Archive for the “Concert review” Category
The annual Dogstar Orchestra concert series of experimental music has been going in various locations in and around Los Angeles since May 30. The venue on June 10 was the Wulf, a converted industrial loft space on Santa Fe street downtown, and a good-sized crowd settled in for an evening of spoken and electronic works. The concert was curated by Sara Roberts and Clay Chaplin.
The concert opened with Black & White Oratorio by Robert Lax. A chorus of 15 voices and three soloists performed this piece which consists of groups of words for color that are spoken in various patterns and sequences. A soloist starts the piece with a series of phrases such as “Black, Black, Black, Black, Black, Black, White.” At length the chorus joined in with a series of similar phrases, but with variations in the Black/White sequence. The speaking has a pulse that allows the chorus to speak in unison, in divisi, or to pause for several beats together. The written score runs to 54 pages and the words are grouped in a series of columns on the page that represent the pulses, with each row of words forming the spoken phrase. This performance of Black & White Oratorio extended for almost 40 minutes but never lost the attention of those listening.
At times the words were spoken in unison, at other times the soloists would speak – always with the same chant-like pulse – but often introducing new colors into the sequences. The combinations would repeat often enough to establish a pattern, and this would be broken by the soloists or with a new sequence of words in the chorus. The pronunciation of the various color words in different combinations often accentuated the sense of rhythm. Repeating “Black White” in the chorus, for example, produced a march-like cadence. When a color word had a single syllable, like Red, there was a strong sound. A word like Orange, with two syllables and a softer sound at the end, added a sort of counterpoint to the pattern of pulses. When the soloists were speaking in sequences of “Red, Blue” with the chorus speaking “Black, White”, a definite sense of tension developed. Some sequences felt light and almost melodic while others resembled more the pattern of a steady drumming. At one point there was even a grand pause that lasted for several silent pulses.
The patterns and motifs that emerge as this piece progresses are always engaging and reveal how musical a work can sound without resorting to pitch or harmony. As the program notes explain: “Rehearsing these color poems has been an incantatory and abstractly hallucinogenic experience.” There were just two full rehearsals for this performance and the recitation went very well with only a few inevitable miscues, but these did not affect the flow of the piece.
Robert Lax (1915 – 2000) has been described as an abstract minimalist poet, and Black & White Oratorio certainly fits into that category. Lax was born in Olean, NY and attended Columbia University. He wrote for several magazines, including the New Yorker, and he was a friend of Thomas Merton. Lax lived on the Isle of Patmos in Greece for the last 35 years of his life and this is where Black & White Oratorio was written. This piece seems to exist in that space between music and poetry and even without tone or pitch, the words, the sequences and the rhythms seem to be transmitting musical content within its private vocabulary. The soloists for this performance were Jen Hutton, Heather Lockie and Morgan Gerstmar and the director was Sara Roberts.
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On Sunday, May 25, 2014 the Los Angeles Composers Collective presented New Strings a concert that featured new works by nine different composers and performed by the Fiato Quartet. The venue was Human Resources, a converted movie theater in historic Chinatown and although the performance space is a work in progress, the audience was seated comfortably. The acoustics in this new space were adequate – a dryer environment might have been better to bring out the finer details – but this did not affect the performance.
The concert began with String Quartet 1 by Jon Brenner and this commenced with a series of fast, precisely played eighth notes that immediately assumed a familiar minimalist texture. This developed a nice groove with effective harmonies and solid counterpoint. As the piece progressed, a section with lower dynamics – dominated by the cello – produced a more introspective feel despite the busyness. Those sequences where there was dynamic contrast and sustained tones in one or more parts were particularly effective. Towards the end of the piece the tempo slowed a bit and a pleasing theme emerged that was passed around among the players. This is music that is always going somewhere; at times it is strident but never out of control and the groove was always carefully maintained. Informed by Jon Brenner’s background in early music, String Quartet 1 is a strongly minimalist piece with a lot of moving parts that work admirably together.
Thoughts on Spring followed, by Alicia Byer. This begins with a series of long, slow notes in the violins, followed by the viola and cello. Trills appear, and with a sustained tone continuing in the viola there is the unmistakable feeling of an awakening. A slow melody is heard for a time and then – after a beat or two of silence – fast trills in the viola mark the start of a stronger, more animated section. As the volume and tempo increase there is a feeling of incipient undeniability, especially strong in the lower strings, like the emergence of the first flower shoots of spring. Thoughts on Spring is just that, and this music artfully describes the yearly process of natural renewal.
At the Warren by Carlos Carlos was next and this is a piece that is unashamedly about rabbits. Full of variously bouncing pizzicato or tremolo sounds – and often with a dance-like feel – At the Warren nicely captures the energy and movement of rabbits in the wild. At times this piece turns smoothly pastoral and was reminiscent of early 20th century English music. There was a section that quietly conveyed stealth and careful movement and other passages that expressed a more lighthearted feeling or a sense of purposeful journey. The book Watership Down came to mind. At the Warren is not abstract or difficult music, but it clearly and convincingly sketches out its subject matter.
Miniature for String Quartet No. 6 by Gregory Lenczycki followed. This began with a series of strong quarter notes that gave off an edgy feel that only increased as the rhythms became syncopated. As the piece proceeded the texture turned smoothly melodic, providing a good contrast with the opening passages. Further along there was a return to the strident rhythms of the opening and a disconnected melody emerged that enhanced the building sense of tension. The barely cohesive structure at the conclusion completes the feeling of uncertainty that characterizes this piece and makes it an interesting sojourn.
The first half of the concert concluded with Four Impressions by Nicholas White. The first of the four sections was dominated by low trills in the violin, joined by a faster repeating line in the viola. This combination generated a sense of mystery and anxiety while the second section evoked a more introspective feel with lush chords, high sustained pitches and triplets in the viola. This trailed off agreeably leaving a nostalgic afterglow. The third section continued the warm, expressive feelings with a series of slow chords and some lovely harmonies. The final section provided a fine contrast, full of fast passages in the upper strings that gave a strident and declarative feel to the overall texture. This turned slightly discordant at times, increasing the strongly purposeful feel. Some combinations of notes sounded for all the world like a muted trumpet – adding another interesting facet to this nicely balanced work.
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The City of Santa Monica was the scene Friday, May 2, 2014 of HEAR NOW Goes Electroacoustic, the first in a series of three consecutive concerts featuring music by contemporary Los Angeles composers. Presented by HEAR NOW and People Inside Electronics the six works in the program all included some kind of electronic accompaniment. The Miles Memorial Playhouse was filled and the cozy, Spanish Colonial style performance space with its wooden ceiling beams and stucco walls provided good acoustics and excellent viewing. This concert was dedicated to William Kraft and the composers offered a few remarks prior to the performance of each piece.
Theremin’s Journey (2010) by Gernot Wolfgang was first, and this began a low rumble of processed sound accompanied by bell-like chimes that was soon joined by the theremin. The distinctive sound of the theremin is invariably linked with 1950s science fiction movies, but in this piece the alien, otherworldly sound connected nicely with the underlying electronics, even when the theremin was dominating the texture. The sound of the theremin was an integral part of this piece and not simply a stylistic effect. Joanne Pearce Martin provided solid control over the pitch and entrances of the theremin and her virtuosity was all the more evident when she switched to the piano as the piece progressed. Theremin’s Journey proceeded in this way, with Ms. Martin alternating between piano and theremin. There was a more familiar feel to this piece when the piano was heard, and a sense of movement and energy was provided by several fast runs and short bursts of phrases. At other times the piano was unaccompanied, or gentle and reflective. By contrast, the sections featuring the theremin typically had a distant and sometimes lonely feel. The balance between the various elements – electronics, piano and theremin – was remarkable and the playing was controlled and consistent. Theremin’s Journey could have easily failed on several levels – technical issues, performance difficulties or by simply sounding cliché, but this high-risk piece came off successfully and convincingly on its own terms.
What Lies Behind the Rain (2011) followed, by David Werfelmann, a piece written for piano and electronics. Interestingly, the electronics were not simply a static presence but were triggered by the tones played by the performer at the piano. According to the program notes “Acoustic and electronic sounds blend and support each other, creating a sound world that could not be achieved by either part alone.” For the most part, this worked. Many of the electronic tracks were processed piano sounds, and when these were added to the live playing of Rafael Liebich the result was a kind of multiplying effect that produced sudden rushes of notes and fast swirls of sound. Trills in the piano could produce an avalanche of similar sounds from the electronics and this effectively evoked a sudden downpour or rain shower. There were also several passages that felt like driving on the freeway at night with cars quickly passing by. At other times the electronics gave out a majestic sound of bell chimes that, when combined with the sensitive touch of Liebich in the quieter stretches was quite lovely. This combination of triggered electronics and live performance deserves further exploration as was evident by this intriguing reading of What Lies Behind the Rain.
The third piece of the evening was Get Rich Quick (2009) by Ian Dicke and this was the Los Angeles premiere. Get Rich Quick was inspired by the financial crash of 2008 and is written for piano with recorded narration and sound effects . Aron Kallay, a co-founder of People Inside Electronics was the pianist. In his remarks just before the performance, Ian Dicke wondered aloud about the relevance of this piece in 2014 because, after all, “Congress passed financial reform laws and the bankers that caused the crash are all now in jail.” This was the perfect introduction to Get Rich Quick which begins with the sound of a coin dropping and the bustling noise of a stock exchange trading floor. A series of sharp, loud chords sound from the piano build tension while the narration smoothly pronounces a series of familiar platitudes: “Debt is a part of American life!”, “Debt has a time and place.” and “Pay those bills on time!” The vapid, infomercial tone of the text contrasted perfectly with the anxiety building in the piano and this provided the wit that propels this piece. The piano gestures are familiar but they make a telling commentary on the get rich quick narration. The program notes state that “Ian Dicke is a composer inspired by social-political culture and interactive technology.” New music these days often seems to arise in a political vacuum, but Get Rich Quick points to another way and the audience was both receptive and appreciative.
After the intermission Jugg(ular)ling (2005) by Vicki Ray was presented. In her pre-performance remarks Ms. Ray explained that the inspiration for this piece was the extreme multitasking required by our contemporary existence – all the things that conspire to keep us too busy. As Jugg(ular)ling began, old film clips of circus jugglers was projected on the stage screen. For each item juggled, the score called for a gesture by the musicians playing piano, violin and MalletKAT percussion. At first the jugglers had one and then a few balls or pins in the air and the music proceeded in an orderly fashion. As the number of items juggled increased, so did the complexity and speed of the musical responses, and this generated a sense of anticipation that added to the comedy on the screen. As the number of items in the air reached their maximum the music slowly unraveled, dissembling into a slow groove. Now the sequence in the film reversed with the number of juggled items decreasing along with the number of musical gestures. This simple formula – worthy of a Tom Johnson – was an inspired choice and the playing by Aron Kallay on piano, Shalini Vijayan on violin and Yuri Inoo on MalletKAT was clean and well-coordinated with the film clips. Jugg(ular)ling was an effective musical realization of the absurdities that fill our too-busy lives as the knowing laughs from the audience made clear.
Swallow (2012) by Scott Cazan followed and this was an experimental piece that combined stringed instruments – violins, violas and a cello – with electronic processing. The string players simply drew their bows across the strings; there was no attempt at melody or any kind of chord. These sounds were processed by a computer operated by the composer and played out through speakers so as to introduce feedback into the aggregate. The sounds coming from the strings were, in a sense, the raw material for the processing with the feedback producing the final result. This required careful and close listening and at times the feeling was that of observing a very subtle and ephemeral phenomena – something like an acoustic version of the northern lights on a far horizon. The process seemed a bit hit and miss at times, depending as it does on the acoustical environment pertaining at the instant of performance. But at its best there is an organic feel and the interplay of the tones, while transient, is often beautiful and invitingly mysterious. At times some zero-beating in the feedback gives a bit of rhythm and forward motion, but the feedback process tends to be on the quiet side and is often intermittent. Perhaps Swallow would be better realized in the recording studio where the more effective manifestations of the process can be captured as they occur.
The final piece of the concert was Pacific Light and Water/Wu Xing-Cycle of Destruction (2005) and this was a collaboration between Barry Schrader who composed and realized the piece electronically, and Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith who played trumpet live during the performance. The trumpet is played as an overlay to the recorded electronics and this allows Mr. Smith to react and respond to the sounds as the piece progresses. From the program notes “The Pacific Light and Water portion of the work is inspired by the penetration of light at different depths of the Pacific Ocean. Building on the water theme, Wu Xing embodies the Chinese concept of the Five Elements, among which are fire and water.” The trumpet player follows a graphical score of the electronic piece and this guides the improvisational component of the playing. The water theme came through very strongly in the recorded electronics and Mr. Smith responded to this with a variety of interesting trumpet calls, trills and sustained tones. The trumpet provides a familiar handhold for this music and made a good contrast to the thunder, rain and watery sounds coming from the speakers. The liquid feel increases and towards the end of the piece a booming surf is heard that increases in volume as the trumpet struggles against it. The surf sounds escalate into sharp canon reports and the piece concludes dramatically with only the trumpet playing. The overlay form of Pacific Light and Water/Wu Xing-Cycle of Destruction is a good example of a collaboration that is completely independent yet intimately linked through the solo performer, and this was nicely accomplished by Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith.
This concert was a good survey of the electroacoustic forms and techniques that are being explored by contemporary Los Angeles composers. HEAR NOW is in its fourth year and judging by the music presented in this concert the future looks very bright.
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On Tuesday April 9, 2014 downtown Los Angeles was the scene of the centerpiece concert for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Minimalism Jukebox series. Over four hours of music was presented from eight composers, including ten different works, two world premiers and dozens of top area musicians. Wild Up, International Contemporary Ensemble, the LA Philharmonic New Music Group and the Calder Quartet all made appearances. The Green Umbrella event was curated by John C. Adams and Disney Hall filled with a mostly young audience.
The evening began with a pre-concert panel discussion moderated by Chad Smith, VP of Artistic Planning. He was joined by John Adams and four of the composers whose works were on the program: Missy Mazzoli, David Lang, Mark Grey and Andrew McIntosh. The question that provoked the most discussion revolved around the changes in minimalism since its inception. John Adams suggested that it has now acquired a more lyrical bent and that contemporary composers are writing music for musicians who want to be technically challenged. The consensus was that the term ‘minimalism’ is now useful as a description for a certain palette of sounds and processes; but few composers today would identify themselves as minimalists. The programming of this concert was itself an attempt to chart the evolution of minimalism since the mid-20th century.
Even before the concert began the long elegant lines of William Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes (1977-78) – a work that was something of a departure from the strict minimalist form of that time – could be heard from the piano on stage, carefully played by Richard Valitutto. The music this night was non-stop and there were presentations in various places outside the concert hall during the two intermissions. When the crowd had settled into their seats, a spotlight suddenly shone high up on the organ console revealing Clare Chase, flute soloist, who began the concert with Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint (1982). This piece incorporates a tape track of rapid, staccato flute notes and the soloist plays a line that weaves in and around the looping patterns. The feeling was a sort of aural kaleidoscope of changing complexity that was reassuring in its repetition. Ms. Clare smoothly changed flutes several times and this gave a series of different colors to the piece as it progressed. About mid-way the accompaniment in the tape became more flowing and less frenetic, and this helped to bring out the solo flute. The sound tended to be a bit washed out by the time it reached high up in the balcony where I was sitting, and while this did not detract significantly from the performance, the piece was more effective when the solo line was distinct.
The second work, Stay On It (1973) by Julius Eastman was performed by wild Up with Christopher Rountree conducting. This begins with a series of short syncopated phrases in the piano, soon picked up by the strings, voices and a marimba. This has a lilting Afro/Caribbean feel that builds a nice groove as it proceeds. Horns sound long sustained notes arcing above the texture, but this slowly devolves into a kind of joyful chaos, like being in the middle of a slightly out of control street party This was carried off nicely by wild Up, even when the entire structure collapsed into and out of loud cacophony led by the marimba and horns. The piece seemed to spend itself in this outburst, like air flowing out of a balloon, but towards the end the rhythm regrouped sufficiently to finish with a soft introspective feel. Stay On It quietly concluded with a single maraca shaken by conductor Christopher Rountree.
The first section of the concert finished with Different Trains (1988) by Steve Reich. In this performance the train sounds and voices were provided by a tape with the Calder Quartet playing seamlessly along. This piece, and the story behind it, will be familiar to most who follow minimalist music, but seeing it live one gets a much better appreciation for its complexity and the effort involved in playing it by a string quartet. The sound system didn’t project the voices very clearly up into the balcony where I was sitting, but this actually afforded a new perspective. With a recording heard through headphones one can easily get caught up in how well the strings are mimicking the voices. High up in Disney Hall you could get just a sense of the words, and I found myself concentrating instead on the sound of strings – and this made for a more powerful experience. The different colors of the three movements came through more vividly, and the intensity that the Calder Quartet brought to this piece was impressive. Different Trains is a masterpiece of late 20th century minimalism and this was made even more obvious in this reading, burdened as it was by less than ideal conditions. The ethereal passages that conclude the piece were beautifully effective, and as the sound faded slowly away, a sustained and sincere applause followed.
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On Saturday April 5, 2014 Jacaranda presented The Knee Plays by David Byrne along with music by Philip Glass. This concert was one of the Minimalist Jukebox Festival concerts of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and also part of the tenth anniversary season of the Jacaranda series. The venue was the First Presbyterian Church, whose ample and comfortable sanctuary was almost completely filled for the occasion. The Lyris Quartet, the Calder Quartet, Jacaranda Chamber Ensemble and the Vintage Collectables brass band with drummer M.B. Gordy provided the musical forces. Actor Fran Kranz was the narrator for The Knee Plays and Mark Alan Hilt, Music Director of Jacaranda, performed on the pipe organ and conducted.
The concert opened with Mad Rush (1979), by Philip Glass, an organ work first performed publicly in 1981 at St. John the Divine Cathedral to mark the visit of the Dalai Lama to New York. This piece opens with a light, calming sequence as soothing as any Sunday morning prelude. After a sailing serenely on for minute or two, however, it erupts into a swirling vortex of sound full of drama and energy that calls to mind later sections of The Grid from Koyaanisqatsi. Mad Rush proceeds along in this way, alternating sections of quiet serenity with moments of loud striving frenzy, reflecting a Buddhist sensitivity to contrast and no doubt calling us to a more contemplative state of mind. The sound of the pipe organ filled the sanctuary nicely and the playing of Mark Alan Hilt was especially precise in the faster sections. There are many recordings of Mad Rush on piano or keyboard, but hearing this piece performed live affirms the raw power of this music when heard in its intended venue.
The second work on the program was a suite from the musical score of the film Mishima (1985) composed by Philip Glass and arranged by Todd Levin. The opening section begins with a beautiful shimmer of glass and bell chimes. The lower strings join in to build an ominous undercurrent that is reinforced by a strong beat in the bass drum. This increases in tempo and dynamic, ultimately bursting into a familiar Glass groove carried forward by the strings. Mishima is the complex story of a post-war Japanese writer who plots the return of the Emperor to power by building a private army. The percussion section was especially effective in conveying this militaristic element, as was clearly heard in section 2 by a series of rapid snare drum rolls – the feel is very much like an army on the march. Other parts of the Mishima story are similarly vivid and range from lighter and empathetic as in section 3, 1934: Grandmother and Kimitake, to unsettling and broad in the last section, November 25: THE LAST DAY. For those sections that consisted entirely of string playing, conductor Mark Alan Hilt stepped aside and let the ensemble work out the complex patterns of notes that are the hallmark of music by Philip Glass. The playing throughout was skillful and the harmonies could be heard distinctly, even high up in the balcony. The effort was received by the audience with sustained applause – with many standing.
After intermission the Vintage Collectables brass band took the stage for The Knee Plays (1984) by David Byrne. The Knee Plays was written to be performed between acts of Robert Wilson’s expansive opera the CIVIL warS, partly as a way to cover scenery and costume changes. For this concert however, all the sections of the The Knee Plays were played consecutively. The opening section Tree (Today is an Important Occasion) began with a lovely series of tones played in sequence by two trombones. To these were added saxophones and the result was a pleasantly grand sound that did convey a sense of occasion. The narration by Fran Kranz commenced, but immediately there were technical issues with the sound system, rendering the words unintelligible. The performance was halted until a repair could be effected, and this was right decision inasmuch as the narration provides an essential context for the music. The fix proved only partly effective, however, and even a change of seats to be closer to the speakers still required intense listening to catch all of the spoken words. The brass band was clearly heard and well balanced – but too much for the overwhelmed narration.
David Byrne is best known as a founding member of the band Talking Heads and the music of The Knee Plays brings a comfortable sense of the familiar with it. The second section, In the Upper Room, surely owes something to a hymn tune. I Bid You Goodnight, section 8, could have been an easy-going New Orleans street band piece. All of the tunes in The Knee Plays are highly accessible and Byrne clearly has a good ear for texture. Each of the sections provided solo opportunities for the various horns and combinations and these were effectively realized. The playing was cohesive and consistent throughout the 50-plus minute run time – an achievement of note considering that all the instruments were called upon to play most of the time.
On those occasions when the narration could be heard The Knee Plays really came into focus. Things to Do (I’ve Tried), the ninth section, is a spoken list of simple chores accompanied by the blues, but the juxtaposition produces a knowing, inward smile by anyone who has attempted the mundane and failed. Perhaps the most successful piece was section 12, In the Future. The narration consists of a series of utopian platitudes about how wonderful the future will be – “In the future we will work one hour a week!” – accompanied by a marvelous 1950-ish science fiction soundtrack carried by the lower brass. This was a telling commentary on our 21st century, given that this work dates from 1984, and provided a glimpse of just how effective the music of David Byrne can be. The strong applause from the audience at the conclusion rewarded a fine effort.
The tenth anniversary season of the Jacaranda series will conclude with a concert featuring the music of Mozart, Debussy and Arvo Part on Saturday, May 10, 2014 at First Presbyterian in Santa Monica.
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Posted by Paul Muller in Concert review, Contemporary Classical, Los Angeles, tags: Andrew Young, Antoine Beuger, Casey Anderson, Jurg Frey, Leo Svirsky, Mark So, Michael Winter, van Houdt, Walter Marchetti, Wulf
On Saturday, March 22, 2014 Dutch pianist Reinier van Houdt appeared at the Wulf in downtown Los Angeles for a night of experimental music that was intended, according to the concert notes, “… to question the act of composing.” A capacity crowd of the knowledgeable gathered to hear a series of eight piano works by European and local contemporary composers that lasted over 2 hours. This was the second local appearance in as many days for van Houdt – who had performed just the night before at the RedCat venue in Disney Hall.
The concert opened with Radio + Piano (2013) by Los Angeles composer Casey Anderson. For this piece the piano was fitted with an electronic pickup that allowed Reinier to use the keyboard and pedals to interact with the sounds that were generated continuously by a laptop. A stream of static from the computer formed the background, very much like that once heard coming out of older radios. Against this came a series of low humming sounds that increased, and then decreased in volume, with the period between these entrances varying from a seconds to maybe half a minute. This produced a searching feel, like trying to tune in an elusive radio station late at night. As the humming intensified it became almost like the pedal tones of a great pipe organ and you could feel the force of the sound in your chest. Radio + Piano was effective at blurring the line between technology and the piano. The pianist had input into the process – but not in the expected way – and by this contrast succeeded in asking a question about what constitutes an act of composing.
Nichts, das ist (2006) by Mark So was next and this began with a solemn, soft chord followed by a long pause. This pattern of quiet, solitary chords and extended periods of silence continued, like a series of contemplative thoughts barely stirring through the mind. Reinier van Houdt’s intense concentration and gentle touch here were especially noteworthy and everyone in the room remained completely engaged, as if hearing a murmured prayer. Creating the pianissimo chords was something of a worry to van Houdt – he explained later that each piano has a unique touch, especially in the very soft dynamics, and an unfamiliar instrument was a challenge. But Nichts, das ist invites the audience to listen closely and the playing in this performance was masterful.
A series of similarly quiet pieces followed. These spanned a spectrum from simple and still to active and agitated. Meditation for Solo Piano (2002) by Michael Winter, however, has a somewhat more ringing sound – like bell chimes – that offered a more dramatic feel, but a definite sense of the subtle seemed to be common thread to this concert. The audience was completely engaged throughout, van Houdt applied a studied concentration to all and displayed an attention to the dynamic details that was impressive.
After an extended intermission, Natura Morta by Walter Marchetti closed the concert. For this piece a large tray of very ripe fruit was placed on top of the piano. This gave a faint, but unmistakable flavor to the air that increased as the piece went along and provided an additional sensory dimension to the music. Natura Morta is deliberate music consisting of a simple, steady melody line of single quarter notes. The dynamic never varies from mezzo piano. This line is repeated with the same notes but not in exactly the same sequence, and this gives the piece an organic, plant-like feel. It is as if you are looking at a vine – similar form and material, but never identical in every segment.
The linear melodies seem to meander and hang in the air, like the fragrance of the ripened fruit One of the scores available for this piece specify three kinds of fermata, the duration of each one being determined by the length of the preceding phrase – the longer the phrase the more time given for the harmonics to die out. In this way the decay of the fruit still life is reinforced by the music as well as the scent in the air. Natura Morta runs on for an hour and the feeling of the phrases is ambivalent: not quite melancholy, not quite aimless – but there is a sense of a natural organic process at work. A very high level of concentration is required to play this and Mr. van Houdt never wavered despite the length of the piece and the late hour. It was an impressive ending to a demanding program.
The pieces played in concert order were:
Radio + Piano (2013) by Casey Anderson
Nichts, das ist (2006) by Mark So
Melody:Continuum (2013) by Andrew Young
Meditation for Solo Piano (2002) by Michael Winter
Klavierstück (1995) by Jürg Frey
Preludes (2013) by Leo Svirsky
Y todos cuantos vagan (2013) by Antoine Beuger.
Natura Morta by Walter Marchetti
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Now that we’re well (and sadly?) past the era of composers’ cutting contests, where the likes of Beethoven would take a theme from a pretender and improvise a dazzling set of variations (the origin of the finale of the “Eroica” symphony), it is exceedingly, impossibly rare to witness what I heard in December.
Early in the month, the American Modern Ensemble played a concert at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music. The program was based around music from Robert Paterson’s terrific recent recording, Winter Songs, made with the same ensemble. The concert was bookended by Paterson’s CAPTCHA and the title sequence, about half the contents on the CD (there’s also the song-sets Eating Variations, Thursday and Batter’s Box, making for one of the best releases of 2013).
One of Paterson’s Winter Songs is “The Snow Man,” from Wallace Stevens’ poem. Preceding that set was another song of the same poem, “The Snow Man,” by composer Steven Burke. Two songs from two different composers using the same text, finding entirely different meanings and producing dramatically varied effects. In a strong and enjoyable concert overall, this was a special moment and had a powerful effect.
Paterson is an excellent, old-school style craftsman. He produces limpid melodies and harmonies, his small ensemble orchestrations are colorful and clear, and he values lyricism and beauty. His Winter Songs are just that: despite the overall feeling of shattered loneliness in the poems he collected from Stevens, A.R. Ammons, Richard Wilbur, Robert Creeley, and Billy Collins, the overall feeling is of interpretation at a distance, the composer and listener outside the experience of the poems themselves, safe from the emotional dangers.
Paterson’s “Snow Man” is only shrouded in ice, the warmth from the fire reaches out to touch the music. The singer, bass-baritone David Neal, and the music, describe the emptiness “Of the January sun; and not to think/Of any misery in the sound of the wind,” like a docent describing a painting. Burke’s setting, which came out of a period of personal turmoil for him, is deep inside the music and the poem. His singer was a tenor, John Matthew Myers, and the accompaniment is only violin and piano, not Paterson’s chamber ensemble. The voice of the music is the voice of the snowman, the feeling is of experience, not observation. Burke’s is the sound of a man lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering what the hell he’s going to do.
In contrast to all this is CAPTCHA, the nonsense text used on the web to verify that the user on the other end of the interface is a human being. Paterson collected a decent amount of these … words, such as they are, and made them into songs. They are utterly brilliant, and I’m not sure the composer recognizes their strength. Expertly sung by the great young baritone Jesse Blumberg, they are songs that poke fun at the entire art song tradition and yet fulfill the clichés of the style with skill and wit. That a man can sing “Voix gustroor/voice niionss/MUSICAL alengus/harmonic nstryfl” with a full, beautiful voice and an arched eyebrow, and convey meaning, testifies to how great this set is. By saying nothing, they mean everything. It needs to be a standard choice in the repertoire.
The concert was completed with songs from Tania Léon, Turning, and Russell Platt, “Two Whitman Panels” from his A Walt Whitman Cantata, that varied based on the quality of the poetry. Each composer writes fine vocal music, but Léon’s poetry couldn’t completely fill out her composing. The series of texts, sung by soprano Nancy Allen Lundy, from Sarah White, Lucille Clifton, Janice Mirikitani and Judith Ortiz Carter, hint at both social isolation and rituals that extend from ancient beliefs to modern materialism, but their cores are minimal, and the music tries, not completely successfully, to press them in to a maximal expression. Neither side is wrong, but they mostly mis-fit.
Platt’s two songs, with Jesse Blumberg again, contrast with each other. His settings of the poetry are superb: the first, “When I Heard at the Close of the Day,” is a genteel love song, one man to another, while “I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing,” has the pleasing roughness and muscularity that is so special in the poet. Platt captures each quality well.
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On Tuesday, January 21, 2014 several of the lesser-known works of composer Alvin Lucier were performed by the Southland Ensemble at Monk Space in the Koreatown district of central Los Angeles.
About 35 people attended with only a few empty seats in the compact venue that also doubles as a movie and video location. The reclaimed brick and cement interior of Monk Space was ideal for hearing Lucier, whose work is strongly informed by the relationship of sound and space.
The concert began with 947 (2001), a piece for solo flute and tape. A series of pure electronic tones was heard from a speaker system and flutist Christine Tavolacci matched the tone exactly, or played at an interval, or moved up and down around the electronic pitch by a few hertz. Sometimes the flute predominated, other times it was the electronic pitch and sometimes there was the zero-beating of the two – I thought the zero beating was more pronounced and effective in the lower registers. There were times a single electronic tone was heard and other times there was a mixture of electronic pitches, often slowly changing in loudness. When the cool, impersonal electronic tones were displaced by the flute, there was a sense of encountering a distinctly human element. The constantly changing relationship between the flute and the electronic tones propelled the piece forward, producing a haunting and pure feel.
The acoustic space, electronics and flute were all in good balance – and this was essential to bring out the often subtle sonic interplay. Afterward, Ms.Tavolacci explained that the various effects were all carefully scored and she used alternate fingerings and rolled the barrel of the flute slightly in order to bend the pitches when needed. The pitch control by the flute was impressive, considering that it was being continuously compared by the audience to a series of steady electronic tones.
The second piece on the program was Theme (1994) and this was scored for four voices and sonorous vessels, on poems by John Ashbery. Each of the four voices spoke into a wide-mouth glass jar that was fitted with a microphone pickup and connected to a small portable amplifier. The John Ashbery poem – Skin, Meat, Bone – was recited into these jars, sometimes by a single voice and sometimes in various combinations of multiple voices. The words could occasionally be made out, but text was not distinct – and this was intentional. The jars muffled the words but tended instead to amplify the various tones and frequencies present in the speaking voices.
The result was that the cadences of the text and the patterns in the poetry produced a sort of dreamy tone cloud that hovered around the voices, changing in color and duration depending on what was being spoken at that instant. The varying voice combinations and registers created different intensities and textures from moment to moment and the effect was quite remarkable given the simplicity of the concept. This would seem to be an extension of Lucier’s well-known work from 1969, I am sitting in a room, where the spoken text is recorded, played back and the re-recorded many times in the same room. Eventually the words are lost but the characteristic sonorities of the space are distilled into the tape. The amplified jars in Theme seem to doing something similar to text spoken in real time.
Wind Shadows (1994) followed, and this was similar in structure to the opening flute piece. In Wind Shadows a constant electronic pitch was heard from the speakers, varying only slightly in volume. A single trombone matches the pitch, or plays slightly above or slightly below it. Sometimes the electronic pitch dominates, other times the trombone – and as with 747, your ear tends to hear one or the other. The effect is spare, but warms noticeably when the trombone dominates. The lower register of this instrument was particularly powerful when zero-beating occurred – it sounded like a flight of B17 bombers passing overhead. Trombonist Matt Barbier used two slide positions to match the electronic tone – one giving more control for bending the pitch upwards and the other better for slightly lowering to the zero-beat frequency. As with all these pieces, the balance between the electronics, the acoustic space and the players was excellent.
After a short intermission Septet (1985) was heard and this work is also along the lines of 747 and Wind Shadows, but with larger musical forces. A single electronic tone from the speaker system was matched by three winds and four strings: bassoon, clarinet, flute, bass, cello, viola and violin. The instruments entered in various combinations and sequences, rising and falling in intensity, creating a constantly changing spectrum of sounds. The assortment of timbres and the power of the ensemble against the steady electronic tone produced a fine variety; where the tones were dissonant, the effect was ominous, while at other times there was a feeling of tension and suspense or a sad mournfulness. There was even one section that, to my ear, sounded just like a train horn in slow motion.
The electronic tone from the speaker was set to a loudness that would mix well with the larger number of instruments, but when the instruments would lay out for a bit the electronics seemed too intense. No doubt a compromise, but this was the only time during the concert when the electronics sounded out of balance.
The final offering for the evening was Outlines of Persons and Things (1975) and this was a sound installation for microphones, loudspeakers and electronic sounds. An electronic tone was put out through the PA system and two specially positioned auxiliary speakers. These were arranged in such a way as to produce different sound patterns throughout the space. The audience was invited to walk about the space and in so doing altered these wave patterns. The result was that in some areas there was no sound, in others a definite pitch and yet by walking just a few paces it all changed. My smart phone tuning app seemed to think the sound in the speakers was pitched to B (247 Hz) but changing my position by just a foot or two altered this pitch considerably.
There was also a sound scanning feature. A portable microphone and amplifier were carried about to detect the pitch present in a given place and then amplify it outward, thus further altering the local sound patterns. Scanning irregularly-shaped objects – two 55 gallon drums were placed in the space – produced complex patterns and unexpected pitches nearby. Outlines of Persons and Things was a powerful demonstration of the hidden acoustic possibilities that are present in any given space.
This concert by the Southland Ensemble of works by Alvin Lucier, successfully realized at the boundary of music and acoustic science, provides us with a rare glimpse of the many creative possibilities that await us there.
The Southland Ensemble includes: Casey Anderson, Matt Barbier, Eric KM Clark, April Gutherie, Orin Hildestad, James Klopfleisch, Jon Stehney, Cassia Streb, Christine Tavolacci and Brian Walsh.
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On Tuesday December 3, 2013 the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group presented LA Now: Four New Angeleno Composers, the latest in the Green Umbrella series of new music concerts. Curated by no less an eminence than John Adams, works by Sean Friar, Julia Holter, Andrew McIntosh and Andrew Norman were performed for a mostly young and enthusiastic audience that filled three quarters of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
In the pre-concert panel discussion we learned that over 100 compositions were considered during the selection process and that Mr. Adams sought music that “speaks of Los Angeles” and displayed a sense of provincialism – in the best sense of that word. The composers were each asked to identify what makes new music in Los Angeles unique, and comments such as “freedom to try things”, “dispersed”, “experimental” and “entrepreneurial” were heard. Noting that the musical forces specified in these four pieces were generally on the small side, moderator Chad Smith – LA Phil Vice President of Artistic Planning – asked “Is the orchestra still relevant? Do you write music for a full orchestra?” To which Julia Holter quipped “Only if you need to write such a piece to graduate…” and this provoked a knowing laugh from the many music students present. But the mood was upbeat – there is a lively new music scene in and around downtown Los Angeles, and Disney Hall is situated at the center of it.
The first piece on the program was Little Green Pop by Sean Friar and the instrumentation consisted of piano, trombone, soprano and tenor saxes, electric guitar and percussion. This seemingly small assemblage produced an unexpectedly large sound, beginning with a run of light staccato tones that evolved into a series of louder chords. The quick tempo and syncopated rhythms were guided nicely by the precise and clear conducting of John Adams. The tones seem to pop out of the instruments, the harmonies and textures changing with almost every beat and this created a kind of pointillist construction of sound that was very effective. At other times, separate lines would pile together combining into a wonderful mash. Cymbals added an element of majesty and motion that eventually culminated in a great blast from the horns. Sustained and quiet tones followed, producing a moment of calm reflection before building again in tempo and volume and leading to a rousing finish. This was a work whose architecture delivered impressive constructions of sound from relatively small musical forces and Little Green Pop was received with enthusiastic applause.
Memory Drew Her Portrait by Julia Holter followed and this was a world premiere commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This piece featured a more conventionally arrayed chamber orchestra consisting of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trombone and keyboard, with a string section consisting of four violins, two violas, two cellos and a double bass – all presided over by John Adams conducting. The composer sang the solo vocals whose text was based on an extended original poem that forms the focus of this work. The opening mournful horn solo immediately sets the tone for this piece – a story of lovers parted. Ms. Holter was mentioned as being in the same league with Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro in the pre-concert discussion and the comparison is apt, less because of the purity of her voice but more in the way that the music, text and voice are joined seamlessly to propel the serious emotional trajectory of the piece. The voice is an equal partner here and the smooth passages in the orchestra serve to effectively reinforce the mood of the text. The accompaniment is direct and accessible, yet adds the requisite atmosphere to the poignant lyrics. The combination of powerful poetry, insightful orchestration and the strong emotional component in the vocals fully connected with the audience, who responded with sustained applause.
After the intermission, Etude IV by Andrew McIntosh was performed by James Sullivan and Brian Walsh playing clarinet with Mark Menzies on violin. This is a quiet piece consisting of a series of scales that repeat in various combinations of intervals and pitches. This piece employs just intonation – a type of microtonal music that employs tuning based on the natural harmonic ratios of pitches and not the conventional 12 equal divisions of the octave. Etude IV is one of a series exercises that Andrew wrote to help the players practice in these different tunings. In the program notes Andrew states that “…present in the pieces is my fascination with some of the more orderly facets of the natural world so the forms and harmonic constructs of the pieces are often very geometric or symmetrical in some way… In Etude IV (my personal favorite) the symmetry is reflected in time as each phrase goes out of phase with itself…” The sound of this occasionally had an Asian feel and often produced interesting harmonies and timbres as the instruments ascended each of the scale patterns. The hearing was good – even in the higher elevations of Disney Hall where I was sitting – but some of the subtleties of the harmonic interplay were undoubtedly lost given the sizable space; this music is most often performed in a much more intimate setting. On the whole, it was a generally restful and almost meditative experience, a fine contrast to much of what was heard in the first part of the concert. Etude IV is very representative of the work being done with alternate tunings in the Los Angeles new music scene and the structure of this piece also owes something to process, another historical West Coast influence.
The final piece of the concert was Try by Andrew Norman and for this John Adams resumed his role as conductor of a group identical to that of Memory Drew Her Portrait, save the addition of a trumpet. But the sound could not have been more different – Try is a furious, high energy stringendo-on-steroids wall of sound that jumped off the stage and seemed barely contained by even the spacious Disney Hall. Swirling, always moving ,yet able to turn on a dime, this piece most reminded me of the old Warner Brothers cartoon music – and this, of course, is a compliment. The playing was precise and deadly accurate despite the frenetic pace and the ensemble managed to keep a keen edge on the river of sound that was sent flowing from the stage. Percussion and brass added an almost explosive element to the ever-building torrent and just when you were sure it couldn’t get any wilder – it went quiet. Piano and flute traded soft phrases and eventually the piano alone was left to repeat a theme of just a few notes. A slight acceleration in the final phrase, then some quiet quiet chords… and an audience sitting in stunned silence. This piece was an emotional roller coaster ride and received a loud ovation in response. It is hard to believe that the music of Andrew Norman won’t find its way to a movie screen or a TV series sometime soon.
LA Now: New Angeleno Composers was an exciting event much appreciated by the sizable audience. Credit goes to John Adams for what must have been no small effort to curate and produce such a concert. Congratulations to all the composers whose work was performed, it was a night to remember.
Concert notes, composer links and more information about this performance are here.
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Before JACK Quartet played Georg Friedrich Haas’ “In iij. Noct,” String Quartet No. 3 Tuesday night at the Lincoln Center White Light Festival, the stage crew turned the lights off in the Clark Studio Theater for a test run, so that everyone in the audience could gauge whether they could withstand the extended period of essentially total darknes. The lights were down for one minute, and once the last light went out I counted to myself, “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand.” By the time I hit twenty, the lights were on their way back up.
That is the profound power that darkness has, it drastically slows our personal sensation of time. It’s in that time-altered environment that we hear the musicians, one each in the four corners of the room, playing Haas’s piece (it’s duration can be flexible but JACK played it for about 70 minutes). The darkness is purportedly no gimmick, it’s at the core of the piece, as Haas described in post-concert remarks led by John Schaeffer. But the problem with the compostion, and it is a serious problem, is that it spends so much thought on darkness and none on time.
As a composition, the String Quartet takes the form of a series of structured cues — it’s fair to consider them improvisatory, but that’s a distinction that can easily shift responsibility away from the composer and onto the players. The musicians have different kinds of musical material to work with, things like sequences of effects, instructions to form chords from a tonic pitch using the overtone series, a notable and glaring quotation from one of Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsoria . Playing in the dark, away from each other, they have to come to consensus on each section.
JACKS’ unanimity in this concert was impressive. They’ve played this work almost three dozen times, in Ari Streisfeld’s telling, and although there have been performances in their account where they had to fight over events and direction, this was smooth and assured. But the net effect is that the piece has no form, that it’s a disjointed series of effects — none of them particularly compelling — interrupted by involving tonal material. It’s discontinuous, but there’s no intent to that, no shape, no argument for that structure.
The effects — tricks with the bow, quiet tapping on the fingerboard — evaporate in the dark, though there’s the benefit that the piece doesn’t come off as simplistic horrow music. They don’t linger in the mind, and don’t effectively mark moments in time. When the quartet builds their chords, or when they move via glissandi up and down through pitches, the piece is remarkable. That’s when it builds structure through time, and since it’s working with such a proufoundly altered sensation of the dimension, it starts to open up extraordinary worlds of aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual possibilities.
I get the impression Haas doesn’t hear this, because his instructions let go of all the power in the music. It’s easy, but lazy, to hear his work as avant-garde. He is avant-garde in a bourgeois sense, titillating with sensation. But he’s not in the meaningful sense of an obsessive focus on one single, simple idea, it’s permutations and possibilities. One hour of chord building in pitch darkness, the musicians at the edge of their senses to hit the exact intonation, the audience in constant anticipation of where the music will go and what will happen next, that might be extraordinary. One hour of scrapes and squiggles and some notes — with an entirely superfluous bit of Gesualdo throw in — in the dark, is a gimmick, and ultimatley disappointing.
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