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Soundtrack of the state

Ensemble travels California to highlight fresh sounds by young composers

What does California sound like? When you tell the state's stories in music, do you get a viola solo, dense percussion rock or a white-noise video accompanied by a clarinet and sax? Yes.

These are some of the sounds that the musicians of the Santa Barbara-based Now Hear Ensemble have been hearing as they tour the Golden State via music. After picking 11 young composers from different parts of California — including two from Stanford University — they're recording and performing works dreamed up by fresh minds. It's an experiment that's making for a thrilling autumn for the quintet, said Federico Llach, artistic director and double-bass player.

"California is still the land of the new," said Llach, who originally hails from Buenos Aires. "This side of the country has a freer approach. It's always bringing new ideas."

At its core, the "Made in California" project is a concert series. This fall, the Now Hear Ensemble is traveling to seven concert halls to perform the new music. Many of the composers are students, and several of the venues are at universities. That includes Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), where the ensemble will perform music by Eoin Callery and Ivan Naranjo on Oct. 12.

Other concerts will be at UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and Mills College and in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

Many of the works could be dubbed experimental, and the quintet is itself new and unusual. Founded in early 2012, the group has an uncommon instrumental makeup: clarinet (Amanda Kritzberg), saxophone (Joel Hunt/Isaac Lopez), percussion (Anthony Paul Garcia), viola (Jonathan Morgan) and double bass (Llach). Its musicians are devoted to debuting new pieces by new composers and are very open to incorporating electronic sounds and multimedia.

Video is a big part of the "Made in California" project. Videographer Gaby Goldberg has been documenting the rehearsal process and the ensemble's interactions with the visiting composers. That may yield a series of short videos or even a full documentary film, Llach said. "I thought it would be great to show the whole process, all that happens out of the stage."

In addition, the ensemble has recorded all the "Made in California" pieces and plans to release an album of them on Oct. 10.

Callery, who is in his third year of studying for a doctor of musical arts degree at Stanford, said it was a pleasure to compose for the Now Hear Ensemble's combination. "The instruments blend really nicely together. The clarinet and viola can play one note together and it just sounds incredible," he said. It's a rare blend, he notes, but it could be even more unusual. "It's not like tuba and triangle."

Callery's piece, "And After," is a five-minute work that begins with a quiet first movement and segues into a "louder, electronic-heavy second movement," he said. "I try to keep it action-packed."

The piece contains fast-moving images on video that Llach thinks resemble white noise. "If the players play closer to the microphone, the rapid movement gets slower, and vice versa," Llach said. "It's a contrapuntal situation between the music that is being played and the image that is being projected."

Callery, a fan of everything from Mozart to punk and techno, sums up his own style succinctly: "Some people would call my music experimental. I just like sound."

Callery is originally from Ireland, by way of Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He shares Llach's admiration for California's wealth of innovation, which translates into its music. "The West Coast has more of a makers and builders tradition, whereas the East Coast has more of an ensemble tradition," he said. The use of videos and other multimedia tends to get a warmer welcome out here, he added; it's not a radical concept, especially at Stanford.

But California has its challenges, too. Compared to New York City's music scene in particular, California is spread out, Llach noted. It's a car state, which makes it tougher for upstart musicians to gather geographically and share ideas and notes. He hopes his concert series can provide some of those gathering places.

"It's very important to hear what everybody else is doing. It's always inspirational for everybody," he said.

Other pieces that audiences will hear at Stanford and other concert venues include Berkeley composer Dan VanHassel's "Ghost in the Machine," a rock piece with a heavy beat. The series press release says "the entire ensemble is fused into a single robotic entity playing tightly interlocking patterns of percussive sounds."

Stanford's Naranjo has contributed "Into this Dislocated Assemblage," a textural, abstract work that has a score written in a graphic style rather than with conventional musical notation. "The dynamics are saturated," Llach said. "It's almost a liberation of energy when it's fortissimo."

Video plays a major role in San Diego-area composer Carolyn Chen's piece "Made in China, Made in California." Though a U.S. native, Chen grew up having people continually asking where she was from. When she finally visited her ancestral country of China, she made video recordings of people there talking about how they imagined California; in California, she asked people how they imagined China. The video will be shown as her accompanying music is played.

Info: The Now Hear Ensemble will perform at 8 p.m. Oct. 12 on the CCRMA stage at The Knoll, 660 Lomita Drive, Stanford. Admission is free. For more information, go to music.stanford.edu.

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