BETTER MOVES BY LEBARON
Anne Lebaron’s recent ‘Crescent City’ sold out, and L.A. Phil is playing one of her works at the Bowl.
Years before she became one of America’s most intriguing postmodern composers, Anne LeBaron was a precocious chess player. At age 12, she won the University of Alabama’s club tournament, whupping guys who made the error of not taking her seriously.
“As a young girl, when you beat an older man — oh, look out! They are not happy,” LeBaron said recently over coffee at the Atwater Crossing arts complex, where “Crescent City,” her phantasmagoric, voodoo-haunted new “hyperopera,” was performed this past spring to packed houses and gushing reviews.
LeBaron learned chess from her New Orleans grandmother, a formidable player who once nearly earned a draw with Bobby Fischer and gave LeBaron valuable advice.
“She said, ‘If you look long enough, you’ll always find a better move,’ ” recalled LeBaron, a faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. “So I’ve translated that into composing. I can write very fast, but then I’ll go back and back and back to look for that better move.”
Agrowing segment of the classical music world is awaiting the next move in LeBaron’s career, which has been advancing like a grandmaster closing in on checkmate.
At 59, the Baton Rouge, La., native has attained a new level of recognition for her lyrical, intrepidly eclectic music. An idiosyncratic visionary in the mode of George Crumb and John Zorn, her output stretches from chamber pieces to orchestral works and operas, including “The E&O Line” (1990) and “Crescent City,” which was staged by the new L.A. opera company the Industry and its dynamic artistic director, Yuval Sharon.
Many of her colleagues believe that the intensified attention to LeBaron is both merited and way overdue. Douglas Kearney, a poet and former pupil of LeBaron’s who wrote the librettos for “Crescent City” and the composer’s 2008 “cyborgopera” “Sucktion” — in which an abject housewife undergoes a cyber-erotic transformation through the subversive use of a vacuum cleaner — said he “can’t say whether the music world is finally catching up” with his collaborator.
“But what I feel like is happening is that all of these different projects, all of these different seeds that she’s been nurturing, are starting to bloom,” he said.
That color field will be in profusion this year. On Tuesday, LeBaron’s work for large orchestra “American Icons” will share a Hollywood Bowl program that includes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, conducted by Leonard Slatkin. It will be the first time the Phil has performed one of LeBaron’s works, a representative for the orchestra said.
On Aug. 11, the first movement of her chamber ensemble piece “Telluris Theoria Sacra” (Sacred Theory of the Earth) will be performed at UCLA by the 24-member experimental ensemble wild Up.
On Oct. 10, the world premiere of her piano solo work “Creation of the Birds,” inspired by a Remedios Varo painting, will take place at the Festival Internacional Cervantino in Guanajuato, Mexico. In November, “Floodsongs,” LeBaron’s new work for 12-part mixed chorus and live electronics, will be performed at REDCAT.
“I think that Anne is having a real moment in the sun right now, deservedly so,” said Chad Smith, the L.A. Phil’s vice president of artistic planning. “A lot of that I think has to do with ‘Crescent City.’ She was the right person with the right project with the right impresario in Yuval Sharon, and it all came together. But obviously Anne has been doing her thing for decades.”
Peers and critics cite LeBaron’s signature as her ability to fuse a wealth of musical genres — classical, jazz, pop, neo-medieval, Cajun/ Creole, free jazz and improvisation, electronica, folk, bluegrass — into provocative, well-structured yet audience-friendly works filled with emotional intensity, sly philosophical musings and Bartók-ian bursts of unexpected humor. Her “Concerto for Active Frogs,” for example, combines live human and taped amphibian voices to “hilarious” effect, as a Washington Post critic put it.
“Unlike a lot of other postmodern composers, where the seams always show when it’s stitching together the rock or the jazz or the pop into what they think is a concert or a classical piece or sound, her work is seamless,” said Nicole Gagne, a Bay Area music scholar. “She sees what it is that is shared about all these different sounds more than what is different about them.”
That receptiveness to a wide variety of inspirations dates from the composer’s childhood in Louisiana, Memphis, Tenn., and Tuscaloosa, Ala. One of her cousins was legendary New Orleans jazz trumpeter Al Hirt. Her churchgoing mother helped expose her to soaring gospel harmonies.
Her father, a Sears Roebuck advertising executive, was an amateur bluegrass and folk musician who taught himself to play guitar, mandolin, dobro, banjo, and also sang.
“He wrote wonderful little ditties and songs, very clever and with a great sense of humor,” said LeBaron, a gracious, forthright woman who still speaks with a faint pan-Southern inflection.
LeBaron’s penchant for working with other musicians and designers across multiple art forms may have found its fullest expression in the multi-media “Crescent City.” LeBaron has said that the concept of hyperopera, which she has taught in CalArts classes, denotes “an opera resulting from intensive collaboration across all the disciplines essential for producing opera in the 21st century.”
Put another way, it’s Richard Wagner’s idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, an all-embracing art form, except that each participating artist maintains a degree of individual autonomy rather than submitting to a Teutonic mastermind’s authoritarian dictates. “Anne’s view of the world is one of multiplicity and of the beauty of that multiplicity,” Sharon said.
While the jazz, blues, creole and gospel textures of “Crescent City” reach to LeBaron’s roots, its beautiful, startling dissonances and electronic polyrhythms hint at LeBaron’s later immersion in postmodernism. As a Fulbright scholar to Germany, she studied with György Ligeti, the ne plus ultra of late 20th century mitteleuropean avant-garde composers, en route to earning a degree in composition at Columbia University.
“I hear Ligeti every once in a while peek through these bizarre country idioms or who knows what,” Sharon said admiringly. “She can synthesize them in a way that is not about her own cleverness but is this kind of playful and joyous look at these combinations. She’s constantly changing directions in the music in a way that really keeps you engaged.”
LeBaron hopes that other opera companies will give “Crescent City” a go. The first time that an opera is done, she believes, is seldom the finished version, and she’d love to see it performed on a proscenium stage one day.
Time, then, for a new look at the chessboard?
“Yes,” LeBaron replied. “For sure.”
ANNE LeBARON is the postmodern composer behind “Crescent City” and teaches at CalArts.