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That's life in the big city

Composers, filmmakers and others attempt to tune in to the 'Concrete Frequency' of urban existence.

December 30, 2007|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Most Americans -- the last census says about 79% -- live in cities. We love them for the choices they offer in where to live, play, shop and dine. We hate them when we're stuck in traffic.

And when it comes to weighing in on the pleasures and perils of urban life, composers are as expressive as any of us. That may be because, as the American composer Michael Gordon put it recently, "the orchestra is something like a city. It has all the advantages and disadvantages, just like when you move into a place and you don't know who your neighbors are. Similarly, in the orchestra, you're sitting next to people who have landed up there next to you."

This week, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is preparing to embark on a two-week festival of concerts and other fare that will explore the symbiosis between music and the urban experience. "Concrete Frequency," which begins Friday, will comprise three orchestral programs, one featuring a collaboration between Gordon and filmmaker Bill Morrison inspired by Los Angeles. It will also include concerts showcasing singer-songwriters and electronic music; a film series; an art exhibition, and a symposium with Walt Disney Concert Hall architect Frank Gehry and festival director David Robertson, conductor of the St. Louis Symphony.

Coincidentally, the festival will kick off almost exactly when construction starts across the street from Disney Hall, the Philharmonic's home, on the first phase of the $2-billion Grand Avenue project, designed by Gehry for the New York-based developer Related Cos.

"It's an interesting juxtaposition that we didn't plan for," Philharmonic President Deborah Borda said. "But we're always thinking about the effect that Walt Disney Concert Hall has had on downtown Los Angeles.

"We think a lot about our city and what an intriguing place it is. But sometimes it's a hard city to grasp and understand in its complexity and change. That is really where we took off from."

Robertson, for his part, described the festival as a "series of snapshots."

"It starts back at the idea of the idealized modern American city, which so impressed French composer Edgar Varese," he said, "going right up to Morrison and Gordon taking a look at that idealized American city and saying, 'So, what's the report card?'

"And then there's everything in between."

That range includes composers who see the city as a place where silence is disappearing and loneliness is increasing, despite the crowds, and others who love the overstimulation of urban life and revel in technological progress and change.

In "Central Park in the Dark," for instance, Charles Ives paints an oasis of calm with mysterious, quiet events occurring on its periphery. "We suddenly realize there isn't just one thing happening," said Robertson. "There's this simultaneity of events all the time."

Morton Feldman, on the other hand, doesn't merely suggest simultaneity in his "Turfan Fragments." "It throws you right onto the brink of this teeming universe of sounds, as though you suddenly opened the door of your silent apartment and there all sorts of masses are streaming in front of your door, and you join them."

To contrast composers who love modern technology and those who might have doubts, Robertson has paired Pierre Boulez's high-tech extravaganza ". . . explosante-fixe . . ." with the premiere of the Gordon-Morrison collaboration, "Dystopia."

"For Boulez and his generation, man's technology is so cool: 'Look what it allows us to do,' " Robertson said. "It allows us to create a sound world that is unimaginable without it. But then we use that same technology to address the question of what happens when we become so heavily indebted to technology in the way we live our lives. That's going to be an absolutely fascinating juxtaposition."

A certain poetry to it all

To leaven these heavy concerns, Robertson has also included rocker Frank Zappa's "Dupree's Paradise." Zappa, he said, "is someone who says, 'Don't worry about any of that baggage. This is where we are. This is what we've got. Let's enjoy ourselves.' "

Other modern troubadours -- among them John Doe, late of the punk group X; actress Zooey Deschanel; and Bob Mould, a founder of the rock band Husker Du -- will get to express their views in the singer-songwriter concert.

"I couldn't imagine having something like this where we don't have these song possibilities coming in," Robertson said. "These artists have this ability to sum up an experience in just a few lines of poetry and sometimes a simple presentation of ideas that moves us tremendously."

Widening the lens on cities, the festival will include screenings of three films -- Fritz Lang's 1927 silent, "Metropolis" (Jan. 7), Martin Scorsese's 1976 "Taxi Driver" (Jan. 14) and Stanley Kubrick's 1971 "A Clockwork Orange" (Jan. 15) -- at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood.

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