California has always attracted cranks, daydreamers, cultists, misfits, and various other types of riffraff from the rest of country. It is something about Manifest Destiny maybe, or perhaps the willful abandonment of family and history to move west, to recreate oneself in the once empty stretches of desert around Los Angeles, or in Sir Francis Drake’s idyllic Nova Albion upstate. Once over the Sierras, or through the Mojave in the south, there is a clear sense of displacement, isolation from the rest of world; there is the feeling that one can never really go back to where one came from, at least unchanged, even in this wired and buoyant age.
Music is no exception. What has given America its most distinctive musical art is just this sense of displacement from the currents on the other coast, and by extension Europe: the experimentalism of Cage, Harrison, Cowell, and Partch, the free jazz of Coleman, the minimalism of Young, Riley, and Reich, the “teenage symphonies” of Spector and Wilson. All give the impression of their impossibility in places freighted with Kultur. It’s easy to be free of history when no one has bothered to write it. And even if they had, I’m not convinced anyone would care; after decades of celluloid and hippies, it has become the wonder-at-nothing state.
It is something of this freedom and strangeness that the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s West Coast, Left Coast series is trying to capture. The 16th season of Piano Spheres, a program devoted to bringing relatively modern piano music to Los Angeles, was naturally included as part of the larger series. It was an odd recital that reflected some of the musical diversity of the place: a few works of the quintessential California composer Henry Cowell, Cage done on toy pianos, an elegant piece by Mel Powell, a Rhodes piano composition by William Kraft, and the strikingly varied work of composers Jarvinen, Lesemann, Naidoo, and Lentz.
The standouts, for better or worse, were Kraft’s enigmatic Requiescat (Let the bells mourn for us for we are remiss), Naidoo’s appropriately titled Bad Times Coming, and Lentz’s NightBreaker. Kraft’s work, played with a marked intensity by Gloria Cheng, showed the 70s avant-garde preference for deriving an endless array of sounds from a single instrument; Cheng played the inside of the piano with mallets, the amplifier was struck to disturb the reverb coil (a horrendous noise, but effective), and the Rhodes tremolo was treated as a compositional element rather than as bland wallpaper to cover the sound. Kraft has a way with well-placed sonorities.
Naidoo’s Bad Time Coming, performed with alacrity by Vicki Ray, was a well-crafted pastiche of awful music, including obvious pandering using 90s electronica-style “beats” – something music like this always seems to call for. Postmodern, loathsome word, one evoking militant political correctness, dated unreadable lit., and questionable artistic juxtapositions, is relevant here. The worst of contemporary music appropriates popular styles in this kind of artless fashion. However, it seemed to please most of the audience; one enthused baby boomer was frugging in his seat next to me.
The last performance of the night, Lentz’s four piano NightBreaker was a surprising and pretty work. It consisted of mostly florid tonal passages lightly threaded together. To quote Robert Ashley, it had “the feeling of the idea of silk scarves in the air.” Mark Robson and Susan Svrcek joined Ray and Cheng.