New-music sounds in L.A. go their own way

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Along with the hot Santa Ana winds last month, musical Minimalism chugged through Southern California, spreading like, well, wild fire. The Los Angeles Philharmonic Minimalist Jukebox Festival, no longer an oddity as the first was six years ago, this time became a region-wide event with many organizations joining in.

America’s most celebrated composer and Minimalist Jukebox mastermind John Adams has called the style the most important development in modern music of the past half century. That the L.A. Phil remains unique among major orchestras in massively celebrating that fact made April, for us Minimalist mavens, heaven.

But let us not get carried away. We live in a big musical world. Over the past weekend, during the festival’s Philip Glass finale at UCLA, L.A. had already begun to turn its attention elsewhere.


The annual Hear Now festival of L.A. composers presented two dozen works in concerts in Santa Monica and Venice, Friday through Sunday. Minimalism was not on parade. The last Monday Evening Concert of the season at Zipper Concert Hall was devoted to young composers not connected with L.A. and not Minimalists.

Even the L.A. Phil has moved on. It ended its season of Green Umbrella concerts Tuesday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall with a New Music Group program of Modernist masters.

And guess what? There were far more young people animatedly whooping it up for the old guys in Disney than had shown up in trendy Venice to cheer on the local team or at Zipper, which happens to be the hall of the Colburn School, to get the latest news from Berlin and other happening places.

What this tells us is to be wary of trends. And brands.

A British newspaper recently dubbed L.A. the world’s most branded city, based on suspicious social media statistics. Maybe someone should tell the Brits that there is no L.A. sound.

Most L.A. composers come from somewhere else. They tend to bring their somewhere else with them and keep it. Of the many composers I heard at the Friday and Saturday Hear Now concerts, at the Monday Evening Concert and Green Umbrella, no two worked in similar styles.

But because of the far-flung nature of it all, there was sometimes an intriguing notion of hands across the sea and maybe hints of a nebulous zeitgeist yet to be identified.


Vicki Ray’s “Jugg(ular)ling” at Hear Now on Friday in Miles Memorial Playhouse, Santa Monica, is a playful take on her life as a busy L.A. freelance pianist, frantically fighting the freeways to get from one gig to the next. With a film in the background of jugglers, pianist Aron Kallay, violinist Shalini Vijayan and percussionist Yuri Inoo (all busy L.A. freelancers), had to keep up matching notes for ever more elaborate juggled balls and mallets on the screen.

Thomas Meadowcroft’s “The Great Knot,” which ended the Monday Evening Concerts’ program, is by an Australian composer living in Berlin. He found inspiration from an endangered species, the Great Knot, a bird that migrates from Siberia to Australia. The piece for three percussionists, Meadowcroft wrote in his notes, “attempts to approach the even horizon of the species’ extinction with a kind of perverted joy.”

I’m not quite sure what that means but there is more than a little joy to be found in one percussionist hitting a ball in the air with a ping-pong paddle, while the other two blew keening Baroque recorders and rubbed wet fingers on the rims of wine glasses.

And then there was “Joy”! Tuesday’s Green Umbrella ended with Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg’s half-hour harmonically rich chamber piece from 1989 that included a woozy synthesizer.

Back to Hear Now. Saturday’s concert ended with “Memoria,” a wind quintet by Lindberg’s best friend and old Helsinki school chum, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who is now an Angeleno.

Making connections can be, of course, a dubious business. But a few more were unavoidable. Friday’s Hear Now program, a collaboration with People Inside Electronics (an L.A. electroacoustic music series), began with Gernot Wolfgang’s “Theremin’s Journey.” More wonderful wailing, this time, played by Thereminist and pianist Joanne Pearce Martin, and taking its cue from the electroacoustic draught of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew.”


That evening ended with experimental jazz trumpet player Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith adding an extraordinary post-Miles style improvisation over an electronic music score by Barry Schrader, “Pacific Light and Water.”

People were virtually inside instruments Saturday night in Venice’s First Lutheran Church. Hearing Nick Norton’s crazy piano deconstruction, “All the Wrong Notes” was like sticking your head on rattling piano strings as Richard Valittuto banged away. William Kraft’s exuberant tuba solo, “Encounters II,” was the equivalent of a highly sensual tuba message by tuba great Doug Tornquist.

In general, the L.A. composers, several of whom write both for film and the concert hall, are more traditional, whereas the Monday Evening Concerts’ new voices were more playful and conceptual. Among the later was Timothy McCormack’s “Apparatus” for bass clarinet, cello and piano, containing two dramatic gestures and lasting a minute.

Besides “Joy,” the L.A. Phil New Music Group program, conducted by Jeffery Milarsky, began with British composer Harrison Birtwisle’s convoluted “Three Setting of Celan” with soprano Yeree Suh and Messiaen’s exuberant “Oiseaux Exotiques” (Exotic Birds) based on bird sounds (but leaving out the Great Knot) with pianist Ralph van Raat.

Performances were not up to the ensemble’s usual high standards. “Oiseaux Exotiques” was last played by the L.A. Phil in 2003, with pianist Gloria Cheng and conductor Pierre Boulez conveying a vast palate of exotic color. Tuesday’s performance was pedestrian. The L.A. bird may be the crow, but that doesn’t make it our brand.