Tag: Bay Area music scene

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

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