by Hannah Murray, June 1st, 2019 (originally posted on activeviolinist.com
On Saturday, June 1st, I went down to Disney Hall to check out the final event of the FLUXUS Festival. The Noon to Midnight event was a day, 12 hours to be exact, of pop-up performances throughout Walt Disney Concert Hall including the garden, BP Hall, the two amphitheatres, on the steps of the hall, and of course on stage. There were also food trucks on Grand Ave, and a beer garden in the Blue Ribbon Garden. According to the schedule, poster, calendar, “The season-long Fluxus Festival, staged by the LA Phil in collaboration with the Getty Research Institute, culminates in a Noon to Midnight intervention – five performances curated by Christopher Rountree and directed by Annie Saunders.”
We showed up right around 3 and I was sad that we missed some of the remarkable early performances like David Lang's Crowd Out, National Composer's Intensive featuring the International Contemporary Ensemble, and The Crossing, but sadly work obligations ate up the morning and early afternoon.
Our first experience was Timber by Michael Gordon, performed by red fish blue fish in the Blue Ribbon Garden. Looking back on the performances and performers we caught, I feel confident that this was a fantastic first event. We sipped our beers outside in the not too hot, not too cold weather and sat on the ground watching the five performers of red fish blue fish stand in a circle facing one another and play saw horses with mallets. When we first walked outside, it was hard to hear or distinguish what we were hearing, and it wasn't until we stepped within the range of the speakers, each placed several yards behind a performer, that we started to experience the music. I moved around a little bit before settling on the ground with a view of the hall behind the "stage." The audience had a subtle, but different experience based on which speaker was closest. Acoustically, I think the best seat in the house was probably right in the middle of the performers because at that point, you get the most balanced output from the surrounding speakers.
The piece itself conjured a meditative effect, and on the one hand, you feel totally absorbed watching the calmness of each performer and on the other pulled in the subtle different directions of the changes of the beat and subdivisions within the piece. Granted, we did not catch the very beginning of the piece, but there is a timbre to the saw horses that almost sounds like voices, making soft articulations. The piece never reaches a deafening climax, but I don’t think that was really the point, it carries you around like waves on a beach, sometimes overlapping seamlessly, sometimes running into each other, sometimes totally in sync. I almost felt like I was floating through this experience.
We left a few minutes early because I am a fangirl of Eighth Blackbird and I wanted to make sure we had seats in the hall for that performance. I’ve seen them play once before, at the Eaux Claires Music Festival in the woods of Wisconsin. They played Murder Ballades by Bryce Dessner on a wooden stage like it was the talent show at summer camp, so I was pretty excited to see them on a "proper" stage.
They started the set with learn to fly by David Lang, and it was AWESOME. I love this piece! In the program notes, Lang says "With learn to fly I wanted to make a music that danced and pushed forward, in the hope that it would encourage the musicians to do so as well." Lisa Kaplan, the pianist of Eighth Blackbird, definitely danced from her bench. I made a note during this performance that how a performer or ensemble moves directly influences how I experience and understand the music. Without reading Lang’s words previous to making that note, I now reflect on it feeling validated in my desire to groove with Kaplan and feel the energy that permeated the music and performers.
Their set ended with a world premiere of Ways of Looking by Pamela Z. The composer, a “pioneering composer/performer and media artist who works primarily with voice, live electronic processing, sampled sound, and video,” was onstage running electronics and contributing live vocals to this performance. This piece was so cool. It included live and previously recorded vocal tracks from each performer and in the program notes, Pamela writes:
"I have long been fascinated by the musicality of speech sounds, mining sampled fragments of spoken text for melodic, rhythmic, and textural content. For this work, I interviewed all six members of Eighth Blackbird and then meticulously selected sentences, phrases, words, syllables, and phonemes to create sonic building blocks. For "Looking," I chose to have the ensemble speak their own words live. "Name" is all about describing and identifying people. "Um" is a cloud of sound built around the sonorous, nonverbal, filler sounds we all make during speech. Finally, “Very” celebrates the ubiquitous intensifier.”
This performance was dynamic, funny, clever, beautiful, and in the words of Marie Kondo, “sparked joy.” In my notes, I wrote that Pamela Z brings out the beauty of ummm and the nonsense between thoughts. But she also begged the mind to ponder the pitch and timbre of your thoughts, which is a really enjoyable and amusing thing to think about. Some of the vocal tracks were mimicked on instruments, and passed around, re-tuned, and uttered elsewhere in the ensemble, placing the voice within the ensemble, above it, and sometimes subtly below the other instruments onstage. When blended together, what pitch does a choir of speakers create? I loved the combination of live and recorded vocals with Eighth Blackbird's instrumentation. All four movements of this piece were a pure delight!
Next, we moved on to Sō Percussion in BP Hall. Due to the overlap with Eighth Blackbird, we missed the first piece, a diamond in the square by Suzanne Farrin but caught the entire performance, and world premiere, of perhaps my new favorite string quartet of all time, Forbidden Love, by Julia Wolfe. This last statement may seem confusing to many of you who know Sō percussion to be a PERCUSSION ensemble, but Forbidden Love calls for the use of the four instruments of a traditional string quartet to be played but using, as Wolfe says, “all the things you aren't supposed to do to string instruments." According to the program, Sō Percussion asked Wolfe to use the four instruments of a string quartet, and together they discovered and created some fantastic sounds. Some of them sounded like a low bass a la doom metal, some of it like wind passing through chimes, and when the performers through away their sticks and started rubbing the back of the instruments, it felt strangely intimate and loving, like a bedroom scene? Or a forbidden love? Sometimes they created rhythmic grooves that were really fun and "cool" and other times they made sound effects with yarn or string (I don't know what it was) pulled through the instruments like dental floss. I was so into it, and no instrument appeared to lose its life during this performance.
I think at this point in the day I should have taken a sonic time out and grabbed another beer from the beer garden, and maybe a snack, but the problem with a really awesome festival like this is that you want to absorb so much, that perhaps you overdo it and then it backfires a little bit. I really wanted to catch HOCKET in the ampitheatre, but missed it in favor of Sō Percussion so moved right along to Wild Up on the concert stage.
I should have skipped the first two pieces. Rot Blau by Jessie Marino was silly and fun but the dark time between movements felt a little awkward and too long, and this felt more like a performance suited for a different stage or experience. The second piece, A Thing Made Whole by Andrew Greenwald, was overall very quiet and probably beautiful had this not been performed at a festival where there was extraneous noise from audience members coming in and out. I was not in the right space to appreciate this piece, and that feels particularly shameful because the performers were clearly working hard to create the correct effects and play their parts. The saving grace of this set was Star Luz Black, another world premiere featuring the composer, Julianna Barwick, on piano and voice and a string ensemble of 5 violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos, upright bass, and conductor. It was captivating. The string parts were simple in that Arvo Pärt repetitive way that makes you feel things in a deep and mournful way, coupled with the soaring beauty of the vocals and the twinkling quality of the piano. It was so compelling and wiped the slate of what had happened before. I think my frustration with this Wild Up set comes more from the lack of continuity between the pieces. It felt like such a jumble and the pieces were too disparate to leave the audience impressed. If the whole set had been more in accordance with Barwick’ s piece and presence, Wild Up would have gotten my vote for Los Angeles contemporary ensemble of the year.
After this one, I needed a break. We grabbed another beer and meandered outside for a little while. Being semi-new to Los Angeles, I had no idea that there are two amphitheatres at Disney Hall, so we wandered up to the Carson Amphitheatre to check out the venue for FLUXUS: Composition 201960 #5. By this point we were a little worn out and distracted and not in the right place to observe and appreciate another performance, so we made our way to the food trucks and sampled some of the food from 8E8 Thai Street Food whose delicious smells were permeating the outdoor performance areas. It was delicious, and we needed a snack.
After Thai, we were filled with a mild yet persistent guilt for leaving our dog home alone (past her dinner time) and called it a night with every intention of making a comeback. I really wanted to catch the Dal Niente performance later in the evening but fell asleep immediately upon returning home. I will say that this festival blew my mind, I was so impressed with the international acts that came to perform, the local talent, the different sounds and environments, the enthusiasm for new music from the people of Los Angeles (the concert hall was completely full for the Eighth Blackbird performance), and the tangible enjoyment and curiosity from other attendees. I ran into several friends from different musical walks of life who were all excited about different acts or performing in different ensembles, or who knew people playing. I was so happy to catch Sō Percussion and Eighth Blackbird again and experience Red Fish Blue Fish and Julianna Barwick for the first time. Bravo to everyone who had a hand in this incredible day. I would do it again every month.