Wild Up ensemble music director Christopher Rountree conducts during… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)
When Elizabeth Cline, a curator at the Hammer Museum in charge of engaging the public, went to see the chamber group Wild Up play at Beyond Baroque, she didn't know quite what to expect. She'd heard that the group was unconventional, but she wasn't exactly sure what that meant until she got there.
Between the crowd, younger and more like what you'd see at a club than the classical audience she expected, and the group, telling stories before each piece, playing with an infectious energy, Cline could tell that something unusual was happening as Wild Up played computer music, punk rock and a piece written for player piano.
She was struck not just by Wild Up's informality and sense of discovery but also by its ragged spirit: Although most musical groups aim to become more than the sum of their parts, this one was very deliberately about its parts, "showcasing individuals, instead of just instruments," as she recalls. The group, she realized, was "an artist collective rather than a collection of musicians."
Christopher Rountree, a boyish, sandy-haired 29-year-old who is the group's conductor and music director, sees his job as to draw out what's distinctive about each of Wild Up's 24 musicians — many of whom are also composers whose work is performed at its concerts. "It comes from the feeling of being part of a large ensemble," he says. "That's the biggest complaint from people in those groups, that their voices can't be heard. So we wanted a group where everyone's voice is heard."
Classical music, for centuries, has had an anarchic, genre-busting side alongside another dedicated to orthodoxy and purity. But that spirit has been surging recently in Los Angeles, with the recent experimental opera efforts, scruffy series like Classical Underground and even some of the eclectic programming of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
New York City – home to two of Rountree's models, Alarm Will Sound and the International Contemporary Ensemble as well as, rumor has it, several more mainstream musical organizations, may be experiencing a similar transformation.
Cline decided she wanted to bring Wild Up to the Hammer — not just for a concert or two, but for a six-month residency that would amplify connections between the worlds of art and music.
The fruit of this union was a July concert that began with a conductor in a cowboy hat, a menacing toreador, the sound of tumbleweed being rolled through the museum's courtyard, and the twangy strains of Ennio Morricone's music for Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns.
By the end of the afternoon, the group had launched ping-pong balls into the air in a tribute to minimalist composer LaMonte Young, and offered a meditative, early-music version of Katy Perry's "California Gurls," accompanied, as it happened, by helicopter in a particularly delicate passage. This was not the only place where the city seemed to be conflicting with – or filling out – the group's music: What police sirens smashed through a song by indie-rock heroes Magnetic Fields, and what sounded like a fire truck roared through the climax of a gnarly early Schoenberg piece.
Over the last few decades, visual art has often become as much about its own making as about a finished object. The Hammer hopes to make Wild Up's residency function in that spirit — a kind of cross-section of the creative process. All the group's three dozen or so performances are free, and its often talky, sometimes contentious rehearsals are open to the public too.
"What happens when you make everything open is you reveal the process," Cline says. "It connects with a lot of what's happening in Los Angeles in performance art, in process-oriented art."
Rountree (nephew of longtime Music Center President Stephen D. Rountree) still gets excited talking about the way the group came together a few years ago. For him, it resembles "the magic moment in a movie when the team is being assembled," in such films as "Ocean's Eleven."
Rountree himself had heard some classical music growing up in Irvine, but he listened more intently to Weezer and played trombone in a ska group and his high school marching band. It wasn't until his first year of college, when he bought Carlos Kleiber's recording of Beethoven's symphonies and soon after the Philip Glass opera "Einstein on the Beach" that classical music knocked him sideways.
He began building his band of outsiders in 2010 by connecting players he knew from the University of Michigan, where he studied conducting as a graduate student, with a number of CalArts alums from various corners of the classical and new-music worlds. Their tastes and expertise come from all over the place — Wild Up, he says, includes rockers, free-jazz players, classical minimalists and "Lou Harrison-microtonal types."