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Music review: Carl Stone's Pacific Standard Time concert

November 13, 2011 |  2:30 pm

Carl Stone and Gloria ChengThe first notable musical offering of Pacific Standard Time was a glorious concert of electronic music by Carl Stone at the Getty Center on Saturday evening, a night of sonic wonder. Now my job is, somehow, not to explain why.

One of the most annoying aspects of Pacific Standard Time is that it engenders definitions. But for Los Angeles, definition can be an act of destruction, especially in music. A true L.A. composer is no more apt to be pinned down in our particular geographical energy field than a quantum particle in its.

That may be one reason why music has a relatively insignificant place in this festival (its antecedent, the region-wide Ring Festival last year, was not so small-minded). But Stone’s electronics did send, you might say, a stimulating signal.

Stone, who is 58, is from here, but doesn’t live here, having relocated first to San Francisco then Tokyo, where he is now based. That, however, has made him no less an Angeleno, if you take Los Angeles to be a place of many places.

Although he included live electronic music, with Gloria Cheng playing a harpsichord and Min Xiao-Fen a pipa (the Chinese lute) at the Getty, Stone’s music is basically produced on a laptop, and a listener has no clue as to what he does. Stone sits at a table and stares at a screen, just as if he were at Starbucks. We stare at him staring.

His pieces are mostly named for his favorite, frequently Asian, restaurants, which makes the pieces very hard to remember (although some have become curious musical cenotaphs for places long out of business). Like his restaurants, his musical tastes are wide-ranging explorations of both the popular and classical aspects of international cultures.

He samples different kinds of music, which he combines and transforms in startlingly original ways. But the material itself is also often another mystery. His program notes -- sometimes technical, sometimes simply vague –- don’t much help.

But enchantment is an experience to which you surrender. The extent in which Los Angeles can be a place of messy, inexplicable, unpredictable enchantment is the extent in which Carl Stone is the quintessential Los Angeles composer.

For the pieces on the Getty program in the Harold M. Williams Auditorium, Stone didn’t stick to the Pacific Standard Time dates of 1945 to 1980 (but no one else in the PST museum or gallery shows seems to either). Only “Sukothai” from 1977 fit the timing, and even that was presented in the premiere of a new live realization.

Originally, Stone took a recording of the Purcell harpsichord rondo that Benjamin Britten used for the basis of “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” and layered it electronically until it became rhapsodic waves of metallic sounds. This time Cheng, who is a well-known L.A. new music pianist and who was making her harpsichord debut, played the rondo live, and then Stone did his magic with her performance.

Stone also wrote a new piece for Cheng, “Hoang Yen,” in which he took a piece by Couperin (which he didn’t identify) and turned it into a wandering fantasia with an electronic jazzy finish that left a listener happily wondering how he ever got from here to there.

The other new piece receiving its first performance was “A Te Geuele,” a structured improvisation between Stone and Min. Her fingers mysteriously feathered her instrument and he mysteriously magnified those feathered sounds into full stereo plumage.

Two pieces from 2006, given their L.A. premieres, are based on the same sampled recording of an alluring Vietnamese folk melody. In “Al-Noor,” the song morphs as if traveling elsewhere in Asia, eyes and ears wide open.

“Attari,” written while Stone was visiting his dying father in L.A., is a rare electronic music masterpiece. Here, the Vietnamese song is paired in counterpoint with a sorrowful Baroque violin and guitar piece and a wrenching Japanese flute solo. Over 20 minutes, the power of expression of each individual kind of music becomes multiplied when in company of the others. The indelibly moving result is a laying bare of an emotional essence underlying different musics.

The final piece, “Zang,” was a short, popsy, live improvisation with a beat. This time Stone, untethered from his laptop, stood and controlled the computer with an iPad. He bopped a bit, as his fingers swished the screen, finding yet another way of not being pinned down, musically or physically.

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-- Mark Swed

Photo: Harpsichordist Gloria Cheng and composer Carl Stone at the Getty Center on Saturday night. Credit: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times.

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