Friday, June 29, 2012

Don't Forget Your Hat

Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff
On June 24, Long Beach Opera closed their season with a production of Michael Nyman's one-act opera, The Man Who Mistook his Wife For a Hat. Based on Oliver Sacks' book of the same name (follow the links for synpsoses), the piece was produced in the Expo Building - an unassuming space in Bixby Knolls. It was my first LBO experience, so I can't say how it compared to their prior productions in that space, but the Expo Building seemed a good home for a piece of MWMHWFAH's scale.

The staging was straightforward, and, in this age of operas in the round and black-light Wagner, seemed rather conservative. That's not a negative, just an observation; the goal of the production was obviously not to provide the bombastic spectacle of LA Opera's Götterdämerung, but to compliment Nyman's rendition of Sacks' book as a primarily domestic affair.

Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff
The three characters of the piece, Dr. S, Dr. P, and Mrs. P, were portrayed by tenor John Duykers, baritone Robin Buck, and soprano Suzan Hanson respectively. I've been told that Duykers, who is probably best known for his role as Mao Tse-Tung in John Adams' Nixon In China, was actually a part of the original workshop of MWMHWFAH. The piece seemed to sit very well in Duykers' range, as he sounded rock solid throughout.

Baritone Robin Buck gave a strong singing performance as well, shining most brightly when Dr. P broke into Schumann's Ich Grolle Nicht near the midpoint of MWMHWFAH. The invocation of Schumann resonates throughout the piece, and it was clever (though not subtle) of Nyman to make it crystal clear that the Dichterliebe influence was deliberate.

While Nyman handed the baritone some meaty bits to chew, he made soprano Suzan Hanson work a bit harder for it. What was most notable about Hanson's energetic performance was her ability to navigate the larger leaps of Nyman's often angular soprano writing. Though there were plenty of legato melodies to soar on, certain sections of her part sounded intentionally non-idiomatic to portray Mrs. P's somewhat high-strung, defensive nature.

These three formidable singers were backed by the LBO Orchestra, conducted skillfuly by Benjamin Makino. Successfully weathering what sometimes seemed like an endless stream of post-minimal ostinati, the orchestra (which was semi-hidden behind the stage) could be seen occasionally turning pages for each other in a stellar show of teamwork.

Though I have a passing knowledge of Nyman's work as a film composer, I am much more familiar with his work as an author. His Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond is a well-written, well researched springboard into the experimental music tradition of the 20th century. It is curious when a composer so well-versed in experimental music writes music with such surface naïveté.

Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff
Similarly, I haven't read Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, but I have read his Musicophilia, which refers to MWMHWFAH (the book). Musicophilia is quite an informative and enjoyable read, in stark contrast to some other terribly written books about neurology and music.

MWMHWFAH ends an LBO season commendably devoted to twentieth century opera - a brave and unusual feat. Three of the five pieces were written after 1968, which is even more notable. I look forward to their upcoming season, and have some new reading for the interim.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

He Who Has Not Known Bitterness...

Last Thursday night the Partch Ensemble performed their annual summer concert at REDCAT. Partch Ensemble concerts typically end in a musical petting zoo, with half the audience on stage plunking or plucking notes on the many beautiful recreated Partch instruments that fill the REDCAT stage. Thursday's performance involved a drastically pared down ensemble, however, centered on John Schneider's recitation of Harry Partch's Bitter Music (a fascinating journal of his time in London and life as a hobo during the 1930's). At relevant junctures, his words were punctuated by piano, chromelodeon, kithara, adapted guitar, adapted viola, and various voices from the ensemble (most notably Garry Eister).

Bitter Music tells a fascinating story, brutally honest and historically unique, and the melodic flow and theatrical flair of Schneider's voice gave it a moxy reminiscent of depression era entertainers. Garry Eister's contrasting nasal vocalizations gave the pair a kind of Laurel and Hardy charm, as Eister sang and accompanied Schneider on the piano. They were also joined by pianist Richard Valitutto, Erin Barnes on kithara (her kithara performance during The Letter was particularly notable), and David Johnson on chromelodeon. 

The projections behind the performers were often engaging as well. As Schneider accompanied himself on adapted viola for By The Rivers of Babylon, Partch's unique notation for that early arrangement was displayed (the viola part written as a series of ratios). It's a simple image, but an exciting one because it is so rare. Partch's While My Heart Keeps Beating Time was given the same treatment, and it was subtly hilarious to see his credit as "Paul Pirate." Schneider's sung/spoken delivery added a narrative poignancy to the piece, supported by Valitutto's elegiac piano playing.

The performance concluded with two postludes: an audio recording of Partch reminiscing about his attempted destruction of Bitter Music, followed by a performance of a rare re-orchestration of Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California. Though slightly re-orchestrated, it is a piece as well worn as the Barstow Freeway, and the ensemble travelled it well.

Though I have poured through his Genesis of a Music, I must admit I have not read Bitter Music. My familiarity with it comes through the Extracts from Bitter Music recordings on Innova Records' Enclosures 2. I found myself favoring Schneider's radio friendly voice (you can hear him Thursdays on KPFK's Global Villageto that recording, and am curious to check out his recently released recording of the piece on Bridge Records.

Knowing about Bitter Music in advance was to my advantage, as my expectations were attuned to what was presented. From overheard intermission chatter, I discerned that some people were confused about the unusual ratio of speech to music. Had they read the REDCAT write-up of the show they would not have been surprised. If the whole Partch ouevre were an LP, Bitter Music could be considered a deep cut, albeit a profoundly rewarding one. I applaud the Partch Ensemble's bravery in programming it, and give a standing ovation for a great performance.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Nine Winds at the Blue Whale

This month, Vinnie Golia's Nine Winds Records will be celebrating it's 35th anniversary with a festival of concerts. Every Wednesday evening in June, there will be amazing shows at The Blue Whale.

The festival kicked off on 06/06 with a set by Slumgum, preceded by Vinnie Golia with strings and piano (Andrew Tholl, Eric KM Clark, and Henry Webster on violins, Natalie Brejcha on viola, Derek Stein and Aniela Perry on cello, Ingrid Lee on piano).

No matter what manifestation it takes, Vinnie's music is recognizable as a manifestation of his particular voice. With an array of wind instruments around him, he loosely directed his string ensemble through a suite of tunes sounding somewhere between Xenakis, Ornette Coleman, Bartok, and Misha Mengelberg. It is a surreal sounding ensemble - a portal to an alternate dimension where staunch classical musicians and free improvisers speak the same native language. All alumni of Vinnie's Calarts ensembles, these are the sort of string players that are totally comfortable improvising. It is a rare skill for classical instruments that a place like Calarts both attracts and develops.

Slumgum (drummer Trevor Anderies, pianist Rory Cowal, bassist Dave Tranchina, and saxophonist John Armstrong) played a solid set, full of subtle turns that kept you on your toes. As is true with most jazz sets, their first tune was definitely a warm up - a chance to wake up and stretch the legs. But once they got it moving, it was apparent that things were on the move! The second tune went into to some stellar interstellar ensemble builds before jumping into some more straight-ahead swing. It was a well-timed reprieve for both musicians and audience, offering the group a chance blow over something endlessly familiar before it metrically modulated and off we go again.

Slumgum definitely provided a full-course meal for hungry listeners, covering all the jazz food groups in a well rounded set. There were some tasty individual solos, but I personally enjoyed the ensemble playing the most. As a singular unit they were able to artfully develop solos, building to a head and culling some of what Rahsaan Roland Kirk would call bright moments.

The rest of the month includes sets by many familiar faces of the Vinnie Golia canon:

Wednesday, June 13th — Walsh Set Trio and the Gavin Templeton Quartet

Wednesday, June 20th — Daniel Rosenboom Septet and the Vinny Golia Sextet

Wednesday, June 27th — Vinny Golia Medium Ensemble

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sunday at Hotel Cafe

Looking for something to do Sunday? Come down to Hotel Cafe to see Timur and the Dime Museum, Dorian Wood, and Maesa all play!

If Abby Travis were around, it would practically be a Zoophilic Follies reunion! I'm excited.

Speaking of Zoophilic Follies, Alan Berman wrote a nice review of it on Times Quotidian. Check it out!

"That he is comfortable drawing from the whole world of music is no surprise given his musical pursuits, nor that the results are entertaining, beautiful, and interesting."

And, the album of Zoophilic Follies is still available on Bandcamp for only $5

Sunday, June 3, 2012

LA Composers Project

Walking up to Royal/T, one is confronted by a giant sign declaring that the tenet is "relocating" and that the space is available for lease. This is a big downer for contemporary music in LA, as the "cafe/shop/art space" has hosted so many captivating performances (I previously wrote about the What's Next Ensemble's performance there of pieces by Shaun Naidoo and Michael Gordon).

On Friday night, the What's Next? Ensemble presented their Los Angeles Composers Project at Royal/T. Artistic director Vimbayi Kaziboni and executive director John Stulz composer/percussionist Ben Phelps curated a concert of works by seven contemporary LA-based composers (corrected 06/04/12). The music varied wildly in style and degree of innovation, but what remained constant was the ensemble's dedication to performing every piece expertly, shining the strongest possible light on each.

The concert began with Air by UCLA composition professor, Ian KrouseAir lived up to it's name, being light and inconsequential as many famous airs are. It was Handeled(...) with apropos delicacy by flutist Michael Matsuno and harpist Charissa Barger. The duo now has a solid piece they can add to their wedding gig repertoire.

Next was A Declarative Sentence Whose Meaning Is That We Must Try Harder, by Synchronomy general director Jason Barabba. Written for bass, cello, and viola, it's baritone-heavy sound brought to mind an LP of a Bartok quartet played at a slowed-down speed. That's not to be taken as a negative, as the effect was quite nice.

Veronika Krausas' Or followed, performed beautifully by violinist Sakura Tsai. Its uncompromising repetition introduced a welcome touch of modernism to the program. A repeated small glissando was occasionally accented by a second straight tone, feeling at times like a picayune reflection on Four Organs. These meditations were segmented by the presence of occasional four string arpeggios. The direct repetition of the glissandi allowed for the listener to focus on the inherent drama and variation in each individual phrase, simple as it first seemed. By the poetics of its laser-sighted eloquence, Krausas' piece was one of my favorites on the program, along with Nick Norton's Auto Sonata Beta (mentioned below).

Emmy Award-winner Stephen Cohn's American Spring, scored for string trio and marimba, represented old-school post-Copland Americana gracefully.

After intermission, guitarist Jeff Cogan performed Diaraby, a piece that the late Shaun Naidoo wrote for Cogan's solo guitar and electronics. It is based on an old West African folk song, most famously recorded on Malian legend Ali Farke Touré's stellar album with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu (below is a video of amazing Malian singer Oumou Sangare's version). The computer-generated delays, which sounded alternately pitch-shifted, ring-modulated, and/or maybe bit-shifted, did seem to give the solo guitar the surreal air of a kora travelling through the strange land of contemporary western composition.

Tsuki No Uta by Kenji Oh began with a shakuhachi-inspired flute line, leading into a blend of Japanese and Germanic austerity - Hindemith reflected in Hirajoshi-ish tonality. Tenor Matthew Miles led an ensemble of flute, cello, guitar, and marimba through three poems from Ogura Hyakunin Isshu.

Nick Norton's Auto Sonata Beta was a perfectly surprising finale for such a dense concert. While the audience was still talking and waiting for the next piece, members of What's Next? discretely starting slipping into the space and playing a set of syncopated rhythms on repeated pitches. Violinist Sakura Tsai started in the back corner, at first unnoticed by most of the audience. She was followed by violist Paula Karolak, cellist Fred Rosselet, bass clarinetist Eric Jacobs, oboist Aki Nishiguchi, flutist Michael Matsuno, percussionist Yuri Inoo, harpist Charissa Barger, and percussionist Ben Phelps. The players spread themselves around the room, encircling the audience and playing their own version of an elongated ostinato pattern on different pitches. The piece was a tribute to 20th century for-reals minimalist composers (who used very few musical materials to create some of their koan-like works), and it vaguely reminded me of Arvo Pärt's Perpetuum Mobile (one of his early pieces before his later, more commercially viable tonal works). I think that "John Cage, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, and all those guys," would have enjoyed it.

It is exciting to have such an open-minded ensemble as What's Next? dedicated to the performance of contemporary music in LA. I look forward to hearing even more!