Most performing arts festivals these days are either institutions themselves (think Salzburg and Edinburgh; Ojai and Spoleto) or born of institutions (the new Lincoln Center Festival). But then there are the hard-to-categorize little festivals that are stitched together and flung into motion, events that seem to invent themselves as they go along. That describes Resistance Fluctuations, which opens Tuesday, a gathering of performers aimed at making Los Angeles safe for music from assorted fringes.
Over the course of six days and 16 concerts at LACE, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and at ACE Contemporary Exhibitions, audiences will have a chance to hear musicians working with electronics, improvisation, "noise," and more conventional contemporary classical music, with the Austrian new music group Klangforum Wien as headliner.
The festival is an outgrowth of a concert series put on sporadically from 1991 to 1996 by an organization called Wires. Wires began, humbly enough, on the kitchen-table of composer Daniel Rothman, who moved to Venice from New York in 1991, and started teaching composition at CalArts in 1994. Drawing on the model of small experimental spaces in New York such as Roulette and the Kitchen, he launched Wires, a non-profit presenting organization subtitled the Performance Center for New & Experimental Music, according to the letterhead. The headquarters was actually Rothman's Venice loft, the players varied from event to event and concerts featured local performances of music by John Cage, Morton Feldman, Alvin Lucier, Luigi Nono, Roger Reynolds, and many others.
Rothman was surprised by the audiences the concerts drew. "When I was going to new music concerts in New York, most of the audiences were other composers and performers who were interested in this. [The Wires] audience was lawyers, graphic designers, people who had very little connection to making music themselves, but they were great appreciators of it. It struck me that, here in L.A., for some reason, there is a tradition of finding music. People seem to take a lot of pleasure in stumbling on something and then trying to make it their own in some way."
The Wires series went dark, mainly because it was a "one-man operation," says Rothman. "I never really wanted to see [it] die, but in the last two years, I needed to spend more energy on my own stuff," says Rothman.
One of Rothman's recent projects is the conceptual opera "Cezanne's Doubt," which was first performed at the Musik Protokoll festival in Graz, Austria, last year, and had its Los Angeles premiere on the Monday Evening Concerts series at LACMA in April.
It was at the first performance in Austria that the seeds of Resistance Fluctuations were sown. Musik Protokoll, a venerable Austrian festival that just celebrated its 30th anniversary, is programmed by Christian Scheib, who proposed the idea of collaborating with Rothman on an L.A. festival.
Funding came from various sources, including the Meet the Composer organization, the Aaron Copland Foundation, local new music patron Betty Freeman and the Austrian Ministry of Culture.
"[We wanted] to put something together that's interesting and provocative," Rothman explains, "a combination of emerging and established people who are really individuals and working hard. You can't really say there's dogma in any of the people's approaches to their art."
The festival name came from one of those provocative artists, a noise specialist from San Francisco named G.X. Juppiter-Larsen who had used the phrase "resistance fluctuations" in an article he wrote. In the absence of dogma, says Rothman, you get "both resistance and fluctuation."
Cutting across boundaries comes naturally to such a festival. "It's very hard to say what categories people fall into when they're improvising, and when electronics or technology are involved. It's also hard to know what to call it. The categories are really wiped away when you have Klangforum Wien next to Roscoe Mitchell and Leo Smith and a cello concert with electronics," Rothman says, running down a few of the festival's juxtapositions.
Resistance Fluctuations' lineup strongly reflects its Austro-Angeleno inception. The centerpiece is the L.A. debut of Klangforum Wien, who will perform three times during the festival. Scheib commented that the decade-old ensemble has become more formidable in the past few years, since establishing itself as a full-time, professional group. He compares it such new music icons as Germany's Ensemble Modern and France's Ensemble Intercontemporain.
"All the other ensembles playing new music in Austria and in Europe are musicians who play in orchestras and perform 10 or 15 times a year. For this ensemble, they've changed that. Everybody has this as their main occupation. You can hear the difference."
The festival's Angeleno contingent includes Rothman's fellow Cal Arts faculty members, pianist David Rosenboom, composer Stephen "Lucky" Mosko and trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith, who will join in an improvisation with jazz saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and two improvisers from Austria, Wolfgang Metterer and Wolfgang Reisinger.
Carl Stone, who grew up in Los Angeles and was an influential part of the music community before moving to San Francisco a few years ago, will present his new quadraphonic piece "Dong Baek" Wednesday night at LACE. As with most of his current music, the musical tool box here is computerized sampling stitched together into a sonic tapestry.
For Saturday's program, the key word is noise, with several performers dealing with this dimly lit corner of the musical world--what some might call the evil twin of ambient music. By "noise," the performers mean just that: extracted sounds from all kinds of sources.
A quartet of Austrians, Bohm/Schweizer/Grundler/Stangl, Scheib says, "will come a week early and basically build a huge instrument, from old and new computers and other electronics, for this one performance."
A trio called Sodomka/Breindl/Math deal with the phenomenon of biofeedback, in a musical and visual configuration. According to Scheib, "they are using high end equipment that they get from medical companies, as far as the biofeedback part of it goes, and then they put it together with their audio and video equipment for producing pictures and sounds that are related to what, basically, your body input is."
And then, from the louder end of the spectrum, there is G.X. Juppiter-Larsen, who will present "a 40-minute, sophisticated noise performance." Finnish noise duo Pan Sonic will also appear.
Scheib sees this festival as an important extension of the less stratified music world he finds in Europe. "I have to be cautious saying this, but in a way, [the festival] seems to be special in the U.S., partly because things are much more separated here than we have it in Europe. You know what music is written for, what purposes and which scenes--like for underground places or just the universities or whatever.
"This exists in Europe, too, of course, but not with [the same] intensity. This festival obviously just ignores all these boundaries. That's one of the nice things about it."
Rothman hopes Resistance Fluctuations will be one of those discoveries that a wide range of Angelenos want to make their own. He envisions it as a springboard for future festivals here, perhaps even a L.A. musical biennial. "When you think about cities that have biennials, you have Berlin, you have Venice, Munich. Los Angeles is a world class city, and I think it deserves something on that order. What we're starting with is an attempt from a small organization like Wires to see whether we can influence greater powers. That's my aspiration."
RESISTANCE FLUCTUATIONS, L.A. County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.; Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; ACE Contemporary Exhibitions, 5514 Wilshire Blvd. Dates: Tuesday to next Sunday. Prices: single tickets, $7-$10; festival passes, $30-$45. Phone: (310) 577-4664.