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MUSIC : A Scaled-Down CalArts Festival

March 20, 1988|JOHN HENKEN

Outwardly, the CalArts Contemporary Music Festival last weekend was a relatively modest affair. Twelfth in an annual series at the Valencia arts manufactory, it seemed small in scope and stature compared to some of its predecessors and showed worrisome hints of retrenchment and decline.

But the experience of it proved that, for festivals at least, less really may be more. It was certainly easier to assimilate, and there was far less chaff among the wheat.

Framing the otherwise largely in-house festivities were concerts devoted to veteran avant-gardist Mauricio Kagel. The 56-year-old Argentine has built an unclassifiable career as composer, performer, dramatist, film maker and teacher--in the last capacity significantly as professor of new music theater at the Cologne Musikhochschule since 1974.

Though largely self-taught as a composer, Kagel reveals the strong influence of Stockhausen and the Darmstadt school in his music. He is best known--where known at all here as these were his first appearances in Los Angeles in 25 years--for highly structured performance art pieces, combining music with sharply defined visual elements.

Kagel's two programs were much revised and altered up to the last minute. Such changes are not at all unusual in contemporary music concerts, least of all in festival settings, where all manner of scheduling conflicts and practical impediments occur. The early deletion of Kagel's "Kontra-Danse Ballet" from the opening program happened because the CalArts Dance Ensemble had too many other commitments to handle the assignment, according to Nicholas England, acting president of CalArts.

"Kantrimiusik," however, was struck from the final concert the afternoon it was to be performed. England said the decision was Kagel's, after amplification problems delayed the final rehearsal until one of the performers had to leave to honor another engagement. Not long afterward, Kagel emphasized the importance of an ethical commitment to the music on the part of performers and the need for extensive rehearsal preparation, in an open pre-concert discussion.

In any case, there was certainly an unrivaled intensity and precision in the performance of "Dressur" Friday (repeating a program offered Thursday to launch the festival). Percussionists Amy Knoles, Arthur Jarvinen and David Johnson were coached and directed by Jean-Pierre Drouet, one of the performers at the premiere in Metz in 1977, and were obviously both thoroughly committed and well rehearsed.

"Dressur," Kagel said, was an attempt to "musicalize the relationships of a society of three." It employs both music and imagery from the circus, in a percussionist's nightmare of intricate timing. The movement is as rigorously shaped and interactive as the sounds, and as stylized as a Medieval dance of death.

There were moments of humor in "Dressur"--Knoles attempting a flamenco dance in clogs, with clogs on her hands replacing castanets; Jarvinen threatening Johnson with a lion-tamer's chair--but it was a humor near hysteria, with a barely leashed sense of icy neurosis.

"Presentation" is a companion piece to "Dressur," from a quadripartite set called "Quatre Degres." Like "Dressur," it deals with a show-biz function of music, and like "Dressur" it was offered in its U.S. premiere.

Unlike "Dressur," however, the desperate parody in "Presentation" is blatantly overt. Rodger Henderson played a stereotypically sleazy cocktail-lounge emcee, left to disintegrate onstage when the singer he announces does not appear. Pianist Blaise Bryski is the cabaret band, playing a steady, obsessive music that connects with Henderson only in insistent demands for help turning pages.

As directed by Irene Connors, Henderson's show-must-go-on abasement, poignant as she and he made it, became the center of a monodrama sketch. Kagel seemed to intend some comment on our expectations and (mis)use of music, but tawdry personal despair was all that came through.

With the removal of "Kantrimiusik," "Exotica" closed the festival Sunday evening. A partly ironic, partly celebratory world music hoedown, "Exotica" was dedicated to "the sixth sense," and commissioned for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

The previously consistently dimly lit Modular Theatre blossomed brightly for "Exotica," and the performers traded in the standard all-black garb for white, vaguely ethnic costumes. Here Kagel's characteristic visual pizazz was confined mostly to the imposing array of non-Western instruments, but the change in lighting alone served as a climactic statement of sorts.

Musically, "Exotica" is a half-hour collage of hoots and hollers, as six non-specialists confront their choice of 10 foreign instruments each. Members of the California E.A.R. Unit held nothing back, but director Drouet made their efforts sound almost pallid when he played his own gutturally growling, pulsating solo as an encore.

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