Tag: Bay Area

In the Bay Area: Cahill at the Piano and Music@Menlo

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 Music@Menlo

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 Music@Menlo 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 Music@Menlo

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 Music@Menlo 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

All Bets Are Off: the West Coast Premiere of David Lang’s battle hymns

In the fall of 1996, I joined teachers, parents, students, and alumni at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium for a high school football game. The stadium hummed with an expectancy that indicated this was no ordinary match-up; this was the Bruce-Mahoney game. Played between two cross-town rival high schools since the 1940s, for a trophy named in memory of two alumni who lost their lives in World War II, the Bruce-Mahoney binds generations of San Franciscans together in history and community.

For many years, the two schools played their basketball games in the adjacent Kezar Pavilion, and I could easily recall the din of squeaky sneakers, referees’ whistles, and screaming spectators as I took my seat on the cold, hard bleachers for the West Coast premiere of David Lang’s battle hymns. Presented by Volti and the San Francisco Choral Society on April 26, 27, and 28, battle hymns benefited from its setting in ways that no one who created the production likely imagined. During the performance, I felt connected to all the San Franciscans who had cheered and lamented the wins and losses played by the city’s youth in that very building. It’s an old gymnasium, no stranger to passion and commitment, and the 75-minute, soul-baring performance of battle hymns seemed right at home there.

David Lang’s battle hymns

Volti, the San Francisco Choral Society, and the Leah Stein Dance Company joined forces to present David Lang’s battle hymns. Photo by Mike Morelli.

Lang’s large-scale reflection on war comprises five sections, or songs, three of which use Stephen Foster lyrics as their basis. The production in San Francisco began with a foreshadowing of the third section of the work. A sole member of the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir emerged from underneath the empty section of bleachers where she had been hiding and sang in pure tone: “I’ll be a soldier.” She was then joined in overlapping succession by other young choristers scattered around the gymnasium. The children’s voices bloomed in the austere space, the unisons and perfect intervals creating a layered bed of diatonic harmonies.
The acoustics of the room worked in favor of Lang’s post-minimalist harmonic language; occasionally, though, the blended sound obscured the text. Volti and the San Francisco Choral Society combined to form a darkly uniformed corps of more than 100 singers, and as they sang—relentlessly, in precise homophony—a litany of alphabetized fragments from a Civil War soldier’s letter to his wife, I was grateful for the lone tenor (David Kurtenbach) walking the perimeter of the space and singing the same text fragments out of sync with his cohorts. His enunciation was crisp and clear. Interweaving repetitions, used throughout battle hymns, allowed me to catch snippets of texts, even when they disappeared into the hypnotic musical fabric.

San Francisco Choral Society and Volti

Attired in uniform, the massed choir consisted of singers from the San Francisco Choral Society and Volti, the Bay Area’s premiere new music vocal ensemble. Both groups are directed by Robert Geary. Photo by Mike Morelli.

The second section of battle hymns is a setting of the lyrics to Stephen Foster’s “Was My Brother in the Battle?” (Lang’s version is titled “tell me.”) In the San Francisco production, the adult choir asserted its role as it often would, physically, forming two impenetrable rows diagonally across the performance space. Over an insistent ground bass phrase, “tell me,” the choir asked questions about a soldier’s fate, “did he struggle? did he fall?” The response was cruel consolation. Leah Stein’s dancers crossed their hands over their mouths in shades of mute grief, awful uncertainty, and the refusal to reply. At the end of “tell me,” the children’s choir assembled downstage, singing with their hands over their mouths in the same choreographic gesture as Stein’s dancers. Their vocalizations swelled into an ethereal sound reminiscent of crickets on a summer evening. This was one of battle hymns’ most powerful moments.

Scene from David Lang's battle hymns

One of Leah Stein’s dancers (right) places her hand on the shoulder of a singer from the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir. Photo by Mike Morelli.

As a choral work, battle hymns could stand on its own as a concert piece (and at far less expense than the production I saw). Yet the choreography created by Leah Stein, who co-commissioned battle hymns for its premiere in 2009 in Philadelphia, helped extend the emotional pitch of the piece beyond the formality of concert music. As a dancer flexed and straightened her arm and wrist in semaphore-like movements, I felt compelled to try to understand her cryptic signals. Life and death seemed to depend on it. Moments later, the dancers crumpled randomly to the floor as if knocked from above by a great unseen hand. The choreographed activities—whether scrappy, contact-driven, or rhythmic—responded to the thematic content in ways that supercharged my own response to the work as a whole.

The Leah Stein Dance Company

The Leah Stein Dance Company, dressed in rugged khakis and wearing boots, played counterpoint to the singers’ orderly formations. Photo by Mike Morelli.

In “I’ll be a soldier,” battle hymns’ third section and a reprise of the opening, a portion of the audience was led to the center of the performance space. The stern-faced adult chorus members surrounded the “active audience” on three sides. Downstage, essentially sandwiched by two audiences, the children’s chorus seemed to play at lining themselves up in formation, while the dancers punctuated the spaces in between. The simplicity of Lang’s compositional language—warm, open choral harmonies, melodies descending the natural minor scale—was totally immersive; I felt myself becoming the “I” of the refrain, “I’ll be a soldier.” Who was a participant and who was an onlooker? Seeing the active audience in their contemporary street clothes through the scrim of dancers and children did not clarify matters. When the children collapsed to the floor, miming death, we all seemed equally responsible and helpless.

At the end of battle hymns, Lang’s setting of Stephan Foster’s “beautiful dreamer” renders the adult choir—the once-formidable corps—helpless. The chorus sang as if in slow motion, drawing vowels out to a point that distorted the syntax, erasing any similarity to Foster’s tune. The pure vocal tones were freely punctuated by whispers, gasps, and muttered repetitions of “beautiful dreamer, beautiful, beautiful.” Significantly, the performers wandered the entire space, no longer in any kind of regimented formation. They appeared shell-shocked, or transfigured, unified only in sound, not in body. The piece drew to a close as one member of the children’s chorus walked solemnly forward. Reluctant to break the spell, the audience sat in silence for several long minutes, a rare admission of their engagement in the shared experience.

I was bewildered and astonished sixteen years ago when that football game I attended ended in a tie. What, no overtime? But a draw it was, and with the other stunned teachers, parents, and students, I bundled myself against the chill fog and climbed the stadium steps in silence. Everyone was subdued, some quietly murmuring as they drifted across the parking lot. Our dispersion mirrored the final scene of battle hymns. The kids had fought a good fight, in honor of young men who had done the same before them, but no one had won. Resigned, all we could do was wander home. Mine is a provincial perspective, perhaps, but battle hymns in San Francisco was all the more poignant and powerful because of its site-specific echo of local history. I am hard-pressed to imagine it performed as successfully, in the Bay Area, anywhere else.

Kezar Pavilion

The back side of Kezar Pavilion, viewed from Kezar Stadium. The stadium was the original home of the San Francisco 49ers, and it continues to host high school games. Kezar Pavilion was an atypical but fitting venue for the West Coast premiere of David Lang’s battle hymns.

Visitations: Theotokia and The War Reporter Premiere at Stanford University

The first time I tried to find the new Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University, I wound up half a mile in the opposite direction and face to face with several of Auguste Rodin’s tortured sculptures. The Stanford campus is a gorgeous, messy sprawl in the rolling hills west of Palo Alto, and it is easy to lose all sense of direction there. Signs point to nearby buildings, but it can be maddening to find one’s way beyond what the eye can see. This, however, is the classic Stanford experience: amidst the miles of wild grasses and coast live oaks, intellectual ideas—in juxtaposition to one’s expectations and carefully crafted intentions—find a way of becoming novel interdisciplinary realizations.

Bing Concert Hall

The intimate 842-seat Bing Concert Hall opened in January 2013 and hosted “Visitations,” a double-bill of one-act operas, on April 12 and 13.

Stanford was thus the perfect setting for the world premieres of Jonathan Berger’s two chamber operas, Theotokia and The War Reporter. Each work explores the interior psyche of men haunted by voices, presenting an expansive psychological inquiry in addition to a contained musical experience. Berger and his creative team, including librettist Dan O’Brien and director Rinde Eckert, treated this complex topic with an economy of means. Backed by an ensemble of nine instrumentalists, the four men of New York Polyphony, along with soprano Heather Buck, deftly covered all the singing roles. O’Brien’s lean text and Eckert’s straightforward direction also emphasized the intimate qualities of chamber opera.

New York Polyphony press photos, November, 2011.

The male vocal quartet New York Polyphony. Geoffrey Williams (far right) gave a tender and ferocious performance as a schizophrenic in Theotokia.
Photo by Chris Owyoung.

Theotokia, presented in eight brief scenes, eschews a traditional narrative arc for the fragmented world of poetry. Leon, performed by countertenor Geoffrey Williams, is a schizophrenic taunted by the voices of three religious figures (sung in virtuosic alternations by Buck). In the third scene, Leon, clothed in a drab, unbuckled straightjacket, expresses his frustration at not being able to quiet the voices though, significantly, not through song. Williams began quietly, tentatively rapping his hands against the sides of the resonant box on which he sat, before surrendering to more formal, frenzied rhythmic patterns. His fierce performance clearly suggested his character’s helplessness and anger; it was frightening. The opera concludes with Leon’s awareness that he is, in fact, mentally ill, and the final quiet notes played by the pianist underscored his resignation.


Heather Buck, Craig Phillips, Christopher Dylan Herbert, Geoffrey Williams, and Steven Caldicott Wilson in Theotokia.
Photo by Joel Simon.

I couldn’t help but compare Theotokia to Pierrot Lunaire, since both works feature characters haunted by the machinations of their own minds. The tender sympathy I felt for Leon was mixed with a measure of distrust, a conflict of sentiments that I typically reserve for the dithering Pierrot. Perhaps aware that viewers might grow skeptical of a mentally unstable protagonist, Berger, like Schoenberg, calls upon the instrumentalists to hold the listeners in the psycho-musical realm. The instrumental writing fascinates at just the right moments, supporting what is otherwise a delicate psychological experience. I somehow didn’t mind when Buck’s Yeti Mother sang passionately about dung, so long as the piano conjured a smoky Berlin cabaret behind her. Steven Schick’s wild percussion solo transformed Leon’s earlier lament into what sounded like a masterfully improvised cadenza. And I held my breath as the violin (and then the clarinet) matched the pitch and dynamic of a fading vocal line, extending a thread of sound beyond what seemed acoustically possible.

Berger, who is a professor at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), surprised me with the subtlety of his electroacoustic soundscape. I’d anticipated a fully transformative ambisonic environment, but the materials used (bells, low-frequency metallic drones) were, for the most part, mere extensions of the instrumental parts. The refined blend between the acoustic instruments (particularly the percussion) and the electronic soundscape suggested that hallucinatory voices could present themselves as, simply, a distortion of what is already familiar.

Jonathan Berger

Berger is a professor of music at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), where his research emphasizes relationships between music, science, and technology.
Photo by Nicholas Jensen.

In contrast to Theotokia’s candlelit Shaker simplicity and pale costumes, The War Reporter began with stark video projections and panning audio, and felt altogether more edgy and sinister. The men wore black suits. And sunglasses. The opera takes a direct narrative approach: from the opening line, “Have you seen the American soldier?” we bear witness to one man’s actions, as well the consequences of those actions both on his status as a photographer and on his psyche as someone racked with guilt. Finally, we recognize his attempts to make some peace with the demons in his mind.

Also commissioned by Stanford Live, The War Reporter tells the true story of Paul Watson, a photojournalist haunted by the voice of an American soldier he photographed while on assignment in Somalia. Baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert owned the role of Watson, singing in beautiful defiance of the capacity of a single human breath. Herbert sang through ends of phrases with seemingly infinite decrescendos, setting the listener adrift in the fog of his character’s mind. When a single instrument continues this thread of sound, it feels—as in Theotokia—as if time stands still. With curvy irregularities from floor to ceiling, the acoustics of Bing Hall may have assisted in drawing attention to these moments of close relationship between the vocal and instrumental parts. Yet I suspect the magic had more to do with Berger’s writing and Herbert’s performance than with the undulating panels of beech and cedar.

Chris Herbert and Heather Buck

Christopher Dylan Herbert as photojournalist Paul Watson, and Heather Buck as his psychiatrist, in The War Reporter.
Photo by Joel Simon.

The premiere of the two operas was held in conjunction with Stanford’s “Music and Brain” symposium. Now in its seventh year, and held at CCRMA, the conference featured experts in the fields of psychology, music, and communications. Diana Deutsch, a professor of psychology at UC San Diego, was the first speaker on Saturday morning’s program, and her presentation included a definition of musical hallucinations in startling counterpoint to Berger’s operas. According to Deutsch, hallucinated music is virtually impossible to recall or imagine voluntarily because it generally consists of superimposed musical styles, cracked or distorted instruments, or “impossible” techniques, such as a person singing longer than a breath could allow.  Her description of these phenomena reminded me of Herbert’s performance as Paul Watson and of how his approach to the vocal line, in combination with Berger’s sleight-of-hand orchestration, effectively placed us in the faltering expanse of Watson’s mind.
One only needs to lunch with a member of the CCRMA faculty to get the sense that, at Stanford, music is never enough. It is always “music and —.” Music and anthropology. Music and psychology. Music and acoustic modeling. This view of music through the lens of the hard sciences sometimes strikes me as fantastic, but perhaps such interdisciplinary relationships are no more strange than those forged between music, art, and literature. Between the premiere of Berger’s operas, the symposium, and trekking from one end of the Stanford campus to the other, I was reminded that the juxtaposition of art and science, idea and exploration, yields results that are often as intriguing as they are unexpected.

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.

BluePrint and Mobius Trio Demo SF Conservatory Talent

Nicole Paiement

Nicole Paiement, founder and artistic director of the BluePrint new music concert series
Photo by Matthew Washburn/SF Conservatory of Music

Ten years ago, conductor Nicole Paiement started a concert series based at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music called BluePrint, a new music “project” specifically devoted to performances of contemporary music. The series’ performers are drawn from both the student body and the faculty of the conservatory, while the selection of composers is not limited by the boundaries of the school’s campus. BluePrint’s current three-concert season focuses attention on composers with roots in Latin America, though many of them (including Osvaldo Golijov, Carlos Sánchez Gutiérrez, and Roberto Sierra) currently live in the United States.

The November 17 concert at the conservatory’s Concert Hall featured four works by established composers (rather than students) for chamber ensembles and chamber orchestra. Paiement led the school’s New Music Ensemble in a performance of Gabriela Lena Frank’s Manchay Tiempo, for strings, piano, harp, timpani, and four percussionists, with her trademark crystal-clear conducting style; even viewed from the audience her beat patterns were easily readable throughout this complex, mixed-meter work. Frank, who is a Bay Area native of mixed ancestry which includes a strong Peruvian influence, translates the Spanish/Quechua title as “Time of Fear,” and relates it to childhood nighttime dreams about her mother being in danger. This evocative 13-minute piece begins with the rumbling of distant thunder and, with the entrances of solo strings playing harmonics and a sweep of the harp, Frank quickly establishes a mysterious and ominous place. The work is frequently unsettling, with aggressive wood slaps punctuating the music, and small germs that expand through dramatic crescendos into intense, driving rhythmic material. The work returns to the sound of distant thunder at the end, and closes with a lone solo viola voice gently breathing a slowly oscillating major third.

Also under Paiement’s baton, a student chamber ensemble and mezzo-soprano Kelly Newberry were given the opportunity to perform the premiere of an expanded and reorchestrated version of Chris Pratorius’s Madrigal: Neruda’s Poema XX, a work that he has returned to several times over the years. Pratorius, also based in the Bay Area, is half Guatemalan and a native Spanish speaker. His affection for Pablo Neruda’s famous Poema XX, from his Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty love poems and a song of despair), is evident from his careful text setting as well as his English translation, which was provided in the program. The narrator of the poem speaks longingly of a woman loved and lost, and counter to expectation Pratorius scores the work for mezzo-soprano, with a chamber ensemble of flute, bassoon, violin, viola, bass, harp, and percussion. Pratorius’s setting allowed for clear delivery of this passionate text throughout, at times alternating vocal statements with instrumental interludes, and scoring appropriately according to the singer’s range. Inspired by Monteverdi’s madrigals, Pratorius fills the work with moments of word painting, letting the bassoon quietly deliver a melody as the poet speaks of someone singing far away, and placing the harp in the high register when the narrator mourns his loss under starry skies. The work is framed at the beginning and end by low strings and harp, quietly laying the ground for a work steeped in memory and loss.

The BluePrint series is an excellent ongoing opportunity for students of the conservatory, at both the undergraduate and graduate level, to perform contemporary repertoire, sometimes independent of Paiement, and occasionally alongside faculty as fellow performers. A student woodwind quintet presented the oldest work on the program, Mario Lavista’s Cinco Danzas Breves from 1994 (though a recent recording of the work by the Bay Area woodwind quintet Quinteto Latino perhaps better revealed the dance-like qualities of Lavista’s self-described divertimenti). David Tanenbaum, the well-known advocate of contemporary guitar music who is also chair of the guitar department at the school, joined a student string quartet for Jorge Liderman’s fiendishly challenging Aged Tunes. The late Argentinean Liderman, who taught in the Bay Area at University of California, Berkeley, originally wrote Aged Tunes for Tanenbaum and Cuarteto Latinoamericano. The student quartet gave a solid performance, though one marred by some technical issues, but it was Tanenbaum who brought out the rhythmic clarity, singing lyricism, and playfulness of the piece.


Mobius Trio

Mobius Trio: (l to r) Mason Fish, Matthew Holmes-Linder, Robert Nance

There were no such performance concerns at a house concert celebrating the release of Last Light, a new CD by the Mobius Trio, a classical guitar trio composed of three recent San Francisco Conservatory graduates who studied with Sergio Assad and Tanenbaum. In the relaxed environment of this small private event for friends, family, and Kickstarter donors (plus one party-crashing writer), the Mobius Trio gave entirely serious performances of four works from the album, which exclusively contains music written for these talented and enthusiastic young musicians. Robert Nance and Matthew Holmes-Linder play six-string guitars, and Mason Fish performs on a seven-string instrument with an extended bass range that was crafted by Gregory Byers, a well-known luthier in Mendocino County.

Nearly all of the eight composers on the album are the Mobius Trio’s contemporaries, born in the 1980s; most were also students at the conservatory. (The outlier is Dan Becker, who is chair of the school’s composition department and taught several of the other composers.) All exhibit a comfortable familiarity with the guitar’s extensive possibilities – many of these composers are guitarists themselves – and Mobius executes the dizzying array of techniques and technical challenges written for them with ease and expressivity.

Last Light

Among the four pieces performed at the house concert was Making Good Choices by composer/guitarist Brendon Randall-Myers, who lived in the Bay Area for several years before entering Yale as a master’s candidate this fall. Randall-Myers takes full advantage of Mobius’s technical versatility in this piece, constantly surprising the ear by using different parts of the finger board and the body of the instrument, exploring multiple ways of eliciting sound from the strings, building dialogues between unpitched rhythmic material and harmonic motion, and juxtaposing dynamic extremes. By contrast, a place that inhabits us by Danny Clay (also a guitarist) revealed Mobius’s lyrical playing in a personal and heartfelt work that avoided being uncomfortably earnest through unexpected timbral choices and some genuinely tender melodic writing. (Excerpts from both pieces can be heard on the video Mobius produced for their successful Kickstarter campaign, which reached its goal in just five days.)

From a performance of Persian Dances by Sahba Aminikia at the Kennedy Center.
The trio formed only in 2010, but from the unity of their playing and the constant musical conversation that is visible to the eye in performance one could easily believe that they had been playing together for much longer than that. Last Light is a self-released recording project; the albums is currently available digitally at CD Baby. Even as a casual listener I’ve returned to this CD several times this week; for those NewMusicBox readers who compose for classical guitar, you should certainly check out this album and the Mobius Trio.

Composers, Inc. Introduces San Francisco Opera Brass; Subotnick Revisits Silver Apples

Composers, Inc. continued its 29th season of presenting contemporary American music this month with a performance of diverse works for small ensembles as part of the Old First Concerts series in San Francisco. Founded in 1984 by composers Frank La Rocca and Martin Rokeach as an avenue to get their own and their colleagues’ music heard in the Bay Area, Composers, Inc. has remained a composer-driven organization with six composers acting jointly as artistic directors. (La Rocca tells the story of the organization’s genesis here.) Three of the six—La Rocca, Robert Greenberg, and Jeffrey Miller—were represented on the November 13 program.

The San Francisco Opera Brass

The San Francisco Opera Brass, conducted by Dennis Doubin, performing Jeffrey Miller’s Sonata à 11.

The program was titled Brass de Deux, a word play combining the title of Wayne Peterson’s Pas de Deux (performed by flutist Tod Brody and percussionist Jack Van Geem) and the featured artists on the second half of the program: members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra’s brass section performing for the first time as the San Francisco Opera Brass. For the occasion, Miller wrote Sonata à 11, inspired by Gabrieli, and La Rocca transcribed his 1998 a cappella choral work Exaudi for brass choir. Both works received their premiere performances at this concert.

La Rocca’s body of work includes a particular focus on settings of sacred texts for unaccompanied choir. In the original version of Exaudi, La Rocca set sections of four different Psalms, including Psalm 130 (De profundis clamavi, Out of the depths I cry). The choral version was for 12 parts (a perusal score and recording are available here); in transcribing to brass choir, the number of parts was reduced to 11 (3 trumpet, 5 horns, 2 trombones, 1 bass trombone). The vocal writing, full of solemn, extended lines, suspensions, and densely stacked chords, translated well to the unified and rich sound of the San Francisco Opera Brass, which amply filled the church without being overwhelming.

Likewise, Miller’s Sonata à 11 (scored similarly but with a tuba replacing the 5th horn) took advantage of the expansive playing of the San Francisco Opera Brass. As a former trombonist with experience playing Gabrieli’s antiphonal music, Miller wrote for the full and regal quality of the brass choir, placing sustained low brass chords as a bed under more rhythmic trumpet gestures, and horns as a chamber choir embedded in the whole. There was a sense of contained, majestic energy to the San Francisco Opera Brass’s playing in both works that was settled and satisfying.

This was in contrast to two barnburner pieces in the first half of the program, which tapped into a more vigorous and extroverted energy. The evening opened with Greenberg’s Rarified Air (1999) for clarinet, violin, and piano, which takes its title from “that thin, clear high layer of air…known as the stratosphere,” as the composer writes in the program note. The opening and closing movements of this four-movement work, performed with gusto by Rob Bailis (clarinet), Michael Nicholas (violin), and Hadley McCarroll (piano), were dynamic and rhythmically engaging, propelled forward like a train in motion. The more introspective middle movements explored different ranges, establishing a dialogue between the piano and clarinet both in their low registers in the second movement, and placing a clarinet melody and violin obbligato over a mid-range piano chorale with jazz-infused harmonies in the third.

David Biedenbender’s you’ve been talking in your sleep, performed by PRISM Quartet.

The one piece from this program that I’ve since revisited simply for pleasure’s sake is David Biedenbender’s saxophone quartet you’ve been talking in your sleep, performed by the Premiere Saxophone Quartet. (The recording above is by PRISM, for whom the piece was written; a perusal score is available on Biedenbeder’s site if you want to follow along.) In his spoken intro, Biedenbender described one section as being like space alien funk, and indeed the whole single-movement piece explodes into a strange and super groovy late-night sax dance party after some quietly sighing pitch bends in the opening to set the scene. While most of the work is built on complex interlocking rhythmic patterns, there are two homophonic sections that reveal just how precise and virtuosic the performers need to be. (A special shout-out to Aaron Lington, whose nimble baritone sax playing provided an always solid ground for the quartet to work from.) At the end of the piece, Biedenbender sends the soprano sax up into the stratosphere with some screams that were shockingly eyebrow-raising, with pitch bends that echoed the opening but to completely different effect.

you’ve been talking in your sleep was one of two works chosen from 300 entries by Composers, Inc.’s artistic directors for this year’s Suzanne and Lee Ettelson Award, which is open to new chamber works (for up to five musicians) by American composers. The second work selected was Gold Rush for five violins by Indiana University doctoral candidate Ryan Chase (audio here), which will receive a performance at Composers, Inc.’s April 2013 concert. Composers, Inc. is soliciting applications for next year’s award now; the postmark deadline is December 1.


Morton Subotnick performs Silver Apples of the Moon

Morton Subotnick, right, performs Silver Apples of the Moon, while SUE-C creates real-time live video imagery.

If my Facebook feed is to be believed, that same evening a big chunk of the Bay Area new music community (myself included) suddenly became aware that at the end of the week Morton Subotnick was coming back to San Francisco, where he had co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center, to perform his groundbreaking 1967 work Silver Apples of the Moon live at SFMOMA. Presented in the museum’s Phyllis Wattis Theater on November 15, the performance had Subotnick with a Buchla 200e modular analog synthesizer routed through Ableton Live on one side of the stage and Bay Area video artist SUE-C on the other. Speakers were positioned around the hall, which allowed the opportunity to hear the familiar burbles and tick-tick-ticks moving around in space in quadraphonic sound, rather than the stereo configuration that first made the piece famous.

During the intro and the Q&A afterwards, Subotnick addressed the question of why a work commissioned by a record label (Nonesuch Records), which was inspired by the idea of a new technological paradigm allowing for a new genre of music that exists in a fixed form on recorded media, would need a live performance. His response was two-fold: first, that it allowed for collaboration with another artist, in this case visual artist SUE-C with whom he had worked before at Ars Electronica; and also that it allowed him access to a full palette of sounds while remixing the original work on the spot. For this performance Subotnick utilized elements of Silver Apples, revisiting and transforming them through Ableton, and combined it with A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur from 1978. SUE-C created a parallel and complementary performance, manipulating materials including Mardi Gras beads, a paintbrush, faceted glass from a headlight, and a sheet of brass mesh under the lens of a video camera, and projecting the processed result.

The Buchla 200e

The Buchla 200e: “Select some modules, button them up in a 200e cabinet, and you’re off and running with the most sophisticated analog system ever built.”
Photo by Gina Basso/SFMOMA

Bay Area Alive with Music

Oakland Active Orchestra at Soundwave

Oakland Active Orchestra at Soundwave

September was chock-a-block with musical activity in the San Francisco Bay Area. The month ended on Sunday with one of those extraordinarily warm and beautiful days that makes the whole city gloat with pride, and Soundwave had the good fortune of scheduling the final concert of their summer-long festival in an outdoor venue with a clear blue sky overhead. Soundwave is an ambitious and multi-disciplinary biennial series founded by Alan So that has been running since 2004, featuring not just concerts but also exhibitions/installations, panel discussions, and other performance events that merge sound or music with, say, Zen meditation or wilderness exploration. This year’s festival included around 15 events in a variety of indoor and outdoor locations around San Francisco.

Sunday’s event was essentially a straightforward new music concert dropped into the expansive Beaux Arts open-air courtyard of the California Palace of Legion of Honor, steps away from one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The bass clarinet duo Sqwonk (Jeff Anderle and Jonathan Russell, who are two of the co-founders of the Switchboard Festival) opened the performance by walking on from opposite sides of the courtyard while playing Black, a highly caffeinated piece of nonstop rhythmic patterns by Marc Mellits. (Videos from a different performance of Sqwonk playing Black and Cornelius Boots’ Sojourn of the Face, which they played on Sunday, can be found here.)

Sqwonk (Jonathan Russell, left, and Jeff Anderle

Sqwonk (Jonathan Russell, left, and Jeff Anderle

The intermission-less concert also featured 12 members of the Oakland Active Orchestra, a collective of improvisers and musicians/composers founded in 2009, performing member Aram Shelton’s the Days are the Same. This performance included four percussionists, brass, winds, a cello, and a bass, which at times were asked in this episodic work to produce a soft sound bed of non-pitched material, and in other sections to sound more like a jazz big band, playing themes over a harmonic progression.

Oakland Active Orchestra, playing while walking off

Oakland Active Orchestra, playing while walking off

The concert finished with two substantial works for unaccompanied chorus sung by the 20-voice new music choir Volti.** The set opened with Volti positioned at a distance on the side of the courtyard, where the sustained harmonies from “Dawn,” the first movement of Stacy Garrop’s Songs of Lowly Life, gently emerged. (A live recording, audio only, from a different performance, can be heard here.) Their performance also included Shawn Crouch’s 16-minute The Garden of Paradise, a setting of poetry by Iraq War veteran Brian Turner alternating with texts by Rumi. In a curious coincidence, during the two quietest moments of the piece, planes flew overhead, lending an unexpected poignancy to Turner’s poem about an Iraqi father trying to comfort his son during a nighttime bombing.

* * *

William Basinski at the SF Electronic Music Festival

William Basinski at the SF Electronic Music Festival

Whereas Soundwave was an entirely acoustic event, the month opened with the annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF), a five-day exploration of electronic and electro-acoustic music and sound art with three concerts at the Brava Theater in the Mission, and a Cage celebration at SFMOMA. Though SFEMF ran from September 5 to 9, I was only able to hear the well-programmed and well-attended September 7 performance at Brava, which presented three contrasting and complementary performances by L.A.-based Damion Romero, Machine Shop from the Bay Area, and New York composer William Basinski.

Karen Stackpole of Machine Shop at SFEMF

Karen Stackpole of Machine Shop at SFEMF

Romero opened with an untitled work built with drones and pulsations that began from near-imperceptibility, and gradually grew over 25 minutes into an almost overwhelmingly saturated audio image that was palpably vibrating the seats. The duo Machine Shop worked with a wall of gongs and cymbals of different sizes, which were struck, rubbed, bowed, and manipulated by percussionist Karen Stackpole in every mode imaginable; the sounds were then processed by electronic musician Drew Webster, extending and amplifying the gongs’ vibrations and exploring the harmonics produced. Basinski treated us to two works from 30 years ago, Shortwavemusic and Piano Varations. There was sweet nostalgia to be sure from seeing him gently position analog tape loops in now-antiquated equipment, but I was more taken by the aural beauty of the ambient sound created by the short repeating passages of piano music, as well as the chance to quietly reconnect with the idea that even electronic music can be physical.

* * *

Caution: Actual nudes descending a staircase
In the middle of the month were two multidisciplinary events in the East Bay that I wasn’t able to get to. At the Berkeley Art Museum on September 14, video artist John Sanborn staged PICO (Performance Indeterminate Cage Opera), a reportedly sold-out happening inspired by John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and Nam June Paik that included musicians (pianist Sarah Cahill, cellist Theresa Wong, electronic musicians Wobbly and Negativland), dancers, video art, and audience participants (a call went out soliciting people to email if they wanted to “receive a ‘task’ to perform as part of PICO”).

Sarah Cahill at the Art in Nature Festival. Photo by Luciano Chessa

Sarah Cahill at the Art in Nature Festival. Photo by Luciano Chessa

The following weekend, composer/performer Laura Inserra’s wide-ranging Art in Nature: The Nature of Art Festival took place for the third time at the Redwood Regional Park in Oakland. Dozens of musicians, dancers, theater artists, and visual artists gathered for this free six-hour outdoor event along a mile-long trail, organized under Inserra’s principle that not only can art be experienced in conjunction with nature, but that community members should be able to gain insight on the nature of the creation of artistic work.

* * *

Samuel Carl Adams at the San Francisco Symphony. Photo by Kristen Loken

Samuel Carl Adams at the San Francisco Symphony. Photo by Kristen Loken

And finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the opening of the San Francisco Symphony’s season. Given the concentration of 20th-century and contemporary works last season for the American Mavericks Festival, it’s understandable that this season would reflect a return to more conventional programming. One of the few contemporary works scheduled is the West Coast premiere of Samuel Carl Adams’s Drift and Providence, a 20-minute work for a large orchestra with significant percussion battery and electronics (performed by Adams at the back of the hall). The reception for the Bay Area native’s piece was enthusiastic, particularly in the press—extensive coverage can be found in the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, and even The New York Times. The Symphony will take the work on tour later this season.

**Disclaimer: I sometimes sing with Volti, though I didn’t perform in this concert, and am the group’s artistic advisor.

19 Pianists, 21.5 Hours, 840 Repetitions: Erik Satie’s Vexations


The ubiquitous John Cage centenary tributes continued in the Bay Area this month with a performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations, 49 years after the first performance famously organized by Cage. A free event presented by the Berkeley Arts Festival, it began on the evening of September 8, and was one of two West Coast performances that weekend. (The other was in Santa Monica, presented by Jacaranda Music.)

Ideas are one thing and what happens is another. – John Cage

As many NewMusicBox readers will know, Vexations poses some unusual logistical challenges. The score (presumably intended to be played on piano) consists of a short 18-note melody with two harmonizations, a tempo marking of “Very slow,” and a note that indirectly suggests that the work be played 840 times. In reality this results in a 20-hour performance, give or take, depending on how “Very slow” is interpreted. The performance, organized by Cage on September 9–10, 1963, featured a rotating cast of pianists playing for 20 minutes each. This month’s Berkeley performance had 19 pianists, each playing for an hour, plus some shorter reprise sets in the early morning and at the end to fill the remaining slots.

Hadley McCarroll performing between 7 and 8 p.m.

Hadley McCarroll performing between 7 and 8 p.m.

A couple dozen of us were present when the marathon endeavor got underway, promptly at 6 p.m. The performance took place in a modest, empty commercial space in downtown Berkeley which had been outfitted with a piano and plastic folding chairs. The Berkeley Arts Festival is more of an ongoing concert series than a time-specific festival, and utilizes unoccupied storefronts for their performances. (Their current space is billed, for example, as being “right next to Ace Hardware.”) The large windows looking out on University Avenue allowed for the music to be heard on the street, and for street sounds to enter the performance space in return.

Given the paucity of performance instructions in Satie’s score—there are no dynamic, articulation, or phrasing markings—the interpretive possibilities are limitless, and the first three performers (Jerry Kuderna, Hadley McCarroll, and Joe Lasqo) availed themselves of the broad range of techniques they had at their disposal to differentiate each iteration. Kuderna’s were alternately languorous and insistent, with extreme volume changes and varied use of the sustain pedal. McCarroll worked with variations in articulation and speed; at one point towards the end of her hour, after the sun had set, she played an exaggeratedly elongated version and a very swimmy version where the sustain pedal was engaged throughout. Lasqo took liberties with even the rhythmic values of the written notes, allowing rubato in each phrase and inflecting his performance with a jazz sensibility.

Kelsey Walsh, with the iPad keeping track of how many times the piece had been played

Kelsey Walsh, with the iPad keeping track of how many times the piece had been played.

By the time Kelsey Walsh slid onto the bench at 9 p.m, her straightforward, unvarying approach seemed a surprising and radical choice by comparison. It also allowed for a completely different relationship to the piece from the audience’s perspective. The three performers before her explored as many facets of this tiny gem as they could and, in so doing, explored aspects of their own musical and emotional selves to uncover what they could bring to such a small amount of material. But by not doing any of this excavation, Walsh instead handed the audience a steady point to meditate on, putting the exploratory work into each listener’s hands and showing that the least varied could in some ways be the most rewarding.

The omnipresent timepiece that controlled the hourly changing of the guard

The omnipresent timepiece that controlled the hourly changing of the guard

I confess that I had to head home sometime after 10 p.m., to attend to such mundane concerns as flossing and feeding the cats. The space was well populated when I left, with some audience members already making use of the blankets and camping mats that had been set out for those who were in it for the long haul. When I returned around 6:30 a.m., there were about ten bleary-eyed diehards there, several of whom were performers.

It’s useless to play lullabies for those who cannot sleep. – John Cage

Just after daybreak, Joseph Colombo presented a forte version with the sustain pedal engaged that rang out like a carillon. As a morning coffee soundtrack, Vexations is curiously unsettling. A companion who joined me for about 3 hours of the event, on and off, said that at one point he felt himself becoming angry at the performers for continuing to play. And indeed, the tritone-laden Vexations is vexing: on my way to Berkeley that morning, I was disturbed to discover that I wasn’t able to accurately hum the theme despite having listened to several hours of it the night before.

8 a.m. performer Regina Schaffer at the piano, with 1 p.m performer Sarah Cahill holding Schaffer’s newborn

8 a.m. performer Regina Schaffer at the piano, with 1 p.m performer Sarah Cahill holding Schaffer’s newborn.

Pianists continued coming forth throughout the morning and into the early afternoon with their individual offerings: After Colombo’s energized wake-up call, Anton Vishio brought the pulse rate back down and I became aware of the breathing of the other people in the room. Regina Schaffer’s consistent and clear presentation, gently bringing out the theme throughout, made the harmonizations above ring like distant bells. Dominique Leone
seemed to speak without artifice, playing simply while neither layering compositional ideas on top of the piece nor reining himself in.

Roger Rohrbach touching the iPad to register the completion of another iteration

Roger Rohrbach touching the iPad to register the completion of another iteration.

By the time the final scheduled performer, Sarah Cahill, started her set, it was clear that the 20-hour concert length had been underestimated. The iPad, which was keeping track of the repetition, gradually took on a role of heightened prominence in the room as people started checking the time and doing the math. When Sarah finished at 2 p.m., the iPad counter app (written specially by the 11ers for the performance) hadn’t even reached 800, so the performers who were still around began taking turns playing short sets to keep the counter ticking.

At some point it became clear that our presence was no longer about the performance or the music itself. There wasn’t going to be a grand finale, and whatever theoretical points might be embedded in the work had already been made. Yet around 20 of us stayed until 3:35 p.m. to hear the final, 840th statement played by Patti Deuter, the organizer behind the performance. The piece ended without any flourish and we all applauded the performers’ efforts and determination. But underneath it all was the knowledge that we really had gathered there for this curious 21 1/2-hour ritual in order to pay homage to the inimitable spirit of John Cage.

If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all. –John Cage

Performers not mentioned above: Luciano Chessa, Jacqueline Chew, Jim Jowdy, Ric Louchard, Kanoko Nishi, Melissa Smith, Julie Steinberg, Kelly Walker

Bay Area Performances Celebrate Cage Legacy

Amy X Neuburg tossed dice to select samples for the introduction to her piece Your Handsome Hand

Amy X Neuburg tossed dice to select samples for the introduction to her piece Your Handsome Hand.

Composer and performer Pamela Z‘s entry into this month’s worldwide celebration of John Cage’s centenary was Voice Cage, a program featuring eight San Francisco Bay Area artists presenting works using the voice. Part of Z’s ROOM series, the concert took place in the Royce Gallery, an intimate performance space in a former welding shop located in the Mission district of San Francisco. The crowd that showed up on August 31 easily filled the space to capacity, and the show had to be delayed for 15 minutes so that additional seating could be brought in to accommodate the roughly 70 concertgoers.

Pamela Z at the Royce Gallery

Pamela Z at the Royce Gallery.

Cage made both direct and less explicit appearances throughout the program, which included three vocal works by Cage (The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, Experiences No. 2, and Aria), new works by Pamela Z (which utilized recordings of Cage’s voice and texts about Cage), and other new compositions that introduced indeterminacy in a nod to Cage’s influence.

Neuburg singing The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs

Neuburg singing The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs.

Julie Queen‘s unaccompanied performance of Cage’s Experiences No. 2 was a straightforward interpretation of the work, whereas Amy X Neuburg took a more individual approach to The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, originally for voice (“without vibrato, as in folk singing”) and a closed piano to be struck in four particular spots with specific parts of the hand. Neuburg, whose work for voice and electronics have long made her a prominent member of San Francisco’s new music community, created an electronic arrangement of the piano part with samples of water, over which she sang expressively. Pamela Z’s performance of Cage’s Aria was an unintentional mixture of the two approaches: her performance began with the triggering of sampled noises and processing on her voice used to delineate some of the vocal “styles” that Cage calls for. About halfway through the performance, though, her computer crashed and we had the unexpected treat of hearing an un-effected Z, singing the rest of the piece operatically, suavely, gravelly, quietly.

Chessa performing Hear What I Feel

Chessa performing Hear What I Feel.

Luciano Chessa, a composer and performer who also occasionally delivers lively pre-performance lectures on Italian works at the San Francisco Opera, partnered with Z for two thoroughly entertaining and engaging pieces. In Duetto, which opened the second half of the concert and which was credited in the program to “Verdi/Z/Chessa,” the two sang sections of “Un dì felice” from La Traviata, but with the roles reversed, their voices processed with the appropriate octave displacements, accompanied by Chessa playing a toy piano in a voluminous black skirt. Prior to the concert, he had spent an hour with an eye mask on upstairs in Z’s studio, which was doubling as a sensory deprivation chamber, in preparation for a performance of Joan La Barbara’s Hear What I Feel. Z led him onstage, still blindfolded, and guided him into a seat in front of a table with six glass bowls, which contained a variety of objects such as a small balloon and a dried prickly plant. Chessa palpated each in turn and vocalized his responses with phonemes, growls, and laughter, revealing a surprising level of emotional reaction in the process.

Lee's performance piece The Cage

Lee’s performance piece The Cage.

The wide-ranging program also included a captivating solo performance by Oakland-based performance artist Dohee Lee, who will be one of the artists at the next Other Minds Festival in March 2013. Carrying a small box with a theremin-like antenna and a speaker strapped to her head, she danced throughout the space and among the audience while wordlessly moving through a range of characters, sometimes chirping along with the electronic sounds, at other points singing high whistle tones in an otherworldly duet with the box.


Christopher Jones performs Music of Changes at Old First Church, where Kelsey Walsh noticed that one of the hymns on the board was 433

Christopher Jones performs Music of Changes at Old First Church, where Kelsey Walsh noticed that one of the hymns on the board was 433.

Meanwhile sfSound continued their year-long, 11-concert festival of Cage’s music with two concerts in August: one focused on Cage’s more experimental electronic and noise music at The Lab, a multi-use white box in the Mission, and one dedicated to acoustic works a couple miles north at Old First Church, in a more “uptown” setting.

Matt Ingalls and his colleagues in sfSound have to be commended for their tremendous efforts in preparing and presenting this wide-ranging, devoted, and exhaustive exploration of Cage’s work, in all media and from all points in his career. (I covered a previous concert in this festival here.) Each work programmed has revealed a different aspect of Cage’s music and personality; taken together, a multifaceted portrait of Cage has taken shape in a way that no single concert could achieve.

Matt Ingalls performing 0'00" (4'33" No. 2), in which his “disciplined action" was writing out paychecks for the evening's other performers.

Matt Ingalls performing 0’00” (4’33” No. 2), in which his “disciplined action” was writing out paychecks for the evening’s other performers.

The August 5 concert at The Lab featured works spanning nearly a half-century of Cage’s output, from Living Room Music (1940) to One3 (1988), which was performed by Jon Leidecker as entrance and intermission music. In Ingalls’ introductory remarks, he drew laughs when he said, “I don’t think it matters if you turn off your cell phones or not.” Indeed, a cell phone wouldn’t have even been audible during the performance of Cartridge Music, in which the audience was surrounded by seven musicians with an array of sound-makers that were dramatically amplified using turntable pickups and contact microphones. (sfSound will reprise Cartridge Music on September 6 at SFMOMA as part of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.)

Tom Chiu performing selections from Freeman Etudes

Tom Chiu performing selections from Freeman Etudes.

By contrast, a cell phone would have certainly be noticed at the August 17 performance at Old First Church, where the program included violinist Tom Chiu playing five of Cage’s Freeman Etudes and Cheap Imitation, and pianist Christopher Jones performing Books I and IV of Music of Changes. (The full sfSound ensemble also performed Concert for Piano and Orchestra, with Solo for Voice 1 sung by Ken Ueno, and Atlas Eclipticalis, with Solo for Voice 48 sung by Hadley McCarroll.) As thrillingly cacophonous as Cartridge Music was, Chiu’s performance of Part II of Cheap Imitation was by contrast quietly introspective and personal, a beautiful expression of a simple melodic line. Old First Church is on one of the busiest streets in town and traffic noise is normally a drawback to the concerts there, but somehow during Cheap Imitation it was less an intrusion than a partner in dialogue. In Music of Changes, the outside noise became equal with the music: when Jones paused between the two sections for an extended period of time, waiting for the sirens and motorcycles to pass, he inadvertently allowed for an unplanned, improvisatory musical interlude by the sounds of the world outside.