A low bass rumbled through the packed 1,600-seat Ace Hotel theater, accompanied by a flickering green alien light. An audience member, dressed like a throwback from the Strokes days of New York, murmured an approval. “Woah,” whispered the woman next to him. For years, the world of classical music has tried to court a younger audience. This concert by the Echo Society, a squad of Los Angeles composers, might be the missing link.
Titled “V: Spirit into Matter,” this was the Echo Society’s fifth concert since the septet of mostly film/TV/commercial composers — Rob Simonsen, Benjamin Wynn (better known as Deru), Joseph Trapanese, Brendan Angelides (Eskmo), Jeremy Zuckerman, Nathan Johnson, and Judson Crane — banded together in 2013. Each Echo Society concert is held in a different location, and each carries with it a different vibe. “V” was dark. For a little over two hours, a 40-person orchestra played new music by the Echo Society’s seven members, as well as four special guests. And for the most part, the music suited the Ace Theater’s Spanish Gothic architecture, skewing to the gloomier side, underscored by one of the Echo Society’s special guests, the goth-metal songwriter Chelsea Wolfe. “We’re always reacting to the space a little,” said Simonsen over the phone a few days after the concert.
Reacting to the space went beyond the melancholy nature of the music. Simonsen’s composition featured an ethereal chorus, dispersed in a quad formation around the theater, creating a hypnotic swirl of voices. It was Wynn’s piece that ultimately inspired Simonsen. Wynn’s arrangement centered around percussionists in the quads, playing unamplified brake and snare drums in intervals, creating a cacophonous rhythm in the room. “The whole purpose was to create this psycho-acoustic phenomenon that we don’t typically get from concerts,” Wynn says. “It’s a way to engage our senses that aren’t often engaged. The idea for the piece came from wanting to activate people’s perceptions of space and the space around them.”
It’s no accident that the Echo Society’s concerts are more ad hoc than most classical performances. The group, now a 501(c)3 nonprofit, was born out of frustration amongst friends fed up with the orchestral experience and its tendency to think inside the box. The solution, they decided, was to do it themselves. Though they were composers, their experience was mostly limited to studio work for film scores. “A lot of us had very little experience [writing for certain groups of instruments],” Wynn explains. “Then imagine that we say, ‘OK, let’s write for these things that we’ve never written for maybe, and let’s invite every single person we know — studio heads, agencies, music supervisors.’ It can be very terrifying.”
They used that fear, Wynn says, to fuel their creativity. “There’s nothing like trial by fire,” he says with a laugh.
Those first two concerts were held at Mack Sennett Studios in Silver Lake, where they sold 300 tickets. The third took place at Vibiana, a church-turned-production-space in Downtown L.A. — where Brazilian electronic musician Amon Tobin was a guest artist — and the fourth concert was in the warehouse space connected to MAMA Gallery in the Arts District, where they sold 750 seats. Each of these concerts was kept relatively secret, with no advertising or marketing, but somehow they continued to sell out. “We’ve been wanting it to feel underground and word-of-mouth,” Wynn says. “But that show was also a lot of seats, so we’ve been lifting the curtains on it.”
But that doesn’t mean returning audiences won’t be surprised. They are purposefully flexible, not adhering to any dogmatic rules that might create some kind of ethos. “Our method is following our inspiration, and doing what really excites us,” Simonsen says. “It’s all open and subject to change based on what we get excited about. Our method is that we don’t have an executional method. It’s more like, follow whatever turns you on.”
This approach has led to great variation, particularly within the guest artists. For “V,” the guests included Wolfe, electronic musicians Clark and The Haxan Cloak, and renowned contemporary composer Ted Hearne, the latter whose vocoder-driven piece was a standout. “I’m really proud that we’ve built this platform where all different kinds of genres can co-exist right next to each other,” Wynn says. “My piece was me being inspired by a very academic compositional style from the ’80s in France next to a piece by The Haxan Cloak, who is an electronic artist doing this for the first time, next to someone like Ted Hearne. Our diversity is our strength.”
Another strength is the Echo Society’s visual elements: those bright lights. Working with art director Anthony Ciannamea, L.A.-based lighting designer Tobias Rylander — who has done lighting for fashion labels Balenciaga and Calvin Klein, as well as musicians like FKA Twigs, the XX, and Fever Ray — created a strobing atmosphere of colored lights and projections that might have been worth the admission price alone.
“For me, it feels natural to have a visual counterpart, because on most days, I’m working with music and picture,” says Simonsen, who has worked on the scores for “Foxcatcher,” “The Age of Adaline,” “Life of Pi,” and “(500) Days of Summer.” “When those things can be in harmony, and they’re working in sync, it’s an incredibly powerful experience. I think the format of how we interface [visually] is going to continue to grow and evolve. It’s really exciting to go to a museum like LACMA and see a James Turrell exhibit, and for me, there’s a certain aspect of a desire to put music to that kind of thing. I hope that we go a lot further with that in the future. I think we will.”
The visual elements really set them apart from the other efforts in Los Angeles that kindle interest in classical music, something that feels like its growing up. Last October, opera “Hopscotch,” took place in a fleet of limousines. “Hopscotch’s” composer Yuval Sharon previously put on “Invisible Cities,” an Italo Calvino-inspired dance-opera performance that could only be listened to over headphones at Union Station. And Jacaranda, an evening created by Mark Alan Hilt and Patrick Scott, has been receiving rave reviews for its daring performance concerts focused on living composers. That’s not to mention the fact that Gustavo Dudamel has led the Los Angeles Philharmonic into the 21st century.
But the Echo Society is a different kind of beast altogether, a moving target with a cowboy attitude playing in a concert music field not known for its ability to adjust. But that’s what Wynn cherishes about the organization. “If we ever find ourselves in a place where the audience knows what to expect from an Echo Society show then we’ve lost, because it means we’re resting on our laurels, and we’re repeating ourselves, and we’re just reverting to a formula,” he says. “I think it’d be dangerous if we say, ‘we really know what we’re doing now.’ I think we all want to challenge ourselves to feel that fear of, ‘woah, that’s a crazy idea,’ or, ‘that’s really ambitious,’ or, ‘I don’t know how this piece is going to come off,’ or, ‘I don’t know how this night is going to come off,’ or, ‘how are we going to make this work in the venue?’ Because that’s the creative sweat, but that’s also where all the good stuff comes in — the critical thinking and creative problem solving. So I think we always want to challenge ourselves. And that might look 100 percent different than the show that we did last time, but it’s an evolution.”
Top image by Tim Navis.