Contemporary classical music still tends to be an acquired taste, something at odds with the off-the-rack world of standard classical repertoire. You may catch enticing glimpses of the 20th Century in the nooks and crannies of the usual music sources. In the current Ventura Symphony season, for instance, you may hear an icy Alban Berg piece here, a jazzy work by Darius Milhaud or a pulse piece by John Adams there.
Generally, you really have to seek out new music. You have to beat some bushes to hear live music by 20th-Century--let alone living--composers. One reliable regional source is at UC Santa Barbara, where the quarterly "Prisms" concerts are devoted to the cause of new music.
The Prisms concert Friday night, entitled "Motion-Sound-Poetry," marks the first collaboration between Prisms and Rep West, the resident dance company at UCSB. In what promises to be one of the more ambitious contemporary music presentations of the season, the upcoming concert will feature computer-generated music, live performers, dance and poetic incantations.
Founded in 1979 by faculty member Joan Smith, the Prisms concerts have proven to be catchall forums for contemporary music, often featuring the compositional output of university faculty members and students.
Carolyn Bremer, a UCSB lecturer, and Marc Ainger, a graduate student in music, are two very living composers. Together, they spearhead the present Prisms program, Bremer as acting director and Ainger as assistant director. Under their rule, Prisms programs have changed directions--both in style and format--from piece to piece and concert to concert. Diversity has always been the Prisms' calling card.
"Partly (that diversity) comes from the fact that Carolyn and I are so different," Ainger said in an interview with the pair in Bremer's university office. "We're completely opposite, and we both put in our two cents worth."
The mismatched pair has invested considerable energy into the Prisms concerts. They have taken Prisms on the road and hope to record a compact disc this summer.
Friday's music-and-dance concert was begun by John Chapman, head of the division of dance at UCSB, whose idea found immediate support from Paul Brohan, a former lighting designer for dance companies now working in administration at UCSB. Brohan enlisted the support of the Prisms directors. Christopher Pilafian, Rep West's current chief choreographer, also became interested.
"Working on the piece was really a collaboration in the truest sense," Ainger explained of his work with Pilafian. "I'd have an idea and explain it to him, he went and worked on it. We really worked back and forth. I'd play him a bit of music and I'd see something he'd be doing. It wasn't just a case of me handing him the finished music."
In the case of Bremer's piece, "Not a Witness," the ingredients range from computer-generated tape to vocal parts for soprano Katrin Zook, dance by Janet Vucinich and a poetic text by Winifred Baer.
Three other works are also on the program. Jacob Druckman's "Valentine for Solo Double Bass" features bassist Nico Abondolo, along with dancers Vucinich and Ricardo Morrison. "Aspects of Beth's Poem" is a work by the Perks, featuring Momix dancer Rebecca Stenn. Katherine Alexander's "And the Whole Air is Tremulous" features UCSB faculty flutist Jill Felber, in tandem with computer-generated tape.
Over the years, electronic music in concert may have earned the reputation of being cold, dry displays of noise-producing artillery. In the right hands, however, electronics can elicit cutting-edge excitement.
As Ainger said: "I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that, unlike earlier generations of composers, we grew up listening to rock 'n' roll. We both grew up watching TV, listening to radio, and being surrounded by media, so using electronics doesn't seem at all odd to us."
Through the Prisms programs, do they hope to make contemporary music converts of audiences?
"Converts?" Bremer said, pausing to reflect. "I'm not worried about whether they like it or not. I just want them to have heard it. That's Step One. With a lot of this music, people aren't going to want to run out and buy the album after just one listen. It requires a lot of work."
Also up the Coast :
* The Santa Barbara Symphony takes over the Arlington Theater this weekend, at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. In a guest appearance, the precocious 17-year-old pianist Anders Martinson will play Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." Rounding out the program, under conductor Varujan Kojian's baton, will be Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture and Bruckner's Symphony No. 4.
* For non-Western worldly diversion, the West African solo kora music of Toumani Diabete will be presented in concert at Santa Barbara's Center Stage Theater at 8 p.m. Saturday. The Society for Jazz and World Music is hosting the intimate affair.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Prisms and Rep West, a music and dance concert at UCSB's Lotte Lehman Concert Hall at 8 p.m. Friday. Santa Barbara Symphony, Arlington Theater, 1317 State St., at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Toumani Diabete, kora player from Mali, at Center Stage Theater, Paseo Nuevo, at 8 p.m. Saturday.