Tag: chamber music

SFCMP Presents Sold-Out Reich Event

I’ve never seen the lobby of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as crowded as on January 28 before the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players’s concert of music by Steve Reich, built around Reich’s magnum opus Music for 18 Musicians. SFCMP had completely sold out the conservatory’s 450-seat concert hall in advance: it became one of those events where numerous people suddenly turned to Facebook the morning of the show to cast about for tickets. There was a sense of anxious jostling while trying to get into the performance hall that we don’t usually associate with new music concerts. This is the second season in SFCMP’s 42-year history that has been under the artistic direction of Steven Schick, the longtime champion of contemporary music for percussion. Given the enthusiasm surrounding this program—titled “Confirmation,” a reference to Reich’s pithy response when asked what he had gained after his 1970 trip to West Africa—it will be interesting to see what other interests Schick and SFCMP can tap into as his tenure progresses.

Steven Schick, courtesy of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players

Steven Schick
Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players

The repertoire was a reprise of a concert Schick had presented a year ago at University of California, San Diego (where Schick is a professor) with his new music ensemble red fish blue fish, augmented with members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Here, the core musicians were members of SFCMP, who were joined by conservatory students. The student musicians’ contribution to this effort was not insignificant: for Music for 18 Musicians, five of the percussionists, two pianists, and the four vocalists were drawn from the student body. (All told there were 21 musicians on stage.) It was an admirable example of this professional ensemble integrating its work with an educational institution to create an opportunity that would have been difficult to realize without SFCMP and Schick’s guidance.

The evening opened with the three percussionists of SFCMP—William Winant, Daniel Kennedy, and Christopher Froh, all pioneering musicians in their own right—and Schick performing Clapping Music, which began before the applause welcoming them to the stage had died down. It was performed two on a part, with Schick and Kennedy taking the base track and Winant and Froh moving out of phase. The musicians approached it with a sense of playfulness that would seem out of place with a pure process piece if it weren’t so purely enjoyable to see and hear four guys who clearly enjoyed the physicality of rhythm making sounds simultaneously simple and complex with just the skin on their hands.

Clapping Music

Steven Schick (left), Daniel Kennedy, William Winant, and Christopher Froh perform Clapping Music
Photo courtesy Neocles Serafimidis

The Conservatory Guitar Ensemble, under the direction of SFCMP guitarist and professor David Tanenbaum, followed with Electric Counterpoint, featuring conservatory alumnus Travis Andrews performing the solo part. While the piece was originally written for one musician prerecording ten guitar parts and two electric bass parts and then playing the eleventh guitar live in concert, this performance featured Andrews and the two bassists playing electric instruments with twelve members of the ensemble playing acoustic guitars. As the piece is built on a series of canons, the timbral differences between the electric and the acoustic instruments plus the spatial displacement of the electric instruments made for a disjointed listening experience where the various canonic lines (though sensitively played, especially in the second movement) failed to present in a balanced and unified way. At the top of the show, there was an announcement that the sound check had been limited due to a scheduling conflict with the hall, which may have contributed to this issue.

The hour-long Music for 18 Musicians (online score here) filled the rest of the program. I will assume that most NewMusicBox readers are familiar with this massive work, for two string players, two clarinetists, four treble voices, four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones, and vibraphone. (Schick, on vibraphone, and SFCMP clarinetist Jeff Anderle, a Bay Area new music mainstay, took the cueing roles.) I suspect, too, that most NewMusicBox readers have already formed their own opinions about this piece since its first performance in 1976; for me, working as a production assistant on the 1997 Nonesuch recording of Music for 18 remains one of the greatest fortunes of my musical life, and I count myself among those unabashed lovers of this transcendent work that breathes and pulses like an organism.

There were some balance glitches that may have stemmed from the sound check issue noted above; in particular, the vocalists were often submerged and at points the high frequencies of the xylophones pierced aggressively through the texture. (Nevertheless, high soprano Sara Hagenbuch deserves recognition for her stamina and precision throughout.) Despite these occasional issues, SFCMP and their conservatory cohorts were able to deliver the essential delight of the piece to a hungry audience. One of the joys about experiencing Music for 18 live is being able to observe visually all of the organism’s components interacting, intertwining, handing things off to each other, shifting gears as a unit when a new entity steps into the aural picture. The most memorable moment of the evening came in the transition to Section VI, when Winant, who had been sitting to the side for some sections of the first 25 minutes of the work, stepped to center stage, raised a large set of yellow maracas, and suddenly unleashed a dance party. That was the point when I put the pen and notebook down, and started riding the waves.

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players’s next subscription concert is on Monday, February 25, at Herbst Theatre, featuring world premieres by Mark Applebaum and George Lewis, and works by Paul Dresher, Eve Beglarian, and Stuart Saunders Smith.

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

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

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

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


Photo by Max Kellenberger

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Marantz Vorsetzer

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

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

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

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

Preconcert Talk

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

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


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

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


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

New England’s Prospect: Movietone

Brando Noir

Students of the New England Conservatory Contemporary Improvisation department in “Brando Noir,” January 29, 2013.

Near the beginning of The Wild One, biker gang leader Johnny Strabler (played by Marlon Brando) pays a visit to Wrightsville’s local diner, where Kathie (played by Mary Murphy) is working behind the counter. If you’ve ever wondered what the big deal about Brando was—if, for instance, you only know him from some of the more baroque extravagances of his late career—this little scene will get you up to speed. Brando lays down a rhythmic track of amazing fluidity: he swerves, he swaggers, he dances; his dialogue has laconic syncopation; he uses props—gloves, money—to provide his own punctuation, his own percussive fills. Everything he does—the way he swirls the chairs, the way he glides away from the bar, even the way he uncurls his fingers after digging in his pocket for jukebox change—is insistently musical. He’s a bit of jazz dressed in leather and moving through space.
I suppose that’s why “Brando Noir,” the concert mounted on January 29 by the New England Conservatory’s Contemporary Improvisation department, seemed so promising on paper. But that scene—one of the few from the concert’s anthology of Brando moments that was screened with its original soundtrack—had what about half the music on the program, as fine as much of it was, lacked: a sense of engaging with the music and cadence that’s already present in a film. The evening bounced in and out of sync with the cinematic dynamic.

The concert, produced by Boston jazz hero (and co-founder of the Contemporary Improvisation department) Ran Blake and Aaron Hartley, took the form of a four-act suite. After opening remarks by current department chair Hankus Netsky (which I missed—thanks, Boston parking) and NEC President Tony Woodcock, selected scenes from four Brando films—The Wild One, the World War II drama The Young Lions, the method Western The Appaloosa, and the kidnapping thriller The Night of the Following Day—were projected on a screen at the back of the Jordan Hall stage while various collections, large and small, of student musicians played live accompaniment.

The Wild One opened at the source: Leith Stevens’s original score, in a brawny arrangement by Ken Schaphorst, conducting a performance by the NEC Jazz Orchestra that hung just out of swinging focus. A later cue, Schaphorst again arranging Stevens’s music for a sequence where the gang ominously yet balletically circles Murphy’s character, was tighter. And—especially in that second scene—it scaffolded the mood and action better than the contributions of Full Tang, a student quartet (Eric Lane, Ryan Dugre, Adam Clark, and Danilo Henriquez) that provided blocks of genre: a jazz-funk ostinato and a stylized ’50s-rock beat that, while confidently done, mostly sat alongside the images for a while. But for the vigilante-mob action sequence that sends the film to its final denouement, violinist Yasmine Azaiez and accordionist Cory Pesaturo went to the opposite extreme: free improvisation, both instruments distorted and amplified, the music shadowing the action—sometimes a bit too closely, but fully engaged with the movie’s own rhythm, not trying to impose a rhythm from outside.

The sequence of scenes from The Young Lions, stylistically varied, was the most consistently solid. Survivors Breakfast, a 16-player improvisation loosely directed by Anthony Coleman, started out promising—an out-of-focus Biedermeier dance band—then turned to soft clouds of extended techniques that tracked dialogue between Barbara Rush’s American tourist and Brando’s German ski instructor (later to become an ambivalent Wehrmacht soldier). Tim Leinhard, conducting vocalist Sara Serpa and an 11-piece ensemble, scored a couple scenes with the most conventional film music of the night, but did it with skill: dark, romantic, vaguely jazzy, with a sweep calibrated to the movie’s shifting moods. Two other sequences, one with percussionist Jeremy Barnett, the other a duet between Jussi Reijonen (on bass) and Nima Jannmohammadi (on kamancheh), went back to avant-garde improvisation, layering austere unease over the film while following its contours.

The second half of the concert had moments like that, but also a number of incongruous set pieces. After an opening vocal solo by Serpa that set the mood but failed to shift into storytelling, Dylan McKinstry and Robin Lohrey offered a similarly moody mandolin-and-piano piece of songwriting that nevertheless ignored the slippery shifts of power and mood in their scene from The Appaloosa—a bit of witty, treacherous byplay between Brando’s wandering cowboy and John Saxon’s deliciously villainous pistolere chieftain. And while a bluesy cue from Ilya Portonov, Anna Patton, Daniel Pencer, and Andria Nicodemou pleasantly set up another confrontation between the two characters, the confrontation itself took place alongside a Spanish/English version of “What a Difference a Day Makes” that (however nicely sung by Natalie Cadet and Greta DiGiorgio) grew more ill-matched as it went. (It was partially redeemed by a showdown scored—by Nedelka Prescod, Amir Milstein, Brad Barrett, and Jerry Peake—with understatedly fractious ruminations, Leake clouding the scene with a haze of soft cymbals and bells.)

The Night of the Following Day had the full gamut of the concert’s ups and downs. It opened with a lovely, deft piece of pure illustration: Rachel Panitch, Abigale Reisman, Valerie Thompson, and Vessela Stoyanova followed a landing airliner with a baleful pizzicato-and-vibraphone aleatory, then shifted into a Parisian cafe waltz, foreshadowing the establishment shot of the Orly airport, and then—just when one was starting to wonder how earnest or satirical such a musical cliché was meant to be—swiftly, ruthlessly deconstructed it as the kidnapping plot kicked into gear. The movie’s other, most improvisatory accompaniments were similarly effective: Hui Weng, on guzheng, producing a host of strumming effects for varied punctuation; Tal Zilber with a lurking piano, overlaid with electronic processing that neatly traced the dramatic thread.

But those were interspersed with sequences that seemed more like blind dates. Deepti Navaratna and Sonny Lalchandani chaperoned a bad guy exposition scene with lovely voice-and-sitar ragas, but it felt like a disconnected notion. Eden MacAdam-Somer, on voice and violin, was accompanied by Netsky on piano in a charming, accomplished original cabaret tune, “Cocktails at 4,” but the ironic distance was simply too far from the violence of their scene to register even as commentary. In fact, it was a double distraction—the music pulling attention away from the film while the film pulled attention away from the music. That figured in the finale, too, the film’s beachfront standoff scored by the Sail Away Ladies (MacAdam-Somer, Mia Friedman, Sarah Jarosz, and Ari Friedman) with a bewitching cover of Joanna Newsom’s “The Book of Right-On” that nevertheless seemed to cancel out the on-screen suspense. (The ironic record-collection curation technique of a Kubrick or a Tarantino is harder than it looks—and requires a director willing to relinquish the cinematic rhythm to the music.)

Film music is weird and alchemical, no matter how it’s produced. The familiar tradition is through-composed, precise, timed, the vein that Leinhard effectively mined for The Young Lions. But otherwise, it was the groups that hewed to an older tradition, the silent-movie tradition of organists and pianists in every theatre—improvising—that best served the films, using the structure and flow of film to spark unexpected sounds that, in turn, sparked a different perception of the filmed image. That was Brando’s method, anyway, at his best: distilling the energy of a scene or a film and then amplifying it into something a little more outlandish, a little more subtle, a little more dangerous.

Elliot Cole: Hunger for the Opposite

While digging through Elliot Cole’s catalog of music, it’s easy to get caught up in the role text and stories frequently play in his compositions. Babinagar, for example, is a bewitching song-cycle based on an Afghan folktale, and De Rerum (a “hip hop lecture on the physics of history”) is wedded to wordplay.

But after chatting with him, that image shifts. The words can be vital to his work, definitely, but the core of his inspiration turns out to trace more of a pendulum swing. Cole is most comfortable and feels most productive when he can vary his approach: insider vs. outsider, text-rooted vs. pure sound, composer vs. performer, a musician dipping his toes into a wealth of styles and methods along the way. Rather than a troubadour, it might make more sense to think of Cole as a trapeze artist graced with contagious enthusiasm and seemingly inexhaustible curiosity.

“I use music to explore other things that I’m interested in, as a channel to be curious through,” Cole explains. “One way to divide up what I do is by genre—dramatic work and chamber music and hip hop. But another way to divide it is that I’m trying to deal with music on two different levels. I love composing because it lets me think about music from a really high level of generalization and abstraction, but I can only keep working on music from such a conceptual distance if I’m also as close to it as I can be in some other activity.”

That closeness is something Cole finds in performance, whether playing in bands or presenting his own music. He grew up in the rich musical environment of Austin, Texas, and it rubbed off. Now, he says, “I’m not a stellar performer, but I stay as involved as I can in actually making music. In music school, the role that we adopt a little bit too naturally is putting some performers on the stage to have kind of a bad time playing your music for an audience that is kind of stressed out by the whole experience. And you sit in the back thinking that you’re a genius. It’s just a very different experience when you’re up there doing it.”

After completing his undergraduate work in music and cognitive linguistics at Rice University where he produced “very serious and intellectually grounded” work, he stayed in Houston and wrote other pieces that “felt more real and natural and heartfelt and exciting to me,” works such as Ladies and Gentlemen which was built around a lecture by Borges, the hip hop opera The Rake’s Progress which he wrote with Brad Balliett, and Babinagar, a delicate chamber work scored for harp, contrabass, harmonium, and singers which he toured through living rooms across Texas.

Cole is now a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton, a school he jokes was the only one that would have him. “When I went to look at schools, I got a real clear sense visiting Princeton that they were open to the whole package,” he recalls. “So, I’m there because the work that I was doing, that other places might not find as serious but that I take very seriously, that was a plus for them rather than a minus.”
A big piece of this catalog that Cole feels doesn’t fit so comfortably can once again be traced back to his desire to work at the edges of genre and institutions. “I feel like there’s a real focus and value in contemporary music on being an insider,” he explains. “Being in a territory where everyone is focused on being an insider, I really find it fun and liberating to have something that I’m doing where I’m a total outsider—where I don’t have credibility. For me, that’s hip hop.”

It’s work that he’s exploring together with performer/composers Brad and Doug Balliett under the project name Oracle Hysterical, an organization that Cole characterizes as kind of a band and kind of composer’s collective, but really more of a book club. The group uses text, such as Melville’s Billy Budd (a recent example), and reads and writes their way to a piece of music, motivating and inspiring one another. Writing the metric poetry used in the lyrics is work that Cole finds provides a neat parallel to composition. “It’s really simulating imaginatively because every pair of lines is a puzzle that you have to work out. I really like writing music that is the solving of puzzles because then you’re in a relationship with it where it’s as much a process of discovery as creation.”

Still, sometimes Cole sets the words aside to, again, escape into something else. To scratch that itch last year, he wrote more than an hour of chamber music, including Postludes, a set of eight pieces for four performers on one vibraphone that was written for So Percussion. Cole is also an active computer programmer and has been working to develop an algorithmic composition and deep-listening environment using SuperCollider. He found that being able to think about music from the point of view of computer programming provided some new clarity, which he explains in more detail in the video below.

Admittedly, more tightly integrating all these varied areas of interest might be more productive and efficient, and Cole wonders how his diversification may be preventing him from establishing a clearly identifiable voice. Still, his flexibility is an essential underpinning linking his work—when one project or area becomes frustrating, he has another to move to. This also extends to his compositional methods. He says that he “may begin at the piano and at a point of impasse or frustration, write on paper and see what grows out of that. Or type it into the computer or try to learn it on guitar or sing it. By these processes of translation, I can kind of keep a flow through the writing. It’s an intrinsic part of how I get notes on the page and how I get to the end of the idea.”
Ultimately, his curiosity keeps him from shelving any possibilities. “I’m stupid enough to think that I can still do everything,” he explains with a self-deprecating laugh. “If there’s a chance for two majors, I’ll take it; if I have a chance to write a piece for a group, I’ll write two pieces. I’m always having to fork and do both.”

Scratch That: Cutting Edge or Marginalized?

Five new music angles on the Chamber Music America conference:

1. What’s the big deal? New music is everywhere at Chamber Music America. The organization is doing a great deal to commission and promote contemporary music, and the conference was a great place to be for the new music community. The keynote speaker, Todd Machover, is a composer from MIT whose mind-blowing talk was a highlight of the weekend. A panel on women composers with Steve Smith, Missy Mazzoli, and several high-profile women composer/curators drew a standing-room crowd at nine a.m. on a Saturday. Even among presenters who serve a more musically conservative constituency, there seemed to be an overwhelming consensus that bringing contemporary music into the fold is essential. The conference made it clear that some of the most exciting developments in chamber music are happening in new music.

2. New music is everywhere … unless you’re a string quartet or piano trio. On Friday and Saturday afternoons, conference attendees heard lots of different ensembles—filed under jazz/experimental or classical/contemporary—perform 25-minute programs. During these showcases, traditional ensembles like string quartets and piano trios hardly programmed any music by living composers. Among these types of ensembles, only BELLA Piano Trio planned to play a living composer on their program. But when it came time to perform Jennifer Higdon’s Fiery Red, the trio ended up swapping in some Dvořák instead. (Contemporary quartet mainstay ETHEL was an exception, as was Chicago’s Axiom Brass, which makes sense given that brass repertoire is newer in general.) The jazz ensemble performances overflowed with newly composed work, but among the Fully Notated, Orchestral-Instrument set, it was still a Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Brahms kind of scene. These showcasing ensembles want to make a great impression on their audience—a group of high-profile artist managers, presenters, and oh right, some musicians, too—and most of them chose not to make new music a part of their “sell.”

3. Do CMA’s membership requirements exclude new music groups doing important work? The most prominent new music ensembles in America were not at the conference. I’m thinking here of groups like ICE, wildUP, Ensemble Dal Niente, and lots of prominent New York-based ensembles like yMusic and Alarm Will Sound. This led me to realize for the first time that many of these ensembles aren’t, by strict definition, chamber groups. They have larger, more flexible rosters and the repertoire often demands a conductor—something that CMA membership precludes. Yet I’ve always thought of chamber music as being the heart of what ICE or Dal Niente does. Is all-contemporary programming too challenging for the moderately old-school constituency of CMA? Or are these enterprising groups more likely to have forged a different organizational model—one that doesn’t rely so much on managers and booking agents? Two days after the conference, I received this amazing newsletter describing the Ecstatic Music Festival and wondered if perhaps the best new music groups are simply too busy to send someone to a conference that doesn’t quite align with their needs.

4. The creative, collaborative, DIY spirit of the Chicago chamber music scene is special and needs to be exported better. Chamber music innovations happening in Chicago aren’t nearly as well-known as they should be. Conference buzzwords like flexible-format concerts, interdisciplinary collaboration, and unconventional venues are so essential to the Chicago scene that they’ve almost become old hat. What’s even cooler about Chicago is that most of these innovations are artist-driven, because almost all our ensembles are artist-run. The lack of staff is exhausting, but it also allows our organizations to take risks, to be more dynamic and adaptive, and to have lower overhead. When you think about Spektral Quartet curating an evening of works about war, or Fifth House creating cinematic concert experiences that redefine music-theater collaboration, or the sheer scope of the Beethoven Festival, you realize what exciting stuff is happening in our city. And most of it is happening without management.

5. The national new music community needs a professional conference of its own. Imagine a conference as lively and vibrant as CMA, but more centered on performance and ideas than on a marketplace of acts for sale. By day, the conference could host amazing panel discussions on a range of important issues in the field: perhaps Claire Chase lecturing on new ensemble models, Alex Ross chairing a panel on music writing, Marcos Balter speaking on commission etiquette, or Third Coast Percussion talking about the way they divide organizational work. By night, we’d all hear great off-site performances at the Hideout, the Empty Bottle, Mayne Stage (which is a decidedly better venue than Le Poisson Rouge), Corbett & Dempsey, and a host of others. Because I forgot to mention one important detail: the first conference should be in Chicago. Let’s make it happen.

Two Concerts, Two Audiences

It’s always a good thing to have a trip correspond with some good new music concerts, and my week-long adventure to northern Illinois this past week allowed me to take Ellen McSweeney’s advice and attend two concerts in Chicago. Both events–the Chicago Composers Orchestra concert at the Garfield Park Conservatory and the Third Coast Percussion concert at the University of Chicago–were very successful and demonstrated why new music concerts can be diverse in content, in venue, and in audience to great effect.
Amidst Lush Plantlife
The Chicago Composers Orchestra is a relatively new group in Chicago, having been formed in 2009 by Roosevelt University grads Brian Baxter and Randall West, with a mission for “performance and advocacy of orchestral music by living composers.” The event was entitled “Amidst Lush Plantlife,” reflecting their decision to perform at the Garfield Park Conservatory, a two-acre botanical conservatory with several large rooms filled with many species of trees, ferns, and assorted flora. The entire concert spanned no less than three separate rooms, starting off with Occupy Orchestra by Seattle-based Byron Au Yong. Yong spread the musicians around the enormous Palm Room and allowed the audience to move freely through the space, casually chatting while the performance took place. It was hard to miss how many families were in attendance during this first portion, as there were many small children with their parents eagerly walking up to each performer and listening with open ears.

Once the first work was finished, the audience was shepherded into the Fern Room where Baxter’s Spring Song for strings and percussion was performed; also spatial in nature, the room was the complete opposite of the first–whereas the big room allowed one to walk up to the performers easily, the Fern Room shielded the performers altogether from my vantage point and made for a completely different listening experience. The remainder of the concert was held in a slightly more traditional setting, with the Horticulture Room set up with folding chairs both for the performers and audience. Works by Chris Fisher-Lockhead, Bruce Saylor, and the world premiere of Pos Metaphonos by Lawrence Axelrod (which featured Chicago Symphony bass clarinetist J. Laurie Bloom) filled out the rest of the program.

Three things stood out for me at this event. Obviously the venue is about as non-traditional as you can get–sight-lines are rarely marred by cacti or cycads in other halls–and once you got used to the slight ambient hum and the occasional choir of crickets, acoustically it was actually quite good. The ensemble itself, consisting of Chicago performers primarily in their mid- to late-20s who volunteer their services (ably led by guest conductor Stephen Squires, filling in for music director Matthew Kasper), played every work with an intensity and passion that proved their serious commitment to the music. Finally, the size and makeup of the audience really caught me off guard; here you had a concert of contemporary works for chamber orchestra by not-famous composers and there were over 250 people in attendance on a Wednesday night. There were obviously a good number of other composers and musicians there, but they were outnumbered by families with kids and other community members who seemed to really enjoy themselves. There were several details that showed that CCO was being smart in generating and keeping a good audience, including serving beverages and forgoing a ticket price as well as cultivating a strong relationship with the conservatory.
Third Coast Percussion
Two days later I had the good fortune to attend Third Coast Percussion’s concert in the International House at the University of Chicago. Since their formation in 2005, Third Coast has become one of the most well-known percussion ensembles in the country. The concert, simply titled “Metal,” covered four works written for a wide variety of metal instruments by established composers from across the spectrum of percussion ensemble literature. Utilizing two additional percussionists (Ross Karre and Greg Beyer), Third Coast took the audience through a thoughtful and well-balanced program, from John Cage’s First Construction (in Metal) and David Skidmore’s mind-blowing performance of David Lang’s The Anvil Chorus to James Tenney’s Koan: Having Never Written a Note for Percussion (my favorite performance of the evening) and Philippe Manoury’s massive Métal. Groups like Third Coast demonstrate why the percussion ensemble has become one of the staple instrumentations of contemporary music today.

The venue, compared to the CCO’s conservatory digs, was much more traditional in nature, though both groups utilized the spatial opportunities of their venues well–Third Coast’s performers began on stage and surrounded the audience by the third piece. As much as alternative venues have been celebrated over the past few years, one could not imagine this concert being as effective in a space that wasn’t as quiet and acoustically solid as the International House; the subtle interactions of timbres and harmonics in the Tenney would have been completely lost in a space with more ambient noise. The audience for this concert differed in several ways from the one at the conservatory. In general, they seemed to be relatively older and more formal than at the CCO concert; let’s say the number of bearded academics with horn-rimmed glasses had gone up considerably for this event. That being said, the size of the audience was practically the same and they were equally supportive in their ovations throughout the evening. This was not an event that audience members stormed out of, rather they seemed to either know what they were getting themselves into or were open enough to enjoy whatever was presented to them.

As there has been a fair amount of vitriol recently about the worth of one composer or another from within our own ranks, it was heartening to see two dramatically different and yet completely viable and successful concert events that were both celebrating contemporary concert music…especially in a city with a relatively young and emerging contemporary concert music scene. Both concerts had taken care of business as far as cultivating audiences, promoting their concerts, and making sure that the listeners were both involved and invited into the music-making process. The result of that hard work was an audience that was form-fitted for the occasion and ultimately a successful evening of music for all involved. This is not rocket science, as they say, and the more we focus on what is important and ignore the petty distractions of the here and now, the better.

New Music in New Places: After Hours Concerts in Austin

Michael Hertel, Sunil Gadgil, and lots of cans.

Michael Hertel, Sunil Gadgil, and lots of cans.

There are pros and cons to consider when messing around with contemporary concert presentation. Change it too little and you may not attract the newer (read: younger) audiences that can sustain your project. Change it too much and you run the risk of alienating your base. The attractive features of your new venue may clash with the needs of the music. I’ve been to more than a few shows where the magical moments were ruined by the ring of a cash register or the frothing of milk. Cell phone etiquette? Good luck. As much as we rail against these protocols, they do serve a purpose. But if you find the right curator, a balance can be struck between cool venue and great music.

After Hours Concerts run by saxophonist Spencer Nielsen held its inaugural concert at Austin Beerworks. Doubling down on the “Why don’t we have a concert at the coffeehouse/bar?” concept, Nielsen and (most of) his Bel Cuore cohorts held court at the brewery itself. Located in a warehouse in North Austin, Austin Beerworks is one of a number of microbreweries that have recently sprung up after so many went south following the bursting of the late ’90s tech bubble. The ticket price for the show covered admittance to the concert, a few beers [1], and an ABW pint glass. Not a bad deal.

Cool new music locations are sometimes hard to find, especially when they are located among row upon row of nondescript warehouses. I get lost in my own home, so I walked in a bit late as the first piece, Rob Smith’s Morse Code Pop, was being performed by Nielsen and Michael Hertel. Written for alto and baritone saxophone, the punchy syncopated rhythms hopped and skipped around a pulse that was occasionally outlined by key clicks and foot stomps mimicking hi-hats. Nielsen followed the up-tempo Smith piece with Joan Tower’s Wings. Mostly lyrical lines were accented with grace notes leading to pedal point trills, all impressively negotiated by Nielsen with a clear, round tone. Sunil Gadgil joined Hertel and Nielsen for William Albright’s Doo Dah. A somber work overall, the three saxes traded and shared long lines that, as they came together, created beating combination tones before resolving. Short fast lines lead to something of a Scelsian moment, a single tone played among the three which seemed to expand and contract before wheeling out of control into a wild polyphony, the lines moving every which way. Side trips into fugue, blues, and jazz found common ground in timbral exploration. Albright’s goal was to make the three instruments into one, and it was particularly impressive to hear the trio simply fill the large room with sound.

line upon line and the vat cathedral

line upon line and the vat cathedral

As Bel Cuore headed for the bar [2], line upon line percussion took the stage. Their set opened with Ian Dicke’s commentary on consumerism, Missa Materialis. In five movements, the piece was not only aurally compelling but also visually stimulating. The first movement evoked tribal rhythms performed on a trash can with broken sixteenth note figures played on anvil. The motoric qualities of this movement gave way to a call and response on ratchets which started with the players “discovering” the sounds the instruments made; a discovery made particularly enjoyable by their theatrical delivery which helped tell the story without descending into campy silliness. A more melancholy section followed, one populated by whistling, musical saw, and vibes, recalling the character of an old radio show. The piece ends with a movement featuring plastic grocery bags, wine glasses, and a brave rendition of Agnus Dei with a bit of vibes thrown in for good measure. Steven Snowden’s A Man With a Gun Lives Here for bass drum (primarily) and three players is in three movements and gets its name from the so-called “hobo code” which consisted of symbols used in the early 20th century to indicate a place to get a meal, potential danger, and other characteristics of a given location. In the first movement, “Be prepared to defend yourself,” syncopated rhythmic patterns that form and disintegrate are interrupted by low rumbles created by a rubber mallet slowly drawn across the head of the drum. “There Are Thieves About” featured grooves played on the rim and various metals, with Cullen Faulk diving in to give “zrbtts” [3] to the drumhead. The final movement shares its name with the piece and featured brushes used on and around the drum. As the brushes swished and banged, a paper bag materialized and was integrated into the rhythmic texture. It was picked up, passed around, and slid across the drum as a crescendo slowly built. At the climax, Faulk (who was positioned in the center) raised the bag in the air where it was stabbed on either side by Matthew Teodori and Adam Bedell. The buckshot within spilled onto the drum, and as it rolled around it looked like flocking birds and sounded a bit like the wind.

Backstage at the merch counter.

Backstage at the merch counter.

Let’s just say that having a concert in a brewery is likely going to draw a crowd. While it wasn’t church-quiet in there, the ambient noise of the room was certainly within listenable parameters and at times added to the impact of the music. The visual aspect was sort of cathedral-like, with the vats positioned like some huge shell behind the performers, but it looked pretty cool and it gave some acoustic character to the warehouse. After Hours Concerts has shows scheduled at Texas Coffee Traders and Springdale Farms this spring, and I’ll be sure to check them out. Espressos and wheat grass shots, here I come!


1. May I recommend the “Mister Falcon?” It was a mix of two of their beers, and if it wasn’t so delicious I would have had the presence of mind to write them down. Also worth noting is that Mister Falcon and Mother Falcon are both used extensively in broadcast versions of movies featuring Samuel Jackson.

2. I don’t really know if they went to the bar. It’s very possible they headed offstage for bottled water, juice, or a quick run around the building.

3. Ah, the ’80s.

Open House: Del Sol Days

The Del Sol String Quartet, an integral and seemingly ubiquitous part of the San Francisco Bay Area’s new music community, celebrated its 20th anniversary last month with Del Sol Days, a five-day festival of performances, open rehearsals, and other public events at Z Space, a performance space in the Mission district of San Francisco (formerly Theatre Artaud). Del Sol focuses their repertoire exclusively on contemporary work, and in the week’s three concerts they gave world premieres of four pieces by American composers.

Kate Stenberg, Rick Shinozaki, Charlton Lee and Kathryn Bates Williams (left to right), performing in front of a set by Nick Noyes Architecture

Kate Stenberg, Rick Shinozaki, Charlton Lee, and Kathryn Bates Williams (left to right), performing in front of a set by Nick Noyes Architecture.

Del Sol was founded in 1992 by violist Charlton Lee, with current first violinist Kate Stenberg joining shortly afterwards in 1995. Violinist Rick Shinozaki has been a part of the group’s growth for nearly a decade; the most recent addition of cellist Kathryn Bates Williams happened in 2010. All four have deep roots in the San Francisco area: the three longstanding members are Bay Area natives, and three are also alumni of the San Francisco Conservatory. Given their frequent appearances in the area–whether at the Other Minds Festival, at this year’s Cabrillo Festival, at Oakland’s Garden of Memory, at the Switchboard Festival, collaborating with local dance companies and other Bay Area musicians, and so on–it can be easy to take Del Sol’s presence for granted. Del Sol Days was a welcome opportunity to be reminded that this consistently hard-working ensemble has been doing a yeoman’s job in our musical community for two decades now.

Of the three performances, I was able to hear only the closing event on December 8. The performance series had opened on the first night with the first San Francisco appearance of an installation by Santa Fe-based composer and video artist Chris Jonas titled GARDEN, Chapter 1: Night, which enclosed the musicians in four walls of scrims on which images were projected. The scrims were removed and replaced with a set designed by Nick Noyes Architecture on the second night, which followed a more conventional concert format, including premieres of works by Lembit Beecher and Matthew Cmiel, and a work that has been in Del Sol’s active repertoire for many years, Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout. (Del Sol recorded one movement of this work for their 2008 album Ring of Fire: Music of the Pacific Rim.)

Del Sol String Quartet’s founder and violist Charlton Lee

Del Sol String Quartet’s founder and violist Charlton Lee.

It was immediately apparent from the start of the third evening that Del Sol considered themselves among friends, and indeed many in the audience knew each other and were excited to be celebrating this anniversary with the quartet. Cmiel, himself a local fixture whose work Invocation had been premiered the night before, welcomed the audience with a casual spoken introduction, and during the concert each musician had an opportunity to take the mic to address the audience directly with reflections on the group’s history and personal commentary on the repertoire they were performing.

The evening’s program began with two world premieres, by San Francisco-based Irene Sazer and Bay Area-born Dylan Mattingly. In her work Thunder, Sazer, who is a founder of both the Turtle Island and Real Vocal String Quartets, asks Del Sol to vocalize on phonemes and sing simple melodies while playing, as Real Vocal is accustomed to doing. (Del Sol has been asked to multitask before: in a work by Ken Ueno premiered at this year’s Other Minds Festival, Lee is charged with overtone singing while playing; in Chinary Ung’s Spiral X: “In Memoriam”, also on Ring of Fire, the musicians sing, whistle, and shout precisely notated material as well.) In introducing Gone, Gone, Gone, Lee noted that they first worked with now 21-year-old Mattingly when he was a child participant in Del Sol’s QuartetFest, a chamber music workshop for young string players that has been running for 16 years. In this new work, Mattingly mines the legacy of American folk music for harmonic and melodic material, weaving it into a broad landscape of sustained chords reminiscent of mentor John Adams’s Christian Zeal and Activity to open the piece and ebulliently cascading lines to close.

Del Sol then reprised Bagatelles by Oakland resident Mason Bates, which they had premiered at this past summer’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz. Bates sampled the musicians in a studio making “all manner of strange sounds” as he writes in the program notes, and processed the samples to create the beat-heavy electronic backing track for three of the four short movements. A video of the second and fourth movements, “Scrapyard Exotica” and “Viscera,” previewed at a Grantmakers in the Arts conference, can be seen below, starting at 6:00.

The second half of the program featured Bay Area didjeridu player Stephen Kent, who has collaborated with Del Sol on Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 16. Kent and the quartet performed this work in 2007 at the Library of Congress (certainly Stradivarius could never have imagined the didjeridu’s overtones vibrating the wood in his instruments) and recorded one movement for Ring of Fire. After a brief solo set in which Kent played didjeridu while singing and ringing wind chimes, Kent gave an impassioned introduction to Sculthorpe’s work, which was written in response to the humanitarian crisis that has developed in Australia due to the flight of Afghan refugees (PDF) seeking asylum. (In August alone nearly 2,000 Afghans arrived in Australia by boat.)

Stephen Kent, didjeridu, performing Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 16 with Del Sol

Stephen Kent, didjeridu, performing Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 16 with Del Sol

This was both Del Sol’s cleanest and most emotionally charged playing of the evening, with Kent’s variously sized didjeridus sounding like animalistic spirits pervading the Afghan love song on which three of the five movements are based. The first four movements, titled “Loneliness,” “Anger,” “Yearning,” and “Trauma,” are heartrending in their despair, but Sculthorpe closes the work with “Freedom,” giving the first violin a soaring melody which flies unfettered above the Australian expanse provided by the didjeridu’s drone.

San Francisco Sampler: Chamber Music Day

Taraneh Hemami’s installation FREE at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Taraneh Hemami’s installation FREE at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

By a happy coincidence, the large neon and steel installation by Iranian-born, San Francisco-based visual artist Taraneh Hemami titled FREE (which celebrates the transformative events of Arab Spring with text in both English and Arabic) was hanging over the lobby of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts during Chamber Music Day, a free seven-hour extravaganza of performances. Chamber Music Day is an annual event that the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music has been putting on since 2008, in a different venue each year. This year’s event, co-presented by YBCA, took advantage of multiple spaces in the arts center, using both the main theater (best known to the outside world for the many Apple products launched from its stage) and the multi-use Forum, as well as a screening room, a lounge, and lobby spaces, for performances and demonstrations for seven hours on a Sunday afternoon. Audience members were encouraged to shuttle freely among the forty or so scheduled performances, which took place throughout the campus in short 20- to 30-minute concurrent sets. By lowering the barriers of cost, time, and distance, Chamber Music Day offers a zero-commitment way for audiences to hear a wide variety of Bay Area musicians, including those they aren’t familiar with.

While there is plenty of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms to be heard during Chamber Music Day, the event specifically aims to include music beyond those expected boundaries, identifying early and baroque, classical, contemporary, improvisation, and world/jazz as subcategories for the day. Given YBCA’s multidisciplinary interests as a center for visual as well as performing arts, this year’s Chamber Music Day (November 18) also included a full afternoon’s slate of short films with live musical accompaniment, in most cases by the composers themselves.

The Living Earth Show, performing Adrian Knight’s Family Man in the YBCA Forum

The Living Earth Show, performing Adrian Knight’s Family Man in the YBCA Forum.

“I just can’t stand what passes for music by most modern composers. Noise is noise from a car, bus, or flute. Still, I loved the traditional music and that odd little piece about the bird.” –Ralph (from the SF Friends of Chamber Music’s refreshingly frank audience comments page)

Among the first things I heard that afternoon was a performance of John Cage’s Concerto for Piano given by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and before I encountered a single note of Beethoven. Among those included under the contemporary, improvised, and jazz music umbrellas at Chamber Music Day were guitarist/composer John Shiurba’s 8@8 project, excerpts from Francis Wong’s Diaspora Tale #2, guitar and percussion duo The Living Earth Show, Beth Custer’s clarinet quartet Clarinet Thing, and Grosse Abfahrt, an improvisation by six musicians led by trumpeter Tom Djll, which seamlessly melded electronic and acoustic sounds. Particularly entertaining was a set by WiENER KiDS, a jazz trio of two saxophonists and drummer, and composer Jordan Glenn, who introduced a gentle, intimate piece by saying they were about to play “a ballad called My Bike.”

Vocallective, performing Osvaldo Golijov’s Lua descolorida

Vocallective, performing Osvaldo Golijov’s Lua descolorida.

Given the multiple performance spaces, it was of course possible to hear only a small selection of the day’s offerings. Among those performers working with fully notated contemporary music was Vocallective, a group of young musicians recently founded by clear-voiced soprano Indre Viskontas, performing a set of three works by Osvaldo Golijov, including two pieces for soprano and chamber ensemble and Tenebrae for string quartet. San Francisco Performances, one of the Bay Area’s premiere presenters of chamber music, also brought mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm, a San Francisco Opera young artist, into the theater to reprise some selections from Jake Heggie’s song cycle Camille Claudel: Into the Fire which she had performed at a recent salon performance.

Regina Schaffer and Sarah Cahill (L-R) playing Terry Riley in the YBCA Lam Research Theater (with composer Luciano Chessa, who was called up from the audience to fill in for an absent page turner)

Regina Schaffer and Sarah Cahill (L-R) playing Terry Riley in the YBCA Lam Research Theater (with composer Luciano Chessa, who was called up from the audience to fill in for an absent page turner.)

Towards the end of the day, Sarah Cahill and Regina Schaffer took the stage in the theater to perform two four-hand piano works that Cahill had commissioned from Terry Riley, Waltz for Charismas and Etude from the Old Country. Cahill and Schaffer have been programming these works regularly in concert and are preparing to release recordings. Cahill introduced them by reading a brief note from Riley about the pieces:

In the days before radio and television, homes across the United States had pianos in the parlour, and families entertained themselves with music for four hands at one piano. My new four-hand piano works were written in the hope that people will throw their televisions out the window and return to activities that will bring spirit, content and meaning to their lives.

Of course, it would take some serious chops to play these challenging and passionate pieces in one’s parlor, and I was happy to sit back and allow Cahill and Schaffer to bring their spirited performance to my ears.



Clerestory in the Fleet Room at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.

For all the undeniable benefits of bringing audiences into a space to hear music they wouldn’t necessarily encounter on their own, a lively, unfettered, and varied event like Chamber Music Day does pose some challenges for both performers and audiences. For the musician, the quick turnovers between sets and limited time for sound checks occasionally did not benefit the performances; and from the listener’s standpoint, the constant movement of audience members and the brevity of the sets sometimes made it difficult to focus one’s ears, especially for quieter performances.

Fortunately I had had the opportunity to hear Clerestory, a men’s unaccompanied vocal ensemble, perform their Chamber Music Day set as part of a solo concert earlier this fall in a more controlled setting. This finely tuned ensemble, which includes countertenors singing up into soprano range, was formed in 2006 by Jesse Antin, a alumnus of Chanticleer. (Nearly all of Clerestory’s other singers have spent some time with Chanticleer as well.)

Clerestory opened their seventh season this fall with their first-ever commission, a 25-minute cycle of six Herman Melville poetry settings by Seattle composer Eric Banks titled These Oceans Vast, which was the centerpiece of a sea-themed program. (All of the concerts were presented in venues with broad views of the ocean and San Francisco Bay.) Throughout much of the work, Banks uses either small repeating gestures or stacked clusters to establish a slowly undulating bed over which the text is delivered, sometimes in melodies delivered by one or two singers, and in the particularly successful second movement, in a close four-part canon through which the sailor narrator’s mind tries to brush away fear by nervously chattering “Give me the nerve… Give me the calm.” Banks saves a rare moment of homophony until the end of the fourth song, where the narrator, full of yearning for his beloved at this point in his long voyage, calls out, “O love, O love, these oceans vast!”

Clerestory (pronounced “clear story,” referring to high cathedral windows) has built their audience in part over the years by generously posting recordings of all their concert programs on their website. These Oceans Vast can be streamed in its entirety or downloaded here.

ensemble dal niente: Hard Music Hard Liquor

As the performers stepped onstage for the seventh of nine pieces on ensemble dal niente’s Hard Music Hard Liquor program Friday night, I whispered to my husband: “This is going to be a really hard concert to write about.” By the end of an evening this aesthetically diverse, your head is spinning a little.

The show was called Hard Music Hard Liquor–a boozy celebration of new music virtuosity–but the challenges that it posed went beyond the realm of technique. Many of the pieces asserted strong and provocative ideas about the dynamic between composer, performer, and audience. These pieces asked us to consider important questions such as: How far can a composer push a player? Can a composer continue to assert himself in the performance of a piece, long after he’s handed over the score? What role do we play as observers, and how do our previous listening experiences affect the we hear these new works?

In Ray Evanoff’s Negotiating the Absolute Location of Buoyancy, we heard growls, groans, and whimpers–an arresting, ultra-subdued mad scene for solo French horn, spoken like a captive struggling to speak through a gag. In this case, the gag was the horn. At times I felt Matt Oliphant was locked in mortal combat with his instrument. Given the horn’s notorious difficulty, this piece sets the audience on edge, with Evanoff challenging us to hear music in the guttural, unpredictable sound palette that can sometimes characterize “mistakes.”

Stefan Prins’s Piano Hero #1, for midi-keyboard, video, and live electronics, performed by Mabel Kwan

Stefan Prins’s Piano Hero #1, for midi-keyboard, video, and live electronics, performed by Mabel Kwan. Photo by Ryan Muncy

Stefan Prins’s Piano Hero #1, for midi-keyboard, video, and live electronics, also opens in a way that terrifies the listener. The video–a man dragging pieces of wood and metal across a piano frame–seemed to be skipping and malfunctioning. But as it turns out, the “scratched DVD” sensation is one of the most important elements of Piano Hero’s sonic assault. The piece contains a particularly unsettling moment in which the live camera fixes on pianist Mabel Kwan–so we finally focus on her, rather than the man in the pre-recorded video–but as she continues to play, the keyboard makes no sound. Before our eyes, the performer is silenced by the composer and the system he created. (Indeed, Prins’s website describes the pianist in this piece as “a mere operator in a world of bits and bytes.”) But if the piece was a battle between the performer and the composed system, it appeared that Mabel Kwan eventually won, silencing the muscular video man with a long “game over” buzz while he continued to flicker powerlessly.

Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Shredhaus is endearingly titled, given its tiny, lean-forward-to-catch-every-moment sound world. I was reminded of an electric guitarist practicing without an amp as I watched Jesse Langen “shred” on his acoustic without the help of his right hand. In the piece’s amazing (anti)climax, Langen’s left hand climbed closer and closer to the guitar’s pegs–the opposite direction of typical guitar heroes. The piece felt like a rock guitar solo turned delightfully inside out.

How far is Ferneyhough from Schubert? In Lemma — Icon — Epigram, Winston Choi played with an elegance and panache that made me feel that they’re closer than ever. How do we reconceive the virtuoso violin showpiece in the 21st century? Austin Wulliman presented the instrument’s brilliant colors and hard edges in Lee Hyla’s Passegiata.

Malin Bang’s Turbid Motion, performed by ensemble dal niente. Photo by Ryan Muncy

Malin Bang’s Turbid Motion, performed by ensemble dal niente. Photo by Ryan Muncy

After more than an hour of solo (and one duo) performance, it was a joy and a relief to see nine members of the ensemble gather onstage together for Malin Bang’s amazingly textured Turbid Motion and Fisher-Lochhead’s fantastic, zany arrangement of Frank Zappa’s The Duke of Prunes. Watching the ensemble interact with each other–smiling, cuing, provoking–was a stark contrast from watching them engage in lonely battles with ultra-challenging scores. It was a testament, I think, to the huge difference between what a solo piece can convey and what music scored for an ensemble can deliver. After a night of intense soliloquy, the evening ended with the sounds of a party.