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Christopher Rountree Makes His Home in the Avant-Garde

May 18, 2019

At the vanguard of new music, composer/conductor/curator Christopher Rountree, who is also a music director and founder of the renegade ensemble wild Up, is certainly having a moment. A seventh-generation Californian, the 36-year old Rountree is the curator of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Fluxus Festival (in conjunction with The Getty Research Institute), a celebration of the anti-establishment interdisciplinary art movement that emerged in the ’60s. The year-long bash is part of the orchestra’s centennial season, with the festival culminating in two very different 12-hour marathon concerts (May 25 at REDCAT; June 1 at Walt Disney Concert Hall). The programs aptly mirror Rountree’s audacious, forward-thinking philosophy.

A graduate of Cal State Long Beach, where he studied trombone performance and education, Rountree earned a master’s degree in orchestral conducting from the University of Michigan and has been on a musical tear ever since. In 2010 he created wild Up, whose eccentric blend of new music, pop, and performance art has been lauded by critics across the board, with The New York Times’s Zachary Woolfe writing in 2015, “Boisterously theatrical and exuberantly talented, the group barnstormed its way through works written by its own members, and a couple of punk-rock arrangements, too.”

Rountree has also made orchestral debuts with, among others, the Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Opera, and Atlanta Opera (all in 2016), as well as bowing with the Cincinnati Symphony last year, where he led John Adams’s The Dharma at Big Sur. In 2018, Rountree also conducted the International Contemporary Ensemble in the New York premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s opera, Proving Up at the Miller Theater, and in March of this year, he led the Berkeley Symphony for the first time in Sofia Gubaidulina’s Concerto for Two Orchestras.

As part of this season’s Fluxus Festival, Rountree made his subscription debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in November, leading Berio’s Sinfonia and John Cage’s Apartment House 1776, with Roomful of Teeth. As a composer, Rountree’s commissions include two new works for Jenifer Koh — a short theater piece on the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial and a large-scale concerto co-commissioned by the LA Phil for Koh and wild Up (both from 2016), as well as the overture to La Haine (Hate), from 2017, a commission from the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.

This year has proven equally busy, with Rountree having toured with wild Up, making stops in Northern California, North Carolina, and Utah. In a wide-ranging conversation I had with the energetic multihyphenate, we spoke about his interest in Fluxus and the Fluxus Festival, how he prepares for marathon concerts, and what advice he would give young musicians.

Was there music in your family and were you always attracted to the avant-garde, particularly composers such as John Cage and La Monte Young?

Both my parents were theater directors and I grew up in a household that valued art. My father was also in a folk band that toured in the ’70s, but there was never a lot of music playing in the house. I knew what Fluxus was from when I took an experimental music course at Long Beach. But it all seemed like a joke to us, because we didn’t have a frame of reference of contemporary art. But you start to see music and ritual in all sorts of things we do all day, and I remember getting a glimpse of it in that class and then got more into it. But I didn’t begin as a scholar until two years ago when I was talking to the LA Phil about curating the festival. Over those years I’ve gotten to know this work, not only by performing a lot of it, but by just studying it. In school I only heard a little about Yoko [Ono], La Monte, and Cage but now I have such a relationship with this work that I hope to be making this kind of work for the rest of my career.

The Fluxus Festival has been enormously popular and musically adventurous. Can you talk about the West Coast premiere of Bliss, the May 25 event directed by Ragnar Kjartansson, who is also singing the role of Antonio. I understand that it’s the final moments of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro performed live in a 12-hour loop, with period costumes, a set, and more than a dozen singers accompanied by wild Up.

It’s a time-based durational work with music at the center. Ragnar is one of my favorite artists now, and he’s staging it in a very rococo way, with everyone getting in their white wigs. We had to build in extra fees for the singers to get massages afterwards, and some of us have been training for the piece. I went on a big diet two months ago and lost 20 pounds. I’ve also been going to yoga, and we’ll meet with an Alexander Technique coach so we can think about our bodies [and how] not to get injured by utilizing our bodies in the most basic ways.

Since I’m conducting this over and over, I’ve thought about what it will take to do it. The way I see it is we’re all allowed to use the restroom, but no other breaks are allowed. Three times during the show there is a lavish banquet with food that’s been dressed as if it’s in the scene, including a pig with an apple in its mouth. We’ll be playing, conducting, and singing while we eat. They’ll also bring out alcohol, but not until 10 p.m., because if they brought it out too early, we will endeavor to be drunk.

Will the audience partake of the feasts, as well?

No, but the audience can come and go as they want, and Ragnar’s concept is that the audience is very separate from the piece. There are different types of tickets available and the ones that sold out in two days are the ones where you can come and go as you want. Standby tickets are available, so when a spot opens up, you can go in. It’s tricky, and we want people to have a seat, but we have to be very thoughtful about how people come and go. I imagine there will be a big hang at the bar at REDCAT, though.

A week later the “Noon to Midnight” program returns to Disney Hall, another marathon event that includes John Adams conducting four world premieres, pop-up performances throughout the various spaces of the Hall — several of them rarely used — as well as five performances curated by you and directed by Annie Saunders.

The program opens with David Lang’s [West Coast premiere] crowd out, for 1,000 singers, that will be all over the hall [including] a few hundred who will be sitting onstage. It’s directed by Dimitri Chamblas, the dean of CalArts, and Lesley Leighton conducts. Annie and I have a piece happening in one of the gardens, with a Ben Patterson composition for any situation — that is a piece that generates other pieces. There’s no conductor, and Ben sits at a table and talks the audience members through what it means to be a composer.

We also have La Monte Young’s Piano Piece for David Tudor No. 2 that’s happening with actors, dancers, and pianists in the Keck Amphitheatre. It’s about approaching the keyboard and lifting up the cover as quietly as you can. It’s almost ballet or choreography. The question is, “How do you approach the piano in a way that makes no sound?” People will try to do that in a lot of different ways.

We were going to do La Monte’s Composition 1960 #5, which is about releasing a butterfly loose in a performance space, and when I told the LA Phil [people] about this, I said we should do it outside. The Phil talked to a number of entomologists who said there was no way to do this without harming the local environment and killing a butterfly — and PETA would picket. We realized we could do a response to La Monte’s piece instead [Improvisation, Meaningless Work, Natural Disaster], so Annie will do a bunch of interviews that include people talking about what nature means to them.

She’s also talking to specialists about the ecosystem. This will be performed on the rooftop at the Carson Amphitheatre, where there will be an opportunity for the audience to listen to all these people talking and to read some material about the piece. Annie will also have her written response to the piece and Young’s score, then the audience will be [instructed in how to] fold Young’s score into paper butterflies. It’s a good response and I was frustrated about us not doing [the original work], but she’s turned it around in a good way.

What will you be performing with wild Up?

We’re doing a concert [on the main stage] at 5 p.m. that’s unrelated to Fluxus, although a few works look like Fluxus. Jessie Marino won the Rome Prize and her piece [Rot Blau (“Red Blue”)] is for two performers doing different actions on the top of a table, and Andrew Greenwald’s A Thing Made Whole (II), is a wild Up commission and a world premiere. It’s somewhere between painting and graphical notation. Then we do a world premiere by Julianna Barwick that’s a co-commission from the LA Phil. She lives in L.A. and will perform with us, singing and playing the piano.

A highlight of the festival is sure to be John Cage’s Water Walk, staged in BP Hall. Cage performed it on — of all things — TV’s I’ve Got A Secret in 1960, making use of “instruments” having to do with water, including a bathtub, ice cubes, a pitcher, a rubber duck, and a seltzer bottle, as well as five radios and a grand piano.

Yes, we’re recreating that, but we’re playing the original Cage audio. Annie has turned it into a devised theater work. It’s an hour long and it involves me doing the piece eight times. We’ll see the big set-up — all these objects — then we’ll hear the audio. I’ll go away and you’ll see a powder room where I get ready to do it again. I’ll also get notes from Annie, so things will subtly change as I repeat it. Not only will you hear Cage give the answers [to host Gary Moore’s questions], but perhaps we’ll have other peoples’ voices appear, too.

Before Cage’s [televised] performance there was a union dispute over whose job it was to turn on the radio — the musicians’ or the electricians’ union. Cage said, “Instead of turning them on, I will throw them off the table,” so I’ll be pushing these antique radios off the table eight times. This is a piece between live theater and music, and I hope to travel with it as a solo performer, as well.

As part of the festival, you created a Commitment Booth, which will be ongoing in the Grand Avenue Lobby, where audiences are asked to think deeply about sound and whether or not to buy into what Fluxus defines as music via three color-coded options.

Here’s the way it works: It requires the audience to put some skin in the game. They have to challenge themselves to be participants in a strange way — either intellectually or in being an adventurer. I thought to have a conversation about that and combine a photo booth and a table that you might register to vote at with buttons and contracts that correspond in colors. There are three levels of commitment. The green means total commitment — you hear everything as music. Then there’s yellow for ambivalent — you’re on the fence about everything being music but are [open to] it anyway. Then there’s the gray, meaning only music is music and not everything is music.

It’s apparent that your commitment to music has been unstinting, to say the least. What advice would you give young musicians today — should they identify with green, yellow, or gray?

I’d say to make work from your heart. Don’t worry what other people think, but you do need to think about the market. You have to be placeable somewhere. I realize that these are contradictions, but they’re both important. Don’t wait to be asked to dance — just dance.

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning international arts journalist who covers dance, music, theater and the visual arts. Publications she has contributed to include the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and KCET Artbound. Her feminist novella in verse, Isn’t It Rich? is being adapted for the stage, and her children’s/coffee table book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet, will soon be published by Red Sky Presents. In addition, Looseleaf co-founded the online magazine ArtNowLA.