Veronika Krausas / LA Sonic Odyssey

“I have a ping-pong ball in my stomach,” declared the young girl. Her sister responded, “I ate my gerbil floating in the Atlantic.” They giggled, and noticed me eavesdropping. “We’re making random sentences,” they explained. Their father laughed along with them as we waited for the intermission to end. They had just finished enthusiastic air-drumming performances inspired by the drummer who had finished a performance by thrusting his drum stick through the head of his drum. The concert wasn’t a Who revival, but a performance of the works of composer Veronika Krausas at USC.

University faculty performances are, in my opinion, the hidden secret of the music world. The caliber of the music aside, where else in LA can you see men in tweed jackets and red bow ties who aren’t playing a role in a period movie?  Many of LA’s top contemporary musicians were in attendance at this performance, which partnered the musicians with projected photography, actors, and gymnasts.

Many of the works had Canadian themes, reflecting the composer’s birthplace. Four of the works were set to texts by Canadian writer Andre Alexis. Photography by Canadian Thaddeus Holownia and American James Jacobson accompanied two of the works.

Veronika Krausas

Krausas is a pre-concert lecturer for the LA Philharmonic at Disney Hall, and she interviews composers before the consistently astounding “Green Umbrella” contemporary music series there. She is on the composition faculty at USC.

The opening work, “from easter,” was purportedly structured as an English mass – but described as a rural Ontario community that sacrifices children to ensure a good harvest! It began with a percussionist Nick Terry smashing glasses into a trash can, transitioned into textural vibraphone and woodblock ostinatos melded together with french horn and bass, and featured an operatic interpretation by mezzo soprano Debra Penberthy. Marc Lowenstein conducted the ensembles throughout the evening.

In “wilderness,” an actor in a lumberjack-like costume performed texts describing  a woman’s dreams; immigrating to Canada and being required to wear a porcupine if she wished to enter the country and didn’t have her papers (“an erotic dream”). It Featured a remarkable performance by Kristy Morrell on french horn, whom I later discovered to be related to the children I met at intermission.

“Five intermezzi for Snaredrum,” opened with the performer reciting poems while playing his drum, calling to mind a piece for solo double bass called “Failing,” in which the performer’s talent is taxed to the breaking point, requiring virtuoso playing and attention to the simultaneous spoken text; in “Failing” the expectation is that the bassist will fail to perform what is asked of him, and although that intention wasn’t an element here, the challenge still was. The recited poems included works by Kandinsky, ee cummings, Gwendolyn MacEwan, and Robert Lax. In the middle section of 5 intermezzi, the drummer performed an air drum solo as he vocalized the sounds of the drums. His final thrilling solo, again with recitation, used the real snare drum again and ended as he pierced the head of the drum with a drum stick, rousing the classical audience with hoots, hollers, and applause – and inspiring imitation by the children and adults in the audience during intermission.

“Stone,” followed the intermission, with gymnast Colin Follenweider, dancer Bianca Sapetto, narration by author André Alexis, and beret-clad acoustic-bassist-supreme Dennis Trembly. The stage was filled with strings of lights suspended by helium balloons. As the performers danced with the balloons, their movement mimicked the sliding plucked glissandos of the bassist, as the balloons lifted the strings of lights up into the air. The bassist transitioned into a long bowed solo, heralding an implied distant threat, (bringing to mind Tom Waits comment of his own bassist, “somebody’s been keeping him chained up somewhere…”) and lead into poetic commentary, awe-inspiring inverted splits by the dancers, and final percussive punctuations of the balloons being popped by the dancers.

Krausas has composed many works featuring under-appreciated members of the orchestral family. Her solo CD includes a work for the frequent object of musicians jokes, the viola, and another work featuring bassoon. Her writing for the bass was virtuosic, and Trembly rose to the challenge.

The final piece, “mnemosyne,” was for clarinet/bass clarinet, percussion, horn, and acoustic bass, and included projected images of toys, food, and text. At this point I began to wonder if the children ahead of me had written the text; “We have not seen earth in so long our constitutions were changing” “In January, father was poisoned.” “In March we ate our dog.” Then the less poetic, “DVD Player has encountered an error it cannot recover from.” The tech team did their best to bring the visuals back to life before the piece ended while the audience’s attention became completely focused on the musicians. A driving duet between the bass and drums ensued, amidst noises of crinkled sheet music, whispers, and intermittent recitations of the same texts by the performers.

Composer Morton Subotnick and choreographer Christine Lawson have complained that in many cases multimedia performances suffer from an imbalance; one element is a complete work and the other is simply layered onto the perfected composition, but Krausas seemed to achieve a well integrated and balanced partnership between all the elements of her works.

I passed through audience members waiting in the lobby to greet and praise the performers, emerging from the Newman Concert hall onto the sparsely populated Sunday evening USC campus, spectacularly lit by a full moon. The horn player emerged and warmly greeted the children and father I’d befriended, then I bid them adieu and headed home. Krausas is a composer to look out for.

An interesting interview with the composer is featured on Dorka Keehn’s wonderful “Keehn on Art” podcasts. It discusses a composition she wrote based upon the numerical codes used by perfumers to identify fragrances.



LA Sonic Odyssey
For those of you who are interested in electronic music, tonight and tomorrow LA Sonic Odyssey is presenting a concert of works at 8:00 PM at Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church, 301 Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91103 ($20) These concerts feature rarely heard electronic music composers, exceptional musicians, and a multi-channel live mix. The exceptional pianist Mike Lang will be performing at these shows, which include works by founder Jennifer Logan, Curtis Roads, Christian Eloy, and Carl Stone

Cellist Maya Beiser and Kashmir Interpretations

Years ago, when performing with a choir called Musica Viva  in NYC, we encircled the congregation and sang a work by Palestrina.

All Souls Unitarian Church, NYC, home to Music Viva
Palestrina: “Tu es Petrus” performed by Musica Viva

When we finished, I saw an old man sobbing. It struck me that music really does have the ability to touch a person’s heart unlike anything else, and I have long wondered if maybe that isn’t God, or some form of spirit, in action. Last night I attended an intimate concert by the fabulous cellist Maya Beiser, and was on the receiving end of that sort of transmission.

After a frenzied scramble to find the new arts complex, the Casitas Theatre in Atwater Village, which houses two theater companies and a small performing hall, I took a seat and tried to catch my breath and discard thoughts of the pressing matters on my desk at home.

Maya emerged, clad in her usual stunning low-cut black leather ensemble, and sat down to play. No sooner had she played three notes than I thought, “uh oh… she’s cracking my heart wide open…” The piece was Osvaldo Golijov’s “Mariel,” which has haunted me from the first hearing. I made my best effort to choke back tears, and eventually realized I wouldn’t be able to win the fight.

Golijov “Mariel”

As she finished the Golijov work, a Mr. Nazarian, whom I believe arrived with a stunning blonde on his arm (Kristin Cavallari?) presented a certificate of recognition from from the City of Los Angeles to Maya Beiser for crossing cultural boundaries and bringing cultures together. Beiser’s work has a consistently humanitarian context, often fueled by travels to meet and learn from musicians around the world, sometimes in troubled countries. She was born and raised on a kibbutz in Israel, later attended Yale, and helped found the renowned new music ensemble, “Bang on a Can All-Stars,” which held pioneering 24 hour a day performances for ear-opening weekends in NYC in the late 80’s.

I first stumbled upon Beiser on MySpace, when I saw her name and thought it familiar, some sort of déjà vu connection. Transfixed by the sounds on her page, I dug up her website, and saw she was due for a concert that month at UC San Diego, and attempted to reserve tickets when I realized the calendar was a year old. I periodically checked the site, and last year got to see her at UCSD for the first time.

At that small show in a lounge at the UCSD student union, I felt I had slipped into a dream, transported to a large gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a large wall looms just above the eye of the viewer so that you can’t see out the glass wall beyond it. I felt I had levitated and observed the view through the window, descending back into my seat as the music stopped, unable to recall exactly what I had seen, but changed by the vision nonetheless.

Thursday’s LA concert accompanied the release of her new CD “Provenance,” which features music by contemporary composers from Armenia, Kurdish Iran, Israel, and the US.  The title means origins, referring to both Maya’s personal history and the intertwining cultural traditions that course through this stunning disc.

It included pieces from her previous albums, among them a multitrack piece written for her by Steve Reich, “Cello Counterpoint.” Many of her works rely heavily on recordings of her playing several parts, often with electronic processing, and she acknowledged her sound engineer to be her accompanist. As she returned for an encore, she performed her wildly rousing version of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” arranged by Evan Ziporyn.

Here’s a terrible quality video link, but it gives you an idea of the style of the arrangement. The album is available on iTunes or from her website.

Maya Beiser’s performance of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”

The live version of Maya Beiser’s “Kashmir” arrangement that I heard in Atwater Village

When I saw Maya perform Kashmir, I immediately thought of Lili Haydn, who’d actually performed with Led Zeppelin, I believe. I’d met her at Gurmukh’s Kundalini Yoga classes, and thrilled with her performances at The Viper Room on the Sunset Strip. I’d love to see Maya and Lili perform together!

Lili Haydn “Kashmir”

Here’s another inventive arrangement of that song by The Ordinaires, whom I’d heard perform this years ago in NYC.

The Ordinaires version of “Kashmir”

Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t let you hear the original again too:

Visionary Art: Pavel Tchelitchew and Alex Grey

Considering how much time I spend trolling art openings and museums, it’s rather amusing that so little art actually evokes a visceral response from me. Many pieces are intellectually interesting, of course, but nothing really seizes my by the neck and shakes me to the bone. With a couple of exceptions…

One chilly dark night, years ago, I wandered through New York’s East Village, in an even darker mood. Nothing was going right in my life, it seemed, and somewhere between the avenues of self-pity and depression, I found my way into a small bookstore. On a table there, I began to page through a book of semi-psychedelic pseudo-medical illustrations, showing auric fields emanating from people, their chakras, and the typical veins and bones you’d expect to see in scientific illustrations — if the illustrations were copulating, praying, meditating, and wandering through outer space. Something began to change in my mood. I couldn’t explain it, but I began to realize there was a whole world beyond my clouded little problems. By the time I’d paged through to the end of the book, my whole attitude had been transformed. It was perhaps the first time I’d actually seen physical visualizations of the chakras and energy fields around our bodies, although I’d frequently heard them discussed. The artist was of course, Alex Grey. He’s not to some people’s liking, but I really felt an impact on my whole perspective just from reproductions in a book.

By sheer synchronicity, once I had relocated to LA, my good friends had arranged an exhibition of his work in their gallery. By the time of this opening, the impact of Grey’s paintings had diminished for me, but standing amidst them in the gallery, I was awestruck. Meeting the artist, I just found there wasn’t really anything I could say because I was so deeply moved. But I wanted to know more about him.

Grey has written a book on his artistic process, and recorded a tape of dialogues discussing the evolution of his work, entitled, “The Visionary Artist.”  He frequently gives artist’s workshops at Esalen and the Omega Institute. His work was spanned a wide gamut, from the dark photographic documentation of the decay of a dog he accidentally ran over to workshops designed to unite inner city kids in artistic collaboration. Psychedelic experiences play a large role in his life; he met his wife during an acid trip. While working as a medical illustrator in a morgue, he poured lead into the ear of a decapitated head (apparently a common procedure) and actually became haunted by the head’s spirit. This experience so deeply moved him that it opened up a whole realm of spirituality in his artwork. He’s a rather devout Buddhist.

Standing in the midst of a tryptych at the gallery, I found myself speechless in the middle of a crowd. I had felt that deeply moved only once before, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. As I reached the end of the historical evolution of modern art on the second floor, before emerging into the lobby, a huge painting by Pavel Tchelitchew, entitled “Hide and Seek” loomed ominously. An enormous tree stretches into veiny arms, framing faces, and in its truck, a girl looks up into the trunk, a baby emrging between her legs. The painting is rather large, perhaps 6 feet square. Unlike Monet’s water lillies, there were no benches to sit on to try to digest the complexity of this overwhelming work. So I plopped down on the floor in front of it, transfixed, and probably stayed there a half an hour gaping. Then I returned again and again to the museum, to see it.

Hide and Seek was inspired by a tree Tchelitchew saw at an English estate during a visit in 1936, but it was nearly 6 years later that he began the painting, which took three years to complete. It is the second of a projected tryptych, following Phenomenon. The third was never completed. Phenomenon was ultimately gifted to a museum in Moscow, which apparently was rather non-plussed to receive it.

Alex Grey’s “Gaia” seems to bear more than a passing similarity to Hide and Seek:

Who was  Pavel Tchelitchew?  And how the heck do you pronounce his name? (I’ve been told “Chitch a’ Chef.”) A Russian painter, he emigrated to the US in the early 20th Century, and spent a good deal of time in Paris and Italy. He was friends with Gerturde Stein, who was a big supporter of his work. He was good friends with Balanchine and Diagalev, and painted portraits of them and contributed many of their stage sets. He was somewhat of an outsider to the Getrude Stein circles because of his homosexuality. The excuse given by curators for him not getting more attention, is that they don’t know how to categorize him, or where he fits in the canon of modern art. MOMA apparently no longer exhibits Hide and Seek, following their renovation. The excuse is its large size and lack of context. (update 2019: apparently it’s on display again)

Hide and Seek is hallucinogenic. But there’s no mention of drug use in his history. But Phenomenon isn’t nearly as psychedelic; in fact, it’s nearly a realistic montage. His other works vary enormously in style; some seem to be pale imitations of geometric constructivist photo illustrations by El Lizzetsky.