, the Ambassador Hotel. I discovered Gabriel Kahane’s album “The Ambassador,” after this (it’s an album I love and one which shares an “LA location” concept with my project), so honestly, I’m glad I didn’t include it. I already had a hotel in the project anyway, in the Dunbar Hotel.
You once told me that when you visit places you like to enter via different modes of transportation to give yourself a different perspective or idea of “home base” for a city. For instance, coming into LA on the 10 from the desert is a very different experience than taking the train down from Nor Cal to start at Union Station or arriving by boat in San Pedro. Could you talk a bit about your perspective on LA now that you’re often coming up from Anaheim, or your take on the city as a person raised in the midwest and northeast?
Well, I was born in Boston and raised in Kansas City. I still have family in both places, and I’m fortunate to have lived in other places as a student or for temporary jobs in my twenties, but most of my life as an adult has been here in the greater LA area. I’ve never taken a boat into San Pedro or Marina del Ray, but obviously driven, flown and taken trains into LA many times; I think I see all the same problems that everyone else does, first the strangeness of its location coming out of the desert when you drive here from the east, and then once you’re here, the high rents, homelessness, gentrification, traffic and access to water.
On the positive side, LA has always seemed like a place that is what you make of it (or how much you’re able/willing to drive through it). Maybe what I mean, more specifically, is that LA is a place where I feel I’ve met many people who share my interests – like you if I may say so – a place where I feel I’ve been welcomed into a communities both with musicians in the city and the schools where I work. I haven’t had the opportunity to live as an adult, work, pay rent, and be a working musician or teacher in Boston or Kansas City so couldn’t compare those experiences.
Lastly, part of the joy of writing this piece really had to do with exploring LA itself. Much of the time when I’m composing, I’m isolated at home with a computer, piano or guitar. This piece presented an opportunity to get out into the city, partly because I wanted to hang out at each site a little bit, but also because I needed to record so many sounds of the city for the soundtrack and wanted to do everything authentically. So for the Belmont Tunnel, for example, I found a Saturday to take a handheld mic and record subway sounds while circling the system all day, exploring new neighborhoods all the while. For the Dunbar Hotel, I took that mic to a jazz club and recorded ambient crowd noise during a set change between bands. The water sounds in Zanja Madre are actually the LA River in Los Feliz, and the sounds of the Sunset Strip were actually recorded on Sunset near Tower Records’ site, with some of the sounds of CDs clicking against each other recorded at Amoeba Records. For Anaheim’s Center Street, I went to a mall at 1:00am where an old Macy’s was being demolished and recorded bulldozers; the amusement park sounds for Long Beach were a mixture sounds of the Santa Monica Pier, Knott’s Berry Farm rollercoasters and the Griffith Park Merry Go Round. The whole thing took years, but experiencing LA in so many places and different ways was one of the things that made the experience of writing this piece so much fun.
Who are you working with to present this project live?
On the day of the album release, Oct. 20th, I’ll be performing the work as part of an event co-presented by two organizations: Synchromy and the LA Conservancy.
The LA Conservancy organizes frequent walking tours of various neighborhoods in the city, exploring historic architecture. This October, their Walking Tour will go through the Fashion District downtown, and include the Bendix Building. My performance, which will be on the penthouse floor of the Bendix, will essentially be a stop along that tour, so I’ll be playing selections from the album all day long for various groups coming and going. The tours themselves are sold out but a limited number of concert-only tickets will be sold. It was the idea of Synchromy’s director, our friend Jason Barabba, to get in touch with them about this project.
Two weeks later I’ll be playing selections from the album in San Francisco at the Center for New Music. I’m splitting the program with a wonderful guitarist in the Bay Area, Giacomo Fiore.
What’s next for you? Although the album is finished and coming out this month, are you continuing to add tracks to the project?
I think I’m happy with where the project is now. I like the six movements I have, I’m not opposed to adding more but am not ready yet. Also, once, the idea occurred to me that I could, instead writing new movements about new locations, perhaps revisit these same locations in ten years or so to see how they’ve continued to change. Just a thought….
I will say this is the first work I’ve done that had a video component, and even though it is a simple video consisting of a slideshow, I did greatly enjoy having that element to further the storytelling potential of each work. I don’t have plans for new video works, nor plans to collaborate with a video artist, but that’s something I’m interested in. And the electric guitar, that will remain an important part of my voice as composer. That ain’t going anywhere.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I got a lot of help on this project! Rychard Cooper, my colleague at CSULB, recorded the project and edited the final video, and there are also a number of other musicians who play on the soundtrack in the background of the movements about the two “musical” locations. On the Dunbar Hotel, underneath my guitar playing, you’ll hear recordings of jazz musicians: that’s Jamond McCoy on piano and Zaq Kenefick on saxophone. And in the Tower Records movement, you’ll hear Tom Kendall Hughes on drums as well as some singing from Mikey Ferrari. I recorded all of them, giving them minimal instruction, and they definitely all gave me a ton of inspiration, steering me in particular directions for my own guitar playing.
Lastly, thank you, Nick, for the interview and everything you do for our new music community on this site and around town!
Keep up with the release over at Alex’s website, alexanderemiller.com.
A couple of years ago the composer Jason Barabba told me I had to meet Julian Day. Julian’s an artist/composer/writer/broadcaster from Sydney, and he just happens to be in Los Angeles this week participating in the closing night of Synchromy and Boston Court’s DuoFest and interviewing people like Henry Rollins (we’ll get to that). Ahead of tonight’s event, we had a minute to catch up with both of them.
How did the two of you meet?
Julian: It was an unlikely venue – a 13th century monastery in Tuscany. But we were as areligious then as we both are now.
Jason: It was the Cortona Sessions for New Music in 2011, an excellent new music festival bringing composers and performers together for performance and way too much eating of stunning food. I remember telling Julian he sounded British to me and not Australian, and he gave me that look that people give Americans when they don’t know how to respond to us.
Julian, what are you doing here in LA? I know you’re a composer, but I’d heard something about interviewing US musicians about their politics…
Julian: I’m jaunting around the country interviewing musicians about politics in the age of Trump. So far here I’ve caught up with hardcore punk legend Henry Rollins and UCLA scholar Shana L. Redmond. But my main task is to dust off my turntables to play in Ludwig Van, a music theatre work composed by Mauricio Kagel for Beethoven’s 200th birthday in 1970. It’s a riotous piece that you simply can’t miss – you may not hear it again for another 47 years.
Tell me about the piece.
Jason: Kagel’s Ludwig Van has always been a bucket-list piece for me. In my circle I’m fairly well known for having a bit of an antipathy for Beethoven, and so it makes sense that I should be involved in a new music concert that is all about Ludwig. Kagel’s score is the centerpiece of the night, surrounded by works by Ludwig himself, as well as John Corigliano and Clarence Barlow. We’re having an absurd amount of fun with it. The thing about the Kagel is, you can do almost anything you want, as long as Beethoven is the source. In some ways it makes it easy, but in many ways it is significantly more work than presenting a normal score. But, I’ve always wanted to do it, and we’re grateful to Boston Court for giving us the space and the support to put it on. Expect a disco ball, Julian on turntables with my complete set of Beethoven on vinyl, and a stage full of mind-blowingly-excellent musicians.
Julian: Jason isn’t the only one with a funny thing for Beethoven. I think he’s been a complex touchpoint for many composers over the past century – too willful, too bombastic, too ‘genuis’ – and it’s time we reclaim his obsessive, brilliant and dramatic ouevre and basically luxuriate in it.
How have the other DuoFest events been?
DuoFest has been a big step forward for Synchromy, and we’re enjoying the chance to try so many things out in one week. We brought along four duos that are either already collaborators us, or are people we have always wanted to work with; Aronson-Valitutto, Panic Duo, Aperture Duo and Autoduplicity. They have all shared the stage this week, and I’m just so pleased with how great they’ve all been to work with. We’ve premiered a few pieces: a gorgeous work by Andrew Tholl and a great new violin and piano piece from Juhi Bansal, and I wrote a new piece for Aperture Duo and Autoduplicity and a pair of singers. It’s a 6 and a half minute opera called Any Excuse Will Serve a Tyrant.
Would you like to share anything about the opera?
Jason: I had an idea for a piece for the Aperture Duo, and we were going to do that, but this year I suddenly felt like I had to compose pieces that were in some way dealing with the world (political/social/environmental) that we find ourselves dealing with. I needed to do something that made some manner of statement. I felt like one of the things we need is to remember how to be part of a society, and how to treat the people around us, so I thought back to the old Aesop Fables, and found The Wolf and the Lamb fit the bill perfectly. Since we had Aperture sharing a program with Autoduplicity, I brought in two singers that I love to write for, Baritone Scott Graff and soprano Justine Aronson to be my Wolf and Lamb, and I couldn’t be more happy with the result. They were stupdendous, under the baton of Geoffrey Pope and directed by the awesome June Carryl.
Julian, with your musicopolitical reporting, what was your take on the piece?
Julian: It’s really clever. Fundamentally it’s a beautifully scored vignette that combines comedy and pathos with dramatic flair. By using a very old fable Jason can also comment, with historical distance, on the turbulent politics the States is currently experiencing. I strongly urge my good colleague to set more Aesop fables to music as he’s a natural.
What are you both working on now that people can look forward to?
Julian:I’m working on an album-length composition for London pianist Zubin Kanga using electronics and theatrical staging, as well as a 24-hour choral piece which will premiere in Sydney in early September. And adjusting my crazy sleep patterns.
Jason: I just finished a commission for playwright Tom Jacobson’s new play, and am planning to take a short sabbatical from composing while I decide what needs to be said next. I hope to be able to create an entire set of Aesop micro-operas in the coming year, because Tyrant was way more fun to do than should be allowed. Once DuoFest is over, Synchromy will start making plans for the upcoming year, and we’ve got some very cool things on the table.
Tickets for Ludwig Van are available at bostoncourt.com/events/333/duofest-night-8-finale-ludwig-van.
On April 1 Jonathan Morgan is premiering a new work of yours, [[[clouded]]]. What can you tell us about the piece?
[[[clouded]]] for electro-acoustic viola and live video is 1 of 14 works in an electro- acoustic chamber works series called [[[nexus]]]. This chain of works started in 2013 and stems from three joined ideas.
ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French ordre, from Latin ordo, ordin- ‘row, series, rank.’
ORIGIN late 15th cent. (denoting a gaping void or chasm, later formless primordial matter): via French and Latin from Greek khaos ‘vast chasm, void
ORIGIN Middle English (in the sense ‘unoccupied’): from a dialect variant of Old French vuide; related to Latin vacare ‘vacate’; the verb partly a shortening of avoid, reinforced by Old French voider.
chasm |ˈkaz m|
a deep fissure in the earth, rock, or another surface.
• a profound difference between people, viewpoints, feelings, etc.: the chasm between rich and poor.
chasmic |ˈkazmik| adjective( rare)
ORIGIN late 16th cent. (denoting an opening up of the sea or land, as in an earthquake): from Latin chasma, from Greek khasma ‘gaping hollow.’
I’m familiar with your music for instruments and electronics, but not so much with what you do with visuals. Could you discuss your approach, and how the audio and visual work with each other in your view?
In my sound/visual works i am interested in embracing an indeterminate (glitch) graphic/design element. In the case of the series [[[nexus]]], all of the visuals are representations of the harmonic waves happening in real-time. Everything from the speed of the rotations to the changing of parameters is mapped to the behavior of harmonic space and time. To take it a step further, i have started projecting the waves onto the performer/s to create a sense of ‘digital’ or ‘VR’ type of experience that if done correctly turns your shit projector into the most advanced projection mapping effect available.
I’ve seen you list this piece, in various places, as being by Josh Carro or by your band/artist name, [[[personablack]]]. I’ve seen records out by both. Is there a distinction? Do you write a piece and then decide who it gets released by? Or does deciding that in advance influence your writing?
That’s a fair question, in 2012/13 i created the moniker [[[personablack]]] literally meaning ‘black sound’ because i had over 20 albums under josh carro and was simply ready for something new and anonymous like. Everything made from 2013 is by [[[personablack]]]. As far as the writing goes, my influences are always coming from sound and or design.
This isn’t the first time you’ve worked with Jonathan. What’s your working relationship like? Is there a lot of back and forth?
Jonathan is exceptional and skilled, he has been nothing but open and interested in doing something new. When we first met at the Now Hear Ensemble premiere of my work
I typically don’t have back and forth communication because it can tend to make the work/writing contrived and boring.
What else do you have coming up?
Right now, i am working on 5 separate project albums with Blood Oath (U. Krieger, josh carro) Ehnahre, [[[personablack]]]6, VHS release of [[[personablack]]] PERVERSION and can’t talk about the last one, all of which will be coming out from late summer 2017 to end of 2018.
A new work for electro-acoustic piano commissioned by Vicki Ray which should be premiered in the end of spring.
Seattlemix for Bf clarinet, cello, piano – April 5th @ FSU
falling into the blackness – April 15th @ UNT
420 Fest – April 20th @ TBA
In the summer my postcard works will be performed by NMCE partly for the Tenney Symposium and partly for chamber concerts throughout the year.
As always a lot of random underground shows, most of which are listed on any of my sites:
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to thank my family and friends for their endless support and patience. Also, thank you for the opportunity to discuss my work with you and your readers.
Please come to the concert Saturday, April 1 at 8 PM – 10 PM Bird Studio, Occidental College
Tickets for vla. are available at synchromymusic.org/vla
If there were any doubts that the LA new-music scene is in the midst of a surfeit of musical and aesthetic diversity, Synchromy and HOCKET’s evening of music, titled Crusoe, on November 5 should certainly quell them. The playing, centering on Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff of the piano duo HOCKET, and later adding a larger ensemble, was truly exceptional: precise, expressive, virtuosic where needed, yet playful, even comedic where possible.
The concert’s first half was comprised of four compositions for piano-four-hands by four local, living LA composers.
Alexander Elliott Miller’s Clock Smasher made for a striking and auspicious beginning. As its title might suggest, the opening motif, in four hands in ascent, burst open a vivid sonic palette that would traverse and transmogrify in interesting and musically satisfying ways.
In his program note Miller makes mention of the “… polyrhythms, many of which do have a sort of ‘tick-tock’ quality, like a room full of out-of-sync clocks.” This is most certainly accurate but it only begins to suggest the variety and vitality of harmonic and gestural realms it creates and explores. Clock Smasher teases us at first with a metronomic, pulsed music which evolves into something ominously hovering, then interrupted by syncopated rhythms infused with quasi-jazz harmonies. Even the mention of the “J Word” is sometimes frowned upon – personally, I don’t frown upon it – but regardless of what that might suggest to you, this is certainly not a jazz composition. But that isn’t to say that it doesn’t flirt with tonality, some very lovely melodies and, at times, even hints at something Bill Evans might have mused about at the keyboard. This music, as Miller’s notes suggest, does subvert its own idiomatic tendencies with those irregular rhythms, to my ear something of a this-is-definitely-NOT-jazz insistence, which then somehow, artfully evolves into a spacious, airy coda, punctuated by big, long and spacious chords. A poignant, striking work.
The next piece on the program was Marc Evans’ One Wandering Night. This piece was for a slightly varied configuration of HOCKET in that Ms. Gibson remained on the piano while Mr. Kotcheff moved to an electric keyboard and they were augmented by the addition of two melodicas (played by the composer and Nick Norton).
Fun fact: I went to a Joe Jackson concert when I was a kid, probably around 1980. He whipped out a melodica and declared it “The Instrument of the Future!” Perhaps he was right. I do hear a lot of melodica at new music concerts these days.
Evans’ piece was inspired by Bartok and that came through clearly enough. There is always the danger of being on the wrong side of the line separating homage from uninspired imitation. Fortunately, One Wandering Night falls decidedly on the right side of that line. While the melodicas played a sort of wheezing Eastern European Bartokian ostinato, definitely and pleasantly reminiscent of Bartok’s own take on modal folk melody, the piano and electric keyboard sputtered and interjected their own contrasting bits. I found this particularly satisfying as it reminded me, on a simple level, of Bartok’s own 2-handed piano trickery, where the two hands remain, stubbornly, in their own domain (key, mode, register) despite any discord that stubborn autonomy might produce. And on a more complex level, it reminded me of one of my very favorite pieces of music, Messiaen’s jardin du sommeil d’amour, a movement from his Turangalîla-Symphonie. While the melodic and harmonic technique is quite different in Messiaen’s masterpiece, a similar bifurcation and their disorienting affect is in play.
And playful it is. As the piece progresses, the tempo of the melodicas’ pumping melody increases and the interjections become more intense until, like a tired Hungarian hiker on the banks of the Danube, all four instruments slow down until they reach total repose. I must admit to being completely unfamiliary with Evans’ work but if this piece is at all representative of his musical sensibilities, then I definitely want to hear more.
Nick Norton told us from the stage that his Mirror Smasher was a number of things. He said it was “minimalisty” (and as such, “easy to write”), loud, and a work in progress. This piece was, again, for the four deft hands of HOCKET, and in fact even the pitch material itself was produced and ordered by them. The unordered (or, to quote the program, “played about a zillion different ways, as if looking at it in a broken mirror”) pitch set is:
H O C K E T = B G C D E F#
Yet again, HOCKET played beautifully. The piece begins with a clear tonal center, pulsing along as “minimalisty” pieces often do. But not long into the playing, a pre-recorded track of electronic sounds makes its presence known.
Norton’s choice of electronic sounds – both their timbre and idiomatic qualities – were a highlight for me. The combination of the smooth, hypnotic four-handed piano combined with the somewhat Kraftwerky buzzes, gently evolving into higher pitched electronic sounds reminiscent of some of the organ work in Einstein on the Beach really made for a powerful electro-acoustic marriage.
About halfway into Mirror Smasher the volume cranks up significantly. (The composer warned us of this before the performance. There will be no lawsuits.) If there was a hint of Einstein before the knob was turned, now the Einsteinian character felt married to something more like Heavy Metal, even Rock Opera. (Norton’s program note says that the title is a nod to Alex Miller’s Clock Smasher but I couldn’t help wonder if it might, even subconsciously, have any connection to The Who’s Do I Smash The Mirror, from Tommy. OK, probably not, but still…) OK, Rock Opera is misleading at best, demeaning at worst. But Mirror Smasher’s loud second half is formidable, powerful, and I could easily imagine it, as the composer suggested, being extended into a much longer Minimalist work. While different in pitched/melodic material, it reminded me, in a very good way, of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music in its powerful, gyrating and relentless sonic attack.
The program’s first half concluded with Jason Barabba’s The Distance of the Moon. The piece takes its title from a story in Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics of the same name. Calvino’s work is a collection of clever, fanciful tales, sometimes mischievous, sometimes romantic and nostalgic, often subverting our expectations if not the laws of nature as we’ve come to understand them. Calvino’s Distance of the Moon is a story about the moon, which, once upon a time, existed but a hop away from the Earth, but is now gradually moving farther and farther away. As the two spheres continue to distance themselves from each other, the inhabitants abandon the moon for the Earth. All but one of them, who decides to remain, forever, stranded alone on the moon.
Barabba’s musical interpretation of the story is itself a clever, fanciful tale. But unlike the rather light quality of the short story, it is a significant, weighty work. This is not to say that it isn’t imbued with moments of lightness – it is! – but it is not a mere bagatelle, but rather a significant musical and pianistic undertaking. Distance of the Moon was originally composed for a single pianist (presumably the two-handed kind) but as such it was almost impossible to play. I can all too easily believe this. Even in its two-person version, it is quite challenging.
Stylistically, it manages to explore a number of moods and idiomatic gestures yet still most definitely feel like a coherent, unified work. Moments of romantic, almost tonal passages intermingle deftly with strong, almost Schoenbergian dissonances. Lugubrious night music passages transition into stumbling, irregular rhythms with almost-BeBop melodic lines.
In the end, analogous to the story on which its based, Distance makes us feel the separation, the yearning, the tension hoping, however in vain, for a resolution. It ends, fragile and sparse, in a delicate and beautiful diad. Two notes at either end of the piano keyboard. A deep work, and one that I suspect would definitely reward repeat hearings and analysis.
Then came an intermission. If this had been a meal, I would have felt not full but satisfied. This was a chunk of concert that delivered four works of diverse character yet not, as a whole, illogically incongruent. But wait, there’s more…
The second half began with Mayke Nas’ DiGiT #2. (For the curious, I don’t think there’s a DiGiT #1.) For those who don’t know (I didn’t), Ms. Nas is a Dutch composer, born in 1972. I don’t know how her work wound up on this program but it was a perfect palette cleanser. DiGiT is, to my ear, entirely devoid of a single specified pitch for any of the four hands, or four forearms, or two foreheads that activate the piano keys. It is, to be clear, a humorous bit of performance, perhaps a commentary on what we consider to be “high art.” It also allows a piano duo to highlight a different take on virtuosity.
DiGiT centers itself around a variation of our childhood schoolyard hand jive or clapping game that involves an intricate collaborative clapping between two people (usually young girls), while simultaneously singing a rhyme. (Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Pop! was the one the Black girls bussed into my Queens elementary school taught me). DiGiT, however, is inspired by another favorite, Oh Little Playmate. It is not only a charming work – one that HOCKET obviously enjoyed immensely – but even a virtuosic one, albeit in a very different way. Piano keys are only played in clusters, but other sounds arise from the intricate interplay of the two pianists’ strikes against the palms, arms, and thighs of themselves and each other. The rhythms are at times satisfyingly smooth, even evoking soft shoe dance moves in their elegance and grace. It’s very much a performance piece, and, if you like, you can see an older performance of it (not by HOCKET, but by eighth blackbird, here:
The concert itself was billed under the title of CRUSOE. The grand finale, so to speak, was Frederic Rzewski’s composition of that name. Rzewski, born in 1938, is seen as a somewhat enigmatic figure of the 20th century avant-garde, someone who studied with “Uptown” and Princeton figures (Babbitt, et al.) yet whose own musical output butterflied effortlessly among genres widely, from serialism to minimalism. His works are coherent and easy to describe in and of themselves. But to describe what a “Rzewski piece” might be is near impossible.
As for Crusoe, where to begin? First of all, it was a delight! Which is not to say that it was necessarily such a delight on the page, but Synchromy upped the dose for our viewing pleasure. The stage was adorned with a backdrop of a deserted island, inflatable palm trees and beach balls. A large ensemble adorned themselves a la Castaway, with everything from light headgear to a stuffed parrot on a shoulder to, in the case of one player (Mr. Norton, on guitar) a full-on shark suit! It was most definitely an aesthetic choice, not one dictated by the score, and I found it to be a wise one which bore much (tropical?) fruit.
Crusoe employs a performing force of unspecified instruments, requires its players to sing and chant various lines about Robinson Crusoe, play percussion instruments, and do other things that might make a Musicians Union bristle. The vocal sections are interspersed among bright, quite lovely pointillistic instrumental episodes. As such, Crusoe is reminiscent at times of some of Harry Partch’s better works, albeit without the microtonal schema.
After various chants, instrumental interludes, spilling of doubloons, breaking of branches, dusting off of hands, tinkling of toy pianos, swords whirred as they are raised in the air, heads patted, feet stomped, the Narrator (sung by Justine Aronson) comes forth to chant the last line. At which point she is pelted by the ensemble with beach balls. The End! (I won’t call the Union if you don’t.)
As I said, Rzewski is enigmatic. And Crusoe is no less an enigma. Did this performance, and this piece, provide any insight into the tale of Robinson Crusoe? No, not really. Did it give me a sense of what Rzewski’s compositional voice was? Well, kinda sorta, inasmuch as only one of his pieces might. But more importantly, it was a perfect end to Synchromy’s ambitious concert, a perfect counterweight to an already diverse and profound selection of our community’s musical wealth.
This program was the epitome of newness. Nothing old enough to be enrolled in first grade and three world premieres, Synchromy and The Argus Quartet‘s February 27 concert achieved a rare level of innovation, with the presenter and ensemble working together to build an effective, feasible, and enjoyable program to showcase all their talents. Like a sonata, it built up, developed, had some themes come back, and ended on a sort of cadenza with a new theme -that of the voice. We had heard the voice before; the narrator, Chelsea Fryer, had also been introducing the pieces. One could say this non-performance voice became integrated into the program. Or perhaps it had been part of the performance all along, that as soon as the doors closed and the lights when down everything that happened on or near the stage was performative.
The concert opens with a sunrise in Andrew Norman’s Sabina, from the Companion Guide to Rome, for solo violin. It begins with a whisper, not even a note. When the sound finally starts, it sounds far away, almost like an echo in a canyon. It creaks into existence, broken by bird calls and wind. The violin finally begins a kind of fiddling over a drone and splitting high notes so pure. The sun is finally high enough to be seen through the window of the church that inspired Andrew Norman, and the violin plays a single, pure melody. No birds, no wind, nothing but a sweet melody.
Following the sky theme, the sunrise is clouded over by Kaija Saariaho’s “Cloud Trio,” which adds a viola and cello to the violin soloist but is still not the full quartet yet. This work depicts four types of clouds, and the audience is invited to imagine which clouds they are. Like many, I can identify cumulus as the fluffy ones and that’s it. Regardless of lacking the vocabulary to name the clouds, the types were clearly depicted in the music. Each has its own identity, utilizing thick harmonies or sparse counterpoint or the rhythmic shush shush of col legno.
Staying within the theme of Rome, one of the most popular archaeological sites in the world, Zaq Kenefick’s funeral song of the people of the ruined cities, speaks to the beauty and brokenness of the ruins. The violin plays a trembling solo and the viola strums chords dissonant with the cello. The video of folding black cloth was surely a beautiful artistic choice, though I must admit I and many other audience members I talked to afterwards were uncertain what to make of the visuals. The piece was over almost as soon as it began, the length itself a reflection of the lost ruins.
Immediately before intermission, the concert changed gears and addressed the modern: Skronk. A word thrown around in various musical genres and circles, it is a thick onomatopoeia. The introduction defines it in many ones, and generally as “not a thing you are, but a thing you do.” The piece features strong pizzicati and a syncopated rock rhythm and melody, some fiddling tossed between the different instruments, and overall frankly smoother string playing than I would have expected from a word that can mean the skronk of an electric guitar. This one was a fast crowd pleaser and kept everyone on their toes. Ending as though someone suddenly turned up the volume and then plucking away into nothingness like the fade-outs of rock songs of the ‘90s, John Frantzen captured the many facets skronk may and can represent.
Post-intermission, we were given something of a variation on a theme. The music kicked off with three excerpts from Norman’s Companion Guide to Rome for string trio, featuring swirling harmonies, birdlike whistles, crackling glitches, whispering on the bows, and plucked pizzicato like rocks skipping on a pond. This was followed by Nick Norton’s String Quartet No 1., in which chords slid like skates on ice and the melody bounced between the four instruments in a playful game of keep-away. The second section was frantic, reminding me of a car race – the way the upper strings chomped rhythmically at the notes and the cello made engine revs pealing past the stage, going so far as to imitate the Doppler effect, it seemed. The third ethereal movement felt like flying in a dream. The dramatic violin swelled alongside the pastoral lower strings, all slowing until they ran out of steam. The perfect end to the day that Norman’s first piece began. But a false ending gave way to screeching and tapping. The spell was broken. Composers have great power over the audience, and with great power comes great responsibility. Norton made the daring choice to shatter the beauty he built.
After Norton came the second Kenefick piece, harvesting tunes of the people of the rope-tree towers, this one featuring the viola practically crunching itself in half to sound like white noise on an old CRTV, a dark melody in the violin with dissonance in its twin, and the cello rumbling beneath it all. This video panned the length of a red cloth rope. Again, I will not pretend to have understood or fully appreciated the visuals provided, but the piece was an intriguing exercise in tension and release, and well placed in the middle of the second half of the program. It is experimental enough that I might experiment with it on a Spotify playlist someday, just to see how it goes.
Gabriela Frank’s excerpts from Leyendas: an Andean Walkabout gave a breath of fresh air from the concert hall by taking the audience on a pastoral journey through the Andes via “Tarqueada,” a piece imitating the split tone flute played in quartal and quintal harmony, “Himno de Zampoñas,” or panpipes, and “Chasqui,” the messenger runner who relies on small instruments light enough to carry on journeys, particularly small guitars. Each section was magnificently portrayed by the quartet, making the flutes and panpipes sing and drums thwack and guitars strum, all on bowed strings. For brief moments I was transported to the Smithsonian Folkways Festival of 2013 when a Quechua band played on the instruments the strings were portraying. The effect was astounding and beautiful, and I felt nostalgia for a place I’ve never been, only heard.
The concert ended with Eve Beglarian’s Testy Pony, which featured the cellist, a video and prerecorded sounds, and the narrator. A charming story of a girl who gets a pony and learns a life lesson, the pleasant tale is backed by a constantly rolling cello playing in time with the prerecorded sounds. If you don’t think this is technically challenging, try cooking while watching a chef on TV, and you’ll get some idea of the balancing act at play. This work seemed to finally end the “day” we started, as we watched the back of a horse gallop out of sight and out of mind.
The brief descriptions and interpretations of the pieces reveal a variety of ways in which music can be “new” and concerts can showcase facets of interest. Composition can show off new techniques, new subject matter (or old, in the case of the ruins, but in a new way), or use new orchestration. Synchromy is a collective of composers showing off recent works, and the Argus Quartet specializes in modern techniques. The New Classic LA facebook page has a rule that only ‘new’ music may be posted. 15th century madrigals are not new, but perhaps the way in which they are performed is new. Film music is not a new genre anymore, but a fresh composition is new. ‘New’ is such a tiny word packed with so much to interpret and interpolate. Regardless of how you take any of it to heart or choose to think about music, last Friday’s concert was a fair epitome of newness.
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:
Synchromy’s concert tomorrow with Brightwork and Mark Robson at Occidental College’s Bird Studio is looking like it’s going to be rad. They’ve put up a discount code for tickets that will work through 10 PM tonight. If you haven’t grabbed yours yet, enter 6OFFFRIDAY on the ticket page for $6 off.
Tickets are available at http://synchromyrelaunch.brownpapertickets.com.
See you tomorrow.