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Unleashing a Quiet Bit of Virtuosic Noise From Austria

Music review: The Resistance Fluctuations festival closes with a few lessons in subtlety.

June 09, 1998|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Music--classical music--is the noise of Vienna. It is a city in which you cannot escape Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler and all the Strausses any more than you can the din of traffic. These composers are an important part of the city's identity, its industry, its hustle. So noise, the old-fashioned nonmusical kind, becomes music to the ears of the young composers of Vienna.

Noise was a major theme of the last three days of the Resistance Fluctuations festival, which ended Sunday night. And it pervaded concerts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and Ace Contemporary Exhibitions.

There is nothing new about bringing the sounds of the outside world into music. Around the time Picasso started pasting newspaper clippings onto canvases, Satie used a clattering typewriter in an orchestra. By the early '40s, John Cage had opened music to all sounds, and there has been no turning back. Even pop now goes in for industrial-grade noise.

Austrian composers, however, use noise in a particularly complicated and self-conscious fashion, as part of a scientific obsession with the subtleties of how we perceive music. Their noise is not necessarily loud and nasty. Indeed, it can be exceedingly quiet, as it was in the static noise of Klaus Lang, who surrounded the audience with instruments in a darkened theater (the Bing Theater of LACMA), offering only quiet, minimalist bits of tone condensed in the space.

Much of this noise music has a basis in psychology, in perception and especially dream states. Bernhard Lang's fascinating "Icht I" had a soprano (the highly theatrical and magnificently versatile Salome Kammer) reciting a stream-of-consciousness text (in German and English) so fast that eventually one began to lose track of what was music and what was word. The patter of voice and the instruments of an ensemble backing the singer became as one, and it started to seem as though it was the flute or the piano that was sometimes talking.

*

Truly obsessive was Peter Ablinger's "IEAOV," in which for an hour and a quarter, a small ensemble of amplified instruments noodled repeatedly in different bands of electronic noise. On the other hand, three Austrian artists, who have formed a network called Alien Productions, invited the audience to explore its own physical relationship to noise in a gallery installation. A visitor's pulse and skin resistance was amplified into music through loudspeakers and turned into explosive graphics on a video screen. The effect could be disconcerting. If you stayed calm, it was soothing; but nervousness was translated into scary explosions.

Yet what may most distinguish the noisiness of current Austrian music is how allied it remains to the tradition of Viennese art. Virtuosity is still highly prized, and performances tended to be spectacular, whether from the new music group Klangforum Wien or extraordinary cellist Michael Moser, who gave a recital Friday night of works for solo cello and electronics. But the composers also seemed equally tied to Viennese intellectual traditions. Program notes were detailed and scientific, and the program booklet offered an impressively serious essay on noise by Christian Scheib, who co-curated the festival along with CalArts composer Daniel Rothman.

A small amount of American music, which fits no molds, was added for contrast. Klangforum Wien happily thundered through the loud, intentionally clumsy, scratchy but highly personable "Gonzales the Earth Eater" by George Lopez, a feisty and controversial composer from Cuba who studied at CalArts and now lives somewhere in the remote Alps. Stephen Mosko's "The Road to Tiphareth," which the Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned in 1986, received a beautiful performance from the ensemble to end this important and thought-provoking festival on a very different sensual and spiritual note than it had sounded all week.

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