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Los Angeles Percussion Quartet: Beyond

The Grammy-nominated modern music ensemble explores location and language on their latest release. Beyond is a striking and ambitious work in both intent and depth of material.
Los Angeles Percussion Quartet
Sono Luminus

Location seems to consistently play a significant factor in the music of the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet. The Grammy-nominated group initially formed to champion the works of 20th-century composers hailing from the West Coast, although in recent years their scope has expanded towards a more global focus. Recent contributions from collaborators originating from or residing in New York, Brazil, Australia, and Iceland reflect this new outlook. The liner notes to Beyond, their third recording for Solo Luminus, discuss the Los Angeles contemporary music scene and its connection to place, space, and awareness; these themes undeniable permeate the record’s repertoire and aesthetic. Packaged as three discs (two standard CDs and one Blu-ray that combines those two into one), Beyond is a striking and ambitious work in both intent and depth of material.

The evolution of textures in“Qui Tollis” evokes the homeland of its Icelandic composer, Daníel Bjarnason. The work builds from chittering xylophone rolls and ethereal hums to pounding bass drums and electronic howls. Encompassing elements of elegance and primal chaos, “Qui Tollis” reflects both the still beauty and the harsh elements of the northern tundra. Images of Icelandic landscapes, the beautiful and the damning alike, are inescapable. Perhaps the most cinematic track on the recording, Bjarnson’s evocative tone poem will astound even the most instrumental-adverse listeners.

In her bio, Anna Thorvaldsdottir relates how she often “…works with large sonic structures that tend to reveal… her sense of imaginative listening to landscapes and nature”. This quality immediately becomes apparent upon hearing “Aura”, her contribution to Beyond. The aural depictions of immense Icelandic landscapes return as drum skins are rubbed to mimic howling winds and sustained tones from bowed instruments conjure grandeur and awe. Performing on physical instruments, LAPQ nonetheless provokes timbral qualities that sound like they come from the digital realm. Outwardly “Aura” may evoke images of stark landscapes, yet inwardly one can’t escape the intrigue of how analog instruments can mimic their electronic counterparts.

“Memory Palace” by Pulitzer finalist Christopher Cerrone engages the theme of location through nostalgia and recollection. The crickets and acoustic guitar of the first movement, “Harriman”, float by like a reflection on childlike wonder. “Power Lines” pairs pounding lines against haunting electronic swells while “Foxhurst” washes over the listener with its overlapping bells and chimes, somehow sounding at once both harsh and comforting. The five movements of “Memory Palace” fuse together into an experiential piece rather than a narrative one; it’s a work intended to inspire scenes and memories rather than reveal specific messages about rhythm, harmony, or structure. Fans of post-rock icons Mogwai and Sigur Ros will undoubtedly revel in the instrumental ambiance of Cerrone’s composition.

While Ellen Reid’s contribution is a beautiful work on its own, its sequence in the recording relates to the only criticism one can level at Beyond. Programmed over 40 minutes into the recording, “Fear–Release” balances rhythm and freedom better than most of the previous works, yet it doesn’t deny that the latter quality dictates the album’s dominant aesthetic. Musically, Beyond floats more than it stands, dealing more in atmosphere than solid rhythmic elements. Of course, this isn’t any criticism focused on Reid; her composition is a stunning meditation on timbre and blending. The chimes and bells against the warm tone of the marimba present a new texture on the recording, but perhaps this work would have been better programmed somewhere between Bjarnason’s and Thorvaldsdottir’s works to emphasize as much of a contrast as possible.

At nearly 40 minutes Andrew McIntosh’s “I Hold the Lion’s Paw” makes up the entirety of the album’s second disc (or the second half of the Blu-ray). While divided into nine separate tracks for ease of navigation, the composition is intended to be heard in its entirety, undisturbed from beginning to end. For fans of contemporary classical music, it’s a phenomenal work of shifting colors and evolving textures that revels in the process of gradually revealing itself over time. For those unfamiliar with the contemporary classical music world, it is nonetheless an astounding work relatable to the long-form experiments of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The programming on Beyond reflects a link between contemporary classical composers and post-rock bands with their shared focus on patience and the gradual building of musical structures. Such a topic is loaded with potential for research and speculation, but for the immediate moment, the album offers listeners inexperienced in the world of contemporary classical music a fine starting point.

With its ambitious programming and album cover of a washed out city skyline, Beyond is a solid statement about the musical links between location and modern language. While the programming selection occasionally overindulges in abstract atmospheres, the music itself is never pretentious or overtly academic. An excellent addition to the new music canon, Beyond also has the potential to turn new listeners, those otherwise adverse to anything related to modern classical music, on to relevant new musical languages and experiences.

RATING 8 / 10