Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Switched-On Ray

May 02, 2007

Vicki Ray gets the job done
Photo: REDCAT 2006
The thirteenth season of Piano Spheres now at the Zipper Concert Hall wrapped up on Tuesday with a solo recital from one of our many great local keyboard talents, Vicki Ray. Ray is a member of the California EAR Unit and the Xtet and has been a leading light in the local contemporary music scene for many years including frequent performances with the LA Philharmonic New Music Group. It is always a pleasure to hear her play and the recital was not a disappointment. The program focused on recent and contemporary works that showed off Ray’s impeccable technique and her mastery of modern idioms. Opening the performance was Schnittkes’s Prelude and Fugue (1963), followed next by the US Premiere of James Tenney’s Essay (after a sonata) (2003) taking its inspiration from a theme from Ives "Concord Sonata". Ray then returned for the nine movements in Luc Ferrari’s Fragments du Journal Intime (rev. 1995).

The second half of the program was largely dedicated to the world premiere performance of a new work by Morton Subotnick written specifically for Ray. Subotnick has made his name in the area of electronic music over the last 40 or so years. His new piece, The Other Piano, stems from his interest in electronic processing techniques to (as he puts it) "capture a sense of ... pre-verbal-embodied musical experience by staying close to basic musical qualities." Ray performed a series of varying short and often repetitive sequences. These were recorded and then processed and played back simultaneously in altered form over a set of speakers while she continued to play. Subotnick himself ran the computer equipment used to sample the performance, altering the original tones into myriad wisps and echoes over the course of approximately 30 minutes. At first I liked the piece. The mechanical and spooky processed piano music provided a sort of post-modern commentary on piano performance. This was an "other" piano - one that neither sounds like or responds to our way of understanding a Piano, but at the same time may be one. But while this may be an interesting idea, it was somewhat boring in execution as there was little modulation in themes or tones throughout the work. At best, it sounded like the worst of Ligeti but often felt like it was about to fade into nothing. Maybe I’m biased, though. I’ve always found electronic “high art” music somewhat hard for me to tolerate, having grown up in an era where “electronic” music was heavily wedded to block-rockin’ beats. It’s hard for me to adjust to a real lack of rhythm in largely synthetic soundscapes. Of course without Subotnick and his peers, we might not have had the source material those beats would eventually spring from.

Still, Ray was wonderful, and overall it was a very enjoyable evening.

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