Building around a rare Los Angeles residency by New York downtown composer John Zorn, CalArts put together a modest two-concert Creative Music Festival at its own downtown outpost Redcat on Friday and Saturday nights. It was a far cry from the scope and atmosphere of the school’s now-legendary Contemporary Music Festivals of the early 1980s. (Nowadays the school calls its Musical Exploration series an “expanded, yearlong” version of the festival. Whatever.) Yet the opening concert was a demonstration of the viability of one of the most durable formats in Western music — the string quartet — with new, formally conceived works by Zorn and Yusef Lateef and a radical blast from the near-past by George Crumb.
Over the last two decades and more, Lateef has been operating pretty much outside even the loosest definitions of the jazz idiom that made him a giant. Now the soft-spoken 84-year-old Lateef may be the oldest noted musician ever to write his first string quartet, “Bismilah”, which received its world premiere performance Friday.
He went about it in an earnest, respectful manner — sticking to the formal four-movement structure that goes back to Haydn, with a brief, ripe post-Romantic tune for the cello in the second movement, streaks of dissonance, three-note motifs that are passed around. While the writing is certainly competent, the piece wanders at times, searching for something to say.
If Lateef’s model was classical, Zorn’s “Necronomicon” quartet (2003) seemed to take its structural cue from a palindrome, with two manic outer movements serving as bookends to the slow, sustained second and fourth movements and a babbling central scherzo. The piece is quite characteristic of this composer — highly neurotic, edgy, spooky, at times unnervingly difficult for the players.
Yet, wouldn’t you know it, Crumb’s wild 1970-vintage “Black Angels,” written as a response to the Vietnam War, easily eclipsed its 21st century companions in its daring, its exploitation of effects both within and outside the four instruments (tuned wine glasses, gongs, shouts, etc.) and its hauntingly integrated reminiscences of antique tonality-based styles. It was also the work best-suited to the high-tech capabilities of Redcat. The four amplified instruments were connected to four small high-quality speakers flanking the group, giving the sound an enticing, widescreen spatial dimension treated with just the right amount of reverb.
Of the three quartets of musicians from the New Century Players pool, the Crumb ensemble made the most impressive showing, really digging into the piece’s rhythmic vitality.