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Music review: Terry Riley launches West Coast, Left Coast Festival

November 22, 2009 |  5:10 pm



The capitalized sentiment leapt off the page in Terry Riley’s program note for “Eureka!” the late-night opening event for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s West Coast, Left Coast festival Saturday night.

And thus -- after more than two hours of regimented warm-up from the Kronos Quartet, the electronic duo Matmos and guitarist and composer Michael Einziger -- did Riley commence the act of seduction, in the dictionary sense of leading a listener astray. As midnight neared, the godfather of Minimalism mounted the organ loft of Walt Disney Concert Hall and began his hourlong siren song.

A rainbow of organ colors poured forth. A shaman at work, Riley sometimes sang as he improvised channeling all that is mystical and magical in our glorious if dysfunctional state.

California, here we come.

Ktittunc There hasn’t been much of a mission statement for West Coast, Left Coast, which will continue for three weeks at Disney Hall and around town. Composer John Adams, the philharmonic’s creative chair, is the festival curator. A brief description in the L.A. Phil program book speaks of California’s renegades and its wide-open welcoming environment. Riley perfectly encompasses that.

He is not the first of the state’s maverick greats -- the festival is short on pre-‘60s history -- but his “In C” in 1964 is the work that got the East Coast’s and the musical world’s attention and made clear that the West really can be different, especially when it looks left, to Asia, not to Europe.

So it made perfect sense to devote Saturday’s opening event to the ramifications of Riley, showing his influence on several generations of musicians in classical music and pop. Kronos has been collaborating with Riley for three decades. Matmos got its start in San Francisco 14 years ago and has been much influenced by Riley. Einziger, a founder of the rock band Incubus, seemed to fit in because he is a questing musician who has branched out into writing classical ensemble pieces.

Unfortunately, the philharmonic treated the concert like a pop event. The program book was a mess, making it difficult to follow along. The pieces were not listed. Instead, information about them was embedded in long program notes, mostly gleaned from biographical materials that read like PR. And you couldn’t read because the hall was kept dark.

The audience was noisily filing in when Kronos began the evening with the premiere of “It Got Dark” by 10-time Academy Award-nominated composer Thomas Newman. Though hardly an outsider, Newman has more to offer than what Hollywood permits. His quartet consists of small evocations of the Westside, its short, moody movements, and excited ones, equally affable. Pre-recorded environimental sounds help suggest Santa Monica.

Matmos provided two appropriately Riley-centric scores. In “For Terry Riley,” the studied electronic music nerds (Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt) joined the Kronos to deconstruct material from Riley’s early quartet, “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector.”  The players here became their own sweet dream collectors as they made a new, ingratiating Riley haze. Matmos’ boppy “Supreme Balloon” was equally Riley-esque without the quotes.

Einziger briefly played with Matmos and also premiered “Forced Curvature of Reflective Surfaces” for a dozen strings and a dozen guitars. Elaborately conducted by Suzie Katayama, the score seemed the work of a kid in a glissando candy store. Einziger created plenty of intriguing space-age effects and provided nicely crunched chords. But theory got away from him. Inspired by Frank Gehry’s Disney forms, he has yet to discover a means to make sound and musical structure a whole.

Riley then joined Kronos, Matmos and Einziger for a short group improvisation, which finally set the stage for his by then too-long delayed act of seduction on the organ.

Everything but the Disney organ had been amplified, and that meant that sound dampening curtains were left up, which lessened the impact of Riley's final solo set. But he was in inspired form. His three numbers (not listed in the program) were “Night Music,” “Ebony Horns” and an improvisation on a raga. They made a mockery of musical boundaries, be they geographical, historical or stylistic. Bach’s organ and Delta blues, for example, are not, in Riley universe, separate genres. And once he began his ricocheting rhythms, he covered the room in a mind altering buzz.

It was sad, then, to watch Riley empty the room. His set began without a break from the previous one. People were tired, didn’t know what to expect and had been ill-prepared for musical revelation in a concert presented as an occasion for hipster grazing. There is more than one way to lead the listener astray.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Terry Riley on the organ console, with guitarist Mike Einziger, Matmos and the Kronos String Quartet at the opening event of  the "West Coast, Left Coast" festival in Walt Disney Concert Hall Saturday night. (Bottom) Riley in the organ loft. Credit: Ringo H.C. Chiu / For The Times

Comments () | Archives (12)

My wife and I are astonished at how poor last night's performance was (11/21). I'm not an avid review-writer so please consider this heartfelt and take it constructively. After sitting through last night’s performance, I believe I deserve to have my comments read.

First, my parents bought us the over-priced tickets to “Eureka!,” and this economy has left them poor, so this is this especially sad. The performers didn’t even dress up. It was in every sense the quality of a free coffeehouse show. I've attended close to 100 musical performances in my life, and this was easily the poorest quality I’ve seen, which is impressive considering the acoustic potential of the beautiful theater. My wife noted that the performance sounded as if the performers were tuning their instruments from start to finish. I agreed. So here are my chief complaints:

I cannot believe that Matmos played from a laptop. Freeware music software downloads can do that. There is no credibility there. This is like a violinist sitting on stage with tape recorder to playing violin sounds. And their imagery of body fluids going down a dirty drain was disturbing. If I want back-alley rave quality I'll go to a back-alley rave. They were the main reason we asked ourselves why people were expected to pay for this.

Kronos Quartet and Terry Riley are actual seasoned musicians so we were embarrassed for them. Frankly, their collaborative attempt at existential music was simply nonsensical noise. And I mean “nonsensical” in every sense, by any subjective perception. They were scratching and banging their instruments to no logical rhythm, harmony, congruity, or pleasantry. The couple sitting next to us literally cried out, “thank God that ended” as they got up and walked out after the first piece with Riley. And as for Michael Einziger, if I were the Disney Concert Hall, I’d ask him to take back what he said about his piece being inspired by their building. It sounded like a horror film soundtrack, but at least that piece sounded like music.

This whole "experimental edge" performance was a flop, and we are insulted that my parents paid hard money for this. This is the first musical concert that we walked out of before the end. I actually wanted to stay to the end just to get our money’s worth, but my wife couldn’t handle the noise. About 30-40% of the audience did the same, and I cannot say how many walked out after we left.

The reason I am taking the time to write this is to add to the hope that performances such as this will stop, or at least come with a warning before purchase. It is blatant exploitation of the audience since people like ourselves will trust the Disney name and buy tickets. How unfortunate that our first experience at the Disney Concert Hall left us so skeptical of future events. I wish our parents could be refunded.

Wow, a critical review from Swed. Dudamel must have been far, far away. Kronos killed it, Matmos was a surprise, I'd never heard of them. Really good. Einziger was a dud, his symphonic work and collaborations offering little inspiring, original, or FUN. The other acts were all these things. One more thing, Mr. Einziger: I know you were nervous, you acted like a little girl on stage (lifting one foot off ground when hugging the conductor afterwards??), but TURN OFF YOUR LED PEDAL LIGHT. And Jeff Wallace, as the Stage Manager of Disney Hall, you fail. Your job is to notice these things and...manage the stage. It blinded me and distracted everyone else for 45 full minutes!! I work in Music Production, and I don't have IATSE to rush to my defense if I screw up as badly as you did last night. I'm just sent home on the next plane. House lights were nearly black for this concert. Which left just Einziger's LED light. Shining. Right in front of me. Too busy taking Orange Barrel Sunshine backstage with Terry Riley? It worked for him, he was amazing. You, you were just trippin'.

"I cannot believe that Matmos played from a laptop."

-Believe it, bucko. You were there. Listen, electronic musicians aren't always "Musicians", though many times they are. The fact that someone is using a laptop has little bearing on the musicality of a performance. Matmos seemed to have pushed the boundaries of what you expected music to be, that is all. Electronic music is often created in a much different way than conventional classical music. That very nature is alluring to most electronic musicians, because it removes many of the boundaries of conventional instrumentation. And yes, that sometimes includes not having to learn how to play music. Though, in Matmos' case, I gathered they knew a great deal about conventional musical composition, and it showed.

"They (Matmos) were the main reason we asked ourselves why people were expected to pay for this."

-Wow, you should never take a chance on a show again. Or at least you should read up (or listen) a little before attending a show by someone you know nothing about. Enjoy your safe life of non-discovery.

"Kronos Quartet and Terry Riley are actual seasoned musicians so we were embarrassed for them."

-I'm sure they were embarrassed for you too.

"This whole "experimental edge" performance was a flop..."

-Seeing as the performance was "experimental" in nature, failure would seem to be a likely outcome. Truth in advertising, to be certain.

"It is blatant exploitation of the audience since people like ourselves will trust the Disney name and buy tickets."

-The Walt Disney Company has nothing to do with the programming at the concert hall. This place is clearly not Disneyland. Did you honestly expect to see the Country Bear Jamboree here? Were you disappointed there was no fireworks show?

By the way, I too attended the show Saturday night, and was somewhat disappointed, but not for any of the reasons you suggest. The program should have been clearly defined from the beginning, so the audience knew what to expect. I too walked out on Terry Riley's organ(asmic) journey into space, but only because it was after midnight and there was no telling when the show (or was it an encore?) was set to end. It was a genuine thrill to experience the organ though.

In the future, I recommend you give the performers a little more credit. The fact you pay for a ticket does not guarantee satisfaction. It only guarantees that you will be
a part of something that is happening for the first time in front of your eyes (and ears).

Oh, and for something you may like, I highly recommend seeing Joey Arias at REDCAT. You'll love it. It has puppets.

Regarding the previous post, I was tempted to make remarks, but those comments really speak for themselves.

Overall I would agree with Mr. Swed's comments, both positive and negative. To start the concert as the audience was still entering seems to me to simply sloppy and unprofessional on the part of the organizers. I also was dismayed as people (mostly very young) were walking out on Riley's performance. As much as anything though, I have to chalk it up to LA's lameness -it's just not a late-night kinda town. I guess midnight was just past their bedtimes.
I also agree that the program notes were a mess and impossible to follow during the perfomance. I was oblivious to the curtain issue, but it did seem that the organ could have used some more volume. Shame on Disney Hall for making several not-ready-for-primetime mistakes.

That aside, I think nearly all of the the highly eclectic program was very enjoyable. The one exception was Einziger's piece. I chuckled reading the review because as I was listening to the piece I couldn't stop thinking about slide whistles. Aside from that, the other works were all very engaging. The first piece played by the Kronos Quartet was very good. I was not familiar with Matmos, but I thought their performance (laptops and all) was very enjoyable, both sonically and visually, and brought home just how much debt various types of electronic & trance/groove oriented music owe to Terry Riley's work.

It would have been nice to have a break before his set, to give the "pearls before swine" contingent a chance to leave without disrupting the perfomance. Nevertheless, some of them did stick around and hopefully a few minds were blown open, as mine was at one point. Given the dismal state of music education, and the lack of exposure for contemporary "classical" music, that alone was worth the endevour.

Anyone who went to this concert and didn't know exactly what type of music they were getting into should have their heads examined. Literally.

William M. you completely missed the point.

The Left Coast Festival is about premiering new and innovative forms of modern music. It's a chance for the "symphony crowd" to see what's been going on since Stravinsky and for new pioneers to be honored.

Comparing Matmos to a "back-alley rave" and not understanding the complexities of what they brought to last night's performance is plain ignorance.

Refusing to accept the role new technology plays in advancing orchestral music is akin to the people who said the internet would never catch on. it's happening, educate yourself.

Also, the "performers tuning their instruments" sound you heard was called a glissando - take a music appreciation class.

Personally, I thought the performance was superb. I would gladly pay the reasonable $40 ticket price to see it again (btw I bought my own tickets and I am a student and a composer so you know the economy has been just swingin' for me).

Honestly, the Master Chorale Messiah Sing-Along is only 19 days away. Everything will be back to normal soon.

The concert was scheduled for a late start time 9:30 p.m. Saturday night, and Terry Riley's solo performance didn't get underway until after midnight. It's unfortunate that most of the audience didn't wait to hear Terry Riley perform his own compositions on the Disney Hall organ (which he calls "Hurricane Mama"), but as many unprepared listeners emptied out of the hall, the atmosphere got very relaxed. Riley ended his spectacular set shortly after 1:00 a.m., and I was mezmerized. Had he kept playing until sunrise there were still a number of us in the audience who would have blissfully stayed on. This is the second year in a row that I've heard Mr. Riley at Disney Hall and I hope his return becomes an annual event. Bravo!

Don't blame the "performers" for their clueless. Blame the LA phil and Deborah Borda for their poor choices. when the LA phil + Deborah Borda decide on one single person to do the new music programming you're bound to have a narrow perspective on things. Mind you that reading committees or similar evaluation/selection committees for the selection of new works exist pretty much everywhere and in all areas of human activity from scientific publications, to publication houses or to music programming for houses such as BBC, radio France, and so on. not with LA phil + Deborah Borda + Adams. Why on earth should we care about the sonic fetishes of Adams (since it wasn't about the music making much less about the composing must have been about something else)?
While so proudly the LA phil tries selling its own image of innovative programmer and new music buff, the process of new music selection has been nothing short than mediocre, corrupt, artistically insignificant and inconsequential. In a city with 12 million alone I find it hard to believe that you couldn't find better composers than what the festival presents, or generally speaking, have been presented in the last decade that I can remember. Stucky used the green umbrella to give air time to his college students, Salonen tried to impregnate LA with a massive injection of Finish music to those at home who will continue to support him there, and now the Adams reign.
Should LA phil + Deborah Borda get rid of the idea of a new music advisor (Adams or similar person on the job), then the institution itself becomes committed to new music and protected from the shady interests of the establishment or an individual. At LA phil auditions, the multi person jury listens to the players from behind a black screen thus ensuring the best player gets selected, regardless of who the person is. Should the new music programming for the LA phil follow the same principles, then the mafia of Salonen, Stucky, Adams would not enjoy the perks they have.
See the conflict?

One of the most painful experiences I've had in a while...I actually thought the loud snoring from someone sitting behind me was part of a song until others around me started laughing! We left after the brief break before Mr. Riley performed solo...we could not take much more...the piece he played with the others sounded like he was leaning on the organ and it was so loud we could not hear the other musicians...what a disapointment!

The badly planned evening was topped by one the the worst crowds I can remember at WDH. So many people there had no clue about etiquette. Talking, texting, walking in late, flipping through their program. This was amateur night with a two drink minimum for a such sorry bunch of losers. Bring back the graybeards, please.

Why start a 3.5 hr show at 9:30 pm? Kronos and Matmos were amazing. Einziger's composition was bad but he played great with Kronos/Matmos.
Riley was coma inducing. I hope to see him again but maybe before 12 am.

The night was absolutely dissonant from beginning to end. But dissonance is art, too. If it was at all hypnotizing, for good or for bad, we all reacted, and that's testament to Kronos, Matmos, Einziger and Riley having left a lasting effect on us. Kudos to Disney Hall for celebrating the challenge against western harmonic boundaries. Major, major, major kudos.

The show was amazing.


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