We review a lot of modern classical crossover at ACL, but this is the real deal: the type of composition that moves music forward. For evidence, look no further than the inclusion of Messiaen’s “oiseaux exotiques”, a piece that won’t be appearing on a pop chart anytime soon. L.A.’s wild Up collective – along with label Populist Records – is beginning to own its region like Iceland’s Bedroom Community and New York’s New Amsterdam. They’ve gotten this far by taking many risks, and they show no signs of slowing down.
Nicholas Deyoe has appeared on our site before, and he was recently featured on another Populist Records release, gnarwallaby’s [exhibit a]. On “a new anxiety”, he offers a score for a modern ailment: the color-coded fear chart that leaves citizens continually on edge. There’s always something to be afraid of, but governments and media outlets amplify these fears through repetition and decontextualization. This piece brings the point home with atonal clashes, out-of-cadence military drums, crashing cymbals, swirling strings and a twinned sense of alienation and annihilation. Don’t talk to strangers, don’t leave the house, don’t drink the water, stay close to your TV. Halfway through, one realizes that the piece is being performed live, which makes the additional crashes seem even more dangerous: is the roof crumbling while the audience cheers? Brass notes sound an alarm; Nero fiddles; the city burns.
Archie Carey‘s “mothlight” continues the anxious theme with descending glissandos and seemingly random percussion, leaving the impression of a victim awaiting rescue that never arrives. Mournful cello tones offer a half-hearted excuse: we’re sorry we didn’t get there in time. A train pulls into the station at the start of Odeya Nini‘s “dante quartet” ~ a modern take on the boat of Charon. The timbre indicates that this is more Inferno than Paradiso, a warning that uncomfortable fates still await those who turn their backs on humanity. Each time the music stops, one imagines a different level. When the rain descends, the tone changes. Suddenly all is melodic and clean. But the outer world intrudes in rushes of percussion and brass. You have not ascended; you are still where you don’t want to be. Offering no respite, Andrew Tholl launches into cacophony at the start of “still not a place to build monuments or cathedrals”. A synthesized imitation of a braying horse sets the listener on edge. No, we really don’t want to build a cathedral here. Even the quieter moments at the center of the piece pass like the pauses between the swings of a fist. No arts, no letters, no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
One needs a break after all this pummeling. Fortunately, the album’s outer focus on a more benign subject: birds. Conductor Christopher Rountree‘s “stand still like the hummingbird” begins as a jazzy, singalong throwback to a hopeful, bygone era. The audience yelps its appreciation. Given the title, one expects an increase in tempo. One is soon rewarded with rapid flourishes of percussion and brass. A languid late-track breakdown leads to a big band finale; wild Up can be happy too! Actual birds appear in Chris Kallmyer‘s “this nest, swift passerine”, which might have made a fine addition to Flaming Pines’ Birds of a Feather series. Kallmyer allows the birds to determine the pace of the piece, remaining tender and meditative throughout, offering a panacea to what has come before.
Archie Carey closes the set with the split-natured “bird of paradise in paradise”, which connects the project’s themes through calming tones in the opening half and dramatic tones in the second. It’s the right piece to end with, although it also highlights the album’s only drawback: it’s nearly impossible to reconcile three separate concerts based on such disparate themes (“Ornithology”, “The Armory”, and Stan Brakhage films). As an album, feather or stone might have been more effective. But as a thick collection of creative, challenging works, one can’t do much better than this. (Richard Allen)