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L.A. festival serves up new music - potluck style

It could only happen in L.A. Downtown at the Japanese American Theatre, the CalArts Twentieth Century Players perform early music of Pierre Boulez. A clarinet soloist and a conductor enter a stage already packed with a trombone quartet, a string sextet, a marimba and double bass duo, a mixed quintet, a trio, and a bass clarinet. Thirty minutes of otherworldly pitches, rhythms, and musical textures follow, as the soloist and conductor follow each other around the stage and play with the various groups.

Across town at the Lhasa Club, local surf bands do their punk-rock riffs while surfing movies from the '40s and '50s flicker across makeshift screens.

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A genius of 20th-century composition and local guitar hipsters at the same festival? You bet. It's the first ``New Music L.A.'' festival, and it's as eclectic, fragmented, spontaneous, varied, and experimental as the city itself. It's already being called a major success for the cross-fertilization it has stimulated among 23 performing arts organizations in the area.

``In a way it's the birth of a community cultural consciousness,'' says Greg Johnson, associate producer of the CalArts Contemporary Music Festival, which is participating in the two-week event. That consciousness began to coalesce during Los Angeles's Arts Olympics in 1984 and a traveling festival called New Music America held here in 1985. The success of those events got people to thinking of a locally organized, yearly event to do the same thing.

``Excitement around town is higher than it has ever been because of the networking that has connected the different universities, performing arts and music centers around here,'' adds Mr. Johnson. ``Until now, we were separate islands.''

Coming together under the same umbrella are such organizations as the Independent Composers Association, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, UCLA, USC, Cal State Northridge, and the Orange County Composers' Circle. With their diverse interests and administrative styles, is there a common vision?

``Lack of common vision is what L.A. is all about,'' says Ara Guzelimian, festival coordinator. ``Unlike New York, where you have your downtown scene of more experimental clubs and your uptown scene with intellectuals and academics, we're less interested in cataloging and segmenting. There is still the freewheeling range of options and resources that coexist here - it's still a frontier spirit.''

Asked how organizers defined ``new music'' when they invited participation, Mr. Guzelimian said ``anything new, adventurous, experimental, electronic, high-tech - cutting across the categories of jazz, pop, classical, modern, contemporary, electronic, and serious.''

No artistic director was appointed; organizations were asked simply to perform whatever they felt they did best. At the more serious end of the spectrum are the appearances of John Cage and Pierre Boulez - by anyone's measure two of the biggest names in 20th-century music. Both are conducting some of their own works, as well as hearing them conducted by others.

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At the other end of the spectrum were concerts presented by the California Outside Music Association, including ``Freshly Wrapped Candies.'' Noted the program brochure: ``By combining high-tech equipment like digital delays with industrial elements like sledgehammered refrigerators and circular saws, they weave a tapestry of layered sounds of the city.''

Collaboration between diverse groups is a key aspect of this year's festival. ``Many of these organizations barely knew the others existed until they met at our planning meetings,'' says Guzelimian. As evidence of the cross-fertilization that resulted, Guzelimian noted that, by the time the festival ends this weekend, New York pianist Alan Feinberg will have played a duo recital with a percussion player at CalArts, a solo recital for the Schoenberg Institute, and a concert with the L.A. Philharmonic New Music Group.

Premi`eres of works by composers at the Independent Composers Association - ``a very wild and woolly experimental group,'' says Guzelimian - will be performed by a student ensemble from USC. ``That kind of collaboration wouldn't have been imaginable a year ago,'' he adds.

Another example was the CalArts Dance Ensemble, which added visual counterpoint to Cage's ``Sixteen Dances.'' ``We're finding out we need each other and can help each other,'' said Johnson.

Organizers liken the festival to a potluck supper in which each organization is responsible for funding and performing its own fare; organizer's note that about $30,000 has been used for common publicity and networking. Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts amount to $15,000; $10,000 was donated by the cultural affairs council of the city; and $5,000 was a gift from arts patron Betty Freeman.

``It was obvious to everyone that an eager audience was out there,'' notes Ernest Fleischmann, executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who is credited with calling the initial meetings but who has since taken a low-profile role. ``Hopefully we can keep them stimulated by a cumulative excitement where the sum is greater than the parts,'' he says.

Local reviews of the concerts have been generally favorable, with critics reporting more on mainstream events. Also well received were CalArts Dance Ensemble's ``Sixteen Dances'' and Boulez conducting his own ``Notations,'' Luciano Berio's ``Corale,'' and Bart`ok's ``The Wooden Prince.'' While performance facilities range in seating capacity from about 80 to 2,000, last week's events were reportedly 80 percent filled.

``Though attendance and reviews are going to be the obvious short term measures of the festival's success,'' says Guzelimian, ``we're right now more interested in igniting more adventurous audiences and getting more cooperation and cross-fertilization between cultural groups.''

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