“People, time flies by. Let’s go,” said Manuel Castaneda, band director of the Centennial High School marching band in Compton. It was just after 2 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon and his instrument-carrying cohorts were midway through an hourlong rehearsal for a Thursday evening performance at the opening of Art Los Angeles Contemporary, the annual art fair held at Barker Hanger in Santa Monica.
“Imagine there’s a bar over here,” artist Alison O’Daniel told the group of 30 or so high school musicians, gesturing to one side, “and like 500 people around. Let’s see how condensed we can get.”
The musicians shuffled out of the band room to line up outside the door and try again to snake around each other before breaking off into small circles by section— tubas to one side, percussionists in the middle, woodwinds on the opposite side.
The performance was O’Daniel's brainchild. She'd worked with Centennial's band as part of her ongoing film project, The Tuba Thieves. That film, a sometimes abstract narrative involving sound, silence and sculpture, was inspired by a rash of tuba thefts that began hitting L.A. Unified high schools around 2011. (An oft-repeated hypothesis is that the popularity of banda, a Mexican dance music in which tubas play a key role, spurred the crimes.) O’Daniel found the idea of a band’s deepest sound being stolen fascinating, though Centennial has since acquired new tubas. The band is featured in her film, and O’Daniel now knows the campus intimately.
When year-old arts nonprofit JOAN received an invitation from the art fair's events curator to stage a performance at the opening, its founders thought immediately of O’Daniel, and O’Daniel thought of Centennial. Castaneda, the band director, has a steady energy and openness to experimentation that made him a great collaborator. The drum major, a saxophonist named Geovanny, was a competent, sensitive team leader. O'Daniel wanted to work with them again, though she did have some apprehension about bringing the band into a place like the art fair, where art and commerce and privilege are tied up together. This is especially true on opening night, when general admission tickets can cost $60 and VIP guests are, ideally, making big purchases.
“I didn’t in any way want them to be fair entertainment,” O’Daniel told me as we drove down to Compton. She saw them as her collaborators and wanted them to have agency as performers.
After discussions with Tim Fleming, the director of ALAC, O’Daniel had decided to break the performance down into a number of smaller segments. Fleming worried about noise levels in a setting where gallerists might be trying to make sales, and about what it would be like to have 30 high school musicians with instruments moving through narrow corridors they’d never navigated before.
O’Daniel wanted all of these factors to be part of the performance. “We’re reading the whole thing — the architecture, Tim’s apprehension. It’s this larger listening project.”
She’d approached the development of the performance very intuitively, showing up with a list of possibilities, then asking students to come up with their own ideas. On Tuesday, they were practicing an idea the saxophonists proposed — the snaking formation, followed by the small groups. Geovanny would use his mace to guide the formation, and then tell which group to play when.
They also practiced a piece by experimental composer Pauline Oliveros, which would open Thursday night’s performance. Musicians would mingle and wander, always playing something different from the person next to them. Then Kevin, a tuba player, would start the bass line of a song called “Theme II,” and gradually the group would come together.
“Sounds like a sculpture,” Castaneda said as rehearsal wrapped up.
It sounded like sculpture on Thursday night, too, when the group gathered in the lobby of Barker Hangar, then marched up to the stairs and into the corridors, where they played Eminem’s "Mockingbird," bolder and crisper than the rap star’s version. Already, a group of art fair attendees was trailing along behind the band looking gleeful.
From there, Geovanny, who had seemed tentative at Tuesday’s rehearsal but now seemed fully in control, led the group to the bar. They did what they’d rehearsed — snaking and then separating into small circles, fair attendees on all sides. The drumline was still swaying and playing when Geovanny came and quickly conferred with O’Daniel and Castenada before leading the band from the bar to the outdoor smoking area. There they played Carl Carlton's "Bad Mama Jama" (“We just call it BMJ,” Castenada told me later) and the party anthem "Just Got Paid." And then they were marching back toward the exit, almost too swiftly to follow, the drumline keeping beat.
They marched straight into the theater behind the entrance, which for this night served as their green room. The band members sat on folding chairs. Geovanny sat on the stage, pulled off his hat and ran a comb through his hair.
When a group of students headed back through the fair, on the way to the bathroom, people still shot photos of them, telling them how good they were. Two band members got waylaid in MOT International’s booth, where a woman with a camera wanted a shot of them in full regalia, staring at an abstract painting by Dan Reese. They seemed amused by the process.
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“This is culture clash for them,” Castaneda said matter-of-factly. “They wouldn’t usually be able to come here.” He cited the entry fee as one inhibiting factor.
The culture clash went the other way, too, however. “Like, what is real?” a woman asked me, as the band played "Mockingbird," lined up between the booths. She seemed to be asking where the artifice of the fair ended and this performance began. Every year, someone performs at the fair’s opening — a conceptual art magic show, a gender-bending cabaret-style routine. But this performance generated more immediate pleasure than usual. Most likely this had to do with the energy of the musicians, who didn’t have any agenda other than to navigate this unfamiliar space as expertly as possible. Their routine butted up against the sense of strategy and privilege that pervades these spaces, where people come to shop for high-end versions of culture.
Of course, there were still art fair attendees who seemed to overlook the practiced, thoughtful nature of the high schoolers' performance. A small group of Centennial musicians, led by Castaneda, was stopped just outside the fair entrance after they’d performed. “Do you know 'Happy Birthday'?” a man asked, a woman beside him.
The musicians replied, almost in synch: “Happy Birthday,” they said to the woman. The man wanted more. They’d left their instruments in the theater. But after a beat, they consented to sing: “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear stranger.” She was a stranger. They were willing to indulge her to an extent, but they weren’t her entertainment.