New Life for CalArts Fest


Once upon a time, there was a spring new music festival at CalArts known far and wide for its cutting-edge quality. Luminaries from around the world showed up and attention was focused on the extra-urban cultural outpost in Valencia. What began with idealistic gusto 20 years ago, however, peaked in the mid-'80s and diminished to the point where, in the last few years, the festival has become a non-event to the off-campus audience.

Starting tonight, however, the CalArts Spring Music Festival bursts forth for the next 10 days with at least some of the sparkle and dynamism of the old model. Celebrated East Coast new music composers Alvin Lucier and Robert Ashley will be in town, having their music performed on campus at concerts Monday afternoon and evening, and also as part of a festival entry in the Green Umbrella series at the Japan America Theatre on Tuesday.

This year's revitalized festival also remains true to the unique academic overview of the school, which offers studies in jazz, world music and contemporary classical music, and encourages overlap between those areas.

What clicked this year? Music department head David Rosenboom, responsible for bringing it all together, explained that the higher profile is mostly a matter of "creative booking."

"Funding is always a huge problem," he said, "but we were able to put it together this time because of a lot of planning and a few lucky breaks."

Rosenboom, a composer, conductor and keyboardist in addition to his academic life, came to the school in 1990, when the old new music festival was on the wane. This next generation festival, he says, taps more directly into the school's integrated approach.

"The [new music] festival had grown beyond its means. It got to be too unwieldy," Rosenboom explains. "So we re-conceived the whole idea and came up with [a] festival that draws on resources inside CalArts as well as from outside."

As a result, one of the distinguishing features of the festival will be its broad range of instrumental textures. Tonight's Dizzy Gillespie Chair Concert was organized by CalArts faculty member and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, and features "interactive" collaborations between San Diego-based trombonist George Lewis, keyboardist/computer processor Rosenboom, Bay Area percussionist William Winant and South Indian drummer Trichy Sankaran. Percussionist Amy Knoles' L.A.-based group Basso Bongo, performing on Saturday, revolves around her diverse arsenal of electro-acoustic instruments.

From the non-Western front, gamelan will be represented from both the more contemplative Javanese tradition (Wednesday) and the exuberant Bali tradition (Saturday). The Carnatic style of South Indian classical music, led by percussionist Poovalur Srinivasan, will be heard Friday, while Sunday's concert showcases the North Indian Hindustani style, featuring Ravjeev Taranath on the 25-stringed sarod.

For Lucier, the definition of musical tools, and of the basic fabric of music itself, is innately flexible. For years, his work has sprung out of an abiding "interest in the natural acoustic characteristics of sound and sound waves," as he explained.

With the piece on Monday's program called "Theme," based on a John Ashbery text, vocalists sing into "resonant acoustic chambers"--such as a milk bottle, a flower vase, a seashell and a hollow ostrich egg, fitted with sensitive microphones.

In other Lucier works, vocalists produce long tones with slightly varied pitches, producing the sonic phenomenon of beating. "Sometimes the beating can be heard to spin around the space," he said. "There is theoretical evidence for this phenomenon. I usually can hear it happen; other folks can't. They just don't know what to listen for."

Closing the festival, on March 20 and 21, are concerts at the new Getty Center featuring Charlie Haden, the renowned jazz bassist and head of the CalArts jazz department. In this case, Haden will be using an instrument to cross idioms, both in his Liberation Music Orchestra--a kind of flexible jazz/world music/big-band setting he has led intermittently for many years--and as the soloist in a new music piece written for Haden by British composer Gavin Bryars.

Bryars' "By the Vaar," having its U.S. premiere here, features a hypnotic chamber ensemble part that Haden weaves in and out of, both improvising and handling melodic material. Haden remarked, "I think it would be good for classical composers to think outside of classical music and to think about writing a piece that involves improvisation. I don't know if most composers are ready for that, but Gavin was."

As encouraging as this year's program is, the future is unclear, partly because the school is slated to be given a theater in the Disney Hall complex, which may lead to more regular performances downtown.

"There's both the feeling that it's great to have this compacted celebration," Rosenboom said, "and also the question of 'Is a festival an old-fashioned idea, or should we move more toward a series kind of programming?' To date, this has been the most efficient way to get something of quality happening."


CalArts Spring Music Festival, today through March 21, Walt Disney Modular Theater, CalArts, 24700 McBean Parkway, Valencia, and other venues in Los Angeles. Admission varies, most events begin at 8 p.m. (818) 362-2315.

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