These are not the best days for California. Our one-time Golden State is starting to tarnish: housing is down, unemployment is up; truths once held to be self-evident being called into question while Sacramento is in gridlock. But West Coast, Left Coast, this year’s LA Philharmonic festival, curated by composer John Adams, looks to celebrate the vision that has made California a creative beacon.
So it made sense that Eureka!, the festival’s opening event, ended with Terry Riley standing in Disney Hall’s organ loft, bowing and waving to the aud. The father of minimalism and one of the leading lights of California music in the last half-century, Riley looked like a Zen angel giving the night his benediction. And his generous, searching spirit inhabited the often thrilling, if uneven, program. If not quite the momentous discovery the title promises, Eureka! still contained enough nuggets to make you want to dig deeper.
One of those nuggets was Kronos Quartet’s premiere of film composer Thomas Newman’s “It Got Dark.” It’s an intriguing, cinematic piece, complete with loops and recordings of people talking about the old day, which moves from the elegiac opening to stop and go, antsy sounds that approximated driving in freeway traffic, to the almost cosmic, unresolved final section.
Kronos was joined by the electronic duo Matmos for the latter’s “For Terry Riley,” which exhibited some of Riley’s exuberant, sprightly playfulness, with included Kronos’ David Harrington going at his violin with a red plastic toy hammer. On their own, Matmos mixed some of the quiescently hypnotic rhythms of Eno’s ambient music with repeated organ chords (reminiscent of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” no surprise since Pete Townsend titled the song as a dedication to Riley) looped sounds of cards being ruffled, glass breaking and a 60.cycle hum.
After intermission, Matmos returned with Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger, for a piece that with it’s descending guitar line, moody bass and honking horn loops had a nourish, black-and-white gloom.
It was followed by Einziger’s composition, a piece inspired by Disney Hall with the Riley-styled title “Forced Curvature Of Reflective Surfaces,” orchestrated for 14 strings and 10 guitars. You can hear what he’s going for in some of the steely billows of chords in the early going, and while the way he integrated the guitars into the orchestra was impressive, “Forced Curvature’ feels like a student’s piece, relying a little too heavily earlier 12-tone language.
But Einziger adds some wonderful lines to the evening’s finale, a half-hour improvisation by all the artists (including Riley on organ) on Riley’s themes. There’s a joyous energy to their combined playing, as rub against each other like tectonic plates, imperceptivity moving but gaining energy, and when it was over, Riley embraced the beaming guitarist.
The last hour of the show found Riley improvising on Disney Hall’s massive pip organ, an instrument Riley dubbed Hurricane Mama. Discursive, mixing stunning moments of beauty with moments of repetitious musical throat clearing, his playing took full advantage of the instrument’s range and intensity with a questing intelligence. It’s very in the moment and by nature unfinished, which, at this point in time, is as optimistic a definition of California as you can hope to find.