Political Progressivism at the Phil

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella concert series–curated by creative chair John Adams–is the orchestra’s flagship contemporary music series. The programs always push musical and artistic boundaries, but last night's program was exceptional in that it also pushed political boundaries.

By programming two pieces from the volatile counter-culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s with two relatively abstract, contemporary pieces, John Adams contextualized the political and artistic messages of the last century by demonstrating their relevance in the modern age.

The first half featured a percussion quartet and brass ensemble piece. Both works demonstrated the clear musical advances of the 21st century: sonically progressive textures paired with harmonic nostalgia. The first half was a stunning display of intimately innovative chamber music, but the second half of the program is what really brought the house down. Julius Eastman’s “Evil N*****” and Salvatore Martirano's "L's G.A." foregrounded powerful political messages without overshadowing the intrinsic merit of the music.

The second half was prefaced by comments from John Adams, who tied the program together by discussing the social turmoil and unrest of his youth, and the similar trends surfacing in the modern political climate. He then proceeded to play an audio recording of Julius Eastman, discussing the work. His title, which sparked controversy in academia at the time of the work's premiere, does not reference the ubiquitous derogatory meaning of the word. Rather, Eastman views the word as the purest, simplest base unit of a structure. In particular, he references field hands as the base unit on which the great American economy was built. He notes that the original meaning of the term referred to field laborers, who in essence laid the foundation for American economic prosperity in the colonial and early decades of the nation's history. Musically, Eastman addresses the concept of pure base units by adopting a free, minimalist idiom. A single germinal idea is expounded upon and sequentially developed, layering subsequent ideas on top of the initial motive, without sacrificing the consistency of the material. The work gradually evolves, both in its rhythmic and harmonic textures, effecting a trance-like, meditative sound world, fraught with instability. The four pianists each maintain their internal sense of time and only occasionally play in rhythmic unison. This creates freedom and free will for the players in the framework of shared harmonic and melodic ideas. Both the musical and extramusical components of this work define its effective reflection on Eastman's reclamation of a politically-charged term.

Salvatore Martirano's "L's G.A." (Lincoln's Gettysburg Address) delivers its political message more directly. The work features a narrator, aptly named "politico," who recites the Gettysburg Address while wearing a gas mask, and eventually while taking laughing gas. The address is sighed, screamed, screeched, cried, laughed, breathed, whispered, and expelled out in volatile fragments of speech, varying dramatically in accent, pitch, and accompanying hand gestures. Militaristic jumping jacks, Nazi salutes, airplane motions, and balletic footwork reflect the changes in the tone of the speaker. The backdrop to the speech is a film (projections by Ron Nameth) that displays terrifyingly abstract images of physical obscenities, serene landscapes, and references to the anti-Vietnam War movement. The accompanying music is a substantive acousmatic work–meaning it was composed specifically for performance on speakers and not live performance–that paints a harrowing, multifaceted aural landscape. Thus, the work in its entirety functions as a fixed media piece involving a visual component, paired with narration. The overall effect of the work is jarring, but compelling: the conviction of the performer and the emotional intensity of the fixed media form a remarkably coherent artistic and political message.

No other orchestra in this country, or the world, is programming as progressively as the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This city and its orchestra are fortunate to have a creative chair who seeks to redefine the role of the orchestra in modern society. No trite and tired trifles sound at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The organization pushes forward into the future and challenges its audiences to powerful experiences through music.