Last night at the Center for New Music (C4NM), Danny Clay curated the latest installment in his don’t be a stranger series, conceived as a platform for (in Clay’s words) “amazing folks to share the weird and wonderful things they’re doing for the world of music, both in the Bay Area and beyond.” That last qualifier was particularly appropriate last night, since the program, entitled The Only Place, involved a meeting of minds from Los Angeles and San Francisco. The title was meant to reflect the proposition that “the only place” shared by the participating music makers from Los Angeles and San Francisco was California itself, “our golden home state.”
The program for the evening was thus a convergence of new music created through organizations based in Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively. The Los Angeles side featured three composers affiliated with the composer-run collaborative Synchromy; and San Francisco was represented by Wild Rumpus, a chamber ensemble building repertoire through a vigorous commissioning effort reinforced by intense collaboration with the composers commissioned. The seven works on the program were all performed by Wild Rumpus musicians.
True to the spirit of Clay’s title for the series, five of the seven works on the program were written by composers based in Los Angeles, two of whom were on hand for the occasion. Both of them had created vocal works, providing a platform for Wild Rumpus soprano Vanessa Langer. Text sheets were not provided; but Langer’s diction definitely captured the spirit of the words, along with much of their clarity.
Nick Norton’s “Beach Song” was the product of a break-up that took place on the very first day of 2012. The result was a rock song with electronic instrumentation that was recorded for an album but never performed before an audience, since it really did not fit into a rock show. After another break-up at the end of last year, Norton rearranged the song for Wild Rumpus with a few changes in the lyrics.
In the new instrumentation Langer performed with Sophie Huet on clarinet, Weston Olencki on trombone, Margaret Halbig on piano, Joanne de Mars on cello, Eugene Theriault on bass, and Mckenzie Camp on percussion. The overall feel seemed to parody the lounge-lizard scene, rather than the pop-rock world. Langer pulled off a deadpan delivery that offered enough hints of comic undertones to make the performance an engaging one.
In sharp contrast Jason Barabba’s composition, “cry, trojans, cry,” took its text from William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. However, the song has no relation to Shakespeare’s play other than the appropriation of his words. Curiously, Barabba used the same instrumentation as Norton, although the effect was radically different. The music itself emerged as a study in anguish in which, because of the setting, the words themselves would drift in and out of focus. There was a strong impression that Barabba had put a lot into this relatively brief (less than ten minutes) song, much more than could be grasped by a single listening experience. Hopefully, Wild Rumpus will keep this music in their active repertoire.
The program also featured two solo performances by Olencki, both by Los Angeles composers. Richard Valitutto’s “Walk of Shame” was written for Los Angeles trombonist Matt Barbier, who performed in a concert entitled The Other Side of Valentine’s Day. Like “Beach Song,” this amounted to a jaundiced view of love refracted through a diverse range of trombone sonorities that included some (deliberately?) spooky multiphonic effects. Scott Worthington’s “Unphotographable,” on the other hand, was probably originally written to be played on bass, which is the composer’s own performing instrument. The emphasis was on resonant sounds reinforced by computer-based electronics; and the resonances of the trombone were sufficiently compelling that one would not have thought the piece had originally been written for another instrument.
The final Los Angeles composer on the program was Joshua Carro, who wrote “Spectral Fields in Time” on a Wild Rumpus commission. For this piece Huet exchanged her clarinet for a bass clarinet, performing with Olencki, Theriault, Camp, and Halbig, along with Giacomo Fiore on guitar. The title suggests a “family resemblance” (in the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein) to the “spectral music” movement in France, in which complex sonorities are evoked through innovative combinations of instruments, rather than through electronic synthesis. “Spectral Fields in Time” appeared to be based on a single “fundamental” pitch in the low register, which passed from one instrument to another while the other instruments explored variations in the “upper harmonics” of the resulting sonorities. The premise was intriguing; and, by clocking in at less than a quarter of an hour, the piece never strained the expressiveness of the ensemble or the patience of the listener.
A similar study in sonority could be found in the opening selection, “Balance of Power” by Wild Rumpus’ co-founder and outgoing Artistic Director Dan VanHassel. Huet again played bass clarinet, this time with Olencki, Theriault, Camp, Fiore and Halbig, this time joined by de Mars. Once again there was the effect of a strong fundamental; but this time it was enhanced by harmonic progression through a rhetoric based on both repetitive structures (departing, once again, from any distorting use of the term “minimalism”) and some highly imaginative rhythmic complexity coming from Camp’s percussion work.
The remaining work on the program was Berkeley-based Ursula Kwong-Brown’s “Sonnet XX.” This was not written for Wild Rumpus. Rather, it was the piece with which Kwong-Brown won the 2014 Bowdoin International Music Festival composition prize. It is a solo cello piece based on the last sonnet in a cycle by Pablo Neruda, whose opening line is (in English translation) “Tonight I can write the saddest lines.” Leighton Fong performed it for a Left Coast Chamber Ensemble concert in June of 2014, and last night it was performed by de Mars. As virtuoso cello music, it was an impressive piece of work; and de Mars certainly knew how to deliver those impressions. However, Kwong-Brown’s ear Neruda’s poetry never quite rose to the level of her ear for cello sonorities.