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A dazzling urban utopia

The L.A. Phil peels back layers of the city in the edgy 'Concrete Frequency III.'

January 14, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

There goes the neighborhood? Not exactly. The preservationists retain some clout. But in "Concrete Frequency III" -- the last of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's trio of orchestral programs demonstrating classical music's sometimes noisy and sharp urban edge -- essentially incompatible views of the city past and future jostled.

Technology continually remakes our environment in ways we usually can't predict, frequently dislike but all too quickly come to depend on. And so it was Saturday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall that technology, festival director David Robertson explained, brought together Pierre Boulez's high Modernist ". . . explosante-fixe . . ." with the premiere of "Dystopia," a film by Bill Morrison accompanied by a crazy-wild orchestral score by Michael Gordon.

Boulez's score is a modern classic and a beautiful example of how we urbanites build one thing upon the next. Boulez's example is utopian. He began with a small melodic idea meant as a tribute to Stravinsky, who died in 1971. It grew in 1985 to a short work for solo flute and octet, "Memoriale," in memory of a flutist in Boulez's Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain. Eight years later, the composer transformed the piece into the current 37-minute version for three flutes, chamber ensemble and electronics.

This form is probably final but suggests that it could still grow if the 82-year-old composer finds himself so inclined. That fixed original idea explodes into the enormously elaborate "Transitoire VII," the first major section of the piece, and the smaller but still dense "Transitoire V," the second major section. There are two electronic interludes, and then the piece ends with a version of the original "Memoriale."

Complexity reigns in this exquisite music, which never seems to stop fluttering. Dramatic shapes emerge from the silvery detail, but mainly the rich, unpredictable timbres are what dazzle the ear. A solo flute (expertly played Saturday by Emmanuelle Ophele) is mirrored by two subsidiary flutes, causing all kinds of refraction, and the shards are further scattered throughout the orchestra.

The flutes are also electrified, and a computer adds its take on their sound and spreads the results on speakers distributed around the hall.

There is, in all this, a kind of hyperactive tidiness, which is where the utopianism comes in. Boulez reveals a fabulous sonic space that seems to have a limitless capacity. It can hold vast amounts of information, yet room remains for interaction. Stuff literally bounces off the wall and is better for it.

But Boulez's utopia is also dated. One reason he took so long to produce the score was that he had to wait for computer technology to catch up with his needs. Yet after just 15 years, that technology already seems prehistoric. Indeed, what makes ". . . explosante-fixe . . ." moving is its sense of archaeology, of rediscovering the soul of the original memorial, which the technology seems meant to hide.

"Dystopia" is also a work of rediscovery, taking as its subject Los Angeles as seen through film old and new. The project is a follow-up to "Decasia," in which Morrison created ghostly new work based on an old film barely preserved on decaying nitrate stock, with a score by Gordon adding a striking commentary. A presentation of the film with Gordon's score performed live was one of the hits of the Philharmonic's Minimalist Jukebox festival two years ago.

The new work honors L.A. and its past. It includes snippets from film shot on Spring Street by Thomas Edison in 1898 and then proceeds through history. Morrison frequently divides the wide screen into three panels and, like others before him, he speeds up traffic. He lingers on images and neighborhoods that catch his fancy as he views the town from a slow-moving car.

This, though, would be little more than another arty montage without Gordon's astonishing 30-minute orchestral blowout. Whereas Boulez is a paragon of precision, Gordon is a practitioner of what you might call the soused school of orchestration. The weird, woozy strings in "Dystopia" seem in a permanent state of distortion. Fluttering winds and brass have their own, very different, disorders. The orchestra is really loud a lot of the time and in your face all of the time.

But Gordon builds on the past too, be it '70s pop, Minimalism, Stravinsky or early polyphony. Given the resources of a great orchestra -- and, with Robertson, a conductor who can and will master any kind of music -- he uses everything with gusto. The organ goes absolutely crazy.

The ending sounds like a drunken fugue of the future. Built up, layer by layer, from a seasick bass, it reaches a rollicking, massive, percussion-laden climax. The layers are the layers of city, incompatible musics forced to live together and managing to do so with glee. Musical preservationists will surely flinch at the notion, but for half an hour I was a believer that "Dystopia" is the new utopia.


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