Jonathan Hepfer wanted to be a drummer in a punk rock band, then his mind got corrupted by John Cage.
If you’ve never heard the name, you probably know Cage by his deeds. In what has to be one of the first instances of trolling in modern music, he famously presented a piece where a pianist would sit by a grand piano for four minutes and 33 seconds, not playing a note, not making a sound. Just silence for four minutes and 33 seconds. Some pianists get wild with the piece and set up sheet music for it, counting the measures, and quietly turning the pages when needed. Cage made some other ridiculous pieces, like the nationally televised “Water Walk” where he went around smacking radios, boiling water, and putting rubber duckies on prepared pianos to blow the minds of the unsuspecting public. He also made some traditional music, but his intent was to always question and expand the notion of what music, especially European classical music, could be.
Cage might have been the most out there, but he was one composer among many who over the last 100 plus years or so have been reshaping and testing the bounds of what European, orchestral, classical music sounds like. From Igor Stravinsky’s rhythm heavy masterpiece “The Rites of Spring” from 1913, to Krzysztof Penderecki’s terrifyingly dissonant “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” to Steve Reich’s jazz and West African music inspired pieces, the sound of classical music has come a long way from Mozart, but unfortunately, not a long way from the grand halls of power, wealth, and privilege where Mozart performed. Classical music, even the kind of dissonant and confrontational classical music of the past 100 or so years, is still routinely performed in big, prohibitively expensive, and unwelcoming for those without cultural capital, concert halls.
Hepfer, in small ways, is beginning to try to change that. Tickets at Monday Evening Concerts, one of the longest running modern classical music series in the world, which started in L.A. in the late 30’s, that Hepfer now curates, conducts, and often performs in, is held in Zipper Hall at the Colburn School. A beautiful medium sized concert hall in one of L.A.’s only music conservatories. Prices are low compared to other classical music shows across the city, and through Hepfer’s network, the shows have begun to attract a younger, hipper, audience than the tenured professors or retired rich and white charter school magnates that usually constitute the audiences of classical music shows.
If you’re walking around L.A.’s Bunker Hill neighborhood downtown and see a group of 30 somethings dripped out in Y-3 across the street from the Broad Museum, you’ve found the right place. But more importantly, Hepfer has been adamant in opening up Monday Evening Concerts to a diverse range of composers like Sarah Hennies, and Julius Eastman, a truly radical composer whose work fused his love of jazz, pop, soul, disco, and classical music, with his own personal and political identity as a gay black man in a scene filled with predominantly straight white men. It was enough to apparently freak John Cage himself out.
Hepfer and I meet up recently to talk about Julius Eastman, Buffalo, New York, and Gucci Mane. — Sam Ribakoff
Julius Eastman – Feminine
So you are not from L.A., right?
Jonathan Hepfer:No, I’ve only been here a couple of years as a matter of fact. I’m from Buffalo [New York], which turns out to not be such an incidental thing. This composer we’ve been focusing on for the last couple of years named Julius Eastman, he was from Ithaca, but he spent a real crucial part of his music developmental years in Buffalo with the Creative Associates and Lukas Foss, who was like the director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, him and Leonard Bernstein were close friends. If you look at the way classical music developed in the last couple of decades and you look at who was on the Buffalo campus at that time, it is frighteningly precedent.
All of these people became the who’s who of avant-garde and modern classical music, and this was all before they became somebody, and Eastman was invited into those ranks. A large portion of my life as the director of Monday Evening Concerts is sort of dealing with the remnants of that scene. It’s like this weird circular thing. I didn’t think anything about Buffalo until a couple of years ago, now it just feels fated. Lukas Foss coincidentally took over for Arnold Schoenberg at the UCLA music school, so he was very active in L.A., and he kind of molded the Buffalo music school after Monday Evening Concerts in L.A., so in a way it’s sort of like, there’s been this amazing table tennis that’s been going on between Los Angeles and Buffalo, and I’m just one step in that.
Yeah, it is kind of cool to realize all this really heady experimental classical music was developing in L.A.
Jonathan Hepfer:Absolutely. I was pretty ignorant of the history of Monday Evening Concerts, i just knew about what the cool things the previous director had been doing. After taking the reins, everyone kept insinuating that this place had an amazing history, and I was like, yeah yeah, I know about Schoenberg and [Igor] Stravinsky, but then I read this book called Evenings On and Off the Roof, which is a chronicle of Monday Evening Concerts from 1939 to about the 70s when it moved into LACMA, and it blew my fucking mind. Like they talk about Aldous Huxley giving program notes at intermission, and then there’s a Susan Sontag article about her growing up going to these concerts. Then i picked up Eve Babitz’s book Eve’s Hollywood. The book is dedicated to Sol Babitz, her dad, who was the original violinist at Monday Evening Concerts, and one of Stravinsky’s close collaborators, so Eve grew up in the milieu of Monday Evening Concerts.
Like there’s this really incredible thing where this take that L.A. has on classical music has been different than anywhere else in the world, largely because of Hollywood. The original attractor for musicians to come to Hollywood was to record music soundtracks for the studios. Always the issue was they’d get top level musicians and pay them well, but they’d be stuck in dark recording studios all day just playing stuff that wasn’t all that artistically rewarding, and that was basically the start of Monday Evening Concerts. Like John Cage gave recitals in the early 40’s on top of the Schindler Home where MEC was held. Like it’s an amazing cultural and intellectual history of Los Angeles. Like, there must be a reason Stravinsky and Schoenberg decided to settle out here.
A lot of people ask me if I ever think about moving to New York or Paris or something like that, and the answer is no, I don’t think that Monday Evening Concerts could ever exists in those cities.
Why do you think the Concerts survived so long here? There must have been similar series in other cities.
Jonathan Hepfer:I don’t know of anything structurally like Monday Evening Concerts, we don’t have a building, or even an office, we just have a name… I moved here to do this job, and for my whole life I had been in school, and now I wasn’t. I was teaching at CALARTS for a little bit, but I wasn’t really a part of the social fabric there, so I told myself I had to go out and meet people. I slowly revealed to people what I did for a living and asking them if they’d like to come and see, and now we’re overflowing Zipper Hall, which fits about 500 people. Like, the young creative class in Los Angeles is starting to show up in an unprecedented way.
It used to be we were really proud of the concerts we had, and we thought people would just show up if they wanted to show up, but when I took the job I was meeting all these amazing young people, and I thought why not just invite them? And slowly it grew by word of mouth and people without any relationship to classical music were coming and being like “i saw this thing, and I’ve never seen anything like it before, but it was kind of cool.”
Michael Pisaro – When I Hear Light