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Critic's Notebook: A renegade fiddler and surf music

August 5, 2009 |  3:00 pm

Knw0rtnc What’s surfing got to do with it? Nothing, absolutely nothing. That’s what Gilles Apap said Tuesday night at his “lecture-demonstration” -- “Surfing and Improvisation” -- at the new Annenberg Community Beach House on the sand in Santa Monica. He was wrong.

Apap, in fact, delivered no lecture, although he did provide a small, impressive demonstration of the improviser’s art. Mainly, though, the former concertmaster of the Santa Barbara Symphony -- who likes to call himself, not inaccurately, a renegade fiddler -- played a lively, multi-genre and highly enjoyable concert in an alluring new venue, a beach club that is free and open to the public. The program was part of a terrific new Tuesday evening series of concerts, poetry readings and talks, also free to the public, although reservations are required.

Surfing, Apap said, is simply something he likes to do. He thought for a minute, noting that surfing requires a lot of waiting for a good wave, and a good way to fill the time is to think about music. Of course, he added, you can put the time wasted in airport security lines to the same effect.

Apap described his mornings as starting with a dash into the ocean. Then he makes coffee. Finally he picks up the fiddle and warms up, slightly perversely, playing a Bach cello prelude. In this regard, Apap’s surfing appears as much a musician’s morning devotional as, say, the Bach counterpoint exercises Stravinsky used to get his creative juices flowing.

Nor is Apap -- who was born in Algeria and grew up in Nice, France -- the only venturesome classical musician riding waves these days. Onetime Los Angeles Opera music director Kent Nagano had to leave his Woodie at home for posts in surf-scant Munich and Montreal, but he still returns to California to hang 10. Violinist Richard Tognetti, the leader of the sensational Australian Chamber Orchestra, recently made a film, “Musica Surfica,” with a celebrated unconventional Australian surfer, Derek Hynd. Who knew that Paganini and a mint green sea would so well suit each other?

There is no question that surfing has at least boogie-boarded its way into a higher culture. A recent visit to a Venice Beach surf shop revealed -- among the usual assortment of boards, videos and surf rock and pop CDs -- a stack of obscure catalogs from a Berlin gallery show of the work of artist Richard Pettibone (one of many contemporary artists who dally with surf images) and a selection Oxford shirts in pastel colors (is preppy surf a new fashion statement?). Surf culture is also at the center of Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, “Inherent Vice,” coincidentally released  Tuesday. One dude at Apap’s recital wore an “Obama Surfs” T-shirt.

Classical surf music isn’t exactly a genre -- Google it and you’ll be asked whether you really meant “classic surf music,” as in Dick Dale or the Beach Boys. It is more a mind-set. From my own unsuccessful high school flirtation with the sport, I discovered that surfing, just like mastering an instrument, requires a huge amount of practice, flexibility and reverence. The sea, like a Mozart score, will always be your better. You can only be yourself when you first learn to respect the rhythm of the waves and expect the unexpected.

Apap began his recital Tuesday with the Bach cello prelude that is his daily ritual, playing it while pacing the stage and singing -- in a growly voice, Glenn Gould style -- a bass line. He effortlessly segued into an Irish jig, returned to more Bach, which led to a square dance tune.

He was next joined by acoustic guitarist Chris Judge and bassist Brendan Statom, and they ventured into the realms of Ravel, Django Reinhardt, De Falla, Romanian gypsy music (Apap once formed a band called the Transylvanian Mountain Boys) and Moldavian folk tunes.

To demonstrate improvisation, he asked the audience to sing a quiet drone on the pitch, D, while he began an Indian improvisation. When the audience D petered out, Apap bailed into bluegrass.

What’s surfing got to do with all that?  Like a surfer, Apap is balletic. He balances his violin not only on his chin, but on the side of his face as well, as if his cheek were a wave that the instrument rides. His bowing is surf-like too, a board anglin' the waves and leading the rider to different shores, Apap's many musics.

Apap played no “classic” surf music Tuesday. Tognetti doesn’t either in “Musica Surfica.” Rather, both violinists are surfers in the sense that they stretch their musical environments and those of their listeners. I wish more surfers had showed up for Apap at the Annenberg. In “Music Surfica,” the scenes of surfers having their heads turned by Bach is reason enough to search out the Australian DVD of the film, which can be ordered from many surf websites.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Gilles Apap playing at the Annenberg Community Beach House on Tuesday night.  Credit: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times