Cubed.

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By Steve Hochman

The young man in the mesh-screen cube was improvising some Beethoviana on an upright piano, drawing strongly on the Pathetique, when I walked toward it Sunday evening. The cube has been constructed around a tree, which goes up through the top and canopies overhead. The music coming from within was gorgeous, expertly guided by the gent through ebbing and flowing emotions, the contours seemingly shaped in the moment to incorporate the sounds of traffic along this stretch of Sunset Blvd., the cube sitting in a patch of grass in a West Hollywood city parking lot, just east of the old Tower Records.

He finished, got up, exited the cube be pushing aside one of the mesh “walls” at a corner, shrugged off the visitor’s compliments and explained that the piece was just a little warm-up for the real performance, coming shortly. We talked a little about his day (he’d just had dinner at a nearby restaurant), about his approach to his music (he mentioned a past devotion to the music of minimalist composer/performer Charlemagne Palestine, and amusedly cited a performance at which the cognac-loving Palestine insisted that the audience keep up with his consumption).

“Well, I need to get started,” he said, excusing himself. And with that, Manuel Lima, a slight-built man with Harpo hair and a lilt to his voice imported from his native Sao Paolo, re-entered the cube, sat back at the piano, put a red scarf around his head as a blindfold and started playing.

Beautifully. Building slowly at first, single notes and short phrases, spare harmonics, now playing not just off the traffic and other ambient noises, but specifically with a preprogrammed, composed loop of white noise and subwoofer surges coming from speakers next to the piano — and those in turn triggering bursts and surges of red light from a dozen or so bulbs strung in the cube from the tree branches, at times turning the whole cube a bright, saturated red. Over the course of an hour or so, the music continued through many phases, flowing readily from hypnotic to jarring to somber to giddy, all tonal and inviting, classical in roots, modern in spirit, always inviting a visitor’s attention, but allowing that attention to wander into its own musings, as the music did the same. A video I shot, which you can see below, is a bit more than 19 minutes of it (the phone’s storage maxed out) and gives a pretty good idea of the sonic and visual splendors — you don’t even need to watch the whole thing to get a reasonable sense of it, just dip in anywhere.

A few people wandered up from the sidewalk at the musical invitation — two French tourists out on a walk before heading back to Paris the next morning, a young couple who live nearby (he, it turned out, a fellow Brazilian musician, trained in composition but in recent years the drummer of the hard-rock band We Are Harlot, she the director of the childcare program at a nearby health club), another neighborhood couple walking their bulldog, Winnie. And just by being there, they became part of the performance/experience.

Call it “Sonata for Piano and Sunset Blvd.” Or really “Sonata for Piano, Cube, Sunset Blvd, Neighbors, Electronic Sounds and Red Lights.” All created and delivered for whoever cares to drop by, under the visage of Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, glaring down from a billboard overhead.

This is “The Cube,” Lima’s distinct music/art installation/experience in conjunction with the City of West Hollywood. It started last Friday and will end on Sunday (Aug. 21), Lima basically living (and sleeping) in the cube, following a daily schedule including a morning and afternoon performances of “Sunset Blvd.” involving going from left to right on the radio dial and improvising short piano pieces based on things he’s heard, and the evening variations officially titled “Red Light Piano,” which will increase in length each day, with plans for it to be a full five hours by the end. And from 5 to 7 p.m. he is hosting tea just outside the cube, during which he takes great joy in talking about this project — and anything else — with whoever might care to join him. (And yes, he gets breaks during the days to go shower, eat, etc.) It all will change, evolve in some ways through its course, as the experience changes the artist too.

Lima developed the project while finishing a doctorate in musical arts from CalArts (on full scholarship from the Brazilian government), doing a test run of the project on a hillside near the school’s Valencia campus earlier this year.  Laura had been telling me for a while how great a guy Lima is, how fascinating the concept is and in the first days of it how much of a treat it was to have this in West Hollywood. (She is working with the city to promote the project and to help get local residents and businesses aware and involved.) But it needs to be experienced to really grasp its delights. And those delights start with and bloom from the artist. Come by for music. Come by for tea. Come by to chat, with him and others who have come by too. A charmingly hand-written/drawn score, which you can see at this link, gives further sense of his take on what he’s doing

When Lima stopped playing, it was time for some wind-down visiting — he and the other Brazilian musician conversed about their thoughts and experiences in mellifluous Portuguese, while we all took turns petting Winnie (her owners, it turned out, having come by the Cube every night it’s been up). It’s public art with as much public as art. Which is the point.

As we got ready to leave, Lima and I talked more about some of the influences and musical relationships, some direct and others not so much. We talked about John Cage, about LeMonte Young’s “Well Tuned Piano” using alternate “just” tuning. I asked him if he knew the music of late guitarist John Fahey (he didn’t, but was interested), and if he knew John Schneider, the L.A. guitarist and Harry Partch and Lou Harrison devotee who also makes use of “just” tuning and other unconventional set-ups (he did). He told me about his Cal Arts composition teacher Michael Pisaro, who has developed a very personal style involving some long, indeterminate stretches of silence, or near-silence.

It’s all, we agreed, about playing with time, with perceptions of time. Spending time at the Cube and with Lima is time well spent.

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