Review: Musicians turn the Big Dipper into an ‘interstellar cantata,’ with help from NASA

L.A. Signal Lab performs the "Why Bear Has No Tail" section from “URSA: an interstellar cantata” at its premiere Tuesday night at Monk Space.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Even were it not overcast Tuesday evening in Koreatown, where the new music collective L.A. Signal Lab was premiering “URSA: an interstellar cantata,” the Big Dipper, let alone any stars at all, would likely not have been visible. Air and light pollution have erased much of the night sky from L.A. Who even bothers to look up anymore?

The sad irony is that the Southern California of the last century has probably done more to stimulate the world’s astronomical imagination than any place since ancient Greece with its myths. We have, of course, the great Mt. Wilson and Mt. Palomar telescopes and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. We’ve been home to such transformative science fiction writers as Ray Bradbury, Octavia Butler and Philip K. Dick.

But most of all there is Hollywood, which for close to a century has fashioned what the universe looks like in modern imagination. And what it sounds like, too. More than any composer, more even than Holst and his “The Planets,” John Williams has provided the soundtrack for outer space.


For that reason — and others — “URSA” felt right at home in the small, acoustically alert, brick-lined warehouse in the back of the Monk Space gallery on 2nd Street in L.A., where Brightwork New Music began a new season of its monthly Tuesdays @ Monk Space concert series. The cantata, which lasts 79 minutes, is in 14 short movements that examine in unforeseen fashion the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, or to most of us, the Big and Little Dipper.

The cantata is also the project that may well be destined to put the 4-year-old L.A. Signal Lab on the terrestrial map. The collective consists of four young and versatile performer-composer new-music Trekkies who cross genres with the graceful ease of the USS Enterprise traversing galaxies. Jazz, world music, assorted acoustic and electronic sound explorations, and various approaches to complexity are within the collective’s comfort zone. Somehow the quartet always manages to be in the same zone.

For “URSA,” the poet Sarah Thompson — who provided spirited narration, sang and played percussion — created a libretto that began and ended with Greek myth. But the dozen numbers in between considered how the Ursa constellations, likened to the shape of bears, have figured in Inuit, Native American and Japanese legend. She got help from Whitman, Twain, NASA data reports and an inspiring text from Jimmy Carter for the Voyager Golden Record. “We hope someday,” he wrote back at a time when we expected our president to lift our spirits, “having solved the problems we face to join the community of galactic civilizations.”

This fall’s classical music highlights include Esa-Pekka Salonen, “Porgy and Bess” and the L.A. Phil’s birthday gala.

This was but a fleeting segment of “URSA,” but so were all the others, and that is part of the joy of the cantata. Signal’s members — Nick DePinna (trombone), Dan Marschak (keyboards), Noah Meites (trumpet) and Hitomi Oba (saxophones) — each contributed two or more numbers and joined in on percussion, vocals and other instruments. They were joined by flutist and pianist Erika Oba, who also wrote three numbers, and bassist Scott Worthington.

Musical styles were in continual flux. The Oba sisters are jazz musicians and vocalists, and they contributed freeform improvisations. For Hitobi Oba’s “Maritime Signals,” the signals were microtonal drones from a concertina, melodicas and flute that caused sound waves to beat against one another, as though colliding stars. Her sister supplied spectacular flute solos mimicking the Japanese shakuhachi in her music for “Nanakusa Gayu Recipe,” a Japanese formula for living lovingly and long.

For “Voyager,” Meites let spacey drones and electronic processing (including what sounded like Carter’s voice) do the necessary cosmic work. Marschak used staccato repeated notes to reveal a text written by Meites at age 4 about paper floating like a butterfly, as though the thoughts were coming out of the precocious boy in real time, each word a discovery.

DePinna liquefied the dry technical NASA language describing weak gamma-ray bursts from the direction of Ursa Major with honks on Oba’s sax and all the players hitting their instruments with flexible hollow tubes.

Occasionally visuals were projected on a wall. For the Native American legend about why the bear has no tail, a sequence of adroit drawings further illumined Thompson’s lively narration and the characterful musical sound effects in Hitomi Oba’s score.

No two of the 14 parts were in any way similar. Thompson varied her poetics and delivery to suit the nature of each. The musical styles were individual, which was especially apparent when each player had a solo (improvised?) for transitions between sections.

But beyond simply compelling music making, which alone probably would have made the time fly, “URSA” celebrated how we all look at the stars. Culture plays a role. Science has its say, and Hollywood its sway. But imagination is ultimately personal. This “interstellar cantata,” made of many amiable voices, ultimately reminds us that we all live under the big sky. It is one thing we all experience together, no matter where or when or how we live, and that we should make the most it.

At Descanso Gardens, Christopher Rountree and Anna Bulbrook follow the success of the L.A. Phil’s Fluxus festival with the avant-garde series “Silence.”