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, a gleefully eclectic eight-hour extravaganza at the Brava Theater consisting of music that avoids easy characterization.
— Switchboard Music (@switchbdmusic) March 24, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.