Tag: festival

John Cage Centennial to Feature Performances of over 50 Cage Works

Aside from all of this year’s centennial hoopla, John Cage is easily one of the most under-programmed of American composers. Perhaps this is because among other acknowledged masters such as Copland, Ives, Adams, Carter, and Glass, Cage’s music is the most unique, confrontational, and subversive. It’s a pity that American concertgoers might go a whole lifetime without encountering the works of John Cage; his experimental legacy (and influence on the New York School of which he was once a central figure) lives on, but that legacy is often times eclipsed by the frequently poppy brand of postminimalism that currently dominates the new music community. To paraphrase fellow NewMusicBox contributor Colin Holter, the glaring omission of John Cage from most programs and larger music institutions might represent the single biggest blind spot in presentations of contemporary music.

Riding in as part of the rescue efforts, just in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birthday, is The John Cage Centennial Festival, which will present a retrospective of music, watercolors, dance, and theater at several venues throughout Washington, D.C. Festival directors Steve Antosca, Roger Reynolds, and Karen Reynolds have partnered with venues including the National Gallery of Art, La Maison Française, the Phillips Collection, the Freer Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Hirshhorn museum for a week of concerts, showings, and panel discussions from September 4-10 (including Cage’s September 5 birthday bash). All in all, the festival will be one of the largest new music events ever to take place in D.C., as well as one of the largest presentations of Cage’s work and thought to take place anywhere.

Festival Co-director Steve Antosca elaborates:

When we set out to organize a celebration of John Cage’s accomplishments we did not realize that we would receive such a broad and open reception from the Washington art community, from funders, and from Cage experts around the world. We believe the Festival in our nation’s capital has taken on an historic importance as a unique celebration of John Cage and his achievements. The John Cage Centennial Festival will present 7 concerts with over 50 works, as well as 10 tribute commissions.

Performers and ensembles committed to the festival include the National Gallery of Art new music ensemble, Irvine Arditti, Steven Schick and red fish blue fish, and Allen Otte and Percussion Group Cincinnati, overseen by festival counselors Brian Brandt (founder of Mode Records) and Laura Kuhn, executive director of the John Cage Trust.

Throughout the week of concerts, lectures, and showings, several workshop opportunities for young people are scheduled. American University will present a percussion workshop and masterclass with Steven Schick, while the Corcoran Gallery of Art will present a dance workshop focusing on important developments in Cage’s many collaborations with Merce Cunningham, curated by former Cunningham dancer Patricia Lent. And a watercolor workshop at the Washington Center (in partnership with the University of California) will offer participants the chance to try out painting techniques as they learn about the works of John Cage—a real representation of Cage’s diverse interests, with several in-depth “Illuminations” sessions delving deep into the particulars of how Cage worked through artistic challenges.

It’s going to be a full week, so interested parties would do well to check the Cage Festival’s website in advance for a full list of offerings—I’ve barely scratched the surface in this preview. Highlights include premieres of commissioned works by Robert Ashley, George Lewis, and Christian Wolf under Antosca and the National Gallery of Art New Music Ensemble; Irvine Arditti’s heroic American premiere of Cage’s complete Freeman Etudes with real-time sound spatialization; and Stephen Drury’s recital of Cage piano works featuring the premiere of a tribute commission composed by Phillip Glass.

Washington, D.C. isn’t noted for its plethora of new music-related events, so it’s all the more fitting that such an exhaustive exploration of one of American music’s most cherished figures will be taking place just where a healthy injection of funny-smart-weird Cageian goodness is most needed.

Beat the Heat: Austin Chamber Music Center Summer Festival 2012

In a completely unnerving turn of events, by mid-July in Austin we have had an absolute ton of rain and only a handful of 100+ degree days. I had the good fortune to spend a few weeks in California only to return to A-town on what turned out to be a record-breaking 109-degree June afternoon, but beyond that anomaly it’s been unseasonably lovely. Usually this time of year marks the beginning of relative cave-dwelling during much of the day; long strolls through books stores and experimental coffee houses dovetail with lunch on the lanai of a café, surrounded by a cadre of mister fans doing their best Wimbledon audience impression, forever sweeping back and forth. With the meteorological gods on our side (for now) however, I’m hard-pressed to be inside for anything less than spectacular, and the Austin Chamber Music Festival certainly qualified.

This annual three-week festival has developed over the years by taking its broad and general title quite literally. It’s not summer classics, new music, or jazz; it’s all that and more. Calling virtually all comers, the festival has something for everyone without spreading itself too thin. Groups like avant jazz trio The Bad Plus rubbed shoulders with the Fine Arts Quartet. Local upstart Mother Falcon tore it up at Austin’s venerable blues club Antone’s while Richard Stoltzman and ACMC Director Michelle Schumann split their show into two sets, one classic and one new. The Brasil Guitar Duo performed music from several centuries, and Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley closed the festival with a stunning yet intimate duet concert presented to an absolutely drenched audience, one that certainly must have thought they were anywhere but Austin in July, not because of the music, but because water was falling out of the sky outside.

Mother Falcon

Mother Falcon tearing it up at Austin’s venerable blues club Antone’s.

Of course, there were many stellar performances during the festival, and among the highlights for me was the Mother Falcon show. Consisting of a rotating group of between 15 and 20 musicians, Mother Falcon’s quasi chamber orchestra/rock band had the look of the former but for the most part the sound of the latter. Ranging in age from late high school to early college, they packaged all the energy of a garage band at their first gig with the songwriting and performance level of seasoned professionals. There were no programs, so I’m not sure of the various titles that were occasionally announced from the stage (this was a rock show) but the opening tunes essentially had the formal bones of rock dressed sharply in a variety of attractive chamber arrangements. The Falcons were joined for a portion of their show by additional players (younger still, somehow) who were members of the Austin Chamber Music Center’s Summer Program. It was interesting to watch such a large group navigate the difficulties faced by rock bands since time immemorial. Dealing with on-stage communication among players, as well as the challenges inherent in performing with speakers and monitors (especially if you’re playing acoustic instruments which lend themselves to feedback issues and whose tone is often strangled when run through a P.A. system) are all part of “Live Rock 101.” Fortunately, there were virtually no issues, and Mother Falcon treated the nearly packed venue to a great show.

Third Coast Percussion at Bates Concert Hall

Third Coast Percussion at Bates Concert Hall

Third Coast Percussion’s performance at Bates Concert Hall featured works by Reich and Cage, as well as two pieces written by the performers. Fractalia by TCP member Owen Clayton Condon was a perfect piece to start the show; a short, inviting amuse bouche to whet the appetite. Moto perpetuo figures echoed between marimbas, these figures complimented and set off by occasional accents on toms. The Condon was followed by Reich’s Mallet Quartet, which started off with many of the classic Reich tropes but showed some newer ideas in the second movement. Asymmetrical phrases populated symmetrical sections featuring two marimbas playing four bars figures followed by two vibraphones playing 16 bars, the entire form repeated several times. There was something of a music box texture in the vibes as their chords rang out above large structures in the bass register of the marimba, the latter sounding like strummed guitar chords. On the surface, Third Construction by Cage has a number of features that mark it as a precedent to groups like Stomp and Blue Man Group, whose bread and butter stems largely from creating compelling rhythmic constructions from unorthodox sources. The wide variety of instruments used here (including conch shell) have for the most part made their way into the “mainstream” of new concert music (okay, maybe not the conch), but the visual impact of watching a performer keen away on the shell as the other members of the group perform complex, driving, interlocking rhythms has at least some connection with BMG doing their PVC pipe bit. The couple sitting to my right looked to be straight out of an AARP commercial with the notable exception that they both grooved for the duration of the piece, heads bobbing like bizarre extras in a hip hop video. TCP’s performance of the piece was energetic and thoroughly engaging and the reaction of the audience would not have been out of place at the Mother Falcon show, whoops and hollers and all. The second half of the concert was devoted to David Skidmore’s Common Patterns in Uncommon Time. Consisting of six movements played without pause, the work appeared seamlessly at the end of the intermission by way of a prerecorded track. This quiet, sparse material served as a foundation for vibes and marimba figures rising and falling dynamically and building eventually to nearly painful heights, especially with hard mallets on the vibes at fff. The work moved through a variety of moods and textures, and at times had the audience looking around and behind to find other performers on wind chimes and other atmospheric instruments. Though contemplative in tone over all, Common Patterns in Uncommon Time was in like a lion and out like a lamb.

Austin is not hurting for music festivals, and it’s no mistake that the behemoths SXSW and Austin City Limits are in spring and fall respectively to allow attendees to enjoy the nice weather during those periods. Doing anything in Austin in the summer can be a bit of a drag, but checking out week after week of top notch chamber players is a pretty spectacular way to pass the time. The variety and quality of performers and venues, coupled with extensive outreach including free concerts, kept it fresh and interesting throughout the festival. Director Michelle Schumann has worked tirelessly to retain legacy audiences while pushing far outside the boundaries of the traditional summer music fest, so if you find yourself in Austin in the middle of the summer do yourself a favor and check it out.

Avant Listening: The 17th Annual Vision Festival

If ever there was a time I could be two people, I wish it was this week during the 17th annual Vision Festival. Founded by Patricia Parker in 1996, the festival is the temporal sonic canvas for Arts for Art, Inc., “a multicultural, artist-initiated and artist-run organization whose purpose is to build awareness and understanding of avantjazz and related expressive movements.” The festival, which began last Monday and continues through June 17, is only a part of a myriad of performance projects presented by Arts for Art. The organization’s website lists several events in their “Evolving Series,” which includes the work of Karen Borca, Maryanne DeProphetis, Daniel Levin, Gianni Mimmo, Katie Bull, Tiffany Chang, Rema Hasumi, Max Johnson, Lisa Sokolov, Shoko Nagai, Satoshi Takeishi, and Elliot Sharp. There are also as many events listed as groups: FATE, Mike’s Pride, AZARES, Chonto/Tamura Sound Insurgency, Pet Bottle Ningen, The Sound Band, Vision Vagabonds, Four Women with an Ax to Grind, Aggregate Trio, Electrified ExPosed Blues. These groups feature many of the names previously mentioned as well as Fay Victor, Anders Nilsson, Tim Dahl, Ches Smith, Brad Jones, Patricia Nicholson (a.k.a. Patricia Parker), Mazz Swift, Kris Davis, Tiffany Chang, Dave Sewelson, Jason Hwang, Todd Nicholson, and Tatsuya Nakatani. Unfortunately, their calendar only lists events in May and June, and only the current month includes any detail about them. I hope that when the Vision Festival is over, the staff of Arts for Art will have the time to update the calendar.

I attended Vision’s opening night and would like to share a few observations about it.

Vision 17 is being held mostly at Roulette’s new Brooklyn venue. The space is much larger than their previous Manhattan location and its physical appearance is similar to Irving Plaza, also in Manhattan. It’s a renovated Art Deco concert hall from the 1920s that seats about 400 people. It was previously part of the Brooklyn YWCA and its entrance, although listed at 501 Atlantic Ave., is actually around the corner at 30 Third Ave. Other venues for this year’s festival include Clemente Soto Velez (107 Suffolk St., Manhattan) and the basketball court at Rutgers Housing (200 Madison St.).

It’s great to see a venue like Roulette dedicated to presenting music that was once considered too esoteric for mainstream venues. The rise of the Knitting Factory from its modest Houston St. space, to its multi-level Soho location, and on to its fall and rebirth as the upscale and pricey City Winery left many of the so-called “downtown” musicians scrambling to play in other cramped New York venues with little chance of amassing large audiences in a single performance. John Zorn’s spacious club, Tonic, had potential, but had a somewhat difficult location near the off-ramp of the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan’s Lower East Side (why drive into Manhattan with all of the venues in Williamsburg presenting new music?). His extant club, The Stone, is an intimate Mecca for new music in Manhattan, but can’t seat much more than 50 people and is pretty uncomfortable when the weather is hot. Although Roulette has been in Brooklyn for almost a year, I haven’t had the chance to attend its events before. Because of conflicts in my schedule, I missed two concerts I wanted to see last month (the Eclipse Quartet performing the music of Morton Feldman and Roscoe Mitchell and Pete M. Wyer’s The Invisible, featuring vocalist Thomas Buckner, who also now brings his music series, Interpretations, there). But I’m glad I went Monday and hope this venue becomes a very long-lived success story, bringing an affordable alternative to BAM and further enhancing the development of downtown Brooklyn’s cultural identity.

The “Opening Invocation,” which started a little later than the advertized time of 6 p.m. (which was good for me, since I had to park about four blocks away and would have missed it) was a fantastic improvisation by Patricia Nicholson, Kyoko Kitamurra, Fay Victor (vocals), William Parker (contrabass), Hamid Drake, and Gerald Cleaver (drum sets) on three poems by Nicholson: “Freedom For Sale,” “Revolution,” and “Spirits Arise.” These were performed without a break, so I wasn’t certain which of the last two pieces invoked the contrapuntal style of Albert and Donald Ayler, but the vocalists improvised a part that reminded me of Ayler’s “Bells.” I don’t know if it was just coincidence, but the Cleveland natives, who were hailed by musicians of the 1960s like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman as the shining light of a nascent avant-garde movement in jazz, brought a sound and ideology to music that was as powerful as Jimi Hendrix, only not as popular in the “mainstream” music industry. Still, their mark, usually attributed solely to Albert, is indelible and has become more and more recognized as invaluable to an American musical identity that still goes unacknowledged by the American Culture Machine—there was music before Albert and Donald Ayler, and then there’s music after them.

The second band to perform, Kneebody, featured Ben Wendel (tenor sax and melodica), Shane Endsley (trumpet), Adam Benjamin (keyboards), Kaveh Rasteger (bass guitar), and Nate Woods (drums). Their performance was supported by a grant from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Specifically, the grant was to present Wendel’s composition, Singularity, which was intended to be in collaboration with electronica artist Daedelus on monomer, a versatile programmable sequencer. Daedelus was unable to attend; Kneebody, however, delivered selected movements from the piece and compositions by other members of the band in a fantastic display of musicianship and technical wizardry. The group makes extensive use of signal processing (delay loops, distortion, ring modulation, pitch shifting, etc.) and their performance contrasted brilliantly with the “acoustic” groups (as much as one can call a highly amplified performance “acoustic”).

The third group was an improvised collaboration by Paul Dunmall (saxophone), Matthew Shipp (piano), Joe Morris (contrabass), and Cleaver. The performance was continuous for their hour (each group was given an hour to perform) and moved through what I perceived as five sections that featured each member of the group as well as the group as a whole. These sections weren’t distinguished by instrumentation, but rather by texture; dense versus sparse, loud versus quiet, fast versus slow, etc. At first I expected to hear a self-absorbed display of simultaneous rambling, but the performer’s artistic integrity disallowed that from happening. One of the things that impressed me was that, while the music was not locked into any particular tempo or time signature and very seldom used a common pulse, I found myself dancing in place to the performance. When I realized this was happening I looked around and, from my vantage point at the back of the hall, saw that nearly everyone was rocking their bodies and/or bobbing their heads to the group’s music, although at different rates!

The next group was the duo of Tracie Morris (spoken and sung words) and Elliott Sharp (guitar and bass clarinet). The last time I saw them perform was last year at a fundraiser for the Jazz Foundation of America. I’ve been a fan of Sharp’s for decades, and am now also a fan of Morris’s. The two engaged in a balancing act of tradition/avant garde and content/context that seamlessly flowed through juxtaposing idioms and vernaculars. Their first piece was a reconstruction of the Mann/Weill/Leiber/Stoller classic, “On Broadway,” where Sharp’s extended technique guitar playing intimated the sounds of Times Square and the stress of the music industry. This was followed by a bass clarinet/voice duet that I didn’t hear the title of. The last piece, “Mahalia Theramin,” featured Sharp playing bottleneck slide guitar with an EBow (which the sound technicians appeared to think was unintentional feedback) against Morris’s emulation of melismatic gospel singing. I found it interesting that it was the only piece the entire evening performed with the ubiquitous syncopation that marks the origins of African American music.

The last group, the Mark Dresser Quintet, is one I’d heard twice before. Anyone who knows me probably knows that I am a fan of Dresser’s multiple-meter compositions and use of extended contrabass techniques. Their set featured music from a larger work, Nourishments, that describes the parallel relationships of humanity/music and humanity/food. The performance, however, focused more on his alto saxophonist, Rudresh Mahanthappa, than on Dresser’s command of the bass. I say this because he had the lion’s share of solo space—but not to the detriment of the overall performance. I did miss hearing more of the rest of the group, but only because I’m familiar with the work of Denman Maroney (hyperpiano) and Michael Dessen (trombone) and know them both to be virtuosos with unique approaches to their instruments. The drum chair, usually filled by Tom Rainey, was covered by Michael Sarin, who did an excellent job with Dresser’s seemingly impossibly difficult music. My only problem with the performance was that, because of the late start of the concert, I had to run out to get my car before the Brooklyn constabulary issued me an invitation to appear at one of their performance venues.

And my only problem with the festival is that I have to work, which means that I’ll be missing the larger part of the performances until Sunday. The festival is dedicated to trumpeter/saxophonist Joe McPhee this year, and he performed on Wednesday. Today’s (Friday, June 15) performances include three sets at the Rutgers Housing basketball court which start at 3:30 p.m. and go until 5 and feature: a gathering of two groups of poets, Peace Poets (Luke Nephew, Frank Lopez, Emanuel Candelario, and Frantz Jerome) and Tribes Poets (Edwin Torres, Latasha Diggs, and Sheila Maldonado); a trio set, “Music Is Mine,” with William Parker (contrabass, reeds), Cooper-Moore (percussion, diddley bow), and Hamid Drake (drums); and The Mystery Ensemble, where the trio is joined by Kidd Jordan (sax) and Jean Carla Rodea (vocals). The festival resumes at Roulette at 7 p.m. with performances by Sheila Jordan and Jay Clayton (vocals), Jack Wilkins (guitar), and Cameron Brown (contrabass), followed at 8 p.m. by Yoshiko Chuma (dance), Akihito Obama (shakuhachi), and Roy Campbell (trumpet). At 8:30 is the duo of Roy Campbell and Ehran Elisha (drums) followed at 9:30 by Henry Grimes (contrabass, violin) and Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet). The final performance starts at 10:30 with Pheeroan akLaff’s Dear Freedom Suite, featuring Jun Miyake (saxophones, flutes), Angelica Sanchez (keyboards, voice), Santi Debriano (contrabass, electric guitar), Pheeroan akLaff (percussion, mixed media), and special guest Amiri Baraka. I’m really sorry I’ll miss Saturday’s performance, which includes one of my contrabass heroes, Reggie Workman (who was interviewed on WBAI yesterday on Basir Mchawi’s show, Education At The Crossroads, and can be accessed from the station’s archives; they discuss the Vision Festival in a little more detail and include some examples of Workman’s music) and another CMA supported work, Burning Bridge by violinist Jason Hwang.

Vision Festival 17 also features visual art. On the walls of Roulette, several murals collectively called Bird Calls which the artist, Maura Sheehan, describes as an allegory to “waiting in the wings.” I would humbly add an allegory of the relentless urge to create music as epitomized in the life of Charlie Parker. All throughout the performances, a collage of live video, manipulated by Phyllis Bulkin Lehrer and her crew, is projected on a screen above the stage. Like a meeting between Nam June Paik and the Joshua Light Show, the effect enhances the performances without detracting from them.

If you are in New York and have the time, I recommend going to the Vision Festival. While most of the venues aren’t free of charge, the price is very reasonable. There are venues that charge a lot more money for a lot less music that can be heard pretty regularly on the radio for free, while much the music at the Vision Festival will only happen there. And, while Arts for Art only serves beverages at Roulette, there is excellent dining available within feet of the venue and, if you decide (like I did) to “tough-out” the six-hour long presentation, late-night dining is available within a short cab ride.

And if you don’t live in New York, but are the type who travels to attend music festivals, there’s always next year. I know you’ll find it well worth the trip.

Perspective: Xenakis—48 Hours In a Surreal Soundscape

Little did I know that the Baylor Percussion Group’s performance of Peaux at Fast Forward Austin last month would be but a glimpse of things to come. Curated by Matthew Teodori, the recent festival Perspective: Xenakis featured local, national, and international performers and scholars plying their wares around Austin. A festival of the music of Xenakis might at first blush seem to be better presented in the rocky and otherworldly terrain around Phoenix, or perhaps one could just double down and hold it on the moon. Ben Watson’s description of Xenakis’s work as “…a music of truly majestic otherness…an alien shard, glimmering in the heart of the West” fits glove-like this strange, visceral, and largely explosive music. Held at three venues over two days, the festival was dedicated to the chamber works of the composer and architect.

Pleiades performance at the Floating House - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Pleiades performance at the Floating House – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

The Floating Box House, from which one could see downtown Austin framed by gently rolling hills, was a pretty rarified venue for the opening concert of the festival. Located on a sizeable parcel of land in the woodsy area of Westlake, the remote location had both an expansive and intimate feeling which nicely mirrored the ensemble percussion of the evening. The Meehan/Perkins Duo was joined by line upon line percussion and Timothy Briones to perform Persephassa and Pléïades. The six percussionists surrounded the audience on the tree filled front lawn of the property, an invitation to look around as Persephassa opened with a slow pulse that developed into polyrhythms. This material slipped and slammed through timpani glissandos and unison floor toms, building to a head before screeching to a halt; a significant pause which was filled uncannily with breeze and spare birdcalls. Real wind and real birds. It was the kind of moment that would have seemed contrived in a film but was breathtaking in the real world. Rejoining the avian conversation were gongs, woodblocks, and wooden simantras that mimicked woodpeckers. Delicate tremolo built to violent attacks which in turn dwindled to sotto voce muttering among the instruments, interrupted by short bursts. The 6.1 Surround Sound effect that was created, part of Xenakis’s work in spatialization, was palpable as lines spun around the audience in swelling crescendos, complemented with thundersheets and whistles which, when all was said and done, left the audience in silence, all except for a few crickets who checked in as the birds made their way out. Following a brief intermission and set change, the percussionists set up in front of the house in a more conventional configuration for Pléïades. As dusk settled in, the sixxen, sounding every bit a mini-carillon, lent a solemn air to the first movement. Overtones piled up in layers and provided a bit of respite from the onslaught of the first piece. The second movement, “Claviers featured vibes and marimba, magical textures conjured in the center of the musicians and chased by delicate, childlike runs across the space. Of course, the following movements, “Peaux and “Melanges,” put an end to childish things, the final movement combining the instruments of the previous three and bringing the work to a dramatic, athletic close.

Michael Zell - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Michael Zell – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

St. Elias Eastern Orthodox Church was the site for the solo portions of the festival. Performances of Rebonds and Psappha by percussionist Michael Zell bookended trombonist Steve Parker’s performance of Keren, Xenakis’s only wind solo. Pianist Michelle Schumann, an eminently physical performer, was unrelenting in her performances of Evryali and Herma. These performances were preceded by a showing of Something Rich and Strange, a BBC2 documentary film made by Dennis Marks and one of the festival scholars Nouritza Matossian. Matossian was joined by Benoit Gibson after each performance for a Q&A session, as well as more formal presentations at the Butler School as part of the festival.

JACK Quartet - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

JACK Quartet – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

The term “surreal” has lost much of its currency through both mis- and overuse. Often used casually to indicate something that is simply weird, it’s worth remembering that the hallucinatory and dreamlike qualities it should indicate are most sharply experienced through juxtaposition. Watching the JACK Quartet playing the complete string quartets of Xenakis in front of a fireplace with a widescreen TV mounted above it in a very lovely but decidedly suburban home (I live in one of these, it should be noted) was, for me, surreal. Watching violinist Ari Streisfeld negotiate some of the most challenging music ever written for anything while sitting before to a curio cabinet was surreal. Experiencing some of the few moments of quiet and delicacy in these pieces while some insane person emptied chips into a bowl (did I mention that this was one of those open concept kitchen/living room arrangements?) was actually more surreal than infuriating, though the latter was definitely a close second. Challenging music for a challenging venue, no doubt, but JACK simply tore everyone’s face off. Truly, hearing this much Xenakis in a 48-hour period does a number on your wiring, but it was really amazing to experience the relativity of dissonance, to see what your ears can handle if thrown in the deep end and asked to swim [1]. From the big chunky chords of Ergma, bristling and metallic, almost like distortion, to the special-effects bonanza of Tetras, JACK pulled everyone into the alien landscape, and while there were a few folks initially who were not sure if they arrived at the right house, I can tell you that the standing ovation (granted, many of us stood the whole time, but anyway…) went on for some time, and that the Q&A with JACK had to be cut short even though there were several hands in the air at the end.

The plan is to do one of these Perspective festivals every three years, and given the level of performance and coordination on display, I can understand why Teodori might want to take a bit of a break before launching into another. Having said that, I’m really quite interested in seeing who and what is coming down the pike. It’s wonderful to hear a work or two by a given composer, but to spend several days steeped in a particular language, especially one as esoteric and distinct as Xenakis’s, is a different thing altogether. In some ways, it felt a bit like the shared experience of going to a rock concert. You know the tunes, you know the group, and for the most part you’re around people who are on the same page. As we approach mid-year, I still haven’t tired of the Cage retrospectives and I’m more than looking forward to the Rite of Spring centennial, which I imagine will generate more than a few satellite concerts of Stravinsky’s other works. These focused events are just the ticket in a world of hyperdistraction, where if you’re not careful, a few clicks and a few hours later you’ve YouTubed your evening away. It was fantastic to unplug for a while and hang out with Xenakis, and I’m looking forward to catching up with other old friends in a few years.


1. Dude, that is surreal.

Broad Ambition: Hartford New Music Festival 2012

This year’s Hartford New Music Festival (HNMF)—an annual event founded in 2011 by percussionist/composer Bill Solomon and composer Matt Sargent—consisted of a marathon concert on Saturday staged at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford.  As director, Solomon explained that his goals were to “present a mixture of local composers/performers/ensembles and more internationally recognized composers…to present newer work in a historical context.”  Though this may seem like an ambitious programming objective, it succinctly captures the primary characteristic of Saturday’s four-hour long concert.

Embroidery for small ensemble

Embroidery for small ensemble played by Ben Klein, tuba; Nathan Bontrager, cello, Libby van Cleve, oboe; Maura Valenti, harp; Carl Testa, bass, Bill Solomon, percussion; Anne Rhodes, voice

In an era when the term “music” has become so all-encompassing, we often find art categorized into complicated frameworks of sub-subgenres.  To make sense of the expansive repertoire, we become hyper-specialized listeners; organizers limit events in scope, aesthetic, media, and artistic pedigree to the most conservatively curated set of similar (if experimental) works.  But this was refreshingly not the case at HNMF.  By including everything from electronic works and acoustic ensemble performances, to a sound art installation for amplified table, and even an eight-foot long embroidered score, this festival was a testament to the area’s artistic diversity.

In Alvin Lucier’s Charles Curtis, cellist Jessie Marino insinuated her slow, vibrato-less tones into a haunting soundscape of electronic drones.  The work unfolded as a study of timbre, without deviations in gesture that might overshadow the colors. The patient insistence of the repeated gestures allowed us to experience each harmonically rich sonority as a discreet “object.”  The room quieted to hear the subtle timbral shifts in the otherwise static material of each gesture.


EXILKABARETT (Darren Chase, tenor; Jessica Goldring, soprano, Lauretta Pope, soprano; Bill Solomon, piano) performing Peppermill Songs by Kirsten Volness

Only minutes later, the mood changed drastically.  The ensemble EXILKABARETT unleashed a furious burst of acoustic energy in Kirsten Volness’s Peppermill Songs.  These pieces, performed without break, set WWII-era protest writings by cabaret performer Erika Mann.  In keeping with cabaret tradition, an exaggerated performance invited the audience into the piece, though it did not read as musical protest.  Tenor Darren Chase spat out lyrics while unceremoniously dropping the oversized pages of his score down to the two sopranos sitting at his feet.  The women picked up each, holding the caricatured portraits that were sketched on the backs of the pages high for the audience’s benefit. Volness’s satirical cabaret merely hinted at the musical chaos to come, however.  In John Cage’s Musicircus later on the program, all were invited to move throughout the space as seven of his works were performed simultaneously.  This fanciful piece—part performance, part installation, and part social event—seemed to illustrate the breadth of the festival’s stylistic ambitions.

Owen Weaver presented two movements from Memory Palace by Chris Cerrone.  In the first, he plucked a quirky diatonic melody on piano strings to an electronic background of crickets and drones.  The second was performed on a “homemade marimba” of wooden planks, from which Weaver elicited a fluid melody in controlled rolls.  The dry attacks of the mallets grew more pitched and resonant as the electronics amplified the inherent tones of the wood.  This simple, but elegant, process continued for several minutes, undermined only by the conspicuous placement of a kick drum at the performer’s feet.  The waiting instrument evoked questions of how the piece’s gradual development could accommodate this disparate object.  Those questions were resolved abruptly; Weaver struck skin and wood simultaneously and the melody, with its ghosted electronic resonance, was suddenly gone in a percussive snap.

Robert Carl’s Woodwind Quintet No. 2, “Bird of Guandu,” addressed ideas of anticipation and space through the observation of nature.  The quintet began with simple chorale-style progressions separated by brief silences.  For the second movement, the players moved from a traditional centered formation to separate corners and donned headphones.  Each responded in imitation to his/her personal birdsong recording, creating sparse eruptions of instrumental warbles and coos.  This movement acted more as installation than linear composition, disregarding the conventions of form and development.  We could not anticipate the moments of silence, changes in texture, or the progression of sounds—we simply observed the Taiwanese birds through the filter of the quintet.  The final movement acted as resolution, combining a variation on the first movement’s material with the introduction of a sparse electronic background of birdsongs.

Embroidery for small ensemble by Anne Rhodes

Embroidery for small ensemble by Anne Rhodes

The festival commissioned the final piece on the concert, a work by Anne Rhodes titled Embroidery for small ensemble.  Rhodes’s embroidered graphic score (measuring 2’x8’) acted as a map for the improvising musicians who premiered it.  Though she did not limit the performers in their ranges of sound, Rhodes gave specific instructions for interpreting the score: rhythms and contours in squares were to be interpreted literally; figures contained in circles were to inspire the performers to explore extended techniques; musicians were to stay roughly together in the score by listening to one another; they could leave off anywhere in the form to play either the square in the bottom left corner or to perform an interpretation of the background texture.  Rhodes described how the varying textures, colors, distortions of the fabric weave when stretched, and imperfectly realized shapes could elicit varied and surprising responses from musicians.  This lovely artifact did seem to inspire the musicians, and the structures imposed helped to create more formal coherency in the performing group’s improvised music.

A display of Anne Rhodes score and artwork at the entrance to the festival

A display of Anne Rhodes score and artwork at the entrance to the festival.

Beyond the concert in the main room, works of sound art were installed throughout the Cultural Center.  Most notable among these was a piece by Ken Steen and Gene Gort, two artists collaborating under the name New Music New Media New England (NMNMNE).  Their project randomly paired 60 videos with 60 compositions, all of 60-second duration.  They explained that 60x60x60 began as an exercise for students; it was a means of exploring complex relationships between audio and video beyond those of the common “predictable, illustrative, cinematic” combinations.  NMNMNE referred to themselves as “curators/participants” in “a generative process,” not authors.  The minute-long works were often compelling in their own right, but it was the experience of watching them in succession that evoked the strongest response.  It drew attention to the roles and relationships of sound and video, but also to those of the observer; knowing that these were random pairings, one had to acknowledge the inevitable compulsion to “make sense” of the two elements as a unified whole.  60x60x60 is ongoing, with another call for submissions and an interactive version of the project on their website.

Anne Rhodes, soprano; Johnny Rogers, wineglasses; Maura Valenti, Harp playing Anthony Braxton's Compositions 256 and 307

Anne Rhodes, soprano; Johnny Rogers, wineglasses; Maura Valenti, Harp playing Anthony Braxton’s Compositions 256 and 307

There were many more works to experience on Saturday, including an imaginative electronic installation by Brian Cook that used a wooden table as its physical interface; thoughtful installations by Lief Ellis and Scott Comanzo for audiences of one; a trio by Anthony Braxton with monomaniacal numeric text; Marc Burns’s composition combining chance, through-composition, graphic notation, and a kitchen clock; and a mix of acoustic and electronic pieces by Feng-Hsu Lee, Cenk Ergün, Todd Merrell, and Matt Sargent. Indeed, this was a festival of unpredictable and often incongruous works, but therein lay its charm.  Larger cities have so many artists and performances that one can almost always find his/her musical “clique,” but the scenes in smaller cities are often organized as much by geography as aesthetic.  And while it’s exciting to know you can find nearly any kind of a performance (no matter how specialized your tastes) in large urban markets, it’s also exciting that such wide range of artists come together in places like Hartford to create and promote work.  The strengths of these collaborative communities reside in their eclecticism: diverse events make room for varied perspectives and, perhaps, an even more complex musical dialogue.

Border Crossings: Switchboard Music Festival and The Little Match Girl Passion

Brava Theater, as seen from the Indian food truck

Brava Theater, as seen from the Indian food truck

Chocolate cake!

The Safeway grocery store chain was among the sponsors of this year’s Switchboard Music Festival (which took place in San Francisco on April 1), donating a large sheet cake to the annual 8-hour musical extravaganza. Concertgoers were greeted with free slices near the entrance to the Brava Theater, just after receiving their entry wristbands. Verily, every performance should begin with a slice of chocolate cake.

Switchboard started in 2008 to showcase new music that sits at borders of genres. At the time, the three founders—clarinetist Jeff Anderle, composer/guitarist Ryan Brown, and composer/clarinetist Jonathan Russell—were all studying at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Though two of the three have since decamped to Princeton, Bay Area artists retain a strong presence in the festival’s programming, and the founders’ connection to the conservatory remains clear.

Jonathan Russell, Ryan Brown, Jeff Anderle (L-R)

Jonathan Russell, Ryan Brown, Jeff Anderle (L-R)

Switchboard starts at 2 p.m. and doesn’t stop until 10 p.m., at least on paper; in reality, this year it lasted quite a bit longer. Thirteen sets ran through the day on the Brava main stage, with audiences allowed to come and go as they pleased (hence the wristbands). This year’s smorgasbord of artists included a guitar ensemble from the conservatory, a one-man piano/percussion “duo” (Danny Holt), a two-man guitar/percussion actual duo (The Living Earth Show), an electro-acoustic ensemble with strings and electronics (The Hurd Ensemble), and a band that was described as “hobbit rock” (Faun Fables). Here’s the full list of performers, along with generously lengthy audio samples from nearly all them. Though the printed program provided no biographical information about any of the artists—the info is only available on the festival’s website—regular Switchboard attendees likely recognized some familiar names: both Russell and Brown had compositions performed; Anderle performed a solo set; and longtime collaborator Cornelius Boots, who played with Anderle and Russell in the awesome bass clarinet quartet Edmund Welles, performed in two sets.

Anderle performing works for clarinet (live and pre-recorded) and electronics

Anderle performing works for clarinet (live and pre-recorded) and electronics

When the festival was just starting out, it took place at Dance Mission Theatre, a small theater in the Mission district that normally presents dance (as you may have guessed). If memory serves, the first festival featured a mini “new music bake sale” (before such things got capitalized), where people sold homemade cupcakes and other simple concessions in the rehearsal studio down the hall from the performance space. The recent shift to the charmingly dowdy Brava Theater (still in the Mission) increased the capacity to about 350, and audiences this year were encouraged to patronize the Indian food truck parked outside, which the organizers had arranged to service the festival. As a result, the lobby was suffused with the savory smell of curry and cumin for much of the afternoon.

Cornelius Boots with Philip Gelb & Karl Young, performing Dunstable’s Quam Pulchra Es

Cornelius Boots with Philip Gelb and Karl Young, performing Dunstable’s Quam Pulchra Es

Though this may seem like a lot of info about the food situation, remember that 8+ hours straight is actually a hella long time to listen attentively to music. I was able to hear parts of 10 of the 13 sets; ironically, I missed the piece performed by the quartet Mercury Falls entitled Chocolate Chip Cookies for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner while I was busy refueling. Fortunately there were enough unexpected sounds to be heard throughout the day to keep the ear engaged, including a Dunstable motet performed on shakuhachis (which Boots introduced by pointing out that at the time “Japanese monks were playing shakuhachi for alms, John Dunstable was writing this”). Boots’s set was preceded by Ramon and Jessica, an endearing pair of San Francisco-based singer/instrumentalists named neither Ramon nor Jessica, performing their simple but clever folk pop songs on violin and ukulele, sometimes singing a cappella, and at one point scratching the mics with the temples of their eyeglasses.

The most unusual performance of the day to my ear and eye was Dominique Leone’s realization of Les Noces as performed by Ensemble Épouser, which was assembled specifically for this piece. Leone re-orchestrated Les Noces for two keyboards, bass, percussion, marimba, and just five singers, one of whom was a woman whose voice was digitally pitch-shifted to sound like a bass. The singers wore enormous blond wigs (the first movement is titled “The Tresses (At the Bride’s House)”) and sang in English, often with pop music inflections. The cumulative effect was disorienting and curiously fascinating—the project’s Kickstarter page calls it a “Stravinsky cover thing,” which is an oddly appropriate description. If you’re interested in hearing for yourself what this sounds like, you can either listen to a substantial sample on the Switchboard site (click the plus sign next to Leone’s name), or visit Leone’s Bandcamp page where you can stream an indescribably mind-boggling recording he released of himself singing all the parts (with pitch-shifting) plus two keyboardists playing all instrumental lines.


Volti singing Huang Ruo’s Without Words

Volti singing Huang Ruo’s Without Words

I frequently perform with Volti, one of the headliners of this year’s Switchboard Festival, and am the group’s Artistic Advisor so it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment on their performance (which included works by Huang Ruo and Berkeley-based composer Robin Estrada, who has had several pieces performed at past Switchboards). However, several of Volti’s singers were involved with an unrelated project late last month that would have fit well within Switchboard’s genre-blurring structure: a production of David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion with four singers, Butoh-inspired dance, projections, and lighting design.

match girl - photo courtesy of San Francisco Lyric Opera

Photo courtesy of San Francisco Lyric Opera

The production was presented at the ODC Dance Theater by the San Francisco Lyric Opera, a company led by conductor Barnaby Palmer and director Chip Grant, that used to produce standard repertory operas in smaller settings. It went on hiatus for a couple years and, with this beautiful and heart-rending production, the company has relaunched itself with a new focus on chamber opera and other collaborative projects.

The four singers, who also played percussion, stood in an arc with Palmer conducting at a distance. Anastazia Louise of the theater ensemble Bad Unkl Sista told the story through movement, most of the time on stage in front of the singers but occasionally moving into the audience. At the end of the performance, Grant spoke to the audience about the direct relevance of the story to contemporary life in San Francisco. He drew awareness to the plight of the homeless, a real and visible issue in the Mission where the theater is located, and announced that donations placed in the basket by the exit for a local homeless relief program would be matched by the company up to $1000—a gesture that allowed the audience to consider the evening’s moving performance in ways that extended beyond the walls of the theater.

Fast Forward Austin II: The Reckoning

When you do a sequel, you can either do Empire Strikes Back or Ghostbusters II.

Which is to say, when you have a hit on your hands, you can take some risks and possibly alienate the fan base that made you worthy of a sequel in the first place, or you can play it safe, give them the same show warmed-over, and collect your pay. Ian Dicke, Robert Honstein, and Steven Snowden upped the ante at this year’s Fast Forward Austin festival by tripling the call for scores winners, bringing in a headliner, and moving to a big, multilevel venue near downtown complete with a bar, soundman, and a dude who stamps your hand.

Precipice perform Coming Together Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Precipice perform Coming Together. Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Precipice, a mixed chamber ensemble from up the road in Waco, started things off. Snowden described them as a group who do “things with lots of stuff”; truer words have never been spoken. They began their set with the first call for scores winner of the day, Shawn Allison’s Towards the Flame, a four-movement work for violin, flute, cello, and percussion. Based on a variety of moth species, Allison’s piece began with flourishes and broken lines before moving to unison gestures in the second movement. The third movement featured extended techniques on the flute while percussion patter coalesced to a rock groove. Daniel Webbon’s[*] string trio For thee, oh Absalom, my son in three movements was an attractive, somber, and contemplative work that served well as a last minute replacement on the program. Precipice finished their set with a powerful rendition of Frederick Rzewski’s Coming Together.

Katherine Hodges and Leanne Zacharias

Katherine Hodges and Leanne Zacharias. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

When I returned after the set change, I found that the chairs in the venue had been resituated around a piano bench surrounded by three music stands and backlit, pastel tulle. Cellist Leanne Zacharias and dancer Katherine Hodges‘s set of four works was bookended by the first and fourth movements from Cage’s Etudes Boreales. They began the performance as the house lights dimmed, each performer seated on the piano bench but facing away from one another. As Zacharias began playing, Hodges sat motionless, moving slowly around the space only after several minutes of music. Delicate glissando and harmonics complimented the slight, intimate shifting as Hodges made her way through the tulle. Zacharias turned 90 degrees to perform Event Horizon by Nicole Lizee. Pizzicato scale-fragment ostinato, percussive sections reminiscent of heavy metal palm muting, and pre-recorded material (originally for violin, cello, and bass, but here recorded entirely on the cello by Zacharias) were woven with a dance that foreshadowed the slurred cello of the final section. Eugen Friesen’s Pizzicato Etude had elements straight out of guitar technique, complete with arpeggios and syncopated, ascending, slurred groups of three. The final work mirrored the first both in musical character and in presentation, as cellist and dancer came full circle, ending where the other had begun.

Spank Dance Company returned to FFA with another engaging butoh performance, followed by composer and bassist P. Kellach Waddle performing a series of his works for bass alone, ranging from the ’80s through last week. A member of the Austin Symphony Orchestra for over two decades, Waddle is a prolific composer, passionate performer, and consummate businessman, and his production company PKWproductions, through its long time association with Strait Music, supplied the piano for the festival. His works were romantic and dramatic, hair flying as slow melancholy melodies in the lower register were countered by virtuosic runs in the upper, a quasi-improvisatory character running throughout.

Baylor Percussion Group

Baylor Percussion Group. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

After a brief set change, Baylor Percussion Group performed Peaux from Xenakis’s Pleadis, which—thanks to my Louisiana heritage—I can pronounce with uncanny accuracy. Peaux is what all guys in drum circles think they sound like, all big and unison and cathartic, and BPG delivered the goods from the second floor loft. BGP moved to the stage for the second movement of Lang’s so-called laws of nature. This quartet features identical instrumentation for all players, including three floor toms, bass drum (with foot pedals), and metal pipes which at first glance resembled re-purposed chimes, but in fact were cut to specific lengths to yield specific pitches. With each performer facing stage-right, the movement began slowly on the pipes and added the toms and bass which eventually take over, developing into a huge pulsing texture far removed from the pitch elements of the initial gestures. The athleticism of the second movement was contrasted by the meditative delicacy of the third. The teacup, crotales, and guiro instrumentation were coupled with pedal-like figures, occasional notes popping up from the tea cup tremolo. The program described an extended diminuendo and ended with applause recalling the volume of the first piece.

Bel Cuore

Bel Cuore. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

Bel Cuore Sax Quartet performed Snowden’s Speed Studies, a work that opened slowly, moving to a series of declamatory statements in the high register. Key slaps and other rhythmic effects in the tenor and bari played hide and seek with rips in soprano and alto leading to a funky groove and a slamming ending topped of by the declamatory statement. Matthew Ricketts’s[*] Summerline was quiet and pensive. Thoughtful use of combination tones by Ricketts and careful phrasing by Bel Cuore made for a wonderful tension throughout the work. David Biedenbender’s you’ve been talking in your sleep was the second call for scores winner. The sighing, sleeping, and breathing that opened the piece were sideswiped by a honking Morse code in the bari, which in turn morphed into full-blown syncopation among the players, culminating in complete tutti madness. Finally, Life and Afterlife by Nick Sibicky closed Bel Cuore’s set. A narrative work in two movements, the piece started with bright pulsing rhythms and moved to more solemn lines. In the second section, BCSQ took a seat and took up rainsticks, shakers, and the errant drum to the delight of a number of kids who sat wide-eyed in the front.

Graham Reynolds and Austin Soundwaves

Graham Reynolds and Austin Soundwaves. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

FFA continued its support of non-profit music education for underserved groups this year with Austin Soundwaves, a new program based on Venezuela’s El Sistema program. An orchestra of about 30 students from the burgeoning program was led by Graham Reynolds in providing music and sound effects to a Felix the Cat film. After their short, charming set, Reynolds was joined by several local pros with whom he’d been working on an upcoming commission. The tunes were built from a funky mix of genres and, after several songs, Vicky Chow and Owen Weaver joined Reynolds on stage. Chow and Reynolds banged out several tunes on the keys, and when I say “banged out” I could not mean that more literally. That piano was rode hard and put up wet, and this became particularly clear later in the evening when Chow did her solo set.

Owen Weaver’s set began with Christopher Cerrone’s Memory Palace. Crickets and other sounds of the early evening were joined by Weaver plucking inside the piano and, as the piece progressed, a background of late night sounds played behind Weaver’s delicate performance. The second movement featured Weaver playing a custom mallet percussion instrument. Made of five or six wooden planks and sounding a bit like a muffled set of woodblocks, the instrument was played with two mallets per hand, one mallet above and one below the planks so that Weaver could provide an extended tremolo that made my arms ache to watch. The tremolo was complimented by electronics that picked up and amplified the natural resonance of the bars. Ian Dicke’s 808 featured loops from the classic Roland 808 drum machine along with real-time manipulation (via MAX/MSP) of cymbals, tambourine, cowbell, and bells, among other percussion instruments. I’ve heard this one several times, and each time it’s a slightly different experience. The use of the crash cymbal in conjunction with the electronics is particularly compelling, giving the impression that the sound not only emanates from the cymbal and through the electronics, but also at times returns to the cymbal from the electronics like a genie returning to the bottle. Vicky Chow joined Weaver for Daniel Wohl’s Pixellated. Beginning with a trill on bells and slaps on piano, Pixellated is initially all fits and starts. A rapid, descending trichord entered the fray adding body to the texture which continued to go all herky-jerky on us like breaking news. Strummed chords in the piano further broadened this texture which eventually broke apart like a fading radio signal.

Vicky Chow, Christoper Cerrone, and Owen Weaver

Vicky Chow, Christoper Cerrone, and Owen Weaver. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

Vicky Chow took the stage before an eager audience and began with a collection of miniatures, of which Digital Sustain by Ryan Francis was a standout. Chords held out by the una corda pedal made a bed for rapid, staccato, player-piano-like figures. Christopher Cerrone’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn for piano and electronics was the final call for scores winner. A spare texture of slowly played and largely consonant chords served to describe the experience of waiting for the train at the piece’s namesake subway stop in Brooklyn. The chords split into a counterpoint between the hands, accented by the single tones as a chordal passacaglia of sorts developed in the left hand. I’m hesitant (as Cerrone was in describing the piece at the show) to go into much detail about the electronics except to say that they show up towards the end of the piece and are really quite effective. Daniel Wohl’s Aorta for piano and electronics, all syncopation in the piano coupled and textural electronic elements, and Andy Akiho’s vick(I/y) for prepared piano brought Chow’s set to a satisfying close. But we weren’t done. Joining Chow on stage for a grand finale performance of Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union were several of the festival’s performers. The combination of approximate pitch and exacting tutti rhythms among the players was an absolutely fantastic visceral experience, and could not have made for a more definitive end to the evening.

Fast Forward Austin built on the strong foundation laid last year at their inaugural festival. A blend of local, regional, and national acts along with a sense of community purpose made for a day that was as intellectually stimulating as it was warm and inviting. As my penguin hand-stamp fades, I can reflect on the events of the day while looking forward to next year’s festival, confident that it will be more Search for Spock than Phantom Menace. Of course, I’d be happy to watch Vicky Chow go all two-fisted Workers Union on Jar Jar, but perhaps that’s a whole different festival altogether.

*The composer of For thee, O Absalom, my son is Daniel Webbon, not David Webern, and the composer of Summer Line is Matthew Ricketts, not Matthew Prickett, as were originally reported. We regret the errors.

What Makes It Mavericky? The San Francisco Symphony Celebrates 100 Years



Leave the stage through the audience returning to the stage without leaving the theatre. Do this very slowly.

The San Francisco Symphony has been celebrating its centennial season this year with a slew of ambitious programs, including the return of its American Mavericks festival. In June 2000, six seasons into Michael Tilson Thomas’s tenure as music director, the symphony presented ten programs of 20th-century American music, a massive effort that has had a lasting impact on the identity of the orchestra. (A 150-page book that was published in conjunction with that festival can be downloaded free as a PDF here.) Last month’s festival featured five programs—three comprising primarily orchestral repertoire; two, chamber works—performed at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, some of which then went on tour to Chicago, Ann Arbor, and New York.

Big disclaimer up front: As a member of Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, I performed in Monk’s Realm Variations, one of the four works commissioned for the festival, and toured with the orchestra.



Play a game of solitaire (or play both or all sides of a game ordinarily involving two or more players).

The term “maverick” has obviously taken on other connotations in the intervening 12 years, so Tilson Thomas took pains to define what makes a composer mavericky in his estimation. In the video below (one of a series of engaging YouTube clips put together for the festival), he says it means “somebody who is pushing boundaries and exploring new sounds—made by traditional instruments, by introducing entirely new instruments, by using the vocabulary of electronics and now sounds generated through computer technology.” The 17 composers selected to represent this maverick approach to music-making are now familiar names to most listeners: Ives, Ruggles, Varèse, Cowell, Copland, Partch, Cage, Harrison, Foss, Feldman, Subotnick, Riley, Reich, Del Tredici, Monk, Adams, and Mason Bates.

In a separate statement, Tilson Thomas added, “What many of these composers have in common is their association with California, with the San Francisco Bay Area. …San Francisco has always been known for its independent, left-of-center spirit.” Indeed, that sense of nonconformity is one San Francisco value that is treasured by those who live here. The affection of the audience towards their hometown band, throwing its full weight behind a festival highlighting unconventional repertoire, was noticeable in both the attendance and the response to the performances.

Monk (singing), Norman (typing), Tilson Thomas (chopping) perform work by John Cage

Monk (singing), Norman (typing), Tilson Thomas (chopping) perform work by John Cage. Photo by Kristen Loken.



Prepare something to eat.

The marquee event of the series was arguably the production of John Cage’s Song Books, performed by the improbable trio of vocalists Joan La Barbara, Monk, and Jessye Norman, together with Tilson Thomas and eight musicians from the symphony, and staged by L.A.-based director Yuval Sharon. The Song Books from 1970 are subtitled “Solos for Voice 3 – 92,” but that simple description does not begin to convey the range of what the performers are asked to do or how a performance might be constructed. (James M. Keller’s program notes can be found here.) In the first San Francisco performance, the work was greeted with great enthusiasm overall, along with great confusion in some corners and great consternation in others. It certainly didn’t fail to elicit a response. The production was also performed in Ann Arbor and on the large stage at Carnegie Hall, and perusing the Internet will reveal many discussions and questions centered on whether it was Cageian enough in its execution: Is Tilson Thomas making a smoothie in a blender too shtick-y? Was Norman too operatic? And so on. For my part, I’m just happy that the San Francisco Symphony chose to present this marvelously inventive work on a large-enough scale to trigger these discussions.



Play a recording of a forest fire.

The challenge of performing the Maverick repertoire is you really have to throw yourself into it, sometimes doing things that can seem totally off-the-wall. …Anything goes, what the hell—we’ll just go for it. And that’s a quality that San Francisco Symphony definitely has.—Tilson Thomas

The orchestral works were programmed to the symphony’s strengths: outsized pieces like Varèse’s Amériques unleashed the crazy that SFS does exceptionally well. (It was also one of several opportunities throughout the festival to shine a spotlight on the percussion section, which was charged with everything from Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood to Harrison’s Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra, performed with organist Paul Jacobs.) Likewise, Absolute Jest, a new work by John Adams for string quartet and orchestra (premiered here by the St. Lawrence String Quartet), gave the musicians an opportunity to amp up the energy level in the room well past the standards of normalcy.

Paul Jacobs (organ), Mason Bates (electronica), Donato Cabrera (conductor) and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus in Bates's Mass Transmission. Photo by Kristen Loken

Paul Jacobs (organ), Mason Bates (electronica), Donato Cabrera (conductor) and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus in Bates’s Mass Transmission. Photo by Kristen Loken



Engage in some other activity than you did in Solos 8, 24, 28, and 62 (if any one of these was performed).

Along with Absolute Jest, three other works were commissioned by the symphony for this festival: Monk’s Realm Variations, for six voices and seven instruments; Subotnick’s Jacob’s Room: Monodrama, for vocalist Joan La Barbara, electronics, and chamber ensemble; and Bates’s Mass Transmission, for organ, electronics, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (a beloved institution in its own right). It escaped no one’s attention that of the 17 composers included in this festival, there was only one woman and only one who was born within the last 60 years. In the case of Bates, this placed the somewhat unfortunate burden on his approachable and un-thorny piece of having to represent the Maverick Spirit for all American composers who are not yet eligible for Social Security benefits.


PARTCH, photo courtesy of sfmike



Using a typewriter equipped with contact microphones, typewrite the following statement by Erik Satie thirty-eight times:

L’artiste n’a pas le droit de disposer inutilement du temps de son auditeur.

[The artist does not have the right to waste his listener’s time.]

Apart from the orchestral performances were two chamber music programs featuring members of the orchestra in various configurations, as well as outside artists. These more intimate performances allowed for some of the more unusual and enchanting sounds of the festival. Jeremy Denk drew out a large palette of unexpected colors in his performance of five solo piano works by Cowell, which called for stroking the length of the strings, strumming them like a harp, and inexplicably bringing forth melodies via cluster chords played with fists. And I wonder when we’ll ever have another chance to hear in Davies the sounds of the extraordinary instruments brought by the multitalented Los Angeles-based PARTCH, for their theatrical performances of Barstow and other works by the ultimate maverick Harry Partch.

harrison bells

Empty oxygen tanks, used as bells for Harrison’s Concerto for Organ and Percussion Orchestra. Photo by Annie Phillips, San Francisco Symphony



The text is from the first paragraph of the Essay on Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau. Sing in an optimistic spirit as though you believe what you are singing… Before singing this solo, raise either the black flag of Anarchy or the flag of the Whole Earth.

With five full programs of repertoire, there are too many moments that necessarily go unmentioned in a recap like this. Even so, I can’t let the mesmerizingly quiet and beautiful performance of Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra with Emanuel Ax fly completely under the radar. Juxtaposing it with the sheer decibel power of Amériques made for a wonderful and wild evening, in which all sounds seemed possible. Coming out of that concert reminded me of one of the most striking moments of the Song Books performance, when Monk came forth to declaim:

The best form of government is no government at all….
The b-b-b-b-b-b-best form is no f-f-f-form at all….
And that will be what we will have
When we are ready for it.

The San Francisco Symphony has announced plans to record three of the works from the festival next season, for release on their own label: Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra, with Paul Jacobs; Cowell’s Piano Concerto, with Jeremy Denk; and Carl Ruggles’s Sun-treader. If you need a Ruggles fix before then, Other Minds has just released the 1980 CBS Masterworks recording The Complete Music of Carl Ruggles with Tilson Thomas conducting the Buffalo Phiharmonic.

Excerpts from John Cage’s Song Books © 1970 by Henmar Press, Inc. Used with permission.