For the last several years, the CalArts music department has ventured downtown for an annual slot in the L.A. Philharmonic's new-music-minded Green Umbrella series. Tuesday night, it was that time again, as the CalArts New Century Players, a devoted and well-equipped group conducted by David Rosenboom, descended on the Japan America Theatre.
But the agenda differed from years past, mainly because the concert came amid the school's revitalized Spring Music Festival. Center stage were visiting composers Robert Ashley and Alvin Lucier, both of whom are mature, important American experimentalists, for different reasons: Ashley expertly manipulates texts and a unique sense of musical time, while Lucier digs deep into the nature of sound itself, creating sonic situations both wry and profound.
If they revealed their characteristic fringe personas in performances on campus on Monday, the Green Umbrella concert found them in an ostensibly straighter, chamber music setting. But what transpired was hardly conventional. Lucier's seductively lean "Navigation for Strings" requires four string players to play four adjacent pitches with varying durations, generating a continuous yet changing swarm of sound. As with much of Lucier's work, sonic phenomena is king, and the shifting colors and phasing effects of these tonal clusters created a character more hypnotic than noisome.
"Superior Seven," one of Ashley's rare forays into instrumental music, sans text, is a disarmingly appealing, extended meditation with flute as the protagonist--here played boldly by Rachel Rudich. A vaguely Indonesian persona emerges as the flute, gently colored by Tom Hamilton's electronic processing, plays fragments and flurries over a soft, simmering bed of ensemble activity and the piano's slow, steady pulse.
Another festival-linked visitor was composer Chen Yi, an esteemed player in the current crop of Chinese-born, American-based composers. She finds a natural and persuasive bridge between her native Eastern and adopted Western culture, as heard in both "Duo Ye," with its percussion punctuations and echoes of early Stravinsky, and the more abstracted "Song in Winter," savoring silences and the subtle cross talk between players such as flutist Rudich and Weisan Liu, on the Chinese zither, the zheng.
Also on the program was "Isabela," by the late Salvatore Martirano, an ensemble work charged with restless spirit and almost neurotic momentum.