For independent composers in America, carving out a career can be grueling. Logical development and just deserts aren’t necessarily part of the package. But for Los Angeles-based composer Carlos Rodriguez, things are moving along at a steady, reassuring pace.
This week, the 35-year-old Rodriguez will achieve a milestone when the Los Angeles Philharmonic presents the premiere of his 15-minute work “Fabulas.” Rodriguez has written smaller pieces for the Philharmonic before--"Pasacalle” in 1993 and a 90-second fanfare for the orchestra’s 75th anniversary in 1994--but the new “Fabulas” is his most ambitious commission to date.
Rodriguez is no stranger to the Los Angeles music scene. A native New Yorker, he studied at UCLA and, in 1984, left the “academic womb” to form Lo Cal Composers, an indie collective that sporadically mounts performances of its members’ work.
“It occurred to me that life doesn’t have a syllabus,” he says, explaining the move by phone from his Mar Vista home, washing dishes as he talks. “Also, it was the year of the Olympic Arts Festival. The whole town was jumping with the feeling of ‘Hey, kids, let’s put on a show.’ ”
In the ‘80s, Rodriguez mostly wrote works for solo instruments that were hooked up to sound- and time-altering electronic processors. The results were all about delivering the unexpected. “I was playing with the listener’s expectations of what would happen next with the sound. It produced,” he says, “some very lovely results.”
While Rodriguez doesn’t fit into any particular new music “ism,” much of his work deals with notions of random chance, and he often employs extra-musical processes as a source of inspiration. In “Fanfarria para Los Angeles,” for instance, he configured the rhythms by using Morse code for “L.A. Phil.” “Fabulas” also owes its shape and sound to a strict methodology, although it took Rodriguez quite a while to arrive at it.
He began the composition with a title taken from “Flowers and Fables” by the late Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, one of his heroes. “I liked the idea of fables,” Rodriguez says. Still, he never intended to take the notion literally. “That [implies] some sort of narrative structure to me, a story being told. There is no narrative, per se, in the piece.” There is, however, movement--evolution “from one thing to another.”
The problem was generating that movement. “For the longest time,” Rodriguez says, “I had sketches which were piling up, which were going nowhere.”
The lightbulb went off as Rodriguez began toying with anagrams, a pastime for a composer fascinated with wordplay and mind/musical games. Previously, he had used anagrams to come up with titles for works. This time, however, shuffling a set of vowels and consonants created the fabric of the composition.
“It occurred to me that I could decide on [a] form based on what a phrase might yield [when it was translated into music]. Things got very interesting at that point for me. Part of it was ‘Hey, now I get this free material,’ ” he says with a laugh.
That “free material” comes from six 12-letter anagrams, with each letter assigned to specific notes in a 12-note chord that begins “Fabulas.” The original phrase was “voice leading,” which refers to the deployment of musical voices in a composition, but even that phrase had an antecedent. In the early stages of the creative process, Rodriguez wrote himself this note: “Develop your voice.”
From “voice leading,” he says, “I came up with phrases like ‘evade coiling,’ ‘nice valid ego’ and ‘angelic video'--which is one of my favorite ones.
“It’s ostensibly quite an arbitrary way to get your pitches,” he acknowledges. “At one point, I thought about using dice. Reacting to something that you feel is being handed to you almost as an assignment is such a better way to work, instead of saying, ‘Hey, come up with something you’ve never heard before.’ Well, I’ve never heard this piece, that’s for sure. After I was done with it, I was wringing my hands, saying, ‘My God, what have I wrought?’ ”
Although his method may seem utterly modernist and abstract, the stuff of John Cage-ish aleatoric music, Rodriguez says that the results in this case are rather old-fashioned. “There are canons in the piece that are almost medieval, almost Palestrina-esque. There are passages that have a kind of neo-Gothic severity.”
Not only are the anagrams “evocative sounding,” he points out, but when they are translated into tones they also “sound nice.” He demonstrates by taking the phone over to his piano and laying out the chords, ending on a dominant seventh. “That almost sounds like a John Adams chord,” he says with a laugh. “You want to hang out on that chord.”
These days, Rodriguez is happy to report that most of his time is taken up by commissions. Last year, the Debussy Trio commissioned and premiered a Rodriguez piece. His indie work with Lo Cal Composers is also ongoing, although Rodriguez is the sole charter member left in the collective.
“Our funding has never been what you would call luxurious,” he says wryly. “We’ve been able to squeeze out seasons on next to nothing. I used to put a lot of my own money into it. Now I like to get paid for composing. Strangely enough, I’ve actually been making a living at composing, which still boggles my mind. I’m thinking, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ ”
He has a few large-scale--and less abstract--musical ambitions gnawing at him. He’d like to write an opera based on James Ellroy’s “Black Dahlia,” or to expand his settings of Charles Bukowski’s writings. “I’ve been living here and been exposed to these sources, and these are very L.A.-centric properties,” he says. “I would really love to write [a piece] that meant something.”
For now, he’s looking forward to hearing the live results of his adventures in anagrammatic composition. The method, he thinks, can also be the message: Whatever the process, the music “comes from some place meaningful. At least I think so. We’ll see.”
* The Los Angeles Philharmonic premieres “Fabulas” in its concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m.; Friday, 1:30 p.m. $6-$58. (213) 365-3500.