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The Song of the Singing Bowl: The Otherworldly Music of 'Prometheus Bound'

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Vinny Golia and Ellen Reid | Photo: © 2013 Craig Schwartz.

In Partnership with The Getty Villa: The Getty Villa's annual outdoor theater performance is part of an innovative theater program that enhances the visitor's experience of the ancient world.

"Prometheus Bound," produced by CalArts' Center for New Performance (CNP), in association with Trans Arts, is the eighth annual outdoor theater production in the Getty Villa's Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, September 5-28, 2013.

Los Angeles jazz icon, Vinny Golia, has been part of this city's cultural fabric for nearly four decades. From his 50-piece Vinny Golia Large Ensemble, started in 1982 (with only 14 musicians), to his featured performances with greats including Anthony Braxton, Horace Tapscott and John Zorn, this 67-year old artist is still making music that fuses jazz, contemporary and world music into his own singular voice.

Golia's latest endeavor is contributing an aural soundscape to the theatrical outing, "Prometheus Bound." Running now through September 28 at the Getty Villa, the 75-minute production, also featuring music by composer Ellen Reid, may be getting a lot of ink for its 23-foot revolving wheel, but the sonic backdrop is, well, key to the staging. The classical Greek drama, attributed to Aeschylus and thought to have premiered circa 450 B.C., depicts the titular hero -- in this staging -- pinned to the wheel, as punishment for defying Zeus in order to empower humans with fire and education.

Golia, who has been teaching at CalArts since 1999, explains: "The thing with the music for these kinds of plays is that you want the sound to appear but you don't want it recognizable -- that's this, or that's that. The whole idea of working with the terminology built around this pantheon of gods is like a mystical place where humans don't live. We're considered the peons. This guy is screwed because he gave humans a gift to come up the ranks."

Conceived and helmed by Travis Preston, dean of the CalArts School of Theater and artistic director of the Center for New Performance, the college's professional producing arm, this "Prometheus" may have posed physical challenges for the actors, but for Golia, his only stipulation was to not use amplification.

Ron Cephas Jones as Prometheus. Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. | Photo: © 2013 Craig Schwartz.
Ron Cephas Jones as Prometheus. Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. | Photo: © 2013 Craig Schwartz.

Not a problem, as Golia performs live each night on a range of acoustic instruments. Included are soprano and baritone saxophones (the latter to underscore actor Ron Cephas Jones' Prometheus), an Armenian duduk (a double reed instrument whose origins date back to the fifth century), and a variety of gongs and Tibetan singing bowls.

As Preston had also asked for a string instrument, one with more of a jazz flavor, Golia suggested Chris Lopes to perform on acoustic double bass, "because of its harmonics and deeper tones with a bit more of an orchestral texture."

Golia, who grew up in the Bronx, comes by his musical chops in an unusual fashion: His father was a zookeeper at the famed Bronx Zoo, and when dignitaries came bearing animals as gifts, Golia says that there would also be musicians performing.

"I had a very interesting childhood," recalls Golia, "because I was living in an urban area, but at the same time I had all this nature around me and it was a fantastic education. For some reason, I'm not sure why, the birdhouse at the zoo was a favorite place to hang out."

Birdsong may not necessarily be part of the "Prometheus" soundtrack, but for underscoring the women's chorus of 12, Golia says that the singing bowls create an intriguing layer of sound. "I began playing the bowls a year and a half ago, amassing them for my own pleasure. I'm playing seven of them in 'Prometheus," and I have over 40 at home."

Michael Blackman as Hermes with Prometheus and Chorus members.  Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. | Photo: © 2013 Craig Schwartz.
Michael Blackman as Hermes with Prometheus and Chorus members. Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. | Photo: © 2013 Craig Schwartz.   

For a musician who has performed in Europe, Canada, Mexico, Japan and the United States, this is the first time Golia will play outside at the Getty Villa. He likens it to playing music for dance.

"You're constantly involved in the action and you have just enough leeway in the score to change it minutely. You can work with the actors' expressions and accent an emotion. One day the speech might be on the soprano saxophone and the next day it might be gongs."

Golia, who still practices every day and was once ranked first in the Cadence Magazine Writers & Readers Poll, says he likes the camaraderie of the theater. He has also worked with Preston in the past, notably on the director's 2004 "Macbeth (A Modern Ecstasy)," starring Stephen Dillane.

"You normally don't get to work with so many people coming from so many different areas all at once. In a theater production you're usually in a beautiful setting, you have lighting, it's like being on the top of the crest of the wave.

"Actors are constantly telling you how much they like working in an environment that isn't dry," adds the musician. "There is a new level of appreciation for music. It's quite humbling, actually. The company is respectful of the musicians, and it's wonderful to work in that environment."

Composer Ellen Reid, who grew up in East Tennessee and received her master's degree from CalArts two years ago, agrees. Reid, 30, says she knew Golia, but hadn't worked with him before "Prometheus." To create music for the chorus, she explains she was interested in an investigation into the expressiveness of the speech.

"The musical writing for the women's choir has focused on maintaining expression and clarity -- and heightening the words. It falls into a line of some musical exploration like Sprechstimme [a vocal style combining elements of song and speech] -- but it doesn't sound like that.

Ron Cephas Jones as Prometheus and Tony Sancho as Hephaistos. Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. | Photo: © 2013 Craig Schwartz.
Ron Cephas Jones as Prometheus and Tony Sancho as Hephaistos. Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. | Photo: © 2013 Craig Schwartz.

"The way I would write the lines," adds Reid, "would be to repeat the speech to myself the way that the women speak it, and then take the shape of their line and craft it into something more melodic.

"The entire shape comes from how they need to express the words. In that way it's almost like a balloon -- a texting balloon. The melody fills the framework, and the text is like the balloon that is filled with the breath of music. You maintain the text but it's amplified and more expressive."

Reed considers herself both a composer and sound artist. The L.A. Weekly wrote that her work, "brims with canny invention." Her compositions, installations and scores have been seen in such disparate places as the United Nations in Thailand, Abu Dhabi and France. Last June, Reid's music for the opera-in-progress, "Winter's Child," was featured in "First Take" at the Hammer Museum.

For Reid, performing outdoors proved challenging. "The main thing I had to consider was how to maintain the muscularity of the women's speech and how to not just let the music take over -- to maintain clarity. As a musician, I would hear a line that went in a certain way but I would have to come back to the text and honor it. That's what shapes the musical line."

The Chorus and Prometheus. Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. | Photo: © 2013 Craig Schwartz.
The Chorus and Prometheus. Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. | Photo: © 2013 Craig Schwartz

As for her musical predilections, Reid says that she -- and Golia -- are "musical agnostics. We are moved by many different types of music. You'll see Vinny play sax and then switch to an Eastern European instrument or a gong -- all while maintaining fluidity. I think it's because of this agnosticism that the timbres and the character of the sound are really able to connect."

Reid also works with the new music ensemble Wild Up, and feels that Los Angeles has a thriving contemporary music scene. "I think of it as I think of L.A.," gushes Reid, "spread out, awesome and you're going to encounter a lot of surprises. You're also going to encounter a lot of spaces for development - like the landscape. It's the Wild West and there are a lot of opportunities for new music."

Golia, who has his own record label, Nine Winds Records, and has released a recording a year since 1977, has his own thoughts on the subject: "I think the scene here is amazingly healthy, but the problem with it is a lot of writers who write about it don't care about it, because it's not too commercial, so it's ignored.

"I could name 10 people at the top of their game," adds Golia, "and I predict that there is a new bunch of creative artists forming organizations right now. To be blunt, it's just a very vivid scene underneath everything -- but it's always underneath. It never comes to the top here."

Vinny Golia, still at the top -- and on top -- of his game, can be seen and heard at the Getty Villa this month in the stunning new production of "Prometheus Bound."

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