Having heard legends of the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the flawlessness of its acoustics, I was very excited to see such a fearsome foursome as the Kronos Quartet, Matmos, Mike Einziger, and Terry Riley all in one go.
First off, the WDCH does not disappoint in the slightest. We sat in the cheap seats behind the orchestra. Despite the fact that the performers are facing away from you, these are by far the best seats from which to eavesdrop on an electronic duo’s setup, not to mention hear an organ performance since you’re sitting directly under the pipes. Even given our weird positioning, the sound was so clear that as the orchestra played full tilt alongside 12 guitar amps for Einziger’s piece, we could still hear a lonely cellist turn a page.
The night, which kicked off the West Coast, Left Coast Festival, had a rolling cast. It began with the Kronos Quartet, who performed a piece by Thomas Newman. It involved live electronics and Newman’s trademark melodic rhythmicism, dissonanced up here and there to ensure no one forgot they weren’t listening to a film score. The Kronos Quartet has a sound so free and yet cohesive you’ve got to see it to believe it, and David Harrington is nothing short of a rock star.
Following this, Matmos and the Kronos Quartet performed two pieces, which to me was a highlight of the night. If you’ve read other articles around this site, you’ll know that I’m obsessed with quality reconstruction of electroacoustic music without any prerecorded tracks. Matmos, whose myriad influences date back to tape loops and musique concrète, seamlessly blended their infectious grooves and quirky live sampling with the furious sawing of two violins, a viola and a cello. The quartet dutifully supplied samples to Matmos when required, shaking rattlers, baby bells, and even smacking their own violin with a bright red squeaky hammer. This is how the future of electronic music should sound: masterfully beautiful with a twinkle in its eye. I have had it up to here with contemporary chamber electronica always taking itself so damn seriously.
Matmos then performed two tracks to video. I can understand how such music can be underwhelming to those expecting a more club-oriented electronic duo like Plaid or Autechre, but I was delighted by the freedom inherent in their soundscapes. I felt it was a celebration of sound more than a celebration of themselves, a sentiment too often lacking in musicians the world over.
Next, we had the privilege of hearing Mike Einziger’s Forced Curvature of Reflective Surfaces, a through-composed process piece inspired quite clearly by the shape of the concert hall in which we sat. After an (extremely) short introduction by the ever low key Einziger, the piece began with a series of rises and falls, one side of the orchestra mirroring the other, interspersed with bits of tonality here and there. The guitar amps surrounding the string players like the earth’s crust included that of the composer himself, placed surreptitiously at the end of the row. Suzie Katayama, who conducted his piece End.>vacuum in the past, conducts with an easy, flowing style perfect for such an amorphous composition. At one point, when the song got to the big bulbous part of the building near the center, the incredibly long fall drew chuckles from the audience. Sure, Mike might be the guitarist for the pop alternative band Incubus, but don’t let that get in the way of the brilliance of this infinitely curious and tirelessly humble artist.
Matmos returned and jammed with Mike for a while, then Kronos and Terry Riley joined them for a session that really knocked me out. There I was, watching eight musicians who probably never expected to be so popular or successful, still down to earth and inspired by life, no one soloing wankily over the other, in one of the most acoustically perfect rooms in the world. What a treat! Terry Riley, as the elder, definitely seemed the Patriarch, Wise Man, and Shaman of the session, immediately setting up a bluesy ostinato and running over it, left and right and up and down and across and under and through. The cellist took up the hook and everyone just went off. When Terry Riley began singing a raga a la Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, it really took the performance to a level usually reserved for sex and prayer. I am ever impressed by the voice and to what heights (or depths) it may take us.
Terry Riley then left the stage organ and moved slowly (he is 74) up to the big organ roughly 15 feet to my left. The eccentric woman on my right remarked, “It is a gift to music lovers everywhere that the best seats in the house are the cheapest!” Terry played for one glorious hour, which we believe only involved 3 songs. Some people left, to my shock and horror, and some stayed until he finished at 12:30. Unbeknownst to me, he has been known to play concerts well into the sunrise, which were attended in the old days by acid trippers and families with sleeping bags alike. His music is not for the faint of heart, but to the heart of a thinking person it is undeniably a celebration of life and deserts and oceans and people and an endless stream of universal loveliness. He constantly toyed with rhythm, and not just in the conventional hey-look-5/4 sort of way. Sometimes he’d just skip a beat, so I would often be tapping along for a good bit before I realized I was now on the off beat. He plays music as if life were overwhelming, yet beneath it all is a beat that goes on and on despite the supersaturated humdrum of it all. Which is true… especially in Los Angeles.
Here’s a song by Terry Riley called A Rainbow in Curved Air, which someone synced up to 2001: A Space Odyssey because Youtube is funny like that. Happy Thanksgiving!