Author: Sidney Chen

Sweeter Music and High Art

Sarah stipulated that the music should be about war or peace, “but preferably peace.” War seemed easy. Almost everything I had done in the last few years had to do with it. Peace was harder. I started War Dances, but soon got into trouble and couldn’t go on. So I dropped war and turned to peace.

—Frederic Rzewski, on Peace Dances

Sweeter Music CD
Pianist Sarah Cahill’s A Sweeter Music commissioning project, which has yielded 18 solo piano works that she has presented in concert both in the San Francisco Bay Area and on tour, developed as a response to the Iraq War. Cahill said in an interview with San Francisco blogger Michael Strickland, “After reading news about the latest deaths in Iraq, I would sit down and play [Frederic Rzewski’s arrangement of ‘Down by the Riverside’] as a kind of catharsis. I kept thinking that there needed to be more pieces like this, which are composed in response to a particular war … but can still provide solace and inspiration thirty years later and beyond. … So I really left it to the composers whether their work would be ‘anti-war’ or ‘pro-peace.’”
This fall, the Other Minds record label released Cahill’s recording of eight of the works that have come out of the project. (A second album is planned for future release.) This first CD, titled A Sweeter Music, comprises works by established American compositional voices, including Terry Riley, Yoko Ono, Kyle Gann, Meredith Monk, Phil Kline, Carl Stone, and, of course, Rzewski. There is also a piece written by the legendary experimental art collective The Residents, for solo piano and a recorded spoken text. Many of these composers have created works in response to war previously—Riley’s Salome Dances for Peace, Kline’s Zippo Songs, and much of Rzewski’s output immediately jump to mind—but Cahill’s juxtaposition of these diverse artistic reactions to mankind’s most destructive compulsion makes for a multifaceted and complex collective statement.

Only two of these works include text: whereas The Residents’ drum no fife uses a recorded text that addresses the universality of the desire for both war and piece, in War is Just a Racket Kyle Gann instead gives Cahill herself text to recite while playing, drawn specifically from a 1933 speech by U.S. General Smedley Butler denouncing the military and capitalism. Gann aligns certain chords and cadences with specific words and lines, with solo piano interludes that are pastiches of Americana, evoking a distorted Norman Rockwell image of apple pie. Within this compilation, Gann’s work is the most explicit in its condemnation of war and the motivations that have driven America into violent conflicts.

But Cahill’s title comes from Martin Luther King’s statement upon being honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964—“We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war”—and several of the other composers chose to explore the topic from the pro-peace perspective. Yoko Ono’s Toning takes a conceptual approach, asking the performer to use the playing of a series of ascending major triads as the opportunity for a personal meditation, with each chord ringing like a Tibetan bowl, a looking inward to heal internally before looking back out to the world. Similarly, Riley takes personal compassion as his starting point, using a lullaby played for his grandchildren as a basis for his Be Kind to One Another (Rag), which takes its title from an exhortation by Alice Walker in the wake of 9/11.

As Rzewski notes, in some ways peace can be more challenging than war, but Cahill performs his demanding seven-movement Peace Dances with commanding and assured grace. Utilizing fragments of a number of traditional tunes, Rzewski wrote a series of short and varied works that acknowledge peace as a complex idea. While the ravishing sixth movement features a fluid stream of pentatonic runs with a bright melody ringing out above, by contrast the fourth takes elements of “Die Moosoldaten,” a song by Nazi labor camp prisoners, and builds an ominous canon. The optimistic final movement, “It Can Be Done!,” written both as a 100th birthday gift for Elliott Carter and as a tribute to Pete Seeger, features an ascending pointillistic line, glissing down repeatedly but climbing again. The piece ends with the left and right hands in quiet, settled dissonance.


A San Francisco-based percussion/electric guitar duo called The Living Earth Show unveiled their new album High Art last month with a performance on the Artist Sessions concert series, recently founded by pianist Lara Downes. Released on Innova Records, High Art is a collection of five pieces that The Living Earth Show has been performing regularly, written for them by a younger generation of composers than those represented on Cahill’s disc: Samuel Carl Adams, Timo Andres, Adrian Knight, and Jon Russell. To celebrate the release, they projected a film for Knight’s Family Man, created by Will Greene, and posted it as a music video on YouTube.
High Art CD cover
The tongue-in-cheek juxtaposition of the title High Art with the charmingly sophomoric album cover photo belies the deeply committed, totally focused playing of guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson. In live performances, the musical communication between Meyerson and Andrews is at times astonishing and has the feeling of being completely natural. At the release event they played three of the works from the album on this concert, from memory. The CD listener is unfortunately denied the pleasure of witnessing the amount of multi-tasking required of Andrews and Meyerson to realize this collection of layered and multi-textured pieces. (Memorization seemed almost a necessity since often no limbs were left available for page turning.)

The album is framed by two works by Adams titled Tension Studies 1 and 2 from 2011, which were among the first works written for The Living Earth Show. Adams’ spacious writing for the duo plus electronics turns the listener’s focus in to the overtones from the guitar or crotales, notes that bend from the guitar and bowed vibraphone, pairs of pitches that are tuned slightly differently, or moments of stillness and resonance with unpredictable durations.

The longest work in the collection is Knight’s Family Man, an episodic work that, taken as a whole, paints a curious American landscape filled with nostalgia and decay, violence and melancholic solitude. The brief movements or snapshots are separated by live-triggered samples of the sound of a slide projector and languorous big band dance music, and as the interludes cut off abruptly the listener is deposited into another place in the expanse.

Living Earth

Living Earth in performance

100 Guitars Rock West Coast Premiere of Rhys Chatham’s A Secret Rose

On November 17, 100 electric guitarists gathered with their instruments and their amps on stage at the Craneway Pavilion—a former car assembly plant situated on the San Francisco Bay in Richmond, California—for the West Coast premiere of Rhys Chatham’s A Secret Rose. Written in 2006, A Secret Rose had only received two prior performances, undoubtedly due in part to the scale of the venture: musicians for this performance, which was presented by Other Minds, traveled from Europe, South America, and at least a dozen states across the country to be part of this guitar orchestra performance, conducted by Chatham.
West Coast Premiere of Rhys Chatham's A Secret Rose
What does an orchestra of 100 electric guitars sound like? Chatham has been exploring the many possible answers to this question for three decades, starting with his 1983 work An Angel Moves Too Fast to See. Built in five movements over approximately 75 minutes (with a short tuning break), A Secret Rose fulfills one’s expectations of 100 electric guitars playing simultaneously in the same 45,000 square-foot room—that is, tongue-lollingly loud shredding that triggers involuntary head bobbing—but Chatham covers far more ground than that, and the use of volume is not simply for volume’s sake. The influence of Chatham’s early work with La Monte Young exploring tunings, drones, and overtones emerges in sections where the fundamental is so strongly established that a broad range of aural images emerge hallucinogenically in the air through the overtones: people chanting and yelling, swarms of insects, giant revving motors, dog whistles, and an airplane all made cameos in my mind’s ear.
West Coast Premiere of Rhys Chatham's A Secret Rose
The musicians for A Secret Rose are divided into three groups, each with a section leader (in this case, David Daniell, Seth Olinski, and Tobin Summerfield); each group is further subdivided into two smaller groups. Holding the masses together were Chatham, dressed in a proper suit and tie at the center podium playing the part of the conductor with a baton, and the three section leaders stationed on the sides—cuing, clapping, yelling, fist-pumping, and paper-waving to help keep the train on track. The conducting team was supported impressively by bassist Lisa Mezzacappa and drummer Jordan Glenn, who provided a steady foundation and energetic drive throughout.

Chatham has said, “There’s nothing like the sound of 100 guitars playing quietly,” and he explores this sonority in the third movement, thinning out the texture and having individual musicians play single pitches. Chatham left his conducting post and walked among the musicians, triggering pointillistic mini-bursts of sound as he passed. As the nebula of aleatoric pitches amassed, a giant celestial harpsichord seemed to emerge, with the fingers of the guitarists as the plectra—perhaps unsurprising, given that Chatham’s first instrument as a child was a virginal.

Other sections drew strongly from Chatham’s rock background, with homages and references to myriad styles and artists scattered throughout—each person I spoke to afterwards heard a different selection of influences embedded within the piece. The second movement was at times downright tuneful, a series of giant-scale rock instrumentals; at other points, it presented a great vibrating wall of sound that you could feel on the skin. Chatham set major and minor chords grinding upon each other across the sections, all the more unsettling at a heightened volume. Multiple concurrent meters were frequently used, creating the sensation of a behemoth machine with a variety of differently sized gears, moving itself forward with an immense amount of energy and effort. Despite the near unanimity of orchestration, the textural variations that Chatham found made for a constantly shifting and surprising listening experience.

A Secret Rose was a special presentation by Other Minds, led by the San Francisco Bay Area’s experimental music evangelist Charles Amirkhanian. In June, Other Minds hosted a performance of Chatham’s seminal Guitar Trio at The Lab in the Mission (covered previously in NewMusicBox here) as a preview to A Secret Rose. At an event later that week, a lengthy conversation between Amirkhanian and Chatham was videotaped and posted in chunks on Vimeo. One excerpt, in which Chatham talks about going to his first rock concert ever—which happened to be the Ramones at CBGB—is posted above. Other Minds does an extraordinary job not just archiving the organization’s activities but also making those recordings available to the public. A full recording of this performance of A Secret Rose is scheduled to be posted at RadiOM when it is available.
West Coast Premiere of Rhys Chatham's A Secret Rose
As the guitarists were tuning after the quietly plucked third movement, I commented to my companion that it wasn’t quite as loud as I had anticipated, since free earplugs were available at the front desk when we arrived. The final movement removed any disappointment on that front: with the full ensemble pounding on one minor chord for minutes on end, overtones began screaming like banshees in the cavernous space of the pavilion, and 100 variations on how rock guitarists move and sweat while shredding came on display. As a final gesture, Chatham himself took up his guitar and turned to the audience, faced up to the skies and fell to his knees, providing that moment of punk rock catharsis that we all had been waiting for.

Guided By Sound: Crissy Broadcast Debuts in San Francisco


In San Francisco, even our fog posts regularly on Twitter. In real life, you never know for certain when Karl the Fog is going to roll into town, but once he does his presence can’t be ignored. A posse of foghorns mounted on the Golden Gate Bridge announces his entry into the city and the bay, each pitched and positioned differently to help guide vessels under the bridge.

Images from Crissy Broadcast

All photos by Sidney Chen

Karl the Fog was out in full strength on the morning of October 26 at the start of the first of three performances of Crissy Broadcast, described as a “spatial symphony” composed and directed by Lisa Bielawa. Gathered in the mist at the center of Crissy Field, right next to the Golden Gate Bridge, were hundreds of musicians drawn from a dozen or so local ensembles, including middle school and high school bands and orchestras, adult amateur musicians, two choruses, a traditional Chinese instrument orchestra, and a gaggle of electric guitarists with portable battery-powered speakers slung over their shoulders. They assembled in discrete groups in the center of the expansive, dew-laden grass field, surrounded by audience members and the fog.

At 10 a.m., the regularly sounding foghorns were joined by an instrument playing one of the foghorn pitches in a similar timbre, but the sound was both quieter and closer. Listeners began moving across the grass toward the new sound, trying to discern where it had come from and what was making it. That call of what was ultimately identified as a Tibetan longhorn (played by Karma Moffett) launched the hour-long event during which the act of listening became a physical activity involving more than just the ears.
Images from Crissy Broadcast
Bordering the San Francisco Bay, Crissy Field is a decommissioned airfield that has been converted into a park as part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area (administered by the National Park Service). Due to its iconic views of the bridge and the extraordinarily successful restoration a dozen years ago of the field’s natural saltmarsh environment, Crissy Field is one of San Francisco’s most beloved and frequently used public spaces. While developing Templehof Broadcast, a performance event in Berlin involving hundreds of community musicians performing on another former airfield-turned-park, Bielawa was out for a run on Crissy Field, heard the foghorns, noted the pitches, and began to envision a similar work unfolding in the town where she was raised.
Images from Crissy Broadcast
Nearly three years later, Bielawa was walking in the wet grass among the listeners and musicians as each of the 14 groups announced its presence with short fanfares, initially on a single pitch and gradually expanding into compact motives that constantly drew the ear to different locations, coming from all directions. At the beginning of the work the sound was concentrated in the center of field, where it was possible to wander to each group in turn and hear individual group sounds in the context of the gathered masses.

Images from Crissy Broadcast

Aptos Middle School band, led by Bielawa collaborator Moritz Sembritzki and San Francisco Opera principal trumpet Adam Luftman

A few minutes into the work, listeners who had gotten oriented to the placement of the groups of musicians became aware of movement as the texture began to thin out and groups broke away from the center, starting their journey to the edge of the field. With a professional musician from the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players acting as a Pied Piper, each group had its own trajectory, which in many cases used one of the eight monumental steel sculptures by Mark di Suvero, temporarily installed on the field by SFMOMA, as a landmark. As the sound spread, listeners were obligated to make choices regarding whom they would follow, how close to get, whether they wanted to hear one group clearly or a multiplicity of voices less distinctly. There was no optimal seat in the house; every position created a different listening experience, and that experience changed continuously throughout the event.

Images from Crissy Broadcast

Musicians lining a path, passing motives in a game of musical telephone

A constant through most of the first performance of Crissy Broadcast was the foghorns, engaging in dialogue with the performers wherever they were on the field. Though the mist on land burned off as the event progressed, it lingered by the bridge for most of the hour, which allowed for listeners to become increasingly aware of the integration of the foghorn pitch set with Bielawa’s musical material. With so much distance between groups of musicians—walking from one end of the field to the other might take ten minutes—it was impossible to hear all of the music Bielawa composed. Instead fragments of melody, individual pitches, textures like a mass of glissandi would be transported across the field from one direction, be met by a coincidental antiphonal echo or congruous counterpoint, and be overtaken by a foghorn. Or the sounds would dissipate into Cageian “silence,” drawing one’s perception to wind, laughter, traffic, conversations and questions from passersby.

Images from Crissy Broadcast

Lowell High School Orchestra, led by San Francisco Contemporary Music Players violinist Roy Malan

As a large-scale public arts event, Crissy Broadcast was something of a marvel. Given the impact of the government shutdown on the National Park Service, the organizers weren’t sure if they even had a venue ten days before the performance. (During the shutdown, around a hundred events on Crissy Field had been canceled.) An integral member of the project’s production team was Marc Kasky, designated as the director for civic engagement, who has been charged with gaining the support of public stakeholders for seeing this public space as a gathering place for artistic activity. On the artistic side, Bielawa and her team, partnering with the San Francisco Symphony’s Community for Music Makers program, had to register and rehearse hundreds of school-age and amateur adult musicians, who had to play music in an unfamiliar format and a challenging environment. The number of musicians signed up to participate numbered over 800 (actual numbers on the field were likely somewhat less), and though musicians only played once they had stopped moving, music stands were not feasible, leading to many innovative solutions.
Images from Crissy Broadcast
Images from Crissy Broadcast
Crissy Broadcast took place three times—at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, October 26, and at noon on Sunday, October 27. Since there are so many variables to how one might experience the piece, I went to the first and last performances, choosing to follow different groups of musicians and changing my own listening trajectory. The Sunday performance was much colder, windier, and much less foggy, and consequently the clear interactions between the performers and their environment took a different shape as the wind took the place of the foghorns, and carried more of the musical material away from the listeners’ ears.

About 15 minutes before the end of piece, a mass movement started to be perceptible at the edges of the field, where all the musicians had been broadly cast. Up to this point, the groups had remained individual entities, nomadic tribes calling across space to fellow travelers. The groups coalesced into three larger communities headed in different directions—out to the beach, toward the bridge, onto the road—each playing celebratory music to exit, leaving the audience on their own to listen to the quiet field.
Images from Crissy Broadcast
For more background information about Crissy Broadcast, the Airfield Broadcasts project has a particularly robust Tumblr which has video, photography, press, and background info about the lead-up to the event.
Images from Crissy Broadcast

The World Beyond the Classroom: SFCM Nurtures Community Creativity and Optimism

The school year has begun anew at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with a fresh class of students, but a remarkable group of recent graduates exhibits no sign of floating despairingly at sea, idly wondering how to move on with their lives. They aren’t chasing orchestra auditions or applying for an endless stream of competitions either. In the past several years, the San Francisco new music community has been energized by a wave of performers emerging from SFCM who are deeply, and in some cases exclusively, committed to the creation of new work, supported by a tightly knit network of composer peers and mentors. And while there certainly has been no shortage of composers and new music performers coming out of schools across the country, the concentration of commitment to new music and the interconnectedness of the network coming out of SFCM in recent years has been exceptional.

Virtual tour of atrium at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s new building
It is not a coincidence that the school relocated to a new facility in 2006. Previously situated in a foggy residential area which felt isolated and well removed from downtown, the school’s move to a new glass-filled building with a large, open atrium represented a major identity shift for the institution. The new building is located just off one of the main city crossroads, around the corner from Davies Symphony Hall, the War Memorial Opera House, and City Hall. Not only has the proximity benefitted the students, who are more integrated into the city’s daily cultural activity; the city’s audience has become more aware of the school’s activity in turn—getting to the conservatory’s performances has gotten immeasurably easier due to the location and is therefore more appealing.

One result of this integration into the city center has been a noticeable reconfiguration of the community of new music makers in San Francisco. The local influence of SFCM alumni has been growing for several years: the multi-genre Switchboard Festival, now in its 7th year, was founded by SFCM graduates (Jeff Anderle, Ryan Brown, and Jonathan Russell), as was alumna Minna Choi’s fabulously flexible Magik*Magik Orchestra, which gave the West Coast premiere of Jonny Greenwood’s string orchestra piece Popcorn Superhet Receiver to a sold-out audience in 2008. And though the focus is not on new music, Classical Revolution—founded by Charith Premawardhana in 2006 and designed to increase chamber music’s accessibility by placing performances into a broad range of non-traditional spaces—now boasts over 30 chapters internationally and exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit that has been internalized by many of these recent graduates.
But in the last couple of years several new music ensembles with their roots in the conservatory have reached a new stage in their development, growing up together almost as a collective in close collaboration with an intergenerational community of composers. Among these groups are the Living Earth Show, Mobius Trio, Friction Quartet, and Nonsemble 6, all of whom are commissioning and pioneering new work. The unusual concentration of activity begs a look at how this environment nurtured this development.


Nonsemble 6 in costume for Pierrot Lunaire

Nonsemble 6 in costume for Pierrot Lunaire
Photo by Irwin Lewis, Corsetry by Autumn Adamme/Dark Garden

In speaking to members of each of these four ensembles, there is an admirable sense of entrepreneurship, empowerment, and self-motivation across the board. Soprano Amy Foote, who co-founded Nonsemble 6 with clarinetist Annie Phillips, says simply, “I wanted these opportunities, so I created them!” This self-possessed sentiment is echoed by her colleagues in other ensembles: the lesson that it is possible and even necessary to make things happen for oneself has clearly hit its mark. Nonsemble 6 first began to take shape in 2009, when Foote and Phillips approached the chamber music faculty with the idea of performing Pierrot Lunaire. The request was green-lighted, and the school helped them to fill out the ensemble with Justin Lee (flute), Kevin Rogers (violin), Ian Scarfe (piano), and Anne Suda (cello). Since then, the group has memorized and staged the work, and has toured the production in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. In continuing support of their efforts, SFCM also presented them on their newly established Alumni Recital Series last season. In the meantime, Nonsemble 6 has begun to commission new works, specifically with the goal of developing staged monodramas where the instrumentalists are equal theatrical participants with the vocalist. (A current project is wishes, lies, and dreams by fellow graduate Danny Clay, with a libretto developed in writing workshops for children aged 8 to 12, led by Foote and Clay at Dave Eggers’s 826 Valencia.)
A milestone in Nonsemble 6’s development, which was later shared by the Mobius Trio, was the school’s choice to have them represent SFCM at the Kennedy Center’s Conservatory Project, a performance series hosted by the Center to showcase the nation’s top musical talent. Nonsemble 6 was given the opportunity to present their production of Pierrot Lunaire in Washington in 2010; the Mobius Trio performed on the same series the following year with a program of works written for them that included Persian Dances by SFCM composer Sahba Aminikia. Both groups cited access to this national platform as a major opportunity and motivator to hone their work.

Mobius Trio

Mason Fish (left), Robert Nance, Matthew Holmes-Linder
Photo courtesy of Mobius Trio)

While Nonsemble 6 had the canonic Pierrot Lunaire to launch their group, the Mobius Trio—classical guitarists Mason Fish, Matthew Holmes-Linder, and Robert Nance, all protégés of David Tanenbaum and Sérgio Assad—had no established repertoire to draw on, and therefore had to build an entire catalogue of music for themselves from scratch, a situation that Tanenbaum points out has been the case for guitarists since Segovia’s time. Through an interdepartmental program at the school called Doublespeak developed by the guitar and composition chairs (Tanenbaum and Dan Becker, respectively), 20 composers were paired with guitarists to create new works, yielding 150 minutes of music for guitar. Doublespeak was modeled on an existing, successful program at SFCM called the Viola Project, begun in 2004 by string department chair Jodi Levitz and Becker. In addition to the benefits that composers gain from working in-depth with instruments that might not get a lot of their attention otherwise, both Tanenbaum and Levitz have spoken of the deeper sense of identification with a piece that performers gain while working on music written expressly for them. “Students would make extreme efforts to stretch their technique to new heights to perform ‘their’ works,” Levitz says. “This made me realize the power of ‘ownership’ of a work.“ Thanks in part to Doublespeak, the composer base that had experience writing for classical guitar was enlarged, and the trio went to work commissioning not only their peers, but also their teachers.

The integration of faculty members into this community, not only as mentors but also as collaborators, has been particularly gratifying to observe. Becker has an obvious, deep-rooted affection for his composition students and their performer colleagues alike, and has himself composed works for several of these groups. Sérgio Assad, who with Odair Assad forms the awe-inspiring Assad Brothers guitar duo, doesn’t simply coach or advise Mobius; he agreed to produce their first album and is writing for the ensemble as well. Students speak gratefully of Becker and Luciano Chessa, who is on the music history faculty, hosting informal listening parties in their homes. As a performer himself, Chessa has worked with The Living Earth Show and is writing a new work for Nonsemble 6.

The Living Earth Show

The Living Earth Show at Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland

The Living Earth Show—Andrew Meyerson, percussion, and Travis Andrews, electric guitar—started in 2010 out of Meyerson’s realization that the most musically rewarding path for him would be “to commission new works and play things that wouldn’t otherwise be played.” The duo, which has an album scheduled to be released on Innova this fall, has also had three works written for them by faculty members. When asked to describe the support that he and The Living Earth Show have received from the administration and faculty, Meyerson uses the words “endless,” “loving,” and “seemingly unconditional”—terms more commonly applied to one’s favorite grandmother than the administration of an institution.

In addition to the duo, Meyerson co-founded the annual Hot Air Music Festival in 2010, a full-day new music marathon event that takes place at the conservatory each spring. (Last year there was also an off-site Hot Air After Party concert at the Hotel Utah, a saloon dating back to 1908 that regularly presents independent music in the South of Market area, where Mobius, Living Earth, and the Friction Quartet shared the bill.) With Becker as a faculty sponsor, the organizers of the festival received academic credit as an independent study project, free space provided by the school, and some PR assistance. Building on the model of the Switchboard Festival (which is independent of the school, though founded by alumni) and Becker’s own experience producing OPUS415 marathons with his Common Sense Composers’ Collective, the Hot Air Music Festival was launched, allowing Meyerson and his co-founders the experience of entrepreneurship within a supported environment.

The Friction Quartet is one beneficiary of Hot Air’s greenhouse: founded by violinist Kevin Rogers and cellist Douglas Machiz, Friction wanted specifically to play John Adams’s String Quartet and programmed it for Hot Air in 2012. (In addition to Rogers and Machiz, the quartet includes violinist Otis Harriel and violist Pei-Ling Lin.) According to Rogers, a number of people came to hear that work specifically, and their performance, which was then posted on YouTube, brought them to the attention of other composers, who began contacting them. Among those writing for the group now is Becker, who is collaborating with Friction on a major project for Bay Area dance luminaries Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton titled A Show of Hands, which Friction will perform live with Garrett+Moulton Productions in October.

Rogers’s interest in contemporary music began well before coming to SFCM. He speaks of becoming familiar with Penderecki and Berio before Beethoven, and cites the experience of hearing the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet’s recording of Black Angels as an inspiration.** With this existing interest in new music, Rogers (who was the violinist assigned through the chamber music program to the Pierrot Lunaire ensemble that has now become Nonsemble 6) is grateful that his teacher Bettina Mussemeli was “willing to get her hands dirty and explore” contemporary works with him that she didn’t know herself. Likewise, he also credits conductor Nicole Paiement, who directs both the school’s new music ensemble (a student ensemble) and Opera Parallèle (the conservatory’s resident professional new music ensemble, which recruits students to perform with professionals) for sharing her “infectious energy for new music.”


Now that they have graduated, all of these ensembles fully embrace the idea that their paths forward require them to be enterprising and to take on the responsibility of cultivating their own paths. As Mason Fish of Mobius points out, “To come out of college with direction like this is rare.” The school has also recognized the need to continue developing this ethic in their current students: Switchboard and Sqwonk Duo co-founder Jeff Anderle, Magik*Magik founder Minna Choi, and Nonsemble 6 co-founder Annie Phillips are teaching a two-semester graduate-level course this year titled “Musical Startups,” developed by Anderle and the Dean’s office at SFCM. Phillips says the curriculum will include information about “how to found a project, structure it in a way that makes sense, and other practical business” skills. As each ensemble has found, the division of labor has tended to emerge organically, as individuals tap into natural skill sets to further each group administratively.
Nonetheless, the barriers they are now encountering outside the conservatory environment are painfully familiar. About fundraising, Rogers says simply, “We don’t know how to do it.” Mobius’s Nance notes, perhaps jokingly, “90% of my time for Mobius is admin.” As for Nonsemble 6, Foote adds, “I know that there’s a learning curve… There’s a lot we don’t know about the ins and outs of certain institutions. It takes years before you learn that, let alone how to write a good budget, a good proposal. We need support from people who know these organizations.”

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To help guide these young ensembles through this transitional period, the newly formed Center for New Music, founded by Adam Fong and Brent Miller, has stepped in to provide guidance and access to an infrastructure that disappears once students have graduated. Fong, a composer himself who worked as Other Minds’ associate director prior to starting the Center, says that behind the Center is the idea that a community working together helps everyone thrive. “We’re very fortunate in the Bay Area to have not just one, but multiple generations of leaders in contemporary music who are very present and active,” Fong says. “We work in such a small niche of the musical world that it behooves us to think collaboratively, to work together, to function as multipliers of each other’s artistic impact.”
The Center, which just opened last fall in San Francisco’s still developing mid-Market district, is a performance space, a rehearsal space, an office space, a meeting space—in short, an area that allows young artists and artists without an established infrastructure to work and experiment. The Center has also begun to offer workshops on grant writing and other administrative tasks, as well as provide consulting to select ensembles, including the Mobius Trio who are appreciative of the fact that Fong and his colleagues are willing to share the “stuff you don’t learn in school” in their regular meetings.

Fortunately the school’s new music community is aware that it provides a web of support as everyone tries to find a successful transition into their professional performing careers. Foote speaks of her hope that the “community will build support for itself,” with ensembles and composers “legitimizing each other.” “Together we form a conglomerate, a collective,” she says. “Finding a way to congeal these groups together will help us all out.” Meyerson of The Living Earth Show expresses a similar sentiment, saying, “I can’t really imagine a healthier and more creatively rewarding sense of camaraderie among students, faculty, and staff.” Indeed, the interconnectedness of this community, fostered by the environment at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, has proven itself to be amazingly fruitful, yielding dozens of new scores which are getting committed performances from excellent musicians. Our job now is to continue nurturing this environment of creativity and optimism.

When I asked how the new music community can help extend the wave of energy currently in motion, Meyerson said, “I think the only support we could ask from the established new music community is to check out our recordings and shows, and check out more if they like it.” Websites for some of the emerging ensembles and composers who are part of this community are listed below.
Anthony Porter | Classical Revolution | Danny Clay | Friction Quartet | Joseph Colombo | Kevin Villalta | The Living Earth Show | Magik*Magik Orchestra | Mobius Trio | Nonsemble 6 | Sahba Aminikia | Sqwonk | Switchboard Festival

**(Disclaimer: I work for the Kronos Quartet, and Dan Becker has also developed a mentoring program for his composition students who observe rehearsals and have access to Kronos’ Artistic Director David Harrington. Some students have written and arranged works for Kronos, and some performers mentioned are receiving mentoring advice from Harrington as well.)

In the Bay Area: Cahill at the Piano and [email protected]

Pianist Sarah Cahill’s engaging solo recital last Friday, presented by Old First Concerts, included an advance look at a program that Cahill is planning to perform at San Quentin State Prison next month of music by Henry Cowell. Also included were pieces by three other composers who were either born or now live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and several works by the late Canadian composer Ann Southam. In a hall filled with familiar faces, Cahill introduced Piano Step by Samuel Carl Adams (composer John Adams’s son) by saying “most of you have probably known him since he was little.” Similarly, Cahill and Shinji Eshima, whose Delta 88 was given its premiere performance, have a friendship dating back 40 years, and John Kennedy, who moved to the Bay Area from Santa Fe only a year ago, has already established a regular local presence.

Sarah Cahill, using her forearm to play clusters in Henry Cowell’s High Color

Sarah Cahill, using her forearm to play clusters in Henry Cowell’s High Color

Cahill played two works by Cowell on this program, Rhythmicana and High Color, which were both written in 1938, during the four-year period when Cowell was incarcerated on a morals charge at San Quentin in Marin County, north of the Golden Gate Bridge. (A recording of Cahill playing High Color is available on New Albion Records’ document of the 1997 Henry Cowell Piano Festival in Berkeley, which coincidentally is when Cahill first met Kennedy.) Cahill’s upcoming project is a performance at the prison on September 20 of music that Cowell wrote while imprisoned. In addition to works for piano, Cahill hopes to accompany a few of the inmates in Cowell’s songs from this period and to enlist other musicians to perform Cowell’s United string quartet and other works. (The prison has a history of arts advocacy; the Marin Shakespeare Festival has been working with inmates annually to present a Shakespeare play, alongside works written by the incarcerated reflecting Shakespeare’s themes.)

Delta 88 by Shinji Eshima, a longtime bassist with the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet orchestras, was constructed with the idea of using each key across the full range of the piano once, with the sustain pedal held throughout the two-and-a-half minute work. The metaphor, Eshima writes, is of “the many things we experience but once in our lives.” As such, Eshima moves through some of the notes very quickly using fast arpeggiations up the keyboard, but other pitches are slowed down and observed more carefully, like the final three which settle at the lowest and highest ends of instrument.

John Kennedy’s Naturali Periclitati (“Endangered Natures”) was written in 2007 for a program that Santa Fe pianist Marthanne Verbit was preparing on the deteriorating state of the environment. (Her recording was released on Albany Records’ Endangered.) An evocative 15-minute piece in three movements, Kennedy uses large register separation between voices throughout the work, creating an unsettled sense of multiple realities coexisting uneasily. Piano Step (2010), written for Lisa Moore by Samuel Carl Adams when he was 25, is constructed on an 11-chord passacaglia that begins its eight-minute journey as an oddly mixed-metered homophonic hymn. Along the way it breaks apart into different registrations, dissolves into stuttering single notes, and gets interrupted by occasional interjections, before settling into an unexpected, quiet and simple statement in the distance right at the end.

Richard Friedman introduces work by Ann Southam

Richard Friedman introduces work by Ann Southam

While Eshima and Kennedy were both on hand to speak about their pieces (Brooklyn-based Adams was not able to attend), Cahill asked Richard Friedman, who has a weekly program on KALW called Music from Other Minds, to introduce the works by Ann SouthamGlass Houses No. 7 and Rivers, Series II, No. 2. (Cahill also hosts a new music program on KALW, recently renamed Revolutions Per Minute.) The infectious enthusiasm with which Friedman spoke about coming across Southam’s music for the first time is probably familiar to all NewMusicBox readers who have at one time said, “OMG, I just heard this great thing and I have to play it for you right now!” Indeed, this delight in discovery pervaded the entire concert, which had the feeling of a small group of friends taking pleasure in sharing some nice things they found.

Cahill’s performance of Southam’s fluid, minimalist works—Glass Houses No. 7 has a rolling nine-note pattern in the left hand that repeats throughout; Rivers a gentle rocking pattern in the right hand—were mesmerizing and organic. In his introduction, Friedman said that while many composers write music about water, Southam’s music “sounds like water,” and in fact, as the left hand melody crossed and flowed through the repeating right hand figure in Rivers, the line picked up and subsumed the notes of the ostinato like pebbles carried along by the current.

Cahill closed the program with a spirited delivery of Cowell’s High Color, which evokes the “dazzling gold” in the hills of Ireland. Cowell overlays an Irish jig tune with forearm clusters, which results in a joyous cacophony that Cahill confidently delivered with her refreshing lack of unnecessary showmanship and pretense. The concert was greeted with a rousing standing ovation, which yielded a final work by Southam, also from the Rivers series—a quiet and reflective send-off into the evening.


Christopher Froh, Ian Rosenbaum, and Ayano Kataoka (from left) performing Part One of Reich’s Drumming

Christopher Froh, Ian Rosenbaum, and Ayano Kataoka (from left) performing Part One of Reich’s Drumming
Photo courtesy of [email protected]

The small rural outpost that Henry Cowell was born in bears little resemblance to the Menlo Park of today. Located in the midst of Silicon Valley, Menlo Park is now home to Facebook and numerous venture capital firms, as well as the [email protected] summer chamber music series, which was founded 11 seasons ago by New York-based artistic directors David Finckel and Wu Han, who also head the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Though nearly all of the festival’s programming is traditionally in the Bach/Beethoven/Brahms vein—especially this season, which is titled From Bach—one concert on this year’s Carte Blanche recital series stood out for its programming of Nancarrow, Cage, Reich, and other 20th-century composers, featuring percussionists Christopher Froh, Ayano Kataoka, and Ian Rosenbaum.

Menlo-Atherton High School’s Center for Performing Arts

Menlo-Atherton High School’s Center for Performing Arts

Held in the 500-seat theater at the Center for Performing Arts on the campus of the Menlo-Atherton High School, this shrewdly chosen program of solos, duets, and trios drawn from international contemporary percussion repertoire was an unadulterated delight for the audience throughout. More than once during the intermission I overheard people say with pleasure, “That was really fun!” and “This is not what I expected!” (The only work from earlier than 1948 was Kataoka’s transcription for solo marimba of the first three movements of Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3, which she played with such grace and flair that audience members applauded heartily after each movement.)

Kataoka and Froh perform Kagel’s Railroad Drama from Rrrrrr…

Kataoka and Froh perform Kagel’s “Railroad Drama” from Rrrrrr…
Photo courtesy of [email protected]

The three percussionists, who do not perform regularly as a trio—Froh is based in the Bay Area, while Kataoka and Rosenbaum are from the East Coast, both having been members of CMS Two—collectively demonstrated an interest in theatricality, employing lighting designs for several of the works and programming Thierry de Mey’s Table Music, performed with virtuosic verve and occasional moments of hamminess, and two movements from Mauricio Kagel’s Rrrrrrr…. The three gathered around one bass drum for Nebojsa Zivkovic’s wild and wildly entertaining Trio per uno, and followed that with the highlight of the program for me, Rosenbaum’s supremely elegant and meditative reading of John Cage’s In a Landscape adapted for solo marimba.

Trio per uno by Nebojsa Zivkovic

To conclude the program, four pairs of bongo drums were arranged in a T (instead of a straight line) for the three musicians to play Part One of Steve Reich’s Drumming, written for four percussionists but reconfigured to be possible for three. The [email protected] crowd, which had never before been offered an all-percussion concert at this festival, gave the musicians an enthusiastic and well-deserved ovation, showing yet again that with compelling programming and a charismatic performance, even an audience used to a steady diet of the European classical canon will respond to an excellent concert filled with music new to their ears.

Table Music by Thierry de Mey

Wanted: Local Bay Area Musicians

Crissy Field (Courtesy of Department of Transportation; Photo by Bill Hall)

Crissy Field
(Courtesy of Department of Transportation; Photo by Bill Hall)

This fall will be an exceptional time for San Francisco Bay Area musicians of all stripes who are interested in making music with a large community of fellow new music lovers. Two massive projects—Lisa Bielawa’s Crissy Broadcast and Rhys Chatham’s A Secret Rose—will be rehearsed and performed in the Bay Area in October and November, respectively, and both are actively asking the local music community to join their ranks as performers. Bielawa is assembling a coalition of 800 musicians to join her on San Francisco’s Crissy Field, and Chatham has put out the call for 100 electric guitarists to fill the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, on the east side of the San Francisco Bay.

Lisa Bielawa’s project is the second in a now developing series that began this May in Berlin with Tempelhof Broadcast, an outdoor performance on an airfield that had been converted into a park. The 250 musicians who participated in the Tempelhof performance included members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus; though still based in New York, Bielawa is a Bay Area native who was named the artistic director of the Girls Chorus earlier this year. At a recent event preview discussion held at the Center for New Music in San Francisco, Bielawa mentioned that the idea of doing the project in her hometown on Crissy Field, also a park that was once an airfield, hadn’t even occurred to her until she was in San Francisco, working on the music for the Berlin project.

Now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the beautifully restored Crissy Field is a large park on the Bay with iconic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, frequently traversed by runners, picnicking families, and tourists on bicycles. On October 26 and 27, these regulars will encounter 800 musicians, drawn from around a dozen ensembles, ranging from volunteer choruses to middle school bands to traditional Chinese instrument orchestras, as well as individual amateur musicians, who, through the course of the work, will expand to fill the park with sound. The musicians will be guided by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, who will be acting as the lead professional ensemble for the performance.

Lisa Bielawa at the Center for New Music, reviewing the Crissy Field site plan

Lisa Bielawa at the Center for New Music, reviewing the Crissy Field site plan

As described at the preview panel, the musical material in Crissy Broadcast is fully composed and notated, with the musicians divided into groups who have specific trajectories and defined musical material to play at specific points. (At the moment SFMOMA, which has just closed for expansion, has an astonishing year-long installation of eight monumental steel sculptures by Mark di Suvero up in Crissy Field which are juxtaposed beautifully with the bridge; these sculptures will be used in defining the movement paths of the musical groups.) Bielawa spoke of wanting to explore in the Broadcast pieces the experience of hearing sound across non-resonant spaces, and how great separation allows for very different musical material to occur simultaneously without clashing as it would even in a large indoor space.

Individual musicians are encouraged to join the project through the San Francisco Symphony’s Community of Music Makers program. There is no cost to apply, and the rehearsal and performance commitments are detailed on the project’s website.


The Craneway section of the Ford Assembly Building, Richmond, California. Photo by Billy Hustace Photography (2008) © Billy Hustace

The Craneway section of the Ford Assembly Building, Richmond, California.
Photo by Billy Hustace Photography (2008) © Billy Hustace

On the other side of the bay is the Craneway Pavilion, another historical waterfront location, where Other Minds’ presentation of A Secret Rose for 100 electric guitars by Rhys Chatham will take place on November 17. Located in the city of Richmond, in the East Bay north of Berkeley, the Craneway Pavilion sits on the site of a former Ford assembly plant from the 1930s that was reconfigured to build tanks and jeeps during the Second World War. After sustaining damage in the 1989 earthquake, Craneway reopened more than a decade later as an event space, with broad views out over the bay and adjacent to the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park, a nod to its former function.

Rhys Chatham performing Guitar Trio at The Lab, San Francisco

Rhys Chatham performing Guitar Trio at The Lab, San Francisco

Other Minds brought Paris-based Rhys Chatham to San Francisco in June for some preview events to put out the call for volunteer guitarists to join Chatham’s orchestra. New music enthusiasts and Chatham devotees packed The Lab, a small art space in the Mission, for enthusiastic performances of an excerpt from his legendary Guitar Trio (G3) and The Out of Tune Guitar no. 3, with Bay Area guitarists George Chen, John Krausbauer, Ava Mendoza, Bill Orcutt, and John Schott joining Chatham, along with bassist Lisa Mezzacappa and Jordan Glenn on drums. Earplugs were available on the way in but they tended to dampen the beautiful overtone series that sang out above the massed guitar sound. Other Minds has made the full recording of the preview event, including the discussion with Chatham, available on RadiOM.

Structured in five movements, A Secret Rose will have three sections of guitarists with leaders, plus a bass player and a drummer. Though certain parts of the piece are sure to be “thunderous and rousing,” Chatham assured that “the purpose of the music is not to assault people… There’s nothing like the sound of 100 electric guitars playing quietly.”

All guitarists with a rudimentary ability to read notation are welcome to apply. The deadline is August 15; the rehearsal and equipment requirements can be found on the application page.
Chatham Facebook announcement

Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

The San Francisco Opera’s summer season, which concluded this past weekend, featured the world premiere production of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. A work six years in development with a libretto written by the composer, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is an earnestly personal and thoroughly researched re-examination of the role of the main women in Jesus’s life—Mary Magdalene and his mother (who is called Miriam in the opera)—as well as an attempt to understand Jesus and his disciple Peter as flawed human beings.

Adamo’s recasting of the story of Jesus’s life is rooted in the so-called Gnostic Gospels, texts that were discovered in Egypt in 1945. Written in the first couple of centuries of the Christian church, these alternate tellings of Jesus’s history did not become part of the canonical texts that we are most familiar with. Nearly every discussion about the opera I have heard or read has made mention of the 116 clearly sourced footnotes in Adamo’s libretto, and though some have found them surprising or amusing, it cannot be denied that this opera is a serious inquiry on Adamo’s part, an attempt to filter scholarship through the lens of opera and theater. He has said specifically that he is not thumbing his nose at the story as it has traditionally been told; rather, he said in an NPR interview, “I love this tradition. I would not have been able to write as I wrote unless I thought the story would gain rather than lose nobility, credibility, and passion.”

The most non-traditional elements of this telling feature Mary Magdalene’s central role in Jesus’s life as his wife, one who is at his side as he preaches and who is a forceful counterweight to his disciple Peter. Also, rather than being the son of God born from an immaculate conception, Jesus is explicitly described as a bastard child of Miriam, who was a teenage bride impregnated by a man other than Joseph, and who was given the choice to abort but decided against it. It may be that the seriousness with which both Adamo and the San Francisco Opera approached the topic—talk-back discussions were held after each performance with Kayleen Asbo, a cultural historian and mythologist, and multiple ancillary events were held at Grace Cathedral in advance of the premiere—helped to deter any public protest regarding the work. Nonetheless, San Francisco Opera’s General Manger David Gockley, who had also commissioned Adamo’s previous two operas (Little Women and Lysistrata) when he was at Houston Grand Opera, did say that the topic scared away other opera companies, leaving San Francisco Opera as the sole commissioner.

This premiere production of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene luxuriated in exceptional American musical talent, spearheaded by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke singing and performing the title role with fervor and clarity throughout. Frequent stage partners Nathan Gunn and William Burden portrayed Yeshua (Jesus, in Hebrew) and Peter, respectively, with Burden delivering a particularly compelling performance during the Passion scene in which his cowardice leads him to deny his relationship with Yeshua. Soprano Maria Kanyova, who portrayed Pat Nixon in last season’s production of Nixon in China (covered in NewMusicBox here), returned to the company for the role of Miriam. Conductor Michael Christie, who, like Sasha Cooke, was making his first appearance with the San Francisco Opera, led the proceedings confidently, balancing the orchestra well with the singers, who had a great deal of text in English to deliver, and allowing Adamo’s varied and evocative orchestration to shine.

Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Adamo places Mary and Yeshua’s story within a contemporary framework by opening the opera with five “Seekers” dressed in contemporary clothes who enter the set while the house lights are still up, mirroring the audience members who are entering the house. The mammoth set designed by David Korins, which never moves in the course of the production, evokes an archeological dig site in which the Seekers voice their concern about modern-day religion: namely, that they—or perhaps we, or perhaps specifically Adamo—have been taught that the body is “unholy” and “the very source of sin,” and that this “poisonous” view of the physical and sexual self has caused years of hurt. And yet, the need to find a way to integrate their religion with the rest of their lives remains, and it sets up the rest of the opera as an attempt to “correct” and “complete” the story as it has been told traditionally. For most of the rest of the production, the Seekers remain on stage, often observing and commenting but sometimes interacting, acting as our avatars within the story as it develops.

For such a radical retelling of a canonical work, Adamo’s musical language is notably un-revolutionary; clarity of text delivery is prioritized through lyrical lines and repeated motives that move among various people throughout the opera, musically interweaving the characters’ lives. In the chorus’s frequent appearances throughout the work—the most effective being the crucifixion scene, where they violently deliver a version of the Dies Irae text, in Greek—Adamo often has them sing homophonically or in vocalise, making their pithy commentary clearly understandable. (The most memorable instance of this is when they interject footnotes into the action.)

Adamo has spoken openly of the challenges of his Catholic upbringing, as a gay man whose divorced mother continued to send him to church and Catholic school even after she was denied communion. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is clearly born from the desire to excavate that personal history through looking at the real people buried under two millennia of mythology. In this process of humanizing these characters, however, the holy and spiritual aspects of these figures are often left by the wayside. For this listener, the missing linchpin in this look at Jesus’s life was divinity: in this portrayal, it was hard to understand why Jesus gained the following and devotion that he did. In the scenes where Yeshua is preaching, he is given a fire and brimstone diatribe and a comic theatrical moment referencing circumcision, but holiness is notably absent. Yeshua invokes God only once in the entire production, when he is on the cross, forsaken. Nearly all other references to God are uttered by the women, and not necessarily in a reverential way. At best, the character of Yeshua seems almost a boorish bro; at worst, he might be perceived as a misogynistic and hypocritical charlatan. Even Miriam and Peter seem to mock Mary Magdalene at first for naively falling for Yeshua’s charismatic preaching. When the gathered crowd passionately declares him the Messiah, it is difficult to see what motivates them to do so.

Sasha Cooke as Mary Magdalene with the San Francisco Opera chorus in the background Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Sasha Cooke as Mary Magdalene with the San Francisco Opera chorus in the background
Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Among the most significant “corrections” that the Seekers allude to in the opera’s prologue is the translation of John 20:17, which occurs in the final scene and which Adamo explains in his penultimate footnote:

Translated into Latin as Noli me tangere, or “Don’t touch me,” this line, over centuries, inspired thousands of paintings of a tearful grasping wench thrust aside by an angel bent on higher things: the very image of the Church’s ancient equation of women with sex and sin. But the original line, in Greek, means, as rendered here, “Do not hold on to me,” or “let me go.”

In the opera’s version of Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb, taken from the Gnostic Gospel of Mary, the crypt is not empty: the corpse is still there, but Yeshua’s ghost appears behind Mary. (The most questionable directorial choice of the production involved Yeshua’s unintentionally amusing ascension into the crypt by means of a hydraulic lift, and subsequent descending into heaven through the stage fog.) Their final duet, launched by Yeshua’s plea to let go of the ones we love, is perhaps the clearest instance of the influence of American musical theater on Adamo’s compositional language. Yeshua urges Mary to “tell them” his and her stories—essentially to spread the Gospel in her terms—a task that Adamo has taken on in this opera.

During the run of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, we saw the Supreme Court rulings on California’s Proposition 8 and DOMA, as well as Wendy Davis’s epic filibuster in Texas (and Governor Rick Perry’s subsequent comments about her as a teenage mother at a Right to Life conference). Directly across the street from the San Francisco Opera house is the City Hall where same-sex couples were issued marriage licenses during a brief window in 2004, and the plaza where San Francisco’s annual gay pride celebration was taking place. Within this context, Adamo’s opera, which aims to reconcile sexuality with a Christian life, and which argues for a woman’s right to possess a physical identity without abandoning spirituality, could not have found a more appropriate home than the San Francisco Opera.

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Photo by Michael Strickland

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Photo by Michael Strickland

“Let’s see what this is!”—Garden of Memory 2013

The longest day of the year is observed by the San Francisco Bay Area new music community with the annual Garden of Memory event at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. With Sarah Cahill at the helm, an inimitable assortment of sound makers takes over this architecturally extraordinary columbarium/mausoleum for four hours, and invites audiences of all ages to wander among over three dozen simultaneous performances positioned throughout the complex.

I took some photos at last year’s event, but still images don’t convey the peculiar delight of a community of people happening upon the unimaginable and the improbable, room after room. This video is, of course, only a small sampling of the variety of musicians at this year’s Garden of Memory; the full list of performers can be found on the event’s website.

Here are links to the performers shown, in order of appearance: Keith Cary (on the bike at the entrance to the event) and Jaroba (with the plunger in the air)—Edward Schocker (playing a sho)—Laura Inserra (playing a Hang)—Sarah Cahill (performing Annea Lockwood’s RCSC)—The Living Earth Show (Andrew Meyerson, percussion, and Travis Andrews, guitar)—Brent Miller and Adam Fong who run the new Center for New Music in San Francisco) and John KennedyJason Victor Serinus (whistling “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s Norma)—Theresa Wong (cello) and Luciano Chessa (musical saw)—Maggi Payne (“Theremin Morph: Step inside and play a suped up Theremin!”)—Lucky Dragons (Luke Fischbeck and Sarah Rara)—Amy X Neuburg (who tag teams with Paul Dresher in this space each year)—Larnie Fox and the Crank Ensemble (whose hand-cranked instruments are a mechanical version of a loop)—Beth Custer (Stephen Kent’s didgeridus are in the background)—Dylan Mattingly (cello) and Eli Wirtschafter (violin)—Cornelius Cardew Choir (performing Pauline Oliveros’s Heart Chant)—Orchestra Nostalgico (playing Ennio Morricone on the outdoor plaza).

SF’s Annual Switchboard Music Festival Celebrates the Eclectic


You never know exactly what you’ll encounter when you walk into the annual Switchboard Music Festival, but bass clarinets are a safe bet. This marathon-format festival, which has been running for six years, was founded by composer Ryan Brown and two bass clarinet-playing colleagues, Jeff Anderle and Jonathan Russell (who is also a composer). Together they craft a gleefully eclectic eight-hour extravaganza at the Brava Theater consisting of music that avoids easy characterization. There are equal parts notated and un-notated music; improvisation and mad counting are both represented. Since the printed program offers just bare bones information without bios or notes, each set is a surprise entry into an unexpected sound realm, always a contrast from the acts that have come before.

Switchboard directors Jeff Anderle (left), Ryan Brown, Jonathan Russell, trying to locate raffle winners

Switchboard directors Jeff Anderle (left), Ryan Brown, Jonathan Russell, trying to locate raffle winners

The inaugural festival’s lineup in 2008 concentrated entirely on Bay Area-based artists. As Switchboard has grown, the San Francisco focus remains primary but artists from outside the area have started to be added to the programming. I heard eight of the 13 sets this year, the full list of which can be found here. The day began at 2 p.m. with Tin Hat accordionist Rob Reich’s quintet (accordion/piano, clarinets, vibraphone, acoustic bass, and drums) performing Reich’s music as a jazz/chamber music ensemble. They were followed in quick order by a flute trio, a free improvisation quartet that included double reeds and koto, and a power rock/free jazz set.

Rob Reich Quintet (with Beth Custer on bass clarinet)

Rob Reich Quintet (with Beth Custer on bass clarinet)

The notated-music bill included piano and percussion duo futureCities, the Areon Flutes trio, a collaboration between the two duos Sqwonk and ZOFO, the band/chamber ensemble Build, and Ignition Duo, a just-established guitar duo that I wasn’t able to hear, playing a new work by Brown. futureCities (Bay Area-based pianist Anne Rainwater and New York-based percussionist Jude Traxler) opened their short set with Traxler playing a Stylophone in Can You Hear Me?, a two-movement piece built on Morse code composed by Wally Gunn, who is a doctoral candidate at Princeton, where Brown and Russell are also studying.

Areon Flutes, based in San Jose and the first flute ensemble to have medaled in the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition, performed the world premiere of Chthonic Suite by Cornelius Boots. Boots is a longtime Switchboard colleague, having founded Edmund Welles, the bass clarinet quartet that Anderle and Russell performed with prior to forming Sqwonk, a bass clarinet duo. Boots, a master of woodwind instruments of all kinds, wrote a three-movement piece that begins with an alto flute solo and adds one instrument in each movement. Particularly memorable was the second movement, “Enantiodromia,” a duet where Jill Heinke and Kassey Plaha wove melodies into Glass-like arpeggiations before trading breaths in a hocket, audibly breathing into their instruments.

Kassey Plaha (left) & Jill Heinke of Areon Flutes, performing “Enantiodromia" from Chthonic Suite

Kassey Plaha (left) & Jill Heinke of Areon Flutes, performing “Enantiodromia” from Chthonic Suite

Build, the Brooklyn quintet (violin, cello, bass, piano, drums) led by composer Matt McBane, was one of the two headlining acts to close the festival. They played a six-song set mostly of material from their albums Build and Place. This group, which McBane formed in 2006, exemplifies the “between the cracks” music that Switchboard aims to champion, being both an instrumental indie band and a chamber music ensemble interested in notated process music with mathematical underpinnings.

Among those artists working further afield from the classical/notated music realm was Billygoat, a project of David Klein and Nick Woolley, who create mind-bogglingly complex stop-motion animation films in their garage in Portland, Oregon, score them, and then perform the works live with the film projections. The films are filled with Tarot symbols and mythical figures in states of transformation, providing a dream-state, non-logical narrative. On stage, Klein and Woolley are a two-man band playing an array of instruments ranging from synthesizers and electric guitar to recorder, glockenspiel, and other percussion, with some vocals and whistling in the mix as well. The scores are not harmonically complex but are complementary to the films, which are visually rich and compelling.

Along with Sqwonk, who performed As It Goes Along by Oakland composer Moe! Staiano (which I didn’t get to hear) and Sqwonkzoforus Rex, an entertaining heavy-footed romp by Russell for Sqwonk and the piano duo ZOFO, the day’s bass clarinet tally increased with Brooklynite Michael Lowenstern. Through the live sampling and looping of his instrument, as well as some body and vocal percussion and a harmonica, Lowenstern presented a thoroughly charming and humorous set. For one piece, titled Lost in Translation, two unwitting audience members were invited onto the stage to flirt virtually by triggering samples of phrasebook sentences heavy with double entendres.

Michael Lowenstern

Michael Lowenstern

The peak energy level during the day came from the trio Unnatural Ways, led by avant garde electric guitarist Ava Mendoza, with Dominique Leone on synthesizers and Nick Tamburro on drums. Oakland-based Mendoza, a Mills College alumna who has studied with Nels Cline and Fred Frith, started Unnatural Ways as a duo with Tamburro and added Leone early last year. Fresh off a 14-date European tour, the three had clear lines of communication that allowed them to power through a loud set of experimental rock/free jazz that took great delight in drawing from many musical sources, abruptly shifting tempos, and timing the waves of energy crashing in the room. It wasn’t really mid-afternoon music, but I appreciated the chance to hear this performance by artists who wouldn’t necessarily have crossed my path, which is what Switchboard is all about.

Unnnatural Ways: Ava Mendoza (left), Nick Tamburro, Dominique Leone

Unnnatural Ways: Ava Mendoza (left), Nick Tamburro, Dominique Leone

Old First Concerts Offer Exceptional Chamber Music

Old First Concerts, a series founded in 1970 in a Presbyterian church in San Francisco, presented two exceptional young chamber ensembles performing contemporary music on consecutive Fridays in late March. Both concerts demonstrated O1C’s commitment to emerging and mid-career artists who are exploring non-standard repertoire. The City of Tomorrow, a wind quintet, offered a program comprising 20th- and 21st-century repertoire; the entire Mobius Trio performance consisted of works written specially for their acoustic guitar trio. The series itself has a small but regular and enthusiastic following—an audience willing to sit in hard wooden church pews to hear a broad range of unfamiliar music.

The City of Tomorrow

The City of Tomorrow: Laura Miller (left), Elise Blatchford, Leander Star, Camila Barrientos, Andrew Nogal
Photo by Tarina Westlund

The City of Tomorrow, gold medalists in the 2011 Fischoff Chamber Music Competition, performed on March 15 as part of their first West Coast tour. Two members of the quintet—French hornist Leander Star and flutist Elise Blatchford—are alumni of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Star mentioned that, coincidentally, the two first met at Old First Church. The idea for the quintet formed later, when Star and oboist Andrew Nogal were both graduate students at Northwestern. Since then the other seats have been filled by Camila Barrientos on clarinet and by bassoonist Laura Miller, the group’s newest member, who joined in July of last year.

Despite the fact that the members are scattered across the country—Blatchford and Star are now in Portland, Oregon, while Barrientos is back East in New York; Nogal remained in Chicago, while Miller is down in Austin—this quintet plays with an extraordinary sense of ensemble, not just in terms of rhythmic precision but in tone color, balance, gesture, and sensitivity. Most astonishing in this regard was Luciano Berio’s virtuosic Ricorrenze, which The City of Tomorrow performed sitting in a straight line, facing the audience. Composed in 1987 for Pierre Boulez’s 60th birthday, this piece is filled with recurring quick chatterings and murmurings on one pitch tossed among the instruments. The notes are repeated using a variety of methods, including quick tongue articulations, flutter tonguing, and an interesting technique where single pitches are trilled using alternate fingerings, by which Berio creates the perception of rearticulation in the trembling wah-wah-wahs that result. Amid the chatter, individual soloistic voices pop into relief, and at times all musicians play elaborate grace note figures simultaneously before returning to their nattering. (A very brief excerpt of The City of Tomorrow performing this 16-minute piece is included below.) Despite minimal eye contact given the seating arrangement, these musicians brought off the playfulness of Berio’s colorful and intricately intertwined conversation.

Also programmed were Darius Milhaud’s exquisitely lyrical and restrained La cheminée du roi René (1939), the U.S. premiere of British composer Rob Keeley’s Wind Quintet (2003/2011), and Magnus Lindberg’s Arabesques (1978). The long liquid lines of “Cortège,” the first movement of the Milhaud, were an immediately charming introduction to the second half of the program, and a stark contrast to the extroverted and high-intensity Arabesques, which followed. Written 35 years ago, shortly after Lindberg became acquainted with Berio’s music, Arabesques juxtaposes periods of constant noisy activity with striking events such as abruptly highlighting the oboe alone playing multiphonics or sounding the bassoon unexpectedly in the extreme low register.

The group, which takes its name from a Billy Collins poem and describes itself as “retro-futurist,” expresses the desire to become an ensemble that is generating new music for wind quintet. Though they have presented the North American premieres of the Keeley quintet and Blow by Franco Donatoni, to date they haven’t had any works written specifically for them. However, composers interested in exploring the possibilities of this instrumentation should get to know this skilled ensemble; The City of Tomorrow performs the same program with the addition of Jennifer Higdon’s sextet Summer Shimmers with pianist Katya Mihailova, at the Dimmena Center in their New York debut on April 19.


Mobius Trio

Mobius Trio: Mason Fish (left), Robert Nance, Matthew Holmes-Linder

The members of the Mobius Trio, which performed on March 22, are all alumni of the San Francisco Conservatory. In contrast to the members of The City of Tomorrow, who were attired in formal concert garb, the three young men of Mobius (Mason Fish, Matthew Holmes-Linder, and Robert Nance) came out in jeans and khakis, casual sport coats, and hardy boots, which were prominently displayed on the players’ foot rests and elicited much comment at intermission. Their dress reflected the comfortable and unburdened presence that these exceptional musicians have on stage, despite performing very intricate repertoire. Also unlike City of Tomorrow, all of the group’s music has been written explicitly for them; the group started in 2010 with five commissions from colleagues and friends, and works have been accruing since then, with a world premiere by Kevin Villalta at this performance. (An additional premiere by Samuel Carl Adams was initially scheduled but postponed.)

Mobius Trio at Old First Church

Mobius Trio at Old First Church

Four of the seven works on this program—pieces by Sahba Aminikia, Danny Clay, Dan Becker, and Brendon Randall-Myers—were included on the trio’s recent debut CD, which was covered on NewMusicBox last year. Of the three new works, More Gargoyles by guitarist and composer Frank Wallace was the least concerned with the exploration of extended techniques and relied instead on Mobius’s superb group sensitivity both in the tender waltz in the first section of the work and a final, intimate duet between Holmes-Linder and Nance. Likewise Adrian Knight’s Bon Voyage showcased the group’s gentle playing by focusing a microscope on the instruments: the three acoustic guitarists, playing entirely on harmonics, were amplified. The steady eighth-note arpeggiations that underlie nearly the entire piece create the sense of a delicate miniature music box, with the soft hazy decay of the vibrating strings quietly hypnotizing the room.

Villalta’s Witch Wagon was inspired by a Salvadoran folk tale about a wagon eternally rattling through the streets as a warning against immorality. The composer searched out sonic possibilities, from strumming all the way up by the pegs to tapping all around the body, transforming the three guitars into a single unrecognizable folk instrument. Strings were detuned and clamped, sometimes yielding a bracing and unsettling moaning effect. There were times when it was really not clear to my ear or eye how certain percussive and metallic sounds were achieved, and by the time the first chord with a recognizable guitar resonance was strummed, it was an unexpected event. In less secure hands the piece might have sounded like a collection of arbitrary sound effects, but Villalta and Mobius created a compelling sonic portrait that was simultaneously detailed and non-narrative.

The natural ease of Mobius’s playing and their unforced integration of inventive ways of using their instruments into their solid base of traditional technique made for a consistently excellent evening. It’s clear from the unity of their playing that the members of Mobius genuinely love making music together, cuing each other with just the lift of an eyebrow or even a hint of a smile. The group next performs on the Peninsula Guitar Series in San Bruno, California, on May 4. Their CD Last Light is available here.