Brooklyn Festival samples the new classical music of the borough
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Composer and French horn player Matt Marks, 33, has just completed writing a vocal and orchestral work for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the biggest commission of his life, but this Sunday afternoon in March he’s playing the ukulele at the New Music Bake Sale.
Marks has trim sideburns and a bowl of black hair with straight bangs above thick black glasses. Wearing a plaid sports jacket and an ironic grin, he is on stage at Roulette, a club in an elegant old Art Deco theater in a building owned by the YWCA, where USO dances were once the ticket.
With a bouncy rhythm, Marks sings, “Sul ponticello makes me mellow, prepared piano I can handle.” The musically savvy crowd laughs at his references to a string-bowing technique and an avant-garde music instrument and, at the end of the song, which has rhymed “weird scales” and “sautéed kale,” breaks out in applause.
The New Music Bake Sale is the fourth annual gathering of young classical musicians in Brooklyn, who have come together downtown to perform, party and make a little money selling “orgasm” brownies, black sesame cupcakes and, thanks to food blogger and percussionist Molly Yeh, ridiculously good Sriracha Cheez-Its.
This week the party (without the Cheez-Its) heads to the West Coast, as Marks and members of Brooklyn’s new generation of classical and pop composers are showcased in the Brooklyn Festival, a series of concerts from Tuesday to April 22, presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall and other venues.
“There are magical moments in artistic history where lightning strikes,” says Chad Smith, the L.A. Phil’s vice president of artistic planning, who conceived the festival with his colleague, Johanna Rees, senior programming manager. “There is something really interesting happening in Brooklyn right now.”
There really is. Marks and Ted Hearne, 30, the composers tapped for new works by the L.A. Phil, draw on influences so eclectic — Bing Crosby and Shostakovich, Gyorgy Ligeti and Kesha — that their expertly crafted works could sound perverse. In fact, Marks, who grew up in Downey (he won the same Downey High School music award as Karen Carpenter), loves themes that are perverse. In a 2010 chamber work, sung in concert by Hearne, a sailor on a pirate ship lashes out to a sex doll the men prefer to him. “I like things that are creepy,” Marks says.
All of the composers in the festival write music without borders, and though most of them did not grow up in New York, they have nestled in pockets of the legendary borough, and have electrified its musical culture. In part it’s an old story about upscale Manhattan and down-home Brooklyn.
“Manhattan is the city that never sleeps, but Brooklyn takes naps,” says Peter Silberman, 27. His band, the Antlers, featured in the festival, records its lyrical pop of twilight emotions in a loft on a sleepy outskirt of Williamsburg, hipster central in New York. “It’s just more conducive to create here. It’s a more expansive, experimental environment.”
This new classical scene took flight around 2005, when news of classical music’s death was greatly exaggerated, especially in music conservatories. “We were told the music industry is dying, publishers were going under, everything was a mess,” says composer David Little, 34, who earned his PhD from Princeton.
“So we didn’t wait around for an orchestra to call us and have our works done. We started ensembles, concert series, labels, clubs and just made it happen on our own.”
The adventurous L.A. music collective wild Up, conducted by Christopher Rountree (who has been an assistant conductor with the Brooklyn Philharmonic), will perform Little’s orchestral work, “Haunted Topography,” on Wednesday at REDCAT.
Jim Staley, founder and artistic director of Roulette, says the new Brooklyn music scene is just another step, begun with Steve Reich and Philip Glass in the ‘60s, of composers fleeing the citadels of classical music in uptown Manhattan. Staley was instrumental in the movement. He began producing avant-garde music and dance shows in his Tribeca loft in 1980, when John Cage and Merce Cunningham dropped in.
“The New Music Bake Sale is the same scene, 30 years later,” Staley says. “It’s the same energy, same creativity. Artists starting their own places. Manhattan just got too expensive and crowded out the artists and arts organizations.” Roulette was forced to move from Manhattan to Brooklyn in 2011, where it is now a hub of the new music world.
As for the sounds of the young composers now echoing in his club, offers Staley, an improvisatory jazz trombone player, “I don’t think anybody’s work is as challenging or controversial or experimental as Cage’s. But who knows whether people like him exist now. The new composers are always interesting and impressive.”
The Brooklyn Festival is only a snapshot of the borough’s sounds. Outside its frame are neighborhoods pulsing with homegrown hip-hop and jazz, electronica and music of people who passed through Ellis Island with accordions, balalaikas and rum-wood drums. Presenting that diversity is the impetus for the second annual “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” a three-day series of concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, starting April 25, curated by Bryce and Aaron Dessner, guitarists in the rock band the National, who also compose classically oriented works.
But the composers in the L.A. Phil’s festival — Bryce Dessner among them — contain Brooklyn’s multitudes in their own ways. You can feel it tonight at the Issue Project Room, a performance space inside an ornate marble hall in downtown Brooklyn. In a previous incarnation it could have been a theater in Renaissance Italy where you drank wine and swooned to Monteverdi. In fact it was built in the 1920s as a fraternal lodge for the Elks Club.
Tyondai Braxton, 34, is standing in front of an audience going “Ah, eh, oo, ee” into a microphone. Singer Sara Magenheimer is doing the same. Electronic composer Ben Vida is channeling their chants through synthesizers, transforming the dark hall into a tropical rain forest ringing with the most menacing and then lovely bird sounds you have ever heard.
Braxton, son of jazz great Anthony Braxton, is known for his searing guitar and singing in his former art-rock band, Battles. In the Brooklyn Festival, Alan Pierson, music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, will conduct the L.A. Phil New Music Group in a performance of “Central Market,” Braxton’s hyper-rhythmic kaleidoscope of songs for orchestra, guitar, tape loops and kazoos.
Making coffee in the kitchen of his small apartment in South Williamsburg, Braxton describes recently going to Lincoln Center to hear Debussy’s “La Mer.” He loved the music, he says, “but I was the youngest person there by decades, and I figured if I kept looking around I might find another black guy around there somewhere.”
The experience got him thinking about his fellow young Brooklyn composers and wondering, “Why am I flying to Los Angeles to have my music played by a major orchestra?” But then, he says, he had the New York Philharmonic to thank for the experience that jolted him out of his band and into full-time composing. He saw the orchestra perform “Ameriques” by modernist French composer Edgard Varese, perhaps the most violent roller coaster ride in 20th century music.
“I walked out of that show and said out loud, ‘I’m wasting my life,’” Braxton says. “You can’t listen to that as a composer who’s serious about form and harmony and texture and go home and say, ‘Cool, well, you know what? I’m going to write a song now.’ You have to reorganize what you want to do with your life.”
No single artist embodies the post-genre Brooklyn scene, but Hearne may be its most zealous auteur. At Brooklyn Public House, his favorite watering hole in his Fort Greene neighborhood, the speed-metal-fast-talking composer pinpoints what makes his generation matter.
“Music is not eternal,” he says. “It’s written for its time. It’s only good when it’s where your brain and humanity are at now.” Hearne, who wrote a song cycle, “Katrina Ballads,” in 2010, composed “Stem” for the Brooklyn Festival during another wound in the body public, the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre.
The work musically wrestles with the romanticization of violence and poison of celebrity. Future musicologists will have to sort out its samples — Ives, Copland, Britten, Adès — from Hearne’s own rhythms and timbres, tempos and counterpoints. “Meaning is only produced by friction between things,” Hearne says. He loves artists who blur the line between found art and their own, and he’s not sure if he read that line or thought it up himself.
On a Monday night at Jack, a performance space converted from a garage, Hearne is in his Brooklyn element. He is bathed in red light and surrounded by silver-foil walls. With Philip White producing the electronic beats and noise, Hearne is singing, auto-tuned, his and White’s version of a pop hit by Kesha. The dissembled beats have people dancing in contortions. As Hearne sings the words in random order, they seem to slice through the syncopated noise and reassemble into the original name of the song with a new meaning: “We are who we are.”
What and when: Green Umbrella with Alan Pierson and Tyondai Braxton, 8 p.m. Tuesday
What and when: Cameron Carpenter with the L.A. Phil, 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Carpenter organ recital 7:30 p.m. April 21
What and when: The Antlers and Chairlift, 8 p.m. Friday
What and when: “Planetarium” by Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner and Nico Muhly, 8 p.m. April 22
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown L.A.
What, when and where: wild Up, 8 p.m April 17 at REDCAT, downtown L.A.
What, when and where: Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Handel and Mozart concertos, 8 p.m Saturday at Alex Theatre in Glendale and 8 p.m April 21 at UCLA’s Royce Hall
Ticket and other information: https://www.laphil.com/tickets/brooklyn-festival
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