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Mnemonic Tricks and Devices


The Los Angeles Philharmonic's Next on Grand series continued Friday evening with three  ensembles—the Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel, Ensemble Signal led by Brad Lubman, and members of wildUp with conductor Christopher Rountree—performing, respectively, a world premiere from Steven Mackey, a revival of a turn of [this] century collaborative piece by Steve Reich and video artist Beryl Korot, and a previously unannounced al fresco percussion intervention. 

Steven Mackey's "Mnemosyne's Pool" is a five part, 45-minute whats-it (something of symphony? a touch of tone poem?) for the full orchestra, and brims with cunning musical goodness. It is not literally about the Titan Mnemosyne—a goddess of memory, lover of Zeus, mother of the Muses—nor is it about a pool, but its processes toy about with the pliable, labile, multivalent twitch and flicker of memory, and much of its musical material can be heard as waterborne and maritime. The composer's detailed program notes notwithstanding, the intricacies of the structural innards of the piece were not instantly fathomable by the ear on first listen, but the larger arcs and complementary variety of the components delivered satisfactions aplenty.

In five sections, "Pool" begins with a tolling chime and funereal chords, even a whiff of dies irae, but soon spreads into the first of its more liquid segments, turbid and glinting under threatening skies. The second section was vaguely Russian or Baltic, spiky and sprightly in the vein of early Stravinsky (think Petrushka, perhaps filtered through a mesh of Carl Nielsen strings and winds). The third and fourth segments are played without break, the former harking to American urbanism, the latter transiting from stately elegy to spartan threnody. The fifth and final section returns to watery thoughts, breeze driven under a cloudless heaven, before terracing upward to an extended boom and burst of an ending.    

WildUp drums up businessThe physical arrangements for the two halves of the concert were radically different—the full orchestral setup for the Philharmonic needed to be broken down and carted off, to be replaced by Signal's string quartet at the front, double pianos and extensive percussion at the rear, separated by a U-shaped platform for five roving singers—compelling an extra-long intermission. Enter wildUp. With the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, the ever-enterprising ensemble took to the broad empty space in front of Walt Disney Concert Hall (as well as positions across the street) to perform William Albright's 1972 "Take That" for Philharmonic attendees and passersby.

As written, "Take That" calls for four drummers managing sixteen drums. wildUp and company doubled the players and expanded the percussion battery to forty drums of all sizes, including a full dozen bass drums. With the musicians scattered over four stations around the plaza and intersection at 1st Street and Grand Avenue and a shortage of reflective surfaces, much of the sound escaped unheard up into the evening air. Still, a fine rolling and thundering was made before concertgoers returned to their places.

Steve Reich's "Three Tales" is a 2001 collaboration with video artist Beryl Korot, and falls into the category of Reich's works that are driven by the pitches and rhythms of human speech. When that technique works for Reich, as in "Different Trains," it produces profound and compelling music. When it does not work, however, the music loses its savor and interest under the dead weight of the words it tries to carry. "Three Tales," unfortunately, although performed rigorously and well by Ensemble Signal, ultimately outstayed its welcome by a fair margin, descending in its last two-thirds into a dulling and ponderous didacticism.

"Three Tales" draws on history and science, and meditates on humans, their technology, and how the two change or are changed by one another. The three events on offer are the 1937 explosion and crash of the German airship Hindenburg, the U.S. military's nuclear test detonations at Bikini Atoll in 1946, and the 1996 advent of Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned adult mammal. The Hindenburg segment is actually successful for the most part, and Beryl Korot's video constructions are particularly well-tuned as they cross-reference the vastness of the made object and the comparative smallness of its makers.

The other two "tales" succumb to self-seriousness, particularly once passages from the creation narrative in the book of Genesis begin to be interpolated, flashing on screen in follow-the-bouncing-ball sing-along fashion. Dolly appears only briefly in her concluding segment, which is more interested in trotting out interviews with now-familiar Deep Thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Marvin Minsky, and a disturbing baby robot named Kismet, to opine on the cybernetic, code-based nature of all earthly life. While the live singers and players were clear and well-balanced, the recorded voices of the interviewees tended to fly straight into the Disney Hall's notorious hostility to over-amplification. By that point, the video accompaniment had become little more than what Alfred Hitchcock famously disdained as "photographs of people talking." Better they should have left it at one tale.

Veronika Beryl Steve and Steven

Ensemble Signal, by the way, recently released a new recording of Steve Reich's Music for Eighteen Musicians, a piece that stands as a permanent and unequivocal success. The Signal version is at least as worthy of a listener's time as Reich's own original recording of the piece. Recommended, both.

Next on Grand continues tonight and Sunday afternoon; "Mnemosyne's Pool" repeats on the Sunday program, on which Ensemble Signal will return to perform David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe's 2005 "Shelter".

Photos by the blogger.

Cross-posted from Genre, I'm Only Dancing.

John Adams and the New Power Generation

LA Phil Green Umbrella - Next on Grand - Disney Hall

Before debarking each summer to the poptoned jumbotronic precincts of the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has become partial to ending its downtown Walt Disney Concert Hall seasons with a themed festival of some kind, typically focusing on music of the post-war Twentieth Century or the endless-war Twenty-First. Last year at this time, it was a deep deep plunge in to the Minimalist Jukebox; the previous year honed in on the music of [mostly] contemporary Brooklyn and environs. Now, to conclude its 2014-2015 season, the Phil offers up "Next on Grand: Contemporary Americans." Over the course of this week, the Phil is rolling out no fewer than seven world premieres, several West Coast premieres, and a handful of other still-new, and all-American, compositions. The programming still skews East, and it still skews male—more so than one would expect: the Phil is better than most at commissioning new works by women—but it is new, new, new and, based on the opening night, promises much.

The launch of Next on Grand fell officially to the orchestra's Green Umbrella series on Tuesday evening, with the subset of musicians within the orchestra who are committed to doing the contemporary repertoire, and to doing it well: the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group. Under the direction of composer-conductor John Adams, Tuesday's concert featured three brand new works, and one nearly new piece, all  from composers at or under 35. It was a rich and satisfying evening. This blogger ate it up, and it has left him thinking about ... many things, which he hopes to take up in another post shortly. For the moment, though, a report on the Tuesday evening groaning board of musical excellences:

First up, Dylan Mattingly's "Seasickness and Being (in love)". Berkeley-born in 1991, Mattingly has made his early reputation through his work at Bard College, particularly with the ensemble Contemporaneous, which has recorded a collection of his prior work, Stream of Stars. His emerging voice as a composer grows out of the elaborately accelerating verve of John Adams, but is rapidly asserting itself in its own directions If we apply the test of wanting to hear it again, "S&B(il)" is a plain success. It builds on something of a trick—a second piano in the ensemble, detuned a quarter tone lower than standard—and then makes that trick itself disappear almost immediately into the weft and weave of the piece, anchoring its patterns. It subdivides, in retrospect, into three distinct segments: an opening driven by kinetic momentum, a middle marked by chordal washes moving about from player to player, and a final extended pointillist settling down to silence. I am hopeful that someone will record it, because the piece is worth wandering about and getting lost in.

The setting of text is a difficult matter. Christopher Cerrone has demonstrated a particular talent for it, with his opera Invisible Cities, well received here in Los Angeles—not least by this blogger—in 2013. "The Things That Fall to Earth" is a song cycle for sopran0—Hila Plitmann, last seen here altogether unrestrained and commanding in Zappa's "'200 Motels'"—drawn from seven poems by Kay Ryan, sung through as an uninterrupted series. Rich, fluid, always clear of line and supportive of the plain expression of the verse while maintaining surprise, Cerrone's music alludes in passing to the likes of Copland and Ravel, and to Debussy in its vaporous support of the text, but the tenor and flow of it is ultimately his own. It passes the lean-forward test: one presses in, wanting to hear each new sound plainly so as not to miss its import. A beautiful bit of work beautifully played and sung, first among equals for the night in my estimation.

Composers, looking composed

Jacob Cooper's "Alla stagione dei fior" opened the second half and stood out as completely different from the works around it. For one thing, no live orchestra was involved. "Alla stagione dei fior" is a video piece and its sights and sounds all derive from preexisting material. The title phrase comes from La bohème: with the certain knowledge that Mimi is dying, she and Rodolfo nevertheless resolve to stay together through the winter, "until the season of flowers." Cooper combines two brief snippets from an existing video of the opera, slowed and extended almost to the point of immobility. The principal image is the tableau at Mimi's bedside at the moment of her death, the focus moving closer and closer by the tiniest of increments until not the lovers' faces but the space between those faces fills the screen. In that space, Cooper sub-imposes the moment of the title phrase from the previous act, complete with flickering subtitle, broken into sections microseconds long and jerkily reblended. The soundtrack is taken from the existing video, but is digitally stretched to a long, resonant drone. The concentration and visual near-stasis, coming to a point in Mimi's expiration, recalls Bill Viola; the drone score reinforces that concentrated attention, extending it toward endlessness. (Jacob Cooper's song cycle, Silver Threads, with Mellissa Hughes is also based in drones, albeit far warmer and more changeable. Released by Nonesuch last year, it did not receive nearly the attention it deserves, in my view. It was my second-favorite recording of 2014, and I unequivocally recommend it.)

Sean Friar's "Finding Time", with which the evening ended, could as well have been titled "now ... this", as it bounded from musical idea to idea to idea without obvious connection or transition betwixt them, like a flipbook with its images disarranged. Each fleeting thought had something to recommend it, but each tended to leave the scene before the first-time listener had an opportunity to grip it. Beginning with bursts of jazz-inflected fragments, it ranged every which way, before stopping with a sort of hiccup. I was particularly taken with a passage toward the center, in which the players settled into what emerged as a Tristan-like mystic chord as though sinking into a beanbag chair, before bounding tangentially away. Again, a piece that would be worth a repeat listen, or several, if only to begin to sort its sparkly shards. 

WDCH - Green Means Go

Next on Grand continues through the weekend with, among other things, world premieres from Steven Mackey, Philip Glass, Bryce Dessner, and Andrew Norman. 

Photos: by the blogger.

Cross-posted to Genre, I'm Only Dancing.