As you sip a wheatgrass latte while doing yoga on your surfboard, you might ponder the potential of the tall, ambitious order undertaken by a music and arts festival that will explore the larger “meaning” and musical fruits of living and creating on the West Coast. That’s the goal, at any rate, of “West Coast, Left Coast,” a series of performances, screenings and lectures that will be held at Disney Hall and other local venues November 21 through December 8.
Curated by the L.A. Phil’s new creative chair, composer John Adams, the series presents an intriguingly varied bunch of, well, non–East Coast thinkers and doers, including the opening-night lineup of Terry Riley, the Kronos Quartet, Matmos and Mike Einziger. Asked about the program’s conceit — that there is maybe, possibly something about the work of West Coast composers that would indicate a different way of hearing, experiencing and making music and, one assumes, of living life itself — Riley and others responded with a sort of bemused head-scratching. In describing their musical processes and attendant lifestyles, each painted an abstract picture of the West Coast’s welcoming and unapologetic openness to artistic rule-breaking.
“I guess I fit in as well as anybody,” says renowned new-genre composer Riley. “I’ve lived here all my life, and worked here, and whenever I go anywhere and do anything, that’s what I’m known as.”
Riley was born in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where he lives now. Along with his former Berkeley classmate La Monte Young, he is the godfather of the school of composing formerly known as minimalist, best known for groundbreaking works such as In C (1968), A Rainbow in Curved Air (1969), Persian Surgery Dervishes (1971), and Cadenza on the Night Plain (2006), performed by the Kronos Quartet.
Riley dismisses the idea that there are stylistic links between all the artists who live on the West Coast yet says that it is possible that the physical ambiance of his early years has played a role in the development of his own, largely untradition-bound music.
“I grew up in the country,” he says, “and I got used to relating to nature a lot as a kid, which does maybe affect the way you feel in the rhythms of music and even the tones of music. I didn’t spend much time in an urban environment — I think that shapes it some way, but I can’t say exactly how, because you can live in a very nice urban environment and make quiet, peaceful music if that’s what you want to do. In general I’d say that there’s something in these environments which affects the way we perceive music.”
Riley’s curious path has led him from the outer reaches of modern jazz to Euro serialism/musique concrète/electronics, and has found him drawing deeply as well on “West Coast” ideas of indeterminacy via John Cage and the alternative-tonality worlds of Harry Partch and Lou Harrison. Long foregoing his “minimalist” style (a creaky old term useful only to music critics, he says with a patient laugh), he’s engaged in ongoing studies in Indian, North African and Asian musics, which have enabled him to compose, somewhat full-circlelike, chamber and orchestral pieces, albeit of a decidedly non-European flavor. These works include many done for the Kronos Quartet, including Cadenza on the Night Plain, Salome Dances for Peace, Requiem for Adam and a fantastically transcendent recent piece called The Cusp of Magic.
The very shape, scope and execution of In C was, in retrospect, a perfect example of a California composer thinking outside the rhombus.
“I was interested in music using pattern and formations of patterns that had the same shape or similar shape,” says Riley, “and I had been doing some pieces prior to In C that involved tape loops. It was kind of preparing a form for a piece that would have repeating modal patterns, and the patterns were very interactive, creating a kind of sound field.”
In C is laid out in 53 repeating cyclic patterns, and the players all play patterns 1 to 53, but they don’t have to be playing the same pattern; they can be a pattern or two away from each other. The result is an interlocking grid that moves through the piece, and gradually there are slight shifts or sound washes in tonality, as one tonality takes over from another.
“It’s a democratic piece,” says Riley. “There’s no conductor, so it really relies on the musicians’ spontaneous judgments to make it work. The best performance is when everybody is really listening well and hearing what’s going on around them and relating to it in a meaningful way.”
“For me music is a spiritual path,” he says. “Music connects to the spirit. I don’t know how much cosmology to add into that. But I do feel that music itself is something that connects me to the universal mind.”
Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington, a native of Portland, Oregon, grew up in Seattle and founded his ensemble there in 1973. For him, that time and place were crucial in setting the open-eared course of his globe-trotting Kronos.
“It’s interesting,” he says, “I was talking to somebody about being an American musician the other day, and how the easiest way for one to notice one’s nationality is to go abroad. I feel most American when I’m in Europe or Asia or South America. I don’t really think about it that often, until I’m somewhere else.
“We just played in New York the other day, and I really do feel somehow connected to the West Coast. It’s hard to describe in a way that resonates correctly, but there is a certain sort of desire to be available for possibilities.”
That description fits his group’s thrillingly eclectic endeavors, interpreting works by a vast and disparate range of musicians and composers, such as Anton Webern, Taraf de Haidouks, Tom Waits, Café Tacuba, John Zorn, Osvaldo Golijov and Henryk Gorecki.
After a period basing themselves in New York, Harrington and Co. moved back to the West Coast, settling on San Francisco as an ideally fertile place to think, play and grow.
“It just didn’t feel right to me being in New York as a place for us to be centered,” he says. “And I was just thinking of all the places we could go, and it just seemed like San Francisco was pulling us. I’ve always enjoyed the light there, I feel inspired by it.”
Harrington cites the presence of such varied West Coast residents as John Cage, Charles Mingus, Jimi Hendrix, Seattle’s Nirvana and Ravi Shankar as proof that the left shores offer a nurturing home for unbridled creators.
“I’m from Seattle, and every time I return I am struck by a quality of the green of the Douglas fir trees there, unlike any green I’ve ever seen anywhere. I’ve always just found it so expressive, so beautiful. I started playing quartet music when I lived in Seattle. Those things are so deeply a part of us.”
There’s something, he believes, that many musicians on the West Coast have in common: “This kind of searching for musical information from a wide variety of sources. It’s almost like if you gaze out at the Pacific Ocean and watch the sun going down, you kind of wonder where it’s going.”
The November 21 events at Disney Hall will include a performance by the electronic/assemblage duo Matmos, a.k.a. Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt, who got their start in San Francisco before moving to Baltimore. The Bay Area was, Daniel says, a good place to begin.
“I’m always very reluctant to sum up California, because when you do that there are going to be aspects of it that you’re going to leave out of the narrative. And if you invoke something like the Frontier, it’s kind of cliché at this point.
“Yet I associate California with freedom and independence, and San Francisco in particular with experimentation. It’s because, particularly in the sequence from the ’50s to the ’60s to the ’70s, there was always a radical set of communities in literature, in music, in sexuality, that was based there.”
Perhaps best known for their touring work with Björk, the duo collaborated with Kronos on a mashup of Riley’s “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector,” and have specialized in heavily concept-laden albums. These include Quasi-Object (1998), which featured the sound of a dissected crayfish and lightly rubbed rabbit fur, among other biological things, and A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure (2001), which includes works inspired by such non–rock & roll icons as author Patricia Highsmith and philosopher/musician Ludwig Wittgenstein, as well as a “tribute” to the Germs’ Darby Crash in which Daniel sampled the sound of himself getting burned by a cigarette.
The origins of the latter piece could be linked with California conceptual art, such as Chris Burden’s punishing performance works. The duo do feel that there might be something characteristically Californian about their own psychologies and how that plays out in their work.
“The East Coast historically gets associated with academia, the sort of old-school, hard-core Harvard-Yale–Ivy League business,” says Schmidt. “And California, the West, was sort of uncharted territory, untouched by — or less touched by — Europe or whatnot. Certainly we are utterly untutored in the way of music.” He laughs.
When the pair started Matmos, they proudly regarded themselves as nonmusicians.
“I started with just tape recorders making cutups,” Daniel says, “because I was doing a punk-rock scene and cutting up images with scissors. Then I read some William S. Burroughs, and his descriptions of his cutups, and it wasn’t really because I had any right to make music — I didn’t have any training that gave me a way into an instrument. So I’ve always just been approaching this as an editor, rather than as a real musician.”
“I’d like to build work that happens as an idea and happens as sound,” he concludes, “and it hopefully also happens as music. But it doesn’t need to be music first. And there’s so much that you can actually do with just the noises of the skin of a rabbit.”
See West Coast Sound for interviews with Terry Riley, the Kronos Quartet, Matmos and Mike Einziger. For a complete schedule of “West Coast, Left Coast,” see the Classical listings and laphil.com.
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