How does a composer create coherence? Tonality, form, texture, text, melody and repetition have each played a role throughout the centuries, depending on genre. At Friday night’s performance at Disney Hall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Ensemble Signal presented two modern works that profoundly addressed this question. As part of their “Next on Grand” series, the LA Phil is closing out their season by looking ahead at the diversity of the modern American music scene. To top it off, the evening’s performance was headlined by recently re-appointed Music Director Gustavo Dudamel. With a world première by Steven Mackey combined with iconoclast American composer Steve Reich’s video opera Three Tales, it was an intriguing line-up with provocative results.

© Steven Mackey
© Steven Mackey

Mackey’s bold, 40-minute, five movement piece for orchestra, Mnemosyne’s Pool, tackled questions about memory in music. Titularly inspired by the Greek goddess of memory, Mackey details the forms and patterns he deploys in his work in his program notes. Upon hearing the piece though, I was struck by just how the aesthetic outcome of Mnemosyne’s Pool, and more precisely, Mackey’s writing, is elevated above the cerebral description in the composer’s words. 

The piece took turns at being abrasive, funny and breathtakingly beautiful. Mackey's melodies, dotted throughout movements, often returning, are meandering yet economical. Surrounded by an array of clanging, sections like the second movement “Deja Vu” where bassoons would pass the baton back and forth between the clarinets and strings had their own kinetic energy. The fourth movement “In Memoriam A.H.S.” featured beautifully transparent string writing that was calming, a sombre antidote to the playful third movement that preceded it. The final movement recalls the prior ones, including the steady, instantly recognizable opening pattern of the piece. And the work concludes with an irrepressibly affirming surge, masterfully paced. Dudamel and his forces started tentative but settled into a confidant, courteous reading that successfully portrayed the full spectrum of Mackey's pallette.

While Mackey’s style is indeed unique and his creation involving, there is a naturalness that is deeply approachable here. There is modernity, distortion-like extended techniques (the electric guitar is one of Mackey’s chief influences), yet nothing feels contrived. Mnemosyne’s Pool is uncannily relatable, yet unique. In a sense, it’s déjà vu all over again.

Where Mackey’s musical coherence is crafted in more “classical” ways, Steve Reich forges his own. In his opera, Three Tales, with video by Beryl Korot, Reich portrays three defining events of the 20th century and ruminates on humankind’s technological advances: the Hindenburg explosion, nuclear bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, and the Dolly the sheep clone. The nearly hour-long piece is relentless. If Mackey tended to gently remind the listener of previous experiences, Reich, by contrast, brought him nose to nose with them. While Reich has said that the piece isn’t anti-technology per se, the nature of all three events and the libretto is such that it would be hard to see much positive from them.

The libretto is culled from news headlines and many interviews, with Reich setting the short phrases, and excerpts of them as “speech melodies”. It is a technique he has used to great effect in the past, and one that continues to intrigue The Ensemble Signal, a New York-based modern music group led authoritatively by Brad Lubman, performed Reich’s music synced to the declamatory video with impossible accuracy. More than that, they played and sang with a vitality that gave gravitas to an already serious piece of theater. 

Yet it struck me how, in some ways, the piece felt old-fashioned. Despite being premiered in 2002, the symmetry of the geometric video graphics and the elaborations of the primary sources seemed spartan. Obviously, this is an outgrowth of Reich’s style which is still unmistakable but seems a well-explored path. Furthermore, the inclusion of Dolly as the last of the tales seems dated as well. For all intents and purposes, particularly to the youngest listeners, it’s as far removed from everyday life as the Hindenburg.

And while subtlety doesn’t appear to be in Reich’s musical vocabulary in this piece, the issue of musical coherence, while overwhelmingly accomplished through repetition in Three Tales, was brought to the forefront at its conclusion when it hearkened back to the second and first acts. Coherence is a powerful and necessary feature in music, no matter the genre. While Mnemosyne’s Pool may have been less frequented, according to legend, as a musical audience, we long for that memory to create coherence, to create a whole. A musical River Lethe would just be noise.