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!

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