'Conducting' is when you draw 'designs' in the nowhere -- with a stick, or with your hands -- which are interpreted as 'instructional messages' by guys wearing bow ties who wish they were fishing.
Neither bow ties nor a desire to be elsewhere were much in evidence on Friday evening as a 10-member contingent of wildUp, plus conductor Christopher Rountree, took to the stage at REDCAT to premiere pieces commissioned from the three winners of the 2015 edition of the American Composers Forum National Composition Contest.
For most contemporary composers, the challenge lies not so much in getting a new work a first performance as it does in ever getting it a second. These three ACF composers—Nina C. Young, Alex Temple, and William Gardiner—can now settle in to worrying about their works' third performances, as wildUp performed each of them twice in the course of the evening. The initial rotation was Young/Temple/Gardiner. A discussion with the composers followed. Young, currently in Rome as a recipient of the aptly-named Rome Prize, appeared via a taped Skype conversation. After the interval, the pieces were performed reordered: Gardiner/Young/Temple.
For a listener, hearing any piece of music for the first time poses the challenge of "finding the way in" on the fly. Popular music is popular, in part, precisely because its structures, rhythms, hooks and other devices offer immediate ease of entry. Much the same is true of pre-20th Century Classical/Romantic repertoire: familiarity with the modes and methods typical of that repertoire allows listeners to orient themselves as those tools are used in expected or unexpected ways in a previously unheard example. On first approaching a 20th Century or contemporary "new music" work, a listener's efforts to hear it in a meaningful way may be thwarted by the fact that its makers have a grant of essentially unlimited discretion to adopt or reject the conventions and techniques of their forebears. Even a recondite, abstruse piece becomes more fathomable when heard with the benefit of the memory of having heard it at least once before. A good recording of a piece can allow for the sort of recurring exploration that eventually allows a listener "to know it for the first time." In the case of Friday's premieres, a second hearing in live performance provided much the same service.
Of the three works on offer, Nina C. Young's "When Eyes Meet" likely gained the most by being played twice, simply because its methods call so little attention to themselves and are accordingly difficult to grasp at as they waft past for the first time. It especially gained by the addition of the composer's comments on her conception of the piece, which draws on the simultaneous potency and discomfort that grows from direct contact, particularly eye contact, with another human. On second hearing, it began to share its secrets, as a Dutch still life might do. A third hearing would be a welcome opportunity.
William Gardiner's "Chiaroscuro" possesses subtleties of its own, but they work around the periphery of a feature that cannot be ignored: a chthonic, viscerally resonant MIDI-controlled bass tone that looms and withdraws, attacks and releases, the deep dark ground against which the other players flash out in contrast. It made an immediate impression on first encounter, and rewarded a second descent to hang suspended in its cavernous center.
REDCAT was a nearly full house, and each performance was enthusiastically applauded. The most boisterous response was reserved for Alex Temple's "The Man Who Hated Everything," a tribute to and critique of the late Frank Zappa, chock full of sly humor, frenetic improvisation, and guilty pleasure. In a piece that ended with a sung litany of the things, innumerable, that Zappa hated, the first two thirds exemplified much that he undeniably loved: doo-wop harmonies, rapid fire wildly melodic tuned percussion, post-Coltrane free jazz, the rigorous modernism of Varèse, all thrown together as if without care or without caring, yet with precision and a desire that each bit be heard, through and through. Zappa hated stupidity and ignorance, as he saw them. more than anything, and this piece is anything but stupid or ignorant. It is also a total blazing hoot. Two times through was, in this instance, just enough to whet the aural palate for many more.
It is in the nature of wildUp that the group rarely plays music that does not, in some way, genuinely excite its members. That excitement and the commitment to giving the best possible account in the moment poured through in each performance of each piece. The composers in the room were likely well pleased. A proper fine night for new music, this was.
Photo by the blogger; taken in summer 2014 on Ventura Boulevard, directly across the street from the Sherman Oaks Galleria, a shopping mall hated but nevertheless immortalized by FZ (and daughter Moon) in "Valley Girl".
The blogger citizen music journalist attended this performance via a complimentary press ticket, but would definitely have attended as a paying customer had that opportunity not come his way.