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Entertainment & Arts

Amplifying the links between art and music at the Hammer

Wild Up ensemble music director Christopher Rountree conducts during rehearsal at the Hammer Museum on July 12, 2012.
(Ricardo DeAratanha, Los Angeles Times)

When Elizabeth Cline, a curator at the Hammer Museum in charge of engaging the public, went to see the chamber group Wild Up play at Beyond Baroque, she didn’t know quite what to expect. She’d heard that the group was unconventional, but she wasn’t exactly sure what that meant until she got there.

Between the crowd, younger and more like what you’d see at a club than the classical audience she expected, and the group, telling stories before each piece, playing with an infectious energy, Cline could tell that something unusual was happening as Wild Up played computer music, punk rock and a piece written for player piano.

She was struck not just by Wild Up’s informality and sense of discovery but also by its ragged spirit: Although most musical groups aim to become more than the sum of their parts, this one was very deliberately about its parts, “showcasing individuals, instead of just instruments,” as she recalls. The group, she realized, was “an artist collective rather than a collection of musicians.”

Christopher Rountree, a boyish, sandy-haired 29-year-old who is the group’s conductor and music director, sees his job as to draw out what’s distinctive about each of Wild Up’s 24 musicians — many of whom are also composers whose work is performed at its concerts. “It comes from the feeling of being part of a large ensemble,” he says. “That’s the biggest complaint from people in those groups, that their voices can’t be heard. So we wanted a group where everyone’s voice is heard.”

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Classical music, for centuries, has had an anarchic, genre-busting side alongside another dedicated to orthodoxy and purity. But that spirit has been surging recently in Los Angeles, with the recent experimental opera efforts, scruffy series like Classical Underground and even some of the eclectic programming of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

New York City – home to two of Rountree’s models, Alarm Will Sound and the International Contemporary Ensemble as well as, rumor has it, several more mainstream musical organizations, may be experiencing a similar transformation.

Cline decided she wanted to bring Wild Up to the Hammer — not just for a concert or two, but for a six-month residency that would amplify connections between the worlds of art and music.

The fruit of this union was a July concert that began with a conductor in a cowboy hat, a menacing toreador, the sound of tumbleweed being rolled through the museum’s courtyard, and the twangy strains of Ennio Morricone’s music for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns.

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By the end of the afternoon, the group had launched ping-pong balls into the air in a tribute to minimalist composer LaMonte Young, and offered a meditative, early-music version of Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” accompanied, as it happened, by helicopter in a particularly delicate passage. This was not the only place where the city seemed to be conflicting with – or filling out – the group’s music: What police sirens smashed through a song by indie-rock heroes Magnetic Fields, and what sounded like a fire truck roared through the climax of a gnarly early Schoenberg piece.

Over the last few decades, visual art has often become as much about its own making as about a finished object. The Hammer hopes to make Wild Up’s residency function in that spirit — a kind of cross-section of the creative process. All the group’s three dozen or so performances are free, and its often talky, sometimes contentious rehearsals are open to the public too.

“What happens when you make everything open is you reveal the process,” Cline says. “It connects with a lot of what’s happening in Los Angeles in performance art, in process-oriented art.”

Rountree (nephew of longtime Music Center President Stephen D. Rountree) still gets excited talking about the way the group came together a few years ago. For him, it resembles “the magic moment in a movie when the team is being assembled,” in such films as “Ocean’s Eleven.”

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Rountree himself had heard some classical music growing up in Irvine, but he listened more intently to Weezer and played trombone in a ska group and his high school marching band. It wasn’t until his first year of college, when he bought Carlos Kleiber’s recording of Beethoven’s symphonies and soon after the Philip Glass opera “Einstein on the Beach” that classical music knocked him sideways.

He began building his band of outsiders in 2010 by connecting players he knew from the University of Michigan, where he studied conducting as a graduate student, with a number of CalArts alums from various corners of the classical and new-music worlds. Their tastes and expertise come from all over the place — Wild Up, he says, includes rockers, free-jazz players, classical minimalists and “Lou Harrison-microtonal types.”

A look at the musicians’ bios proves that eclecticism is no boast. Chris Kallmyer, for instance, is a sound artist who plays bass guitar and … laptop. Erin McKibben plays flute and bagpipes. Richard Valitutto knows his way around a piano as well as a gamelan.

“At least half of the group has been in a rock band,” Rountree says. “That’s something most of us share, and it affects the way we rehearse.” To make things even less predictable, some of the pieces they play are composed by several members of the group — all at once.

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Rountree has seen some success as a globe-trotting young conductor, with guest spots in Europe and a standing freelance gig with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. “Rountree punches out rhythms as if they were going out of style,” The Times’ Mark Swed wrote of one of his performances. “He emphasizes outsized emotions.”

Rountree could build a career taking that kind of praise on the road more often; when he was leaving school, some musicians told him to conduct in as many places as he could, or to become a full-time assistant conductor somewhere.

But he considers his real accomplishment — and ambition — the assembling and maintenance of his group.

At this point, his role is as organizational as it is musical: His days are spent furiously returning calls and emails to keep the group booked, to keep them rehearsing, and to find ways to make the small sums the musicians are earning so far into something “more sustainable.”

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“One of the new paths for a conductor is to make something,” he says. When he graduated from Michigan, “I didn’t just want to have a concert, I wanted to make something. I wanted to make art.”

The art he’ll be making at the Hammer is impossible to describe succinctly, in part because each of the full concerts (as opposed to shorter events they’re calling chamber pieces) will include at least one long piece and as many as eight shorter ones.

“For each concert, we want certain things to be represented,” he says. “Classical music, new music, something composed by the group, vernacular music,” which includes blues, folk or rock, “and something with theatricality involved.”

For the group’s recent courtyard concert, the second of the residency, in the museum’s courtyard, the mix of Morricone, the Beach Boys, jazz eccentric Eric Dolphy, and others somehow worked, though some may’ve craved an arc to the show, a sense of how all the disparate music added up. It could have all been a big, foolish stunt, but somehow the range was, at its best, energizing.

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Wild Up’s next proper concert at the Hammer is called “Bach-BQ,” which will -- and won’t -- be about Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto. Open rehearsals starting Aug. 16 lead to a concert on Sept 1. The group will have its way with all six Brandenburg Concertos, radically redrawing each one by, for instance, adding improvisation, transcribing an entire concerto to solo trumpet or giving one piece a backing of rock instruments.

It’s part of a busy month for Wild Up: The group will also be ensemble-in-residence this week with UCLA with American Composers Orchestra, which means they’ll be teaching and, on Saturday, performing a concert at Schoenberg Hall of the music of several members of the band, Anne LeBaron, George Lewis and others.

Cline likes the idea of people dropping by the museum to see its biennial show “Made in LA” and being drawn in to the musically unintentionally. Maybe the musicians will get inspired by some of the art, or the museum staff will pick something up from the music. Who knows?

“My job,” Cline says, “is to produce conditions for experimentation to happen.”

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