Tag: festival

Inspired Collaboration: No Idea Festival 2014

The No Idea Festival started its second decade of improvisation with six shows over a four-day period in Austin and San Antonio. Founder Chris Cogburn assembled another amazing collection of performers this year, drawn from across the country as well as Mexico, where Cogburn spends part of the year performing and working in the improv scene.

The festival is a place for performers to develop the relationships started at previous No Idea gatherings and to develop new ones with artists of all stripes, and to that end this year’s lineup included—in addition to the musicians—a writer, a dancer, and a clown.

Michael Zerang and Julie Nathanielsz – photo by Gudinni Cortina

Michael Zerang and Julie Nathanielsz
Photo by Gudinni Cortina

The stage at the Museum of Human Achievement extended to the right of the audience to an intermediate area which served as an open stage-left for this performance and as a connector to another stage used for the second performance, a sort of lazy Z which faced and flanked the audience. Following a brief introduction by Cogburn, Michael Zerang and Julie Nathanielsz opened the third evening of the festival with a collaborative sound and movement performance. Nathanielsz stood completely still as Zerang, seated at a trap kit to our right, produced a series of breaths and tweets from a recorder. As this texture developed, Nathanielsz shuddered and shook, moving more while standing in place than she did when she crossed the stage. In response, Zerang began rubbing something across the head of one of his drums creating a wonderful keening counterpoint to the recorder. I couldn’t make out what he was using, but as he stood up with a frame drum and began walking towards Nathanielsz, it seemed as though he was getting way more vibrating mileage out of that drum than he should have been able to. As he got to the front of the stage, it became clear that he was using something which, when moved across the drum head, drove it like a speaker, ramping up the timbral and temporal possibilities. When I asked Zerang the specifics of the four-inch oblong whatsit, he said, “Well, this is what we call in music a ‘vibrating device’.” I couldn’t help but think that that’s what they call it in any number of fields.

Bonnie Jones and Juan García performance from another festival set.
For the most immersive experience, listen with headphones (though be prepared for the sonic peaks and valleys).
The second set was quite representative of the local meets national meets international flavor of No Idea. Austin-based guitarist Parham Daghigh was joined by cellist Aimée Theriot from Yucatán, Mexico, saxophonist James Fei from Oakland, and No Idea regular Bonnie Jones from Baltimore. As the crowd settled into their second stage seats, Fei began breathing through his instrument, the sound dovetailing with the audience noise. As the last of the latter subsided, Daghigh began applying pressure to the lower strings of his electric guitar, forcing them to touch the pickups and creating a sharp, popping sound. This sound had a slightly different quality when the strings detached from the pickup’s magnet, and the two sounds came across like a telegraph. Theriot joined in with slow, short, quiet glissandi on the C string over a small range, and these low moans made a bed for Jones’s electronic high-pitched echoes.

Jones’s setup allowed her to open and close a variety of circuits with an instrument cable, and while these connections and disconnections fell in the same A/B tick-tock world as Daghigh’s pickup manipulation, they were in a completely different timbral sphere, hers sharp and brittle and his warm and rounded. Jones’s foreground opening gesture became background as Theriot shifted to harmonics, still soft but taking the lead by virtue of their tessitura. Fei picked up on this shift as his breathing was broken up with jagged, pitched attacks. All of this was actually quite quiet and largely pointillistic, so much so that when Daghigh began to use a paintbrush across the strings the windlike continuity of the sound was particularly striking.

Perhaps it goes without saying that none of this music was really living in the twelve-note-to-the-octave world, but occasionally a conventional collection would show up. A beautiful Phrygian moment occurred when Fei picked up on a beating texture between two waves which Jones created. He cruised a half-step above the pitch and back down again, and in context of the surrounding material it had a decidedly tonal character. The group volume increased in a heartbeat, remained so for a brief period, then died down to its former level, all of this occurring together so tightly it almost sounded rehearsed, though it wasn’t. A few final clicks from Jones signaled the close of the set.

Perruque trio - (from left) Aaron Tucker,Kurt Newman, and Chris Cogburn (Bassist Juan Garcia is behind Tucker) - photo by Gudinni Cortina

Perruque trio – (from left) Aaron Tucker,Kurt Newman, and Chris Cogburn (Bassist Juan Garcia is behind Tucker)
Photo by Gudinni Cortina

Aaron Tucker is a circus clown and member of the trio Perruque with Chris Cogburn on percussion and guitarist Kurt Newman. Bassist Juan Garcia joined the group for the third set of the night. I’ll take a moment here to say that my knowledge of clowning begins and ends with the handful of circus shows I saw as a kid, so I was quite interested to find out what would happen.
I’ve seen several No Idea shows over the years and the sets typically fall into two broad categories; the first is a fairly democratic group composition, while the second has a leader of sorts. In this set, the clown took the lead. And he was spectacular. It wasn’t slapstick or pratfalls that made it work either, he was just really good at working the audience and communicating with the other performers. Newman kicked off the set with light pick scraping on the strings while Cogburn rubbed the head of his snare, providing a hollow counter to the bright string sound.

Tucker (dressed the part with big checkered mu-mu pants, a wide and too-short purple tie, a little vest, the big clown shoes, a clown nose, and a mini pork-pie hat perched atop his large bald head) began to respond to these sounds, eventually grabbing a folding chair from the audience and threading his substantial body through it. A bit of Danger Music, no doubt. Garcia played off Tuckers movement, not exactly mimicking it but using his gestures to inform the pulsing gestures coming from the bass. Cogburn pulled out a cymbal which he placed at a 90-degree angle to the snare drum. This was a new one for me, and the sounds generated by dragging the cymbal across the snare seemed impossibly deep and thrumming.

Tucker made his way through and around the audience, sometimes sitting down among us or on the stage. My guess is that I was not alone in my return to childhood, and a few audience members couldn’t help themselves, occasionally interacting with Tucker and the band via crinkly water bottles and the shuffling of chairs. The players were able to interact with his movement without the whole thing turning into foley art, but the audience was not so talented. Fortunately, the performers were able to soldier on even as the audience attempted their own fourth wall excursions.

Tucker threads the needle - photo by Gudinni Cortina

Tucker threads the needle
Photo by Gudinni Cortina

Unfortunately I was unable to stay for the fourth set, but honestly any one of the sets I saw that night could stand alone as a satisfying concert. Cogburn has created a perfect setting for improvisers and audience to experience a variety of distinctive collaborations. Year after year, artists return to Austin to reconnect with those they’ve shared sets with in the past and to make new noise with strangers. Whether in the audience or on the stage, the experience is a perfect antidote to so much of our repeatable, re-tweetable culture—a series of gems created in real time.

Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival: A Sandbox of Sounds

A montage of concerts, rehearsals, and random happenings from throughout
Bang on a Can’s 2013 Summer Music Festival.
Video footage by MASS MoCA and Zach Herchen, edited by Zach Herchen.

This past July I was fortunate enough to attend Bang on a Can’s Summer Music Festival as a 2013 fellow. The three-week event was held at MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), a huge modern art museum in North Adams, Massachusetts. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but a distinct vibe quickly developed during the first week: non-stop youthful creative energy.

Right this way to MASS MoCA

Right this way to MASS MoCA’s 110,000 square feet of contemporary art galleries.
All photos by Zach Herchen.

During our time together, faculty and fellows performed a large amount of music. This doesn’t simply mean that Bang on a Can programmed a lot of pieces, though we certainly dug into plenty of great works. The festival is structured in a way that encourages everyone to explore and collaborate. Think of it as half festival, half artist retreat. Daily lunchtime recitals were open for fellows to perform anything we liked in the art gallery of our choice. These concerts included improvisations, commissioned works, modern repertoire, and numerous new compositions composed by fellows during the festival. In our free time, fellows often met up for jam sessions, readings of compositional drafts, and one or two unscheduled concerts. After-hours hangouts included two karaoke nights at the local bar with a live backing band of festival participants.

Bang on a Can fellows improvise

Bang on a Can fellows Brendon Randall-Myers (left), Lucie Grugier (center), and David Sánchez García (right) improvise music alongside artwork by Joseph Montgomery during a lunchtime recital.

Faculty and fellows were placed into several structured groups ranging from standard quartets, to chamber orchestras, to bands mirroring the Bang on a Can All-Stars instrumentation. These groups performed ten premieres by composition fellows, daily evening recitals, and a seven-hour concluding marathon. In addition to these concerts, fellows learned and performed African drumming, Latin jazz, a sign language for conducting improvised music called sound painting, and new ways of creating music in the Orchestra of Original Instruments.

An evening recital in a gallery of Jason Middlebrook’s painted hardwood planks.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars present an evening recital in a gallery of Jason Middlebrook’s painted hardwood planks.

By asking fellows to learn and perform so much new music within a few days, we were pushed to absorb and explore, often in ways we weren’t used to doing. African drumming was taught by ear with no discussion of rhythm or meter. Latin jazz involved quick arrangements and comfort in following new ideas on the fly. Sound painting required attentive improvisation to understand directions in a sign language that was new to most of us. The Orchestra of Original Instruments asked us to explore sound creation through tubes, balloons, humming, Québécois clogging, and a variety of original instruments made by Gunnar Schonbeck. Here the music wasn’t just new—it was sounds we’d never heard and instruments we’d never played. In this environment it was natural to broaden our self-image from a specialist in one instrument to a general sound-maker. The overlapping theme of each day? Forget your expectations, discover what your peers can offer, and be surprised by what you can create.

Fellows explore Gunnar Schonbeck’s original instruments.

Fellows meet in an undeveloped section of MASS MoCA to explore Gunnar Schonbeck’s original instruments for the first time.

While these ideas are not completely new, it was the fellows and faculty that made them so compelling. Every style performed throughout the festival (contemporary, funk, classical, hip-hop, jazz, folk, and classic rock, to name a few) was presented with the same passion and interest. Fellows were often found trying out new lessons such as drumming patterns, sound painting symbols, and clogging in our free time. While performance technique was of the highest caliber, technical perfection was not an end in itself. Instead, presenting the best art you can and enjoying the moment was at the heart of each concert.

Festival fellow Joe Tucker performs a work for vibraphone and playback.

Festival fellow Joe Tucker performs a work for vibraphone and playback next to one of 105 large-scale wall drawings designed by Sol LeWitt.

We were asked to shed restrictions, open our ears, and return to a place of youthful excitement where we found our love of music; take risks, share that idea we’d kept to ourselves, and always say yes. Whether it was a rendition of “The Old Castle” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition over a 3/4 drumming rhythm, playing a trumpet into a bowl of water, or overlaying Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious” with The Beatles’ “Day Tripper,” this year’s festival was a breeding ground for projects, ideas, and new experiences. It’s easy to miss the utopian feel of a three-week music festival, and difficult to keep that energy and excitement as I reintegrate to normal life. I can say with certainty, though, that I look forward to hearing what my peers create next and feel ready to get a dream project off the ground.

Performance under Xu Bing's Pheonix. a Can Summer Music Festival

Festival fellow Ben Willis sings into his bass during a performance under Xu Bing’s Pheonix.

Austin Chamber Music Center Summer Festival: Victoire and Pride

I’ve commented in recent stories on sea changes in the Austin landscape, both musical geographical. It’s hard not to be a bit curmudgeonly about the growing pains that are impacting the place I’ve called home for 13 years, but it comes with the territory. I suspect that even those who’ve been here for only a few years would have a few things to say as traffic, construction, and festivals pile on, making the most stoic of us think wistfully of the salad days of, say, 2008. A manifestation of this change is the move of blues club Antone’s from its downtown location (not the original 6th Street establishment mind you, but one maintained for some time) to Riverside Drive, just southeast of downtown on the other side of the river. I used to live about two blocks from there over a decade ago, and at the time the building housed a succession of clubs in which things occasionally got shooty and stabby. The area housed all the vices of an early-’80s Times Square and stood in stark contrast to the lovely homes and neighborhoods west of I-35. Despite my concern about change, it was nice to pass by my old digs and to be reminded that sometimes change can be good.
As part of the Austin Chamber Music Center Festival, Victoire was invited to play a show at the new Antone’s venue. This was my first trip there and my first time to see Victoire, so I was primed for something new and different and I wasn’t disappointed. Austin Chamber Music Center’s core audience does skew toward the traditional, so I was also curious to see how the show would be received. For their first appearance in Texas, Victoire chose to perform their debut album in its entirety, and though it’s not a “concept” album, the moods and themes explored did create continuity among the ten or so tunes played that evening. By and large the strings, and to a lesser degree the clarinet, were relieved of their traditional roles and assigned smaller circling riffs throughout much of the set. The opening track, A Door in the Dark, stands as a great example of indie classical in its moody, detached coolness,; a slightly intellectual character showing up in the 4+4+4+3 phrasing, clearly indicated in the conducting and cueing of leader Missy Mazzoli.  Perhaps a nod to the Pixies/Radiohead/Kinks school, subtle alterations of typical pop song structure (such as the lopping off of a single beat from the end of four bars) are among the key elements of this style, and Victoire fires on all cylinders in this department. Cathedral City, the title track, bore these features as well. The piece rides in on an electronic intro featuring a post-808 [1] hi-hat track hyperkinetically chugging along in a pattern that had just enough hiccup in the pulse to keep you guessing. This framework was set up in stark contrast to the longer, measured vocal and violin lines that intertwined above. While recorded elements served as preludes to individual tunes, at other times they carried the banner for an entire work. In A Song for Arthur Russell, this treatment lead to a harmonically static but rhythmically active texture, with punchy sixteenths kicking around above the pulsing electronic bed.

It’s in the vocal parts that Victoire separates the indie from the classical. The lyrics (at least in this performance—the sound and mix were great but you never know!) were uniformly obscured and it was difficult to hear distinct words when they were used, much less get a sense of sentence or meaning from the lyrics. This is not at all meant pejoratively, and truly it could just be that I couldn’t make things out clearly for any number of reasons aside from composer intent…but I think it was in fact composer intent, and that the use of the voice here was as an instrument primarily as opposed to a lyric delivery device.  Even in the music of the late Beatles one finds (not always, of course) the use of lyric and story which are altered based on presumed listener expectations. [2] Victoire simply doesn’t have this discussion and presents the vocal elements as music artifacts, pure and simple. And it works like a charm.

Victoire takes a bow at Antone's

Victoire takes a bow at Antone’s


Moving across town from blues club to St. James Episcopal Church, ACMC’s annual Pride Concert marked its fifth year with an almost exclusively new music lineup. Hosted by composer Russell Reed, local and national composers and performers celebrated the musical contributions of the LGBT community.

Russell Reed introduces the ACMC Pride concert

Russell Reed introduces the ACMC Pride concert

Following a rousing performance of three Szymanowski mazurkas by Jim James, Reed was joined by baritone Phillip Hall for three sections from David Del Tredici’s Gay Life as well as “Matthew Shepherd” from his Three Baritone Songs.  From the lilting sway of “In the Temple” to the tongue-in-cheek earnestness his setting of Ginsberg’s “Personal Ads,” to “After The Big Parade” a lyrically solemn and musically spiky rumination on the impact of AIDS in the early 1990s, the three songs were musically and lyrically crystal clear and made for a well-placed run-up to the final piece of the set. The murder of Matthew Shepherd is horrifying, but Jaime Manrique’s text—which imagines Shepherd’s final moments—is a gripping meditation on transfiguration, and Del Tredici’s encapsulation of the text, from the descending lament-inspired bass line which never fully descends to  the whole-tone ascension representing the spirit leaving the body was completely spot-on and riveting.

Reed’s Fantasy Variations on “Una Furtiva Lagrima” played hide and seek with its theme, the flute, harp, and bassoon trading long lines in odd time, while Pauline Oliveros’s To Valeria Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition Of Their Desperation added piano and clarinet to the mix. An initial thrum-thrum-thrum from all instruments was among the few times that homophony trumped polyphony in the work. Having said that, the various lines did all follow the same gravitational pull, moving to and fro in a flock-like fashion throughout the bulk of the work. Ben Stonaker’s Soliloquy for clarinet alone provided a workout for Jon Guist, whose wonderful tone was complimented by his technical agility. A quiet introduction ornamented with grace notes led to a series of increasingly complex and intricate sections that put both to the test.

The final work was Lowell Liebermann’s Sonata for Flute and Piano performed by Reed and Timothy Hagen. A simple ostinato in the piano became a compelling counterpoint to the initially simple flute line of the first movement. Labeled Lento con rubato, the movement built to a fever pitch and fooled most of the audience (all of us? I was clapping…) into applause when we thought that perhaps the movements were played attaca. But when the Presto Energico burst from the gate, we realized that the drive at the end of the first movement was just a taste of what was to come. Hagen and Reed tore through the work, displaying a wide variety of technical virtuosity and musical sensitivity, and the final notes only rang briefly before everyone was whooping it up.
ACMC logo
ACMC has been around for decades—long enough to have existed when the governor was a Democrat [3], SXSW was a baby, and Austin was just a gleam in marketers’ eyes. Its summer festival is more recent, and the inclusion and promotion of new music even more so. I suppose that there were people who (like me with the recent general direction of the city) resisted that change, that growth. Though I’m holding steady with my arms-crossed, head-shaking stance on Austin change, clearly in the case of ACMC programming it’s a trend that’s both welcome and growing.

1. You may remember hearing this all over the place 30ish years ago.

2. For instance, what the hell does, “She came in through the bathroom window / Protected by a silver spoon / But now she sucks her thumb and wanders / By the banks of her own lagoon” really mean? I don’t know, but it works lyrically and manages to paint a picture in the same way that “I Want To Hold Your Hand” does without telling a standard story. The Beatles were great at this (both in terms of music and lyric) specifically because they spent so much time playing and writing standard blues and pop fare that they understood it on a molecular level and could therefore change it just enough to make it new and interesting without losing the essence of the style.

3. Fun Fact. Number of Republican governors of Texas: 5, Democratic: 39.

The Mush Race of Boston: The SICPP 2013 Iditarod

How do you prepare for a concert presentation of over eight nearly continuous hours of new music? As a listener, it helps to read about the music, nap in advance, plan to get some fresh air, and pack a few good snacks. If you’re a performer, and the event is the Iditarod at the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice, it involves nine intensive days of practice, rehearsal, workshopping, and bonding with other musicians. SICPP (pronounced “sick puppy”) takes place every summer at the New England Conservatory. As you may already know, the Iditarod, from which SICPP’s closing event borrows its name, is an annual sled dog race held over several weeks and many different types of terrain in Alaska. It is, I am sure, a test of commitment, knowledge, stamina, and concentration. It also involves teamwork and adjustment to shifting conditions, which makes it a more apt name than the more usual “marathon” for what we experienced last Saturday.

The closing piece of the whole event was an incredibly beautiful performance of Berio's Folk Songs, featuring soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon

The closing piece of the whole event was a performance of Berio’s Folk Songs, featuring soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon.

But SICPP includes a lot more than just the culminating Iditarod. This year’s institute began on June 14th and ran through the 22nd, dipping half an hour into the 23rd. There were concerts every evening from the 16th onward, primarily featuring faculty and guests until the Iditarod, which was student-centered but frequently involved faculty in the chamber groups. Concurrent with the Iditarod was a set of installation pieces, which I unfortunately missed due to a planning error. There were also lunchtime concerts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall, a co-presentation with Boston GuitarFest on Thursday afternoon, and an Electronic Workshop Concert on Friday afternoon. I attended the Friday and Saturday events. The Friday events, especially the evening concert, had an atmosphere more like a summer camp or a sporting event than—I think it’s safe to say—any other new music event I’ve experienced. There was a great deal of enthusiasm about the music and the performances, and it was evident that many new friendships among the players had formed over the preceding week. But the atmosphere on Saturday, though still friendly, was far from casual. All of the students were playing or having their works played that evening, and while there was still plenty of enthusiasm, it was tempered by a palpable sense of concentration.

Three performances during the Iditarod were remarkable in the artistry that the musicians brought to the pieces. At no moment did these feel like student performances. They were impeccably prepared, and transcended the requisite technical demands. Greg Jukes, percussion, Ryan McCullough, piano, and Jing Li, cello, played Rand Steiger’s Trio in Memoriam with a level of confidence and surety that allowed its emotional scope to come through with stunning clarity. McCullough was also part of the ensemble for Ives’s Piano Trio, along with Gabby Diaz, violin, and Stephen Marotto, cello. It was a full-on performance, richly conveying the wildness of the second movement and the unholy explosion of vibrant noise in the third. The closing piece of the whole event was an incredibly beautiful performance of Berio’s Folk Songs, featuring soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, who switched seemingly effortlessly into an entirely different vocal delivery for the closing “Azerbaijan Love Song.”

Not all of the pieces called for or allowed such a no-holds-barred approach. Many of them required one very specific type of intensity. The driving pulses of Steve Reich’s Tehillim were a test of stamina that was very successfully met across the ensemble for over half an hour. In Feldman’s 2 pieces for 3 pianos, the holds were effectively, and appropriately, barred. Beth Karp, Valerie Ross, and Kyle Johnson brought great coolness, discipline, and rigor to the work.

That was also true of the two Feldman performances at the Friday lunchtime concert at the Gardner Museum: Voice, Violin and Piano by soprano Nina Guo, violinist Gabby Diaz, and pianist Angelique Po, and of Why Patterns? by flutist Jessi Rosinski, pianist Amy O’Dell, and Caleb Herron on glockenspiel. Xenakis’s Dikhthas, played with real vigor and commitment by pianist Mari Kawamura and violinist Micah Ringham, was an unrelenting volcanic eruption. Later at the Friday evening concert, Alan Sentman’s Patchwork provoked quite a lot of laughter, particularly in the third section, as Stuart Gerber very cleverly made use of the improvisational freedoms provided by the composer. Immediately after this piece he dove into the visceral discipline and tremendous energy demanded by Xenakis’s Rebonds. Adam Roberts’s Anakhtara was poised in a strange and beautiful stillness and distance, elegantly conveyed by its dedicatee, cellist Benjamin Schwartz. Schwartz followed with Ulrich Kreppein’s mysterious, oblique, and understated Abendlich auf schattenbegleiteten wegen. Xenakis’s Okho was a great closer, with its tight ensemble playing in the exploration of traditional and non-traditional djembe techniques. Mathias Spahlinger’s musica impura was the one piece to be performed both by faculty on Friday evening (Jen Ashe, soprano, Maarten Stragier, guitar, Nick Tolle, percussion) and then again during the Iditarod by student participants (Dino Georgeton, percussion, Katrina Leshan, guitar, Susanna Su, soprano). This piece presented ironically disjunct sections of material, which were both technically and aesthetically demanding. It’s to be expected that the faculty performance would be more assured. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would feel a greater interest in the piece following the student performance. It was a less performative, less extroverted performance, but the honest engagement with the problems presented by the work was invigorating.
In the Electronic Workshop Concert on Friday, Susanna Su, soprano, with Ian Headley, electronics, gave a deeply felt and richly evocative performance of Kaija Saariaho’s Lohn. Headley’s composition, Two Rules, for percussionist John Andress and live electronics by the composer, had a strikingly visceral, three-dimensional quality. David Stenson’s untitled alternated effectively between static and liquid states, while Ariane Miyasaki’s Hindsight used the electronics to sonically put the audience inside of Beth McDonald’s tuba. Asha Tamirisa’s Clark continued in this line of using electronics to reveal, rather than obscure, the physical impacts of John Andress’s performance. The concert closed with a collaboration by the participants in the Electronic Workshop and Susanna Su on Benjamin Bacon’s d’chromeo, described by Bacon as a framework for improvisation, in which dynamic shapes are given but other parameters are free.

Returning to the Iditarod performances, Scott Deal’s Goldstream Variations opened the event, with a maximal, inclusive style that provided a great set of playing opportunities for the whole ensemble. Roger Miller’s Vines for Music was an immediate stylistic contrast, and the musicians proved themselves totally ready for this pared down aesthetic. While Miller nods to Cage in the program notes because of the use of prepared piano, there is a more implicit resonance with Lucier and a piece like Still Lives in the use of shapes found around the house (in Miller’s case, vines attached to the garage door) as pitch contour. The transparent quality of the slow string glissandi and careful inside-the-piano work demanded a special kind of concentration from the players, which was beautifully met. In Rand Steiger’s 13 LOOPS, the strength of the ensemble playing continued, revealing itself as a very welcome theme of the evening. Originally dedicated to Dorothy Stone, the original flutist of the California E.A.R. Unit, in this performance the piece was a great vehicle for flutist Sarah Pyle, who really shone in this role. Taylor Long and Robin Hirshberg, percussion, and Angelique Po and Raquel Gorgojo (amplified pianos) carried the individual characters of each of the pieces of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos III. This performance was not about the many extended techniques involved, but about the states they evoked. These techniques were understood as resources, not as showcases in themselves.

Among the works by student composers (who are mostly, if not all, working at the graduate level), 27 also showed a real sensitivity in its use of extended techniques, both from the composer, Julio Zúñiga, and from Eve Boltax, viola, and Nicolas Loh, piano. It was an understated performance, deriving real intensity from the smallest actions. Later in that set, Ethan Braun’s Mud Doll displayed a far more overt intensity. In what Braun calls the “emotional centerpiece” of his chamber opera, soprano Amy Foote and saxophonist Phillipp Staeudlin invaded the stratosphere in one wonderfully terrible, indelible moment. Earlier in the evening, Clifton Ingram’s Thought Memory juxtaposed memory, represented by a tabletop guitar, with thought, articulated on a second, more conventionally held instrument. Both guitars were played by Katrina Leshan, who gave this piece a highly nuanced performance in all its dimensions. The diversity of these student works stretched in other directions, from the barely voiced and sometimes unvoiced ckifi/kn by Justin Murphy-Mancini, to the vibrant points of stasis and pulsations within a narrow band of Katherine Young’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, to the active pitch, rhythmic, and timbral cycles of Alex Huddleston’s Parallax, projected with masterly assurance by flutist Jessi Rosinski. In the next set, Onur Yildirim’s Mûş-ı Zamân II, influenced by the study of the physics of time, was rich with instrumental color and ornamental activity. José Manuel Serrano’s Breve was a work of a very different nature, made up of a series of inconclusive, yet very rich musical gestures. Aaron Jay Myers found an effective advocate for Leg and Skull in percussionist Taylor Long, who set the air ringing throughout the hall in these musical evocations of decay. The final student work of the evening was Emily Koh’s cycrotations for percussion quartet, which I remember for its haunting, ghostly, spacious quality.

Taken together, these ten works are a useful snapshot of the aesthetic diversity of composition occurring these days at the student level. In combination with Rand Steiger’s residency and the numerous other programmed works, participants and audience members, including myself, got a great view of the overwhelming breadth of this field. Most of all, it’s truly invigorating to see such capable musicians taking on the many demands of contemporary music with commitment.

One question was stirred for me in the wake of this event, however. With very few exceptions, the pieces performed by the students at SICPP were either by composers who were present or who are well established in the canon. Feldman, Berio, Xenakis, etc., are not names that a musician with an active interest in new music can (or should) miss. But there are any number of composers who might be of significant interest to performers who are neither canonized nor part of their academic institutions or local scenes. This is not so much a criticism of SICPP—I couldn’t imagine that one more piece could have been fit into those nine days—but more a question to performers such as the participants in SICPP, whose involvement in the program is proof of an active interest in new music. How do you go about finding the contemporary music that is not handed to you, either by peers, by faculty, or as recognized important literature? The argument could be made that there has never been such a promising time as the present to make your own musical maps, as you discover the work for which you can advocate the most effectively, and which brings you the most joy. So much of that joy came through during the two days of performance that I witnessed, and there is no good reason that it can’t continue to spin itself out with new musical discoveries, through the summer and into the years ahead.

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

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

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

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

Bang on a Can Marathon 2013 Live Blog

ng on a Can Tubas
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Ready for nine hours of new music? For those who can’t be in the crowd for the 2013 Bang on a Can Marathon in New York City on Sunday, June 16 (Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts @ Pace University), we’ve embedded intrepid NMBx columnist Rob Deemer to keep you apprised of the goings on. So get ready, get set…
12:59. One minute to go and the audience is still filing into the hall here. Christina Jensen explained that, while normally the Marathon would be held at the World Financial Center, that venue is currently under contruction. The Schimmel Center at Pace University is an excellent venue – I saw David T. Little’s performance of his Soldier’s Songs earlier this year and it works great for both acoustic & amplified genres. I’ll be curious how the traditional setting affects the feel of the Marathon throughout the day – if you have questions or comments, please leave them below! 
1:19. The Marathon kicks off with Alarm Will Sound performing “El Dude”, the first movement from Derek Bermel’s Canzonas Americanas. This is my first time hearing AWS live, so check one more item off that particular bucket list! The ensemble is tight as they maneuver through Bermel’s serpentine counterpoint and backbeats; while it doesn’t swing per se, it comes mighty close at points. The luscious harmonies are well-orchestrated throughout the ensemble and overall the performers seemed to enjoy chewing into this piece. Acoustics have always been tricky with these concerts in the past – this performance was balanced well on stage, from my bearing, but some of the strings and other instruments are being amplified while others aren’t, which makes for a slightly off-kilter experience from the audience.


Alarm Will Sound
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

1:28. Alarm Will Sound continues with a work by Minnesota-based composer Jeffrey Brooks entitled After The Treewatcher. I’m not sure if it’s the particular way this piece is textured (it’s much thicker overall than Bermel’s with synths and electric guitar prevalent throughout), but the balance issue seems to be fixed. Brooks’ work is big and brash – very tasty piece!

1:38. In a complete contrast to AWS’s two big pieces, trumpeter Peter Evans comes out to perform a solo work of his own. Performing into a microphone, the virtuosic skitterings slowly morphed into a distorted sound mass…I’m not sure what kind of electronics are being used from the back of the hall (if there’s no electronics on this, then color me gobsmacked), but the performance as whole is very effective. Whispering in jazz-tinged lines that don’t ever seem to settle in one direction or another, Evans builds into something that could only be described as an Arban etude from hell. Scary chops and supremely musical performance.
1:51. Both Bang on a Can and Alarm Will Sound have been active in cultivating emerging composer talents – BOAC with their Summer Festival at MASS MOCA and AWS at the Mizzou New Music Festival at the University of Missouri – and the next piece has connections to them both. British composer Charlie Piper has attended both festivals and wrote Zoetrope for Alarm Will Sound last year. With its emphasis on cross-rhythms, insistent pulse, and fanciful colors, this piece is definitely within the BOAC oeuvre, but Piper’s use of light textures and transparent textures makes it stand out.
1:53. Christina Jennings just handed me a URL that you’ll want to check out: www.ustream.tv/channel/littledogtv – this will be in tandem with an upcoming piece by Lukas Ligeti!
2:07. Conductor and Artistic Director Alan Pierson announced from the stage that Caleb Burhans, one of the ensemble’s core members and composer of the next piece, got into a pretty serious accident last night after AWS performed an all-Burhans concert at Le Poisson Rouge last night. With hopes that he recovers fully, they lay into Caleb’s o ye of little faith…(do you know where your children are?) with conviction. o ye… relies less on constant pulse (though it is never missing) and more on slowly-evolving chordal gestures that build to a rumbling crescendo.
2:08. UPDATE: The link above will be a livestream of the Ligeti piece in a few moments…there will be a handful of performances that will be livestreamed today. Stay tuned!
2:16. As I mentioned before, the feel of this Marathon is pretty different – not bad, just different – than the previous ones in the Financial Center. The pace seems to be much quicker between pieces and you see less of the relaxed atmosphere than in the mall-like venue across town…again, no criticism, just an observation. I’ve wondered how well these concert Marathons would connect in a more traditional, enclosed space – time will tell.
2:36. Lukas Ligeti has been exploring the music of African and incorporating its concepts into his music for quite some time now and his new work for two drumsets, Iakoni in kazonnde, is a very impressive example of this integration. Inspired by Ghanian agogo bell traditions, Ligeti pits one drumset against another with intricate cross-rhythms overlaying on top of one another. It’s not as flashy as one might expect a double drumset piece to be, but infinitely more interesting.
2:48. Proof that the rock band/chamber music combination is not just an American concept, Cabaret Contemporain seems to have picked up the idea and ran with it in their homeland of France. They’ll be starting in just a few minutes…


Cabaret Contemporain
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

3:05. Wow – wasn’t expecting that. Not sure what I was expecting, but I’m liking it nonetheless. I’ve seen BOAC have DJ’s perform during past Marathons and this performance reminded of that – except it’s a live group with keyboards, electric guitar, drumset and two upright basses (though one had to leave the stage due to technical difficulties beyond his control only to emerge minute later to the delight of the audience). Not very subtle – it wasn’t meant to be – but quite satisfying in a visceral way. Their attention to timbre, balance, and texture is pretty impressive – it’s not often you see a bass player playing beneath the bridge and a pianist playing inside the piano while a guitarist and drumset lays down a complex techno beat. If you haven’t heard of this group – now’s the time.
3:32. After the first of several pauses, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus performs two new works, the first one, Before the Words, is an a cappella work by Shara Worden (she of My Brightest Diamond). Joyous in nature, Shara’s first foray into choral repertoire is deceptively challenging for the choir, but the young singers do a wonderful job of executing the interlocking textures – kudos to the two solo singers who came out front! All of these singers seem about 12-15 in age…really glad to see composers working with younger performers in such a high-profile context.
3:40. The 45-member choir is now being joined by a string quartet and piano to perform Nico Muhly’s Respect of a Storm. This piece pushed the envelope in different directions than Worden’s and didn’t fare as well…the textures seemed blurred at times and while the string quartet didn’t get in the way, it didn’t seem necessary either. The Chorus’ performance was solid, however, and one hopes that more choirs take this group as a model for working with new literature and living composers.


NYUSTEEL w/ NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

4:10. From Michael Gordon’s comments, Kendall Williams’ Conception is the first instance of a steel band – in this case NYUSTEEL along with the NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble) – that they’ve had at a BOAC Marathon. The work combines a six-piece steel pan ensemble with a 10-piece mixed chamber ensemble and the result is quite good – I’d be curious to hear what it sounded without the amplification (which made sections almost unbearably loud from my perch in the balcony). Williams mentioned that he’s played steel pan for over 20 years and is a graduate of NYU, so he knew the group well and wrote a damn fine piece for them.
4:19. You’ll probably notice that I mention the use of pulse, repetition, ostinati, etc. a lot today…I’m gonna stay away from labels, but safe to say we are at the Bang on a Can Marathon, so there are several threads that tend to run through much of the repertoire  during the day that I’ll try to explore as we go along.
4:33. One of the  characteristics of the BOAC Marathons are their penchant for sudden stylistic “left turns”, and we’ve just took one. Yungchen Lhamo and Anton Batagov (voice & piano respectively) are performing two works (entitled White Palace and Medicine Buddha) that are much more relaxed and tranquil than anything else we’ve heard so far. Batagov’s effective accompaniment serves as an undulating foundation upon which Lhamo meanders utilizing the vocal techniques she learned in her native Tibet. It is mysterious at times, listless at others, and ethereal throughout.


Brooklyn Youth Chorus and TILT Brass
(photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

4:58. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus returns to the stage along with members of the NYC-based TILT brass ensemble for Astral Epitaphs, a work John King composed for the final performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Park Avenue Armory two years ago. From what I can tell, the work is completely aleatoric, with each instrument and the choir being picked up by microphones that are being fed into a computer and relayed back through spatial speakers throughout the room with various elctro-acoustic transformations. With an array of 45 singers in a half-circle around the stage and three trumpets and three trombones lined up in front, the work is as visually stunning as it is aurally. I can imagine this piece was scheduled before the move to the Pace Center was necessary – the effect in the Financial Center’s Winter Garden would not be quite so harsh at points and more expansive in others…but overall the impact of the piece was very strong, especially as the choir began to sing in (relative) unison at the conclusion.
5:20. In-yo-face duo Talk Normal is about half-way through their set of three pieces…I’ll talk more about the music in a sec, but I’d like to point out that we’re sitting in a 700-seat theatre and not a stadium…I have the utmost respect for viscerality in performances, but I also like my eardrums. Taking the risk of sounding like an old man – it’s a little too loud. Just a touch. UPDATE: Ok, rant over. Talk Normal was actually quite inventive in their concept – they obviously wanted to make an impact with the audience and they most certainly achieved that.


Asphalt Orchestra
(photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

5:30.  It wouldn’t be a BOAC Marathon without the Asphalt Orchestra bringing their front line attitude bear. As the only new music marching band, they really do have a vast latitude with which to push & pull their repertoire. Today they’re  playing arrangements of several Pixies tunes arranged by the members of the ensemble as a sneak peek of their concert next week at Lincoln Center. Ken Thomson in particular is on fire during this set and Ken Bentley stands out in a great way on sousaphone.
5:54. Going on five hours planted in one spot…luckily I’m being easily distracted by the beautiful solo violin performance of Monica Germino. More soon…
6:07. I’ve seen a fair helping of works for solo instrument and electronics, but Julia Wolfe’s With a blue dress on may be my new favorite…a major work for solo violin (expecting the violinist to sing) along with looping and other digital effects based off of the folk tune “Pretty Little Girl with the Blue Dress On”. Germino was awe-inspiring in her performance of the work and the sound design by Frank van der Weii was just right…definitely one of the highlights of the concert so far.
The next work is Schnee by Hans Abrahamsen performed by the Talea Ensemble…Michael Gordon just warned us that it was an hour long and suggested those of us who have been here for a while might want to use the opportunity to grab a bite. I shall do just that…


Talea Ensemble
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

7:38. Alright – just was able to grab some dinner with Alexandra Gardner, so we’re both much more with it (6 hours in one place is a long time). I’d like to take this opportunity to give special props to Thomas Deneuville, the force of nature behind the online new music magazine I Care If You Listen. This is the second year that Thomas and I have sat next to each other as we live-blogged our way through the Marathon and while I was able to offer my power strip for his equipment, he’s been nice enough to share his photos of the concert (which are much better than anything I can get with my iPhone). When you get a chance, check out ICIYL!
7:45. A newcomer on the NYC new music scene, Hotel Elefant makes their debut performance on the BOAC Marathon by performing Angélica Negrôn’s trio for flute, viola/mandolin, and harp,  Drawings for Meyoko. Audacious, since the work was composed for another not-ancient ensemble – the Janus Trio – but also because the ensemble is so much bigger than this trio. Made up of 20 performers from NYC, Hotel Elefant is one of many new groups combining strong performers with an entrepreneurial mindset. It was a pleasure for me to hear the work, since I was already familiar with it from the Janus Trio’s recording and it’s so rare that we get to hear new works performed by more than one ensemble. The three performers, Domenica Fossati (alto flute), Andie Tanning Springer (viola and mandolin), and Kathryn Andrews (harp), were equally audacious and unafraid in the face of technical difficulties when they abruptly and calmly stopped the performance because they had lost their click track. A few minutes later and the second try came across quite strongly…Negrôn’s delicate electronics and intricate writing is top-notch and the trio performed beautifully in the face of adversity.
8:12. BOAC was nice enough to bring back the French quintet Cabaret Contemporain for a second set and while I think this set is even stronger than the first one (which was pretty amazing), it’s still a little disjunct to hear a group playing music that seems to scream to be danced to in front of 600+ audience members sitting there politely. Not a criticism, but an interesting observation…not sure what to make of it.


Bang on a Can All-Stars with Shara Worden
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

8:56. Almost eight hours in and the Bang on a Can All-Stars with their newest member, Ken Thomson, on clarinet and guest vocalist Shara Worden, have taken the stage. Introducing the next work is the composer, David Lang, as he describes his process of scanning through all of Schubert’s vocal works to find instances of Death being portrayed as a sentient being speaking about the afterlife, organizing them into a sensible order and setting them for the All-Stars. As with many of Lang’s other works, each section within the work seems to have one primary mood and texture with subtle changes shifting constantly. Worden’s voice is hauntingly beautiful in this context and the timbre of her voice soon becomes necessary – even a requirement – to make the full impact of the work come through – it’s hard to imagine anyone else supplying so much character while hewing to a narrowly limited melodic range. The ensemble as a whole gels effortlessly with no one sticking out or fading into the woodwork.


Maya Beiser with the Provenance Project Band
(Photo by Thomas Deneuville and used with permission)

9:46. After taking a quick break to wish my dad “Happy Father’s Day” (hi, Dad!), I got back in time to hear cellist Maya Beiser perform Tamar Muskal’s Mar de Leche with the Provenance Project Band. Beiser sang magnificently through Muskal’s Arab-infused melodies while her compatriots on oud and hand drums all demonstrated their mastery on their instruments throughout the work. Beiser, more than almost anyone performing today, demonstrates a persona and an energy onstage that is difficult to define but definitely becomes an important part of not only her playing but of the work itself.
10:16. Blown away by the All-Stars’ performance of Annea Lockwood’s Vortex – great to hear the new version of the group with Ken going freakin’ nuts on bass clarinet. It’s been 10 hours since I got here and as much as I want to suck the marrow out of this bone to the very end, I am cashed out. I hope you’ve enjoyed my musings throughout the day and hope you get to come experience the Marathon at some point soon yourself.

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 [email protected] 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.

Blanton Soundspace: Space and Symmetry

Seventy-six Trombones, sir? Clearly you are not trying hard enough. Steve Parker’s recent Soundspace installment at the Blanton Museum searched for symmetry in a variety of ways, and nice round numbers like 80 seem to have fit the bill. The series stayed true to its name by encouraging the audience to circulate around the museum during the performances, as pieces overlapped in a variety of locales throughout the space. The symmetry was also manifest in the composition of the works and the organization of the performances. Each piece was performed twice in a large-scale presentational arch form, with the pivot point occurring at 3:00 p.m.

Henry Brant's Orbits from the first floor Photo by John Clark

Henry Brant’s Orbits from the first floor
Photo by John Clark

To describe the performance of Henry Brant’s Orbits for 80 trombones, organ, and soprano as antiphonal doesn’t do it justice. Multiphonal? Omniphonal? Surround Sound 80.1? Words can’t fully express the experience of being in the belly of the beast during this performance, one in which the occasional interjection of the organ is the respite. Starting on the first floor and winding up the stairs and around the second-floor landing in the two-story open space near the entrance of the Blanton, the 80 trombonists worked their way through devastating sound masses, angular, stabbing gestures, and occasional glimpses of conventional choir moments. Organist Charlie Magnone played amplified keyboard on the first floor while mezzo-soprano Laura Mercado-Wright held court on the second floor. They shared the spotlight in delicate counterpoint–light, thin pops of sound echoing about before being subsumed by the trombone onslaught. The atrium of the Blanton is covered in a variety of blue tiles, giving a visual sense of the ocean, and here the trombones came again and again in wave after wave.

Orbits from the second floor landing in the Blanton Museum Photo by John Clark

Orbits from the second-floor landing in the Blanton Museum
Photo by John Clark

Inspired by the work of Dmitri Tymoczko, jazz theorist Barry Harris, and Toru Takemitsu, guitarist Thomas Echols performed a solo set which mirrored the arch form of the entire event. He started with an electric/acoustic improvisation entitled Mutatis Mutandis complete with a theremin which was manipulated by the audience, allowing for participation in the show. The improvisation was followed by Takemitsu’s transparent In Twilight, which was followed in turn by another improvisatory set. Adam Bedell performed Stockhausen’s Zyklus, a circular exploration of keyboards, bells, drums, and triangles, among other instruments. The performer is called upon to start anywhere in the score and play until that initial moment is reached, so it’s unlikely that any two performances will be the same. Bassists P.K. Waddle, Jessica Valls, Christopher Flores, and Pat Harris gave a truly sublime performance of Reflections on Whittier and Ives for bass quartet by Bertram Turetzky. Largely chordal, pulsing with lazy melodies that rose to the surface only to slowly sink again, Reflections was the most meditative of the offerings.

Laura Mercado-Wright performed a number of works, including two premiers by Shawn Allison. She was joined by baritone Thann Scoggin for Three New Lullabies. Conceived as a modern “parental duet” of sorts, the piece reflected the challenges of creative parents trying to balance work and home life. Scoggin and Mercado-Wright sang from opposite sides of the dimly lit room, trading slow, winding lines back and forth. Also presented was [höre] with percussionist Cullen Faulk. If you picture the room as a clock face, Faulk was positioned at noon, with Mercado-Wright at 9 o’clock. Atmospheric at its core, [höre] initially sounded like traded breathing, with Mercado-Wright’s sighs dovetailing with the gentle lines and bowing in the vibes. This progressed to a more visceral coming together just past the halfway mark as she moved counterclockwise around the room, the climax of the work occurring as she neared the percussionist. She then returned to her initial spot, this final move paired with a return to the hushed whispering texture of the opening.

I Will Wait by Keith Manlove continued the theme of space utilization by having Mercado-Wright move in, out, and around the room while performing. Said Manlove of the work, “I give the performer multiple streams of information (more than they can physically perform) as a …way for them to improvise and extend the instrument. I’ve given all the information of the piece in two measures that the performer repeats over and over, (and) they’re allowed to choose as little or as much information as they like. The idea is that no matter how much the performer struggles or tries, how well they perform, how much or little information they use, they’re stuck in this loop. They’re waiting for someone.”

I Will Wait

From the score for Keith Manlove’s I Will Wait. Copyright 2012 Keith Manlove. (Click here for a larger and more complete version of the score.)

Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody lent a mid-century lightness (the only time that ever happens) to the proceedings. The score for Stripsody is essentially a series of comic strip tropes (represented on Berberian’s score with illustrations by Roberto Zamarin) and its performance was greeted with smiles and wonder by all.

Clarinetist Nathan Williams’s animated performance of Stockhausen’s In Freundschaft was a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. It wouldn’t be Stockhausen if the work wasn’t mathematically rigorous and methodically planned (pitch and rhythm are mapped onto an X-Y axis, and the work is conceived in three voices), but the impact was anything but dry and mechanical. The performer is directed to face forward, stage left, or stage right for various phrases, and the different voices are “aimed” up, down, and center, relative to their range. For example, Williams would play a high floating line while facing left, then rapidly face forward to deliver a honk or multiphonic in the midrange, then just as quickly face right to explore the chalumeau range. These rapid changes resulted in a performance that had the impact of watching a solo actor performing multiple roles, right down to the changing of perspective between characters.

Bassists Christopher Flores, P.K. Waddle, Pat Harris, and Jessica Valls

Bassists Christopher Flores, P.K. Waddle, Pat Harris, and Jessica Valls performing Reflections on Whittier and Ives for bass quartet by Bertram Turetzky.

This installment of the Soundspace series was arguably the most ambitious to date. Organizing 80 players of any given instrument is a challenge in and of itself, but to do it twice in one day is a tall order in any market. Add to that a number of premiers, a huge performance space(s), invaluable art, and a roaming audience, and you’ve got more than a concert, you’ve got mini-festival. The red thread of symmetry that ran through the show gave a sense of continuity while allowing for a wide variety of performances and experiences. This was the largest turn out yet for a performance at the Blanton, and the fact that it was on a Sunday afternoon in Austin in early fall (a time when all things outdoor are picture perfect) is a testament to the quality of the music and the hunger Austin audiences have for new and interesting music.

Celebrating Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music’s 50th Season

Cabrillo cello section

“Thank you, celli,” Marin Alsop said in her understated way when she finally took the podium at the penultimate concert of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music’s 50th season. Somehow it felt entirely appropriate at this festival, which is unconventional in so many other ways, that the cello section had interrupted the orchestra’s tuning by barging onstage wearing party hats and blowing party favors, with a banner marking the anniversary. (The cello section apparently has a long history of using costumes and props.)

Last year was Alsop’s 20th season as the festival’s music director (succeeding Dennis Russell Davies, who had served for 17 years). During her tenure, the festival—which included Rameau in its first season in 1953—has focused its programming entirely on contemporary music. In just the past two seasons, Cabrillo has commissioned 12 works, three of which I heard during the concerts I attended on August 4 and 11. The new pieces written for this anniversary season included a major work by James MacMillan and an evening-length project titled Hidden World of Girls: Stories for Orchestra involving four women composers: Clarice Assad, Alexandra du Bois, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, and Laura Karpman (lead composer).

Post-performance cake and Prosecco reception on the street outside the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium

Post-performance cake and Prosecco reception on the street outside the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.

The festival took its name from its initial sponsor: Cabrillo College, a community college based in Aptos, the small seaside town in Santa Cruz County that was Lou Harrison’s home for many years. By the mid-1980s, the festival had moved ten miles up the coast to Santa Cruz, where it remains. For those unfamiliar with Northern California geography, Santa Cruz is not particularly difficult to get to from the San Francisco Bay area by car, but it’s still an hour and a half drive over the Santa Cruz Mountains, which formed along the San Andreas fault. Originally developed as a beach resort, Santa Cruz is separate enough that it feels like a different region, more a part of the agricultural areas to the south than the cities to the north. One influential board member from the festival’s early years, Ruth Frary, was quoted in the program book as saying, “It was very exciting to me to have our county involved in exploratory programming. There was no thinking that they had to play just the war horses here in the hinterlands.”

The festival orchestra’s musicians are drawn from around the country, and some have been coming for decades. (There has also been a consistent through-line in the festival’s administration, which has been led for over two decades by Ellen Primack and Tom Fredericks.) The musicians are housed with local host families, and the resulting connection with the community is obvious. When Alsop addresses the hall, her relaxed tone indicates that she’s speaking among friends. In return, concertgoers unabashedly approach the musicians and composers to talk about the music. Both of the concerts I went to in the thousand-seat Civic Auditorium were very well attended. Though “hinterlands” might be an overstatement, these concerts certainly were proof that there can be an enthusiastic audience for contemporary music in a smaller community.

The thousand-seat Civic Auditorium

This year’s anniversary festival expanded the usual format from two weekends to three, to accommodate the performances of Hidden World of Girls on the first weekend. I attended the Saturday night orchestral concerts in the Civic Auditorium on the two latter weekends, missing out on the Sunday events which included a recital by the San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet and orchestral performances further south at Mission San Juan Bautista. The programs at the concerts I heard looked back at the festival’s history, including Lou Harrison’s Third Symphony, originally written for the festival in 1982, and the second work ever commissioned by the festival, Carlos Chávez’s Discovery from 1969. (Chávez was the festival’s director for four years in the 1970s.)

Composer and vocalist Huang Ruo introducing Shattered Steps, saying that his training as a "karaoke singer" gave him the confidence to sing his vocal improvisation at the top of the piece loudly and boldly.

Composer and vocalist Huang Ruo introducing Shattered Steps, saying that his training as a “karaoke singer” gave him the confidence to sing his vocal improvisation at the top of the piece loudly and boldly.

The most substantial new work I heard was James MacMillan’s Woman of the Apocalypse, an expansive and gripping half-hour long tone poem inspired by representations in visual art of the title figure from the Book of Revelation. MacMillan’s relationship with Cabrillo extends back to 1996, and includes performances of 11 of his compositions. Dynamic extremes were used to great dramatic effect in the new work, with intensely charged crescendos abruptly silenced or juxtaposed with barely audible pianos. Likewise furious string writing was contrasted with the lyrical solo string quartet passage that emerged. The orchestra’s set up, with the percussion battery on one side of the stage and the brass on the other, allowed for antiphonal dialogue in a piece that I suspect was great fun for both sections to work on.

Cristina Pato (Galician bagpipes), Kayhan Kalhor (kamancheh, seated), and David Krakauer (clarinet) performing Golijov’s Rose of the Winds

Cristina Pato (Galician bagpipes), Kayhan Kalhor (kamancheh, seated), and David Krakauer (clarinet) performing Golijov’s Rose of the Winds.

The August 11 performance, with the partying cellos and outdoor cake reception, was appropriately celebratory. The program opened with a world premiere by 21-year-old Bay Area native Dylan Mattingly that revealed in its large gestures the deep influence that his mentor John Adams has had, and the concert closed with Osvaldo Golijov’s Rose of the Winds, a collage of five works that have been used in other forms in pieces such as Ayre and in arrangements written for the Kronos Quartet.

Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismo, with concertmaster Justin Bruns on the far left and principal second violinist Matthew Albert on the far right

Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismo, with concertmaster Justin Bruns on the far left and principal second violinist Matthew Albert on the far right.

a cardboard cutout of Alsop in a display case wearing a commemorative t-shirt featuring four more Alsops

A cardboard cutout of Alsop in a display case wearing a commemorative t-shirt featuring four more Alsops.

In between were the Third Symphony by Harrison, a voice familiar to this audience, and Andrew Norman’s improbable tour de force for eight violins, Gran Turismo (2004) which opened the second half. Gran Turismo has received a number of other performances—an audio recording of the full nine-minute piece is available on Norman’s website, and videos can be easily found online—but hearing the piece live allowed for moments where individual personalities emerged from the perpetual motion machine of eight otherwise identical voices. Amidst this almost unceasingly propulsive hive of bowing activity, which had the audience laughing at points at the impossibility of what they were hearing, Alsop seemed to play the straight man—until just before the end of the piece when all eight violinists abruptly stopped and Alsop kept conducting madly through the silence, giving her the punch line after all.