Cipher Duo consists of soprano Justine Aronson and violinist Sarah Goldfeather. This week, they commence their West Coast tour. I was fortunate to see their Wednesday night performance in Geiringer Hall at UC Santa Barbara. They will perform in Pasadena with gnarwhallaby on Thursday, USC on Friday, and then head north to the Bay Area on Sunday. Wherever you are in California, do not miss this concert.
The program starts with something a little familiar. Though I did not know this piece, I am well acquainted with a variety of Kaija Saariaho works. If you haven’t listened to Saariaho, start now. Changing Light (2002) is the is the perfect introduction to Saariaho, and to the Cipher Duo. The text is an English translation from Hebrew and explores the subject of the fragility of uncertain existence. Beginning simply enough, on the line “Light and darkness,” Aronson sings chilling poetry while Goldfeather floats above on harmonics. Like many Saariaho pieces, each part has a purpose and a goal, but their paths are unclear and meandering. The fact that this concert features only 21st-century works confirms, at least to me, that Kaija Saariaho is in line for Debussy’s crown as the essential composer to bridge the century gap.
The duo then takes on another English piece, also a philosophical musing. Rebekah Driscoll was inspired to write January: Brin’s Mesa (2016) when she observed new life emerging from the ashes of a forest fire in Arizona. From page to performance, Aronson and Goldfeather breathe life into the contemplative score. Listen for the small, organic changes – one can almost hear tendrils of plant life growing and emerging.
The middle piece of the program is a crowd-pleaser for the Californians. Even if you missed the event, you know about Hopscotch (2015). Cipher Duo performs Hopscotch Tarot by Veronika Krausas. In the Hopscotch holistic performance, the audience members could only hear two or three fortunes before getting ushered into the next limo. Here, Aronson and Goldfeather perform all twelve short movements, each one a tarot card reading from Fortuna. If you wanted more insight into the plot of Hopscotch, watch Aronson’s expressions, particularly when she smirks. Each fortune has its own character and style, and Aronson captures them all exquisitely.
The fourth piece of the show comes from Goldfeather herself. Come Back (2017) showcases Goldfeather’s experience as a singer/songwriter with an indie band. Though not in a typical verse-chorus form, the rest of the key elements to an indie song are present: simple lyrics, repetitive gestures, and a distinct sonority. For the first half of the piece, Aronson sings five words on five notes. But it isn’t minimalism. Goldfeather overlaps and dovetails the motives within and between the instruments. When a verse finally arrives, it hits the audience like a bucket of water. The first time a minor chord replaces a major chord, a collective chill went down the audience’s spines. I won’t give away what happens at the ending, but I can tell you it was perfect. After so many minutes of intricate looping, layering, and rearranging of motives, Goldfeather pulls off the perfect ending.
Finally, the duo ended on their namesake. Kate Soper’s Cipher (2011) is one of the most breathtaking violin and soprano pieces I have ever heard. The duo told the audience that Cipher explores timbre. As well as exploring musical dynamics and human dynamics, it wends between music, meaning, and language. The violin and the voice become shared objects. Sometimes both performers sing, speak, or finger the violin together. At times, they even swap. Each movement features conflicting voices and temperaments, such as Wittgenstein, Freud, and Guido d’Arezzo. The conjoining line, “People can understand you when you say something,” is frequently obscured. If nothing else has convinced you to see Cipher Duo this weekend, go for this. Cipher will blow your mind.
I’m submitting this as my review of the soon-to-be-released recording of The Industry’s Hopscotch opera project, but here’s the thing: No such thing exists. Conceived by The Industry’s Artistic Director, Yuval Sharon, Hopscotch was an opera presented in the fall of 2015 in twenty four cars driving between a number of locations scattered around Los Angeles. At the start of each performance, a few audience members would get into each of the cars along with a group of performers, and would then experience part of the opera en route to the next physical location, where they’d see another scene before being whisked away in another car. To make matters more confounding, the cars travelled along three different routes, meaning that any given audience member could only see part of the whole in any given performance. Only at the very end did all of the routes converge on a central location for the final scene.
Needless to say, this project doesn’t lend itself easily to a traditional recording. Do you present each of the car routes as a unit to approximate the experience of attending? Do you present the scenes in order to give a view of the work impossible for someone who attended it to have seen? How do you balance the inside of a limo against an open-air concrete bank of the Los Angeles River?
Difficult questions, and ones without obvious answers. Fortunately, with current technology, we can sidestep some of them. With the album released as files on a flash drive instead of tracks on a CD, you’re free to open them in any order and explore the world of this opera as you see fit. You can follow each of the car routes separately, play everything in the order of the plot, or even sort things out by individual composer or lyricist. (There were six primary composers for the project and six primary librettists, all working in a range of different styles in their respective fields.) The liner notes — in the form of a wide-ranging interview with Sharon and Josh Raab, the opera’s dramaturg — encourage this kind of self-guided exploration, though elsewhere in the booklet there are some helpful lists of which tracks to listen to to follow which routes.
Unsurprisingly, given the range of artists that contributed to this project, the tracks cover a lot of ground. “Lucha’s Quinceñera Song” (music by David Rosenboom and text by Janine Salinas Schoenberg) is a sweetly plaintive verse-chorus affair, while “Floats the Roving Nebula” (music by Ellen Reid and text by Mandy Kahn) hovers in an ecstatic crystalline stasis. “Jameson and Lucha in the Park” (music by Mark Lowenstein and text by Erin Young) presents a tightly controlled dance number coordinated with spoken dialogue, while other spoken sections feature music improvised by the contemporary performing group Gnarwhallaby. The plot is a surreally altered (but predictably heterosexual) retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and snatches of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 treatment of the same myth rub up against bristlingly contemporary soundscapes. There are as many contrasts as there are tracks on the album.
Such stylistic diversity can make for an uneven listening experience, especially when paired with the differing qualities of the recordings. Some of the tracks are beautifully mastered studio takes, while others are invaluable field recordings from the site-specific scenes around town. Obviously, there’s room enough in the world for both of these approaches to recording, but repeatedly switching back and forth with such short notice can be a little jarring. (So perhaps another fruitful approach to organizing your listening could be to tackle all the field recordings followed by all the studio takes, or vice versa.)
These slight jars, however, feel in keeping with the nature of the project. Hopscotch the opera wasn’t a singular experience as much as it was a collection of possible experiences, and Hopscotch the album follows suit. There’s no one single recording of the work; there’s a collection of possible recordings all dizzyingly contained on a single flash drive. Elsewhere in the liner notes, Sharon describes the piece not as an opera but as a web, a series of interconnected points with many possible paths leading between them, none more inherently valid than any of the others. The more I listen to the album, the more this description feels right. This album isn’t a documentation or presentation of an artistic event that happened and is now over, it’s an invitation to enter into this world and explore it on your own terms, to find your own way through the work’s myriad winding paths, to make the piece yours as only you can. It’s an opera in twenty four cars, and you’re the one behind the wheel.
You can order the “album” at records.theindustryla.org/album/hopscotch.
The Industry is presenting two events on January 20 to celebrate the release. Details are below:
Friday, January 20 (4 pm)
USC, Wallis Annenberg Hall (ANN), Room L105A
3630 Watt Way, Los Angeles
Panelists include composers Veronika Krausas and Marc Lowenstein, Yuval Sharon of The Industry, and arts journalists Mark Swed and Sasha Anawalt (moderator).
Hopscotch in Concert
Friday, January 20 (7:30 pm)
USC, Newman Recital Hall (AHF)
3616 Trousdale Parkway, Los Angeles
This special evening emceed by director Yuval Sharon will be the first live concert of songs from the opera. Six chapters from the work will be performed (one from each of its six composers), including the expansive choral finale by Andrew Norman.
Selections from Daniel Corral‘s Zoophilic Follies, as performed by Timur and the Dime Museum, are being played as part of wild Up‘s residency at the Hammer Museum next Saturday at 3. Music by Anne LeBaron, Veronika Krausas, and Isaac Schankler is also on the program. Chris Rountree is conducting, and it’s a free show. Check out the track “Wax and Feathers” below.
This Saturday, Catalysis Projects and People Inside Electronics are collaborating to put on a show called Misfits and Hooligans at Beyond Baroque in Venice. I caught up via email with composer/the-brains-behind-it Veronika Krausas to talk about the show. While it’s nice to pretend I’m an objective journalist (I’m not), I’ve gotta say that the whole concept of this concert sounds completely awesome to me, and that I’m way excited about it, and think you should probably go. Thumbs up/high five, Veronika, I can’t wait.
The concert that your group Catalysis Projects is putting on with People Inside Electronics is called “Misfits and Hooligans,” and features music for all sorts of instruments that are often thought of as such. Aside from my being sad that melodica didn’t make the cut, this is really exciting. Where did the concept come from? And are you concerned about angering violists by including them on this?
AHHH … there are so many wonderful instruments that just didn’t make the cut … bagpipes, tuba, trombone, nose flute, banjo, and yes melodica. I think the violists are thrilled to be included. Probably everyone not included is wondering how they can get into the club! The question really should be – are you a misfit or a hooligan? But then it depends which country you hail from because in the lands that enjoy soccer (aka as non-American football), a hooligan might have a slightly less savory connotation than a hooligan in my less aggressive-less violent-more mischievous-Edward Gorey-esque usage of the term. Even so, I think I’m more of a misfit than a hooligan although I definitely appreciate musical hooliganism!
But, back to the concert! The composer Daniel Rothman started a new music series at Beyond Baroque and asked me to organize a concert. I enlisted my pals at Catalysis Projects, the visual artist, filmmaker, and writer Quintan Ana Wikswo, composers and performers Isaac Schankler and Aron Kallay (also of People Inside Electronics) to help with this extravaganza. It started out as a ‘so what pieces do you have’? type of thing and slowly emerged as a collection of ‘interesting’ instruments and it went gloriously downhill from there! On the program there are also some truly wonderful and crazy pieces for harpsichord by the French Baroque composer Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer, whose name alone is great! (We’ve all adopted Pancrace as our Misfit or Hooligan middle name!) Pancrace (as he is now known by his friends) was a contemporary of, and eclipsed quite a bit by, his pal Rameau! I heard Arthur Omura play Marche des Scythes and it was one of those ‘AH HA’ moments for me with the harpsichord. I drank the Royer Kool-aid and that was it. I’m now officially hooked on the harpsichord. It was such a wonderfully bizarre piece that it and 2 other of the pieces from Royer’s Première Livre de Pièces pour Clavecin are being performed on the concert. He unfortunately only has one book of harpsichord pieces.
Aron Kallay is playing a gorgeous piece for toy piano and electronics by Tom Flaherty. Isaac Schankler has this great duo for accordion and electronics called Chocolate Phase that he’s playing with Daniel Corral. I’ve asked them to wear lederhosen but that idea didn’t go over so well. He also has his wonderful viola piece Dear Mr. Edison.
My instruments are harmonica and double bass. Let’s make the harmonica the misfit and the double basses will be the hooligans! Jonas is a solo harmonica piece that the harmonica player Bill Barrett commissioned a few years ago and it’s finally having its premiere at this show along with a great text and film by Quintan Ana Wikswo called The Anguillidae Eater. The text is about the migration of eels to the Coronian Spit in Lithuania (which is one of my favorite places in the world) with a surreal twist. It goes perfectly with the harmonica music. The piece is named after my grandfather Jonas, who loved harmonica and smoked eel and was Lithuanian. He was probably more of a friendly hooligan that a misfit. I still have his harmonica in my studio.
The musical hooligans are represented in my double bass trio called Gardens of Stone. This piece was inspired by a poem by the Canadian writer André Alexis:
out of silence, to another silence
from sun and water, dry white salt.
time moves like that, crest to crest,
and our selves, yours and mine,
are what is left from sea …
You often compose for multimedia. What’s your approach to collaboration with other artists?
I’ve been so fortunate to have an amazing group of writers, film makers, artists, acrobats, and musicians around me that they’re always so inspiring. The process always happens so naturally – someone suggests an idea (or I have an image or sound in my mind) and that small kernel just grows (often like a weed) and just emerges. Somehow we’re always on the same sort of wave length when working on projects.
You’ve also done a good bit of work outside of music on your own. Did you study visual art, photography, or writing formally, or have you sort of picked it up over time?
I’ve only studied music but I am an accidental photographer, occasional book-maker, story writer, and filmmaker. The great thing about ideas is that often they take on a non-aural form, which sometimes gets translated into music and other times into another art form. I started to collect quite a few photographs of graffiti from all over the world and one year decided to put them into a book. Definitely an accidental photographer. Another friend (writer and artist Renée Reynolds) and I started with the idea of an errata in a magazine and slowly this developed into a project of a limited hand-made book that had very divergent ideas of our interpretations of what is an errata. The cover was floor tiles held together with duct tape – itself an errata of sorts.
You’re actually the first composer I’ve interviewed who is on a university faculty. I’ve heard some composition professors say that they only get to compose in summer because teaching and the work associated with it take so much time. What’s the balance like, for you? And are you pleased with it?
Tough during the year but it’s like anything – you make time, especially when you’re inspired or have a deadline. As those deadlines approach I’m sure my students notice the crazed look in my eyes…I teach at 8am so I’m not sure how much they notice at that hour!
Being that you’ve had works performed all over the place, how would you say LA compares or fits into the world scene for new music? Seems pretty strong to me, but I’ve never spent time in New York.
I never imagined myself living in LA and ended up here a little bit by accident. Since arriving I have LOVED it. The musical and creative environment is so vibrant that it’s really inspiring to live and work here. There so much music and art and dance and performance going on, it’s just a little spread out! And the weather is pretty darn great.
Anything on the horizon you can tell us about?
I’m off to Belgium in the fall – my chamber orchestra piece analemma is an official selection for the World Music Days.
Also, I’ve been asked to present my films at a series run by Gerry Fialka in the fall. Although not a film maker – just an accidental one – I have worked with several really spectacular film and video makers (Quintan Ana Wikswo and Nana Tchitchoua – who runs the Tula Tea Room at the Museum of Jurassic Technology). This event with feature some of the works I’ve done with them and my own ‘accidental’ foray into making a film. A few years ago someone ran an idea for a short film by me and I offered what I thought was a good (and slightly quirky) suggestion. They didn’t like the idea or even use it so I thought “it’s a great idea, I’m going to make it.” So I came up with 7 short and silly scenarios that became 7 intermezzi for film that I wrote and produced. It was shot by Marc Lempert and the music was by friends. A very fun project.
Get your tickets for this weekend’s show at brownpapertickets.com/event/235385. See you there!