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L.A. Phil Contemplates the Sound of the City 

"Frequency" Response

Wednesday, Jan 2 2008
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In these media-mad times, with such god-awful, colossal loads of music, art, film, video games, etc., etc., being hurled at us with such remorseless corporate frenzy, one often gets the uncomfortable feeling that our senses have crisped to a golden brown.

What is needed then is professional help, a guide in organizing our sense receptors, to place all the aural/visual/journalistic input in drawers as a way to aid the selection process: how it all will be utilized; and when; and where; and for what reason.

Which is why the creative contexting of the arts — otherwise known as imaginative program directing — is a rare and invaluable art unto itself. Your best example is the “Concrete Frequency” series, which runs January 4-17 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Subtitled “The Urban Experience, the Art of Music,” six nights of music and visuals, drawn from both the contemporary classical/new-music and rock/pop camps, will juxtapose semidisparate arts under an umbrella in an effort to examine music’s historical and current relation to life in the city.

click to enlarge One body, two heads: Brit laptop duo Plaid (Courtesy Warp Records)
  • One body, two heads: Brit laptop duo Plaid (Courtesy Warp Records)

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For the program’s orchestral pieces, the L.A. Philharmonic and various smaller ensembles will be under the direction of David Robertson, the Santa Monica–born new-music specialist with stints as conductor of the Lyon Opera, in residence at Paris’ famed electronic research center IRCAM and as music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (among a jaw-dropping list of other prestigious gigs). Robertson has come up with a bracingly expansive program for his part of the proceedings, which will explore various facets of urban life.

“One of the great things about music is that it’s so wonderfully specific and so delightfully vague,” says Robertson, in an excited rush. “And right from the start of the modern era, it’s become a really big question: When you have music, what does it mean? What I’ve found is that music allows people to congregate in a nonverbal setting. Which means that a lot of the discourse we find when we’re using words, filled with our own biases and unexamined thoughts, can be put aside when we get together with regard to music.”

Robertson’s “Concrete Frequency” programs (the original concept for which originates in the fertile imagination of L.A. Phil music director Esa-Pekka Salonen) comprise four different approaches to the symbolic nature of the city, as represented in different time periods. “There’s the slightly chiaroscuro nature of strange landscapes, almost an Edward Hopper Nighthawks at the Diner type of feeling — in the Haunted Landscape of George Crumb,” says Robertson. “And, of course, there’s nothing that says that has to be about cities; it could be any haunted landscape, and that’s one of the amazing things about it. Yet anytime you’ve been in one of those business districts, which is deserted on Sunday, and find yourself alone, you almost expect to see a tumbleweed blow across it.”

At the same time, Aaron Copland’s The City opines that, yes, the city is nice, but there’s all of this stuff outside of it, in a New Deal–ish frontier that continually expands — and ends up being suburbia. “And that is both touching and very ironic,” says Robertson, “given what we’ve seen in the last few decades of urban sprawl. But it reflects a really tough problem of everybody wanting the same sort of things with garden and space, and yet having to be so closely confined with others.”

Edgard Varèse’s Amériques, also on the program, came at the start of the 20th century, and in essence announced, according to Robertson, that despite the problems of large urban environments, the composer is tremendously excited by them, as he’s coming to America as an outsider, from European cities, which are smaller and more densely packed. To Varèse, the skyscrapers in Manhattan are monuments to what mankind is capable of achieving.

The person most famously influenced by Varèse, Frank Zappa, composed his “Dupree’s Paradise” in order to — “I mean,” says Robertson, laughing, “he called a piece ‘Lumpy Gravy,’ and how am I supposed to deal with that? But that’s precisely the wonder of Zappa, that he grew up in this landscape that the others are writing about in music, and that gives yet another take on what it is: the city as a metaphor for the human condition.

“The notion of culture is not just one thing, it’s a combination of a lot of different experiences,” he continues. “It’s the whole melting-pot idea that goes throughout the program, and it expresses and contrasts itself in something like Ives’ Central Park in the Dark; it expresses itself in the case of something like Feldman’s Turfan Fragments, where there’s so much going on that you end up not being able to grab anything but a phantom.”

Other works on the program, including Boulez’s . . . explosante-fixe . . . and Michael Gordon and filmmaker Bill Morrison’s new untitled collaboration, take on the palimpsests of Los Angeles, Rome or Jerusalem or other many-historied locations in varied angles, the point being that in order to build a new city, you’ve got to build atop or around the ruins of an old one and, in the course of construction, consider the cost and benefit of the new technology with which you’re creating the modern structure.

“There’s all of this amazing stuff happening in technology at the breakneck speed of light,” says Robertson, “and art will be created in the same way. Boulez really embraces this; he uses the technology to do things that without the technology would be impossible to realize, even if you had a whole army of musicians. It’s a bionic type of thing.”

“Concrete Frequency” contrasts these orchestral interpretations with another musical series, drawn from the world of contemporary rock, folk and pop. The series’ curator, Johanna Rees, brings in a widely varied crew, including Norwegian avant-romantic tunesmith Sondre Lerche, ex-Hüsker Dü singer-guitarist Bob Mould, Inara George of the Bird and the Bee, infamous gadfly arranger-composer-pianist Van Dyke Parks, John Doe, Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, Biirdie, Zooey Deschanel, Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear, and several others. They’ll perform on January 8 in a living-room, informal kind of format, each delivering single songs accompanied only by piano or guitar.

“The festival is centered on how the urban environment influences and inspires and affects the artist,” says Rees. “I asked artists who’ve all been living city to city, as touring artists; I chose not to go for any rock stars, as such. They’re continuing to tour and play live; at some level, they’re going in and out of cities anonymously and not really knowing where they are the next weekend or next day.

“It’s hearing what those types of things have to say in terms of how it affects their songwriting, and really having an urban existence. It’s not so much that I wanted them to write a specific song about Chicago or New Orleans; however that manifested itself in song, that’s what I wanted.”

An additional night of electronic music, on January 17, features perhaps two natural choices in a more literal sense: England’s laptop duo Plaid, and Cornelius, from Tokyo — the most densely populated city in the world. “His music is rooted in city life,” says Rees. “There’s such an edge to it, and such an unpredictability and spontaneity about it. If you went to Tokyo, and you had the soundtrack to that city, this is what it would sound like.”

For a complete schedule of “Concrete Frequency,” see www.laphil.com/tickets/calendar.cfm.

Reach the writer at jpayne@bluefat.com

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