Composer tunes into aural universe

Special to The Times

Anne LeBaron hears music in almost everything: vacuum cleaners, bellowing frogs and "processed" voices. "I'm fascinated with what you can do with sound," the composer says. Especially "the sounds we hear but don't pay attention to."

Her latest musical offering can be heard in the multidisciplinary theater piece, "On earth as it is in heaven." (Onstage at the 24th Street Theatre, the play is a meditation on the nature of prayer, and LeBaron's score includes a live percussionist and a prerecorded soundtrack that incorporates voices run through electronic changes, an unusual toy-like harp and, more conventionally, a string quartet and wind instruments (the Dustbuster and amphibians belong to other works). The work ripples throughout the play's 60 minutes, making music that owes something to jazz, gospel, blues and classical postmodernism.

LeBaron, 49, who was born in Baton Rouge, La., grew up a Southern Baptist in Tuscaloosa, Ala., which was a factor in her taking on the project.

"The notion of prayer and how characters deal with it intrigued me," she says. "It's been part of my life, although I left the Baptist church and only lately I've been a practicing Episcopalian."

She also was interested in working with Theresa Chavez, director of "On earth" and its co-writer, along with Laurel Ollstein and Rose Portillo. Chavez and LeBaron are colleagues at CalArts, where the composer teaches composition, theory and electronic media. For LeBaron, the project began last summer, when she met with the four "On earth" actors.

"I determined what instruments I wanted based on interviews with each actor. One of the things they worked on was repeating the words 'Why this?,' which I recorded at different tempos, worked with electronically and turned into a pitched drone. It is in the music, but you would never know, it seems so integrated," LeBaron explains.

LeBaron's impulse toward such musical integration started early. Her father, who worked in advertising, for fun played guitar, dobro, mandolin and banjo, all by ear. LeBaron taught herself to play piano at age 7.

She studied with a Juilliard-trained teacher when she was a teenager.

When she enrolled at the University of Alabama, her intent was to study piano. But she also added harp and was, in her words, "bitten by the composition bug."

After earning a composition degree in 1974, LeBaron stayed in Alabama, teaching piano and composing. The next year she attracted attention when she made a foray into electronic music with "Concerto for Active Frogs." Scored for saxophone, percussion, string bass and a chorus of human "frog" voices, the musicians were required to wear green plastic garbage bags and to interact with a collage tape of frog vocalizations. The Washington Post praised the work's "flair for theatricality [and] playful humor."

"It's limited to write only for instrumentalists," she points out, "I'm drawn to the possibility of hearing something in a context not expected."

In 1980, as she made her way toward graduate and post-graduate degrees in composition, LeBaron added a year as a Fulbright scholar, studying under electronic music pioneer Gyorgy Ligeti, and his eclecticism underscored her own ideas.

"It was heady," LeBaron says of her time with Ligeti. "His interests are extremely broad, and it made every person I worked with seem narrow in comparison."

Her next big piece was a kind of bluesy opera, "The E. & O. Line," written in collaboration with librettist and poet Thulani Davis. The opera resets "Eurydice" from Hades to a small Southern town, where the ride to the underworld is by train. Included in LeBaron's sonic bag of tricks were digitally altered bedspring creaks that turn into train whistles and, in turn, train whistles that morph into human voices. Selections from it landed on a CD, "The Musical Railism of Anne LeBaron," which earned five stars from Downbeat, the magazine's highest rating.

Another early work, "Sacred Theory of the Earth," was completed for her doctoral thesis at Columbia in the late 1980s. Partly inspired by a James Gleick book on chaos theory, the work blends mysticism, science, traditional musical forms and jazz; it has thrived beyond its premiere, not always a given in the world of new music. Southwest Chamber Music, for example, plans to perform it in Los Angeles in February.

And what about vacuum cleaners? "Sauger," a name derived from the German staubsauger or vacuum cleaner, is a work for trombone and processed vacuum cleaner and was written during a residency last year in Bellagio, Italy. The composition was inspired by "The Vacuum Cleaner," a one-act play written by New York law professor-playwright Edward DeGrazia. He and LeBaron are reworking it as an absurdist opera to be performed next year at New York's La Mama Theater.

"You can extract harmonics from vacuum cleaners," LeBaron says. "We abused them, feeding nails and garbage into these poor vacuums to get different sounds.... I just like the sustained white noise a vacuum produces."

All these everyday sonic materials, she says, add to music's special way of communicating.

"The sonic environment we commonly hear is not just sound, it's like perfume," LeBaron says. "It goes right to the limbic system of the brain, it triggers emotions as nothing else can."


Editor's note: Theresa Chavez is married to daily Calendar editor Oscar Garza.


'On earth as it is in heaven'

When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.

Where: 24th Street Theatre, 1117 24th St., Los Angeles.

Ends: Ends Oct. 27.

Price: $15 to $20

Information: (323) 692-2854.

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