For Christopher Rountree, personal tragedy leads to a fearless pursuit of music magic
When he was a little boy, Christopher Rountree frolicked with elves and fairies under the dappled light of the camellia forest at Descanso Gardens.
For the record:
8:47 a.m. Sept. 5, 2019An earlier version of this article misspelled Gloria Cheng’s last name as Chen.
Playful theatricality was embedded in his DNA. His theater-world parents — a “blissed out” mother who practiced Siddha yoga and an “amazingly joyful” father who played in a folk band — met at UCLA in the 1970s during a student production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (she was Titania, he was Bottom).
“Look, over there — there’s an elf in that tree,” Rountree’s mother would say, and he would happily run after it, chasing fantasy and magic in the picturesque La Cañada Flintridge gardens.
Three decades later, Rountree is still seeking magic in that garden. In place of the imaginary fairies of his childhood, he now conjures enchanting moments of musical and artistic connection.
With “Silence,” an evening series of “experimental music under the oaks” this month, the 36-year-old composer, conductor and curator will musically activate Descanso’s fragrant open spaces along with the series’ co-artistic director, violinist and Girlschool founder Anna Bulbrook.
Over the last decade, Rountree has made a name for himself as an essential advocate for and facilitator of new and experimental music. As the director of Wild Up, the flexible and virtuosic L.A.-based new music collective he founded in 2010, he has regularly commissioned and premiered art, music and opera by a new generation of innovators.
As a conductor, Rountree has led musicians at prestigious concert halls and opera houses around the world, as well as inside museum closets, warehouses and DIY galleries. Pushing musical and artistic boundaries, he has collaborated with artists including Björk, John Adams, Yoko Ono and Ragnar Kjartansson.
Most recently in his hometown of Los Angeles, Rountree collaborated with the Getty Research Institute to curate the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s wildly engaging centennial season Fluxus Festival. During the run of the last festival, Rountree was seemingly everywhere: launching watermelons off the roof of Walt Disney Concert Hall, traipsing around a prop-filled stage performing John Cage’s “Water Walk” or facilitating the smashing of a violin onstage.
“Silence” is, in many ways, representative of Rountree’s curatorial style: It’s collaborative and conceptual, brings new and experimental sounds into an unexpected space and obliterates traditional boundaries among genres. In various combinations, the series features goth and indie singers (Zola Jesus, Low Leaf), a poet and rapper (Saul Williams), a classical pianist (Gloria Cheng) and music by Cage and Pauline Oliveros.
Rountree won’t conduct during “Silence,” but he and Bulbrook will actively participate.
“Spoiler alert, we’re going to be handing out rocks,” Bulbrook said with a big smile.
On a recent afternoon, she and Rountree met at an Echo Park bar to discuss their artistic collaboration over margaritas and Topo Chicos. They chatted about recent collaborations (the two met through the L.A. Phil’s Fluxus Festival, during which Bulbrook curated a memorable all-female celebration of Yoko Ono co-produced by Girlschool) and the musical and artistic inspirations behind this project.
Rountree and Bulbrook share an artistic bond. They’re fascinated by the fantasy of absolute silence and what Bulbrook called the “opportunities and possibilities that arise out of silence.” They share a passion for music that lives at the intersection of indie, pop, classical, experimental and avant-garde.
“We share an unbounded philosophy about what ‘good’ music is, and what ‘music’ is,” Bulbrook said. “Working closely with Chris, I’ve found that his generosity is absolutely consistent, as a person and as a professional collaborator. He is generative and open, unafraid to experiment. He cares deeply not just about the work he’s making but also about the people he makes it with.”
Whereas Bulbrook grew up embedded in classical music and didn’t break out until college, when she played in indie rock bands, Rountree said he’d never heard a Beethoven symphony until he reached college.
“I think I learned about music kind of backwards,” Rountree said.
Born in Anaheim, Rountree attended middle and high school in Irvine. At Woodbridge High, he was the captain of the hockey team, president of the Latin club and a player of the trombone and the euphonium in the band, his first formal musical training.
Rountree played in a Weezer-inspired band with friends, gigged on his trombone and won euphonium competitions. Driving to school or to the beach in his Toyota Camry, he listened to Philip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach” on repeat until he had it memorized.
Rountree went to Cal State Long Beach to study music. He was planning to become a band director. With his warm, coach-like enthusiasm and engaging, athletic conducting style, it’s easy to imagine him as a successful high school band director, inspiring students toward creativity and excellence.
But life had other plans for Rountree.
When he was 20, his father died by suicide.
“He was an amazingly joyful person, but also a depressed person,” Rountree said.
“Before he died, my dad left me a note. Among other things, it said, ‘You should be a conductor. I gotta go.’ That moment was totally defining. It was like I pulled the card from the deck that said, ‘Go be an artist.’ So I decided then that I wanted to be an artist, and my life changed in that moment.”
Through his trombone teacher, Rountree found his first conducting teacher, Joana Carneiro, who from 2005 to 2008 was an American Symphony Orchestra League conducting fellow at the L.A. Phil and worked with then-music director Esa-Pekka Salonen. With her help, Rountree delved into classical repertoire and conducted imaginary orchestras in silence in an empty Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Rountree went on to earn a master’s degree in orchestral conducting at the University of Michigan. What he was worried might be a weakness — his relative lack of classical training compared with his classmates — was actually a gift. He knew things they didn’t about contemporary art, new and avant-garde music and where the music world is headed as opposed to where it’s been.
Back in Los Angeles after graduate school, Rountree received a small inheritance from his uncle, minimalist painter Aubrey Penny. He used every penny of that $8,000 to launch Wild Up.
For a while, Rountree worked as middle-school band teacher and self-funded his scrappy new music ensemble. But it wasn’t long before institutions like the Hammer Museum took note. When curators at that museum invited him and his merry band to create music, Rountree found freedom in dissolving traditional boundaries and meshing music, art and theater.
As Wild Up approaches its 10-year anniversary, Rountree can’t recall the exact poem from which he snagged the two words that make up his ensemble’s name, but each word of the name still resonates with significance.
“This is a ‘Wild’ thing,” he says of his ensemble. “It is a thing that in its wildness is vulnerable and is allowed be frayed and already bleeding, already broken. The ‘Up’ means choosing joy making, hope and optimism.”
Rountree’s life changed when his father told him to pursue conducting. In turn, Rountree is honoring the memory of his father’s joyful side, spending his life in the pursuit of wildly optimistic art making, and chasing musical magic in a garden that still feels like home.
Where: Descanso Gardens, 1418 Descanso Drive, La Cañada Flintridge
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Additional programs scheduled for Sept. 21 and 28
Info: (818) 949-4200, descansogardens.org
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