Voices from the Left Coast
By Thomas May
Curated by John Adams as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s West Coast, Left Coast Festival, tonight’s program samples four active composers who range widely in style and outlook but share a gift for emotional immediacy. All of them have been nurtured by experiences of the rich cultural terroir of the West Coast. Its overwhelming natural beauty, too, has left its stamp on their music, suggesting overtones of spiritual and personal landscapes.
Framing the program are cantata-like works by Ingram Marshall and David O that assimilate aspects of West Coast post-minimalism to distinct expressive ends. Savage Altars and Mid-Winter Songs (Morten Lauridsen’s settings of the emotionally elegant poetry of Robert Graves) both refashion classical tradition in a way that suggest contemporary relevance. Urban life, in the polyglot, joyful vibrancy of A Map of Los Angeles, is counterpointed with the endlessly renewing patterns of nature, of seasons and storms, as discovered anew in Mid-Winter Songs and Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst. Wherever the starting point, the musical compass for these composers points toward genuine communication.
Of War and Peace
Ingram Marshall recalls the culture of 1970s San Francisco as an unpredictable, messy alloy of influences. It offered a stimulating alternative to the academic establishment of the era. Along with the actively evolving West Coast brand of minimalism and assorted avant-garde trends, there was an increasing awareness of non-Western traditions. It proved to be the ideal environment for a young composer seeking his voice. Like John Adams—with whom he and a few other musicians shared an old Victorian in Haight-Ashbury for a spell—Marshall had come from the East Coast, well-trained but with ears wide open, prepared to be guided by new epiphanies.
Although the composer eventually headed back East to teach at Yale, his music is characterized by the peculiar fusion of elements that first came together during that formative period. They include Marshall’s interest in electronic music and recorded sound, the impressions gathered from a summer spent in Bali, the clarity found in minimalist textures, and his unjaded admiration for end-of-era romanticism—in particular the melancholy variant found in Sibelius.
The blend achieved in Savage Altars, a reflective cantata on ruin and renewal, is especially remarkable. For all the disparate threads Marshall weaves together, he communicates a sense of emotional inevitability—like the austere beauty of a ritual whose origins and purpose have been freshly illuminated. He composed Savage Altars for the Dartmouth College Chamber Choir in 1991, when the First Gulf War, brief as it was, made things seem like “the country was in the grip of a militarist mindset,” according to the composer.
Marshall rerouted his initial plan—to set Mary’s hymn of praise, the Magnificat—to take account of another text now seizing his imagination: a passage from the panoramic history of the Roman Empire by first-century historian Tacitus. In Book I of the Annals, Tacitus recounts the catastrophic loss inflicted on the Roman legions by the Germanic chieftain Arminius in A.D. 9 at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Six years later, the scene still showed the remains of chilling massacre, along with the “savage altars” (barbarae arae) left behind by the tribes. Marshall interweaves the Latin text of Tacitus with the Marian Magnificat, which itself hymns a reversal of the normal order of power, where the mighty are “cast from their thrones.” The resulting hybrid, he observes, gave him “a ‘language’ around which I could create my musical statements.”
Patterns of utmost simplicity—bell-like melodic fragments, scale passages, haunting intervals—interlock to form an emotionally vibrant mosaic. Marshall seamlessly integrates electronic “prepared sounds” with the medieval purity of his vibratoless choral lines, while violin and viola add a discreetly elegiac gloss. The work’s title itself is an emblem of the surprising mix that results, as influences from gamelan and chant join to suggest an atmosphere of suspended time. In the final minutes, Marshall works yet another thread into his wondrous polyphony by quoting the cheerful 13th-century round “Sumer Is Icumen In”—pointing to its mixed sacred-secular, Latin-Middle English aspects through the use of multiple meters. Then, with a sudden, ghostlike vanishing, the music simply stops.
Poetry and Paradox
Written to celebrate the centennial in 1980 of the University of Southern California—where Morten Lauridsen studied and currently teaches composition—the choral cycle Mid-Winter Songs dates from before his period as resident composer with the Master Chorale. But the work was further developed by the ensemble, which introduced Lauridsen’s revised version with full orchestra and subsequently recorded it for their 1998 Lux Aeterna CD.
Lauridsen found inspiration for this cycle in the long-lived, prolific Robert Graves and culled five poems of miscellaneous character that share motifs involving the image of winter—a season the composer values as “rich in the paradoxical symbolism of dying/rejuvenation, light/darkness, sleeping/waking.”
The poems are lucid in their lyricism. Their subjects range from Graves’s latter-day appreciation of the deep truths embedded in myth to the transformations enacted by nature and art alike. The bittersweet threshold between states expressed in the moving “Lament for Pasiphaë” (the wife of Minos, she was made to fall in love with a bull and give birth to the Minotaur) is echoed by the “Intercession in Late October.” They frame the three middle poems that revolve around images of sleeping and waking, of intimacy and experience.
Lauridsen crafts a musical architecture shaped in the form of an arch to reinforce his arrangement of poetic themes, where “She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep” functions as the introspective center. The relatively brief second and fourth songs mirror each other in their jaunty, quickening rhythmic profiles, while the passion and pathos of the opening are transformed to gentle acceptance in the cycle’s concluding song. Lauridsen moreover integrates the entire work through his pervasive use of two intervals: a descending major second and the dramatic leap of an ascending major ninth, heard in the opening setting of the words “dying sun.” For this evening’s performance, we hear the original version for mixed chorus accompanied by piano.
The rapid emergence of Eric Whitacre in the new-music scene has been as dramatic as the phenomenon he so vividly describes in Cloudburst (1992), one of his signature pieces. The Reno-born Whitacre was a late-comer to classical music. During college, however, he found himself so overwhelmed by singing Mozart’s Requiem that he began to study composition. Within just a few years of his first pieces, Whitacre had evolved into a major new voice. He remains among the most frequently performed composers in the world of contemporary choral music.
Already at the age of 22, when he wrote Cloudburst, Whitacre was aiming for the contemporary sublime. His setting of words by Mexican poet and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz (1914-1998) is a miniature choral tone poem that shows stunning resourcefulness in its reimagining of the medium. Whitacre adapts passages from Paz’s 1955 poem “El Cántaro Roto” (“The Broken Water-Jug”). Water and rain become metaphors for a kind of spiritual reawakening, where the act of music itself provides the vital force: “We must sing till the song puts forth roots.”
The piece, Whitacre says, suggests “a celebration of the unleashed kinetic energy in all things.” His unique style of richly clustered harmonies complements the surreal, dreamlike imagery of the verse. Whitacre shapes a singular dramatic arc that includes recitation, chords that spiral upward in arpeggiated slow motion, and chance effects, along with piano and percussion. It would spoil the surprise to spell out the non-vocal contributions of the singers—but once heard, Whitacre’s simulated storm and its aftermath are unforgettable.
Premiered just two seasons ago as one of the LA is the World commissions, David O’s A Map of Los Angeles proved its instant appeal to Chorale audiences. The composer was inspired by the diversity, linguistic collisions, and even prehistoric history of this city that defies cartographic definition. He traverses its landscape fueled, in part, by a spirit that O likens to a “bright, jagged, joyous jam session.” But the score takes some unusual turns along the way, tempered by whimsical humor and poignant reflection.
The actual text involved in this six-part choral journey is surprisingly slight, considering how vivid are the impressions with which O leaves us. He folds out his Map with opposing panoramic shots and close-ups. The wordless, scat-style, coolly minimalist patterns we hear at the start—initially laid out by isolated voices but gradually thickening and shifting in rhythmic texture—turn out to be a unifying thread. Like a rondo, they meander through the piece, but with kaleidoscopic adjustments of color and mood. Another signature element is the mariachi harp, which functions as both solo personality and accompaniment—even as a kind of commentator—and blends evocatively with the voices. O deploys his tight, economical ensemble as suggestively as his lean text.
The “jam session” gets underway before the first of three intervening episodes erupts as an anthem—both heartfelt and tongue in cheek, with a play on the “redundant and self-contradictory name” of a certain familiar baseball team (which has graciously donated a jersey and baseball bat—the latter actually being put to musical use in the performance). Angelic choral strains add a further punning layer. O again develops the busy urban pulse—spilling over once again to the baseball anthem—and mixes varied Latin and jazz rhythms into the swingular groove.
Next stop is the La Brea Tar Pits (“the the tar tar pits”). A primal, catchy beat underlies the vocal push and pull, with grunts and shrieks “echoing the cries of prehistoric beasts struggling in the asphalt.” A calmer reprise of city sounds (beginning with mirrored piano and marimba phrases) fosters the meditative state of mind befitting the final stop at El Cementerio Evergreen—the city’s oldest cemetery. To a touching habanera rhythm from the mariachi harp, the chorus recites “a ritualistic litany” of names from the tombstones, alternating Spanish and English. The changing flickers of harmony are subdued—“like sunlight filtering through the leaves of the live oaks,” says O—but a rainbow burst of color sets a final seal on Map.
Thomas May writes frequently about the arts and is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale.