Wednesday, November 5, 2014

REVIEW: Vicki Ray at Zipper Hall, 10/28

On October 28, Vicki Ray gave her 2014-15 Pianospheres concert at Zipper Hall. The title of this performance was Exquisite Corps(e) (A love letter to Calarts). It was divided into two halves, and the program requested that the audience refrain from applause until the end of each half (which the audience picked up on after the second piece of the first half).

The first part of the concert consisted of pieces by Calarts composition teachers who had passed away or retired. Each piece was preceded by a brief recording of its composer speaking and a photo portrait projected on the back wall of the stage. Without interstitial applause, the recordings and the live performances transitioned smoothly into each other, giving the feeling of movements of a larger work.

The concert began with Stephen Lucky Mosko's piano movement from Indigenous Music II. Hearing the California E.A.R. Unit's Indigenous Music recording had prompted the title for my own Diasporic Music series, so it was great to hear this played live.

Indigenous Music II was followed by James Tenney's Essay (after a sonata). This piece is a sort of severely reductionist extension of part of Ives' Concord Sonata, which Tenney had been known to perform from memory. The entire piece was played by plucking strings within the piano, which placed it in a crystalline sound world outside timbral expectations. Plucked piano strings can often seem like a cheap gimmick, but the severe consistency of sound made it effective, reminding me of Lachenmann's Guero (though obviously VERY different).

Mel Powell's Etude and Prelude followed. Powell's two pieces showed the most direct connection to European modernism, and were well placed in the middle of the first half. Couched between composers he had worked with, taught, or his students had taught, one could imagine a sort of musical lineage. After Powell's music, Art Jarvinen's The Meaning of the Treat came across as an updated West Coast collusion of musical tendencies most aligned with Powell's background in both jazz and classical music. For Morton Subotnick's Trembling, Ray was joined by violinist Sarah Thornblade. Both players were amplified and processed through a trembling chorus-y phase. The aural sheen created a sonic fourth wall reminiscent of Stockhausen's Mantra.

The second half of the concert was a single exquisite corpse-style piece by current Calarts faculty. I first heard of a musical exquisite corpse from Anne Lebaron, who uses the technique of collaborative composition in her Hyperopera classes (hyperopera being a term she coined and used to describe her opera Crescent City). The Exquisite Corps(e) was made up of thirteen sections, each by a different composer currently teaching up at Calarts. Though I couldn't always tell who wrote which part, each section displayed an individualistic musical voice that was drastically different from every other. The piece was alternately populated by bottom register clusters, e-bowed strings, spoken text, jazz extensions, spoons and motors in the piano strings, and more. The most surprisingly novel moment was when the theater was suddenly filled with bird calls, played by people planted throughout the audience, that were prompted by Ray playing a recorder. The piece ended with Ray speaking and playing kalimba while slowly meandering out the stage right door.

I haven't mentioned much about Vicki Ray's playing, but it could go without saying that it was wonderful, bringing the right style of expression to each of the diverse pieces. What I found most interesting about the concert was the effective execution of a clear programmatic idea, which was to be a testament to the strength of one of LA's musical communities. As an encore, Ray gave a fittingly nostalgic performance of an early, jazzier piece by Mel Powell, one of the founders of that community.

When I arrived at Calarts in 2005, all of the composers on the first half of the program were still around except for Mel Powell. By the following fall, Lucky Mosko and James Tenney had passed away and Morton Subotnick had left. It felt like I had arrived at a key transitional moment, and this concert reminded me of that.

The next Pianospheres event will feature Richard Valitutto at REDCAT on November 11. It is the inaugural concert of Pianospheres' Satellite series, which focuses on emerging performers and new music for piano.

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