Hear Now Embraces Multiple Factions

In the bitches brew of our current national politics, we might take at least one important lesson: unchecked factions lead to feudal ideologies, all cloaked in armor behind walls of fear and hatred. What a bizarre way to begin discussing a new music concert. Yet each time I come away from the Hear Now Festival in Los Angeles, I’m struck by a community that resists this factional mindset. Hear Now does not promote any single stylistic aesthetic, and that’s a wonderful thing in our new music world. The concert I attended Friday May 3 at Zipper Hall made that point with superb, detailed performances by the French ensemble TM+ and local musicians playing music by five very different and skilled composers—Thresholdby Kay Kyurim Rhie, candlepin.bowllng.deadwoodby Alan Schockley, Piccolo Play by Thea Musgrave, Glimpse by Joseph Pereira, and Concerto for Percussion and Chamber Ensemble by Willam Kraft. 

Not that these composers were “light years” away stylistically. One could easily draw parallels to their focus on extended instrumental techniques and unique sound worlds. Nevertheless, Musgrave’s piccolo/piano duo and Kraft’s concerto live in a world where traditional pitch and harmony control the narrative, whereas texture and silence motivate Pereira’s quiet quartet of alto flute breaths, bass clarinet key clicks, piano tapping, and barely audible string effects. Hypnotic rhythmic grooves controlled the extended textures in Schockley’s piece, employing both a trap set and literal hand clapping by the performers.

New music concerts decades earlier did not offer that kind of stylistic variety. Serialists wouldn’t be caught dead having their music played alongside a textural experimentalist, let alone a neotonalist. Each style had its musical camp and followed “the one true musical style.” Even today, individual new music concerts largely avoid this mix. We attend concerts that are all post-minimal, all microtonal, all European complexity, all extended tonal, etc. There is tremendous investment in stylistic approaches and with it, often polite or petty dismissal of other frameworks. This was a poison bequeathed by Stravinsky and Schoenberg, a feudal world of sparring stylistic camps. How bad could it get? In the dying days of serialism (late 1980s), strict dodecaphonists scoffed at partition serialists who in turn scorned the total serialists, who in turn had no kind words for the non-systemized atonal composers. To anyclassical music listener outside these camps, this music sounded identical. But if you were in one camp, you hissed at the idiocy of the other. 

This is now ancient history. Since the 1990s, the tides have washed away those entrenched atonal camps, and with them, most of their music. What lingers still, though, is that most contemporary concerts insist on a single style. Not Hear Now. The festival this year continued to represent all the diversity of Los Angeles. It even included works by two talented high school students—Ben Beckman and Adam Karelin, both part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Composer Fellowship Program (and both who, incidentally, happen to be alums of my Los Angeles Youth Orchestra).

But back to the Hear Now concert. We the audience had the pleasure of entering into five very different sonic worlds, and in the splendid acoustics of Zipper Hall, it was truly a pleasure. The adventure began with the familiar world of European modernism in LA composer Kay Kyurim Rhie’s Threshold, a quintet inspired by the contemporary French spectral style, with its attention to shifting colors of sound. Rhie describes the piece as “a study in accumulation and dissipation” and what came across was real skill weaving timbre, gesture, and diminuendo. The next world we entered with Alan Shockley’s candlepin.bowling.deadwood at first was not so different. But then came the rock rhythms, trap set, and hand clapping! Shockley used the idea of misplacement to combine standard contemporary techniques with rock-influenced textures and rhythms. The idea was to discover coherence with materials that don’t seem to belong together. As a postmodern exploration, it worked well and more to the point, sounded like a piece that is really fun to play. Then came an entirely different sound world: the high tessitura of piccolo contrasted with piano in a tonal landscape conjured in Thea Musgrave’s Piccolo Play. Gilles Burgos beguiled us with his virtuosity on the piccolo, flawless swoops, delicate high tones, and just hauntingly beautiful tone. The warmly tonal first movement made a mesmerizing opening—did not want it to end. The six movements that followed were equally musical and so caring in their harmony. One interesting quality of the piece was that the piano rarely occupied the piccolo’s register. That created both a registral gulf between the two instruments and a special clarity.

After intermission came something completely different: Joseph Pereira’s Glimpse. Though Pereira (who is also our local LA Philharmonic master timpanist) described the piece as short sound bytes from sketches of different pieces, I was struck by the similarity and coherence of all the material. It had its own “pieceness” that couldn’t be confused with any other music. We all became accustomed to the breath tones in the alto flute, the key clicks and multiphonics of the bass clarinet, the tapping inside the piano. Above all, this piece focused our ears to an acute pianissimo. And we all leaned in to the long silences between. Periera was “playing” Zipper Hall. 

The final adventure was William Kraft’s masterpiece, Concerto for Percussion and Chamber Ensemble. It’s structure, its materials, its transitions, and its imaginative combination of ideas all felt so inevitable and impeccable. The talk after the performance was how substitute player Jeff Grant pulled off the incredibly difficult percussion part on just a week’s notice. No question that was something to talk about! But the piece itself was larger than a percussion tour de force. Kraft’s inspiration was an American revolutionary fife and drum tune called The Three Campsand the piece opens with the piccolo and snare drum literally playing that tune. But then contemporary clusters begin to lay over it. Kraft mentioned Berio’s influence, yet perhaps because of its Americana quality, I couldn’t help but think Charles Ives, maybe Ives in 1990s instead of the 1930s. Variations in a contemporary vein take over with dramatic and dynamic interplay between the ensemble and percussion playing a battery of drums, temple blocks, cow bells, tam tam, suspended cymbal, marimba, vibraphone, and, yes, Kraft’s ‘signature’ automobile spring coils. A central slow lyrical section features the vibraphone, both with mallets and bows. The piece ends gradually. The piano plays The Three Campstune distantly like glass high above two separate sonic worlds—vibes/drums and quiet chromatic chords in the winds and string.  Each of the three worlds inhabits its own time, metrically and psychically. That coda made a stunning end to both the piece and this entire concert. What a treat to hear such contrasting and artistically conceived worlds of sound, performed by talented and deep-thinking performers, in such an acoustically perfect hall. Let’s keep embracing the different!