View more photos in Timothy Norris' Dirty Projectors slideshow.
Saturday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Brooklyn band Dirty Projectors converged with fellow New Yorkers Alarm Will Sound to perform the Projectors' 2005 concept album, The Getty Address, about a man named Don Henley who wanders America trying to understand the direction the country has taken. The L.A. Phil does these kinds of shows a few times a year, often booking New York buzz-band artists (Grizzly Bear, Antony & the Johnsons) to head west and impress us with their East Coast sophistication. (We kid.)
As is usually the case, the hipster outreach begins with a performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who offer a range of repertoire and fringe-repertoire selections designed to draw in the attention-spanned deficient and eternally, fashionably late. (The tardy crowd ruined the solo piano numbers.) This evening's program featured work selected by the Projectors' Yale-trained founder, David Longstreth, along with programmers from the Phil: two etudes by Gyorgy Ligeti, a Wagner prelude from Tristan und Isolde, and Maurice Ravel's Mother Goose Suite. All four were exquisite, but most striking to us were the two Ligeti piano pieces. Performed by pianist John Christian Orfe, the etudes were a tangle of notes that seemed designed for a player with 44 fingers. Orfe, whose conservative appearance was eclipsed by his rock-star theatrical maneuvers on the piano, glided seamlessly down Etude #13, subtitled "The Devil's Staircase," like he was an Olympic bobsledder.
After an intermission, the Dirty Projectors arrived onstage with the 20-odd-piece avant classical group Alarm Will Sound, who are best known for their work transforming Aphex Twin's electronic workouts into acoustic percussive jams. The four Projectors vocalists strode out in primary-colored hoodies, their faces covered like they were members of Sunn O))) or something.
The Getty Address was composed in 2005, when Langstreth, still studying music at Yale, was 23-years-old. It is a concept album (rock opera?) that, according to Langstreth in the program notes, "juxtaposes the Aztec Empire with contemporary America and this idea of the destruction of place." Its protagonist, Henley, is inspired by the Eagles singer, who, at the piece's beginnings, sits "on the ridge at dusk/as the light leaves the valley/by rising." He's "got a world of trouble on [his] mind."
Over the next hour, the orchestra played the entirety of the dense, impressive, gymnastic piece, which highlighted the Projectors four principle vocalists: Longstreth, Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle. The quartet is incredibly, remarkably practiced, and combine pointillist voice notes to create a web of interlocked sounds. The four, augmented by Alarm Will Sound vocalists, were tight in their execution, bending notes and utterances at will. It was sometimes hard to tell who was making what. Behind them, the 20-odd musicians combined brass, strings, woodwinds and percussion. Longstreth's composition is very demanding, created to reside in some netherworld between rock and serialism. Dots of sound moved around the hall in dense patterns, and it was at times tough to hear melody amidst all the competing harmonic maneuvers.
Through it all the lanky composer nodded approvingly as he sang. He's an overpowering force, so confident in his voice and daring in his execution that it's sometimes hard to argue with the validity of his ideas. They're pretty extreme for someone signed to an impressive indie label and lumped in with the Pitchfork crowd.
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But in execution, The Getty Address was a flawed exercise. Relying as it does on relentless precision, the swirling and cascading sounds at times became way too overwhelming; the Address needed a little air and a whole lot more space. (A fact reinforced when, after the encore, Longstreth did an acoustic cover of Bob Dylan's "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine." The sparse piece was like a gust of light after being locked in a dark closet for an hour.) Add to that the truth that Alarm Will Sound was less than precise in execution -- beats were dropped and they fell out of sync on a number of occasions. It seemed like the group needed another month of daily rehearsals to pull off what Longstreth was asking of them. But we were in the minority; the crowd ate it up, gave the group a huge ovation. The packed house seemed awestruck, which is understandable. Seldom do we get treated to something so ambitious within such a beautiful space. Now if only we could learn to get to our seats on time.