Commentary: Why new music has come roaring back in L.A.

The Wikipedia page for the Los Angeles Philharmonic has a list of the orchestra’s first performances. Only one has been reserved for the 2021/22 season, Julia Adolphe’s “Woven Loom, Silver Spindle” in December. Anyone care to update this?

As of April 1st alone, the LA Phil has, by my random count, presented works by 70 living composers, most of them world premieres. Each program of the full orchestra or members of the LA Phil contained at least one new piece. In LA County (and if you add in the Ojai Festival, which draws mostly LA audiences), the number of works performed by living composers in those 12 weeks can reach as high as 200.

Try to find an ensemble from the staunchest to the funkiest not yet on stage. To select a great and traditional institution, Los Angeles Opera is showing a 3-1 sheet music score – two operas and an orchestral song cycle by living composers and one opera by Verdi (go back two weeks to March 19 and add a third new one add opera).

This is an extraordinary phenomenon. Thirty years ago we would have hailed as rare and consequential every dozen weeks of programming the music of a handful of living composers as the regular course of a classical music season. When André Previn became music director of the LA Phil in 1985, he made a point of inviting critics to rehearse every time he conducted a new piece, which was such an unusually big deal. Now it’s like always, who has time to go to rehearsals?

New York, London, Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam are historically vibrant centers of new music. They are currently home to more major composers than LA and boast impressive amounts of new music. They are capable of hosting sophisticated new music festivals and hosting prominent new music ensembles on a larger scale than we can.

But New Music has not penetrated all the pores of the classical music scene in these cities like here. When the Berlin Philharmonic or the Concertgebouw Orchestra do a new piece in Amsterdam, it’s almost like 1985 again in LA

New music has become a way of life at, in no particular order, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Broad Stage, the Zipper Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, REDCAT, the Royce Hall, the Ford, the Wende Museum, Wallis, First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica, 2220 Arts + Archives, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Hauser & Wirth and Descanso Gardens. New music is popping up in small alley galleries and at the Mount Wilson Observatory. The longest-running new music series in America, and possibly anywhere, the Monday Evening Concerts began in 1939 as Evenings on the Roof in a small studio atop a plain Silver Lake house, where they soon attracted the likes of Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

The third weekend in June was a busy time for performances and the season-ending opera options were new music. LA Opera presented Kevin Puts’ The Brightness of Light while Long Beach Opera presented Anthony Davis’ The Central Park Five, both from 2019. At the same time, Broad Stage gave the world premiere of Fahad Siadat’s The Conference of the Birds,” a ritual enactment of his a cappella score, based on a parable by the 12th-century Sufi poet Attar.

Due to time constraints, I was only able to attend the dress rehearsal. Elegantly staged and choreographed by André Megerdichian, “Birds” remains separate from many contemporary works today, as it is not about possessing identity, but about losing that identity in order to become one with humanity. For Siadat, who conducted a radiant ensemble of singers, diversity is celebrated through the merging of characterful individual voices into a rich, lush whole.

The weekend also featured two events focused on two outsider icon artists in new music, Harry Partch and Julius Eastman. “Outsider” couldn’t be a better description in this case: Partch rode Rails in the 1930s and Eastman was thrown out of his apartment onto the streets of New York in the 1980s.

While I won’t be able to accommodate the Partch Ensemble’s annual REDCAT performance or the Wild Up ensemble’s sunrise-to-sunset marathon performance of Eastman’s “Buddha” this weekend at 2220 Arts + Archives, I can about report enlightening new recordings by both ensembles. Guitarist John Schneider, founder of the Partch ensemble, has produced a book and CD package on MicroFest Records documenting a lecture and concert the composer gave at the East School of Music in 1942. For the first time we can hear Partch singing and playing “Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker’s Inscriptions” on his oddly tuned “adapted guitar,” a year after he wrote it down in homeless camps. Wild Up, meanwhile, has just released Joy Boy, the exuberant second volume in its indispensable ongoing series of Eastman recordings.

People stand in front of a colorfully painted mural.

Participants gather for a Monk Space event held on Tuesdays.

(Michael Owen Baker / For the Times)

Then came Tuesdays @ Monk Space at the Koreatown Gallery, which offered an insider’s get-together of local new music ensembles and performers and composers. Eleven 20-minute sets were performed simultaneously in Monk Space’s two wonderfully resonant rooms.

Is there a relaxed LA sound? Yes. Is there an aggressive, pushy LA sound? Yes. Could there be a place for rearranged Bach in all of this? Of course.

This Q&A with always the same A could go on for quite a while. If you’re hoping to put your finger on what’s making LA a hub of new music, you’ll only look stupid waving your hands in the air frantically.

The real answer came at Monk Space on June 21st at a new music fundraiser for Brightwork showcasing the monthly Tuesdays @ Monk Space programs. With constant performances in the two galleries and wine and conversation in the adjacent courtyard, no more and no less was demanded of new music than that it was a congenial attitude to life.

This could be the Brightwork Ensemble dazzling with Zodiac-inspired pieces by Vera Ivanova, Adam Borecki and Vicki Ray. On the other hand, Cold Blue Music, the long-time invaluable LA new music record label, featured pianist Ron Squibbs playing Peter Garland’s calm and contented “Three Dawns,” which the label recently recorded.

A man with a guitar performs before a group of seated spectators.

John Schneider performs Harry Partch’s Barstow: 8 Hitchhikers’ Inscriptions at Monk Space on Tuesdays.

(Michael Owen Baker / For the Times)

A lot was striking. The outstanding Eclipse Quartet offered Sarah Gibson’s expansive “All Ashore”. As part of the piano duo Hocket with Thomas Kotcheff, Gibson whipped out a gleefully haunting Tristan Perich duet. I was in the wrong room to hear Isaac Schankler play Alvin Lucier’s “Music for Accordion With Slow Sweep Pure Wave Oscillators” but caught Scott Worthington playing with his solo acoustic bass and electronics and a bit of Schneider’s own Character, but true to Partch, swept away with Partch’s “Barstow”.

In the end, the concert was a new music party to which everyone, performers and audience, was invited. The music consisted of bumping into and talking to different people who you may or may not have known. You can be guided by your interests and curiosity.

Is hospitality perhaps the real secret of our new music success story? I would like to think that an environment of acceptance has something to do with it. This was my first time back at T@MC in over two years and the feeling of entering Monk Space was one of mind opening. Commentary: Why new music has come roaring back in L.A.

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