Music review: wild Up merrily mashes Modernism with punk
Uniting pop with new music is not new. Everyone does it. In happening arts centers such as Brooklyn, virtuous young musicians insist that Minimalism and anything that iTunes happens to be promoting that week must get along. Wired urbanites making nice is always nice. But soupy Radiohead arrangements are another matter.
Curiously in laid-back Los Angeles, a new music edge refuses to soften. At Beyond Baroque, the literary and arts center in Venice, there was a venturesome, exhilarating mash-up of extra-hard-edged European Modernism and Postmodernism with anarchic punk rock on Friday night. Players who spoke sweetly to an eager audience crowded in a funky small room (hey, it’s still L.A.) were as unhesitant when the music wanted obscenities.
Founded last year by a contagiously excitable and ambitious young conductor, Christopher Rountree, the modern music collective wild Up is busy remaking the concept of classical music for a 20-something set. Rountree has ideas but demonstrates less ideology. “We play it as long as we love it” is the wild Up motto.
Informality is one of wild Up’s classical music causes, and it probably pleases the younger side of its mostly youthful followers. The program is posted on the wall in the lobby, not handed out. Rountree and the players speak casually and colloquially to the audience. The piano for the Beyond Baroque concert was a spinet that has seen better days. But the actual programming was insightful.
The evening was divided between a formal first half and a punk rock set, with ear plugs provided. The scene for punk was cheerfully anticipated with late 20th century American piano rags -– William Albright’s “Sleepwalker’s Shuffle” and William Bolcom’s “The Poltergeist” -– and early 20th century percussive violin works -- Conlon Nancarrow’s Toccata for violin and player piano and the last movement of George Antheil’s First Violin Sonata. The respective pianist and violinist were Richard Valitutto and Andrew Tholl, both vigorously virtuosic.
But wild Up’s wild card Friday was Clarence Barlow. A composer who joined the music department at UC Santa Barbara five years ago, he remains Southern California's best-kept new-music secret, having established none of the presence here that he had in Germany and the Netherlands, where he previously taught computer music and composed.
Born in Calcutta in 1945 but a product of the European avant-garde, Barlow is a composer of dryly elegant, sometimes witty works that are both affectionately traditional and deeply seditious. The machine often has the last word, whether that be mechanical musical instruments in combination with conventional ones or computer-derived mathematical procedures that make Beethoven or Stockhausen or Satie go awry and then away.
In Barlow's three short ensemble pieces from the last decade that wild Up played –- “25 Aneis,” Sachets des Ciseaux Insatiables” and “Septima de Facto” –- pop is also used as subject matter. There were hints of the Beatles and even a Prince cover, sort of (very sort of), although the mathematics made all of it delightfully askew. I never for a second knew where I was in anything, and that proved an extremely interesting place to be.
The concert's punk portion consisted of happily hair-brained and hair-raising arrangements by Rountree and other band members (some using far more avant-garde techniques than found in the originals) of songs by Deerhoof, FEAR, The Misfits, Black Flag/Dirty Projectors, X-ray Spex and Dog Faced Hermans. There was attitude. There was intonation too (what punk band tunes before every song?). Rountree sang, as did bassist Maggie Hasspacher with particular charm.
The performances all evening were impressive both technically and for their unabashed spirit. Rountree punches out rhythms as if they were going out of style. He emphasizes outsize emotions. He could probably get an audience to dance to the slowest movement Shostakovich ever wrote.
Whether or not wild Up is the future is for the future to know. But this much is certain: It works. If I ran the school district, I'd hire this collective to propagandize for classical music to every high school in the city.
-- Mark Swed
wild Up, Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. 9 p.m. Saturday. $5 - $10. (310) 822-3006 or www.beyondbaroque.org.
Photo: Christopher Rountree, center, with his modern music collective wild Up. Credit: Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times