On October 24, the Isaura String Quartet performs Machines and Strings at REDCAT. Billed as “an immersive concert experience,” the program features works by artists including Chrysanthe Tan, Stephanie Smith, Ajay Kapur, Sarah Belle Reid, April Gerloff, and Jules Gimbrone performed in collaboration with interactive lighting and projection by alumni artists from the 2018 CalArts Expo creative team. The evening also includes the world premiere of Ulrich Krieger’s completely revised quartet Up-Tight II and a new work by Amy Knoles featuring the KarmetiK Machine Orchestra, directed by Ajay Kapur, who also created the custom-built robotic musical instrument Lydia.
I caught the original version of Ulrich’s piece when Isaura played it back in February at Human Resources and was really taken with the piece and their approach to it. Here’s a video from that performance:
Needless to say, I’m excited to hear the revised version and hear and see everything that the quartet is promising us for the 24th, so asked if the members would be down for an interview. Violinists Madeline Falcone and Emily Call and cellist Betsy Rettig kindly answered my call. Here’s our conversation:
You just performed at CalArts and are now bringing Machines and Strings, Part II to REDCAT. The show has been billed as an “immersive concert experience.” I know you’ve got a deep interest in production. Could you talk a bit about what, beyond performing music, this program is all about?
Madeline: These concerts are about community, musical language, and elevating voices that we believe are important. Many artists are struggling with the current state of art and struggling to contextualize their art within the current social and political climate, and it is wonderful to find these ways in which we can support each other. We feel very proud of our team of amazing artists including performers, composers, lighting designers, video artists, and technological innovators. We have learned from each of these artists over the course of this production and the quartet has expanded our musical language through the process of working on each of these pieces.
We have developed an interest in production because we are used to self-producing, which is how most of these shows featuring experimental sounds/weird ideas/emerging artists tend to happen, but also because production relates directly to the music. The audience experiences sounds, lights, energy—all of those are essential to bringing the thing to life. For both of these concerts we have been working with Lauren Pratt as a producer and mentor, and she has been wonderfully supportive.
What attracts you to the work of the composers you’ve programmed?
Emily: When we started thinking about putting together a program featuring strings and music tech, the theme of order and disorder kept coming up: strings as disorder—going out of tune, breaking a bow hair, the natural human nature of playing an instrument where error is a factor—and machines as order, completing tasks, following functions, the precision with which a machine can act. At the same time, you can think of strings as orderly and machines as disorderly. Disorderly machines have actually come up quite often during our preparation for this concert! We kept this idea in mind when we were looking for composers and pieces to perform, and that idea has really shaped the program. We’re excited to showcase so many composers who are using technology and strings, sometimes together and sometimes not, in really innovative ways.
I know Isaura has a heavy focus on working with local composers, and that you’ve also taken quite a few gigs in the rock and popular music world, such as your residency at Emo Nite LA. How do those performance practices inform each other in your work? Do you approach them very differently as players?
Betsy: In many ways all of these different musical worlds need each other, and musically, we use the same tools for approaching every genre. As an ensemble we work together the same way to communicate time, expression, musicality, intonation, etc. Most of the pop and rock projects we have been part of have involved the artist specifically wanting players who were well-versed in a variety of playing styles and extended techniques.
Our crossover experience has been particularly helpful in our work with Ulrich Krieger, developing his quartet Up-Tight II. When he approached us about playing this piece, it was because of a prior collaboration with opera singer Timur called Love, Honor, Obey. Ulrich arranged an Elvis song for that project and really wanted us to go crazy with it. Up-Tight II is dedicated to Lou Reed and inspired by the Velvet Underground. We’ve been working a lot in rehearsals developing the physicality of the piece, which is so often present in rock music.
What are your favorite concerts you’ve attended in LA in the past year?
This is an almost impossible question to answer because there is so much exciting music happening in this city all of the time… but a few stand-outs include:
Emily: James Tenney’s Changes: Sixty-Four Studies for Six Harps presented by SASSAS at The Box last November and Dog Star 14’s concert of pieces by Eric Heep, Corey Fogel, and Erika Bell. (Side note: Eric Heep is actually one of the co-creators of Lydia, the robotic piano featured on our concert!).
Madeline: Matmos at The Broad’s Summer Happenings; Dolores: Our Lady of the 7 Sorrows with Ron Athey and Nacho Nava; and Quartetto Fantastico with visuals by Jesse Gilbert for the Mars Festival earlier this month.
Betsy: Michael Webster and the Breath Control Orchestra, Nice Day for the Races from a radio play by Samuel Beckett at the Box, and Southland Ensemble: Ruth Crawford / Ruth Crawford Seeger at Automata
Can you tell us more about Lydia?
Madeline: Lydia is a modified mechatronic instrument built on an upright piano created by CalArts students and faculty in 2013 under mentorship of artist and MacArthur fellow Trimpin. The instrument uses motors rather than hammers to create sound on the piano strings, and also includes other tools such as a saw that scrapes against the bottom of the instrument to introduce new piano sound worlds. We have enjoyed getting to know her as our chamber music partner over the last couple months.
What’s next for the quartet?
Emily: We will be ending 2018 with a few recording projects, and we have some exciting collaborative projects for 2019 in LA and New York, which we look forward to announcing soon!
Anything else you’d like to add?
Betsy: Thanks for chatting with us!
Tickets for Machines and Strings are available at redcat.org/event/machines-and-strings.
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.
On November 17 at REDCAT, the EXO//ENDO ensemble will be performing works by composers Braden Diotte and Ulrich Krieger, both of whom are known for pushing boundaries with their music. The ensemble will perform Braden Diotte’s General Manifest, a 48-minute musical meditation on freedom, using memories of soundscapes along with field recordings from a twenty-year period traveling through the American west. Composer Ulrich Krieger’s Black Sun Rebirth combines elements of contemporary chamber music, dark ambient, doom metal and microsound aesthetics, telling a story of destruction and creation, the demise of the cosmos and the rebirth from the oceans. The piece is inspired by Ragnarök tetralogy and the first book of the Edda. Both composers will be performing with the ensemble.
I asked Braden Diotte and Ulrich Krieger some questions about their work, views on collaboration, the cross-pollination between rock, metal, and contemporary music, and more. Here’s what they had to say:
EXO//ENDO will be performing General Manifest, which, in your own words, pays tribute to the fleeting music witnessed during a twenty-year span riding freight trains about the American West, and is about the broader notion of birthright freedoms. Can you tell us more about this time in your life, riding freight trains and experiencing the underbelly of this part of the country? When/how did you realize you wanted to translate the experience to music, and what was the process of writing General Manifest like?
General Manifest is the repository for a handful of sonic experiences upon which I made a cohesive connection between the music I was listening to and the sounds bellowing from moving freight trains. My reasons for being aboard those trains in the first place varies from year to year beginning with traveling to punk shows in Berkeley, to attempting to collect food stamps in three states at once, to eventually visiting friends in distant cities and states, and finally to reconnect with a lost sense of independence after the demise of a string of important relationships. On one of my decidedly final journeys, in 2011, I experienced a sound-world on the rails just southeast of the Salton Sea in the Imperial Valley, which fell somewhere between an epiphany and a religious experience. It was in that moment that it became apparent that General Manifest needed to be written.
The writing process for General Manifest was graced with a series of very happy accidents which took quite a while to unfold, evolving from a quasi-minimalist multi-pianist work into an electronic work and finally into its current state as an electro-acoustic work. It may continue to evolve, but at its core the work is getting closer and closer to the true sounds from which its inspiration was drawn. Eventually, General Manifest will exist as a personal tribute to those years and experiences, even after I’ve reached the end of the line.
Throughout your career, you’ve collaborated with many well-known artists in the progressive/avant-garde rock scene, such as Faust, Neurosis, and the Locust. What do you enjoy most about the collaboration process?
When it’s truly happening, the collaborative process brings out the best and worst of everyone involved. It is no different than any other intimate relationship, and may be happening with a roomful of people at the same time, which can make things far more complicated. To fully invest in a creative exchange, one should be vulnerable and expose themselves, not withholding passion to save face. Light investment produces light results, like casual dating. Some collaborations have legs, and in my experience the collaborations that have the strongest legs also have the strongest passions, egos, arguments, and so on. There’s a ton of potential for growing in all of it, but the flame that burns twice as bright also tends to burn half as long. So what you’re left with is the artifact: the collaboration in whatever form it was documented. At the end of it all, it’s these artifacts that I get the most enjoyment from.
What do you view as similarities and/or differences between the avant-garde rock scene and the contemporary art music community?
I see the greatest similarities between those two communities existing in the mutual desire to communicate a unique and personal expression built upon the back of their respective lineages. Both worlds tend to be well-informed, and each carries their own discourse surrounding the important mileposts in their lineage. But now, in the 21stcentury, another interesting similarity is the burgeoning crossover between those worlds, with both seemingly pulling from each other’s histories without the concerns that previously kept them divided. As long as that continues to happen, it would be counterproductive to expound upon the differences.
How did you and Ulrich Krieger meet? Do you collaborate often?
I met Ulrich during my stint as a graduate student at CalArts, where he assisted with my 2013 work General Manifest, which was a large part of what I did while there. I was a member of his ensemble Sonic Boom for a period of time, and have performed alongside him in a number of public presentations over the past five years. The collaboration between Ulrich and EXO//ENDO has resulted in numerous collaborative sessions, and has been in development since 2015 – partially due to the “ping-pong” collaboration process that we are using, as well as the fact that none of us live in the same city.
Can you tell us about your experiences with EXO//ENDO, as a founding member and co-director? What do you see for the future of the ensemble?
EXO//ENDO has no future. It is an ensemble that by its very design holds its weight in the present, whenever present that may be. Right now that present involves a collaboration with Ulrich Krieger, as well as several other collaborations that are in various stages of development. Each project has a flavor of its very own, and the personnel are a revolving door of talented soloists and contributors that each brings their wares to any given performance. This – combined with the improvisatory ethos that is the spine of E//E – results in one performance of any given piece varying substantially from any other performance.
EXO//ENDO will be performing your work, Black Sun Rebirth, which is inspired by the first book of the Edda and tells a story of destruction and creation. On a personal level, what does this work mean to you? What do you hope the audience will get from it?
Using classic Greek themes has since long been a staple in art music: Elektra, Prometeo, etc., but very few composers have looked at Nordic mythology for inspiration. Might it be due to less exposure of it, might it be due to Wagner having seemingly occupied that material, might be due to the misuse of the material by fascists and right-wing groups. This always bothered me. I am German and we didn’t even read the Edda in school but we read Greek and Roman mythology and discussed their culture, but not our ancestors. Christianity has done everything to cover up and discredit these Nordic traditions, because they were a threat to the Christian ideology and much more progressive than Christanity: in Germanic tribes women were sword fighting soldiers, women were land and farm owners, and tribes were organized democratically in the Althing, kind of a parliament of tribes. I am interested in looking into this tradition, my tradition more closely. It holds a lot of interesting material. And I hope that the audience will be exposed to these ideas and will be able to connect to these ideas through the music.
The score for Black Sun Rebirth combines elements from contemporary chamber music, dark ambient, doom metal, and microsounds. How did you arrive at this combination of musical language for this piece?
These are all elements I personally like and I am influenced by. Metal, especially black metal, is the only musical style that since decades shows an interest in this culture and is outspoken about the violent, aggressive and bloody ways Christianity slaughtered and oppressed these traditional pagan Germanic cultures. In chamber music I am mostly interested in the extended soundscapes of timbral music—so ambient or doom is not so far away from this. All these styles work with non-traditional musical material. There is no key signature and often not even a meter in a traditional sense in these styles. It seems perfectly contemporary and at the same time ancient material.
Can you tell us about your interest in the cross-pollination between art music and avant-garde rock? Do you have a background in rock music?
Yes, I do. I have been working with Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth, we have the band Text of Light, with Lou Reed (Band and Metal Machine Trio), with the German krautrock band Faust and regularly record saxophone arrangements or soli for rock bands. Just recently I did a 4 contrabass-clarinet arrangement for a doom band in Berlin. I also have my own noise-metal band Blood Oath here in LA. At this moment I see avant-garde rock carrying on the torch of progressive music experimentation more than contemporary chamber music does, which seems as a whole to be in a phase of mannerism and getting conservative and retro. Rock music as well as contemporary art music is based on two main elements: sound and rhythm. Melody and traditional harmony are of minor importance to rock musicians and avant-garde chamber music composers.
You’re known for pushing the boundaries of saxophone through collaboration with many well-known and respected artists, including Lou Reed, John Zorn, LaMonte Young, and others. What do you enjoy most about the collaboration process?
About collaborations I enjoy mostly that the end result is more than the sum of its elements. The music coming out of collaborations is a music I would have never written alone. It is a group thing and in best cases even transcends the group itself.
What do you see for the future of new music?
This is a deep question, I could fill a book with. I talked about some of it already in the questions above. I think we are at the dawn of a major cultural change. I see contemporary chamber music declining due to its crisis and its clinging to the 20th century. I see rock and pop music, especially metal, hip hop and electronica, getting even stronger and developing, opening up more and more to the experiment. It seems that rock and pop will continue the tradition of experimentation and innovation of 20th century art music. We see this already with noise, doom metal and electronica, which are all non-academic, progressive, experimental styles.
Don’t miss out on the concert November 17. Check out REDCAT for more information and to get your tickets.