Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Local Color

June 02, 2012

Members of the What's Next? Ensemble Photo: mine 2012
Of the many challenges facing a composer, perhaps the greatest is getting your music heard. Even in your own backyard, something so straightforward can be so insurmountable. Los Angeles would seem ideally suited to addressing the problem. There is no shortage of highly talented, creative composers, musicians who love to play new music, and a large, active audience interested in hearing it played. And yet, surprisingly, never the twain do meet. Or at least not very often. Not that it never happens, but living composers stand a much better chance of getting heard on local stages if they are from out of town – and particularly if that town is somewhere in Europe. On Saturday night, the What’s Next? ensemble, a consortium of young musicians under artistic director Vimbayi Kaziboni, mounted their latest program aimed at addressing this very issue in Culver City. It was the fourth installment of the company’s Los Angeles Composers Project, a series devoted to performing chamber works from composers living and working in L.A. or around Southern California. These annual showcases have proven increasingly popular, and Friday’s crowd swelled beyond the capacity of the room in their current home at Royal/T Café. (Sadly this venue will soon be closing soon, forcing the group to look for a new home for performances next season.)

The interesting thing about the show, and the others in the series, have been the diversity of music and styles all held together under a single musical roof. The What’s Next? ensemble sets relatively few limits for the artists who submit works to be considered, outside of geography and available musical resources. There have been pieces from established and successful composers right alongside works from those still in music school. The contrast in terms of content, as you might guess from the preceding, can be vast from experimental descendants of late-20th century European modernism, to more typically tonal works ripped right off of screens both big and small. It’s all part of musical life in Los Angeles, and the What’s Next? players aim to capture at least part of all the different music made right where we live.

There were some lovely moments in Ian Krouse’s flute and harp duet, Air, as well as in Stephen Cohn’s substantial single movement for string trio and marimba, American Spring. Cohn's work, inspired by the numerous uprisings throughout the Middle East last year contained some lovely work from Ben Phelps on the marimba. The most theatrical moment of the evening came at the close of the program with Nick Norton’s open-form AutoSonata Beta, which built as each of 10 musicians entered the room one at a time taking positions surrounding the audience while playing a prescribed rhythm in a different pitch as set out in the rules of Norton’s score as an homage to experimentalist composers of the mid 20th Century. The music built to a crescendo and then subsided as players left one at a time much in the same way they entered like a wave crashing on shore and then receding. The longest title of the night belonged to Jason Barabba’s string trio, A Declarative Sentence Whose Meaning is That We Must Try Harder. Composer Kenji Oh contributed Tsuki No Uta, a setting of three poems about the moon by Ogura Hyakunin Isshu that were sung by tenor Matthew Miles with percussion, flute, guitar, and cello. The mysteries alluded to there were paralleled in more ironic fashion with Veronika KrausasOr for solo violin played here by Sakura Tsai. Series of paired alternating pitches are periodically broken with dramatic pizzicato as the work sways back and forth until ending in the spoken dichotomy, “enlightenment or insanity?”

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening, though, belonged to Shaun Naidoo’s Diaraby for solo guitar and electronics. Naidoo, a composer and faculty member of Chapman University, died unexpectedly just weeks before this concert. Naidoo had been a long term friend of many in the What’s Next? ensemble, which has previously performed his works. Naidoo's friend and Chapman colleague Jeff Cogan, for whom the piece was written, played Diaraby, which is based on a West African folk song paired with processed audio of the performance with random changes of the simultaneous playback. And while there is nothing essentially elegiac about the work, Cogan’s heartfelt performance was a reminder of one of the unique qualities of art as something that its creator leaves behind- a living echo of its creator. And for a moment Naidoo, a dear friend to many in the room, was there again sharing with a community of local composers and musicians. For an evening dedicated to the spirit of a local music community, it couldn't have been more fitting under the circumstances.


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