January 11, 2011
"Professor Bad Trip" is Fausto Romitelli's most ecstatic plunge into
psychedelia and spectralism. The Doors meet - and unapologetically
drown out - Pierre Boulez. Completed in 2000, an Italian composer's
nearly 45-minute confrontation between chaos and control forecast a
millennium that no one else was quite ready to acknowledge.
A decade later, we know better, and on Monday Los Angeles' doors
finally opened for this particular professor and his bad trip. With
wa-wa-ing electric guitar and all, the West Coast premiere of the
full score was the major event of the Argento Chamber Ensemble
program at Monday Evening Concerts in the Colburn School's Zipper
Romitelli, who was born in 1963, was a curious character on the
European new music scene. He somewhat followed in Esa-Pekka Salonen's
footsteps, studying in Milan with Franco Donatoni, then moving on to
Boulez's new music center, IRCAM, in Paris.
Only Romitelli did this five years after Salonen, and by then
Donatoni had become musically radicalized and bit wacko. Meanwhile,
IRCAM had turned into a hotbed of spectralism, using the science of
acoustics and the music research facility's computers to cook up
intoxicating harmonic resonances.
Throw into the mix a professor Timothy Leary leaning toward drugs,
mysticism, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the music of the Jim
Morrison and the more current club culture, and Romitelli briefly
became the rocker of the moderns. And like many of his hipster idols,
Romitelli died too early, at 41 (after a long battle with cancer), to
complete his vision.
Structured as three "lessons," "Professor Bad Trip" is Romitelli's
magnum opus but is only now becoming known in America. The San
Francisco Contemporary Music Players gave the first part of the score
its U.S. premiere in 2007. Talea played the full piece in June as
part of the Bang on a Can marathon held in the atrium of the World
Financial Center in Lower Manhattan. But the gripping performance by
Argento, another excellent New York group, at Zipper was the first in
America in a concert hall.
This is a piece hard to perform, difficult to love and impossible to
ignore. Zipper was nearly full, and the sense of anticipation was
high. So was the temperature in the hall. Apparently "Professor Bad
Trip" requires so much juice that electricity was diverted from the
The scoring is for a fairly normal 10-member ensemble of strings,
winds and percussion along electric guitar and electric bass. Cellist
Jay Campbell had a spectacular moment in Lesson 2 when he put down
his acoustic instrument, took up an electric cello and made like Jimi
Hendrix. The pianist had a smaller electric keyboard on top of her
grand. Harmonicas and kazoos were part of the mix. And a mix it was.
Extensive electronics are required and the hall was surrounded by loudspeakers.
The sound is often distorted and ugly but fascinating, a little
reminiscent of the controlled craziness and crazy control of Miles
Davis in the '70s. But Romitelli's grit, especially his rubbing
together unearthly spectral harmonies into electronic dirt, was all
his own and something to hear.
The first half of the concert was pristine and demonstrated just how
good are the members of Argento, which is conducted by Michel
Galante. Carol McGonnell was the elastic, exacting, stupendous
soloist in Brian Ferneyhough's highly complicated mini clarinet
concerto, "La Chute d'Icare" (The Fall of Icarus). At the other
extreme she was a study in soporific eeriness in Salvatore
Sciarrino's clarinet solo "Let Me Die Before I Wake," a repetitious,
unpleasant reflection on euthanasia.
Three tiny pieces by Gérard Pesson with long French titles were
alluring. In one - "La Lumière n'a pas de Bras pour nous Porter"
(Light Has No Arms With Which to Bear Us) - pianist Joanna Chao
rhythmically slapped the keys with only an occasional piano note
sounding in the process. This is a fresh and exciting composer all
but unknown in the United States. Monday evening was a night of news.