Archive for the “Experimental Music” Category

southland1On Friday September 11, 2015, the Curve Line Space Gallery  in Eagle Rock was the venue for a concert titled Collaborations 1.1 featuring the works of Gerhard Stäbler and Kunsu Shim as performed by members of the Southland Ensemble. Stäbler and Shim, German experimental composers, are on a three-city tour of the US, sponsored in part by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany and the Goethe Institute. Seven pieces composed between 1986 and 2007 were presented, ranging from conceptual works to those with graphical scores and standard notation. The warm evening and exquisite acrylic paintings by Sue Tuemmler complimented the amiable atmosphere present in the audience and the gallery.

The first piece was by Kunsu Shim In Zwei Teilen – I, and this was performed by violin, viola, cello and recorder. The first notes were barely audible – a light, high arco sound from the cello followed by about a minute of silence. A short chord from the strings and recorder was heard and then another long, soft tone from the cello. The combination of quiet sounds and long silences worked to focus the listening and the result was a sense of keen anticipation. More hushed tones from the cello followed and with a pleasantly dissonant final chord from the strings and recorder, the piece concluded.

Hart Auf Hart by Gerhard Stäbler was next and this had several performers scattered around the floor with portable radios and a graphical score consisting of bar codes overlaid by a grid of numbered coordinates. A series of numbers and letters were called out – much like a bingo game – the performers consulted their scores, and some began tuning their radios. The tuning proceeded fairly rapidly, and short bursts of voices and music were heard as well as loud static. The voices coming from the radios were fragmentary and did not add any sort of narrative. For some performers the score indicated silence, and the radio was turned off. The piece continued in this way, coordinates were called out at intervals and radio sounds were heard coming from different corners of the performance space. All of this produced an interesting texture, if not any definite form. The changing patterns and locations of the sounds produced an intriguing sense of space and movement for the stationary listener. Towards the end of the piece, the performers gathered around an open microphone and all of the radio sounds were now projected from a single speaker, flattening the previous sensations of distance and location. With a burst of loud sounds and static the piece suddenly ended.

The third piece on the program was Gerhard Stäbler’s ]and on the eyes black sheep of night[ for piccolo, clarinet and violin. This was a conventionally notated piece that began with a dissonant tutti chord and gave off a feeling of remote loneliness. The piccolo played two alternating high notes and the others joined in similarly in their registers. The effect was like listening to a clockwork oscillating back and forth with a sort of familiar regularity. The coloring became more intense, adding a bit of anxiety. A sudden and almost painfully loud dissonant chord in the violin and piccolo disrupted the calm and captured everyone’s attention. There was a brief return to the more gentle feeling, but ]and on the eyes black sheep of night[ ended on a second tense chord as if to underline the journey from the comfortable to the anxious.

Luftrand, by Kunsu Shim, followed and this was for violin, viola and cello. Soft, muffled tones – almost a whisper – were heard, followed by silence. The players began each passage together and the quiet chords had a mysterious and secretive feel. Everything was soft and tentative, with never a strong bowing action or loud note. The players exhibited good ensemble and a soft touch to produce the delicate sounds that felt like a series of quiet sighs. Midway through, the string tension on each instrument was reduced and this produced a new sound – less purely musical perhaps, but more evocative. The now-lower notes seemed to be enveloped in a thick fog that greatly added to the mystery. Luftrand with its subtle, muted tones invites a deeper and more rewarding concentration from the listener.

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pie20Saturday, July 25, 2015 at Boston Court, People Inside Electronics presented Man on a Wire, a concert of new music featuring pianist Aron Kallay.  A capacity crowd filled the Branson performance space to hear eight pieces incorporating electronics, piano, keyboards and acoustic instruments.

The first piece was Four Roses (1997) by Annie Gosfield and this was written for cello and de-tuned keyboard. Aron Kallay played the electronic keyboard and Maggie Parkins, cello. According to the program notes “Three of the cello strings are tuned conventionally, and the ‘A’ string is tuned 80 cents flat (just short of a semitone). This scordatura creates microtonal intervals between the open ‘A’ string and the normally tuned strings. The keyboards use prepared piano and piano samples, tuned to a scale that is 32 notes per octave.” This opened with stark, scratchy sounds from the cello that soon coalesced into a pleasing pizzicato groove while the keyboard added short, metallic notes that provided a good contrast. This order was then reversed, with long, sustained tones coming from the cello while the keyboard fashioned a melody from riffs of 8th notes that worked nicely against the smooth background. The cello then embarked on a slow, dreamy solo and when the keyboard entered again there was an added sense of tension that persisted through a brief revisiting of the opening theme. A sudden ending concluded the piece. Four Roses ably incorporates unconventional tuning into an engagingly listenable piece that was artfully performed.

Get Rich Quick (2009) by Ian Dicke followed. This piece is for piano and fixed media and was performed during the May, 2014 People Inside Electronics concert in Santa Monica. A new video by Katherine Guillen was commissioned for this latest performance. Get Rich Quick was written shortly after the 2008 market crash and is a playful look at the fragility of our financial system. It begins with sounds of the frenetic bidding of a trading floor and the ringing sound of a coin spinning. A loud, scary piano crash follows, and a chilling melody is heard while a shower of falling coins is seen in the video. The dark melody builds in volume and tension as fragments from 1960’s-era commercials are seen extolling the virtues of consumer debt and stock market speculation. Phrases like “Debt is part of American life!” and “Investing is easy!” are heard while visions of conspicuous consumption are seen. Images of charts and currency tables are especially vivid in parts of this new video, with movement and bright colors that dazzle the eye. The music becomes increasingly ominous as the video narration turns suddenly righteous – “Pay those bills!”, “There’s no free lunch!”, and finally “Get out of Debt.” The video concludes with more falling coins and a music box melody of Teddy Bear’s Picnic. Get Rich Quick has lost none of its relevance and the playing of Aron Kallay perfectly fit both the video and the musical message.

The next piece was The Alchemy of Everyday Things (2015) by Jason Heath and this was for piano, violin and live electronics. Originally written specifically for the Villa Aurora performance space with five channels of audio, this Boston Court version was realized in stereo. Aron Kallay was at the piano and Shalini Vijayan played violin. The piece began with a lovely sustained tone from the amplified violin that was unusually deep and rich. The piano entered, but in an unexpected way. Aron Kallay was seen to be drawing a length of fishing line – or perhaps some thin wire – across one of the lower piano strings. The sound this produced was both exotic and profound, like some ancient Asian stringed instrument. When combined with the violin, the result was calm, soothing and meditative – a wash of warm tones without need of rhythm. A high, soaring violin line added a brightness and color and this was joined by several piano notes, struck now from the keyboard, breaking the spell. The violin became more active and piano chords added a new energy and movement to this middle section. At length the sounds of water lapping at a lake shore and a soft whispering were heard, adding an element of mystery. The violin played a soft solo of low, sustained tones and soon the piano joined with more notes bowed with the wire line, returning to the serenity of the opening. The Alchemy of Everyday Things is a beautifully transcendent piece that draws a surprising elegance from very simple sounds. The playing in this performance was equal to the task, delivering a delicate, introspective quality that precisely matched the music.

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Ojai100The 69th annual Ojai Music Festival featured the West Coast premiere of Sila: The Breath of the World by John Luther Adams, staged outdoors in Libby Park as a free community event. Performers from ICE, red fish blue fish and Cal Arts – some 80 musicians in all – were placed in selected positions in the center of the park and the audience was invited to move around and among them as the piece progressed.

Sila is an Inuit concept for the spirit that animates the world and marks the second outdoor piece by John Luther Adams at Libby Park. Inuksuit was performed here in 2012 under similar circumstances and was judged a great success. Sila is perhaps a more ambitious piece in that there are more players and a more diverse orchestration. Inuksuit is a dynamic percussion piece that was spread out over the entire park. Sila has strings, horns, woodwinds and voices organized into sections, all ringed by percussion stations. Sila probably occupied a bit less than half the area of the Inuksuit installation.

Sila is also a more delicate piece – its subject matter is intangible and highly spiritual. In a recent article by Tim Greiving the composer was quoted: “My image of the piece is really quite simple, It comes up, very slowly, out of the earth, out of these very low sounds — of bass drums and double basses and bassoons and tubas. And over the course of an hour or so, it just gradually rises up through this series of harmonic clouds and goes out and rises, and blows away in the wind.”

Sila opens with a great roll of the bass drums accompanied by sustained tones from the low brass. There is a primal, elemental feel to this that increased as the bass clarinet and oboe entered. The entrance of each section of instruments, in turn, contributed more sustained tones that gradually rose and fell in volume. The early parts of Sila were heard in the lower registers, but the sounds gradually rose in pitch over the course of the one hour performance. The musicians and singers slowly rotated as they played, adding a swirling effect to the texture.


Microtones were notated in the score and the musicians were equipped with a cell phone app that helped to monitor the pitches and provide stopwatch time to mark the entrances of the various sections. There was no formal beat, but rather a series of long tones – always entering and fading – and producing a constantly changing color and texture to the sound. At times the ensemble sounded like a great sigh.

The crowd pressed in among the musicians and depending where one stood, there was a markedly different character to the listening experience. Standing near the woodwinds or voices, for example, one heard a lighter, ethereal sound while standing near the brass or percussion evoked a feeling of expansiveness and grandeur. Given its more diverse instrumentation, Sila is a much more position-sensitive experience than the percussion-driven Inuksuit.

About midway into the piece there were high trills on some of the xylophones while others were bowed and this produced a lovely mystical wash on top of the sustained pitches coming from the instruments. The soprano voices were also very effective when within earshot. The press of listeners as they moved among the players had a somewhat damping effect on the sound – especially among the higher woodwinds, strings and voices. The audience was quietly attentive and fully engaged for the entire hour. The piece gradually wound down in volume and in the final moments all that could be heard was the rushing sound of air coming from the instruments and voices. John Luther Adams was in attendance and acknowledged the sustained applause that followed.

Ojai300This performance of Sila was well matched to the Ojai Festival which, after all, is built on the idea of music outdoors. Much credit goes to the 80 musicians who had to bring off a subtle piece in the park setting and contend with microtones, stopwatches and the distractions of having their audience moving among them. The performance was successful, in part, because it involves the audience in a way that can’t be duplicated in the concert hall. Sila – and the other outdoor pieces by John Luther Adams – have added an important new dimension to the presentation of new music.



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rvh10The Dog Star 11 series of new music concerts continued on Sunday, May 31, 2015 at The Wild Beast performance space on the campus of Cal Arts. Reinier van Houdt, coming all the way from the Netherlands, was on hand to perform Green Hour, Grey Future (2014/15) by Michael Pisaro. An attentive audience sat quietly in the sun-splashed Wild Beast as the 73 minute-long work for solo piano and electronics gracefully unfolded.

The title of this piece comes from a poem by Susan Howe titled “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time.” The third section of that poem, “Taking the Forest” contains these lines:


Eve of origin Embla the eve
soft origin vat and covert

Green hour avert grey future
Summer summon out-of-bound shelter

The line “Green hour avert grey future” suggested to the composer a long, gradual transition from the vibrant green of the living present to the “grey” uncertainty of a distant future. Michael Pisaro writes: “So my idea was to take this hour for the piano and have it tilt ever so gradually from green to grey in its own particular fog-like way.”

The piece proceeds in a series of seven minute units that gradually increase in density, although in an artfully indirect manner that includes tone sequences, harmony, melody and loudness. The death of Mark Trayle, a close friend of the composer, also added a solemn dimension to the concept of transition in this work. Green Hour, Grey Future is dedicated to Reinier van Houdt and written in memory of Mark Trayle.

The piece opens with a single sustained piano note in the lower register. There is a pause, and the same note repeats twice more, followed by a longer pause. The note repeats twice again but this time with a bit less space between. After a somewhat shorter pause, the same note was repeated three times and a soft electronic matching tone was heard from the speakers. The electronic tone was sustained and smooth, although binaural beating could be heard at times – and the piano was silent.  A long stretch of silence then concluded the sequence.

The opening sections proceeded in this way, with the opening piano note or notes rising in pitch and the matching electronic tones typically increasing somewhat in volume. Soon three or more notes and were played consecutively, followed by the electronic humming and another long pause of silence. The feeling was peaceful and calm, but anticipatory – like waiting for a distant signal. The slowly unfolding patterns in these early sections worked to focus the attention of the listener, and each new sequence seemed to add another piece to an emerging picture.

Very gradually the piece increased in complexity – a chord might be heard, or there were two or more consonant electronic pitches sounding together. The number of notes from the piano increased to something like a series of short phrases and finally becoming a steady stream. The piano and electronic tones now overlapped while the tempo – although never rushed – became incrementally faster. The piano notes, now played in the middle register, began to weave around the electronic humming in the background to produce a wonderfully warm mix of melody and sustained tones.

At this point a low percussive pinging sound was heard from the speakers turning the mood noticeably darker. The piano melody also took on a disconcerting feel as the louder, percussive electronics contended for attention in the foreground. This gloominess, however, gave way as pitches in the piano and electronics rose briefly to more optimistic levels. Bell-like tones from the speakers and a light tinkling sound added a mystical feel.

Before the warmer feel could fully establish itself, however, a solitary low starting note from the piano and a sustained low humming in the electronics recalled the beginning of the piece, now with a touch of menace. The piano sequences seemed to meander and drift while a low, rough rumble from the electronics overwhelmed the texture at times. This combination continued along for several minutes with the electronics clearly predominating. In the latter sections of the piece the piano continued its quiet, uncertain melody while the sounds of running water, birds, rain drops and the roar of an overhead jet were heard from the speakers. The piano notes finally slowed, and the piece came to a close.

In the course of 70 minutes, Green Hour, Grey Future carefully unfurls its beguilingly slow transition from spare simplicity in the opening, through a warm optimism in the middle sections and into the fog of an indeterminate future at the close. The electronics and piano were nicely matched in this performance, with the colors and moods most vivid in the middle sections. Reinier van Houdt, whose cool temperament and formidable powers of concentration combine so well, played this piece to perfection. A look at the score afterwords showed the sequences of notes on the staff marked with the timing in minutes, and Reinier used a stopwatch at the keyboard to mark his way through the piece.

Reinier van Houdt was planning to stay in California for a few more days so that a recording of this piece could be made. Watch for Green Hour, Grey Future – it will be worth a listen.

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HV10The Dog Star concert series, sponsored by Cal Arts, is a Los Angeles cultural landmark that features new music in a number of venues around town over the course of some 18 days. On Saturday, May 23, 2015 the Happy Valley Band arrived from Santa Cruz to present a Dog Star concert at the Wulf along with the group Desert Magic. A standing-room crowd packed into the smallish venue for an evening of original rounds and a high-powered experimental transcription of “the Great American Songbook heard through the ear of a machine.”

Desert Magic opened and presented several pieces from their upcoming CD A Round The Sun. Alex Wand, Steven Van Betten and Logan Hone played variously guitar, percussion, saxophone and all sang vocals. All of their music is in the form of a round and draws small vignettes about everyday topics and events. Some of the lyrics heard included “blood moon selfie”, “I was born under the desert sun”, “howl at the moonlight” and “the battery in the camera died and I saw a real sunset”. There was even a a piece whose patter was built around “Dog Star” and this drew some knowing laughs from the audience. The blend of guitar and vocals had a pleasant, folk-like feel and the round form produces an engaging texture. A variety of simple percussion elements brought out the beat, and added to a pleasing groove. The singing was often in harmony and perhaps Desert Magic could have wished for better acoustics, but the audience was generally charmed by this performance. Desert Magic is releasing the music from their CD on the solstices and equinoxes of the year 2015.

The Happy Valley Band followed, comprised of piano, two violins, electric guitar, two saxophones, electric bass and drum kit – various combinations of these instruments were employed for the different pieces performed at this concert. According to the program notes “ the ensemble plays transcriptions of popular music classics, made through a process of machine listening and sound analysis.” This is a massive oversimplification – the processing of a classic pop tune involves three major stages: audio separation, pitch plus rhythm analysis and symbolic notation generation. According to David Kant’s website the process proceeds as follows: “ First, the original audio recordings are separated into individual instruments using signal processing tools. The separated instruments are then translated into raw note on and off data through pitch and amplitude analysis. Finally, the raw note data is transcribed to music notation.”  The end result is a computational rendering of what the machine has perceived within the recorded music, and this is translated into a musical score and performed for humans to hear. An excellent technical summary of the entire process appears here.

The first piece played by the Happy Valley Band was It’s a Man’s World by James Brown and is a good example of how all the processing actually sounds. It began with a frantic series of runs by the two violins, with loud entrances quickly following by the drums, bass, guitar and saxophone. The notes from the players come in sheets as an overwhelmingly complex texture, but at the same time the voice of James Brown was heard singing the familiar tune – a kind of cantus firmus that anchored the listener against the whirlwind of rapid variations. The rhythms of each instrument sounded independent – the players followed their scores using the pulse from the sung lyrics and not from a formal beat, but this only added to the originality of the sound. Not surprisingly, the pitches and harmonies always felt connected to the familiar tune, being derived from the same materials.

The drums, bass and electric guitar, especially, pushed the volume up to hard rock levels and this nicely complimented the source material. The organic complexity in the playing was reminiscent of the music of Brian Fernyhough and the use of pop classics as a starting point provided a reassuring measure of accessibility. The volume and high energy level brought a sense of spectacle that quickly captured the attention of the audience. The sheet music for each piece ran to dozens of pages, and these were tossed off the stands by the musicians and fell to the floor in great white heaps.

A number of pieces were played including You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman by Aretha Franklin, Suspicious Minds (We’re Caught In a Trap) – the Elvis standard, Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash and several others. The soulful music always worked well and Suspicious Minds was surprisingly powerful, especially the chorus where the saxophones produced an outburst worthy of Coltrane in his late free jazz period. The music seemed to come in waves, washing out over the audience in great surges like some primal force.

The Happy Valley Band has created a very appealing mix from the most unlikely elements – highly complex music played at rock band decibels and fashioned from the pop classics of the past.

The Happy Valley Band is:
Alexander Dupuis (guitar),
Conrad Harris (violin)
Pauline Kim Harris (violin)
Beau Sievers (drums)
Andrew Smith (piano)
Mustafa Walker (bass)
David Kant (saxophone and arrangement)

Special Guest: Casey Anderson (saxophone)

The Dog Star 11 concerts continue through June 2, 2015 at various venues around town.

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Pisaro15Downtown Los Angeles was the venue on Monday, May 4, 2015 for a concert by Michael Pisaro and Graham Lambkin – marking the release of their new CD, Schwarze Riesenfalter, on Erstwhile Records. A standing-room only crowd packed into the Wulf to listen to an atmospheric mix of guitar, keyboard, percussion and recordings.

The concert consisted of a single work based loosely on the text of Summer, a short poem by Georg Trakl that begins:

The twilight stills the lament
Of the cuckoo in the wood.
Deeper bows the wheat,
The red poppy.

A black storm threatens
Above the hilltop.
The ancient trill of the cricket
Dies in the field.

A recording of bird calls, some indistinct voices, and a loud piano crash began the piece, establishing a mood that was at once outdoors, dark and primal. The soft clanging of a gong was heard and the roar of a crackling campfire increased in volume along with vaguely menacing voices – it was as if some sort of ceremony was taking place deep in the wood. The voices faded and the solitary piano notes became warmer and welcoming as a sense of natural balance emerged. Graham Lambkin reached inside the piano, sounding one of the lower strings that morphed into a low groan. A sudden, sharp rapping on the piano case and some taut notes added a new layer of tension. Michael Pisaro rose from the piano bench and took up his electric guitar – a buzzing drone was heard along with a few loud pops – it was as if the instrument and the electronics were synthesizing the fire heard previously.

The piece proceeded with a sense of lurking jeopardy from the recorded voices and the scratchy sounds from Graham Lambkin’s processed violin, offset at times by a strong but calming melody in the guitar. This sense of contrast carried the piece forward – oscillating between a low, simmering anxiety and a more organic wholesomeness. At length Pisaro put down his guitar and took up the small gong, circling the performance area and filling the air with soft, contemplative sounds. Splashing water was heard and some light notes from Graham Lambkin at the piano mixed with the gong in a pleasantly airy amalgam. The recording now issued what sounded like someone walking through a thicket, and it was as if the woods were filled with benevolent spirits.

New notes from the piano shifted the mood to a decidedly darker tone and the gong was replaced with finger cymbals that added a sense of uneasiness even while maintaining a mystical feel. A low drone appeared, followed by a recording of sustained harmonica tones, some clicks and pops – all accompanied by the moaning voice. The piano, played once again by Michael Pisaro, sounded a series of somber notes and whirring sounds were heard, enhancing the darkness and mystery. This took on a dreamlike quality and the sounds of falling rain added a sense of sadness. The rain increased – a definite downpour now – as the piano continued with its sorrowful melody. The sound of wind arose in the recording and some whistling by the performers increased the palpable sense of loneliness. A recording of the piano theme previously heard was played through a tiny speaker placed center stage, and this small, ghostly sound seemed to haunt the performance space as it quietly faded away. The brief sound of footsteps in a corridor concluded this highly atmospheric and evocative work.

The playing was integrated seamlessly with the various recorded passages – and kudos to Pisaro and Lambkin who had to manage all the technology and move about on a completely darkened stage. The recordings and live playing were artfully synchronized and yet the whole seemed to be greater than the sum of the individual parts. The playing and the recordings both were necessary to complete the entire picture so vividly painted by this piece. The experience drew in and captivated the audience, who responded with sustained applause at the conclusion.

Schwarze Riesenfalter is available from Erstwhile Records. Excerpts can be heard at SoundCloud.

Photo by Ethan Swan (used with permission).

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the-wavecave2On Friday October 3, 2014 Cal Arts opened the WaveCave, a new experimental sound installation space and hosted a reunion concert by alumni on campus at the Roy O. Disney Music Hall. The WaveCave occupies a room just off the lobby of the concert hall and is intended to be a permanent venue for sound art installation. The space will be filled with Experimental Sound Practices alumni works for the Fall of 2014 with current student works premiering in 2015.

Zephyrs, a sound installation by Mark Trayle is the initial work to appear in the WaveCave and included three separate assemblies consisting of a flask of glitter, a piezoelectric disk and electronics to actuate a valve in the flask and to drive the disk with ultrasonic square waves of various frequencies. A small amount of old glitter is periodically dumped onto the discs by electronic actuation and the sound energy applied to the disk causes patterns to form, change and disappear. According to the program notes “The ultrasound waves (and their lower frequency auxiliary tones) also create patterns of varying amplitudes and frequencies in the acoustic space.” The sounds that were audible were of a very high pitch and as one moved about they could be heard only in certain locations. Watching the glitter form and reform in patterns, seemingly on its own, was a fascinating visual component and created an effective focal point for experiencing this piece.


The evening continued with a series of pieces presented in the adjacent Roy O. Disney concert hall. The first of these was Body Wave by Daniel Eaton and this was performed by Matt Barbier and Daniel Eaton, both on trombones. A series of amplified electronic tones accompanied the horns and the first of these, a low pulse, filled the hall with a warm wash of sound. At one point the combination of trombones and electronics was powerful enough to evoke a train horn and the sound seemed to move from left to right. Later in the piece it felt like being inside a large machine, immersed in the sounds and pulses of its inner workings. The combination of amplified trombones and electronics worked well together, and this was a also a tribute to the sound system.

Noctiluca Scintillans by Cooper Baker was next and this piece was realized with a series of hanging tubes, microphones and software. According to the program notes, the system consisted of “Hanging acrylic tubes containing bead chains generate acoustic impulses that trigger and control the synthetic sounds… Each tube has a contact microphone embedded in its cap, and when a tube is tapped or shaken the vibrations are transmitted to a computer running custom signal processing software.” Cooper Baker used small mallets to strike the tubes, and it was much like watching bell chimes played. Some of the tubes produced a running, liquidy sound when struck, another sounded like something from an arcade game. Still others had musical chime-like tones. Cooper Baker was able to create different moods and textures during the course of this piece by striking the tubes in various combinations – sometimes the resulting sounds were soft and lovely, other times more intense and complex. Noctiluca Scintillans is an impressive attempt to connect computer-processed sounds to a device suitable for performance.

Loud Sleep by Stephanie Smith followed and this was an ingenious mix of small motors, bells, magnets and mechanisms suspended in the air by strings from a cross bar. Then entire installation fit on a small table and microphones were used to amplify the tiny mechanical sounds. The different mechanisms were started each in turn, and went clicking merrily away, going in and out of phase with each other. The result was a charming, almost organic sound – like listening to mechanical crickets. At one point it sounded like the room was full of ticking alarm clocks, but overall this piece produced a playful feel that was complimented by the simplicity of its concept and construction.

A more dramatic work came next, COMPRESSIONOFTHECHESTCAVITYMIRACLE by Ezra Buchla. The program notes state that this piece incorporates “Gesture and sound-inducing narratives [that] collide with software-induced limitations via nonlinear functional mappings in time and harmonic space, resulting in a spectrum of shifting tensions between intimate somatic texture, crystalline tonality, abrasion and emptiness.” Mostly electronic in nature, although at times a viola played by Ezra was incorporated into the mix, the low rumbling, roaring and moans gave a convincing approximation of what it must be like inside a body cavity. A heartbeat could be distinctly heard. There was a sense of being semiconscious and the overall feel was one of a bleary melancholy. As the piece concluded the tension escalated as higher pitches joined in, culminating in a sort of slow scream. COMPRESSIONOFTHECHESTCAVITYMIRACLE certainly delivered on its title and effectively conveyed the listener to its unique point of view. Read the rest of this entry »

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oratorio10The 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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milesplayhouseThe 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.

theremin10What 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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minmax50On 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.

minmax10The 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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