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Making music from natural resources

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A late friend of mine enjoyed travel not only for the destination, but for the airport adventure required to get there. Bob was an artist who savored being in a place the rest of us despise, he liked to sit and sketch, feeding off the raw material of humanity just passing through.

Ted Hearne is like that. As this year's composer for the L.A. Chamber Orchestra's Sound Investment program, he has been commissioned to write a piece LACO will premiere in May. Judging by the brief preview of the work in progress he and four members of the orchestra gave to the commissioners last night, this is a guy who also embraces the noisy as well as the melodic in the hope of making great art.

The salon was held in an intimate space behind the Beverly Hills showroom where Steinway sells grand pianos that cost more than your last three cars. It was the second such gathering for people who contribute $300 in return for unusual access to how musical art is created. In addition to the November salon that introduced Hearne, who was selected as this season's Sound Investor composer by LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane, patrons were invited to this one to hear excerpts of the unnamed work and to ask questions about the process and the music. A third salon will be held right before the concert in May when the full orchestra rehearses the new work for the first time. Sound Investors also get their names printed on the score.

It's an effort to cultivate new music and orchestra support among people who generally hear only the finished product and only from the remove of a concert hall. Hearne is the 14th Sound Investment composer since the program began in 2001. This year, 70 households are Sound Investors.

Last night, 35 patrons nibbled fruit and cookies and drank wine, milling about while LACO violinists Susan Rishik and Joel Pargman, violist Diana Wade and cellist Armen Ksajikian set up and reviewed the "notes on technique" Hearne had provided for sample sections. As in: "Viola in scordatura tuning, with IV string tuned down to a B♭. Tune it back up to a C before playing letter G."

There were notes about playing "white noise on open string," "left-hand pizz," "bow on center bout," which isn't even a string, but the wood edge of the instrument. Hearne's notes were illustrated with musical staff notations and curious markings that puzzled even the musicians, who typically understand this language like you and I understand the ingredient measurements for making oatmeal.

Dressed in jeans and an untucked, rumpled gray shirt with sleeves lumpily rolled to the elbows, Hearne invited the patrons to "feel free to interrupt" as he conducted the musical experiment he described as "just a rehearsal, a process for me. ...I'm interested in the spectrum of noise that's about pitch and harmony. I'm kind of sick of harmony -- I want to make it not the first thing I think about."

Oh dear. Were we in for an evening of classical music or a classical mess?

"Every time I hear music," Hearne explained, "there's noise happening somewhere else. We can never hear music in a vacuum ..."

Hearne said an early influence was the '90s indie rock band Modest Mouse, whose music, he said, "had the most amazing guitar sound." He called the song-writing "completely boring," but embraced that "the sound they produce is very particular to them."

When he's not composing classical music or teaching at USC, Hearne might be playing with his duo R We Who R We, whose other half is "noise artist" Philip White, who plays feedback through a mixer and makes Hearne wonder, "What is the orchestration for this?"

Indeed.

What nobody understood until the bows began to move was how -- or if -- Hearne's love of noise would translate into music.

To most ears in the room, it did, even though the sound produced by Wade with her thumb under the strings and moving the bow from a weird wrist position was scratchy. Sore. It sounded like the viola had laryngitis.

At first, Hearne wasn't happy with it, preferring "wispy" to "scratchy." So Wade adjusted her conformation to produce the sound Hearne sought. How to describe ... the aural equivalent of stop-action photography? Some of it made "sense," and some of it was so alien I wondered what kind of sounds emanate from the neighborhood where Hearne lives.

"Are you thinking I have a twisted sense of what sounds nice?" Hearne asked the crowd. "You wouldn't be the first to think that."

Noting the unorthodox use of the instruments, someone in the audience asked, "How do you write that in the score?" Well, you invent a symbol that looks like tiny mountains hovering just above the staff next to the treble clef.

"First I have to learn English to learn these notations," offered Ksajikian. "...You just get used to it. ...It's kind of a cool marking, I've never seen that before."

At one point, Wade stopped to say that she was unable physically to do what the score demanded, that there wasn't enough time within the bar to switch her wrist position so dramatically as to create the required sounds.

What seemed an impossible challenge would be addressed, she later explained to me, by an orchestra "trade secret" -- half the violist section would perform the initial notes, and the others would pick up the rest. The audience would hear a seamless progression of notes -- sound; whatever -- but not all of the players would produce it.

The audience members last night were clearly well-informed, sophisticated concertgoers. Unlike the youthful musicians who performed, they were middle-aged and older, and unalloyed by ethnic diversity. In other words, a typical classical music crowd.

But this was not typical classical music, and it was apparent that most people hearing this nascent work liked it, or at least appreciated the thought behind the integration of noise and melody.

Kerry and Robert Shuman are longtime LACO season ticket holders who have been Sound Investors for 10 years. Both liked what they heard last night. "It's really different," said Kerry, "but I like where he's going with the juxtaposition of real noise with the structure of music. ... I didn't think I would like it, but it's all music."

She hasn't always gotten a big payoff from Sound Investment, but said that "even if I don't like the music, I still think this is a worthy program."

Hats off to people who appreciate that noise can be to music as an airport gate is to oil on canvas.

Hearne's composition premieres May 16 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and May 17 at UCLA's Royce Hall. For information, contact the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

Photo: Ellen Alperstein


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