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The Birth of the Beast

Stuart I. Frolick

“I am interested in how the wild beast lives in the jungle, not in the zoo.”
Morton Feldman

This unusual day began with music. Not in a classroom, rehearsal hall or performance space, but in the campus courtyard outside the Graphics Lab. School of Music Dean David Rosenboom stood not on a conductor’s podium, but at a speaker’s podium, and his eye contact was not with an orchestra, but with four percussionists positioned around those gathered for this special event. With a downbeat cue, a single loud note pierced the morning air. More than getting the audience’s attention, it signaled the start of something momentous. On instruments ranging from bass to tom-tom to bongo drums, pitched low to high, the drummers played a movement from Five Percussion Quartets from Coyote Builds North America (1990), written by CalArts alumnus John Luther Adams (BFA 73). “I wanted a rousing opening—a stirring percussive fanfare for the convocation,’’ says Rosenboom.

Although site preparation for a new 3,200-square-foot music pavilion began last spring and continued through the summer, October 1, 2007, marked the official groundbreaking for the first dedicated performance space to be added to the CalArts campus since the opening of the Walt Disney Modular Theater in 1971. “We’ve needed a new performance venue for many years,” says Rosenboom, the School of Music dean for the past 17 years. “While no school’s greatness is truly embodied in its facilities, we do need buildings. The Wild Beast was designed to be open, fluid and flexible, and will enable a myriad of performance opportunities for every program in our school, along with our normal potpourri of guest artists and collaborations with others across the Institute. At the same time, it will address serious functional needs of our school—such as additional rehearsal and classroom space. It will delineate a beautifully enfolding structure for a space of infinite play, a perfect metaphor for the mission of our school of possibility. ”

At the groundbreaking, lead donor Abby Sher explained her choice of name for the building. “The Wild Beast comes from Morton Feldman’s essay, ‘Between Categories,’ which is included in his book Give My Regards to Eighth Street,” she said. “In it, he refers to the illusive space in a work of art between content and surface—where meaning resides. As this building, with its dual identities and multiple functions, will be neither fish nor fowl, but will, hopefully, generate many meaning-filled musical experiences, I thought the name fitting.” Sher met the late music legend in 1986 when Feldman was composer-in-residence at CalArts. “In addition to being a brilliant composer, Morton was a very dear person, adored by all who knew him, and an inspiration to many CalArts students and faculty,” she said, “so when Steven Lavine presented me with the idea of making a gift to CalArts that would kick off a capital campaign for a much-needed recital hall, I saw an opportunity to pay tribute to Morton.”

The scope of Sher’s role in the project extends far beyond funding. “She’s an amazing woman,” says Craig Hodgetts, of the architectural firm Hodgetts + Fung, designers of the new structure. “Abby set a tone for the creative process that was very much above the fray—she was a Zen-like presence that transcended any short-term goals—truly an artistic and spiritual collaborator in every way. Abby wanted to get this right, and she was ‘hands-on’ in ways that were unprecedented in my experience for a client, much less a donor.”

The CalArts commission represents a homecoming for Hodgetts. He was trained as a classical musician, and later was a founding associate dean of CalArts’ School of Design in the early 1970s. “One really couldn’t anticipate, when it was just taking off, that CalArts would become such a highly admired force,” he says. “L.A. hadn’t yet matured as a cultural community, and it wasn’t quite clear whether or not the Institute would succumb to more commercial pressures. Happily, it hasn’t.” Hodgetts + Fung’s other recent projects include the redesign of the Hollywood Bowl and a 110-acre performing arts center and amphitheater for the Minnesota Orchestral Association. The firm’s first challenge in designing The Wild Beast was figuring out an appropriate campus location for it. Since the hard surfaces of CalArts’ main building were known to make for musically “muddy” outdoor performances, the architects began the design process, in concert with acoustical engineers, by walking around the campus, clapping their hands to define various aspects of the soundscape. Once all parties agreed on the courtyard as the “where,” Hodgetts + Fung turned their attention toward the “what” the structure should be.

“The initial image came from a fabric building,” Hodgetts continues. “We wanted to make it light, feminine and curvaceous—a counterpoint to the geometric forms of CalArts’ massive five-level building. One of the ironies here is that Feldman was such a large presence—in physical size and personality—that, in a way, CalArts’ main building is more Feldman-like than the delicate, diminutive structure we’re constructing.” But in response to the quasi-rustic quality of the glade, Hodgetts says, “we wanted to use minimalist design and an economy of means to suggest the qualities of Feldman’s work: the elegance and simplicity of a single gesture.” 

Scheduled to open this fall, The Wild Beast features a sliding front wall that will transform the interior space into a stage for open-air performances. When closed, the structure will seat audiences up to 140. When it’s open, audience capacity expands to more than 1,000. Bruce Gibbons of the Valencia-based structural engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti designed the shell of the thin, lightweight structure. “The engineering is very exotic and it couldn’t be more green,” says Hodgetts. “The huge doors will be of cement board, which is a generic and environmentally responsible material. The heating and cooling system is by radiant heat—so there will be a circulating network of water in the floor. Circuit controls will make use of excess heating or cooling emanating from the central plant. So, depending on the day, energy consumption in the new building will be moderate, low, or even non-existent.”

The $3 million construction cost of The Wild Beast is funded through the Campaign for CalArts, which is focused on raising support for three critical priorities at CalArts: growing the endowment for faculty and student support, sustaining current programs and supporting selected capital projects. Expanding facilities for music students and constructing The Wild Beast is an important component of the Campaign, which, as of November 2007, had raised $114 million toward its $125 million goal. In addition to Abby Sher’s gift, significant support has come from trustee Richard Seaver, who passed away in June 2007 and included The Wild Beast in his extensive philanthropic legacy at CalArts, and Meshulam Riklis, whose daughter, Kady Riklis, is an alumna of the School of Music. These donors contributed a total of $950,000 toward the project.

Back at the groundbreaking ceremony, more music followed the speakers, including Feldman’s exquisitely subtle and beautiful Trio for Flutes (1982), and the lilting La Mourisque and Pavane Bataille from Danserye (1551) by Tilman Susato, played by the CalArts New Millennium Brass Ensemble.

In his closing remarks, CalArts President Steven D. Lavine said: “When asked, ‘What does it take to make a great college?’ I usually answer that it’s just four things: a gifted and dedicated faculty, equally gifted and aspiring students, the tools both require to make their art, and the supporters necessary to bring all of these elements together in a single space for an extended time. But I realize that I have left out the most important element of all—the spirit that animates the whole. At CalArts, our goal is to invent the future of the arts and to generate a more humane life on this earth. That spirit involves play, adventure, fearless aspiration, dogged determination and generosity. Morton Feldman embodied all of these, and The Wild Beast will stand long into the future as a reminder that we must never lose that spirit.”

“We wanted to use minimalist design and an economy of means to suggest the qualities of Feldman’s work: the elegance and simplicity of a single gesture.”
Craig Hodgetts

Take the Kresge Challenge!
In October 2007 the trustees of The Kresge Foundation approved a challenge grant of $1 million toward the construction of The Wild Beast. If CalArts successfully raises the remaining balance of its $125 million Campaign for CalArts by December 31, 2008, The Kresge Foundation grant will be one of the most significant gifts to the Campaign. “Kresge grants are particularly prestigious,” says Arwen Duffy, CalArts’ vice president of advancement, “because they confirm that the Institute is thinking strategically about how to reach out to alumni, parents and friends, and engage them in supporting CalArts’ current and future programs. Every gift, regardless of size, made to the Campaign between now and the end of December ’08 will count toward meeting the challenge grant and create a stronger, more diverse donor community for the Institute.”

Help CalArts meet the challenge grant by making a gift today. Please contact Brigid Slipka, director of annual giving programs, at 661 253-7736 or bslipka@calarts.edu, or Courtney McIntyre, associate director of development, at 661 222-2743 or cmcintyr@calarts.edu.

Last edited by Smith on Aug 30, 2010
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