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Taking Advantage of Superior Space and Sound

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Ghosts, fortunately, don’t take up much space. If they did, it might have gotten fairly crowded Saturday night in the small music studio that architect Rudolf Schindler designed for music lover, writer and concert presenter Peter Yates over his then-ramshackle Silver Lake bungalow in 1938. For the first time in close to a half-century, the studio once more became a venue in which to hear new music, this time as a benefit concert for the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, which also presents concerts at the Schindler House.

It was in this studio--built to hold (if packed like sardines) 100 listeners--that Yates began a legendary series of concerts called Evenings on the Roof, concerts in which excellent local musicians focused on chamber music by living composers but also explored neglected music by dead ones (particularly those who lived before Bach, but also, believe it or not, Mozart and Beethoven).

The first concert was devoted to the then little-heard Bela Bartok. Charles Ives’ music was played in this little house up the hill from Sunset Boulevard more than it was, at that time, any place else in the world. Schoenberg came by to hear his music. Stravinsky was a guest. Otto Klemperer, then music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, would drop in to see what was up. And anyone else could come as well. Tickets were 50 cents, and the proceeds, whatever they were, went to the performers.

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After a few years, Evenings on the Roof outgrew this studio and moved to larger venues. (It continues today as Monday Evening Concerts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.) After Yates sold the house in 1968, a new owner turned the studio into a rental apartment.

The house is now in better hands, its current owner having bought it five years ago, partly because Yates’ music programs broadcast on KPFK in the late ‘50s meant so much to him. He has returned the studio to its original modest glory.

And what a wonderful space it is. Yates, a civil servant, had little money. Schindler kept his fee at $200; the construction cost was $2,000. The walls are pine, and the joins are uneven but interesting. The roof is a cantilever, the shape of an open piano lid. There are lovely views of downtown Los Angeles and Griffith Park. The cross breezes are pleasant on a warm evening.

Best of all, the sound is stunning, producing the delicate immediacy and detail that one might get listening to music through headphones but with a warm sense of space (and no sonic glare).

The concert, devised by composer Daniel Rothman, was meant to take advantage of this space, to reflect the adventurous and modernist spirit of Yates, and to nod its head toward Schindler’s Austrian heritage. The first half included three works for solo cello by young Austrian and German composers--Bernard Lang, Isabel Mundry and Peter Ablinger. The pieces were all written within the last five years; the cellist, Michael Moser, is also Austrian.

Taken together, the program had an almost primeval quality. In Lang’s “Schrift 2,” a fantasy of taps and plucks on the strings eventually led to explorations with the bow, as if the cello’s great songfulness needed to be discovered step by step. Mundry’s “Solo for Cello” then followed with grand gestures--heavy chords, powerful attacks and finally sliding tones, as if the instrument were now ready to leave its body.

That is what it did in the third piece. Ablinger’s “Weiss/Weisslich” used the addition of a computer to turn the cello into a room-filling, consciousness-filling, thrilling electronic stew. Moser is an extraordinary, gripping player and a concentrated one, making all three pieces feel as if each were speaking directly to a listener.

The second part of the evening, after a long break (and sold as a separate program) was an hour’s worth of acoustical explorations by the American composer Alvin Lucier. In the ironically titled “Silver Streetcar for Orchestra,” the percussionist Art Jarvinen kept a steady pulse on an amplified triangle for 20 minutes but subtly varying the sound though dynamics and tone (as he moved up and down the instrument).

The effect was remarkable, almost putting the listener in a trance, but not quite, so that once active thought was diminished, another level of perception could take its place. As the ear became increasingly sensitive, tiny changes in sound seemed psychedelically amplified.

In a companion piece, “Music for Cello With One or More Amplified Vases,” Lynn Angebranndt was the incessant cellist, bowing back and forth. Her instrument was an electric one, and its loudspeaker was a lid for a towering ceramic vase, in which there was a microphone. The sound we heard was what the microphone picked up inside the vase, which was projected through a sound system and then warmed by the room itself. Again, the trance; again, the feeling of being engulfed in a musical ocean that is always the same, yet always slightly changing at the same time.

Still, rare pleasure that it was to hear new music made so immediate by a special space, not all was perfect. Yates, I’m sure, would have hated the concert--this was not his kind of music at all. And if that weren’t enough to drive away the ghosts, the blare of loud rock from a street fair down the hill on Sunset surely was. Yates’ studio was no protection from that. Times have changed.


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