ALBUM REVIEW: The Edge of Forever featuring The Industry & wildUp

by Seth Tompkins

The release of the recording of the chamber opera The Edge of Forever by Los Angeles-based experimental opera company The Industry and modern music collective wild Up is a triumph. However, it is difficult to succinctly encapsulate exactly why this complex release is so tremendously special; some (ok, maybe a lot of) background information is needed first.

The Edge of Forever is a piece that is intentionally bound to a specific time and a specific place. This recording documents a performance that occurred on December 21, 2012. You may remember that date as a moment when various sources predicted an apocalypse of one sort or another because of that date’s association with the ending of the ancient Mayan Long Count calendar. The Edge of Forever is associated with that moment as well; this piece was inspired by the end of the Mayan calendar. Its association with this specific moment in time led its creators to perform it in public only once. This piece will never be performed again; luckily, we have a recording! To be fair, however, the released recording of the piece does contain some post-performance studio addition, but they serve only to recreate the experience of the live performance.

In addition to being tightly bound to a specific moment in time, this piece was designed to be performed specifically in its chosen venue. That venue was Los Angeles’s Philosophical Research Society. This institution is dedicated to the study and preservation of wisdom traditions from around the globe and throughout time, operating without evangelical doctrine. The Edge of Forever was designed to be staged specifically in this space, using various spaces at the Society as the narrative unfolded.

It is also important to note the mission of the Philosophical Research Society, as its devotion to cross-cultural learning and the wisdom of disparate cultures hints at the themes of transcendence and unity that emerge from every element of this piece as it unfolds. All of the major elements of this piece, both obvious and obfuscated, serve these themes. The composer (Lewis Pesacov) and the librettist (Elizabeth Cline) deserve high praise for their success in fusing the elements of The Edge of Forever into a deep and unified whole.

Elizabeth Cline Headshot

Elizabeth Cline. Photo Credit: Suzy Poling.

Lewis Pesacov Headshot

Lewis Pesacov. Photo Credit: Michael Leviton

Before exploring this recording, it might be helpful for listeners to brush up on their ancient Mesoamerican theology. However, if that idea is not appealing, the liner notes explain things adequately. Basically, according to the mythological explanation given in the liner notes, a chosen sacrificial individual was prophesized to transcend the previous era of time (pre-December 21, 2012) and act as a bridge into the next era of time through the fulfillment of a great love. That individual is the main character of this opera, La’akan.

Interestingly, and very much in line with the temporal focus of this work, the performance begins in what the creators call the “third act” of the opera. The first two acts are written to have already happened, so the audience joins the action in progress as the third act begins. The liner notes provide a somewhat-detailed account of the story up to the start of the third act. The music of this piece in divided into the five scenes (five tracks) of Act III.

As the recording begins (joining the story in scene 1 of Act III), La’akan is in seclusion, waiting for his beloved, Etznab, to appear. When the lovers are united, the prophecy states that this era of time will end and the new one will begin. Scene 1 is a “procession of the scribes.” The scribes here are four sopranos singing wordless tones that have a distinct “early-music” flavor. Overall, though, it would be difficult to confuse this music with its antique counterpart, given the striking quavering of the voices. This ancient-sounding music gradually transforms into quite modern sounds that remind me of a hypothetical chamber version of Ligeti’s Requiem (1965). The scribes are on a pilgrimage to the caves where La’akan is in seclusion so that they may witness the transformation of one era of time into another. The music of scene 1 is completely a cappella.

Scene 2 is an entr’acte. Temple bowls, I believe, augmented by electronic drones begin this movement. Later, strings and winds enter as this instrumental movement builds to a stirring climax that is at once uplifting and foreboding. The music then fades to a light electronic drone and strings enter. A mournful cello solo continues this movement, supported chiefly by percussion and light backup strings. The movement finishes with meditative drumming that should put even the most resistant or confused listener in the right frame of mind to accept the cosmic and transcendent musical scenes to come.

Scene 3 is quite brief. In this recitative, La’akan sings for the first time, singing the first English words in the piece. As scene 3 blends into scene 4 (an aria), La’akan describes his seclusion. He has focused solely on love, and abandoned all other desires. The instrumental music that accompanies La’akan during scene 4 features the soprano sax and English horn prominently, along with percussion. The sounds made by these two woodwind instruments here strongly resemble the sounds of the Tibetan gyaling. As Scene 4 ends, string imitate these sounds and carry us into Scene 5.

Scene 5 closes the piece with a second aria. As the piece enters this new sonic space that will eventually leave the audience in a warm bath of cosmic joy, a lovely English horn and soprano sax duet sets the tone. The woodwind playing could scarcely be more different that the bristly sounds of Scene 4; this dichotomy highlights both the versatility of the players and the skill of Pesacov, who has managed to compose with admirable economy, using the full expressive range of the instruments.

As Scene 5 progresses, La’akan reveals that the time has come for him to unite with the beloved and usher in a new age. His beloved is neither seen nor heard, but through the music, her presence is clear. The vocals here are accompanied by the full ensemble, but the drum and bells feature prominently. As the piece ends, the music coalesces around a single pitch, fading out in a gesture that suggests an ultimate unity. This might not seem an obvious way to end a piece about a topic that was popularly associated with an apocalypse, but after taking in the narrative of this version of the story, it makes perfect sense.

Much of the music in Scene 5 is reminiscent of John Adams’s The Dharma at Big Sur. Both pieces are deeply spiritual, but approach spirituality from apparently opposite directions (mythology vs spiritual commune with nature). One particularly tantalizing possibility about the source of this similarity might be fact that Adams’s Dharma is also about an “edge,” although a much more concrete edge; the John Adams piece is about standing on the western edge of the American continent. Whatever the true source of their similarity, it is fascinating and pleasing that they end up in similar sonic spaces, but ultimately not surprising, given the orientation of The Edge of Forever toward multifaceted transcendence of apparently unrelated realms.

This overarching themes of unity and transcendence are everywhere in The Edge of Forever. First, it is inside the narrative: it is present in the element of the bridging of two eras of time, the more simple union of a lover with their beloved (who may or may not be supernatural), and the union of humanity with the cosmic through the timeless power of love. This last element of the narrative focuses on the power of love and unity to transcend the human time scale. In the words of the librettist, “one can find forever in each moment.”

These themes are also written into this piece through the composer’s use of the ratio at the heart of the Mayan calendar. The Mayan calendar in question here is built upon the ratio 13:20, and the complex interactions of those two numbers. The Maya were able to use this simple method of counting to understand time scales of cosmic proportions which otherwise would be outside the realm of human comprehension.

Pesacov uses these numbers and this ratio to generate most of the musical structures (both large and small) in the piece. Excitingly, however, the overall effect is not that of a piece created by the cold application of numerals, but rather a lovingly conceived narrative supported by tasteful and interesting instrumental writing. The successful coexistence of these two seemingly opposing motivations is evidence of the composer’s skill.

Here, too, then, is transcendence woven into this piece in two ways: the Mayan calendar itself suggesting the extension of the human mind into otherwise unreachable territory while the construction of musical structures using its elements unifies numbers and musical expression into a beautifully multifaceted whole.

Pesacov also manages to work a third iteration of unity and transcendence into this score with his ingenious orchestration. The ensemble here is relatively small, but it is packed with instruments that have association with religions from around the world, thus deepening this piece’s commitment to transcendence. From Tibet, there are singing bowls (I think), the replication of the sound of the gyaling by the soprano saxophone and the English horn, and the conch shell. The conch is also found in the religious traditions of Pacific island nations, India, East Asia, the Caribbean, and (poignantly, in the case of this piece) Mesoamerica. Other instruments in this piece are common to religious traditions too numerous to name; drumming, bells, and a cappella singing are firmly in this category. So, even the instrumentation itself contributes to the themes of unity and transcendence in The Edge of Forever.

When I encountered this piece initially, the interesting story and beautiful performances of the players and cast drew me in. Then, the more deeply I explored this piece and its backstory, the more layers of connection (transcendence) I found. This tells me that Pesacov and Cline really knew what they were doing. The result of their multifaceted success is that any listener can enjoy this release; you can listen for the intricate construction and efficient writing or you can just sit back and enjoy the beauty of the thing, or both! Whatever your motivation, I think it would be difficult for any listener to experience The Edge of Forever without feeling the love.


ALBUM REVIEW: “you of all things” by Jodie Landau & wild Up

by Maggie Molloy

download (17)Most 23-year-old classical musicians are just beginning their careers: they’re fresh out of college, joining their first chamber groups or small-scale symphonies, maybe playing local concerts here and there, or preparing for grad school. But composer, vocalist, and percussionist Jodie Landau is not your typical 23-year-old.

download (35)He works with the acclaimed Los Angeles-based modern music collective, wild Up, as a performer, composer, and production manager. He’s toured and performed around the world, has collaborated with renowned classical and jazz groups alike, and recently even traveled to Iceland to collaborate on a concert and recording with Graduale Nobili (you know, the Icelandic choir that recorded and toured with Bjork for three years). As a solo performer, he sings while playing vibraphone and marimba.
Just consider that for a moment. How many vibraphonists or marimba players do you know? Probably not very many. And of them, how many sing while playing, compose their own music, collaborate with multimedia artists, and tour the world? Probably even fewer.

Did I mention Landau also recently released a new album with wild Up?

It’s called “you of all things,” and it features six vocal works by Landau, as well as works by Ellen Reid, Marc Lowenstein, and Andrew Tholl. In addition to composing over half of the works on the album, Landau also sings and plays vibraphone, crotales, bass drum, and piano on the recordings.

Of course, having an adventurous chamber orchestra to collaborate with certainly doesn’t hurt. Led by artistic director and conductor Christopher Rountree, wild Up is committed to creating visceral and thought-provoking musical happenings, transforming the concert space into a place without borders—a place filled with endless possibilities to connect and create with one (16)

In short, it’s the perfect group to perform Landau’s music, which merges elements of classical chamber music, rock, and jazz with multidisciplinary art forms such as live performance, film, theatre, and dance. The album features performances by Landau with wild Up and background vocals by Graduale Nobili.

And it all begins with “an invitation.” A short and sweet introduction to the album, Landau’s vocals swell with sincerity above clarinet motives and Graduale Nobili’s softly shimmering vocal harmonies.

But their voices take on quite a different role in the piece that follows: Ellen Reid’s “Orlando & Tiresias.” The piece is a striking and surreal duet between Landau and the chorus, with dynamic and textural contrasts so dramatic that the piece is at times almost reminiscent of a rock opera.

Landau’s “the taste of the room” sounds like something of a dissonant watercolor painting: strings, woodwinds, and wordless vocals blend together and sway apart to create a mesmerizing sonic landscape.

Speaking of painting, Landau incorporates a stroke or two of tone-painting in the beginning of his sweet and sincere “a ballad – for you dear.” Delicate harp ornamentation compliments his delicate lyrics as he sings of love, where “we dream and wake in heaven.” But the sweetness is short-lived, and the song transforms entirely as he encounters (and then overcomes) the greatest tragedy: heartbreak.

Marc Lowenstein’s two-part “This” is the most rhythmically adventurous piece on the album, though Landau remains in calm control of his vocals above the unrelenting, ominously dark, and at times even chaotic bed of instrumental textures.

The work is followed by a similarly ethereal piece by Andrew Tholl: “Memory Draws the Map We Follow.” A ghostly choir of vocal melodies floats above airy strings and a grim, growling bassline, drawing a meandering map of otherworldly haunts.

The album comes to a close with three more compositions by Landau. The first, “as I wait for the lion,” is a simple, swelling, and poignant piece that pulls on the listener’s heart strings with each and every pluck of the sparkling harp, each and every knock of the delicately twinkling percussion behind Landau’s heartfelt voice.

Landau’s vocals takes on more of a pop music aesthetic in “stay going nowhere,” a piece which combines the unrelenting energy of a rock song with the intricate orchestration of a chamber work.

But he saves the best for last: the most charming piece on the album is “as we sway,” a lovely and lyrical ballad with Landau’s warm, gentle voice humming above a delicate pizzicato backdrop. By the end of the album, it’s clear that this is a young man who is feels his emotions deeply and viscerally—and who is ready to explore them through the full spectrum of musical expression.

Not bad for a 23-year-old.

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