ALBUM REVIEW: Los Angeles Percussion Quartet’s Beyond

by Seth Tompkins

The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet’s Beyond places intimacy front and center.  The delicate sonic encounters that permeate these two discs (or just one if you’re listening to the Blu-Ray) are not classic fodder for percussion ensembles.  While there are a smattering of grooves and some loud moments, Beyond leans much more strongly toward the ethereal and the delicate.  This forward-thinking curation, paired with LAPQ’s sensitive and thoughtful musicianship, makes this release a delight.

Daníel Bjarnason’s “Qui Tollis” is a microcosm of the whole of Beyond, with beckoning atmospheric figures framing a collection of engaging grooves that are made all the more striking by their juxtaposition with the gentle outer material.  This atmospherics-to-groove ratio and pattern runs through many of the individual pieces on this release, but also throughout the entire album as a whole.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Aura,” like much of her music, explores the boundaries of perception.  A collection of diverse and austere timbres unfolds throughout this piece as it plays with the edge of silence.  A deeply meditative piece, “Aura” benefits, as do many other pieces on this album, from listening in headphones or on a good surround-sound system.  Fancifully, “Aura” could be the musical version of experiencing an unfamiliar landscape: a place that, while neither particularly hostile nor favorable toward you, is captivating in its natural strangeness.

Christopher Cerrone’s transformational “Memory Palace” was the only piece on this release that was not new to my ears; Second Inversion recently released a video of Ian David Rosenbaum performing the entire work.  However, it was very interesting to experience the piece in an audio-only version.  In the video, the visual depiction of the enormous variety of instruments and performance techniques was a delight, but the audio-only performance on this recording offers a sense of intimacy and mystery that the video does not.  Ultimately, both performances are certainly worth a listen: they provide different ways of experiencing a tremendous piece that seems to have already staked out a lasting place in the percussion repertoire.

“Fear-Release” by Ellen Reid is an exercise in well-defined color palettes.  Most instruments used in this piece are metallic, although there are integral parts for marimba and bass drum.  This is perhaps a more traditional soundscape than some of the other pieces on Beyond, but it certainly matches the others in terms of its sophistication.  All five pieces on this release follow internal guiding principles—”Fear-Release” just happens to use a more traditional instrumentation within that same laudable compositional ethic.

Beyond closes with “I Hold the Lion’s Paw” by Andrew McIntosh.  This piece occupies nine tracks and comes packaged by itself in a separate disc (in the CD version).  This is a slightly puzzling setup until you take into account the listening note that accompanies this piece, which  recommends that this piece is best taken in its entirety.  This instruction makes sense, given “Lion’s Paw”‘s tendency towards percussive recitative. This is a slower burn than the other pieces on Beyond, but it is perhaps the most dramatic work on the album.

At many points during Beyond, it is easy to forget that you are listening to a percussion ensemble.  These moments, when the music itself becomes the primary focus, beyond any considerations of the instrumentation, performers, or extra-musical context, are rare—and the ability to deliver them is a triumph for any ensemble.  The fact that Beyond presents so many opportunities in which to become lost in the music is a credit to the curation of the quartet.  The construction of this collection deserves as much praise as the intelligent performances and thoughtful compositions contained therein.

ALBUM REVIEW: “Hopscotch” produced by The Industry

by Maggie Molloy

The opera tradition as we know it has always been lavish and large-scale—but never quite this large.

In 2015, the 21st century experimental opera troupe The Industry produced Hopscotch: a modern-day immersive opera experience collaboratively created by a team of six composers, six librettists, and over 100 artists. Massive in scope, the opera performances took place not in your traditional opera house, but rather, across the grand and sparkling stage of Los Angeles, California.

Photo credit: Casey Kringlen

That’s right: Hopscotch was staged in 24 cars and countless locations across Los Angeles, crafting a singularly extraordinary experience that was equal parts road trip, architectural tour, immersive theatre, and avant-garde opera.

Audience members were carted around the city in a fleet of limousines that were divided into three distinct geographical routes—each route featured eight chapters (a mixture of car rides and visits to undisclosed sites) lasting approximately 10 minutes each.

Photo credit: Casey Kringlen

The only limitation? You had to be in Los Angeles to experience it.

Well this year, the Industry has alleviated that restriction with the release of Hopscotch as an album—or more precisely, a key-shaped USB stick that you can plug into your computer or car.

Inspired by Julio Cortazar’s novel Rayuela (Hopscotch), both the live performance and the recording invite the listener to experience the narrative in a non-chronological order, and with multiple singers forming a composite of each individual character’s identity. So, without further ado, let’s meet the characters.

Hopscotch tells the tale of Lucha, an L.A.-based puppeteer who meets and marries a motorcycle-riding scientist named Jameson. But like all great scientists, Jameson loses himself in his explorations of the esoteric. Distraught, Lucha hallucinates an encounter with Jameson in the underworld and attempts, without success, to bring him back to life.

The story borrows heavily from the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (which is symbolically significant in that this myth was the basis of the world’s earliest surviving opera)—but unlike Orpheus, Lucha overcomes her grief and finds love again with a fellow performer named Orlando.

Photo credit: Casey Kringlen

Oh, and one other major difference: in Hopscotch, the narrative is nonlinear. The story is presented in episodic chapters which highlight moments of Lucha’s life, each episode acting as its own point of entry to (or a port of departure from) the overarching narrative. In the live performances, this allowed each of the three geographical routes to tell the story in a different order—and as listeners to the recording, we’re invited to experience the opera in any order we choose. Included in the digital CD liner notes is a series of suggested playlists ordered by original performance route, by composer, by librettist, by storyline, and by musical development.

“Opera is about layering—music, image, text, experience,” said Yuval Sharon, Founder and Artistic Director of the Industry, and the creative mastermind behind Hopscotch. “And that’s where Hopscotch is most operatic: it’s a project with many layers that intersect each other, offering each audience member a highly personal experience, their own combination of elements unlike anyone else’s.”

Photo credit: Casey Kringlen

The music itself is also highly personal. Each moment in the characters’ lives was shaped by a different composer and librettist, performed by a different ensemble, and was created in response to a specific street or site on the route. The only restriction? Each episode had to be 10 minutes in length—allowing the composers to play with the perception of time inside that specific life moment.

The published recording alternates between live and studio recordings, and between brief excerpts and full scenes. But even beyond those more structural variances, the music itself is also extraordinarily eclectic. The two-hour work bounces from soaring arias to infectious theatre riffs, twinkling lullabies to industrial static, free jazz and improvisation to surrealist choral soundscapes, rainy day ballads to Latin American folk melodies.

Photo credit: Casey Kringlen

And yet, somewhere amidst the swirling anarchy of avant-garde sound art and Baroque opera vocal stylings, the music takes on a much grander purpose. As the Industry’s Music Director Marc Lowenstein describes:

“From evocations of experimental music to musical theater to improvisations to folk traditions to large scale quotations of Monteverdi to installation music, from the intimacy of a single performer in a car with you to the grandness of using the entire city as a stage—as the opera hopscotches through our city, so does the music, always on a road, evoking different scenes, cultures, and sounds. A thousand paths.”

In fact, the opera is an entire web of musical and theatrical threads which connect and intersect in ever-changing ways, subject to each listener’s own experience and interpretation. Conceptually, the project is complex enough to write an entire book on (and in fact, the digital liner notes are 52 pages long), but as you travel through the swirling sonic landscape, the meaning behind the music becomes quite clear:
By creating a vibrant mosaic of so many different sounds, styles, composers, and performers, Hopscotch reminds us that Lucha’s story is also our story—and that we are all subject to these same transcendental experiences of time, memory, and perception.

Photo credit: Dana Ross

In the end, all paths converge and the opera climaxes with a live recording from the Central Hub, a temporary space on the performance route where all the journeys were live-streamed to create a dizzying panorama of life in the city—an ecstatic vision of community in Los Angeles.

“The Central Hub is the possibility of simultaneity,” Yuval Sharon said. “A circle where there is no differentiation between past, present, and future. Separate neighborhoods become one fluid landscape. And the mysterious logic that escapes you from chapter to chapter becomes completely legible, supernaturally, when you can see them all happening at the same time. In a city so infamously without a center, I think creating aspirational centers is crucial.”

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.

download (18)