Every year around this time, when the Hear Now festival of new music by Los Angeles composers comes around, the question is always the same: What is an L.A. composer?
And the answer is the same: Anyone who lives somewhere in a broadly defined Southland or who was born here or who spends some time here or who owns property here or who somewhere along the line wrote a film score or who is laid-back or who is called an L.A. composer by some organization for its own purposes or who simply identifies as an L.A. composer. Any thing — and everybody — goes. Inclusivity is our middle name in these parts.
In that respect, this year is no different. What has changed is a new ubiquity and a growing sense of L.A.’s place in music history. There were four Hear Now programs last week featuring a total of 29 composers. I could get to only one concert, mainly because there was so much other L.A. music around town, music with one kind of local connection or another.
As you may well have noticed, the Pulitzer Prize for music this year went to Ellen Reid for her opera “prism,” given its world premiere by Los Angeles Opera at REDCAT in November. Exactly nine weeks earlier, upstairs in Walt Disney Concert Hall, Gustavo Dudamel opened the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s centennial season with Andrew Norman’s “Sustain,” and it was a Pulitzer finalist.
But these are almost business as usual when it comes to our aural surroundings now. The Los Angeles Master Chorale’s weekend program, for instance, alternated famous opera choruses with those from Hollywood films, including “Star Wars,” “Coco” and “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” and “Captain Marvel.” Meanwhile, a few miles up the 110, the Pasadena Symphony turned to an enchanting recent violin concerto, “Orchard in the Fog,” by Adam Schoenberg, who, like many an L.A. composer, divides his time between writing film and concert music.
Those happened to be two of the concerts I missed. But last Tuesday night I heard an L.A. Phil chamber music program that concluded with an impressive performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Fourth String Quartet. It was written in 1936, two years after the great composer fled Nazi Germany and already had become a major influence on the L.A scene, teaching at USC. Though a plenty gnarly 12-tone score, the quartet has elements of classical structure, memories of the erotically overheated Romanticism he had once written in more optimistic times in Vienna (a tradition the no-relation Adam Schoenberg continues) along with explorations of startling sounds no one had ever thought to ask string players before to make but have been asking ever since.
The influence of this seldom-played quartet deserves investigation. When Schoenberg was writing the quartet, John Cage was his student, as were such great film composers as David Raksin (“Laura”) and Leonard Rosenman (“East of Eden”), all of whom worshiped Schoenberg like a god. Another was pianist Leonard Stein, who went on to teach generations of L.A. composers including setting La Monte Young on his way to writing the 1960 Fluxus piece that had an L.A. Phil pianist feeding hay to a piano in front of Disney Hall on Thursday night. Anything really does go.
The Hear Now program I attended Friday night at Zipper Concert Hall featured, of all things, the West Coast debut of an excellent French new music ensemble, TM+, which has next to no exposure on this side of the Atlantic. It will be interesting to find out what the crack players and their excitingly precise conductor, Laurent Cuniot, tell their compatriots at home what they found to be L.A. music.
The program included a fanciful percussion concerto by William Kraft, who at 95 is the dean of Los Angeles composers. Another nonagenarian, Scottish composer Thea Musgrave, who turns 91 this month, was represented by a quirky piece for piccolo and piano that took its inspiration from Couperin. “Piccolo Play” was just the thing to electrify the French flutist Gilles Burgos.
What with the troubles in Venezuela, this is a good time to recall that L.A. Opera once commissioned Musgrave, whose West Coast activities go back to 1970 when she first started to teach at UC Santa Barbara, to write an opera about Simón Bolívar starring Plácido Domingo. A budget deficit was the reported reason why the opera was never staged.
Most of the TM+ program, by the way, included works for what is known as the Pierrot ensemble — a quintet of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano — since that is what Schoenberg employed in his groundbreaking 1913 work, “Pierrot Lunaire.” UCLA composer Kay Kyurim Rhie’s “Threshold” demonstrated post-Schoenberg complexity. Cal State Long Beach composer Alan Shockley’s percussive “candlepin.bowling.deadwood” took its cues from a drum set (replacing the violin). L.A. Phil principal timpanist Joseph Pereira’s “Glimpse” showed that anything can be percussion if you let it.
None of these pieces in any way resembled the other. That each had to be taken on its own terms felt fresh and surprising. This was especially true for Kraft’s Concerto for Percussion and Chamber Ensemble, despite the fact that it was written in 1993 and was the oldest of the works. It also gave TM+ a lesson it didn’t particularly want in how to do things the seat-of-your-pants American way.
The ensemble’s percussionist couldn’t get a visa at the last minute for inexplicable reasons — a congressman’s call to the U.S. embassy in Paris went unanswered — so a young Angeleno, a former student of Pereira’s at USC, was drafted and learned the difficult score in four days. He was terrific hitting mallets and drums and junkyard automobile springs deconstructing a Revolutionary war tune. His name is Jeff Grant. A career awaits. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that L.A. music is what it is because we let musicians come here and not because, like now, we kept them out.