Meeting someone out of cyberspace can be fun. And so it was after a flurry of e- mails that San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet double bassist and composer Shinji Eshima and I met on a brisk April Sunday just before his 2pm curtain for its Balanchine Masterworks Program, to talk about his SFB commission RAkU which the company
tours to Hamburg–26-27 June, and to London’s Sadler’s Wells–19,20,23 Sept–and to DC’s Kennedy Center 13-18 December.
Eshima is immediately cordial (“You’re on time “) and leads us through the underground maze of The War Memorial Opera House until we arrive backstage where several dancers are warming up, and sees principal Damian Smith ( “You’re looking good”) who isn’t. And then we decamp to the lounge to talk about his Japan-set score for Yuri Possokhov’s RAkU, which the company debuted in February 2011 to immediate acclaim, and which I caught–the audience was spellbound–when it was revived this winter. The composer, who’s dressed in a black suit and snappy tie, speaks in a quiet, even tone about his work on RAkU.
“It’s based on the story of the monk who burned down The Temple of The Golden Pavilion in Kyoto which is the most famous temple in Japan,” and Eshima is quick to point out his Buddhist background. “My grandmother was the first ordained woman minister in America and my family was very involved in the Buddhist temple in Berkeley” The Buddhist concept of attachment, or in Eshima’s case the burning obsession of desire, drives his score, and the San Francisco Zen Center monks in the pit chant “We’re here to listen to your suffering” to the same 3-note cell–Eshima translates it as “I love here”–which expresses the desire of the monk–Pascal Molat–for the princess–Yuan Yuan Tan–who’s in love with the samurai prince–Daniel Deivson. Eshima and Iwonder if it’s possible to break free of desire and hence suffering, but musical matters are more pressing, and the composer, as I’d requested via e-mail, brings the score.
“I wanted to use the harp here, “he says, pointing to the opening bars of the “Prelude”, where it functions as both rhythm and color before darker hues are added by double basses and English horn. The sound is bare and heartbreakingly direct–the ” I love her ” cell–and any composer who goes out this far at the very beginning risks not being able to keep his audience with him for the duration. But Eshima’s instincts are right on the money, and honed no doubt by his long service in the opera pit where he’s absorbed how masters like Verdi do it. And Eshima’s sense of musical space is impeccable. “You want to give space to the performers,” he says, meaning of course the musicians, but any music theatre work has to factor in the performer on stage and off, and Eshima’s ” Warrior ” honors both with its dense bacchanal like dance in 7/8, with dramatically percussive writing not just for percussion–conch shell, non-pitched drums, timpan , bass drum, wood block, marimba, harp, piano–but also in the winds–flutes, clarinets–and brass–bass trombones. And Eshima keeps its steady met. 135 pulse interesting by spelling a 14 beat count as 4+4+4+2, and 2+2+2+2+2+2+2. Eshima’s intimate use of space is equally striking in “Kimono”–with is oboe arabesque over a string drone which suggests the piercing mixed winds in gagaku ( itals )–Japanese court music as Yuan Yuan Tan’s kimono, in a true coup de theatre, slips off her and disappears above the stage.
Eshima leads us back to the musician’s locker room to his locker plastered with photos, and takes out his Charles Plumerel 1843 double bass which figures famously in Degas’ painting The Orchestra of the Opera. He runs his finger reverently over its pen under enamel inscription, And then he plays the opening and reiterated for four minutes Eb with which Wagner began his RHEINGOLD prelude, and the connections between his RAkU “Prelude” and Wagner, are obvious. We are going into another world, and this is the key to the door.
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The 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)
It is a trusim that opera is a collaborative endeavor but it is also true that the lion’s share of the credit, or blame, for its success usually goes to the composer. We may choose to see an opera because we like a particular singer, or director, or librettist, but, for better or worse, the composer is the ultimate “owner” of the work. Nobody says John Adams and Alice Goodman’s Nixon in China, although Goodman’s libretto is essential to the piece. Few people say Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein at the Beach. The Cave is described by Wikipedia as a multimedia opera in three acts by Steve Reich to an English libretto by his wife Beryl Korot when, in fact, it is at least as much her work as his.
It seem inevitable then that Paradise Interrupted, the installation one-act opera that is headlining Spoleto this year, will become known to future generations as Huang Ruo’s Paradise Interrupted. And he deserves lots of credit.The young Chinese-born composer’s composition masterfully blends 600-year-old Kunqu, one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, with contemporary Western music to create a sound landscape that is mesmerizing and ethereal, capturing perfectly the hope, longing and ultimate resignation of The Woman (sung gloriously by Chinese opera star Qian Yi).
But, the truth is, Paradise Interrupted is mostly Jennifer Wen Ma’s opera. Wen Ma, a Chinese-born interdisciplinary visual artist conceived, directed and designed the work, as well as co-wrote the libretto. The idea came to her, she says, while she was standing beneath her own art installation called Hanging Garden in Ink, a 60-foot-long, 6-ton suspended garden made of live trees dipped in black ink , in Beijing. Suddenly she imagined the black garden as an arresting and beautiful setting for an opera.
Set against an ever changing backdrop of abstract digital images that reflect the singer’s mood shifts, the garden that greets the audience of Paradise Interrupted is an assemblage of laser-cut paper painted with black ink that is unfolded, accordian-like, and closed up again by the performers throughout the drama. The effect is that the garden appears to move in response to the singers’ voices. The effect is stunning. Eight feet in height, the garden’s stark presence creates a looming landscape that takes on a life of its own. With some many moving parts and such seemingly fragile material, the potential for a staging disaster seemed so ominous that I found myself holding my breath as if watching a tightrope walker.
The chances are good that you’ve seen Ma’s work before even if you’re not an opera goer. In 2008, she was one of the seven members on the core creative team for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, and the chief designer for visual and special effects. She won an Emmy for the US broadcast of the ceremony.
The story is drawn from Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and and Du Liniang from the famous 1598 Ming Dynasty opera The Peony Pavilion. In a dream, a woman meets her lover and searches for an unattainable ideal–a return to paradise–as a vast interactive garden grows from an empty stage in response to her voice, only to disappear as her dream ends. With few movements and gestures, Qian’s lyrical, ethereal voice carried the story, ably abetted by bass-baritone Ao Li, baritone Joo Won Kang, tenor Joseph Dennis and countertenor John Holiday, whose singing especially stood out. Conductor John Kennedy has become an important go-to guy for New Music.
If you missed it at Spoleto, you’ll have to wait for it to come to the Lincoln Center Festival next year..
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It felt kind of like a Kennedy -meets-Weird-Al Yankovich-day at the opening concert of the 2015 Wells Fargo Chamber Music series at Spoleto. Series director Geoff Nutall, who is also first violinist of the superb St. Lawrence Quartet, is just as fashion-forward as his single-named British contemporary and was in mid-Festival sartorial form. This year’s composer-in-residence Mark Applebaum, whose startling and oddly mesmerizing piece Aphasia anchored today’s program, may be the only man–white or black–in America (other then Weird Al) to still sport an Afro. Almost certainly, he is the only composer to write a piece to be performed by a florist.
Aphasia is a scary word for people my age, meaning the loss of ability to understand or express speech, caused by brain damage, like that caused by strokes. Applebaum’s Aphasia is a 9-minute piece expressly written for a “singer” to perform without making a single sound. Premiered in February 2011, it consists of hundreds of transformed vocal samples derived from the voice of professional baritone Nicholas Isherwood and set to a score of nonsense hand signals coordinated to each sound.
Based on everyday activities, the hand gestures were recorded as a written musical score, using icons with names such as “give me the money” and “Post-it Notes.” Applebaum says these gestures are intended to reflect his own fascination with “absurdity that seems to be the consequence of tedious, obsessive attention to ridiculous things.” Or, in other words, how bizarre the actions of the mundane routine of activity seem when they are examined out of context. Applebaum performed the piece himself.
While the piece was inspired by a conversation between Isherwood and Applebaum, the idea to write a piece for a mute singer with hand motions was Applebaum’s own “obsession.” He says his intention was to have Aphasia come across as a metaphor for “expressive paralysis,” something that unnerves him every time he “confronts the terror of composing a new piece.
Applebaum, who teaches at Stanford, is sometimes called “the mad scientist of music” for his extensive use of technology, and “invented and found” instruments–but his pieces are also curiously rooted in human emotions like joy, boredom, fear, despair, generously laced with Woody Allen-level angst. A zest of narcissism here, a dash of paranoia there, a couple of sprigs of self-loathing on the side. The result is work that is highly personal and curiously “music-ish.” As Applebaum likes to say the interesting question is not “is it music” but “is it interesting?” That, it certainly is.
There’s more Applebaum to come at Spoleto in the next week-and-a-half. The Bank of America Chamber Music series consists of 11 separate programs that run about 1 hour and 15 minutes, presented three times each.
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While I was in Ireland a week ago, I had the honor of speaking to composition students at the Dublin Institute of Technology Conservatory of Music & Theatre. It was a great chance to spend two hours talking about myself…
“It’s kind of odd making a powerpoint presentation about yourself,” I opened to absolutely no laughs or even smiles.
I guess starting off with a joke didn’t work afterall. It really was an honor though. It was fun to tell my story and how I approach composing. I’m always interested in how others work and (perhaps selfishly) I enjoyed discussing the music that I’ve been so lucky to write.
I presented a number of different pieces, including my masters thesis, First Flight. At approximately 13 minutes in length, First Flight was my first successful wind ensemble work. And at 13 minutes in length, it was 47 minutes shorter than the theses written by everyone sitting in front of me. “We have a requirement of at least one hour of music.”
One hour of music. That’s four times the size of my thesis. So that should mean 60 minutes of intelligent, artistic and quality music, right? This lead me to the question, does size really matter?
Ok, well if you know me you know I love Mahler. He’s the king of long-winded composition. Even when I speak of my love for Mahler, I think of specific moments I love. In the monumental 3rd symphony (being honest here), I love the final movement. That’s 30 minutes, not an hour, I could care less about the “bing, bong” part. I love all of the 10th Symphony, but technically the Adagio was the only movement finished. Ok ok ok, I love the 9th Symphony. The opening is so lush and by the time you get to the end it’s just so magical…by the time you get to the end.
Ok, let’s put Mahler to the side for a moment. What music do I love that takes at least 60 minutes to get through? Planets? Wagner? Symphonies? Daphnis & Chloe? No, I love the moments more: Jupiter, finale of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 and obviously Lever le jour, obviously. I would say an opera or musical doesn’t count in this instance because there are so many small sections that make up the whole.
Now some of you will say, “Well Tim, it takes going through the full hour long piece to recognize the importance of the moments.” Yes, you’re right. I think, or are you?
Let’s avoid discussion of how we’re “all ADHD” and can’t focus for an hour of music. My question is should we?
Remember that the requirement is for the composition to be at least 60 minutes in length. Can a composer write a concise and fully intelligent piece in 60 minutes? Yes, we have seen it in the past, (there are many great long works) but can the composer do it without meandering all over the place? Do composers need to be boasting about how big their composition is, or should we celebrate the ones with less girth that get the job done?
Downtown 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.
On Sunday, April 19, my piece Rise was premiered in Washington, DC. A collaboration with the poet Tameka Cage Conley, the work bears witness to our country’s fraught journey from Selma to Ferguson and beyond. The morning of the performance, a young Black man named Freddie Gray died of severe injuries sustained while in Baltimore City Police custody.
Last week, Chris Shiley and I recorded the Invocation that opens Rise. The same music returns in the fifth movement, called for by Dr. Cage Conley’s words: “A horn tells us, / a brother has fallen, again…” I share it with you as a lament, a prayer, and a call to action, for Freddie Gray and for Baltimore.
You can stream the track for free, and buy it for $1 or more. All proceeds go directly to the family of Freddie Gray, and will be used to cover medical and burial costs.
Click here to listen and donate. Thanks so much, and please share if you are so inclined!
All Best, Judah
P.S. For those interested, I posted some thoughts on art and activism over the course of the past week in Baltimore. You can read them here and here.
The New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy (NWS), has launched a free, online resource called Making the Right Choices: A John Cage Celebration, dedicated to the works of one of the 20th century’s most influential, innovative and provocative composers . Content for the website derives from New World Symphony’s three-day program Making the Right Choices: A John Cage Centennial Celebration (February 8-10, 2013), the most ambitious and comprehensive commemoration of the artist’s legacy mounted during the hundredth anniversary of his birth. The site, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, represents works from throughout Cage’s career, with performance videos of some of the composer’s best-known pieces as well as works that have never before been presented or documented in this way.
At the core of the online archive are videos of 12 performances and behind-the-scenes discussions of Cage’s work by Michael Tilson Thomas; Fellows of the New World Symphony; world-renowned artists including new-music vocalist Joan La Barbara, pianist Marc-André Hamelin, soprano Jessye Norman; and dancers from the New World School for the Arts in choreography by Merce Cunningham. The performances drew on the extraordinary possibilities for staging and visual enhancement made possible by the New World Symphony’s campus–the New World performances extend that process, going beyond simple documentation to become creative realizations of Cage’s work. More than 25 behind-the-scenes vignettes of rehearsals and preparations for the performances take the viewer into the process of “making the right choices,” providing musicians, educators and audiences around the world with rare access to insights and conversations between NWS’ Founder and Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas, NWS Fellows, guest artists, and John Cage experts as they approached the delicate and nuanced task of preparing Cage’s works.
Also included on the site are extended essays by John Cage and Michael Tilson Thomas; interviews with Michael Tilson Thomas, Laura Kuhn (Executive Director of the John Cage Trust), guest artists and NWS Fellows; artist biographies; links to program information for each work performed; and materials related to Cage’s activities in poetry and visual art.
“The New World Symphony’s John Cage festival was an opportunity to stretch our imaginations to the fullest,” said Michael Tilson Thomas. “Over the course of the week we came to appreciate the amazing range of his music. The diversity of his music inspired us to use all the capabilities of our ensemble and of our building to present his works in installations designed for them. The videos on the website are, in some cases, reportage of those installations. In other cases they are new video works based on the experiences of the live performances. The process of performing and interpreting his works has been a transformative experience for all of us who were involved.”
The extraordinary richness of the videos on the site is made possible by the comprehensive documentation of the works during the festival by the New World Symphony’s audio and video team. The festival and the website was funded in part by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, ensuring that the works of John Cage would be documented and made available for future generations to learn about and appreciate his contributions to the fields of music, dance and artistic thought. Documentation of the event included multiple camera and audio crews who recorded hundreds of hours of video over a two-week period, documenting every aspect of the preparation and presentation of Making the Right Choices.
Highlights of the archive include the video realization of The Seasons (1947), Dance / 4 Orchestras (1982), in which images of Cage’s drawings and compositions are layered upon the views of the musicians in performance; Cheap Imitation (1969), performed with a portion of the original and rarely seen Merce Cunningham choreography, titled “Second Hand”; and She is Asleep, Part 1 (1943), which includes images that appear to be seen from within the instruments being played. Over the next year, additional videos, interviews and materials will be added to the site.
The website is New World Symphony’s most recent accomplishment in online music education. NWS is a leader in the experimentation and development of music applications for Internet2, a high-speed, next-generation Internet, connecting more than 200 U.S. universities as well as international universities and governments. To date, NWS has connected with more than 150 institutions in over 20 countries, in order for its Fellows to receive instruction from professionals around the world, and for its Fellows to share their own knowledge with young musicians as well, providing access to classical music instruction and mentorship that they may not otherwise have access to.
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Tomorrow evening, composer and pianist Gregg Kallor will continue his stint as SubCulture’s inaugural composer-in-residence with a performance of songs that will also feature acclaimed mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala and renowned baritone Matthew Worth. The concert corresponds with a celebration of National Poetry Month and the 150th anniversary of William Butler Yeats’ birth, whose work Kallor sets in many of the songs included on the evening’s program.
Again, the performance is tomorrow, April 28, at SubCulture (45 Bleeker Street, Downstairs), and tickets are $25 in advance, $30 the day-of. Doors open at 6:30 PM and the concert begins at 7:30. More information on the program and the night’s featured artists can be found here, at SubCulture’s website.
Tomorrow’s concert marks the second showcase of Kallor’s two-year residency, which will ultimately result in five world premiere performances. The next event on Kallor’s docket as SubCulture’s composer-in-residence is later this year, in June.
Friday night, April 10, 2015 and Zipper Hall in downtown Los Angeles was the venue for a concert titled I Hold The Lion’s Paw featuring the The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet. A knowledgeable crowd gathered to hear four pieces of percussion music that included a world premiere.
The first piece on the program was Mallet Quartet (2013) by Joseph Pereira, written for two vibraphones and two marimbas. Pereira writes about this piece: “Each pitch is considered on its own as a scale, of many timbral particles waiting to be examined. For the most part the focus is on the resonances, the attacks, and the overtones. Whether it is the playing technique used or simply the natural sounds of the instrument, these can all be exposed and manipulated in different ways, depending on the register they are in.” The metallic sounds of the vibraphones and the more organic tones from the marimbas provided a rich set of contrasts and possibilities that were exploited throughout this piece. From the very first chord that came crashing down from the stage there was the immediate sense of ‘many timbral particles’ flying through the air. The feeling was like being inside a bipolar grandfather clock with metallic clangs and twinges intermingling with wooden knocks and rapping. Rapid and independent runs from each instrument added to the general cloud of sounds that alternated between a metallic, industrial hardness from the vibraphones and a more comforting, natural sound from the wooden marimbas.
There were quiet stretches and these had the feeling of being in a dark basement full of active industrial piping off in the distance. At other times the tutti crescendos that increased in tempo as well as volume produced an energetic, industrial feel – but without becoming overwhelming. A variety of mallets were used to create a series of changing effects and textures from each instrument. Joseph Pereira’s experience as principal timpanist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is embedded in the sinews of Mallet Quartet – the techniques for extracting just the right sounds and colors were masterfully scored and in this performance carefully executed.
Lullaby 5 (2013), by Nicholas Deyoe, followed and for this the stage was reconfigured with four percussion stations having, variously, marimbas, vibraphones, drums, cymbals and other assorted percussion. This began with a light tapping on a snare drum and then cymbals followed by a sharp report from a drum. Some bowed sounds were heard, a flurry of loud percussion, and then a quiet stretch. A mysterious feeling predominated in the softer spots and carried forward a growing tension that was periodically discharged by loud tutti drum rolls and cymbal crashes. The piece progressed this way with slowly rising levels of stress broken by sudden surges in volume and energy. A drum stick drawn over the surface of a cymbal was especially effective in one of the quieter places. The louder sections were vintage Deyoe, who demonstrated that he can bring his characteristic intensity and frenzy to a percussion piece. Lullaby 5 is reminiscent of Lullaby 4 – written for cello, trombone, clarinet and piano – and comprised of the same tension/release pattern heard here. Lullaby 5 is an exacting exploration of strong feelings along these same lines, proficiently expressed by the LAPQ.
The Year Before Yesterday (2013) by Shaun Naidoo was next. The program notes state that “Naidoo’s use of rhythm, form and melody creates a gorgeous and singular sound-world that truly expands the existing percussion repertoire. … This work was among the last that Naidoo completed before his early and unfortunate passing in 2013.” Scored for marimbas and vibraphones The Year Before Yesterday begins with low trills that lay down a nice bass foundation followed by a series of single notes that generate a feeling of building tension. We are walking deep into a dark forest, and the crescendos and decrescendos add a sense of adventure to the journey . There are stretches of syncopated melody that add energy and movement as well as slower sections – as if we are resting from our trek, surrounded by the sounds of the forest. The Year Before Yesterday is a marvelous sonic exploration of an unknown place, powered by percussion and our imagination.
After an intermission, the final piece of the program was the world premiere of I Hold The Lion’s Paw (2013-2014) by Andrew McIntosh. For this there were two percussion stations center stage and one each in the right and left balconies. The piece began with single notes struck on bowls at all four stations followed by chime tones. There was a sense of being surrounded by the sounds and an overall exotic feel. From time to time water was added to the bowls, raising their pitch and this became something of ritual throughout the performance. The vivid imagery and sustained sense of motion and movement evoked a kind of sojourn, as if we were walking along some strange path. At times it felt as if we had arrived at some fantastic, yet dangerous hamlet – the mix of percussion changing towards chimes, bells and cymbals – and a great flurry of sound that felt orderly and civilized. At other times it was as if we were caught outdoors in a violent storm, complete with sheets of rain and loud claps of thunder.
I Hold The Lion’s Paw is a large-scale piece and, as Andrew McIntosh quoted in the program notes: “To summarize Morton Feldman, the form of a piece of music over 20 minutes or so in length ceases to be concerned with structure and instead is about strategy. There is a point in any long piece where you lose an emotional connection to the shape as a whole, and the piece then becomes about the moment-to-moment flow of experience and memory.” If the journey was long – and it seemed as if we had circled around and revisited a place or two – the sounds were always interesting and the variety engaging. The spacing of the percussion stations between stage and balcony was used to good advantage. The coordination of each remote station – with the slight delays in sound arrival – was nicely exploited and precisely executed by LAPQ. Different stretches of the piece varied in dynamics, texture or color and the journey was enhanced by the presentation of ‘gifts’ to the listener – elements that were unexpected or the result of the placement of the different percussion stations. This piece has a certain resemblance to McIntosh’s Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure, from a recent CD; the same sense of exotic exploration comes through. I Hold The Lion’s Paw is a vast, but always interesting work that extracts the maximum from the varied percussion pieces of the ensemble, and this performance was superbly realized by the LAPQ.
The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet is:
Mallet Quartet, The Year Before Yesterday and Lullaby 5 are available from Amazon on a CD titled The Year Before Yesterday
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