On Cinco de Mayo, Art Share in Los Angeles was the venue for Music for Art Galleries, a concert of music by composer Nick Norton. The occasion was the completion of Norton’s Doctoral studies at the UC, Santa Barbara and a large crowd gathered to hear a program of no fewer than ten pieces of his music. A dozen of the top musicians in the Los Angeles new music scene were on hand to perform what proved to be an intriguing variety of original works.
The program opened with Mix Bus 09, an electronic piece that filled Art Share with a deep rumbling roar, a bit like an idling motorcycle engine mixed with static electrical discharges. The entire venue was darkened, and this served to amplify in the mind the already loud and menacing sounds. The volume increased to an overwhelming industrial level, and then tapered back down as the lights came up to begin the next piece.
Song for Justine and Richard (On a Lyric by Conor Oberst) began immediately, written for and performed by vocalist Justine Aronson and pianist Richard Valitutto. The contrast with Mix Bus 09 could not have been more pronounced as Song for Justine and Richard began with series of quiet notes in the piano followed by warm and welcoming chords. The voice joined in with strong, sustained tones that floated above, creating a lovely mix. The was a sense of the mystical mixed with the exotic, but nicely avoiding the overly sentimental. The singing, naturally, was precisely matched to the piano accompaniment and the result was a beautiful and touching piece.
Monet in Greyscale followed and this was for string quartet featuring soft, feathery trills in the viola and cello offset by long, arcing tones in the violins. An ethereal and airy sensibility predominated, even as the cello and viola phrases became increasingly active. The steady tones in the violins insured that the overall feeling was always calming and restful, and the piece coasted to its finish on a warm finishing chord. Monet in Greyscale is a remarkable mixture of the complex and the sustained, resulting in an unexpectedly restful tranquility.
Music inspired by nature followed. Quiet Harbor for flute, bass clarinet, cello and violin combined slightly discordant notes to create a settled, if solitary and remote feeling, as if coming upon a far-off anchorage after a long sea voyage. Darkly mysterious tones from the bass clarinet mixed with very high pitches in the flute and violin to create an intriguing blend that evoked just a touch of melancholy. The more active Broken River Variations for piano, violin and viola had all the movement and stridency of a rapidly flowing stream. Repeated chords in the piano with longer, sustained tones in the strings gradually tamed the roiling texture to bring a sense of direction and purpose, as the headlong rush of a stream might become the ordered flow of a small river. At the finish there was a pronounced rolling feel to the rhythms, in keeping with the character of a fully grown river. Broken River Variations is a well-crafted portrait of a watercourse as it transitions from youth to maturity.
Powerful music was next, starting with All the Wrong Notes for solo piano. Strong, declarative chords and a complex line in the higher registers opened this piece, immediately establishing a disconcerting atmosphere. A quiet stretch only amplified the anxiety by way of contrast, and a subsequent series of rapid passages quickly reinstated the tension. Loud tone clusters added a dimension of violence so that by the finish this piece could be fairly claimed as a frightening experience. Richard Valitutto’s robust yet disciplined playing contributed greatly to the dynamic impact of All the Wrong Notes.
Additional musical forces joined the piano on stage for Imitator 2, including a string quartet, flute, bass clarinet and electric bass guitar, all conducted by Brandon Rolle. An explosive tone cluster and high, nervous trills in the flute opened this piece. The other instruments soon entered, forming a sort of musical scrum, full of energy and flying in every direction. A softer section provided some respite, but this was soon interrupted by pounding chords and a loud piano crash. A sense of anxious calm was restored with a quiet piccolo solo with cello accompaniment. This provided a remarkable sense of placid optimism, making for a soothing contrast to the frantic opening. A loud scary finish only served to highlight the extraordinary emotional range captured by Imitator 2.
After the intermission, Nick Norton appeared to perform two electric guitar solos. On Geology was first, and this was a slow and sedate piece that featured the looping of languid notes into a lovely ambient wash. The amplified sounds completely filled the space with a placid fullness, yet never overwhelmed. A video by Kelly McGillicuddy, projected on the wall, was filled with pulsating crowds of cellular organisms that seemed almost alive. Barnes Ryken immediately followed, more ambient music that included recorded bells and assorted electronic sounds. This grew in power so that the volume and texture had an immersive effect, complimented by another McGillicuddy video. A repeating sequence of three guitar notes provided a nice counterpoint and acted as a focal point for the listener. Barnes Ryken ultimately achieved a compelling, otherworldly feel that was strongly impressed on the senses of hearing and sight.
The big finish to the program came in the form of Beach Song and featured all of the musicians on stage with Norton in a Hawaiian shirt playing electric guitar. The sound of an active surf poured out of the speakers as Ms. Aronson began the piece in her stylishly lyrical voice. The other instruments joined in, forming a sort of sea swell of sound against the vocal melody that was infused with a delicate pop sensibility. The volume soon increased, like waves of sound washing against the shore as the complex texture in the instruments dominated. Eventually quiet returned, and a finespun vocal solo completed the piece in a wistful cloud of nostalgia. It was the perfect ending to an evening of outstanding music and heartfelt performances.