Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
Arms and the Band
May 14, 2012
Saturday wrapped up the second full season of performances from Los Angeles’ young new music collective wildUp. I'm going to miss them immensely over the summer (although word has it their plans for later this year involve some pretty spectacular soon-to-be-revealed collaborations.) Why I’ve come to admire this ensemble so much is that they offer something you can't find in too many other venues around town and Saturday’s program was fully representative of that. The group isn’t about just trotting out a few new works that they play for contrast with more familiar bait for potential ticket buyers. Nor is the ensemble simply about revisiting 20th century rarities and and under-programmed European modernists. No, wildUp is about the moment, making the music that they want to hear now and sharing their excitement about it with a community of people interested in living, breathing composers experimenting and finding their way in the musical world. Maybe not every piece comes off as a winner and not every note is great, but the energy and excitement is undeniable. The evenings that the players organize under director Chris Rountree are not about history. They are about playing music now and they are not to be missed.
Saturday’s program played off one of the group’s current venues, the Pasadena Armory Center for the Arts a former armory that has for several decades been home to a large thriving community arts and education program. Rountree and his colleagues couldn’t ignore the underlying implications of transforming such a space from a place of preparing for war to one of hopefully peaceful artistic production. The show built on these tensions with works about war and peace and the sometimes fine line between the two. Four of the woks were new compositions from members of the ensemble, which were joined by another new commission from local composer Nicholas Deyoe. The only dead guy on the program was Igor Stravinsky whose L’Histoire du Soldat rounded out the show in a 1993 version with rewritten text for the score by author and pacifist Kurt Vonnegut.
First up were the guns and ammunition. Andrew Tholl’s Still Not a Place to Build Monuments or Cathedrals kicked things off with an angry blaze of sound including electric guitar riffs that would have made Glenn Branca proud. The mood changed, but the chaotic swirl towards the inevitable didn’t. This was followed by Andrew McIntosh’s Inch and Mile, which, we were told, was written using just intonation, and slowly built from smaller units to more declarative rhythmic ones as an analogy of how small conflicts can lead, by a series of unexpected smaller events to larger ones. I was taken with the manner the work snuck up on the listener bit by bit it one of the night's highlights. Mr. Deyoe’s work, A New Anxiety, was a commission Rountree asked for to be based on the work of death metal bands like Slayer. Deyoe, no stranger to working with electric guitar sounds excitedly dove in and delivered the decibels and joyful exuberance one might expect from such a request.
The “peace” part of the show which followed the break had its most serene moment with Rountree’s own For Allen Ginsberg, which was built around specific chants used in Ginsberg’s own work and offered an opportunity for several performers to offer up flowers in remembrance of both Ginsberg and the peaceful causes he represented. Then came Chris Kallmyer’s Here We All Are Moving Forward. Kallmyer is as much a sound artist as a composer and things are never quite as straight forward as they seem. After receiving the commission to write a piece inspired by Palestrina and the music of William Byrd, Kallmyer wanted to produce a work that was alos political without being too didactic. What he created was a system to translate data about Iraqi casualties during the recent Iraq war into corresponding rhythmic elements that were then used as underpinning for something more reflective of the work's early music inspiration. The work was cleverly open-ended the incessant clicking rhythm constantly hoovering in the back of some beautiful melodic overlay that could be read either as a cause for hope or a reminder of our persistent ability to maintain such a great distance between that quality and our reality.
It was at this point the group turned to Stravinsky’s rude, jarring work about a soldier dealing with the devil. As conductor Rountree pointed out from the podium, it’s a bit of an odd work in that Stravinsky’s soldier, whose story occurs in bursts in between the music, is armed with a violin and not a gun and never sees much combat. Vonnegut saw this as an insult given his own combat experience and set out to replace the work’s original text by C. F. Ramuz with an ironic, more-pointed alternative story based on the life of Eddie Slovik, a WWII U.S. soldier executed for desertion – in fact the first to be so treated since the Civil War. There’s a bitter taste here making Stravinsky’s music sound even more sardonic than usual and a cast of four actors were stationed high above the orchestra on an overlooking balcony where a farcical version of Slovik’s desertion story and execution played out. It's highly reminiscent of Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis in its direct assault on human cruelty and was a wonderful addition to the program. Rountree did a great job is coordinating this stop-start piece between orchestra and actors even if not all the acting was what one might have hoped for.
And so the wildUp audience, which grows bigger and bigger at each performance, was once again left wanting more. And it appears at this point that wildUp has every attention of providing that into the foreseeable future. It's an experiment that has touched off excitement in a local community of young composers and musicians, and we in Los Angeles are luck to have them.
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