Theater thrives on experimentation as art

Ever since the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (better known as Redcat) opened in late 2003, alongside its big sister, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, this small but multifunction venue – part gallery, part theater, part lounge – has been a redoubt of avant-garde arts in Los Angeles. Among its multidisciplinary offerings are an increasing number of programs that mix film and music to adventuresome new ends.

This season’s offerings are typically rich and offbeat. Brian LeBarton (Beck’s musical director), for example, treated audiences to an improvised score – electronic keyboards, acoustic percussion and cello – as the 1920 German Expressionist masterpiece “The Golem” unspooled on Halloween weekend.

LeBarton, whose association with CalArts is relatively recent, seems to have taken to the mixed-media experiment. “I like the assistance that the visuals provide,” he says. “It helps the music process if there’s a story to feed off already. I like creating something out of nothing, too, but when there’s visuals, it just kind of comes pouring out for me.”

The musician also appreciates Redcat’s laid-back, if earnest, approach to presenting art. “They just let me go crazy,” he says. “My main objective was to see if I could shake the auditorium. But I was trying to serve the movie, not just pleasing myself.”

In January Redcat will deliver one of its most ambitious efforts in this deconstructivist genre, when Steve Horowitz and his Code Ensemble present “The Re-Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” a reimagining of David Shire’s great crime-jazz score from the 1974 movie.

Originally, Horowitz, a CalArts alum, was simply reorchestrating the film’s beloved theme for his 14-piece electro-acoustic band, which includes a drummer, a string quartet, two guitarists, two keyboard/sampler/piano players and some brass (trumpet, trombone, tuba).

“There I was reinventing this existing piece,” Horowitz recalls, “and I thought I should talk to a filmmaker friend to incorporate film.”

He asked Jane Brill, another CalArts alum, to create material to accompany the music in a reverse of the usual process. “It was torturous for her,” Horowitz says with evident glee. “Her film references the original, but in abstract ways. It’s all filmed in the New York subways and has a post 9/11 message to it.” The collaboration is enhanced by Chris Romero, a percussionist and “samplist” from the band, who in performance triggers snippets of dialogue from the original film.

Along with “Pelham,” the January program includes Horowitz’s early, satirical “Invasion From the Chicken Planet,” which incorporates many of the same principles, but with a twist. “It references every B sci-fi film I’ve ever loved,” he says. “But instead of triggering samples from these films, we use actors reading lines from the films live. So the entire night is about reinterpreting, revisiting and reimagining these very comfortable genres.”

Mark Murphy, Redcat’s executive director, envisions expanding such offerings. “We’ve been doing more and more of them,” he says, referring to the mashing of film and music in varied forms. “And the projects are coming from all angles. Some are incorporated into our regular film programming, others (are) suggested by the music faculty at CalArts. Part of our mission is to explore interdisciplinary approaches. We are focused on the artists who are taking risks and trying new things, attempting to find new forms of expression.”

LeBarton apparently agrees. “I think Redcat excels at collaborative projects,” he says. “The thing about Mark and those guys is that if something sounds different or will upset the norm, they pretty much say yes to it. That’s their motto, it seems.”

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