Author: Dustin Soiseth

New Marketing for New Art: The Mondavi Center Google Hangout Experiment

In 2003 and 2004, the Concert Companion, a device designed to enhance the concert experience, was tested during several orchestral concerts around the country. The user response recorded in post-concert focus groups was quite positive. The goal, said creator Roland Valliere, was “to attract new listeners to come and attend concerts, much like audio guides do in the museum world,” and many of the concertgoers who beta tested the device reported learning new things about a certain piece or aspect of the orchestra. They felt more connected to the music than they ever had before. Yet despite this positive response, which was accompanied by a flurry of press, the Concert Companion faded from sight.

There were issues with the service itself. The creation of content for the CoCo, as it was nicknamed, was extremely labor-intensive, and special technicians had to be flown in to coordinate the device with live orchestral performances. But perhaps more lethal was the disdain with which the Concert Companion was received by musicians and orchestra administrators. Pianist Leon Fleisher refused to allow its use during his performance at a trial run by the New York Philharmonic, and John Summers, chief executive of the Hallé Orchestra, described it as “patronising.” “For me, music is an aural experience, about being there,” he said. “I would be absolutely staggered if these devices became part of the regular concertgoing experience.”

Here in the Bay Area, the Oakland East Bay Symphony tested the CoCo, and music director Michael Morgan could only muster up a half-hearted, if pragmatic endorsement. “As a professional musician I am, of course, somewhat ambivalent about such devices. But I am also smart enough to know that if using this brings people, particularly new and infrequent concert-goers, closer to the music and provides a more enjoyable experience, then it could be a wonderful tool.”

The Calder Quartet. Photo by Autumn de Wilde

The Calder Quartet. Photo by Autumn de Wilde

The brief rise and fall of the Concert Companion—and its goal of bringing audiences “closer to the music”—was in the back of my mind when I attended a Google hangout with members of the Calder Quartet on January 30. The hangout was part of a new audience engagement initiative supporting the Studio Classics series at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis, California. The series showcases new music and I was curious to know why the Mondavi Center chose Google hangouts to promote the series, and what they hoped to accomplish.

For those who are unfamiliar, hangouts are a feature of Google+ (Google’s social network) and are free video chats for up to ten active participants during which everyone can see everyone else on screen. The Mondavi Center also uses the On Air feature that streams hangouts live on their YouTube channel so that those not actively participating can still view the stream, and then an archived recording of the session is made available for later viewing. I asked Rob Tocalino, director of marketing at the Mondavi Center, why the decision was made to use hangouts. “Our intent was to find a way to bring new music fans and artists together in conversations,” he said. “We wanted a tool that was cost-effective, provided real interaction, and allowed us to archive those interactions, in whatever shape they took.”

Lara Downes, pianist and Mondavi Center artist-in-residence.

Lara Downes, pianist and Mondavi Center artist-in-residence.

For more on the appeal of this type of audience outreach, I reached out to Lara Downes, pianist and artist-in-residence at the Mondavi Center. Downes assists in the programming of the Studio Classics series and was the moderator for the hangout with the Calder Quartet. “The goal is to reach out beyond the immediate physical perimeters and to invite in an audience from the much wider community,” she explained. “This is an opportunity to cast a much wider net and really reach out and allow people who aren’t able to physically even be at the performance to at least experience the interaction with the artist.” This is one of the advantages of the hangout, to both audiences and marketers—the personal, visual interactions with artists, what Tocalino called “real interaction.” In hangouts you can chat (if you’re one of the active participants) with composers or performers while sitting in your living room, hear them speak about new works, and get to know them as fellow human beings—a riff on the pre-concert talk in which anyone (well, up to ten people anyway) can participate.

Providing real interaction between audiences and artists is laudable, but does that translate into ticket sales when this technology allows and even encourages participation by people all over the world? Thinking about Downes’s statement about “casting a wider net,” I wanted to understand the benefit to the Center of engaging someone who might live too far away to actually buy a ticket and attend a show. I posed this question to Tocalino and he said that connecting new music fans and artists is the main goal, regardless of whether or not those fans ever attend a concert at the venue. If this seems unusually altruistic, it helps to know that the hangouts are funded by a grant from the Mellon Foundation specifically for online audience outreach.

For a complimentary perspective on the free content issue, I reached out to friend and colleague Scott Harrison, executive producer of digital media at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which streams free webcasts of its performances at www.dso.org/live. I asked Harrison how providing all that free content helps the orchestra. Regardless of where viewers are tuning in from, he noted, many are returning for multiple performances and are forming a relationship with the orchestra, and that is what’s important. “I think that it’s not just about reaching people or having a huge audience,” he said, “it’s about having an audience that’s very connected, whether that’s a new connection or rekindling an old one.” I asked Harrison if fostering this sense of connectivity is a higher priority then generating revenue. “If you were only worried about revenue,” he replied, “you’d never get off the ground because you’re never going to make money in the beginning.”

Like the Mondavi Center’s hangouts (and the Concert Companion), the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s webcasts are grant-supported, which allows Harrison and his colleagues the freedom to experiment. (He compared the grant funds to the revenue a for-profit company would invest in R&D.) It provides them with a “runway” to get the Live from Orchestra Hall webcast series—currently in its second season—up and running and then start to think about how to make it first self-supporting, then ultimately a revenue contributor to the DSO. Plus, Harrison says the resulting videos are a great resource for promoting the orchestra. They bring the DSO to a worldwide audience at a time when touring is becoming more and more expensive. And while this isn’t marketing specifically in support of new music, performances of some new works the DSO has performed recently, like “Acrostic Song” from David Del Tredici’s Final Alice and Mason Bates’s The B-Sides are archived on their YouTube page for anyone to hear. Even if you can’t experience the DSO live in concert, you can experience it online in more ways than you previously could.

The Mondavi Center’s Google hangouts also generate digital materials that can be used by both the Center and the artists, and while they differ in content, both the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s and the Mondavi Center’s marketing efforts aim to create a sense of community by providing more opportunities to connect with them in the arena in which so many of us spend our time—online.

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The Studio Classics series is one of many at the Mondavi Center, which is part of the University of California Davis campus about twenty miles west of Sacramento. Like many large performing arts centers, it hosts a broad range of regional, national, and international performing artists and also serves as the performance space for the UC Davis music, theater, and dance departments. The 2012-13 Studio Classics series consists of three concerts, each with a hangout preceding the performance. The Calder Quartet performances were the first of the series and featured works by Elliot Cless, Lei Liang, Nicholas Omiccioli, Ryan Suleiman, and Tina Tallon along side classics by Bartok, Mendelssohn, and Ravel. The second concert pairs pianist Lara Downes with composer Matt McBane’s band Build, while the third features The Paul Dresher Ensemble performing Dresher’s works for invented instruments as well as works by John Adams and Martin Bresnick. It’s an appealing, eclectic mix, and Downes said she often uses the word “laboratory” to describe the series. “It’s a place where we are able to push boundaries when it comes to crossing genres and developing partnerships between artists who are working in different genres or different disciplines.” The Calder Quartet certainly fits that description; they are the quintessential gnarly-music-playing, rock-band-accompanying, omnivorous new music group.

In order to participate in the hangout I had to revive my previously deleted Google+ account, and after a bit of poking around the Mondavi Center’s Google+ and Facebook pages I was able to join. Other than Calder Quartet cellist Eric Byer and violinist Andrew Bulbrook, moderator Lara Downes, and San Francisco-based PR pro Maura Lafferty, who is also part of the Studio Classics marketing team, I was the only one there. Given that this was the Mondavi Center’s very first hangout a low turnout was not unexpected, but the lack of outside participation stifled the half-hour conversation a bit and forced Downes to carry it all herself. Even so, there were also some really interesting moments, like when Calder Quartet violinist Andrew Bulbrook spoke about his quartet’s role as an interpreter and curator (7:25) and about how participating in the creation of new works is the best way to expand the string quartet canon (11:35). “There is something to a consensus that builds around things and weeds things out,” he said, “but to get to that point you have to create. Things have to be generated; they have to be made and they have to be explored and interpreted and discussed. The canon and what is being created now are completely intertwined.” You can view the full hangout below.


Its clear that it’s going to take the Mondavi Center some time to grow their audience for the hangouts. They just had a second hangout on March 5 with composer Matt McBane and it too lacked outside participants. If the goal, as Mondavi Center Marketing Director Tocalino says, is to create connections between audiences and artists, then I think Google hangouts are an ideal format to help them accomplish it. For me, many pre-concert talks can be a passive experience—a one-way flow of information from the stage to the audience—but I found the hangout to be a surprisingly intimate experience. Perhaps the fact that I was sitting at my kitchen table had something to do with it. While this particular hangout with the Calder Quartet was hampered by a lack of participants, I feel that the format itself encourages free-flowing, informal conversations that have the potential to go beyond the standard Q&A. All the Mondavi Center needs now is an audience.

When asked about the value of new forms of audience outreach like Google hangouts, the Calder Quartet’s Bulbrook said, “as an artist you have to always be searching, trying new things. It’s such a thrill to make one’s life in music, and in picking up a stringed instrument you are entering into a tradition that spans centuries. It’s great to have the opportunity to experiment with new ideas of reaching people with an art that is rooted in such history.”

Ultimately, Tocalino and his staff are figuring out how to better market new music on the fly, and experimenting with new modes of audience outreach is part of the process. “We have tools that we rely on to market the better-known artists on our season; there can be tactical challenges, but they’re usually fairly easy to overcome,” he explained. “But with new music, we are often bringing artists and works into the area for the first time. And, sometimes, you are selling work that is “difficult” in the best sense of the word. But it feels great to work on the front end of trying to grow an audience that, we hope, will continue to value and trust our programming over the years.”

There will always be a need for experimentation in the marketing of new music, and of classical music in general. The use of supertitles in opera, while commonplace now, was quite controversial when it began in America in the 1980s. When Beverly Sills introduced them at the New York City Opera in 1983, she was called a “philistine” in The New York Times. In 1985, James Levine famously replied “Over my dead body” when asked about the possibility of supertitles at the Metropolitan Opera, and yet ten years later there they were, Met Titles in the back of every seat, and in standing room, too. While Google hangouts certainly don’t impact a musical performance the way supertitles affect the experience of opera, they have the potential to achieve what the Concert Companion never did: to allow audience members to connect directly with a composer or performer as a person before connecting with them onstage. Perhaps this is exactly what the Mondavi Center’s Studio Classics series needs, perhaps not, but they won’t know unless they try.

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Dustin Soiseth is a conductor and co-founder of The Loose Filter Project. He lives in Oakland.

Kronos Quartet Wraps Residency with a San Francisco Celebration

Kronos Quartet

Photo by Michael Wilson

The Kronos Quartet wrapped up a three-year residency at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this month with a program devoted to San Francisco composers, and as I rode the train into the city I thought about the impact they have had on new music, classical music in general, and even popular culture. But even a global ensemble like Kronos is still a hometown band somewhere, part of a musical community in which they participate and which in turn supports them. This program of all San Francisco composers—Dan Becker, Stephen Prutsman, Nathaniel Stookey, and Pamela Z—was an acknowledgement of the influence San Francisco has had on Kronos, its home since 1978.

Dan Becker

Dan Becker

The concert, titled “Listen Local,” began with Dan Becker’s Carrying the Past, which incorporates excerpts of 78rpm recordings of his grandfather, who was a big band trumpet player in the 1920s. It opens with one of these excerpts and the string quartet slowly emerges from the scratchy, vintage sound. The intensity quickly builds and sharp exclamations cut through a tangle of complex, competing rhythmic patterns. Carrying the Past proceeds in sections separated by short interludes of big band excerpts alone, which serve as commas or points of stillness in the work. When the string quartet is playing the excerpts are often more abstract, especially toward the end of the piece where they mimic sci-fi whizzes, zooms, and pops. Kronos’s playing was razor sharp, especially in the keening, intertwining melodic lines played by violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, though I sometimes had difficulty hearing Sherba in the mix. (The quartet was amplified.) If their subtle use of vibrato on these high, sustained notes accentuated some minor pitch issues, it also created a sense of rawness and electricity.

Nathaniel Stookey

Nathaniel Stookey
Photo by Ole Lütjens

Next was world premiere of San Francisco native Nathaniel Stookey’s String Quartet No. 3, “The Mezzanine,” inspired by Nicholson Baker’s novel of the same name. Baker’s book is a probing account, extensively footnoted, Proustian in its attention to detail, of a man’s thought processes as he performs various mundane tasks during his lunch hour. “We composers often go to great lengths to discourage our audience from looking for connections between our music and the titles we give it,” Stookey wrote in the program note. “In the case of my third quartet, the music really is about escalators, drinking straws, shoelaces, vending machines, and cigarette butts.”

The escalator reference is clear in the quartet’s first movement. Fragments of whole-tone scales calmly ascend independently of one another, occasionally aligning to produce warm major sonorities. The second movement—a stream-of-consciousness mix of styles—contains frenetic, rhythmic episodes alternating with Baroque-like asides, a gentle trio anchored by Jeffrey Zeigler’s resonant cello pizzicati, and a melancholy habanera. Throughout the work phrases are often interrupted by abrupt changes to a crystalline musical texture marked by the use of upper registers, fleet melodic fragments, or spiccato runs. Perhaps this, as well as movements like the second that seem to end by wandering off mid-phrase, depict the thought processes of Howie, the protagonist of Baker’s novel. The final movement of Stookey’s quartet pits heavy, sawing triplet figures against a fiddle tune, played with gusto by Harrington. These two ideas alternate and eventually form an uneasy coexistence with the fiddle tune shouting to be heard over the triplets. In the closing bars the ascending escalator figures of the opening return and carry the music away.

Stephen Prutsman

Stephen Prutsman

After the break the Kronos Quartet performed four arrangements created especially for them by their long-time collaborator Stephen Prutsman. Violinist John Sherba took a starring turn in Prutsman’s arrangement of Indian film composer Rahul Dev Burman’s Mehbooba Mehbooba (Beloved, O Beloved), a bouncy Bollywood-style number depicting a sultry gypsy dance. Violist Hank Dutt was outstanding in Prutsman’s arrangement of Tanburi Cemil Bey’s Evic Taksim. It opens with wheezing, harmonium-like chords and unfolds like a recitative. Hushed, sustained harmonies support Dutt’s wonderfully rhapsodic playing. Every ornament and glissando was utterly natural, and his tone was so throaty, so richly textured you could almost reach out and touch it. Wa Habibi (O My Beloved), based on an Arab Orthodox hymn, was a chorale-like lament, while the closing arrangement of Ethiopian saxophonist Gétatchèw Mèkurya’s Aha Gèdawo projected the swagger and fury of warriors right before battle. Here Prutsman piled on layer after layer of aggressive musical gestures creating a dense polyrhythmic texture, and Kronos tore into their instruments, sounding as close to a howling saxophone as a string quartet can. They seemed to really be in their element with the works, savoring the glissandi and microtonal inflections in the works by Burman and Bey, and relishing in the chest thumping in Mèkurya’s Ethiopian war cry. It was the most warm, open playing of the night.

The world premiere of composer/performer and media artist Pamela Z’s And the Movement of the Tongue rounded out the program, and it proved to be an evocative, funny, touching, and brilliant work. Inspired by speaking accents, its twelve brief movements are each based on the interplay of composed music and recorded sound. Z describes her process in the program note:

To create the piece, I conducted and recorded interviews with a number of people who speak English with a variety of either regional, foreign language, or cultural accents. Combing through those recorded interviews, I hand-selected speech fragments (phonemes, words, phrases, and complete sentences) that I found to be sonically or musically interesting. I created hundreds of audio clips, which I used to construct the text collage that became a kind of armature for the work. Many of the motifs in the string parts were derived from the melodic and rhythmic material found in the samples of those speech fragments.

Pamela Z

Pamela Z
Photo by Donald Swearingen

The recorded material is the main focus of And the Movement of the Tongue and for the most part the string quartet plays a supporting role, which Kronos did with the perfect balance of expression and restraint. Most of the movements are based on a basic musical idea or texture, played by the quartet, that accompanies the recorded text collage. In the third movement, “Rain,” for example, pizzicato playing by the quartet mimics the irregular patter of rain drops while the text collage is a mash up of different pronunciations of the word “rain.” In “Tongue,” the fifth movement, recorded fragments of non-native English speakers talking about tongue placement in English pronunciation float on a bed of simple oscillating harmonies. In the eleventh movement, “I Don’t Know,” Pamela Z layers musical phrases—musical transcriptions of the spoken words and phrases in the text collage—over short, recurring melodic fragments. And the Movement of the Tongue is profound in a very human way. Like a great film score, the music suggests a context for the spoken words and illustrates their musicality as well. It hints at the small things, like accents, that distinguish us, and it also makes us acknowledge issues beyond our control, such as how others often choose to define us. For an encore Kronos played an arrangement of the Prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Aside from the balance issues in Becker’s Carrying the Past, sound designer Scott Frasier did a nice job blending the live and recorded sounds, though I did feel that the quartet sound was a bit compressed and lacking in warmth. Laurence Neff’s lighting design was understated and beautifully coordinated with the music. Witnessing well-done stagecraft like that really makes me wonder why more groups aren’t employing it.
If this concert was about celebrating the vibrant San Francisco community of which the Kronos Quartet is a part, there was no better embodiment of this than the woman sitting behind me with her service dog. Before the concert started, one of the ushers said jokingly, “I hope your dog likes music,” to which the woman replied seriously, “Oh yes, she’s a long-time fan of Kronos.” When your hometown fans include multiple species, you know you’re doing something right.

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Dustin Soiseth is a conductor and co-founder of The Loose Filter Project. He lives in Oakland.

ZOFO Champions New Piano-Four-Hands Rep in San Francisco

On January 25, Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi, who perform together as the piano-four-hands ensemble ZOFO, gave an exciting concert of new works at Old First Church in San Francisco (where they are currently artists-in-residence). I thought that forming a piano duet was an interesting choice for two young pianists with successful solo careers, so I asked Eva-Maria Zimmermann for her perspective on what makes piano-four-hands such a compelling experience. She explained:

We often talk about piano duet as “the most intimate form of chamber music.” In “regular” chamber music, the pianist is separated from the other players due to the positioning of the piano, or through the instrument itself. In my experience playing piano quartets, I often felt that the string players had this wonderful circle of communication and that I as a pianist was an outsider—this has nothing to do with personality—it’s just how the players have to be positioned. [There’s] none of that when we play one-piano-four-hands. There’s a very direct communication going on and I feel part of a team as I never did before.

The challenges are that we share the same instrument, i.e. the same keyboard, pedal, and often bench. We have to choreograph almost every movement in order not to bump our hands (or sometimes feet) into each other. Keisuke and I love to think about the best way to move in order to bring out the character of the piece, as well as to make it look beautiful and compelling. The challenge is to move naturally although your space is limited—I sometimes think of figure skating. The slightest imprecision from one partner can destabilize the other partner’s pirouette or jump. For me the great thing of playing with Keisuke is, that—after having rehearsed intensively—I feel completely free in expression and movement in spite of all these challenges.

ZOFO

ZOFO
Photo by Max Kellenberger

Since forming in 2009, ZOFO, which is shorthand for 20-finger orchestra (ZO = 20 and FO = finger orchestra), has already debuted at Carnegie Hall, won a chamber music competition, and signed a multi-disc recording contract. Their first album, Mind Meld, was released in 2012 and received two Grammy nominations, and their second album, titled Mosh Pit, is due out later this spring. In addition to performing existing piano-four-hand repertoire and four-hand transcriptions of other works–Mind Meld featured two original works and two transcriptions, for example–they are also actively commissioning new works for piano-four-hands and this recent concert featured pieces composed especially for them by Stefan Cwik, Gabriela Lena Frank, ZOFO’s Nakagoshi, Nicholas Pavkovic, and Allen Shawn. I reached out to these composers via email before the concert to get their perspectives on composing for, and in some cases performing as part of, this ensemble.

The figure skating metaphor echoes the sentiments of composer Allen Shawn, who compared Zimmermann and Nakagoshi to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. In addition to composing for piano-four-hands Shawn has played much of the ensemble’s repertoire and shared similar thoughts regarding the unique experience of performing on an instrument normally played by oneself. “On the one hand, it is so intimate and wonderful to try to match the tone and articulation of your partner,” he noted, “and to somehow handle the pedaling, and become an ensemble. It is chamber music—but on the same instrument. On the other hand, it is a real challenge to collaborate on an instrument that you are used to playing alone. Suddenly you are playing half a piano, and you are sitting in a different place, and are physically oriented differently.”

Gabriela Lena Frank, an accomplished pianist herself, considered this different physical orientation when composing Sonata Serrana No. 1 for ZOFO. She explained that “one thing that dramatically altered the landscape was the positioning of each pianist high or low on the keyboard. Chord positions normally comfortable when you’re parked in front of middle C become very awkward when you’re to the left or right of it instead. There are also challenges in considering the lack of elbow room sitting in such close proximity to another person–you can’t just take all the space you’d like to getting a running jump on things anymore. And then there’s overall balance of registers–duos quickly sound like solos if you have one person sit out for too long. Yet, having both pianists play all the time usually means all of the registers are being employed which can lend a tiresome sameness to the sound.” Whether it was considering the implications of reduced elbow room or making the switch from composing at the piano to composing for piano, all of the composers talked about making these types of adjustments.

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The concert opened with a work by a composer who is undoubtably very familiar with the piano-four-hands medium, ZOFO’s own Keisuke Nakagoshi. His Synæsthesia is a beautiful, evocative work inspired by the synæesthethc abilities of Messiaen and Scriabin, and the presence of both composers is strongly felt. It begins with a quasi-mystical atmosphere—the harmonic language here is reminiscent of Scriabin’s late piano sonatas—with repeated chant-like notes in the middle register alternating with bird call flourishes at the top of the keyboard. After an early climax with huge Messiaen-like stacked sonorities, a consistent pulse emerges while melodic fragments coalesce into an eerie melody. It ends softly with ascending scale figures and a return of the chant-like tones.

In most respects these were the most extraordinary sounds and pianistic textures of the evening, and they were executed brilliantly. Nakagoshi spread his music across the keyboard. Melodic fragments were often enveloped by sustained tones or flourished but were never covered or muddled. Even the most orchestral textures were perfectly balanced. This level of virtuosic playing that was also supple and intimate—every texture clear and focused, every important musical idea projected—continued throughout the evening.

Next on the program was Allen Shawn’s Fantasy. Cast in a broad ternary form, the outer sections are by turns dark, wistful, and poignant while the contrasting middle section is more rhythmic, with macabre march-like figures and a hint of menacing dance band cacophony. Shawn wrote that his music has become “darker more of the time, more introspective” over the years and Fantasy definitely feels weighed down by struggle or stress. The work is unified by two nostalgic melodies—Shawn described them as “somewhat 19th century–echoes of Schumann or Mahler, perhaps” that reoccur in different contexts throughout the work, and the piece’s impact was due in large part to the different emotional landscapes that result, always clearly emphasized by ZOFO’s balanced and expressive playing. When heard against dissonant harmonic backdrops, the melodic fragments stood out like bewildered children surrounded by chaos and destruction.

Like Shawn, composer Stefan Cwik also used a melodic idea to unify his piece Acrobats, a short, action-packed work consisting of a theme and five variations. As a composer who normally composes at the piano, often using two grand staves, Cwik noted that he took care in making sure he was composing specifically for piano-four-hands. “If the piece was a set of etudes that explored techniques and textures that are only capable with four hands,” he pointed out, “then I would be forced to explore all of the possibilities of four-hand writing.” Explore them he does, and Acrobats is a showcase of what two people can accomplish on the same keyboard–including two changes of position and some plucking under the lid–but it is also a bit disjointed. The seams clearly show despite all the movements being played attaca. The most compelling sections were the second variation where great peals of sound mimic the overtones of large church bells, and the fifth variation where Zimmermann and Nakagoshi trade fleet figures back and forth as if playing tag on the keyboard. Despite its structural shortcomings, it was virtuosic and exciting.

Marantz Vorsetzer

Marantz Pianocorder Vorsetzer, the machine for which Chimera was originally composed.

After the break came Nicholas Pavkovic’s Chimera, originally written for performance on piano by the Marantz Pianocorder Vorsetzer, a device that turns any piano into a player piano. After hearing the original work, titled Contraption No. 1, Nakagoshi commissioned an arrangement for piano-four-hands. “Of course there was no notation at that point,” Pavkovic wrote, “and since I had simply flung notes around with abandon when creating the piece, it sounded rather fiercely unplayable. But I did manage to tame it into a format that 20 fingers could manage.” Pavkovic was inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis, in which a young woman’s struggle for class equality is undermined by her robot doppelganger. His program note explained that “Chimera is a kind of dialog between rational and irrational elements, fused by common musical material. A lyrical line is cloaked and interrupted by a second, insistent voice of mechanical wildness, a fugue state, a tangle of terrifying, uncontrollable associations and compulsions.”

Many composers who have written for mechanized keyboards have used them to compose complex music beyond the technical limits of humans—many of Nancarrow’s player piano works, or much of Zappa’s Jazz from Hell, for example—but by emphasizing the lyrical, Pavkovic takes a slightly different approach. The work, though difficult, was also intensely rhapsodic. Chimera proceeds in fits and starts with fiendish figures followed by more plangent lyrical melodic fragments—the rational voice lamenting the irrational one. Though certain moments were exciting, like in the middle of the work where repeated figures in the middle of the keyboard were paired with virtuosic melodic fragments and flourishes in the upper register, Chimera seemed too episodic; a series of musical ideas and gestures that almost, but don’t quite, form a convincing whole.

The final piece of the evening was also ZOFO’s first commission, Gabriela Lena Frank’s Sonata Serrana No. 1. It is a brash, vivacious work bursting with rhythmic vitality, and Zimmermann and Nakagoshi tore into it with obvious relish. The first movement, “Allegro Solar,” opens with a big, full-throated theme followed by delicate, scampering material and a rousing close (the loudest ending of the piece, actually). The second movement, “Scherzo Nocturno,” has roiling textures and dense harmonies that evaporate away in a wonderfully quiet, open-ended finish. “Adagio para el Anochecer (Adagio for Dusk)” built quickly to passionate outbursts and just as quickly subsided and closed with searching, repeated notes, like a parent wandering the neighborhood calling for a wayward child at dinnertime.

Preconcert Talk

Preconcert talk (l to r) Keisuke Nakagoshi, Gabriela Lena Frank, Nicholas Pavkovic, Stefan Cwik, and moderator Charlton Lee.

Speaking before the performance, Frank talked about being inspired by Bartók’s “gradations” when using folk material, meaning he sometimes used it in a more abstract sense and other times presented it front and center with little alteration. While Sonata Serrana No. 1 as a whole is influenced by musical elements from Frank’s Peruvian heritage, the final movement, “Karnavalito (Festive Song in the Quechua Indian style),” is the most overtly folkloric–raucous and dance-like with tremendous energy. It had the entire audience moving. After a bluesy call-and-response section between the two pianists, Frank sets up a final push to the end featuring rapid-fire chuta notes—the repeated notes heard in panpipe music—before ending in a wisp of smoke, like a carnival that packs up and steals away in the middle of the night.

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If up to this point I haven’t singled out the playing of Zimmermann and Nakagoshi all that much it’s because their performance was so assured, so confident. Their movements were so elegant and without ostentatious showmanship that they, as individual musicians, receded into the background. This was especially pronounced in Nakagoshi and Frank’s pieces, and I was reminded of a quote by the 17th-century Chinese painter Lu Ch’ai, which is one of my favorites: “The end of all method is to seem to have no method.” In their best moments, ZOFO simply disappeared into the music.

During the pre-concert talk Gabriela Lena Frank said that piano-four-hands was an “underdog” ensemble and she especially liked composing for ZOFO for that reason. A unique instrumentation hasn’t stopped other new music ensembles from creating repertoires for themselves, and ZOFO seems to be on that path, too. With outstanding musicians like Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi championing piano-four-hands, perhaps more composers will be encouraged to take up the cause.

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Dustin Soiseth is a conductor and co-founder of the Loose Filter Project. He lives in Oakland.

Legacy of Lou Harrison Showcased at [email protected] in Berkeley

Lou Harrison remains, even nine years after his death, the quintessential West Coast composer. He often referred to the region as Pacifica (as opposed to the East Coast’s Atlantica), and felt the pull of Asia rather than Europe. “Well, why would anyone choose the East?” he asked rhetorically, in response to an interviewer’s question in 1995 as to why he chose to make his home on the West Coast. “We’re not bound up with industrial ‘twelve-tone-ism’ quite so much as the East seaboard is,” he continued, “and also we’re not afraid out here if something sounds pretty. I don’t see that increased complexity is any solution at all.” Even though these battle lines are not as starkly drawn as they once were, the flowering of “pretty music” throughout the country is certainly influenced by the West Coast aesthetic Harrison embodied.

“He followed his own path, and it took decades to be recognized,” says pianist Sarah Cahill. “I think a lot of young composers today—not just in the Bay Area but across the country—are picking up on what he started: writing melodic, tonal music, embracing simplicity rather than complexity, going back to ancient dance forms for inspiration, incorporating elements of music from Asia and non-Western cultures. Lou Harrison was doing that in 1940 and it took more than half a century for the rest of the world to catch up to him.”

Evidence that the original “pretty music” still resonates with listeners came in the form of the large crowd that gathered in the Berkeley Art Museum on May 25 to hear a selection of Harrison’s works, programmed by Cahill, including his transcendental La Koro Sutro. Also noteworthy was the “re-premiere” of an early piano work, Dance for Lisa Karon. Composed in San Francisco in 1938 when Harrison was just 21 years old, it was first performed in April 1939 on a dance concert involving Karon. The manuscript was subsequently lost for decades before resurfacing earlier this year. Daniel Katz, who found the manuscript, detailed his remarkable discovery in an email to Cahill in February.

I am writing to you because I recently came upon what appears to be a manuscript of a work for solo piano by Lou Harrison, dated 1938 (in San Francisco), entitled “Dance for Lisa Karon.” Lisa Karon was also known as Alice Reawold, an instructor at Estelle Reed’s dance studio on Geary Street in SF. I found the manuscript in a box of sheet music belonging to my father-in-law, several of which had at one time belonged to Alice/Lisa. (Several were signed by her.)  It turns out that Lisa was my wife’s childhood piano teacher and a family friend. My wife then remembered having met Lou several times at Lisa’s house.

“Daniel Katz showed this score to Leta Miller, co-author of the only published biography of Lou Harrison, and I showed it to a number of people who worked closely with Lou Harrison and know his work well,” Cahill says, “and no one had ever heard of it.  So most likely, this manuscript is the only copy, forgotten since that early performance in 1939.  I’m tremendously grateful to Daniel and his wife, Allana Lee Katz, for the opportunity to perform it after all these years.”

This recent concert of Harrison’s music was just the latest programmed by Cahill as part of  [email protected]: Friday Nights @ BAM/PFA  at the Berkeley Art Museum, an evening series featuring extended gallery hours and performances. “Larry Rinder, the director of the Berkeley Art Museum, started the [email protected] series a few years ago, with the idea of bringing new audiences to the museum and creating an informal, engaging atmosphere for music, films, readings, and various art forms,” Cahill explains. “He invited me to program one evening a month, and asked especially for experimental and new music.”

The musical performances take place in Gallery B, an open space on the ground floor of the museum that is surrounded on all sides by several stories of galleries and balconies, and Cahill feels that this unique space is part of the appeal. “The gallery setting, in which people can sit or lie on the floor, or walk around and look at what’s on view in the galleries, or get different perspectives from overhanging balconies, makes these concerts attractive to people who might not enjoy sitting still in a seat through a whole concert.  We get a younger audience, a lot of kids, a diverse group of people.” The crowd on Friday night was certainly diverse, and even included several serious contenders for the Lou Harrison look-a-like prize.

Gallery B at BAM/PFA pre-concert

Gallery B at BAM/PFA pre-concert

The concert opened with the brief Solo for Anthony Cirone for tenor bells. William Winant played the melodic, modal work—dedicated to Tony Cirone, a percussionist in the San Francisco Symphony and colleague of Harrison’s at San Jose State University—with wonderful lyricism. Next came Dance for Lisa Karon performed by Cahill. It’s written in a bracing, modernist idiom that Harrison explored prior to his more well-known work with different tuning systems and the music of Asian cultures. Here’s what Cahill had to say about the new work.

There’s only a marking of “Maestoso,” so it’s hard to figure out the tempo, but big leaping chords in the climactic middle section establish a speed which isn’t too fast (with any of these early dance pieces by Lou Harrison, you try to take the pulse from imagining what the dancers would be doing).  The right hand and left hand are in different keys.

It begins with brash, muscular music; dense chords in the left hand buttress angular melodic gestures in the right, which is then followed by a more subdued section in which oscillating harmonies accompany a circuitous melodic line. A third contrasting section recaptures the brashness of the opening with leaping melodic lines in octaves above the oscillating harmonies heard earlier—this time in a descending sequence—before the opening material returns to close the piece. The music is striving and assertive, and Cahill’s playing captured this sense of barely harnessed power while maintaining great clarity in the live acoustics of the gallery.

Tenor Bells used in Solo for Anthony Cirone

Tenor Bells used in Solo for Anthony Cirone

Next the Abel-Steinberg-Winant trio performed Varied Trio, a five-movement work Harrison composed for them in 1987. Fleeting pitch and ensemble issues did little to detract from an otherwise strong performance. The second movement, titled “Bowl Balls,” is a moto perpetuo for rice bowls that Winant played with scintillating energy. In “Elegy” pianist Julie Steinberg’s swooshing, modal arpeggios evoked the strumming of a koto. In the fourth movement “Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard”one of the ancient dance forms Cahill noted—violinist David Abel subtly darkened his tone to capture the music’s wistful spirit, and was mirrored beautifully by Steinberg. Even in the work’s loudest moments, like the central section of the final movement “Dance,” the ensemble remained well balanced, the piano and percussion playing crisp and lively without overpowering the violin.

Rice bowls—from Harrison’s own kitchen—used in Varied Trio

Rice bowls—from Harrison’s own kitchen—used in Varied Trio

The centerpiece of the concert was Harrison’s La Koro Sutro, a setting, in Esperanto, of the Heart Sutra scored for chorus, harp, and American Gamelan. The eight-movement work opens with Prelude: Kunsonoro Kaj Gloro, a paean to “Blessed, Noble, Perfect Wisdom,” and the following seven movements, sequentially numbered “Strofos,” set the text of the Buddhist scripture that details the enlightenment of Avakiteshesvara, who in a moment of deep meditation realizes that the phenomenal world is an illusion.

The gamelan used in this performance is named Old Granddad and was built by Harrison and his partner Bill Colvig in the late 1960s. Harrison called the gamelan “the single most beautiful musical ensemble on the planet.” , and he loved its range and ravishing tone colors. Colvig said that their motivation for building one was simply to recreate this sound and create music for it.

The composer Lou Harrison and I decided to make our own Western Gamelan based in general on the traditional ones but not copying anything for the sake of authenticity. Our primary consideration was to make beautiful sound; our primary purpose to build a usable musical instrument for which new serious music could be composed.

It is tuned to a just-intonation centering on D. Colvin describes the ideas behind the tuning in an essay titled “An American Gamelan.”

The tuning of any instrument is determined by its use . . . Certainly it could be made with “sharps and flats” and all tuned up out-of-tune Western style in 12 equal tones so you could play “Stormy Weather” on it. Why bother? We already have pianos and marimbaphones etc. to play your favorite tunes on. Marvelous new (to us) sound sensations can be achieved by trying different musical modes in “just intonation”, the expression used for rational tuning.

Harrison and Colvig began with a pentatonic scale on D (D-E-F#-A-B), and added the pitches C# and G, again “justly tuned.” The result resembles a D Major scale but in just intonation rather than equal temperment and is, in fact, the syntonous, or “stretched,” diatonic scale described by Ptolemy in his 2nd-century C.E. treatise Harmonics.

Old Granddad is composed of pitched and non-pitched instruments, some handmade, some “found” objects, and a small organ. The pitched metallophones range from short tubular pipes to large, low-pitched xylophone-like instruments whose resonating pipes, composed of several restaurant-size tin cans, soldered together, are several feet long. Non-pitched instruments include enormous dinner bells, suspended oxygen tanks played with baseball bats, and trashcans. “Using Western materials our Gamelan is a “happy hybrid” of pipes and slabs and metal resonators and rubber mountings for the pipes and wooden stands to hold everything up,” Colvig wrote.

Oxygen tank bells

Oxygen tank bells

On the whole, this was a remarkable performance of La Koro Sutro. The chorus was occasionally outmatched in the outer movements when the full gamelan is employed (a dozen extra voices would have helped), and sounded unfocused and hazy at times in “Strofo 2,” but there were flashes of brilliance as well. The unison singing in “Strofo 4” was perfectly balanced from top to bottom, and the sopranos deserve special praise for their crystalline purity in the chant-like “Strofo 5.” The William Winant Percussion Group was rock solid and Old Granddad sounded like the single instrument—as opposed to a group of instruments played by individuals—the Javanese consider it to be. They captured the otherworldly mood of “Strofo 1” which depicts Avakiteshesvara in deep meditation, and the tranquility of “Strofo 4” where Avakiteshesvara shares his insight with his pupil Shariputra: “Therefore, O Shariputra, in the voidness there is neither form, nor yet sensation, no perception, no impulses, no awareness: nor the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, the mind.” These movements feature melodic percussion writing on the pitched instruments of the gamelan, and the players created beautifully shaped phrases.

Performing La Koro Sutro

Performing La Koro Sutro

Marika Kuzuma led the combined forces with a sure hand, her conducting crisp and assertive when needed, each vocal phrase carefully molded. Other than the sections referred to earlier, the overall balance between the choir and gamelan was excellent; no small feat in a multi-faceted concrete cavern. After the final, ecstatic bars of the piece, where the choir sings the mantra “going, going, yonder going on beyond awake, all hail!” and the gamelan sends up glorious peals of sound from oxygen tanks and gongs, she kept her hands raised and everyone held their breath as the sound reverberated for several long moments.

It bears repeating that, from where I was standing at least, all of the performances on this concert worked wonderfully well in the live acoustic of Gallery B and the performers should be commended. Sarah Cahill also credits BAM Administrative Coordinator Sean Carson, a composer himself, whose knowledge of the gallery’s acoustics is instrumental in determining the ideal setup and location for each concert.  Kudos to all involved, both behind the scenes and on stage, for a memorable musical experience in Pacifica.

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Dustin Soiseth is a conductor and co-founder of the Loose Filter Project. He lives in Oakland.

Great Expectations: The Challenge of New Music In New Spaces

Context can have a powerful impact on perception. A few years ago, my good friend Stuart Sims blogged about hearing Frank Zappa’s music performed on Baroque instruments by Ensemble Ambrosius. Stuart had always been ambivalent about Zappa’s music but the Ambrosius album, with its completely new textures and timbres, allowed him to hear the music in a new way.

It was interesting on a lot of levels, but for me, it really laid bare Zappa’s writing. By translating his music into a completely different sound world, a new idiom, it was actually revealed more clearly to me. I was able to pay attention to the composition itself without all of the idiosyncrasies of style and performance that Zappa and his musicians brought to the original recordings—and I loved it. So I’ve since gone back and re-listened to several of those Zappa albums that used to grate, and now I really like them. Go figure—hearing his music on 17th century instruments helped me hear it on 20th century instruments better.

Like a change of instrumentation, a change in venue can also be an effective tool for recontextualization. Beethoven is inspiring in the concert hall but a potent teenage repellant in public spaces, for example. Many preconceptions associated with a performance in a traditional venue (concert or recital hall, etc.), such as concert etiquette, the separation of performer from audience, or passivity on the part of the listener, can be subverted by performing the same music in a different context because the preconceptions are in part attached to the setting itself. And because performing in a venue that normally features a non-classical genre imparts expectations for that concert experience, those expectations—informality, more interaction, beer—also come into play, possibly leading to a new experience for the listener. Just as the same music on different instruments made all the difference for my good friend, the same music in a different space can open ears as well.

When new music groups perform in rock clubs and other similar venues they are counting on these spaces to recontextualize what they do. By placing themselves in the environment of more popular genres, they are declaring that the music they play is as much a part of their city’s musical culture as any other. Playing in a club or bar for a new audience is exhilarating—the communal atmosphere, the closeness to the crowd—but it’s also about an evolving tradition grappling with change, and participating in a broader musical culture and feeling connected and relevant. But what about the venues that make this recontextualization possible? How do their priorities differ from those of more traditional venues? They are an essential part of this trend, but do they know it?

There are many for-profit venues that host new music performances in the Bay Area, though very, very few do so with any kind of regularity. Non-profit spaces tend to host more concerts, and some of the Bay Area’s longest-running new music series take place in galleries and other multi-use spaces. One musician who has experience playing in both these types of venues, as well as house shows and other impromptu spaces, is composer and guitarist Brendon Randall-Myers. His guitar-drums duo Grains plays both improvised and original compositions, as well as arrangements of works by other composers like Glass and Reich. For Grains, getting gigs at different venues can sometimes be a matter of framing. “Booking Grains as essentially a weird hardcore band has had the most success, and most of our shows have been in punk-friendly venues. Operating within the rock club scene, it seems like style is maybe less important than draw, since at this point there’s precedent for basically anything.” Draw, of course, is the ability to draw a crowd, and is extremely important to clubs and other for-profit venues. Unlike large concert halls that charge rental fees, clubs rely on a combination of ticket sales and concessions—food and beverages—to cover fixed costs like bouncers, sound techs, and bartenders. These people get paid the same amount whether the night’s show draws one hundred people or only one, so a group’s proven ability to market themselves and draw a thirsty crowd can, for many clubs and even non-profit venues, have a big impact on whether or not they get booked or invited back.

A group’s ability to draw a crowd is a central concern for Nicole Rodriguez, one of the founders of Subterranean Art House in Berkeley, and she sees a general lack of marketing savvy in many new music groups. “I believe that the bands haven’t learned how to promote themselves well enough to bring people out,” she says. She enjoys having new music shows at Subterranean, a non-profit teaching and performance space near the UC Berkeley campus, and feels that there is an audience for new music programs. In order to be booked, though, Rodriquez says groups need to demonstrate that they can reach out to their fan base and reliably fill the house. “What would help booking these shows is having the confidence that bands can bring people out to see them. Bands in general can always learn more ways to promote and begin to build a strong network of people interested in hearing this music.” She suggests developing ways to connect with fans directly—basic DIY tools like email and social networking sites—but also emphasizes the importance of marketing each show as a unique musical experience. “The main point is that everyone in the band needs to do this promotion for it to work. If they don’t, then places like ours will suffer from and remember low attendance, making it challenging to rebook a group.” She notes that shows involving new and experimental music are poorly attended and generate less revenue through concessions.

A basic understanding of how venues operate is important, says Jason Perkins, managing partner of the Parish Entertainment Group, which operates Brick and Mortar Music Hall in San Francisco. When asked what groups could do to make themselves more bookable, Perkins replied simply, “be knowledgeable about the business side.” This includes being flexible about when you’re looking to perform. A new group without an established fan base is not going to be booked in prime Friday or Saturday night spots, but probably during the week (when, incidentally, it’s more difficult to draw a good crowd). Additionally, bookers usually want a range of possible performance dates, and don’t appreciate it if you schedule gigs at other venues in the same time frame as it can affect draw. Being knowledgeable about the business side also includes realistic expectations for pay. Most clubs split the door (i.e. ticket sales) with performers, and percentages can vary. Musicians expecting a fixed fee regardless of the show’s turnout will be disappointed.

Brick and Mortar books new music shows only sporadically. Classical Revolution hosts concerts there from time to time, and Redshift performed their Arctic Sounds program there last year. It’s a dark, inviting space with a small stage in the corner, an open space in the center, and a few tables and a bar on the perimeter. Large windows look out onto Mission Street and offer glimpses of local color for which the neighborhood is famous. According to Perkins, Brick and Mortar’s mission is to serve the community by presenting acts that reflect the neighborhood’s diversity, even if not all of them are profitable. He says that while events put on by Classical Revolution have been successful—”We’re proud to have the show,” he said of a recent Musical Art Quintet concert—he agreed with Rodriguez that, on the whole, new music shows have smaller turnouts and slower bar service. An even trickier issue, he says, is audience expectation. The seating in Brick and Mortar is limited to stools at the bar and a few tables; at the Redshift show most of the audience ended up sitting on the floor. Background noise from the bar, from conversations, and from outside is unavoidable, too. “People are expecting a classical music hall experience,” he says, “but we’re not that.”

Jamie Freedman, a writer, booker, and vocalist based in the Bay Area, says that matching music to venue can factor into a show’s success. “You know what to expect,” she says of the standard classical concert. “No matter where you are in the world it’s going to be a similar experience, so if you take people out of that context I think it freaks them out a little bit.” In other words, groups branching out into clubs should keep their audience in mind when considering venues, and know just how far out of their comfort zone they can lead them. Freedman suggests that musicians consider options like seating or ambient noise before booking a venue. Audiences generally don’t like to mill around during mellow or contemplative shows and will often sit on the floor, so the punk rock club with the sticky floors might not be the best choice for an all-Feldman show.

Freedman, who has a master’s degree in musicology from the University of Texas, is the San Francisco Field Representative for hearitlocal.com, a user-generated site that allows Bay Area artists and venues to connect directly and book shows. (The site also has a nifty crowdsourcing feature that enables someone booking a group for a private event or house party to raise money in advance, ensuring that artists get paid.) She is aware of only a few “classical” groups—used as a catchall term here—using the site, though she is reaching out to the community in an effort to change this. She also doesn’t see much interest from venues or bookers either, which she attributes the to the lingering perception that classical music is somehow “out of their reach.”

Taking a chance on a new music group is a tough decision for venues that mainly present popular genres, for both financial and “comfort zone” reasons. An array of confusing terms—classical, new music, alt-classical, indie-classical—doesn’t help. For example, if a new music group, perhaps looking to simplify things in an effort to get a gig, approaches a venue as a “classical” group, what will that venue’s booker expect? Maybe the Three B’s, maybe Yanni, or maybe no confusion at all. If this same new music group decides instead to get specific—”dedicated to the performance of post-minimalist and totalist American composers”—will that be any clearer? For example, Grains regularly collaborates with the chamber ensemble Nonsemble 6, and Randall-Myers says that booking these more classically oriented shows can be difficult. “It’s not so much the fact that it’s ‘new music’ that seems to be the problem, but rather that it’s an unorthodox combination of styles, instruments, and volumes,” he says. “I think we’re all excited about the idea of playing this music in clubs, but it’s a tough sell because we’re not ‘established’ and we’re playing music that’s hard to pin down on the rock-to-chamber-music continuum.” Most bookers and venue operators are extremely musically literate and familiar with a wide variety of musical styles ranging from folk to scream, so familiarizing them with as much music as possible—available streaming on a groups website, for example—is key.

In March Grains performed on the weekly New Music Series at the Luggage Store Gallery, a non-profit gallery located on a gritty stretch of Market Street that perpetually smells of weed. The series is curated by Outsound Presents, a non-profit, volunteer group of musicians that supports and promotes the Bay Area’s diverse community of experimental musicians performing “avant-garde jazz, found sound, noise art, musique concrète, minimalism, and the unnamable.” The Luggage Store Gallery is a wonderfully gritty, well-worn, no-frills space and Outsound’s website informs potential performers of the basics: “There is no guaranteed payment, no guest passes, hotel accommodations, transportation, no acoustic piano, no sound person.” You arrive via a narrow stairway whose walls and ceiling are completely covered with graffiti. On most nights you’re greeted at the top of the stairs by Rent Romus, one of the founders of Outsound Presents, and a regular curator of the series. “Welcome to the new music underground,” he says.

Luggage Store Gallery: Stairway

Romus has been active in the Bay Area new music scene for over 20 years, and has been booking new music shows and curating regular series for nearly as long. As a saxophonist and bandleader he explores the outer limits of experimental jazz and improvisation, and as a curator he books musicians with a similar aesthetic. “Our purpose is to support those bands and artists which have either a harder time getting bookings at mainstream or “indie” clubs because they are too outward bound, or don’t fit the bar scene and are playing either all original or fully improvised music.”

The Grains show certainly feels like an underground scene. Folding chairs are set up as the gallery gradually fills up with young people, many of whom seem to know each other. Several gents, employing varying levels of surreptitiousness, sip beers they purchased elsewhere, while Romus enjoys takeout. The Grains set this night includes both composed works and improvisation. Much of the improvisation has an arid feel, where plaintive guitar tones are juxtaposed with frenetic drum riffs, as if drummer Marc Deriso transcribed an epic drum solo then played it back in random, ametric fragments. Long stretches were captivating. One of the composed pieces, Goat Teeth, had a powerful, propulsive energy and riffs that would be at home in any prog rock song. Another, Face, was originally composed by Deriso for chamber ensemble then arranged by Randall-Myers for the duo. “I distilled all the melodic and harmonic material into a single guitar part,” he said, and the result was a jet engine blast of low, regular guitar notes beneath shifting, irregular drum rhythms and an ever-changing perceived downbeat. Tapping your foot along with Face is like playing musical Whack-a-Mole, although a young man a few rows up had no problem simply headbanging to his own steady pulse.

Today, this music would be as fitting in a film or TV score—see Michael Giacchino’s music for Lost, for example—as it is here in this experimental setting. The composed pieces sound wildly exuberant and free, yet are rigorously structured and notated as any avant-garde new music. As Randall-Myers suggests, framing the same music differently for different contexts is more important to booking a gig than the music itself. Grains’ music is of a post-genre world, but many venues still identify, both in the minds of their operators and their patrons, with the same familiar—perhaps broader, but still easily identifiable—musical styles.

Concert flyer

The LSG series is popular with musicians and is booked up to three months in advance. Keeping such a regular concert series up and running is difficult work, and promotion is an always an issue. “Most of the time local mainstream press and radio will not cover new music shows even though such modern exploration has been going on for many decades in the U.S.,” Romus says. Outsound also lacks permanent office space, which makes establishing a regular presence difficult, though Romus feels fortunate to have found a regular performance space at the gallery. “The owners of the Luggage Store Gallery, Laurie [Lazer] and Darryl [Smith], are both avid supporters of new forms of art,” he notes, “and they have given our community a regular, safe location to present for over twenty years.” Admission is a sliding scale depending on what you can afford, though no one will be turned away for lack of funds. The proceeds from the door are split 70/30 between the performers and the gallery. Romus says the take at the door varies widely, but that no one makes much money. Outsound Presents doesn’t take a cut and all its members, including Romus, volunteer their time.

Luggage Store Gallery

Luggage Store Gallery

As far as the nuts and bolts of booking groups, Romus says it’s important for him to know a bit about a group before inviting them to perform, and that having music available on sites like Soundcloud or Bandcamp is a big help. “What I like to see is an introduction of their music and some information about the artists, web links, and/or links to hear music samples,” he says.  He also says that that groups looking to play the New Music Series should do a bit of research before requesting a booking. “It’s always nice to know when they are available and/or looking for a gig, and that they know a little about the series they are asking a gig for.” The website for Amnesia, a San Francisco bar known for its regular jazz and bluegrass jam sessions, offers prospective performers similar advice and stresses the need for promotion.

In your booking request please include vital information about your project including links to your music, websites, bios (when informative), usual band draw and prospective date ranges you are interested in for a show. If we book a show with you, help us help you by helping us promote it. The more people you bring down the better it will be. Get us a poster and we’ll put it up, get us some flyers and we’ll pass ‘em out, send out an email but don’t wait until the day before to promote your great show!

In a way it seems that this whole discussion of venues is already moot. Classically trained musicians have moved on, branched out, and are equally comfortable in the club or in the concert hall (coming to a bio near you). Local music scenes will continue to become more integrated as new music groups simply learn the language of the for-profit venue. While this may seem like a foregone conclusion we should remember that this is a two way street and a whole lot of other people, necessary people, have to share this view. Many bookers pay lip service to the idea of hosting new music, but a glance at their calendars will reveal weeks or months between new music shows. Meanwhile, old standbys like churches and college campuses continue to be the more popular options.

It will be interesting to see how this trend plays out, not only in the Bay Area, but across the country. Will it grow to alter the musical landscape, remain a persistent, if infrequent occurrence, or devolve into cliché? The outcome depends in part on the ability of new music groups to dependably draw crowds, to become “established,” and also on a critical mass of listeners who consistently turn out and support new music. More regular performances can lead to a larger audience, but before that can happen clubs and bookers need to feel more confident about what exactly it is they’re booking, and that audiences will show up to hear it. It’s like the old adage about finding a job: a job is needed to gain experience, but experience is necessary to get a job. New music groups won’t be welcomed simply because they’re willing.

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Dustin Soiseth is a conductor and co-founder of the Loose Filter Project. He lives in Oakland.

Shake It To the Ground: SF Musicians Re-envision Classic(al) Career Paths

The San Francisco Bay Area has always been home to musicians who explore the boundaries of, and move freely between, genres and musical traditions. Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, and Harry Partch all lived or worked here at some point in their lives, and the Kronos Quartet is based in San Francisco, to cite just a few prominent examples. Factor in the long history of activism and counterculture, and an atmosphere of openness and experimentation is simply an inherent part of the landscape.

Today, local enterprising young musicians continue to embrace this unique ethos. They inhabit a musical world almost totally free of the boundaries previously posed by genres and traditions, a world where contentious issues—formal attire, “alt-classical”—aren’t even issues anymore. They have sidestepped whole entire philosophical debates and simply decided to do what they wanted to do, which, of course, is what people in the Bay Area have been doing for a long time.

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In a small rehearsal hall in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra sit in a semicircle facing Zach Rogue, front man of Bay Area bands Rogue Wave and Release the Sunbird. They have a performance the following night and are rehearsing string arrangements, written by Magik*Magik founder and director Minna Choi, that accompany Rogue’s songs. There’s an easy give-and-take between Rogue and Choi, and the rehearsal is relaxed. There is also a fair amount of arranging on the fly as the two search for the right sound or texture. The young Magik*Magik string players–everyone taking part in this session is a current or former student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music–scribble changes into their parts without missing a beat.

Choi’s arrangements go way beyond simple, sustained, chordal accompaniments. She is skilled at creating unique textures and is not afraid to explore extended techniques. One of the rehearsal’s more light-hearted moments comes when a violist loses a guitar pick inside the body of his instrument during an arrangement that calls for extended strumming, and spends the next few minutes trying to extricate it. This leads to a brief brainstorming session on the topic of pick tethers and how they might be used to prevent further mishaps.

Throughout the entire rehearsal it is clear that Rogue is enjoying this process, though at one point after a particularly emotional section he asks, “Do you think it’s too over the top?”, to which Choi replies emphatically, “No, no, no!” At the end of the night Rogue tells the Magik*Magik players that this is his first time working with musicians who can read music, which is not at all unusual for the members of this orchestra to hear.

Zach Rogue and Minna Choi, far right, rehearsing with members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra.

Zach Rogue and Minna Choi, far right, rehearsing with members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra.
The Magik*Magik Orchestra almost always works with other groups: singer/songwriters, rock bands, and anyone else who wants to add a bass clarinet, choir, or full orchestra to their album or live show. Choi, who founded the Magik*Magik Orchestra in 2008 while a graduate composition student at the San Francisco Conservatory, contracts the musicians from a roster of over 45 Magik*Magik players and writes the arrangements. Clients can record at Tiny Telephone studios, where the group is orchestra-in-residence. It’s one-stop shopping for bands looking to add an orchestral element to their sound.

Being in constant contact with such a diverse group of musicians, and by extension their audiences, has put Magik*Magik in a unique position to reach out to listeners who wouldn’t normally attend an orchestral concert. This has always been a goal, says Magik*Magik’s manager and clarinetist Annie Phillips. “Magik’s mission is to attract new listeners and participants to the orchestral experience,” she says. Educational programs are a big part of this strategy, and Magik*Magik runs an instrument petting zoo for kids at multiple San Francisco museums. At the Stern Grove Music Festival this summer they created a program called Build a Band, in which youngsters were able to build their own guitars and rattles from household items. Build a Band culminated with a group performance of a song by the San Francisco band The Dodos, complete with choreography, putting a Magik*Magik spin on the event.

Their outreach is not limited to kids, however. At a show in June with singer/songwriter John Vanderslice, Phillips manned the same instrument petting zoo in the lobby of San Francisco’s Herbst Theater. “I was like, ‘Oh my God! I’m bringing this to adults. I’m just going to be standing there by myself in the lobby.’ But it was really popular. All these people were coming up and trying all the instruments, and it’s cool because . . . they’ve never seen an orchestra back up a rock act before and then in the lobby there are all these instruments that are kind of weird-looking but they can try them out. We have a trombone, so all these people were playing the trombone in the lobby of Herbst.”

In addition to continuing their collaborative work, Choi and Phillips are also thinking about expanding their repertoire and presenting stand-alone Magik*Magik shows. “We’re starting to think about and plan: If we were to do just a season of Magik concerts, what would it be like?”, she says. “Minna and I have started to talk about non-work-for-hire things, like educational programs. We’re not really sure at this point, mostly because it works really well when we collaborate with other musicians.”

It does work well. The Magik*Magik orchestra has addressed a serious need in the San Francisco music scene and has either performed or recorded over seventy times since their inception. Plus, with each gig bringing new repertoire and excited, appreciative collaborators, why rush to change?

The inter-genre limbo inhabited by Magik*Magik is familiar and comfortable territory for composer Ryan Brown. Brown, together with fellow San Francisco musicians Jeff Anderle and Jonathan Russell, created a festival based on the idea. Their annual Switchboard Music Festival, founded in 2007, focuses on Bay Area musicians whose work “falls in the cracks between genres,” and has featured everything from jazz and gamelan ensembles to a heavy metal-influenced bass clarinet quartet. Brown says that he and his colleagues mainly just book groups that they’re interested in hearing, rather than actively promoting a cross-genre sensibility. He sees this not only as a characteristic of the San Francisco scene–welcoming to all comers–but representative of his generation of classically trained musicians. “It’s not just a Bay Area thing, but also a generational thing –being a generation that got into classical music at a time when a lot of those battles had already been fought. A lot of the battles over whether rock is a legitimate music, or jazz, and whether it’s legitimate to incorporate them into your music.”

Guitarist Travis Andrews expresses a similar sentiment. Andrews is a member, along with percussionist Andrew Meyerson, of the guitar/percussion duo The Living Earth Show. The two have commissioned works from Samuel Carl Adams, Timo Andres, and Dan Becker, among others, and also play in the avant-metal band Freighter. “There’s kind of a lot of crossover between the two things that we do. The people that are apt to nerd out on rock and roll music are, I think, just a short push away from nerding out with chamber music.” That sentiment seems a lot less far-fetched when you hear them perform some of the new pieces being written for them, and there are a lot of new works being written for them because they’re basically building a repertoire from scratch.

The Living Earth Show rehearses in a small rented room above a commercial warehouse. The room’s walls are covered from floor to ceiling with oriental rugs, and the room itself is almost completely filled with percussion equipment, keyboards, amplifiers, electronics, and bikes. They’re currently rehearsing a new piece written for them by Max Stoffregen titled Quasimason. In some sections Stoffregen uses multiple guitar loops to create dense, layered textures accompanied by heavy drumbeats. In others he contrasts these heavy textures with sparser ones featuring frenetic, Zappa-like melodic fragments or serene, sustained passages. Andrews says the composers the group has worked with so far are eager to write for the unorthodox duo, and are taking full advantage of the electric guitar’s effects and looping possibilities. “A lot of people are more excited now–at least the crop of people we’ve talked to–in writing for electric guitar as opposed to writing for acoustic guitar,” Andrews says. “They feel like they have a lot more options with the sonic spectrum.” Meyerson and Andrews are also preparing Brian Ferneyhough’s Renvoi/Shards for quartertone guitar and vibraphone, and are about to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for custom instruments on which to perform the work, as well as others they’ve commissioned. It’s hard to imagine an instrument more custom than Meyerson’s current vibraphone, though. According to his bio, it’s made from the bones of his enemies.

Andrew Meyerson, percussion, and Travis Andrews, guitar, rehearse Max Stoffregen’s Quasimason
Over in the Richmond district, the chamber group Nonsemble 6 is rehearsing in a space with slightly fewer wall hangings, much better acoustics, and familiar to chamber musicians of all stripes–a church. They’re working on John Harbison’s song cycle The Natural World for an upcoming performance as part of the Noe Valley Chamber Music Series. In the third movement, titled “Milkweed,” they work to achieve a tentative, probing quality in the movement’s murky opening bars. They have a wonderfully versatile ensemble sound, and the dark, blended timbres they create really illuminate the evocative elements of Harbison’s score. In addition to the Harbison, their upcoming program also contains Mario Davidovsky’s Biblical Songs, and the Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. As the group’s clarinetist Annie Phillips (yes, the same) says, “We don’t mess around.”

Nonsemble 6 rehearses John Harbison’s The Natural World
The musicians of Nonsemble 6 originally came together while graduate students at the San Francisco Conservatory to perform Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and have since taken up other pieces written for Pierrot ensemble, including the Davidovsky and Harbison. Like The Living Earth Show, Nonsemble 6 is also working to expand the repertoire for their unique instrumentation through commissions. Like the Magik*Magik Orchestra they do innovative educational programs–creating expressionist melodrama with third graders, for example. In an effort to reach new audiences the group also focuses on cross-genre collaborations, whether with other musical groups like math rockers Grains, or with visual artists. N6 has commissioned visual artists to create works that draw inspiration from pieces in their repertoire.

The members of Nonsemble 6 are active on multiple fronts. Pianist Ian Scarfe is one of the founders of Classical Revolution, an innovative chamber music series emphasizing community, collaboration, and access. Their concerts (usually free or very affordable) feature local musicians and lots of different musical styles and genres. Founded in 2006 when a few San Francisco Conservatory students and graduates got together for a chamber music reading session at Café Revolution in San Francisco’s Mission District, Classical Revolution has grown into a global endeavor, with active chapters in the U.S., Canada, England, and Germany. The original San Francisco chapter continues to present fifteen to twenty concerts a month at locations throughout the Bay Area. Scarfe, like Phillips, cellist Annie Suda and vocalist Amy Foote also performs with the Magik*Magik Orchestra. Foote feels that a diverse career path is the best, and for her, most satisfying way to build a career. “You do have to create this portfolio career where I’m not just an opera singer, I’m an opera singer, I’m a teacher, I play in a band,” she says. “You can’t build your career in the same way you did thirty years ago. Whatever your instrument is, it’s not like you can audition for one company and once you know this one person you’re in to the larger scene and you essentially work your way up. It just doesn’t work that way anymore.” What’s more important today, she says, is distinguishing yourself from the legions of other talented young musicians. “It’s not just that you’re really, really good at your craft anymore; lots of people are totally awesome at what they do. What the San Francisco scene is about, what it is to be a musician right now, is kind of a cliché. It’s to find what you’re passionate about, whether it be one thing or many things, and be working in all of those directions and having your hand in every basket so that someday one of those things your working on will work out.”

For musicians in the new music world, capitalizing on opportunities usually means creating them for yourself, and these young musicians willingly accept the responsibility of administering their ensembles and promoting their own shows in exchange for artistic freedom. For Phillips, the sense of satisfaction is well worth the effort. “I like creating something new, and I think there’s something very entrepreneurial about it. There are all these different little things that need to get done and it’s like running a business. So it’s more engaging for me to be able to do all of the non-musical things on the side and play, and there’s more opportunity there because if you want to do something, and know how to do all the work, then it happens.”

Cellist Michelle Kwon

Cellist Michelle Kwon

Cellist Michelle Kwon agrees. Kwon is active in the Northern California freelance scene, playing with the top regional orchestras as well as with the Magik*Magik Orchestra and the Delphi Trio, a piano trio she co-founded with violinist Liana Bérubé (also a Magik*Magik member) and pianist Jeffery LaDeur. She estimates that her time spent working with Delphi is split evenly between playing and administration, but feels that the extra work is not only necessary to the success of the group, but also important on a personal level. “Our goal is to really spread the love of chamber music as a genre, but also as a means of expression,” she says. “We believe that it’s one of the best representations of a player in terms of their own expressivity, their own ability to work with others in a very civil and intimate way.” For Kwon, the Bay Area’s acceptance of personal expression is one of the region’s defining characteristics. “I really think that on the individual level there’s a real attention to the ability to be expressive,” she says. “I think that it’s something that’s really hard to attain by training. You really have to be courageous, really be in tune with your instrument, and whether or not you play it technically perfect, you at least try and say something to someone else.”

In many ways the experiences of these musicians are similar to those in cities around the country. They’re hustling for gigs, teaching, working day jobs, and doing all the other things that musicians do to make ends meet. But they’re also part of a larger, interconnected community that is unique in its support of new things. Composer Ryan Brown feels the Bay Area new music scene is less competitive than other cities because people aren’t necessarily coming here to make a name for themselves. “That really contributes to that sense of open welcome-ness,” he says. “There’s a sense of ‘We’re here because we want to be here, and the more cool stuff you do here the more enjoyable it is for everybody’.” For Nonsemble 6 vocalist Amy Foote, this sense of community is part of what keeps her here. “Part of me has the desire to go to New York and strike it rich; I think every musician experiences that from time to time,” she says. “The reason I don’t go is the community out here. It’s the fact that I do know a lot of composers and I like what they do and I want to keep working with them.”

The San Francisco Bay Area is often caricatured as a “touchy-feely” place where you’re not allowed to hurt anyone’s feelings–an adult version of kid’s sports leagues where score isn’t kept and everybody wins. It’s not that simple, of course, but it is true that personal expression is something to be valued (not just tolerated), and this is liberating for young musicians. It gives them license to explore and experiment and pursue their passion, no matter how offbeat, because that’s simply what everyone expects. “The whole thing about audiences here is that no matter how weird your project is, someone will come listen to it. It’s a very accepting community,” says Phillips.

Because the musicians here feel free to pursue projects they’re most passionate about, they tend to be pretty enthusiastic about their careers. Even for those whose most rewarding projects may only represent a small percentage of their professional lives and income, the satisfaction and fulfillment they receive outweighs, or at least balances, the more mudane and frustrating aspects of a freelancer’s life. Michelle Kwon, who is dismayed by the dissatisfaction she senses in many of her “freeway philharmonic” colleagues, says projects like the Magik*Magik orchestra are extremely satisfying for her. “Magik*Magik is probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve done with my life. It really is the most grass-roots, altruistic form of playing music I can think of,” she says. Magik*Magik founder Minna Choi created such an atmosphere of trust and respect that it didn’t matter, in the early days of the group’s existence, whether or not they were making much money. “We didn’t get paid very much back then, but she had gathered people that were so interested in the same things she was that it actually really didn’t matter, which is something ideal. I can’t think of a better way to approach music.”

With so many musicians enthusing about their experiences with the Magik*Magik Orchestra, it’s not surprising that more players want to be involved. The group held auditions for the first time in September, and plans to continue these annually. What began as a group of motivated and entrepreneurial conservatory students has grown into a serious organization complete with interns and support from Fractured Atlas, and is a destination for a wider swath of musicians interested in their unique brand of collaboration.

If the musicians in the Magik*Magik Orchestra, Nonsemble 6, and The Living Earth Show have any advantage in this transformative time in the classical music world it is that this state of flux is nothing new for them. They have come of age in this environment, and as a result (and thanks to a few trailblazing individuals and ensembles), they have fewer preconceived notions of what a successful classical music career should entail. What they value most is pursuing projects that express who they are as musicians. Living in a region that values collaboration, experimentation, and personal expression makes it that much easier.

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Dustin Soiseth is a conductor and co-founder of the Loose Filter Project. He lives in Oakland.