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Music and Light at New L.A. Concert Series “Silence”

September 23, 2019

SILENCE

Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge may seem like an oddly out-of-the-way place in which to hold concerts, but, in fact, the multi-flowered grounds have long been the home of a number of orchestras and musical events. Add another to the list, a new-music series called Silence.

Silence is the brainchild of Christopher Rountree, the indefatigable leader of wild Up, and Anna Bulbrook, formerly the violist for the indie-rock band Airborne Toxic Event and founder of the music collective Girlschool. Both had been associated with Los Angeles Philharmonic new-music initiatives out on the edge last season — Rountree as curator of the Fluxus Festival, Bulbrook as curator of a Yoko Ono tribute concert — and Silence appears to be developing threads from both projects.

The idea in this early stage seems to be to present experimental music from a variety of artists that knocks down what’s left of the once-formidable fence between classical and pop. From the evidence of the series’ second concert, subtitled “Light,” at Descanso Saturday night (Sept. 21), the metaphors were leaping all around us.

We were led on a leisurely walk under a gradually darkening sky through the gardens until we came upon a clearing under an oak grove where circles of white seats surrounded a space for the performers. Blips and bleeps of electronic music circulated over loudspeakers sotto voce

Once there, we were kept in the dark, as it were, for there were no programs, let alone program notes or identification of the performers, to let us know what to expect. Those who were tipped off in advance — or in my case, consulted a press release — knew that a group of musicians were about to play Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s droning, ethereal soundscape In the Light Of Air and Suzanne Ciani would perform electronic music in quadraphonic sound. The rest, as they implied, was silence.

One shuddered at first at the unwelcome roar from a hovering helicopter that drowned out the quiet beginning of Thorvaldsdottir’s 40-minute-long meditation in four continuous movements for viola, cello, piano, harp, percussion, electronics, and lighting installation. But that was the noisemakers’ quota for the night, for the rest of the performance by the all-female quintet (Vicki Ray, Diana Wade, Yuri Inoo, Cristina Montes Mateo, Mia Barcia-Colombo) went generally undisturbed.

As it seems with most contemporary Icelandic music, whether classical, rock, folk, or in-between, drones were an essential element in the piece; the music sounded like it was coming from a remote place far, far away (which from L.A. at least, Iceland is). The amplification on the instruments, though, made it sound warmer and more present, and the LED tubes strewn on the dirt or pointing vertically in columns went on and off in varying patterns. At times, the somber mood of the piece made me think of this as a requiem for the composer Christopher Rouse, who had passed away earlier that day in Baltimore.

Suzanne Ciani was an early advocate of the Buchla synthesizer, which used touch plates instead of a keyboard, in the 1960s and ’70s, but didn’t perform on it again until analog synths came back into fashion 40 years later. Indeed, she came to Descanso with her Buchla 200E, the tangle of retro colored patch cords intact but equipped with digital modifications that make it more feasible to play in real time.

Ciani took us on a 33-minute stream-of-consciousness trip through the possibilities of abstract, pulsating, circulating electronic sound, beginning and ending with whooshes of pink noise. She employed features from early synths and effects devices like phase shifting, sample-and-hold patterns that generated consistent grooves, gradually adding and subtracting various ingredients as she went. The sounds bounced around the grove through four sets of good speakers, and the LED tubes flashed around her setup in an even greater variety of colors.

This set was a voyage back to another, more adventurous time before synthesizers became less flexible and less open-ended. To put it bluntly, it was bloody marvelous.

The third and last Silence concert, “Listening,” with pianist Gloria Cheng, interdisciplinary artist Lisa Harris, one-woman band L’Rain, and composer Julia Holter, takes place Sept. 28.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.