By Richard S. Ginell
PASADENA – Seven editions on, Los Angeles’ springtime Hear Now Music Festival has settled into what looks like a long-lasting groove as a magnet for established and aspiring Los Angeles-based composers. In its short history, the festival has already managed to play music by 100 different composers ranging in age from their teens to their 90s. Artistic director and founder Hugh Levick reports that Hear Now received 150 submissions for this year’s festival, more than twice as many as in previous years. And it continues to evolve while retaining some key components.
For its weekend events, the festival remains rooted in Venice’s First Lutheran Church, but instead of marathon concerts this year, as they did in 2015, there was just one conventional-length concert per evening. Out on the festival’s eastern flank on April 28, they tried out a new/old venue, the 1923-vintage (old by Southern California standards) Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena for its fourth annual electroacoustic opening concert.
As in previous years, the collaboration with People Inside Electronics (PIE) took place in so-called Throop Hall, a small multi-purpose room off the main sanctuary that has a shoebox shape, decent acoustics, and folding chairs for the audience. All of the composers – half own up to being born in the 1980s but all look like members of the millennial generation – have plenty of academic credentials and little general name recognition. Half hailed from the new music band Brightwork newmusic, a sextet that augments the now-common “Pierrot” configuration (flute, clarinet, piano, violin, cello) with a percussionist. Seated at tables to the rear of the audience, Isaac Schankler and Colin Horrocks from PIE manned a pair of laptops and a mixer.
On the basis of the first hearing, I would divide the six works presented into two categories. Four seemed mere exercises in playing with sound. The other two struck me as real, thought-out compositions with something pertinent to say, a sense of drama, and an idea of where they were going.
One of latter was Ian Dicke’s Latest And Greatest, which dealt with a subject that, like it or not, is a fact of life of the 21st century – personal technology and the planned obsolescence thereof. Scored for flute, violin, piano, bass clarinet, and mallet percussion, the piece is haunted by the voice and ghostly black-and-white images of Steve Jobs and his underlings delivering the pitch for the latest must-have device.
“Today, we’re taking it to the next level,” Jobs proclaims. At first, the group reacts with sustained tones and trills, getting more agitated as the sales pitch rises in hysteria (“A huge leap!” “Packed with pixels!” “One more thing!”). Jobs is an easy target; the music and repetitions of his words make him look ridiculous. The payoff comes when Jobs disappears, the music turns dark and brooding, and the screen shows the wreckage of a pile of now-obsolete CRT video terminals left for dead in a landfill.
One wonders if Mason Bates’ upcoming opera about Jobs (due at Santa Fe Opera in July) will deal as effectively as Dicke’s composition with the quandary of relentlessly advancing technology that consigns yesterday’s miracles to the garbage. And did anyone catch the irony of the participation of two Mac laptops in this? It gives new life to the cliché, “biting the hand that feeds them.”
The other piece that fully captured my imagination was Anthony Paul Garcia’s if it stops, which combined Brightwork’s acoustic instrument work with a collage of ghostly voices reciting from T.S. Eliot, various home recordings from Garcia’s lifetime, and pure electronics. This piece has a sense of direction and toward the close some rhythmic drive –missing in the other pieces – that came to a satisfying head at the conclusion.
Otherwise, electric guitarist Alexander Elliott Miller’s performance of his To… Oblivion: Impressions of Historic Landmarks Around Los Angeles was limited to the “Belmont Tunnel” section, where past and present photos of a now-unused L.A. trolley-car tunnel were accompanied by bassy feedback and brief sequences of notes with a reverberating electronic halo in the rear speakers. Dominique Schafer’s Cendre featured Brightwork’s Sara Andon on bass flute in a dour, foreboding score not unlike Miller’s piece in that the initial idea was not developed, only corroborated with electronic processing that echoed and altered Andon’s instrument in multi-channel sound.
Mu-Xuan Lin’s Pale Fire consisted of disconnected chunks of ideas – including fragments of a Shostakovich piano sonata – in search of a piece, requiring the skilled new-music pianist Vicki Ray to produce various splats from the keys and strings of the piano with vocal syllables coming from the rear speakers. Wen Liu’s Echoes in the Petals Falling fielded a bottom-heavy team consisting of flute (or piccolo), cello, and two double basses with an ominous electronic track in the rear. It shrieked, rumbled, skittered and finally whimpered to a conclusion.
This is par for the course in new music; you take your chances and hope that a good piece comes out of the cauldron of experimentation. In this case, two did. More such grab-bags of the new and recent could be heard over the rest of the weekend in Venice. Works by Ted Hearne, Andrew Norman, Gabriel Kahane, David Lefkowitz, David Hertzberg, Russell Steinberg, and Thomas Kotcheff were performed in a program honoring soon-departing LA Chamber Orchestra conductor Jeffrey Kahane Apr1l 29, with Kahane père playing his son’s solo piano piece Works on Paper. Xavier Muzik, Mark Lanz Weiser, Juhi Bansal, Evan Beigel, Saad Haddad, Michael Lee, Sean Heim, and Hugh Levick himself were the composers on April 30’s concert.
New to the festival this year is a follow-up weekend of run-out concerts to other far-flung places in Southern California. On May 5, Hear Now travels to the Herb Alpert Music Center at Los Angeles City College. It then goes to Salmon Recital Hall at Chapman University in Orange County May 6, and the CSU Dominguez Hills University Theatre May 7. And they have even expanded their operations all the way to the Mona Bismarck American Center in Paris, France, Dec. 2-4. Onward and outward.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.