1936 Isabel Morse Jones, Los Angeles music critic eramodestly boasted: “We Westerners have been allowed to develop our music in our own way to a certain extent because of the distance between us and the musical politics of the East and Europe.” One thing is certain: by the nineteen-thirties By the mid-1900s, California composers were already forging new paths. Henry Cowell was a Bay Area native who was exploring clustered chords, bass and open forms. Lou Harrison was an Oregonian who traveled south and was absorbing non-Western traditions. Los Angeles High School graduate John Cage began theorizing about percussion and noise music. At the same time, European composers were fleeing totalitarian Europe and heading west. In 1934, modernist giant Arnold Schoenberg took refuge in Los Angeles. Korngold, Stravinsky, Eisler and Rachmaninoff followed. The collision of Californian cultural energies would spark many revolutions in the following decades, with the minimalism of Terry Riley’s hypnotic loop of “In C” becoming a global influence.
Jones wisely inserts the qualifying phrase “to some extent” because ultimately there is no way to assess how a given environment shapes artistic thinking. Everything that happens in California—percussion, drone music, electronic soundscapes, psychedelic fusions of classical and rock—only happens in California. Still, many generations of composers attest to the inhibiting effects of West Coast life. Such was the experience of Finnish pre-modernist Esa-Pekka Salonen, who spent roughly half his career in California. Salonen led the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1992 to 2009; in 2020, he assumed the helm of the San Francisco Symphony. He recently told me, “In my early days, what I perceived and felt was freedom—the absence of schools or competing schools, the apolitical nature of art. I still feel the same way. No one said like the Europeans, ‘We Don’t do that,” or as they say in pop music, “That’s what it is in 2015.” “”
Salonen has been toying with the idea of a statewide classical music event for several years. Salonen’s successor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, and until recently the orchestra’s chief executive, Chad Smith, have embraced the concept, as have Rafael Payare and the San Diego Symphony. in this way. Thus was born the California Music Festival, which lasted for 17 days in November last year and was a bustling event. Nearly a hundred other organizations are participating, each producing at least one work produced in the past five years. Geographically speaking, it’s impossible to attend more than a handful of festivals: the state’s land area is larger than all but three countries in the European Union. I managed to attend 17 events, mostly in Los Angeles, and heard over 50 new or newer works. The United States has not attempted anything of this magnitude in recent memory.
Over the course of one weekend, I saw three of the top symphony orchestras in the state. First up is the San Francisco Symphony, performing at the University of California, Berkeley. Salonen perfected the so-called classic California cooking model: dishes that de-emphasize meat and potatoes in favor of wholesome, often homegrown twentieth-century and contemporary cuisine. At Berkeley, Salonen conducted his work “Kínēma,” a sensual but not sentimental clarinet concerto that shares some material with his score for the 2021 Finnish film “Waiting.” He then performed Jens Ibsen’s “Drowned in Light,” a lively, messy homage to orchestral prog rock. Finally, Stravinsky III A stunning performance of the Symphony of Movements was completed in West Hollywood in 1945.
The next day, five hundred miles to the south, Paare and the San Diego Symphony performed Carlos Simon’s “Awakening: Concerto for Orchestra,” a poignant musical narrative with political undertones. Simon draws inspiration from Rajendra Bhandari’s poem “Awake, Asleep,” which warns that “during the sleep pandemic/tyrants sing of peace.” The dulcet hints of sweet sleep are replaced by darker, more dissonant harmonies: a thumping two-tone signal that evokes the command “Wake up!”, alluding to Siegfried in Wagner’s Ragnarok death theme. After intermission, Paiare belted out a rendition of Lorin Maazel’s deft interpretation of Wagner’s epic The Silent Ring.
At the end of the weekend, I watched the Los Angeles Philharmonic play at Disney Concert Hall under the guidance of Dudamel. In a city where nearly half of the residents are of Hispanic or Latino descent, Dudamel appropriately puts the spotlight on Latino composers, emphasizing themes of social resistance. In this show and the following week’s, he features music by Mexico City-based Gabriela Ortiz, who specializes in loud, energetic orchestral soundscapes. “Seis Piezas a Violeta” (Six Pieces of Violeta), written for piano and strings, pays tribute to Chilean singer-songwriter and activist Violeta Parra. “Revolución Diamantina” (“Flash Revolution”) is a forty-minute ballet commemorating the recent feminist protests in Mexico City. This ballet deftly uses the brutal rhythmic devices of The Rite of Spring to dethrone the work’s implicit celebration of female sacrifice.
In addition to major events at big-budget venues, the San Francisco Opera presents Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abel’s Omar and the Los Angeles Opera presents Gabriella Lena Frank’s El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego” – California music festival reveals a rich ecosystem of smaller but ambitious ensembles. I spoke with the Pasadena Symphony, the Burbank Philharmonic, the Pacific Symphony, the USC Percussion Ensemble, and the reliable and important Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. If the laws of space and time allowed, I might also hear the San Luis Obispo Symphony, the Fresno Philharmonic, and the Sequoia Symphony as far north as Fort Bragg.
Countless new music organizations in California have qualified for the festival simply by continuing to do what they’ve always done. My agenda includes Wild Up, Piano Spheres, Hear Now Music Festival, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series. The music runs the gamut from captivating tunes to violently experimental. This is to be expected in the state where Riley and Cage (The Beach Boys and The Germs) were born. There’s a California heritage, but there’s no California sound.
The folks from afar at Wild Up present an interdisciplinary event called “Here We Come!” What now? ” features music by Sarah Hennies, interspersed poetry readings by Lynne Thompson, and an all-female whistle brigade organized by artist Susan Silton. Hear People Whistle The prospect of whistling for more than an hour was daunting, but Silton had a compelling case for the project. She inherited the family whistling tradition from her father, Fred, who fled Nazi-occupied Austria and later came to Los Angeles . In 1999, a tumor on her vocal cords caused Silton to temporarily lose her voice, but not the ability to whistle. That’s when she discovered there was a bias against female whistling – as the old saying goes, “whistling girls and… Nothing ends well in the end” – and formed her band The Crowing Hen in response. Hennessy, a composer with an uncanny sense of events unfolding over time, “The Hen” is framed in a clean, bright structure that combines well-known elements with live improvisation.
“Piano Spheres” and “Hear Now” both feature talented young composer Nina Shekhar, who grew up in Detroit and attended the University of Southern California. Piano Spheres mainstays Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay played Shekhar’s microtonal keyboard “hush.” During the Hear Now concert, the Lyris Quartet asked her a “rock and roll goodbye.” Both pieces have an air of nervous trance, a blend of sweetness and strangeness, simple chords and instrumental noise. The score for “rockabye-bye” begins with a “whispering, unsteady calm.” This statement also applies to much of Hennies’ music. Today, quite a few composers, whether from California or not, seem inclined to create a vigilant sanctuary.
Perhaps the most evocative topographical work at the festival is MA Tiesenga’s Bush Sketches, which appears at Green Umbrella, alongside Dylan Mattingly, Rena Esme The equally famous works of Reena Esmail and Samuel Adams. Tisenga, a graduate of the perennially prolific avant-garde greenhouse CalArts, pays homage to California’s most ubiquitous creatures—the low-lying, thorny shrubs that grow in the state’s hills, mountains, river valleys, and deserts. During his hiking expeditions, Tisenga took charcoal rubbings of plants, made sketches from them, and began translating the resulting shapes and patterns into musical notation.
This process recalls Cage’s methodology in works such as Ryoanji, which features drawings the composer made in the eponymous rock garden in Kyoto. Yet Tisenga makes room for non-Cage-esque melodic gestures and sweet harmonies. Performers are encouraged to use their emotions; sometimes they react spontaneously to the undulating lines of the Tisenga Jungle drawing, samples of which appear in their parts. At one point, Joanne Pearce Martin, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s incomparable resident pianist, guessed a sparkling, cadenza-like solo from a sequence of notes. Bush Sketches is an awe-inspiring act of imagination, but it is also an act of mediation between a natural landscape (wounded but still magnificent) and a group of musicians who want to restore paradise in sound. ❖