Wednesday, February 26, 2014

REVIEW: Mark Robson at Pianospheres, 2/11/14

On February 11, I went to hear Mark Robson's Pianospheres performance at Zipper Hall. The concert, titled "By Request," was part of Pianospheres' 20th anniversary season dedicated to founder Leonard Stein.

I associate a concert title like "By Request" with pops music, which I will usually run from at a quickening pace. But when those requests come from the open, informed ears of the Pianospheres audience, the resulting program is an exciting one full of heavy-hitting 20th century piano music.

The concert began with a robust presentation of the clever harmonic extensions of Stravinsky's Sérénade en la. This was contrasted by the delicate post-Feldman clouds of Beat Furrer's Voicelessness: The snow has no voice. I had never heard Furrer's music, so this was a wonderful surprise. After that was Ives' Some South-paw Pitching, Ligeti's White on White, and Maurice Ohana's Contrepoints libres. These three fantastic pieces, each full of their respective composer's musical personality, all ended in deliberately odd cadences, which Robson treated with an appropriately wry dismissal.

After intermission was Messiaen's typically exquisite L'Alouette lulu, Takemitsu's Raintree Sketch II, selections from Kurtág's Játékok, and Ades' concert paraphrase on Powder Her Face. I've heard quite a bit about Powder Her Face, but haven't actually heard the opera. This performance reminded me how much I really should hear the whole thing. Ades' extravagant suite was an exciting way to end the evening. It was both as an impressive performative feat and as a sweetly saturated barrage of musical ideas that it would be hard to follow with anything else.

The technical and expressive breadth of Mark Robson's playing is widely agreed upon - sometimes fantastically delicate, other times aggressive and sinewy. However, my favorite aspect of the concert was the programming. So many great pieces by some of my favorite 20th century composers were on this concert, it was almost overwhelming. Many chamber music concerts might sneak in one or two of these pieces, but this concert was like having the extraneous weight lifted to focus on the best parts.

The next Pianospheres concert will be Vicki Ray on March 18. She will play music by Cerrone, Pereira, Denneby, an arrangement of one of Aperghis' Recitations, and some of her own compositions.

Monday, February 17, 2014

No Notations this week / Border Towns

There'll be no Notations this week, as it's a busy week for me.

However, I want to say that I'm happy that Sequenza 21 wrote something about Nick Brooke's Border Towns. I've been meaning to write something about that album for a while, but haven't been able to get to it.

I am a sucker for any music about which I can coin a term like "post-plunderphonicism." It is a sign that the North American continent is finally starting to catch up with where artists like John Oswald, Christian Marclay, or Vicki Bennett were in the 90's. Flash-in-the-pan Ableton-eers like Girl Talk exist in the mass public sphere to clear the path for music like this.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

REVIEW: Percussion, Justly Tuned 02/04

An indirect light from the LaMonte Young solar system has been shining on LA in the last month. On January 12, SASSAS presented Konrad Sprenger and his mechanical guitar, playing a piece reminiscent of his work with Arnold Dreyblatt (a former student of Young's and one of my favorite composers). On January 25, Nicholas Isherwood and Vox Nova performed StimmungStockhausen's Young-inspired piece, at Jacaranda. And, on February 4, REDCAT presented Percussion, Justly Tuned, an evening of drones, close mic'd drums, and laptops featuring pieces by Ulrich Krieger, Brian Chase, and John Colpitts.

Percussion, Justly Tuned started with the world premiere of Ulrich Krieger's Móðsignors Hämmer, for percussion quartet and electronics. It was performed by Amy Knoles, Joshua Carro, Michael Day, Elliot Glasser, Scott Cazan, and John Baffa. This mesmerizing textural piece conjured up a whole slew of associations: sometimes recalling Tenney's MaxiMusic, John Luther Adams' Qilyaun, Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, or a futuristic/cro-magnon Kraftwerk. Close mic'd drums and cymbals were activated with hands, sticks, mallets, and bows, sending signals to be computer-processed and re-directed to the audience. In December I saw Ulrich's Fathom quartet perform at Pieter Performance Space, and attendance was much sparser. It was nice to see this piece reaching a relatively larger audience.

Brian Chase's Drums and Drones came after an intermission. I had a lot to say about it. However, I edited most of it out at the last minute, because I don't want to disparage musicians who are trying things that are obviously outside of their comfort zone. The path is noble, but has not yet been travelled to the same distance as Krieger or Colpitt. Ursula Scherrer's live video was quite nice - ALMOST distracting enough.

After a second intermission, John Colpitts' Ur Eternity came on like a mixture of an un-quantized Drumming and The Boredoms' BoaDrum performances. The musicians were arranged in rows facing each other, like Drumming, with 2 double-kick drummers and electric bassists in the back. The percussionists played single stroke rolls (like a timpani roll), two players per drum. Beginning with one pair of drummers, a single drum was gradually added, until the two electric bassists and the double-kick drummers added the final layer. This incredible wall of sound was held for an Olympian length of time before stopping abruptly in true minimalism-proper style. It was a really great piece, and the perfect way to end the evening.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Notations 25: LeBaron and Wambsgans

Here's the twenty-fifth installment of Notations! Inspired by Cage's 1969 bookNotations is a collection of graphic scores, hand drawn music calligraphy, computer code, compositional sketches, text scores, and other innovative forms of musical notation.

Every Monday we'll showcase notation by two different composers (Tuesday this week...), primarily focusing on those local to Los Angeles. This week's composers are Anne LeBaron and Colin Wambsgans. All images are used with permission, and copyright is retained by each piece's respective creator. Click on the images to see a larger view.

from Planxty Bowerbird by Anne LeBaron

Anne LeBaron’s compositions embrace an exotic array of subjects encompassing vast reaches of space and time, ranging from the mysterious Singing Dune of Kazakhstan, to probes into physical and cultural forms of extinction, to legendary figures such as Pope Joan, Eurydice, Marie Laveau, and the American Housewife. Widely recognized for her work in instrumental, electronic, and performance realms, she has earned numerous awards and prizes, including a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the Alpert Award in the Arts, a Fulbright Full Fellowship, an award from the Rockefeller MAP Fund for her opera, Sucktion, and a 2009-2010 Cultural Exchange International Grant from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs for The Silent Steppe Cantata. Also an accomplished harpist, LeBaron is renowned for her pioneering methods of developing and implementing extended harp techniques, electronic enhancements, and notation in compositional and improvisational contexts. She currently teaches composition and related subjects, such as Concert Theater and HyperOpera, at the California Institute of the Arts.

More info at

55 things by Colin Wambsgans

Colin Wambsgans was born in New Orleans, and grew up playing jazz piano. Currently, he composes music for electronics and assorted ensembles. His work explores the interactions of memory, translation, and timbres, and he often uses field recordings as a basis for composition. He presented original electronic work at the 2010 Darmstadt Summer Music Courses, after studying with Francisco Lopez. He is currently living in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter, and received his MFA in composition at CalArts, studying with Michael Pisaro.

More info at

Friday, February 7, 2014

REVIEW: Jacaranda's "Hallucination" 01/25

On January 25, I went to hear Jacaranda's "Hallucination" concert at the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica. The concert began with Timothy Loo's performance of Nomos Alpha, a "solo" cello piece by Xenakis. To accommodate the difficulty and logistical impossibility of the piece, Loo was aided by a pre-recorded track that would occasionally interject with the missing parts. Exciting as this performance was, it was only an appetizer for Nicholas Isherwood and Vox Nova's performance of Stimmung by Stockhausen.

Timothy Loo's performance of the "unplayable" Xenakis cello piece was quite wonderful, overdubs and all. Loo brought a great expressivity to Xenakis' exaggerated, hyper-mathematical gestures. On any other program of 20th century modernism, this could have been a highlight performance. However, one has to tip the hat to Stimmung, a powerful Germanic refraction of the hermetic musical microverse of LaMonte Young.

There seems to have been a healthy dose of Stockhausen in LA in the last 12 months. I've written on about three other concerts featuring Stockhausen works, and I'm sure there were others. On February 23, 2013, Southwest Chamber Music gave the US premiere of Nebadon Aus Klang. On March 27 and 28, LA Sonic Odyssey presented the original 12-channel version of Kontakte. And, in September, Nicholas Isherwood performed Capricorn with People Inside Electronics. Stimmung is the perfect crest of this Stockhausen wave. It is a well known piece - though one I never expected to hear live, and this was the ideal time, place, and performers for it.

Isherwood worked extensively with Stockhausen, and he is one of the vocalists most qualified to realize the composer's intentions. His Vox Nova ensemble, as well as his own fantastic vocal performance, displayed why Isherwood is such a highly valued interpreter of contemporary music.

From the onset, there was a clear performative emphasis on the sung words being envelope filters rather than carriers of information, with each syllable highlighting different frequencies by the shape of the mouth. Such an approach would be aligned with Stockhausen's body of work with electronics. While the sung names of various deities may have been invocations, their musical function was as manners of articulation - vehicles of the semiotic rather than the symbolic.

Meanwhile, the most surprising revelation of the evening was the spoken text, which I had never heard in English (the piece is meant to be performed in a venue's local language). The eroticism of these poems was a complete surprise, since nothing else in the piece points to them in any obvious way. I had only heard the piece in German, and had no idea what the words meant.

After the concert, it was illuminating to walk up and view the performers' scores. Each singer had re-notated the piece to make it most immediately accessible to their own relationship to music. Each performer had a clear and distinct voice, and the combination of them was something uniquely powerful. The personality of each voice was also reflected in how different each singer's re-imagined performance score was.

Also, this is the first Stockhausen piece to reference days of the week - a seed to later grow into larger works like Licht. Mary Bauermeister, who inspired this piece, was actually present for this performance(!), and mentioned off-hand that the days may have been her suggestion. I had a chance to speak with her briefly after the concert, and her innate and potentially-unintentional profundity made it clear why she has been an inspired and collaborated with so many great artists. Unfortunately, her book about her time with Stockhausen, Ich hänge im Triolengitter: Mein Leben mit Karlheinz Stockhausen, is still only available in German.

Jacaranda's next concert in their 10th anniversary season is on February 22, featuring Adam Tendler and Christopher Taylor performing two respective watershed pieces of 20th century piano music: Sonatas and Interludes, and Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jesus.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Notations 24: Fraser and Streb

Here's the twenty-fourth installment of Notations! Inspired by Cage's 1969 bookNotations is a collection of graphic scores, hand drawn music calligraphy, computer code, compositional sketches, text scores, and other innovative forms of musical notation.

Every Monday we'll showcase notation by two different composers (Tuesday this week...), primarily focusing on those local to Los Angeles. This week's composers are Paul Fraser and Cassia Streb. All images are used with permission, and copyright is retained by each piece's respective creator. Click on the images to see a larger view.

SPASM+V3 by Paul Fraser

Paul Fraser is a composer, producer, sound designer and sound artist whose work ranges from animation projects to site-specific installations to music for theater and computer speakers. He has scored, sound designed and mixed web series, shorts and advertisements for Funny or Die, Cartoon Hangover, Newsweek, Whole Foods and Shut Up! Cartoons. Fraser writes electronic, orchestral, choral, chamber and pop music, ranging in styles from ambient to dance to experimental. He is influenced by lo-fi sensibilities, timbre experimentation and rhythmic complexity. Fraser often collaborates with Los Angeles-based idea automaton, Machine Project, and his work has been featured at the Getty Center (LA), New York City Electroacoustic Festival, REDCAT (LA), Skirball Cultural Center (LA), the New Children's Museum (San Diego), The Hammer Museum (UCLA), among others. He received an MFA in Composition at CalArts in 2011 and lives in Los Angeles.

More info at

from The Coincidence Problem by Cassia Streb

Cassia Streb is a Los Angeles-based violist, improviser and composer. She is active in the field of contemporary and experimental music, performs regularly as a soloist and a chamber musician, and collaborates with a variety of artists from many disciplines. She performs with the Vinny Golia Large Ensemble, the California EAR Unit, Wadada Leo Smith’s Silver Orchestra and Guthrie & Streb. Cassia is also sought after as a soloist, particularly for her interpretation of modern scores and microtonal works, and she collaborates with many artists from the fields of electronic music, western classical instruments and composes for theatre, dance and film. She has commissioned and performed a number of works by both established and emerging composers and she has worked closely with a range of artists including Christian Wolff, James Tenney, Michael Pisaro Jurg Frey, John Zorn, Morton Subotnik, Mark Trayle, Radu Malfatti and many others. Cassia holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Victoria and a Masters’ degree from the California Institute of the Arts.

More info at