If music can be seen as a running conversation — as knowledge stacked up and passed down from one musician to the next — then that conversation can only improve with time. Survey today's landscape and it seems that things have expanded exponentially: The information is flowing in all directions, with long-held hard genre lines being collapsed by the force of the data. More than most bands, Brooklyn's Dirty Projectors — the R&B-loving, Malian funk–steeped chamber rock–ish crew lead by Dave Longstreth — has made this its mission.
On Saturday, February 27, Disney Hall turns over the keys to Longstreth, who has programmed a night of music that begins with the Los Angeles Philharmonic playing his handpicked selections; reaches its peak when Dirty Projectors, backed by experimental orchestra Alarm Will Sound, plays the entirety of its 2005 "glitch opera," The Getty Address; and closes with a solo band set culled from the group's wildly acclaimed last album, Bitte Orca.
"I thought it would be stock to just rearrange some of our recent songs with a string quartet," Longstreth says. "This feels like bringing something full circle. When I first played these songs, it was the first time I'd ever toured the country, and I was literally pressing play in iTunes and singing karaoke-style over backing tracks of bassoons. We're playing this music now, and somehow, orchestral tone aside, it seems incredibly well-suited to who we are today."
Dirty Projectors is the kind of band that holds 10-hour rehearsal sessions for days, whether or not an orchestra is involved; the kind of band to push its way into the Roots' green room on the Jimmy Fallon set and — in a move akin to something that usually takes place between large mammals in wilder climes — give a dizzying acoustic performance that clearly impressed that great arbiter of coolness, ?uestlove. Dirty Projectors is the kind of band that would collaborate with David Byrne both in person and on record, as well as write a seven-part vocal suite for Björk, and then perform it with her.
But it's likely none of this would have happened if Longstreth were the kind of person to be impressed by his own gravitas. He passed on a prestigious music-composition degree from Yale because he was ready to get out and work (after establishing Dirty Projectors, he returned and finished his course work). He spent last Halloween performing back-to-back intimate sets at Echo Park's tiny Jensen Rec Center, dressed, no less, in an outsize foam ten-gallon hat and XXL farm wear that made him look like the country cousin of Byrne in Stop Making Sense.
When it comes to acknowledging the weight of the task before him — programming an entire night of music for Disney Hall — this is about as effusive as Longstreth gets: "A more formal place to perform suggests a bit of a special show."
He's clearly excited but completely nose-to-the-grindstone. Such things, after all, do not happen overnight.
According to Chad Smith, the Phil's vice president for artistic planning, it took two months of back-and-forth by phone just to decide upon the Phil's part of the program. Smith had worked with Grizzly Bear for that other Brooklyn band's similar evening at the Hall back in March 2008. "With Grizzly Bear," Smith recalls, "I said, 'Tell me a bit about what you think your music sounds like. Talk to me about the sound world, and the big ideas behind how you write,' and I came back with suggestions. This was different. Dave knows classical, and he knows what he likes."
Longstreth says it took him no time to assemble a comprehensive list of pieces he wanted to hear the Phil perform, but the challenge was finding music that fit the specs of the orchestra.
"It was difficult for me. I kept being, like, 'Yo! Let's do some late-'70s Philip Glass stuff, where the winds are amplified and this shit is just fucking terse!' " Longstreth says, with the cracked gusto of Jason Mewes as Kevin Smith's infamous "Jay" character. "I never think too practically about things at the outset. A lot of 20th-century classical is for very specific ensembles. The challenge was finding music in the spirit of The Getty, written for an orchestra of this size."
The Getty Address itself is of sorts an orchestral work. Recorded in part at Yale, the majority of its music was originally written for small chamber groups — a wind septet here, four cellos there, loads of percussion throughout. But Longstreth subsequently "cut the shit out of them" on the computer, turning everything into clips and loops that collide, jerk and surge to an unnatural, but hugely satisfying, arrangement.
The orchestral pieces Longstreth and Smith ultimately arrived at reflect this style — a suite from French Impressionist Maurice Ravel, two études from the Stanley Kubrick–favored György Ligeti, and a prelude from Richard Wagner's 1859 opera, Tristan und Isolde.
Smith explains: "Ligeti defined this very austere, lonely sound, while Wagner's work defined Romanticism — lush, with melodies and harmonies that would go on for hours before finally resolving. Ravel would take piano pieces that told short, little stories and orchestrate them into an amazing, complete work; I think all three of these elements are critical to the story Dave wants to tell, especially with The Getty Address, where shorter pieces convey a longer narrative."
How the album itself will be conveyed is a different matter entirely. There's a reason Longstreth had to duet with his computer five years ago, and not simply because he didn't have a band at the time. It's that no band would be able to perform music like this. No band, that is, other than New York's 20-piece chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound. The group rose to prominence in 2005, when it recorded Acoustica, an album of pitch-perfect Aphex Twin covers. That may make it the only orchestra on Earth qualified to execute this album in the time allotted.
"When Dave told me we'd have two months, I cracked up. The idea seemed absolutely crazy," says Alarm Will Sound conductor Alan Pierson. He initially became a fan of Longstreth's upon hearing The Getty Address in 2005. "But taking that record back from the computer world and into the acoustic one has always appealed to me. It's a huge amount of work, but the challenge for us isn't the complexity — it's figuring out how to make the sounds."
Pierson likens the process to alchemy or cooking: "A pinch of this or that to get that weird effect you're hearing."
Ensemble member Matt Marks spent the better part of a month scoring every intricacy of The Getty Address. When asked to estimate the number of hours he worked on it, Marks laughs, and instead shares an anecdote. "I'd just gotten a new pair of jeans for Christmas and hadn't washed them yet. And there was this period of two weeks where all I did was sit on my ass and transcribe music, from the time I got up to the time I went to bed. At the end, I looked down, and my off-white Ikea chair had turned blue."
His devotion seems to be shared by all of those involved — some 130 players will grace the stage before the night is over — in the three separate rehearsals occurring around the clock at opposite ends of the country. Pierson says there are a thousand decisions to be made between now and Saturday, but like Longstreth, he's confident that they'll get there — and mostly blind to how immense "there" actually is.
The Dirty Projectors, Alarm Will Sound and the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra perform at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sat., Feb. 27.