Any entertainment that consists of two or more consecutive events under the same management qualifies as “festival” – from Bayreuth to Ojai – and the crowds come running. I’m not sure whether last week’s “Resistance fluctuations,” which was identified as “a new unpredictable music festival,” actually qualified as “entertainment”; I’m not even sure that the offerings over the six days – concerts of challenging new music involving solo and ensemble live performances, electronic presentations and multimedia interactions – were all that unpredictable. The crowds did come running, however, a mostly young, exceptionally well-informed audience that seemed unsurprised and generally delighted at the proceedings.
The programs were co-curated by Daniel Rothman, a local composer and for the past several years a presenter (through his organization known as Wires) of valuable new-music events, and Christian Scheib, a CalArts faculty member and consultant to the Austrian Ministry of Culture. The Austrian new-music ensemble Klangforum Wien made its American debut, bringing in its luggage a repertory of new works by compatriot composers mostly hitherto unknown here; the programs were aimed at establishing both differences and similarities between the impulses of today’s energetic composers in the homeland of Mozart and Bruckner and products of various American creative hotbeds. A 60-page program book, distributed free at the concerts, teemed with statements and restatements of purpose, bristling with words like iconoclasm, disorder, communication, entropy and noise. John Cage, this century’s peerless re-definer of all the arts, was the sung if unplayed hero, invoked in the program notes (perhaps once or twice too often) as the enabling force that lets composers get away with murder. The events on Saturday, the penultimate day of the festival, were titled – with devastating accuracy – “No Noise Reduction” and “If it wasn’t noisy enough before . . . “
I furloughed my eardrums from the Saturday concerts; they had paid their dues on Wednesday during the 60-minute duration of Carl Stone’s Dong Baek, an electronic work created live by Stone at a small computer activating a large selection of samples. The pleasure in this kind of music is in the association; in a long and genuinely beautiful passage midway in the work Stone seemed to locate both me and his music in the bell tower of a medieval cathedral – Notre Dame, perhaps, hanging out with Quasimodo – with the bells pealing ecstatically, an organist trying out luscious harmonies far below, and a gorgeous vista unfolding, down a river and across some meadows. Then, however, came intense, ear-gnawing pain, horrendous masses of sound piled upon sound, made the more agonizing in the confinement of a small room at LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, one of the festival’s principal venues). I cannot, of course, claim that my 73-year-old ears are the receptors Carl Stone and his younger colleagues have in mind when laying out their statements on contemporary communicativeness; yet I had heard beauty somewhere in this piece, and feel justified in wishing for more.
I heard more beauty, for reasons I understand even less, in Marina Rosenfeld’s Fragment Opera 3 on opening night. Rosenfeld, this publication’s assistant arts editor, has a madcap sonic imagination; others of her works enlist the services, for example, of guitarists performing “anti-virtuosically” with nail-polish bottles. Her piece last week involved four DJs seated at LP turntables, playing and swapping vinyl discs of synthesized music, thus creating somewhat the same textures as Stone would with his electronic sampling the next night. Perhaps it was the sight of live participants running their machinery, shuffling their several discs, and thus creating a performance atmosphere – with a pleasant flickering image projected on a screen overhead, that made this work attractive. (Was it structure or coincidence that one of the festival’s final works, Mark Trayle’s Automatic Descriptions, also used a turntable – this time an old wind-up Victrola with horn – as a control device? Plus ca change.)
You had to wonder at times, however, whether the ability to attract and divert ranks very high among contemporary priorities. Take, for example, Bernhard Lang’s Schrift 2 in which a solo cellist, the remarkable Michael Moser, sent both hands up and down the strings, plucking out a bristling, refreshing if pitchless texture. It was all fun until you read the program note. “The point of writing,” the composer insists we know, “originates in the interplay between the remembrance of predetermined scriptures and the aural anticipation of future significations . . . therewith being uncovered by a kind of ‘autogenerative’ grammar.” Take, for another example, Randall Woolf and Arthur Jarvinen’s misguided homage to the spirit of Cage, in the form of a set of changes – 840 in all – on Erik Satie’s infamous, 24-hour Vexations, the work Cage revered above all for its unswerving changelessness. And take, for yet a third example, the squawks and feedbacks of 3-E Guitars, three grown men running wind-up toys across their strings, using their instruments as body-massage tools, all in the name of furthering musical horizons.
I must, of course, be careful. Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective is my constant bedside reading, a compendium of writings that failed to recognize masterpiece stature when certain great works were new. Perhaps this kind of intense gathering together of new ideas and outlooks, with the music serving as richly illustrative examples, isn’t the ideal incubator for masterpieces. Yet there was beauty – the aforementioned moments in Carl Stone’s piece remain in the memory. On the last day, a gorgeous few moments in David Rosenboom’s Predictions, Confirmations and Disconfirmations (those titles!) with Rosenboom’s violin activating a torrent of radiant complimentary sound from the concomitant computers, and the whole thing resounding in audible Technicolor through the cavernous resonance of the big room at Ace Contemporary Exhibitions, should have convinced anyone that some power to exhilarate still lingers on the musical scene.
Also lingering, however, was a slight sense of having been there before. I heard my first “tape-and” music in, I think, 1961; last week’s music for piano and tape (by Johannes Kalitzke) and cello and tape (by Winfried Ritsch), however agreeable, seemed mired in a bygone era. No matter. The fact of this event’s existence, and the message it sends out that somewhere in this world there are people willing to play and to listen to new music – and that the creators of this festival are already talking about the next, and the next – is the best of all possible news.