The new new-music series “Silence at Descanso” is at Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge, but rather than silence, the first program happened to be full of intentional sound. There was just no intention to let you know what any of it was, who was making it or what it all meant. No program was provided. From what I could tell, few seemed to care.
Instead, the experience was like wandering through this sylvan wonderland without the signs directing you to this or that horticultural assemblage and hoping on the way to catch the random shriek of a Western screech owl or the honk of a mallard duck.
Plus, it was night, and Descanso in the dark affords a healthy habitat for banshees and arcane rites, both of which “Silence at Descanso” understands. For Saturday’s program, “Ritual,” a sizable crowd sat on blankets on the ground in front of an imaginatively lighted stage or on folding chairs. Many in the audience likely recognized this or that singer-songwriter from the local indie-pop scene or the instrumentalists who hailed from the new music scene.
But my guess is that there were very few of us, if any, who had a clue when it came to the whole picture. And that seemed the point of artistic directors Anna Bulbrook, for the last decade a member of the Airborne Toxic Event, and conductor Christopher Rountree, founder of the new music ensemble Wild Up. Yes, you could look up the composers and performers on the Descanso website and then begin a lengthy process of googling to piece some of it together. Or you could, as we all basically did, simply accept that a rite has its own individual rights.
My duty as a reviewer means now a certain piecing together of what happened, which I am willing to do half-heartedly, but only after the fact. I take a series that evokes silence and garden to have a John Cage-influenced significance: nature speaks, and we listen. Art is imitation. Cage’s piano music will be highlighted in the third and last of program of the series, on Sept. 28.
The series has, moreover, all the hallmarks of being an extension of the grandly conceived and historic Cage-empowered Fluxus festival that Rountree produced for the Los Angeles Philharmonic last season. Bulbrook produced the festival’s important tribute to Yoko Ono, who was taken seriously for the first time by a major symphony orchestra. Having been greatly influenced by Cage, Ono has gone on to inspire the sorts of uncategorizable indie performers Bulbrook brings to “Silence at Descanso.”
A lot of this came together at Saturday’s ritual, in which one kind of music was often used to enhance another. The evening began with Miya Folick, who had appeared in the Ono show. With the assistance of composer, singer and percussionist Jodie Landau and spectacular clarinetist Brian Walsh, here moody, Folick began her numbers in breathy introspection and rose toward rapture.
That loosely describes Low Leaf, who comes across as a kind of medievalist out of the future. She accompanied herself on an amplified troubadour harp and with an electronic setup that allowed her parallel route to be from floatingly meditative to beat-driven danceable. She also provided pleasing harp atmospherics to a recitation by Saul Williams, a former rapper who has moved into all-embracing, politically pointed poetics. Evoking the “minister of the deteriorating sky,” he might have been describing himself.
“A silence takes the stage,” Williams stressed, each syllable a careful, quiet explication, with Low Leaf’s harp in near silent acquittal. The ecstatic transport here was as much to Fluxus as to the San Francisco beatnik clubs of the 1950s.
The evening’s final susurrating vocalist was Zola Jesus, her words strung out as extended, aching vowels, spiked by the euphoric minimalist backing of a string quartet.
In the middle of all this came the least definable, most ritualistic exercise of all, Filipino composer and theorist Jonas Baes’ “Patangis-Buwaya.” Four bamboo flutes, along with assorted percussion, have the job of “making the crocodile weep.” While blowing on their long tubes, the performers break down into violent coughing, leading a friend to think of this as a response to vaping. Every milieu has its deteriorating sky.
“How am I going to make it right?” Folick had asked in her first song, and all continued to ask in their way through the night. No one knows the answer, but the modest “Silence at Descanso” proposal from Bulbrook and Rountree may be don’t fence listeners in. Each subsequent program will offer something different.
May I make a further modest proposal to these welcoming gardens. In the spirit of “Silence at Descanso,” please don’t fence us in. The gates open a generous 45 minutes before the concert. It would be wonderful to have even more time to explore, get lost and get in touch with a listening sky that, even deteriorating, remains our greatest source of wonder.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21 and 28
Info: (818) 949-4200, descansogardens.org