Celebrating L.A. Composers: A Conversation with Hugh Levick

April 11, 2021   •   By Allan Graubard

I’VE KNOWN HUGH LEVICK since first meeting him in Paris in 1970, and I have followed his career ever since. Early on, as an accomplished jazz-inspired saxophonist, he played with Richard Horowitz, Anthony Braxton, and Steve Lacy. Then, some years later in New York City, he entered the performance art scene, bringing his music, writing, and droll acting style together in unusual works, solo and ensemble, performed at the Brooklyn Bridge Centennial, the Kitchen, Roulette, and other hot spots around town. 

His music compositions have generated interest — they deserve it — with commissions from the French National Radio and the Diotima [String] Quartet: the wonderful Remnants of Symmetry — with voice, percussion, and piano added to the quartet. In Los Angeles, his Maybe the Story of “I” — a piece for a playing and speaking pianist — was at REDCAT back in 2016. A new ensemble composition, Petrified Unrest, is due out soon from Signature Records/Radio France. Hugh certainly keeps it moving.

This year brings a high point: the 10th anniversary of HEAR NOW, the music festival he founded to present new concert music by L.A. area composers. Since the 2020 festival was cancelled — another casualty of the pandemic — I was curious about this year’s event, a virtual festival that opens in late April. So, I called Hugh up and we chatted about himself, Los Angeles, and HEAR NOW.

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ALLAN GRAUBARD: You were first a writer and then became a musician and composer. How did that happen? Why music, and what music inspired you to become an instrumentalist and composer?

HUGH LEVICK: I began as a writer. First as an undergraduate at Yale with Robert Penn Warren and then in the MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Yates. Then I heard Ornette Coleman’s music. I realized that I wanted multiple events happening simultaneously. Beyond ambiguity and irony, I could not do this with the written word. I experienced music as the reality incarnate of a hidden world. I started playing the saxophone, and soon after that I was composing for different jazz ensembles and did a lot of incidental music for the theater. At a certain point, I realized that I needed another language to compose what I wanted, and the contemporary classical idiom gave me the freedom to explore most of the things I could imagine.

You and your wife, the photographer Melba Levick, live in Venice, California. What drew you to the area, and how do you find it now?

Melba and I have lived in Paris for decades, but when our son moved to Venice in the mid-’80s, we came here to check it out. Little by little we got some things happening in Los Angeles. Melba has published at least 15 books about L.A. architecture and design. I wrote two operas, a screenplay about William Blake’s trial for sedition, and incidental music for the Odyssey Theatre, and I continued the performance art shows I had begun while living in New York. When the HEAR NOW festival became real, we started spending more time in L.A. Of course, L.A. and Venice are being gentrified and reek of money (with accompanying homelessness), but we live near the Pacific Ocean and the boardwalk, neither of which have changed.

HEAR NOW is dedicated to concert music. When and why did you decide to organize a festival of this kind?

“Unknown in her lifetime”! I got sick of reading this in the obits on composers. In L.A., film music monopolizes what the word “music” means. I knew there was a lot of great concert music being written here, but it was extremely difficult to find. I was more likely to hear an L.A. composer in Berlin. So, by 2011 I had already been looking for conditions that would allow a festival of contemporary classical concert music by L.A. composers for several years.

I’m curious about the first several years of the festival. How and where did you find performance venues?

At the First Lutheran Church of Venice, Barbara Schwan had an annual four-concert series. The Denali Quartet performed a string quartet of mine there, and I started talking to Barbara about an annual festival. She was enthusiastic about the idea. I was extremely fortunate then to find several private donors who footed the bill for a two-concert festival in 2011.

How did composers, conductors, musicians, and ensembles respond to the festival? 

I believe that all the L.A. musicians — players, composers, and ensembles — involved in the genre were very excited about the realization of HEAR NOW. It connects musicians and composers, and the idea of it being local in a globalized world was and still is a big plus.

What kind of audience did you attract then, in terms of race, gender, and age?

Classical music in general has a challenge with audience. At Disney Hall for the L.A. Phil, I’d say the average age is between 50 and 65. One of our main focuses is getting younger people into the innovative, out-of-the-box music that we are performing. To this end, we’ve hired a social media director, lowered ticket prices, gotten the call for submissions out to more places and online sites. We’re making some progress, but the culture is not moving in the direction of projects that demand a certain concentration to be appreciated.

How did the press respond during those first years?

The Los Angeles Times has one classical music critic, so he’s stretched to his limits to cover a 10th of what is happening in the city. Also, the L.A. Phil — a truly wonderful orchestra — seems to have a privileged place with regard to getting ink. When they have covered the festival, critics have been quite positive about the stunning music we are making happen in Los Angeles.

How has the festival evolved since then?

From 2011–’13, HEAR NOW was a two-concert festival. In 2014, we began our collaboration with People Inside Electronics, adding an electro-acoustic concert to our two chamber music concerts. In 2016, we began our biannual collaboration with Neal Stulberg and the UCLA Philharmonia, which allowed us the opportunity to present orchestra music by L.A. composers. We pretty much fill the First Lutheran Church of Venice — a fabulous venue for us. Since Venice is all the way on the west side of Los Angeles, we are in conversation with several more centrally located venues. For the past three years, we have also been presenting festival concerts at Los Angeles City College and CSULA, and we are committed to getting the music out to as many venues in the L.A. sprawl as possible.

What musical values are you looking for in compositions performed in the festival?

We look for innovation and personal, exploratory approaches to musical material. We want music that’s taking chances, that expresses what it feels like to be alive in today’s world. Neo-Romantic and repetitive styles can be wonderful, but they evoke associations that are quite other from the quagmire of contemporary experience that HEAR NOW is musically investigating.

How do you review compositions for the festival? I’m also curious about how many compositions come in for review and how many make it into the festival.

We have a review committee of approximately 10 people. Six reviewers are part of the HEAR NOW team, and four are guests that change every year. The submissions are anonymous. They are divided among the reviewers in equal batches. Every reviewer gets his/her own batch and a second batch shared with another reviewer. This way no piece is listened to less than twice. As artistic director, I listen to everything, so most pieces are listened to three times. Then each reviewer chooses three to five favorites, shares them with the other reviewers, and we meet to discuss. Normally the pieces that have scored the highest are part of the festival, but I go over everything to be sure that there is variety in the instrumentation and also that there are not more musicians than our budget can accommodate. In 2020, we had 275 submissions and chose 40 for the festival.

Are the ensembles that play festival music independent from the festival? If they are, what ensembles have you worked with?

While they tour nationally and internationally, The Lyris Quartet, a string quartet, is based in Los Angeles, and is the founding and resident quartet of the HEAR NOW festival. Tim Loo, the cellist, worked with me at the beginning of HEAR NOW and was enormously responsible for getting it off the ground. Tim also contracts with all the musicians who play in the festival.

Another resident ensemble based in Los Angeles is Brightwork newmusic — a mixed quintet plus percussion. We have been working with Brightwork newmusic for a number of years now. Two years ago, we were honored to have HEX, a six-piece vocal ensemble, become resident to the HEAR NOW Festival.

How much rehearsal is available for festival ensembles?

L.A. musicians are fantastic. This is often very complex music, and they usually get together — individual parts known — two, maybe three times before the performance. In 10 years, HEAR NOW has never had anything but excellent performances!

Tell us about the delayed 2020 festival and the virtual festival you’re launching in late April. What compositions will you stream?

We’ll stream 25 of the 40 pieces that were scheduled for HEAR NOW 2020. The orchestra concert in collaboration with UCLA had to be postponed until 2022 because the university is still closed. There were several pieces involving five or six players and/or singers that — given COVID-19 protocols — would not fit in the recording studio. Those pieces will be also be presented in 2022.

Are there any standouts that your audience should be aware of?

In terms of high visibility composers, a piano solo by John Williams will be performed by Gloria Cheng. Ben Webster’s Talk It Out for alto saxophone, piano, and drum kit is written out but is in the sound world of jazz. NCTRN3 by Nicholas Deyoe creates a world of sonic hieroglyphs for solo piccolo. Arash Majd’s Metamorphose for mixed quintet advances across its 10-minute duration from stunning surprise to breathtaking shudder. Many pieces we did not choose from the 275 submissions were stupendous, so I think that the 25 pieces that we will present are all standouts.

How can listeners link to performances?

I am not sure what platform we’ll use for the diffusion of the festival. Our social media director is studying the possibilities.

In this year’s festival, you have your first commissioned work by Nina Shekhar, a noted young composer. What drew the festival to her composition? Are you planning on future commissions in festivals to come?

That’s right. We’ve commissioned a world premiere: a string quartet by the fabulous L.A. composer, Nina Shekhar. The Lyris Quartet and Holly Sedillos performed Nina’s wonderful piece Quirkhead, in the 2019 festival. That’s where we first heard her work, which is dramatic, ironic, and extremely vulnerable. We’ve long wanted to have a commissioning program for HEAR NOW, and we finally took the leap with Nina. If we can manage it financially, we would love to commission a piece for each festival.

The celebrated conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, who led the L.A. Philharmonic, is an honorary artistic advisor. How did you meet him and what was it like working with him on the festival?

One of the composers who was instrumental in getting HEAR NOW off the ground was Bill Kraft. Bill had been principal timpanist in the L.A. Phil for many years, and he introduced me to Esa-Pekka. When Esa-Pekka heard about our project, he immediately lent his support, saying that during his tenure as conductor of the L.A. Phil he had wanted to reach out to L.A. composers but never had the time. Esa-Pekka was tremendously helpful and did numerous fundraiser appearances for HEAR NOW.

Los Angeles is a large geographic area where different peoples, languages, and musical cultures interact. How has the festival responded to this kind of mix?

Last year, we signed an Inclusion and Diversity statement from the City of Los Angeles — both tremendously important goals for HEAR NOW. The 2020 festival was the first to fall under the conditions of this statement, and fortunately we had chosen without knowing it (all submissions coming in anonymously) a very diverse group of composers. We have not yet decided how we will handle anonymity and diversity in future festivals, but we’ll figure something out.

I mention this because it’s interesting: the age range of HEAR NOW composers has ranged between 15 and 97. There are, of course, differences in style and approach that come from the different epochs and places that sourced the composers, but they all figure within the musical parameters of the HEAR NOW Music Festival.

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Allan Graubard’s latest books include Into the Mylar Chamber: Ira Cohen (Fulgur, UK, 2019), Western Terrace (Exstasis Editions, Victoria, BC, 2019), and Language of Birds (Anon Edition, NY/Flagstaff, 2019).