There's no shortage of L.A. composers who create beats for rappers, pop song hooks, or music for films, TV and video games, but Julia Holter, Sean Friar, Andrew McIntosh and Andrew Norman are anomalies: They write classical music or, at least, its modern equivalent. And while the path chosen by each is different, works by each of them will combine for a Dec. 3 program at Walt Disney Concert Hall, part of the L.A. Philharmonic's Green Umbrella series.
A traditional American composer's trajectory is to study at a prestigious institution with a famous teacher, win composition contests and apply for fellowships and residencies. With talent, luck and helpful introductions, a composer may, after 10 to 20 years of hard work, receive commissions from good orchestras and soloists. Even then, writing concert music won't support a family, so American composers apply for college teaching positions.
Andrew Norman and Sean Friar have made that model work for them. Norman came to USC for a degree in piano, but after graduating opted to become a composer. It was a smart decision — he has had fellowships at the American Academies in Rome and Berlin and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music last year. This year he returned to USC as a professor of composition.
Friar also teaches composition at USC, and at UCLA as well. Like Norman, Friar came to composition via the piano, but in his case, it was his love of blues piano in middle school that piqued his interest in composing. As a teenager, he took composition lessons from a USC grad student.
Friar's recent music still has elements of the blues. The harmony may peel down to a bluesy seventh chord, or a cello may suddenly smear away from a pitch like a dirty slide guitar. “I like the rough, expressive attitude of the blues,” he tells L.A. Weekly in a phone interview. “Classical music can be so precious. I enjoy forms with humor, surprise and sleight of hand. I don't like forms to be unintelligible.”
With increasing numbers of graduating composers competing for a dwindling supply of tenured academic positions, the model of the composer-performer has become more popular. Andrew McIntosh, initially a violinist, tried composing as an undergraduate at the University of Nevada, Reno, but didn't like what he wrote. He was lured to CalArts by faculty violinist Mark Menzies, who recruited McIntosh to play in a string quartet.
While there, McIntosh learned about microtonality. There are 12 notes in an octave on a piano or guitar, but that's a recent development in the 1,500-year history of European music, just a few centuries old. Other cultures (including American folk traditions) use notes that don't exist on a piano; these “microtones” have fascinated 20th-century composers such as Harry Partch and Lou Harrison. They explored a tuning system, “just intonation,” where the chords in the most frequently used harmonies are purer-sounding than what our 12-note-to-the-octave system can produce.
To our ear those chords sound bare, but McIntosh says that after working with them long enough, just harmonies sound “normal.”
McIntosh's “Etude IV” takes a melody that outlines just-tuned chords for two clarinets and a violin, and shifts each instrument's part a little forward or backward. The result is a kaleidoscopic pattern of eerily exotic harmonies.
No one earns big royalties for composing in just temperament, so McIntosh plays in ensembles or series such as Jacaranda; the bold, mixed-instrument group WildUp!; the Monday Evening Concerts; and the string quartet that beckoned him to CalArts, the Formalist Quartet.
“The work I do as a performer is integral to what I'm doing as a composer,” he tells the Weekly by phone. “Being placed in new music situations, you learn the way musicians, instruments and acoustics work, and that guides the way I write.”
McIntosh got an unexpected call one day from the legendary composer-conductor John Adams, who put together the Green Umbrella program.
“He told me he had visited my website, listened to all my audio links, and wanted to program my music on the concert,” McIntosh recalls. “I didn't know him, so someone must have told him to check out my music.”
Julia Holter's piece, by contrast, is an L.A. Philharmonic commission, and she got it through a more unusual route — as a singer-songwriter of high-concept indie rock. She had solid classical training, starting with the music program at L.A.'s Hamilton High School and piano lessons at the Colburn School. Then she went to the University of Michigan's School of Music and discovered that she wanted to do something different — write and perform her own songs in a small, group setting.
Holter returned to Los Angeles to enroll at CalArts. She recalls via email (during her recent tour of Europe) that in faculty composer Michael Pisaro's experimental-music workshop, “Musicians come together to perform each other's music … all without a ton of rehearsals or preparation,” emphasizing careful listening and focus instead of the virtuosity she encountered at Michigan.
Off-campus, Holter met self-recording singer-songwriters such as Ariel Pink and Geneva Jacuzzi, and recorded her first two albums herself.
Her third album, Loud City Song, recently was released by Domino, allowing her to work with a larger ensemble in the studio.
Holter's fans might be surprised by the stylistic change in her world-premiere piece, “Memory Drew Her Portrait.”
“So much of my music is heavily layered and full of noise,” she says. “Here, there are almost no electronic or processed sounds.”
Her new piece “is extremely easy compared to what [the musicians] normally do, but none of the people involved really know my music well, and we have one day of rehearsal, so I am excited to see what happens.”
L.A. NOW: NEW ANGELENO COMPOSERS | Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Tues., Dec. 3, 8 p.m. | (323) 850-2000 | laphil.com