“Punk Rock and the Avant-Garde are Synonymous:” An Interview with Jonathan Hepfer

Sam Ribakoff speaks with the conductor and curator of Monday Evening Concerts about modern classical music in L.A., Beyonce, and Eve Babitz.
By    January 15, 2019

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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


Is there a scene, or a type of classical music coming out of L.A. now? Does it sound different than anywhere else in the world?

Jonathan Hepfer:Hmmm. As a curator that’s something that I’m still trying to discern. I think people like Yuval Sharon and Chris Roundtree do a good job of saying “this is L.A.” Monday Evening Concerts hasn’t really done any survey concerts of L.A. composers or music from L.A., like, living breathing composers working in the city now, and I do get some flak for not doing that, but I do think there are other places in the city that do that, but for all those concerts that I have attended, I can’t say that I have heard a defining sensibility. Some of these people are writing post-James Tenney compositions, who’s sort of a legendary figure from CALARTS. I really think that it is kind of a fragmented community. Everybody seems to be just pursuing what makes sense to them, but there isn’t a dominant sound.

What did you call this kind of music when you’re talking to people about it? Avant-Garde? Modern Classical? Experimental Classical?

Jonathan Hepfer:Well, they’re all kind of problematic terms because the word “classical music” connotes for anybody: Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, when in fact classical is just an era in music. But the classical tradition has kind of become indicative of anything that has a written score, but of course, as soon as you get to the 20th century, composers looked to scores to see what systems needed to be broken down. With Cage’s 4’33 piece, he’s really asking, what is music? Varese described music as organized sound. Cage’s puckish venture there was, can a silent piece be music? And what does it mean? But now it’s led to this field where everything is simultaneously possible, so my job as a curator is to never really ask “is this music?” but instead to ask, “is this interesting?” Really virtually anything can end up on these programs. Like this Eastman piece that we’re going to be doing called “Gay Guerrilla,” the score is just pitches on a page. It can be done with really any instrument.

But Contralto the other piece that we’re going to be doing by composer Sarah Hennies, it’s like, “is this an experimental music piece, is this a documentary with music?” I just don’t know what the word it for is. It’s a video piece of a speech pathology class featuring seven transgender women [the composer’s words] where the participants look directly into the camera and do these kinds of vocal exercises like phonetics. The crux of the piece is that when transgender men start taking testosterone, it does something to change their vocal chords, where as when transgender women start taking estrogen, it doesn’t do anything to their vocal chords. So there’s a sort of retraining of the voice, and that’s what the speech pathology class is for.

The piece is just frame by frame, one member of the class at a time, doing these exercises, or reading a text, or talking about their experience of the world, and what’s so beautiful about it is that the subjects are talking directly into the camera, which means that there’s this sort of beautiful thing that happens with their gaze. I hadn’t seen anything like it. I knew it had to be paired and contextualized with a queer element, because it doesn’t make any sense to ignore that aspect of it, and Gay Guerilla is a piece that really addresses a queer issue in a real direct way. Looking at it in a clear, almost confrontational, but courageous and noble and dignified way, and i saw that as a common thread that connected the two works.

Do you think of the concerts as kind of educational experiences, teaching people about this music?

Jonathan Hepfer:Somebody asked Pierre Boulez, who’s just one of the best musicians and composers of the last half of the 20th century, whether or not he thought classical music was elitist, and he was like “well yeah, of course. But our goal is to make the elite as big as possible.” I think that was a really good way of putting it. Like elite is just a way of saying intelligent, in the case of what’s being accused. So the accusation is that being elite is being alienating, and he’s saying that the two aren’t necessarily exclusive. You can have something that’s of the highest sophistication, but also appeals to all kinds of different people, but also doesn’t seem foreboding. Alexander McQueen comes to mind. You know in his field he was kind of seen as someone working at the highest caliber, but all kinds of people reacted to his designs [Ed note: low rise jeans being one of them.]

People think because I run this series and because I’m involved in classical music that makes me somehow oblivious to what’s going on in pop music, but actually I kind of rarely listen to classical music right now. Like I mainly do it on a research basis, but mostly I’ve been kind of obsessed with Gucci Mane recently, and Kanye and ASAP Rocky. There’s a lot of hip hop. The Smiths, and The Cure, Bob Dylan. There’s a lot of wide ranging interests there. It’s so intelligent and impactful what’s being made now a-days in pop music. Like I remember watching Beyonce’s Lemonade and just thinking “what’s left for classical music to do?”

This is so sophisticated on every level, like, if we’re going to remain relevant or impactful, what need is there for us? And the word I keep coming back to is transcendental. I think we do something that transports people to a place they didn’t know existed, like a really interesting dream that takes you to a place you didn’t know you had within you. It just moves something about the heart or the spirit or the soul than I’m capable of articulating. When it’s at its best it can only be described as transcendent.

If you come in to this music with an open mind, it means that you’re open to something that might touch you that you might not know existed. Something that I keep hearing from people who come to the shows is that they didn’t know that this discipline existed before, but now they can’t imagine life without it. I strive to make these programs so they make a dent in people’s psyches. I want people, and not in a bad way, to be haunted by them. Like, know that there’s nothing to understand, I want people to just feel something, and have the piece linger in your memory while you’re brushing your teeth or something months later.

Mauricio Kagel, who’s one of the absolute high points of the intellectual avant garde, said that the difference between good art and great art is that great art appeals to children. And it’s true! Some of his music, I can imagine going to a concert of his as a kid and going “this is fucking cool.” And so it operates on a level that a kid can get into it but also somebody that’s going to become the dean of Juilliard or something like that. Like avant-garde means something that’s venturing out before the thing that already exists, but the avant-garde needs a garde to be avant to. To me like punk and the term avant-garde are synonymous. So anything that’s avant-garde is punk. It’s a relationship to authority I think. I’d like to think that in some ways I’m fulfilling my high school dreams of being in a punk band, and that’s running Monday Evening Concerts.

It doesn’t look like what I thought it would look like when I was a kid, but i really do feel like the ethos is similar, and like what could be more punk than standing up for classical music? Especially this specific type we present? Especially in this upcoming show which celebrates queer pride? To me it’s really punk, and I’m proud of it, and proud of the city for its openness to it.

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