“21-year-old Danny wouldn’t believe this was happening!” At an evening of his music curated by Nouveau Classical Project (NCP), composer Daniel Felsenfeld was star-struck. The moment that he decided to become an artist came not from music but from literature, and here he was at The Center for Fiction on June 25, 2015 with authors Rick Moody and Robert Coover about to showcase the compositions their words inspired. He thought Coover was “disgusting and wonderful … raw filth,” and marveled at the way Moody – a purebred Easterner – understood L.A. “in a way that’s creepy and shocking.” No wonder Felsenfeld was giddy.
Nouveau Classical Project’s distinctive characteristic is pushing new music out of its incestuous community and into the new blood of other disciplines. This program showed off the ensemble’s uncommon willingness to sit in shadow, sometimes choosing to leverage its creative production over musical dominance. It was not always clear if this recession was a collaborative choice or a lack of commitment to Felsenfeld’s music; the musicians were competent but outperformed by the finely-tuned maturity of the collaborating authors. What the ensemble did offer was an open catalyst for Felsenfeld’s music to spotlight literary craft and to draw attention to musical potential of spoken text.
Pianist and NCP founder Sugar Vendil and soprano Amanda Gregory introduced author Rick Moody by performing “The Light,” a piece inspired by his work. Gregory flipped between vibrato and straight tone, exploring different vocal possibilities and singing “There are hills of human insignificance” before Moody took the stand and offered a warm homage to human significance: he also was starstruck to be programmed as an authorial peer with his former teacher Robert Coover, who modeled “density, humor, and a refusal to compromise.” Moody previewed his upcoming novel, lingering over the phrase “tangle of limbs” with such tonal, singsong longing that he set a strange and high bar of comparison for NCP’s vocalists.
A tangle of limbs are a glorious thing to behold. Don’t you wish you were in a tangle of limbs?
Back in the musical sphere, the brief six-song cycle “Genuine Willingness to Help (Book 1)” was a sort of “found object of these [unpublished] pieces” Felsenfeld culled from literary friends. Alongside flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, it featured three sopranos: three sopranos! Why would one write for three sopranos? Yet one of the best moments of the evening was an cappella trio, where the sopranos’ three surprisingly dark and mismatched timbres wound into a satisfying tangle. In the cycle’s fifth song, the text acted upon the musicians and interpreted the music in real time, an experience augmented by the program’s featured collaboration. Here, Vendil’s disinterested repeating midrange piano pitch was supported by four lethargic repeated notes in the cello and joined by Amanda Lo’s reedy violin which couldn’t muster more than one single starved string of sound. Into this wasteland came the text: “there is only desperation.” Sung, chanted, and whispered, it evolved the musical landscape and became the wry, desert despair from Moody’s reading moments earlier. Each vocalist was dramatically committed throughout the cycle, dripping cynical humor in “Used Record Store” and looking appropriately dehydrated as needed. Gregory in particular modeled a contemporary posture, using the lectern as a support for slouches and eye rolls.
Out of the found “Willingness” text came the round, rolling language of Robert Coover. His tawdry stint at the lectern transitioned the evening into frolicking filth. In his short story “The Frog Prince,” brief obsessive pleasure brings unimproved but accepted reality. After this amphibious, entendre-laden commentary, Coover served up an excerpt of “Pinocchio in Venice,” an ode to the English language in the form of quarrel sewage, abused patron saints, and the word “lugubrious.” Soprano Ariadne Greif followed this with the evening’s most compelling vocal performance in “From Sleepless Nights;” despite being an oddly-placed emotional beat, the piece for soprano and cello was a sophisticated showcase of intervallic vocal control. Grief’s mid-range gravity convinced the audience that “this is what I have decided to do with my life,” and Caleigh Drane on cello wove in and out of solo and support, mixing Baroque ornaments with modern dexterity as she played legato and pizzicato simultaneously.
A siren from the outside slashed the atmosphere with humor and set the audience laughing as soprano Kacey Cardin cheerfully led the ensemble through the closing “Raw Footage: Composer’s Cut.” Back to Coover’s “overtly ribald filth,” NCP performed four of the five of the “high art porn song cycle” and the ensemble’s spirit shone through. Laura Cocks on flute twittered with an inappropriate innocence, and Vendil’s piano ignited a fresh energy. The group visibly enjoyed contrasting nondescript, elegant instrumental music with a thoroughly 21st century soprano vocalizing pagan sex rituals. Feminists singing NSFW lyrics? What could be more appropriate?
The evening was dominated by the diction, pacing, and rolling vocabulary of Moody and Coover. Unlike his brash, pilfered, and slightly coquettish source texts, Felsenfeld struggled to distinguish his compositional voice. Perhaps unconsciously, he wrote his music subservient to the literature, and his unique choice to compose for three sopranos did little to augment the ensemble’s programmatic interest. The fiction readings had defined edges and an immediate rhythmic commitment lacking from the musical performance, despite lots of vibrato and dramatic teeth baring. Was this an intentional collaborative submission to composer and authors? The unexpected programmatic imbalance between composer, ensemble, and writers provoked an appreciation for collaborative humility. Here, in its distinctive strength, NCP succeeded: commissioning projects that transcend the concert hall and reconsidering what paths new music may travel.