Tag: Los Angeles

dublab — Notes from the Archipelago

NMBx dublab co-branded web header showing Jonathan Hepfer playing mallet percussion

[Ed note: Founded in 1939 by Peter Yates and Frances Mullen in their modest Rudolf Schindler-designed Silverlake home, Monday Evening Concerts (MEC) is the world’s longest-running series devoted to contemporary music. Originally envisioned as a forum for displaced European emigrés and virtuoso Hollywood studio musicians to sink their teeth into the most challenging solo and chamber music of the day (such as the works of Charles Ives, Alexander Scriabin, Erik Satie, John Cage and Béla Bartók), MEC has blossomed its way to international acclaim for its presentation of demanding, uncompromising and poetically-charged music – whether new or ancient.

For eight decades, musical history has been made at MEC, whether it was the American conducting debut of Pierre Boulez, world premieres of compositions by Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Harold Budd, the early-career performances of future classical music icons such as Michael Tilson Thomas and Marilyn Horne, or the first Los Angeles appearances of artists like Marino Formenti, the Arditti and JACK Quartets and Steve Reich and Musicians. — Alejandro Cohen]

In 2015, I arrived in Los Angeles to become the Artistic Director of Los Angeles’ celebrated contemporary music series Monday Evening Concerts. At the time, I was finishing a doctorate in the performance of contemporary music at UC-San Diego. My life as a musician (I was, and am still, a percussionist and conductor) up until that point had revolved around academic institutions and what one might call ‘music of the hardcore avant-garde.’ So, when I arrived in Los Angeles, for the first time in my adult life, I found myself suddenly in a very different intellectual environment than the ones I had been accustomed to since I was a teenager.

By and large, thankfully, I made new friends quickly. But when the subject of what I did for a living would come up in conversation, I never knew quite what to say. Stating that I directed a contemporary music series meant virtually nothing to anybody I spoke to. So, instead, I would say that I ran a classical music concert series. Realizing that this immediately fired their synapses to Mozart and Beethoven, rather than Cage and Radigue, I would ask my friends to envision the paintings in the Louvre, and then the paintings in MoMA. Once that difference clicked for them, it became much easier to describe the type of work I was involved with. (The dissolution of representational imagery in visual arts roughly matches the timeline of the dissolution of tonality and pulse in classical music.) I would say that like visual art, classical music has an aesthetic trajectory that takes it through many different movements and vogues over the decades and centuries, and that MEC was focused largely on musical works produced since the Second World War.

Amongst my new friends, what I would consistently find is that they were incredibly intelligent, curious, open and creatively brilliant. They were highly accomplished and successful photographers, directors, dancers, designers, actors, producers, etc… They didn’t necessarily know any of the reference points I would mention, but they could sense that there were intense, beautiful and urgent ideas contained therewithin. They seemed to share my hunger to find the sublime in music (that nebulous term I continue to use even though I know is taboo), whatever form that might take.

Moreover, these friends helped me realize to what degree academia had instilled a myopia in my own conception of music. As I drifted further and further from the world of graduate studies, I became less and less interested in music as a siloed art form, and more and more interested in music as an important part of the cultural fabric of its time. As a consequence, I found myself paying close attention to how my friends responded to the works I presented at MEC. Quickly, I learned a great deal about both the surface and content of the works I cared about. Further, occasionally my friends would reveal to me their own enthusiasm for a given composer that I had – in the academic sense – considered to be rather lightweight. Suddenly, I found myself listening to their music with different ears. After two decades of austerity, I discovered that, as my friend and mentor Hamza Walker might say, ‘I like ice cream too.’

Something else I discovered was that these same folks all seemed to harbor an almost instinctive respect for what I did, even if they didn’t quite understand what it was. Very often, I’d find myself on a dance floor where New Order or Rick Ross would be blaring and realizing – everyone in here has some version of the ‘I played clarinet in middle school and I loved it!’ story. Everybody I knew, it turned out, kept that part of them very closely guarded, and they remembered that era of their life with a great deal of fondness. So, this typically engendered a generosity on their end that I found both touching and surprising. I always had just assumed that nobody cared about the type of work I did except for my immediate colleagues.

I wanted to offer this playlist as an intentionally unkempt, unruly, sprawling overview of works that have made an impression on me over the past twenty-five years of research in this field. I have preserved works I loved as a teenager, works I loved as a graduate student, works I loved while I was studying in Germany, works I have learned to love in the past seven years, works I continue to investigate, and works I perhaps myself may not love, but think are nonetheless deserving of recognition.

Certain tracks you may love immediately. Some you may despise. Some may be vexing or bewildering. That’s okay! I’m with you too. This material is challenging, but like Joyce’s novels or Tarkovsky’s films, it can be incredibly rewarding. Perhaps even transcendent, euphoric, or revelatory. And not understanding this music?…Well, that’s kind of de rigueur in this neck of the woods. Don’t worry, you’re in good company.

This playlist is intended as something of an ocean. Put on your goggles and snorkel and start exploring. As Hamza might say, ‘get in, the water’s fine.’

dublab – Maddi Baird’s West Coast/Los Angeles Composers Mix

This mix illustrates the ways west coast & primarily Los Angeles based composers from the past and present experiment with timbre, tone, electronics & genre to create a distinct sound that can only be found through the geographical & natural landscape of the west coast.

maddi baird dublab / new music usa tracklist:

harmonium #1 – james tenney
solar ambience | insects – anna friz
+ – 3.33$
blood moon – cate keenan
in the night sky – maggie payne
quatre couches / flare stains – pamela z
super passiflora – galdre visions
little jimmy for two pianos and two percussion- andrew mcintosh
version 1 – r. pierre
logistical improbable structure (cave painting) – zane alexander
ritual residue – folded worlds
pinion- madalyn merkey
mourning dove – sam gendel
under lower fig tree – maya lydia
untitled (joshua tree) – maddi baird ft. blake brownyard
traces of a dream (jupi/ter recycle) – marine eyes
blues fall (live) – michael pisaro-liu & julia holter
deep hockets – deep listening band
aubade – tashi wada with yoshi wada & friends
a study in vastness – ana roxanne
magdalena – sarah davachi

Maddi Baird is a Los Angeles-based composer, sound artist, and dj using performance and installation-based works along with empirical forms of research to explore the multifaceted ways in which humans relate to themselves, each other, and the natural world. They are actively examining the connections between tone, timbre, and acoustics as a means to further explore sound behaviors in collective environments. Their work is enhanced through their role as a dj, which illuminates the intimate connections humans have with their physical bodies through sound. Working with archives of extinct and endangered sounds, they create immersive, textured soundscapes that use the evocative power of sounds to elicit “mood,” an experience that they distinguish from emotion because it is shared by both human and non-human agents. They are currently pursuing an MFA in Experimental Composition & Sound Practices with an emphasis in Integrated Media from California Institute of the Arts.

Only in Los Angeles?

It could be said that Los Angeles has conspired, by countless means and for many decades, to make itself into as hospitable an environment for new music as possible.

L.A. has had a freewheeling attitude from its inception.

L.A. has had a freewheeling attitude from its inception. As early as 1925, around the time when John Cage was about to enter Los Angeles High School, the downtown Biltmore Hotel was playing host to Henry Cowell’s “New Music Society of California,” which championed works by Carl Ruggles, Leo Ornstein, Dane Rudhyar, Arnold Schoenberg, and Edgard Varèse. By the late ’20s even the Hollywood Bowl was programming performances of  “shockingly new music” by Béla Bartók, Arthur Honegger, Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky.

In the 1930s a vibrant jazz scene coalesced around Central Avenue, fostering talents such as Charles Mingus and Buddy Collette. At the same time, as a sanctuary city for some of Europe’s most celebrated artists and intellectuals fleeing Germany and eventually Europe, scores of exiled musicians were transplanting themselves into the film industry, local orchestras, and conservatories. With people like Schoenberg, Lotte Lehmann, and Ernst Krenek came a progressive outlook that persists to this day.

The Evenings on the Roof chamber series was founded in 1939 on the Rudolph Schindler-designed rooftop of Peter and Frances Yates’s Silverlake home, renamed the Monday Evening Concerts in 1954. It’s there that Schoenberg and Stravinsky famously avoided each other. Today MEC is still thriving and presenting uncompromising programs to capacity crowds. And yet it represents just one of the many Los Angeles contemporary music success stories.

I am a transplant to L.A, having grown up in New Jersey. As a child I studied with a painstakingly thorough and patient teacher, Isabelle Sant’Ambrogio, of Bloomfield. She assigned me exercises from Old World technical treatises such as Tobias Matthay’s The Act of Touch in All Its Diversity and readings from Josef and Rosina Lhévinne’s Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, plus weekly drills from George Wedge’s Applied Harmony and Keyboard Harmony. She also gave me my first assignments in the newest music from her era: pieces by Paul Creston, Walter Piston, and, most presciently, Aeolian Harp by Henry Cowell. I came to L.A. for the prospect of UCLA and working with Aube Tzerko, a former student and assistant to Artur Schnabel whose analytical insight into scores of any era was legendary. Though it was the canonic works of the 18th through early 20th century that I focused on with him during my studies, I later sought Mr. Tzerko’s wisdom just before auditioning for Pierre Boulez’s Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain. My intention was to play just three of their required works for him: Bach’s C#-minor Fugue in five voices, the first movement of Beethoven’s Op. 111, and Ravel’s Scarbo. After a few hours on that came the question, “What else is on the list?” Only after several more hours at the piano would he let me go, only after I had made sense—for him and for myself—of the remaining audition repertoire: the opening cadenza to Boulez’s Éclat, Stockhausen’s Klavierstúcke vii, Schoenberg’s Op. 33a and b, and the third of Bartók’s Op. 18 Studies. Even more enduring for me than Mr. Tzerko’s insights into works that he had never heard before (with the exception of the Schoenberg) was his resolute quest to understand the rhetoric of music and how best to express it. I made it into a group of three finalists, but ultimately did not win the EIC job. So I stayed in L.A.

In the early ’80s I received an invitation from Monday Evening Concerts directors Lawrence Morton and Dorrance Stalvey to perform with the MEC ensemble, giving me my first professional opportunity to play new music. The engagement marks the beginnings of a lifetime dedicated to collaborating with composers and playing, then commissioning, their music. I now wonder if it may have been the pianist Leonard Stein, longtime assistant and editor to Arnold Schoenberg, who recommended me to the venerated series, since I had recently performed the Op. 19 Sechs kleine Klavierstücke for a concert he had produced at the Arnold Schoenberg Institute. If so, it would be Leonard who some decades later would come to plot a second life-changing opportunity for me and three of his other protégés in the form of the Piano Spheres concert series. More on that later.

Leonard Stein (photo by Betty Freeman)

Leonard Stein
(photo by Betty Freeman)

As much as I “took” to deciphering difficult new scores (I came of age when tonality had not yet begun its reascendence), my life’s course has been largely about Los Angeles having simply imposed its will on me. As an “extra” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for twenty years, I played beside the indomitable principal keyboard Zita Carno and effectively coincided with the tenures of team Esa-Pekka Salonen, as conductor, and Steven Stucky, as resident composer and new music advisor. Given their rather frequent programming of works that required two keyboards, this means that I was there for Witold Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 3 with Salonen in 1984 on his first visit to the orchestra. I was there to work with György Ligeti in Aventures, with Luciano Berio when he conducted Sinfonia, with Kaija Saariaho, Pierre Boulez, and John Adams every time they came to town, and on countless Green Umbrella programs. The orchestra took me on international tours, enlisted me on recordings of Lutosławski’s Third, Salonen’s L.A. Variations, and Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and engaged me as a Messiaen soloist first with Zubin Mehta and then with Pierre Boulez. These were extraordinary experiences for me as a young pianist. As I became steeped in the culture of the LA Phil, I took pride in being part of its boldly progressive ethos—and adopted it, as did the city as a whole.

My life’s course has been largely about Los Angeles having simply imposed its will on me.

The monthly salons hosted in the 1980s by the music patron Betty Freeman in her Beverly Hills home were rarefied yet wonderfully informal affairs. Surrounded by artworks of Sam Francis, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, Frank Stella, Dan Flavin, and more, young local composers would present their music, and then, after a brief interval comprising cocktails and homemade pasta, an established composer would do the same, each in conversation with the crusty late critic Alan Rich. The storied conductor, composer, pianist, and lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky reportedly did not miss a single salon, at which the likes of John Harbison, Joan La Barbara, Conlon Nancarrow, Elliott Carter, Steve Reich, Anthony Davis, John Adams, William Kraft, György Ligeti, Pierre Boulez, Witold Lutosławski, younger composers Carl Stone, Rand Steiger, Laura Karpman, and many others shared their music as they did nowhere else. As new music benefaction goes, Betty was legendary (she even funded my first commission for a piece by Mark Applebaum), and her salons cemented an enduring community of hardcore new music devotees in L.A. But she was just one of a number of generous new music lovers in this city whose patronage then and now has made big things possible.

Los Angeles continues to imprint its forward-looking ideology on unsuspecting patrons, musicians, and audiences. In recent years, the city has become even more of a mecca for composers and musicians with its well-documented status as a place where new music is created, cultivated, and embraced. I remember the Australian composer Brett Dean being stunned at walking out to address a packed Green Umbrella crowd in Walt Disney Concert Hall, saying that it was largest audience for a new music concert he had ever seen, and by far the most enthusiastic. That was 2006, and things have only gotten better.

For their current centennial season the LA Phil is presenting no fewer than 54 commissions, 58 premieres, and music by 61 living composers. Employment opportunities are still plentiful in film and TV (and now video games), and these draw diverse, multifaceted composers, while area orchestras and opera companies beyond the deeply rooted LA Phil and LA Opera fill their ranks from the local freelance pool. There is work to be had and new music to played with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Long Beach Symphony, Long Beach Opera, Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, Pasadena Symphony, New West Symphony, Pacific Symphony, Southeast Symphony, and Santa Monica Symphony. Orchestras and chamber series alike restrict their rehearsal schedules to evenings in order to accommodate the sort of musician who records a Star Wars soundtrack with John Williams by day and attends a Harrison Birtwistle rehearsal for the Jacaranda series that night.

The Santa Monica-based Jacaranda series is prominent amongst L.A.’s adventurous presenters of contemporary chamber music and draws big audiences for its imaginative programs of contemporary fare. Now in its 16th season, the fall concerts feature pianist Kathleen Supové playing music of Dylan Mattingly and the Lyris Quartet playing works by Pavel Haas, Georg Friedrich Haas, and Jörg Widmann. New music thrives as well at venues such as Monk Space, in recent initiatives such as The Industry, HEAR NOW festival, and WasteLAnd, and with the inspired programming of young ensembles wild Up, Hocket, Brightwork, Aperture Duo, and Panic Duo.

Piano Spheres, a recital series devoted to new music for the piano, was the creation of Leonard Stein, the founding director of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute. Leonard taught seminars about Schoenberg for the University of Southern California, where four new music-minded pianists—Vicki Ray, Mark Robson, Susan Svrcek, and myself—were enrolled as doctoral students. (The ASI was housed in a jewel of a modernist structure, where, especially affecting, was the replica of Schoenberg’s study, complete with piano and writing desk on which sat his bulging Rolodex.). It was the four of us whom he invited to join his new venture with the mission of exploring the far reaches of the repertoire and creating the piano literature of the future.  Leonard died in 2004, but Piano Spheres has continued on and is now celebrating its 25th season.  Our programs are as varied as we are, and by now we have presented more than 80 world or U.S. premieres and commissioned a minimum of one new work per year. For the four of us, the significance of Piano Spheres in our artistic lives, and the fulfillment it has given each of us, cannot be overstated. At this quarter-century milestone, we have a growing list of emerging pianists whom we are now welcoming to the series, as Leonard did for us.

Piano Spheres

Piano Spheres

Having spent all of my working life and more in Los Angeles, I recall that during my coming-of-age a frequent topic of conversation was the friendly feud between Los Angeles and New York for primacy in the music world. L.A. has long borne the indignity of being broadly dismissed as hopelessly uncultivated. Many continued to feel as Otto Klemperer did, who upon his 1933 arrival as the new conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic had lamented, “My God, my God, I didn’t know that such a lack of intellectuality existed.”

As the city and its musical institutions began maturing into what they are today, I recall bold new initiatives frequently responded to with a self-congratulatory “this could only happen in L.A.” By now it is accepted wisdom that L.A. is adventurous, ambitious, and generous towards new music.

By now it is accepted wisdom that L.A. is adventurous, ambitious, and generous towards new music.

The gloating has diminished. Our new music calendar is indeed full, lively, and provocative, but I doubt that this progress could have happened “only in L.A.” Let’s hope not. But luckily for L.A., the seeds were planted long ago for its eventual transformation from “cultural desert” into a target destination for composers and musicians. The word is out that L.A. can provide not just a bounty of opportunities in new music, but a city-wide sensibility that inspires its musicians to create new ones.

Whither Los Angeles: The Émigrés

For this post on new music in Los Angeles, I’d like to briefly touch on the experiences of European émigré composers in the ’30s and ’40s. As in other parts of the Los Angeles story, the filmic myth looms large, while a more fascinating reality often slips out of grasp. It’s beyond my scope to give a comprehensive history of the period. (For that I recommend Dorothy Lamb Craword’s book, A Windfall of Musicians, which I’ve referenced liberally below.) While this period is discussed quite often, I think it’s crucial to at least look at this history when thinking about our city’s current trajectory in new music.

After all, this was the period when Schoenberg and Stravinsky had rival camps dueling for musical supremacy, and it was in Schoenberg’s Hollywood home that John Cage began harmony lessons, eventually leading to his famous quote about butting his head against the wall of harmony for the rest of his life. Composers who resettled in Los Angeles included Erich Korngold, Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman, Hanns Eisler, Ernst Toch, Max Steiner, Ernst Krenek, Erich Zeisl, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and others. This was art music’s golden age of Hollywood, complete with glamorous celebrity rivalries.

Although these artistic conflicts can seem distant to us now (though for me, the image of Schoenberg yelling “I do not have syphilis!” at Thomas Mann’s wife[1] in a Brentwood market will remain ever-fresh), they were powerful cultural forces at the time. Here, Californian naiveté and blatant commercialism butted heads with European rigor and elitism. This was a collision of worlds which never fully resolved or came to an agreeable integration, reflecting some of the fundamental fragmentation of Los Angeles. In this way, the peculiar contours of LA culture have made an indelible mark upon new music as a whole.

The narrative, as it is typically conceived, is that “Hitler shook the tree, and America gathered the apples,” to paraphrase Walter Cook. That is to say, artists and intellectuals fled the imminent horrors of Nazi Germany and settled in America, enriching our culture and collaborating with other émigré artists in a kind of creative expat idyll. Not surprisingly, many composers first headed for the East Coast, hoping to avail themselves of well-supported musical institutions[2]. The Depression’s effects were still resounding, however, and eventually, many of these composers moved on to Southern California in the hopes of gaining lucrative film contracts instead.

The darkness and desperation of the political backdrop seems particularly lost in this usual telling; when walking through UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall, it’s easy to forget that this was a period of exile and fear. Many of these composers lost friends and family in Europe, and could have easily ended up in concentration camps themselves had they not managed to escape. These artists were alive and mostly well in America by the grace of immigration policies alone, which privileged intellectuals; a summer holiday this was not.


Arnold Schoenberg, Hollywood, 1947 (George Platt Lynes/Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Adding insult to injury, Hollywood was not quite the gravy train many had expected. Then, as now, film music was oddly inhospitable to the language of the contemporary concert composer, despite a rich, shared theoretical heritage. Living here, it often feels as if the fields are cousins who speak related dialects, but have little to say to one another. Although a few composers, such as Korngold and Eisler, clambered their way through the labyrinth of the Hollywood process, the majority struggled. Hollywood has its own rhythms and hierarchies, and composers are employed at the end of the creative process. As Stravinsky noted after visiting the studios for the first time, “each…is a kind of principality, with its own borders, trenches, police, cannons, machine guns, as well as its ministers for the various technical and artistic operations.”[3]

Again, Los Angeles seems a place where cultural dichotomies are magnified—in this case, the rift between mid-century American and European musical priorities. In Europe, these composers had enjoyed prestige for their intellectual achievements. In the World War II-era United States, however, movie-goers wanted respite, escapism. At the core of the matter, American commercial art’s primary concerns and values are those of the working and middle classes, while art music’s fantasies come from a lineage of aristocratic patronage, however far receded into the past. It’s easy to see how movie studios might scoff at a European artist’s claim to creative eminence, just as Europeans turned their noses up at the thought of composing in a style suitable for the masses.

In perhaps a fitting symbol for the closest these worlds ever came to true mutual assimilation, Disney’s Fantasia—many a middle-class American’s introduction to classical music—edited Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring freely, about which the composer could do nothing, having signed over complete creative control. Stravinsky wrote of the screening in 1939, “I remember someone offering me a score and, when I said I had my own, the someone saying, ‘But it is all changed,’ … It was indeed. The order of the pieces had been shuffled, and the most difficult of them eliminated—though this did not save the musical performance, which was execrable.” This is hardly the image of a cinematic gesamtkunstwerk that a European composer might have imagined.

All of this history should make an impression on us, but in our sprawl, this history seems less potent, spread thinly. In the McCarthy era, many of these artists were targeted and blacklisted; Eisler was deported for his outspoken views. In 1995, USC signed over its Schoenberg Institute archives to a Berlin foundation and renamed the building. We are still not quite sure what to do with this history.

For me, there is more than a little frustration with my own culture for not embracing these artists more fully. I have the nagging sense of missed opportunities, despite the many fruitful encounters which occurred. But maybe it wasn’t our place to fully integrate these composers into our musical culture. As Americans, we must define for ourselves the direction of our concert music, and be grateful that this creative period, with its fragmentation and disappointments, existed at all.

1. Dorothy Lamb Crawford, A Windfall of Musicians: Hitler’s Émigrés and Exiles in Southern California (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 109

2. Crawford, A Windfall of Musicians, 24.

3. Crawford, A Windfall of Musicians, 163.

2015 American Composers Forum National Composition Contest Winners Announced

Photos of Nina C. Young, Alex Temple, and William Gardiner

The 2015 ACF Winners (pictured left to right): Nina C. Young (photo by David Adamcyk), Alex Temple (photo by Marc Perlish), and William Gardiner (photo by Jiyeon Kim). Photos courtesy DotDotDotMusic.

In partnership with the Los Angeles-based new music ensemble wild Up, the American Composers Forum has announced the three winners of the 2015 American Composers Forum National Composition Contest, their fourth thus far. Student composers William Gardiner (Yale University), Alex Temple (Northwestern University), and Nina C. Young (Columbia University) have each received a cash prize of $2,500 and are putting the finishing touches on eight- to ten-minute pieces for wild Up which will be performed at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) on September 11, 2015. American Composers Forum will also host two open rehearsals with wild Up and the winners on September 10 at LA City Colleges’ Clausen Recital Hall. The three composers were chosen by the members of the ensemble from a pool of 450 applicants.

“The Forum is thrilled to connect these talented composers with the extraordinary musicians of wild Up,” said ACF President and CEO John Nuechterlein. “Similar to our previous collaborations with eighth blackbird, JACK Quartet, and So Percussion, the opportunity for composers is invaluable to their work as young professionals, and the discovery process is equally exhilarating for the performers. We’re also excited to showcase this program at REDCAT for the large and diverse community of composers and performers in Los Angeles.”

“We are so thrilled to be working with Alex Temple, Nina C. Young, and William Gardiner, three young composers with exceptional talent and crystal-clear voices,” added Chris Roundtree, artistic director and conductor of wild Up. “We found their pieces through a blind selection process in which six members of the band voted in each of a half dozen rounds of vetting. What the American Composers Forum has done in bringing us all together is incredible.”

The objective of the annual competition is to encourage creativity by student composers who are currently enrolled in graduate and undergraduate institutions in the United States. In addition to the three winners, the following composers received honorable mentions:

Josh Archibald-Seiffer (University of Washington)
Vincent Calianno (New York University)
Andrew Greenwald (Stanford University)
Tonia Ko (Cornell University)
Shih-Wei Lo (University of Washington)
Alyssa Weinberg (Curtis Institute of Music)
Katherine Young (Northwestern University)

The competition began during the 2010-11 season as the Finale National Composition Contest, partnering with the group eighth blackbird. ACF has since produced two more competitions, in tandem with the JACK Quartet (2011-12 season) and So Percussion’s Summer Institute (2013-14 season).

(—from the press release)

Killsonic: L.A.’s wild, war-painted musical incubator

It was late July of  2010, and we stood lined up in pairs just outside the lobby of the REDCAT Theater in downtown Los Angeles. I found myself constantly adjusting the bottom layer of the tattered green-black garbage bag dress that was my costume as a member of the Tongues Bloody Tongues women’s choir.  We were a wild-looking gang of women, specifically placed at the end of a long and windy procession of musicians, with our hair teased out and plastered into swoops and swirls on top of our heads, black liquid eyeliner streaked in an arc of tears from the lower lid of one eye, fashioned to look like oil. As we waited, the accordion players in front of us made jokes amongst themselves while members of the drum core twirled sticks deftly in one hand or stood quietly, waiting for the cue to move.

A friend of our troupe burst out of the lobby doors and into the REDCAT parking structure where we waited, exclaiming, “It’s sold out! They can’t fit any more people into the lobby.”  Excited chatter rose from the line. The tension between us all grew thick and the garage seemed to grow warmer.  A few of my fellow choir members checked the batteries of their bullhorns, pressing the red button in and out in a series of audible clicks.

NOW Fest #1  7/2010

In five minutes the Los Angeles-based music collective and marching band known as Killsonic (KS) was about to make its REDCAT debut, literally and sonically invading the cramped lobby with a bombastic cacophony of horns, accordions, full drum core, Amazonian war cries and amplified shrieks.  We were to make our way through the center of the crowd and divide into two lines, furies on one side and musicians on the other, and we were to engage in a full-on sound battle.  The audience could not escape, were not meant to escape. They were now both full participant and witness to this musical frenzy, showered in sound and confusion only to then be escorted into the theater space itself surrounded by both band and choir.

NOW Fest #1  7/2010

It was a moment that in many ways symbolized the creative culmination of the long-time and ever-evolving sound of the band and the city it hailed from. By the time the band had made its way to the New Original Works Festival there that July, it had grown from a little-known smallish avant-garde jazz ensemble made up of primarily music students into a sought-after 30-plus person marching band with a membership comprised of people representing all walks of life, music training, education, financial, and occupational backgrounds.

My introduction to the group happened in the early ‘00s when good friend, composer, and KS founding member Brian Walsh heard me doing vocal warm ups in between teaching students at the music store where we both taught in the San Fernando Valley.  He asked me if the sounds he had heard emanating from my studio had come from me.  Not quite sure how to interpret the question, I answered with a sheepish, “Yes, why? Was it too loud?”  Brian just smiled and asked me if I’d like to sing in a new project he was involved in.

Over a series of many Tuesday evenings we would all cram together in the living room of a small house in Highland Park and run through song after song. We endured long, sometimes agonizing breaks in between while Brian and KS founders contrabassist Michael Ibarra, drummer “Princess Frank” Luis, guitarist Minh Pham, and percussionist Dominique “Chief” Rodriguez would debate arrangements and timing.

It was during these various rehearsal cycles with KS, in all its shapes and variations, that my foundational understanding and approach to creating music was challenged and ultimately blasted apart. I realized quickly that being a part of this group was not going to lead to the makings of singer-songwriter-y stuff. I would not be singing with my guitar, and the sounds demanded of me as a vocalist would not be the gentle, soft, and harmony-laden sound so often associated with the music of Southern California.  It would instead demand growls and guttural sounds in some places, whispering and soft crooning the next. It would demand that I surrender all I knew about “verse chorus verse” and be an active creator and listener of something completely foreign to my classically trained ears and thinking. Creating the material needed for the choir’s parts in Tongues Bloody Tongues meant turning the traditional song form on its head, breaking it down, and patching it back together in a way that would create a sonic picture of a sandstorm in the desert or the call of tropical birds in the jungle. At times we were provided with only a verbal description of a feeling or landscape and other times we were introduced to the cues and symbols used in John Zorn’s game pieces. The process summoned both the beautiful and ugly from us vocally and coupled it with the ceremonial make up of  either chanteuse or madwoman, depending on the performance.

Los Angeles itself is a city of duality. At first glance one may see only the gorgeous and sprawling campus of venues such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the LA Opera atop Bunker Hill in downtown L.A. These are spaces where the classic canon of high art is performed on a regular basis. One may see that audiences for such places and repertoire is often comprised of a rather homogeneous community: older adults of a certain income bracket, education, and experience of life and art.  Yet one only has to walk a few blocks down the hill from such revered centers of culture to experience the truth and reality of downtown L.A.: an endless stream of homeless men and women sleeping in doorways and sidewalks, many bussed in and dumped from facilities and towns unable to contain or rehabilitate them.

Killsonic held the right musical pedigree to play the more refined stages of Bunker Hill, but it was from the less glamorous part of the city that the band declared itself musically. With its sinister horn parts and rapid-fire percussion, the group took to the streets and subways of downtown L.A., to those seen but unspoken of places and energies, and created music that erupted in frenzied harmonies and dissonance only to then melt into a slinky groove or Latin-infused rhythm of the neighborhoods they lived and worked in.  Killsonic at UCLA’s Royce Hall

As the band grew in popularity and exposure, it refused to change its tone and approach, instead bringing these truths into more open public spaces. The band eventually took its work right into the spaces it rebelled against: outside on the plaza of UCLA’s Royce Hall, around and through the art and sculpture of LACMA, the slick and hip art galleries on the Sunset Strip. In 2010, Killsonic marched itself straight into the audience of the black box theater of Walt Disney Concert Hall to tell a wild music tale of the history of Iraq.

Los Angeles is also a city that is easy to hide away or get lost in. The sense of community that can be found in other creative towns such as Chicago or San Francisco is much less present here.  You have to work to find your tribe, and you have to remain dedicated to sustaining and maintaining it. You have to be fierce in your creative work, because the number of people here pursuing similar endeavors is exponential and there is much audience fatigue—too many people performing in too many spaces with all the prospective audiences generally too wrapped up in the reason they moved here themselves to take time out to go see your show or play or gig or reading. That Killsonic was able to create a growing and loyal musical community and space for itself in a town where such things are difficult is truly incredible.

The performance at REDCAT signaled the beginning of the group’s dissolution. This was not because of conflict, but because over the course of its ten year history, a varied and colorful collective of musicians, composers, music educators, filmmakers, visual, and performance artists had grown in confidence and talent through the continued supportive environment of the collective itself. The time had come for its members to reinvent themselves once again, much like the ongoing reconstruction of Los Angeles itself.

El-Haru Kuroi—a trio made up of Michael A. Ibarra on bass, Eddicka Organista on vocals and guitar, and Dominique “Chief” Rodriguez on percussion—emerged around the time of Tongues Bloody Tongues performances. The group has since garnered a substantial fan base for and acclaim for itself, carrying the Mexican and African rhythms often referenced in KS music into a more intimate and guitar-based setting.

Dominique also joined up with several KS horn players and another music store colleague, Charles de Castro, to create a group called the California Feetwarmers, a musical ensemble that came together to share their mutual love of ‘20s music and bring it to a public audience. The group recently found itself walking the red carpet at the 2014 57th Annual Grammy ceremony as nominees for Best American Roots Performance on Keb Mo’s “The Old Me Better” and appearing on the BBC.

And the person responsible for bringing me into this tribe, Brian Walsh, has and continues to compose and play in a wide variety of avant-garde jazz and new music projects, most recently in the group Gnarwhallaby, the Brian Walsh Set Trio, and upcoming performances at the 2015 Hear Now Music Festival this May with Brightwork newmusic.

In terms of my own work, the aleatoric approach to creating song and sound has crept into every aspect of my creative outlets, whether it be writing lyrics for a new rock-based project or creating textural landscapes for electric and acoustic guitar.  It eventually snuck its way into my column for Acoustic Guitar magazine this past year, with a step-by-step explanation of how to write a song by chance using using backgammon dice and online random sound generators. How very curious I have been to find out what happened to the folks that read that article and took the risk to attempt it.


October Crifasi is a songwriter, musician, educator, and writer with extensive experience teaching and performing nationwide, including several years on the faculty at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and as guitar coach for projects on the Great American Country Channel (GAC), MTV, and Lifetime Networks. She is a regular columnist for Acoustic Guitar and Classical Guitar magazines and also directs a private guitar studio for girls and women in the San Fernando Valley called Girls Guitar School. In addition to music, October lives a parallel life as professional comics writer and overall nerd. She can be found online at www.rocktober.org or on Twitter @OctoberCrifasi.

There Is No Right Experience

String Quartet

“All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.”
—David Bowie, album notes, 1995

A few weeks ago I was discussing an idea for an interactive piece with a friend. The idea involved the audience making decisions about what the musicians would play next, a sort of musical “choose your own adventure.” He was intrigued, and enthusiastic, but ultimately the conversation turned to whether that was “it”—whether creative staging and presentation were the things that would come to define music for our generation. I don’t think they are because I believe the thing that defines our current musical era is that no one thing can possibly define it.

Berating the traditional ritual of classical concerts is very much in vogue today. In a recent BBC interview, composer Jonny Greenwood spoke about how the “reverence and silence with which most classical concerts are done now” has squeezed the excitement out of the musical experience. And while their music itself tends to hold up (and even succeed wildly), groups like LA’s wild Up and The Industry have built reputations largely on their breaking of—or willful, useful, and joyous ignorance of—classical boundaries.

I love creative concerts like this, be they Gnarwhallaby playing contemporary repertoire in bathrooms during parties or the elaborately choreographed, intensely personal experience of Chris Cerrone’s Invisible Cities at Union Station. The question that such events beg, however, is whether the concerts distract from the music.
While my friend, on the other hand, is happy to encourage creativity, he enjoys the traditional silence of the concert hall where you’re inherently assigned the role of listener. You know when the concert starts because the conductor walks out. You know when it ends because the performers bow. You know who the performers are, because (if you’re me) they’re probably dressed classier than you. Because everything is set, you can just sit back and focus completely on the music. There are no wild costumes or lighting or dancing or clinking drinks and clapping between (or—GASP—during!) movements to consider, just what’s being played.

Let’s call these two modes of presenting music the “traditional” and the “alternative,” and skip the discussion on how the “alternative” is actually the norm in most musical traditions outside of Western classical music. Music, for the most part, doesn’t compete with other music for an audience. Attending an alternative concert one night doesn’t stop you from attending a traditional one the next in the way that, say, buying an iPhone would stop most people from buying a Galaxy. An unplanned tangent: the elite of the tech world often have both anyway, so why don’t we who consider ourselves informed, perhaps even elite, concertgoers seem excited to take advantage of both models? We don’t have to pick a side.

Chris Cerrone’s <em>Invisible Cities</em> at Union Station

Chris Cerrone’s Invisible Cities at Union Station

Moving on, it’s clear that the concert experience affects a listener/receiver’s experience of the music, sometimes greatly. To use the Invisible Cities example again (sorry Chris, it’s an easy target for this discussion), did I hear the opera that Chris Cerrone committed to the page, or experience director Yuval Sharon’s interpretation of it? And how does Yuval’s presentation affect the work? In this case, I’m pretty sure I really, really like the music Chris wrote, but I’m not sure how much of it I heard clearly while my attention was on the dancers and the setting. The question that such an issue brings up then, in my mind, is “what is the work?” What, as an artist, am I creating? If I’m making something, shouldn’t I be clear on what that something is?
There are two answers here. One (the one that follows from Cage’s thinking, which I’m a fan of) is that the work is whatever the listener decides it is, whether consciously or unconsciously. In this case, to me, Invisible Cities is the amazing collaboration that happened at Union Station. To Yuval, it might be the score he started from. To someone purchasing the recording (which is out this week), the audio coming through their speakers is likely the work. Although the recording comes in a lovely boxed set with postcards from the opera’s setting…surely that must be considered as well. All of this leads us to being able to say that each receiver’s definition and conception of the work will be unique. And that’s awesome. That’s part of why I love experiencing art almost as much as I love making it—because experiencing it is a form of making it, via what happens in your own head as you receive it. Take that, fourth wall.

The other answer, and one I sometimes lean on for my own internal life-narrative as a composer, is that the work is what the creator intends the work to be. There may be a greater work that comes out of collaboration, presentation, reinterpretation, and so forth, but the work that I made is whole when I take my hands off of it and send it out into the world, and anything that happens to it after that is an often-positive transformation. The logical conclusion of this is that, before the 1890s, the work (from a composer’s point of view) was the score and performance. Since we now have this whole “recorded medium” thing, I believe that my work, if it happens live, is the score along with any performance coaching or performing that I’ve been involved in, and if it happens on record, everything included in the package—the mix, the album art, potentially even the performances. Obviously there are collaborators every step of the way, but when someone asks me what I’ve made, handing them a CD feels like a good answer.
Of course, that person’s speakers and room will have something to contribute, be it additional reverb or some lovely (or not very lovely) distortion. So we’re back to answer one.
It’s possible that this belief—that the listener controls the work—is the reason I enjoy writing “choose your own adventure” pieces, or works with open scoring or that are extremely open to interpretation. I’m making the relationship between art and receiver explicit. Sometimes I have something incredibly clear to say with my art. Then I use traditional, precise notation. Sometimes I have an idea that I could be excited about in many forms, or am working with performers who I know will bring things to the table that I hadn’t even considered. In those cases, I largely prefer to leave things open.

Who is to say that my interpretation is best, or that a best interpretation even exists? And why should we limit ourselves, as composers, performers, or listeners, to just one option? We’re the creative ones, right?

This is one of the rare cases where I’m excited that there’s no good answer. It means that you and I are both free to make our own.


Nick Norton
Nick Norton is a composer and guitarist from Los Angeles. He grew up playing in rock bands and formally studied composition in college at UC San Diego, then at L’ecole Normale de Musique de Paris, then in graduate school at King’s College, London, and UC Santa Barbara—and in a whole bunch of garages, studios, apartments, backyards, beaches, mountains, bars, libraries, clubs, restaurants, and deserts. The LA Times describes his music as crazy, and NewMusicBox referred to his pieces as “visceral sonic haiku” after a show in New York. Nick really liked that description. Recent projects include a commission for guitar and electronics from Worldwide Guitar Connections, new works for Gnarwhallaby and Synchromy, an orchestral arrangement of Brahms’s complete Piano Quintet in F Minor, and an album and singles with his band, Better Looking People With Superior Ideas.

Loudness Isn’t What It Used to Be: Southland Ensemble and Robert Ashley

One of the most memorable events I’ve been to this summer was Southland Ensemble’s June 8 concert featuring the music of Robert Ashley, presented by Dog Star Orchestra as part of their annual new music festival in Los Angeles. The event was hosted by Automata, a small gallery nestled in Chinatown’s Chung King Plaza, and the space was packed to capacity. There was a palpable sense of energy in the room, which felt transformed into another world for the duration of the smartly staged, almost ceremonial performance. The ensemble chose to perform their selection of Ashley’s works continuously without a break, sometimes even simultaneously. Boundaries were blurred—not just between the pieces themselves, but also between music and theater, between audience and performer, between performance and life. This confusion could have been alienating, but in the hands of these committed players, it was instead bewitchingly mysterious. It made me deeply curious about the origins of the concert and the process that led to their programming decisions, so a few days after the performance I posed a few questions to ensemble members Christine Tavolacci, Eric KM Clark, Matt Barbier, and James Klopfleisch.

The concert was bookended by Klopfleisch performing The Entrance, which calls for pennies to be carefully stacked on the keys of an organ, generating long held drones (though whether the sound is the point of the process or a byproduct is ambiguous). The piece appealed to Klopfleisch’s masochistic side—“it requires tremendous focus and is very physically taxing”—but it also had an exceedingly long possible duration, far longer than they expected the concert to last. Having the piece run continuously during the show allowed them to conceive of it as a throughline that bound the concert together. It also recontextualized the space between pieces, as Clark noticed: “I personally love replacements of silence and changes in perception. During The Wolfman, I was standing right beside the organ yet couldn’t hear it at all. As soon as The Wolfman ended, the organ came back into prominence for me. I loved that sensation.” (To me it also suggested an infinity of sound, implying tones both before and after the performance.)

In a sense, this made She Was A Visitor the true beginning of the performance. One of Ashley’s best-known works, this version featured Christine Tavolacci repeatedly intoning the titular phrase with impressive precision and consistency, while the other performers led the audience in mimicking selected sounds and phonemes from the phrase. Tavolacci found this work to be unexpectedly demanding. “In order to successfully and consistently perform the speaking part for a long period of time, I had to exclusively regard the text as a combination of musical sounds,” she explained. “It is one thing to understand a concept, and another to successfully perform it. The moment that you think that you are reciting the words is the moment that the ostinato could potentially fall apart.”


The Wolfman (1964) - James Klopfleisch Photo Credit: Eron Rauch www.eronrauch.com © Southland Ensemble 2014

The Wolfman (1964) – James Klopfleisch. Photo by Eron Rauch

If She Was A Visitor is one of Ashley’s most inviting pieces, The Wolfman is perhaps one of his most forbidding, at least by reputation. The score calls for a vocalist, in the persona of a “sinister nightclub singer,” to be amplified with feedback tuned to the size of the room, creating piercing high-pitched squeals in all but the largest spaces. Here Klopfleisch played the vocalist with appropriate levels of sleaze, while Casey Anderson ran electronics with a unique interpretation of the score. Klopfleisch said that “Casey had the most interesting take on The Wolfman—that even though it is presented as being obscenely loud, loudness is now more relative than it used to be, or rather the technological limitations of the time required the piece to be incredibly loud.” By using software to create digital feedback, Anderson was able to ameliorate the harshest sounds without diluting their power. The result was almost overwhelmingly intense but never painful, and I appreciated being able to hear an incredible amount of detail in the cascading, ever-changing waves of noise.

In Memorian Esteban Gomez (1963) - Casey Anderson (saxophone); Eric KM Clark (harmonium); Christine Tavolacci (flute). Photo Credit: Eron Rauch

In Memorian Esteban Gomez (1963) – Casey Anderson (saxophone); Eric KM Clark (harmonium); Christine Tavolacci (flute). Photo by Eron Rauch

in memoriam… ESTEBAN GOMEZ and Trios (White on White) rounded out the program. Drones were a prominent feature of both, blending effortlessly with the ongoing organ tones from The Entrance. The first Trio, with Tavolacci on flute, Anderson on alto saxophone, and Matt Barbier on trombone, was especially bracing. Barbier was particularly drawn in by this piece. “Our parts are all to be played as loud as possible, so it was challenging to find ways to do that while also making a combination of alto flute, sax, and trombone sound so all three are audible,” he admitted. “It’s a fascinating aspect of Ashley’s music—the small details don’t always seem to mesh with larger ideas at first glance, and part of the process is to find a solution in the details.”

Trios (White on White) (1963) - Matt Barbier (trombone), Casey Anderson (saxophone), Christine Tavolacci (flute). Photo Credit: Eron Rauch

Trios (White on White) (1963) – Matt Barbier (trombone), Casey Anderson (saxophone), Christine Tavolacci (flute). Photo by Eron Rauch

In the second Trio, the overlapping long tones played by Orin Hildestad (violin) and Jonathan Stehney (recorder) were intermittently interrupted with resonant junk percussion played by Klopfleisch. After all this nearly static slow burn, the third Trio was an enjoyably absurdist surprise, with Barbier giving a mini-lecture on the history of his instrument and demonstrating with musical examples. Partway through, a violinist (Eric KM Clark) and violist (Cassia Streb) emerged wearing black tie formal wear and masks to provide off-kilter musical accompaniment. Theatrically, the costuming and staging was inspired, and emblematic of the ensemble’s approach. Throughout the concert, they managed to make creative and enriching additions to Ashley’s ideas, all the while staying true to the spirit of his scores.

Trios (White on White) (1963) - Cassia Streb, Matt Barbier. Photo Credit: Eron Rauch

Trios (White on White) (1963) – Cassia Streb, Matt Barbier. Photo by Eron Rauch

All of the performed works were from Ashley’s early period in the 1960s. Tavolacci observes that while these works remain “highly influential and pivotal pieces in the canon of American experimental music,” they are rarely performed, perhaps because of their reputation for being more conceptual than musical. Southland Ensemble proved that this is anything but the case, that this is vital music that leaps off the page and takes up residence in our imaginations. Something tells me that I will be living with this music for a long time.

Trios (White on White) (1963) - Orin Hildestad and Jonathan Stehney (far left), James Klopfleisch (right). Photo Credit: Eron Rauch

Trios (White on White) (1963) – Orin Hildestad and Jonathan Stehney (far left), James Klopfleisch (right). Photo by Eron Rauch

LA: A Spring 2014 Concertgoer’s Journal, Part 1

If you’re anything like me, you feel a pang of guilt and regret whenever you miss a new music concert. This makes March and April particularly poignant months in Los Angeles, as the concert calendar becomes impossibly saturated. It was my original ambition to write about every show I make it to in March and April, but I quickly realized the foolhardiness of this ambition. I have to content myself with writing about a few highlights, which means that unfortunately I can’t write in depth about some really fantastic events I attended. But with that out of the way, here are a few concerts that made an impression on me in the past few weeks. In true social media fashion, this list is in reverse chronological order:

Maximum Minimalism (Disney Hall, April 8)

LA Phil New Music Group; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

LA Phil New Music Group; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Originally this concert was advertised with the uninspired title “Classic Reich and Premieres” and was much smaller in scope. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but at some point it became a far more interesting four-hour marathon concert featuring a giant katamari of new music ensembles, including venerable visiting groups like the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and the Calder Quartet, as well as the LA Phil’s New Music Group and local collective wild Up. This was wild Up’s first appearance at Disney Hall, and it was exciting to see the new and the established side by side like this.

Throughout, there was the feeling that this concert could have been even bigger, too. Multiple performances occurred in the lobbies during both intermissions, too many for one person to catch, and the concert was also preceded by a sensitive performance of William Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes by wild Up’s pianist Richard Valitutto.

Claire Chase, flute; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Claire Chase, flute; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Paradoxically, the Reich pieces that were the focus of the original program sometimes felt like the least essential music here. ICE flutist and director Claire Chase kicked off the program with an mesmerizing performance of Vermont Counterpoint that balanced passion and precision, but the Calder Quartet’s performance of Different Trains felt strangely inert in a live setting. ICE’s impeccable rendition of Radio Rewrite fared a little better, but there was only so much they could do with this odd, chimeric beast. Listening to this series of not-quite-arrangements of Radiohead songs, you can’t help but feel that you’d be better off mainlining pure Reich or Radiohead, instead of ingesting a diluted, homeopathic version of both.

By contrast, wild Up’s repertoire choices felt genuinely subversive, as if they were smuggled onto the program under cover of night. Julius Eastman’s Stay On It presented a more inflammatory version of minimalism, with the relentless repetition of an obnoxious eight-note motive alternating with occasional improvisational and/or aleatoric freakouts. (Brian Walsh’s saxophone blaring was both a literal and figurative high note here.) Andrew McIntosh’s Silver and White poetically dealt with subtle gradations of pitch, with microtonal glissandi partially submerged under the oceanic undulations of a quiet, restrained snare drum roll.

The two premieres commissioned by the LA Phil New Music Group and conducted by John Adams were more conventional, confident works by composers in their prime. Mark Grey’s Awake the Machine Electric was a bit like a mashup of Annie Gosfield and Tchaikovsky, with industrial sound effects juxtaposed with Romantic-sounding orchestration and thematic ideas. The resulting combination didn’t always gel, but it was still thrilling. Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) created a bewitching sonic landscape with lyrical strings and winds suspended in a shimmering haze created by long chords held by harmonicas. Sure, she’s used this technique before (e.g. in Still Life with Avalanche), but not quite like this.

Nico Muhly, piano; Andrew Tholl, violin; Shara Worden, voice; Gyan Riley, guitar; photo courtesy Mathew Imaging

Nico Muhly, piano; Andrew Tholl, violin; Shara Worden, voice; Gyan Riley, guitar; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

David Lang’s death speaks repurposes fragments of text from Franz Schubert’s songs to create a complete personification of Death, sung beguilingly by Shara Worden with accompaniment from pianist Nico Muhly, guitarist Gyan Riley, and violinist Andrew Tholl. The last movement, “I am walking,” is the most effective, with its sighing two-chord motive and haunting male backup vocals. At times during the other movements, I missed Schubert’s unfashionable melodrama, which for me at least, often implied a lecherous menace underlying Death’s comforting platitudes. Lang seems to take these platitudes at face value.

The concert concluded with a rare performance of John Adams’s American Standard, played by a supergroup conglomeration of ICE and wild Up. Two of the three movements of this early work have been withdrawn, which may be what prompted Adams to come on stage before the performance to give a half-serious disclaimer about this piece from his “radical” Haight-Ashbury days. “It’s a bit like a 25-year-old coming up to you and saying, ‘I’m your son’,” he quipped.

John Adams, Tyshawn Sorey, Andrew McIntosh, Andrew Tholl, and Chirstopher Rountree with members of ICE and wild Up; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

John Adams, Tyshawn Sorey, Andrew McIntosh, Andrew Tholl, and Chirstopher Rountree with members of ICE and wild Up; photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

That said, it was probably the most exciting performance of an Adams piece I’ve seen in years, possibly because I didn’t know what to expect. Each movement was newly arranged for the occasion with copious poetic license by a different young composer. Andrew Tholl’s arrangement of “John Philip Sousa” was a refreshingly juvenile Ivesian death march constructed from familiar patriotic melodies. Andrew McIntosh’s arrangement of “Christian Zeal and Activity” and Tyshawn Sorey’s arrangement of “Sentimentals” were more introspective and meandering. Throughout the final movement, Sorey seemed to be offering commentary on the performance from the piano, with occasional Thelonious Monkish asides and interjections. It was both puzzling and captivating.
At any rate, it was promising to see the truly collaborative nature of this final leg of the marathon, and its unpredictable mix of the radical and the traditional. As creative chair of the LA Phil, I hope Adams takes cues from his younger self more often.

WasteLAnd (Art Share, April 4)

Mark Menzies and Ashley Walters; photo by Micki Davis

Mark Menzies and Ashley Walters; photo by Micki Davis

WasteLAnd is a new concert series in LA with a strong experimental bent, and their April concert showcased extremes of texture both brutal and delicate. Nina C. Young’s violin and cello duo Meditation, performed by Mark Menzies and Ashley Walters, presented a kind of dialogue between scratchy, aggressive playing and more contemplative moments of repose. Brian Griffeath-Loeb’s …on par with grass & twigs, for three different flutes, prepared piano, and two percussionists, conveyed a fascinating, palpable sense of fragility, as conducted by Nicholas Deyoe with great attention to detail. Christine Tavolacci (C flute), Michael Matsuno (alto flute), and Rachel Beetz (bass flute) produced breathy, almost strangled-sounding tones, with sparse, judicious accompaniment from Steve Lewis (piano), Ryan Nestor (percussion), and Steve Solook (percussion). Fernanda Aoki Navarro’s Emptying the Body featured cellist Derek Stein savagely attacking his soundboard, generating powerful percussive effects and propulsive rhythmic activity.

Each of these pieces were extraordinarily successful at creating and exploring unique soundworlds, but once the limits of these worlds were established, I found my attention drifting at times. I longed for something more overtly teleological or developmental, but maybe this is just an aesthetic preference or limitation on my part.

Mark Menzies’s two songs from his cycle 11 elegies and a love song occupied an unusual place on the program. “two deaths” especially felt like an anomaly, with baritone Ian Walker singing melodiously over a gentle undulating electric guitar riff (played by Nicholas Deyoe) and occasional violin asides from Menzies. “18” felt like a return to form, with Walker’s voice stubbornly, obsessively reiterating a single high note while Menzies’s and Deyoe’s figures created frantic and furious activity all around it. This was riveting.

The last two pieces on the program finally united their extreme soundworlds with the sense of movement and change I craved. Kurt Isaacson’s the way of all flesh for solo double bass, here premiered by Scott Worthington, featured seesawing ostinati that slowly, satisfyingly built in intensity. Worthington’s control over this gradual process was masterful, and transfixing. Finally, Nicholas Deyoe’s Erstickend for two cellos and percussion, another premiere, spun an intricate web of epic proportions out of a skittering three-note motive. Ashley Walters and Derek Stein infused their cello parts with the requisite ferocity, while percussionist Ryan Nestor’s rhythmic interjections added even more tension. The piece concludes with a violent crescendo and snare drum roll — would it be churlish to point out the orthodox effectiveness of this ending?

JacobTV (What’s Next Ensemble, March 28)

JacobTV with What's Next Ensemble; photo by Tina Tallon

JacobTV with What’s Next Ensemble; photo by Tina Tallon

What’s Next Ensemble is perhaps best known for the Los Angeles Composers Project, an annual concert series championing the work of local Southern California denizens. Their last event, however, was an ambitious departure for them, a concert at Cafe Club Fais Do-Do devoted entirely to the music of Dutch avant-pop icon Jacob Ter Veldhuis, a.k.a. JacobTV. JacobTV’s sardonic pop aesthetic occupies a unique place in the current landscape of new music, getting lots of mileage out of marrying clips of recorded speech with acoustic musical accompaniment/counterpoint. Certainly he’s not the first or only composer to employ speech for its musical qualities — Peter Ablinger and Steve Reich come to mind — but no one, so far, has managed to do it in such a topical and witty way. The unpredictability of his subject matter, for one thing, keeps it fresh. Cheese Cake features the ramblings of tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon introducing a Carnegie Hall concert, for example, while Grab It! cuts up candid interviews with convicts from the 1978 documentary Scared Straight!

The main draw of this concert, though, was definitely The News, his ongoing “reality opera” that is constantly being added to as current events march on. The News also incorporates video (compiled and edited by JacobTV himself, I hear), and there are wonderful moments when all the multimedia elements came together in a seamless, joyful way, as when a cartoonish evangelical preacher waves his arms about on screen in a panoply of Warholian windows while the ensemble funkily amplifies the absurdity of his words. This tends to work best with lighthearted subjects, and moments that aimed for more gravitas sometimes felt awkwardly mawkish, like the saccharine chords that accompanied a speech about peace by Pope Benedict. The exception to this was a segment devoted to an American ex-soldier’s account of an accidental killing in Iraq. Here the music followed the cadence of the ex-soldier’s powerful words precisely, amplifying them instead of commenting on them: in effect, letting them speak for themselves.

The musicians of What’s Next, led by the unflappable baton of Vimbayi Kaziboni, were downright fantastic in realizing JacobTV’s artistic vision, riding through a couple technical issues and an earthquake (both of which I’ve come to expect lately) with professionalism and aplomb. Ben Phelps, one of the ensemble’s directors, also deserves credit for producing the concert in the first place.

Collapse (Timur and the Dime Museum, March 27)

Timur and the Dime Museum; photo by Tina Tallon

Timur and the Dime Museum; photo by Tina Tallon

Like JacobTV’s music, Timur and the Dime Museum’s Collapse also takes on a newsworthy topic — this time, environmental devastation. This album-length work, presented at Disney Hall’s REDCAT, is loosely patterned after a requiem. These factors make it sound like it could be a dour and dreary affair, but Daniel Corral, the Dime Museum’s accordionist and composer-in-residence, takes an inspired, unexpected approach, turning the whole thing into a psychedelic rock opera of sorts, with catchy hooks, doo-wop harmonies, and a pantheon of stylistic references. This spoonful-of-sugar tactic works wonders for the show, which is more likely to generate delight than despair. I almost feel guilty for enjoying it.

Timur Bekbosonuv, a tenor equally accomplished in both pop and operatic idioms, was captivating as the lead vocalist, generating metric tonnes of charisma and stage presence throughout a variety of costume changes, including a half-dress-half-pantsuit number that deserves special mention (designed by Victor Wilde and the Bohemian Society). But most members of the band got some time at the mic too, and Corral’s score made the most of the myriad vocal qualities in the group. A highlight was the sweet ballad “Honeybee, Come Home,” sung with appropriate naivete by bassist Dave Tranchina.

But the score had its darker moments, too. “The House of Moloch” begins with a deliciously gritty riff from guitarist Matthew Setzer, and if you had told me it was a recently unearthed Diamond Dogs-era David Bowie B-side, I might have believed you. The beginning of the Dies Irae, titled “Demon Chora,” also caught my attention with its moody synths and ominous female voiceover, reciting text taken from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s INES scale. And throughout the show, drummer Andrew Lessman provided the endless, vital engine underneath it all, a constant powerful presence outside of the spotlight.

Vicki Ray Reflects on 20 Years of Piano Spheres

Vicki Ray

Vicki Ray

“I believe in composers,” Vicki Ray tells me. This is exactly the kind of thing that could sound like an empty platitude, but she says it with undeniable conviction—and with the track record to back it up, too. Along with Gloria Cheng, Mark Robson, and Susan Svercek, Ray is one of four pianists involved with the Piano Spheres concert series, a Los Angeles institution that is now celebrating its 20th anniversary. Over the years, Piano Spheres has presented 73 premieres (48 of them world premieres), and commissioned 19 pieces through the Leonard Stein Memorial Fund. According to Ray, however, the actual number of commissions associated with the series is harder to pin down, since “sometimes other institutions like CalArts help out, and sometimes I just pay for it out of my own pocket.” (Because she believes in composers.)

Of course Piano Spheres programs older music, too—that is, contemporary music that is no longer contemporary, until we have a better term for this kind of thing. Mark Robson’s recent concert on February 11 covered a remarkable swath of music from the 20th and 21st centuries, including everything from extremely delicate pieces by Beat Furrer, Toru Takemitsu, and Olivier Messiaen, to thorny fingerbusters by Charles Ives and Thomas Adès, whose Concert Paraphrase on “Powder Her Face” sounded something like a diabolical tango buried under layers of dense counterpoint and Lisztian shrapnel.

Mark Robson in performance

Mark Robson in performance

Ray’s upcoming program on March 18, by contrast, is solely grounded in the present. She will play several recent works by living composers, including Hoyt-Schermerhorn by Invisible Cities composer Christopher Cerrone, Six Settings for Solo Piano by local composer and LA Phil percussionist Joseph Pereira, and Donnacha Dennehy’s Stainless Staining. She’s particularly excited to play Dennehy’s music, which doesn’t get a lot of performances on the West Coast, she says.

Ray will also play the winning piece from their spring 2013 audience poll, a new initiative created for Piano Spheres’ 20th season. This poll allowed the audience to vote for one piece from a shortlist of pieces from the last twenty years for each pianist to perform again. When the audience voted for Ray’s own composition, The Waking, her reaction was one of incredulity. “I was shocked, stunned… I swear I didn’t stuff the ballot box!”

This modesty carries over into Ray’s account of how she first became involved in Piano Spheres, the brainchild of musicologist and pianist Leonard Stein. “I had just finished my doctorate, and Leonard just called me up one day and asked me to be a part of it.” She attributes much of Piano Spheres’ early success to the respect and “street cred” that Stein carried within the new music community. (At the time, Stein was also the music director of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC, which did much to promote Schoenberg’s music and legacy in Los Angeles.)

Ray with Morton Subotnick and Leonard Stein

Ray with Morton Subotnick and Leonard Stein.

But even with Stein’s participation, Piano Spheres was a risky proposition at first, with the LA new music community being much smaller in those days. Ray vividly describes how things have changed in the past 20 years:

Back then, it was basically the [California] EAR Unit and Xtet in town, and those were the two main new music groups, and then there was the [LA Phil’s] Green Umbrella series, but there wasn’t that much going on, certainly not the unbelievable plethora of small venues that you see here everywhere today. There are so many new groups right now—for example, there’s Gnarwhallaby, and What’s Next Ensemble, and the Hear Now Festival, and all the stuff at Monk Space, and People Inside Electronics, and DC8—and that’s just a drop in the bucket. It just feels like the community’s grown, and it’s more vibrant, and it’s less dependent on big venues and established theories. There’s a lot more self-producing going on.

Part of that vibrancy is certainly due to pioneering groups like Piano Spheres, which started out with a similar DIY spirit. “When we first started out we didn’t have a board, we were just licking stamps and self-producing our own concerts,” Ray recalls. The series started out at the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church of Pasadena, but their audiences quickly outgrew the space, and they soon moved to the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, where they continue to host concerts today.

Piano Spheres

Piano Spheres (l to r) Mark Robson, Gloria Cheng, Leonard Stein, Vicki Ray, and Susan Svercek.
Photo by Betty Freeman.

Stein passed away in 2004, just before the series’ 10th anniversary, but by then it had enough structure and momentum to sustain itself. “As word got out, we started to get a lot of solicitations from pianists from all over the world, because there’s really no other series like this.” This allowed the series to host a rotating cast of guest artists from all over the world, a long list that includes Thomas Adès, Kathleen Supové, Christopher O’Riley, Ursula Oppens, Eric Huebner, Joanne Pearce Martin, and Liam Viney.
But as Ray says, “Leonard’s original mission was to showcase pianists from Los Angeles, so that has always been part of the mission. Our main new venture we’re starting is this Satellite Series, where we’re showcasing four younger pianists also from the Los Angeles area. We feel like we want to pass on the legacy that Leonard left us to the next generation.” The inaugural run of the Satellite Series will commence in 2015 with Steven Vanhauwaert, Richard Valitutto, Aron Kallay, and Nic Gerpe as the featured performers.

As for Ray, she has an eclectic range of things to keep her busy in the meantime. Her other performances in the past month have included a gig with jazz composer-improviser Wadada Leo Smith in Mexico City, and a performance with Aron Kallay as the Ray-Kallay Duo at the MicroFest Records Release Party, celebrating the album release of John Cage’s Ten Thousand Things, which earned Ray a Grammy nomination this past year.

When she goes on sabbatical from teaching at CalArts next year, Ray has a few other ideas for things in the works—“I can’t seem to stop starting projects,” she admits. She wants to get back into composing more, and dreams of commissioning a prepared piano concerto from John Luther Adams. She also hopes to start a new local concert series for art song, which would bring her closer to her classical roots as a performer, which she feels often gets overlooked:

You do get pigeonholed…I used to do tons of lieder recitals and traditional chamber music, but people tend to think of you one way, and what can you do? But they inform each other, so you want to keep your traditional sensibility, and your historical link to the past. When I was a student I did standard rep all the time. Now I think if it’s a great piece and I want to play it, I don’t care when it was written.