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Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008 | Matt McBane doesn’t look like he’s celebrating an important milestone. At the Coffee Cup in La Jolla recently, he limited himself to some green tea and talked about the fifth anniversary of the Carlsbad Music Festival. This year the festival he founded and now directs kicks off in Los Angeles on Sept. 19 and moves to Carlsbad and San Diego for performances from Sept. 25 through 28.
McBane is an unassuming, almost retiring young musician, even though he’s presenting cutting edge music from a gaggle of genres from electronic to punk. The composer and violinist grew up in Carlsbad, and after school at USC and eight years in Los Angeles, he now lives in Brooklyn, the base for his band Build.
The Carlsbad festival has always featured young composers and ensembles.
“They’re underrepresented in California in contemporary music. Few venues present things in a high-profile way,” McBane said.
Joining the festival this year are 26-year-old Tristan Perich, an artist-composer-geek-NYU graduate student, and Sweden’s 28-year-old Fabian Svensson. McBane, members of Build, and the Calder Quartet are in their late 20s. Many combine conservatory training and jazz and pop sensibilities.
With national and even international creds, the festival’s ensembles are youthful and originated or are based in southern California. The Calder has developed a world-wide reputation with performances of both traditional and cutting edge new music and helped establish the festival; its violinist, Ben Jacobson is one of McBane’s life-long friends from Carlsbad. red fish blue fish of UCSD brought down the house during August’s SummerFest, and Los Angeles’ Partch has assumed a unique mission.
This year’s festival, however, also introduces some historic energy with attention to California’s post-World War II experimental tradition. John Adams, one of the best known of the Californians, described in a New Yorker article last month how he experienced that tradition. Rooted in New England, he headed west in 1974, when young composers were going to Paris and Vienna. Among other day jobs, he unloaded ship containers and taught at the fledgling San Francisco Conservatory. At night, he and other Bay Area composers experimented with new and explosive forms like electronic, minimalism, and making music out of audio junk. Today, Adams is an “establishment” but idiosyncratic composer, known for operas like “Nixon in China.”
For listeners in any genre — fine art, punk, indie rock, jazz, etc. — the festival is rich with works from California experimenters, who provide liberating inspiration for today’s composers: Terry Riley (Colfax) and Fred Firth (a Brit who teaches at Mills College); and the late Lou Harrison (San Francisco), Angeleno John Cage, Harry Partch, who lived in Leucadia, taught at SDSU and died in San Diego, and James Tenney, who performed with Partch and Cage and taught at Cal Arts and U.C. Santa Cruz.
Paralleling the California experiments were those in New York, specifically among the “downtown” group that differentiated itself from the “uptown” composers associated with Juilliard, Lincoln Center and Columbia University.
McBane said that the differences between the two coasts were real. Composers from the west tended to take their cue from nature, with open music in which changes occur gradually and lines of sound are longer. In contrast, New Yorker Elliot Carter writes works that are meticulous in detail. “It’s music written by someone living in a small space,” he said.
The Californians also heard much music from the Pacific Rim, and they borrowed Asia’s musical structures and instruments. Harrison and Cage were among the first to incorporate Asian influences.
While San Francisco and UCSD were important centers, modernists Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg taught Harrison and Cage in Los Angeles. “European modernists moved to Los Angeles, so Americans had a relationship to modernism, the intellectual rigor of modernism, even though they eventually rebelled against it,” McBane said.
Harrison, whose later music seems a return to romanticism, was an innovator and experimenter to the core, and the festival will perform one of his last pieces, “Nekchad.” Harrison wrote it for a resonator guitar and rearranged the frets for microtonal tuning.
One of the more intriguing appearances will be Partch, named for Harry Partch, who invented his own instruments, such as a diamond shaped marimba tuned to his own 44-note scale and another fashioned with containers from particle accelerators. The composer’s original instruments were in storage at SDSU, until the collection moved to Montclair State University in New Jersey, where it is housed in the Harry Partch Instrumentarium.
Partch’s leader John Schneider has been building replicas and is working toward a complete set. The group will give a free performance and demonstration at the Museum of Making Music and a full concert on Schulman Auditorium. The performances are a rare treat; even McBane has never heard Partch’s music live.
Today’s young composers stand on the shoulders of the past, even as they draw heavily on pop influences and new technologies. On his blog Perich describes his works as simple forms where randomness, order and composition intersect. He isn’t content to make music and art; he invents “instruments” that are in a straight line from Harry Partch’s, although they are creations of the digital age.
In his One-Bit Music project, Perich turns jewel cases into personal lo-fi devices. The listener plugs into a head phone jack on the side of a jewel case that contains an electronic circuit and hears 40 minutes of 1-bit electronic music, the lowest possible digital representation of audio. “Interface” is a full-throated work for string quartet and 4-channel 1-bit electronics. Perich, who can switch from Bjork-like compositions to punk, has been recognized by no less than New York’s Whitney Museum, which in February, showcased him in its Whitney Live series of cutting edge performers.
Sevensson is Perich’s polar opposite. Loaded with Scandinavian bite and humor, his works use unusual instrument combinations and sometimes large ensembles. In his hour-long work “Tillvaratagna effekter,” he reinvents the violin concerto, scoring it for a violin soloist, two sopranino recorders, two melodicas, six electric guitars, two bass guitars and timpani.
Svensson’s “Singing and Dancing” won the festival’s international competition which drew 100 entries. The Calder Quartet will perform Svensson’s piece, which was co-commissioned by ArtPower! at UCSD, and Perich’s “Interface.”
Build, which performs in clubs and lofts in New York, will make its California debut at the festival with McBane’s compositions. The band’s musical identity sings from the cover of its recently-released premiere CD, “build.” A hulking, rusting piece of construction equipment is parked on a beach washed by a gentle surf. McBane wrote the music, took the photo and produced the disc for New Amsterdam Records. The band — violin, cello, piano, bass and drums — is clearly in control of music that is alternately swaying and gentle (“in the backyard”) and rough and driving (“magnet”). The final track (“driving”) clocks in at nearly 14 minutes and progresses in a steady and energetic minimalist intensity. The recording has already picked up good reviews.
Today, new music is a free trade zone, and differences between the coasts are not as stark as they were in the middle of the twentieth century. Bi-coastal energies rule. In 2005, the San Francisco opera premiered John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic,” about Robert Oppenheimer, the developer of the A-bomb. This season, after productions in the Netherlands and Chicago, it’s on the Metropolitan Opera’s schedule.
Terry Riley’s work will reach across the continent too. In November, Bang On a Can All-Stars of New York will premiere Terry Riley’s “Autodreamographical Tales” at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. And then in the spring, Carnegie Hall will host a California modernist masterpiece. The Kronos Quartet, which is based in San Francisco, will supervise a star-filled 45th anniversary performance of Riley’s movable musical feast “In C.” (SoundOn, the Athenaeum’s new music festival, has presented it twice in the past two years.)
Rooted in California, McBane also operates in the active New York music world that he described: “Composers in their 30s and early 20s are fusing genres, including indie rock. They’ve gone to conservatories and they’re musicians from different groups. It’s an indie classical scene.”
For complete festival information go to www.carlsbadmusicfestival.org.
To hear some music from new composers: