Cabrillo Festival, August 3, 2013

Fire Music

In his last interview with Charlie Rose, art critic Robert Hughes answered Rose’s ‘what do you look for’ question by stating tersely “intensity and coherence.” The first two pieces on last Saturday’s program achieved intensity but found themselves waffling on coherence. This was due in part because of expectations implied by the program notes submitted by composers Sean Friar and Thomas Newman—and reiterated by them verbally to the audience ahead of the performances.

Ostensibly a description of the ten minutes it would take a nature lover to escape the frantic noise of urban Los Angeles into one of its idyllic nearby canyon glades, Friar’s Noise Gate, a Festival commission getting its world premiere, promised that when certain sound layers fell below a pre-set loudness level (the noise gate) they would pass through and disappear. That would have been fine except for one thing: they had long since disappeared under the ever-resurging other layers of sound. Maybe those other layers were supposed to be much quieter than they actually were. Quarter tones added piquant dissonances to the welter of activity, warbling winds, à la Disney’s Fantasia, and occasional startling outbursts. Cabrillo conductors have often used the term ‘sound world’ to introduce new composers and their works, as did Carolyn Kuan in this case; applied more as a specific than a generalization, it certainly could have been a valid title for this piece. There was scant evidence of recognizable (meaning familiar) form and little indication of personal expressive purpose. But the ten-minute, vividly colorful Noise Gate definitely inhabited a sound world of its own.

Newman’s It Got Dark (2009), for amplified string quartet, recorded sound and orchestra, conflated sentimental recorded interviews of aging residents inhabiting coastal canyons, from Santa Monica to Topanga, with special electronic effects. The quartet appeared as ‘soloist’, in concertante play against the orchestra, and as part of the general ensemble. Originally commissioned as a chamber work for the Kronos Quartet, it subsequently added the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under an additional grant. For the Cabrillo occasion, a separate four-page handout provided background and texts for the eight discrete movements. The composer’s program notes establish a picture of a young couple in a rowboat on the banks of a canal in Venice, California, in 1917, “she wearing a hatthomas-newman-1350049530-view-0, looking at the squat palm trees across the water…he looking into the distance…” etc., etc. Somehow this colossal overload of information managed to come in at 28 minutes, and, with no small thanks to Kuan, preserved the contrasting character of its eight sections. Kuan and the four members of the Kronos Quartet all wore ear buds to (one assumes) keep the recorded material—which included other sounds besides the spoken recollections of the interviewees—clear against the opulent orchestral display. (David Harrington of Kronos told an interviewer that the finished piece was “beautifully and subtly overwhelming.”) In the third movement, Skipping Flat Loop, the Kronos players sustained an amusing circular effect. But I, for one, would have preferred to hear the piece as originally conceived, for quartet and recorded material, without orchestra. Even while it stayed light, it got dark in the freshly imprinted memory. What lingers in the mind is the fabulous Kronos playing, its brilliant virtuosity as called for and its graceful interaction with both the amplified effects and the conductor.

Enter Mason Bates’ Alternative Energy, a symphony in four movements for electronica (the composer’s ‘instrument’) and orchestra. Like the Newman piece, it too follows a programmatic narrative. But here both its ‘visual’ effects and its musical substance sustain a coherent progression. Bates, a four time Cabrillo resident composer, spoke of “sonic theater”, “symphonic space” and “finding sounds.” In turn, at his laptop and keyboard deep within the orchestra, he stepped across time from Henry Ford’s workshop in 1895, to wide-open Chicago in 2012, Xian Jian Province in 2112 and Reykjavik in 2222. Tinkering with mechanical parts, Ford finally gets his experimental internal combustion engine to crank into life, launching the age of modern energy consumpLydia Danmillertion. Chicago (the second movement) was introduced by Bates’ electronica with rumbling sub-woofer thunder claps that set the concrete Civic Auditorium trembling, then rocking to propulsive force from the orchestra. Xian Jian, 2112, witnessed the ultimate nuclear reactor meltdown that apparently wiped out most life on the planet. Reykjavik, in 2222 a tropical island thanks to runaway global warming, sees the reemergence of human activity. Concertmaster Justin Bruns introduced a fiddle tune in the first movement that provided the piece with its thematic anchor, and returned in the finale to signal the resurrection of rural human culture. Kuan, in her last appearance at Cabrillo this summer, triumphed once again. 

Photo credits: Carolyn Kuan by rr jones; Christopher Rouse by Jeff Herman; Thomas Newman with his Skyfall grammys; Mason Bates by Lydia Danmiller