Tag: San Francisco

Composer/Performer Cage Match: sfSound and Outsound Presents

Excerpt from Woody Guthrie’s letter to Disc Company of America

“From California to the New York island”: Excerpt from Woody Guthrie’s letter to Disc Company of America about their recording of John Cage’s Amores, I & IV for prepared piano, performed by Maro Ajemian (via The Stool Pigeon).

The centenary of Woody Guthrie’s birth on July 14 coincided with one of sfSound’s concerts celebrating the centenary of Guthrie’s almost exact contemporary, John Cage. Part of a year-long festival titled The Music of ChAnGEs, the full 11-concert series is itself conceived as a large-scale realization of Cage’s indeterminate Variations II, with performances taking place in a variety of Bay Area locations. (There are also a number of “unpublicized performances” of 4’33″, concert organizer and performer Matt Ingalls noted during his pre-concert remarks). This most recent concert featured works by Cage spanning over half a century, and included a new Cage-inspired piece by Monica Scott who, like the other members of sfSoundGroup, is both a composer and a performer.

sfSound often performs in the main theater on the ODC Dance Company’s campus in the Mission, but this concert took place in one of the large dance rehearsal studios across the street in the ODC Dance Commons, which opened in 2005. The capacity crowd had nearly filled the 100 or so seats by the time I arrived, and additional chairs had to be brought in.

Matt Ingalls performing Imaginary Landscape No. 1 on an iPad

Matt Ingalls performing Imaginary Landscape No. 1 on an iPad.

The evening’s program alternated between works for small groups or solo player, such as the microtonal Ten (1991) for ten instruments and Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939), for muted piano, cymbal, and two variable-speed phono turntables (which were replaced in this performance with an iPad). Particularly memorable was a quietly virtuosic and mesmerizing performance of The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942) by Hadley McCarroll, in which she both sang the simple, three-note, folksong-like vocal line and played the contrasting piano part, which involved tapping out complex rhythms at various places on a closed grand piano.

Hadley McCarroll during a performance of But what about the noise of crumpling paper

Hadley McCarroll during a performance of But what about the noise of crumpling paper.

Appropriately for Cage’s centenary, the full ensemble performed a piece Cage had written in honor of Jean Arp’s centenary, But what about the noise of crumpling paper which he used to do in order to paint the series of “Papiers froisses” or tearing up paper to make “Papiers dechires?” Arp was stimulated by water (sea, lake, and flowing waters like rivers), forests (1985). A work for three to ten percussionists who “may be stationed around the audience, or among them, or on stage,” this realization had ten players placed all around the dance space—standing, in chairs, and seated on the floor. Among the “slightly resonant instruments” selected for this performance were a trombone mute, a water cooler container, a coffee cup, and a pleasantly burbling bong. “Other unidentified sounds” came from a set of keys being tossed in the air, a newspaper being rustled, and water being poured from a pitcher. An oddly compelling and unexpected melody occasionally emerged from this amalgam of activity, and the unpredictability of where the next sound would emerge from given the spatial placement added to the effectiveness of the performance.

Reflection in dance studio mirror of sfSound performing But what about the noise of crumpling paper

Reflection in dance studio mirror of sfSound performing But what about the noise of crumpling paper.

The new work on the program, Scott’s (h)ear age:C, was in two movements, scored for six instruments in the first and a separate quartet in the second, with assistance from a corresponding quartet of audience members. Prior to the performance of the work, Scott went out into the audience and handed four people small placards, each with one letter written on it. When the quartet of violin, piano, clarinet, and trumpet emerged for the second movement, each musician was positioned so that one of the placards would be visible to him or her. The premise of the movement was simple: each instrumentalist improvised sounds and noises—putting air through the trumpet without playing notes, for example—until an audience member held up the corresponding placard, which spelled out C–A–G–E. The instrumentalist sustained the note indicated on the placard until the sign went down, and then returned to improvisation. Open fifths and triads revealed themselves from time to time amongst the “unidentified sounds” of the improvisation, and the work proved to be an entertaining and fitting counterpoint to Cage’s But what about the noise.

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Performance of Benjamin Ethan Tinker’s Seems an Eternity at the Outsound New Music Summit

Performance of Benjamin Ethan Tinker’s Seems an Eternity at the Outsound New Music Summit.

The following week, the experimental music collective Outsound Presents, led by founder and saxophonist Rent Romus, took a break from presenting the weekly performance series at the Luggage Store Gallery (tagline: “We don’t sell luggage”) to come to the Mission’s Community Music Center for the annual Outsound New Music Summit. Now in its eleventh year, the festival spans a full week and includes four evening performances, as well as workshops, a symposium, artist discussions, and even a free gear expo for lovers of sound art and sonic exploration. (The full schedule can be found here.)

Jack Wright

Jack Wright

I was able to attend most of the final two performances on July 20 and 21, which highlighted percussion music and improvised music, respectively. The evening of improvisation began with eerily plangent, wailing solo works by saxophonist Jack Wright, using a wide array of extended techniques, from vocalizations while playing to pitch bending with the bell of the horn against his thigh and calf. The energy ramped up with increasingly larger ensembles: Dave Bryant’s piano trio, the Vinny Golia Sextet, and concluding with Tony Passarell’s Thin Air Orchestra).

Falkortet, performing Paul Heiman’s What are the odds

Falkortet, performing Paul Heiman’s What are the odds.

The highlight of the percussion evening for me was a young Oakland-based quartet called Falkortet, who began their set with Why Not Cross the Rubicon, a meditative, ritualistic procession from the courtyard into the hall, using a conch shell and Chinese cymbals to transform the space. The piece was composed by Lydia Martín, one of the members of the group; all of the works they performed were written by either current or former members. The players spoke from the stage about their common ties to percussionist William Winant and their shared aesthetic interest in Lou Harrison, gamelan, and instrument building. Falkortet’s set included solos, duos, and trios, but the most compelling music happened when all four came together: in Paul Heiman’s What are the odds, they all approached one vibraphone as though it were a communal table, each musician playing a melodic fragment on it with a mallet in one hand, and a rhythmic fragment on their own individual drum with the other hand. During the course of the piece, each player individually slowly came into relief, as some sounds came to the fore while others receded, but always present was a sense of the ensemble’s pulse beating in unison.

There are four more concerts in sfSound’s Cage series in the next couple of months; details can be found here. Outsound has weekly performances at the Luggage Store Gallery and a biweekly series at the Musicians Union Hall; the full calendar is at outsound.org.

Adams, Nixon, and New Music Excitement in California

Joy! Joy! Joy!: Hye Jung Lee as Madame Mao in San Francisco Opera’s Nixon in China. Photo by Cory Weaver/SF Opera

Joy! Joy! Joy!: Hye Jung Lee as Madame Mao in San Francisco Opera’s Nixon in China. Photo by Cory Weaver/SF Opera

The Spirit of ’76 finally touched down at the San Francisco Opera with the first local performances of John Adams’s Nixon in China, a quarter century after the work’s creation. Just prior to the work’s 1987 premiere in Houston, there had been a reading in San Francisco with piano accompaniment at the Herbst Theater, a recital hall, but this marks the first time it has been staged in the Bay Area, which has been Adams’s home for more than 40 years. The work was commissioned by David Gockley when he was general director of the Houston Grand Opera. With Gockley now at the helm of the San Francisco Opera, co-commissioners of Adams’s Doctor Atomic and The Death of Klinghoffer, this appearance of Nixon in China feels like a missing puzzle piece being put into its proper place.

Most followers of contemporary American music are probably familiar with the basic background behind Nixon, which has received multiple productions and two recordings. The opera—conceived by director Peter Sellars, librettist Alice Goodman, and Adams—is inspired by Nixon’s 1972 trip to Beijing to meet with Mao Tse-tung and China’s Premier Chou En-lai. In the course of three acts during which the line between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurred, five distinct character portraits emerge: of Nixon, Mao, Chou, Pat Nixon, and Chiang Ch’ing, or Madame Mao.

The opera contains some of the most memorable, charming, propulsive, lyrical, witty, and fresh writing of Adams’s career but, even so, 25 years is enough time to have passed that it does have the sound of a different era. Adams recently said in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News, “I was surprised by how minimalist the music is. When I started opening the score again, I hadn’t really looked at it or conducted it in 10 or 15 years—and compared to what I now do, I was shocked by all those bald arpeggios, bar after bar! It’s a kind of writing I would never do now.”

Photo by Cory Weaver/SF Opera

Photo by Cory Weaver/SF Opera

But for those who haven’t heard Nixon before, the music itself remains surprising and shocking. I had the great fortune of seeing it with a group of traditional opera-goers who had never heard a note of the piece and was reminded that, despite our easy access to recorded material nowadays, live performances of major works like this are essential if they are to have an impact on a local audience. As is my custom, I attended the June 17 performance on a standing-room ticket; just before the start of the performance, a stranger generously offered me an empty seat in her box. My box-mates were in their 50s, more or less contemporaries of Adams, Sellars, and Goodman, and knew very little in advance about what they had come to hear. But it was particularly gratifying to me that, at the first intermission, it was immediately apparent that no explanations or apologias were necessary: these first-time listeners were thrilled by the energy of the landing of Air Force One in the first scene; they grasped the banal yet complex portrayal of Nixon that develops from him singing “News” twelve times in a row; they accepted the ambiguities of the language and the action. Nixon was in a language that was immediately comprehensible to them, and by the time Madame Mao sang her final “Book!” my hostess declared that she could see herself becoming a Nixon groupie.

Of course this reaction wouldn’t have been triggered without strong performances by all the principals and the orchestra and chorus, under Lawrence Renes’s baton. (The short preview video above gives a sampling of the cast singing all the greatest hits.) Baritone Brian Mulligan’s Nixon was physically and vocally youthful and vibrant, sung with a warmth and lyricism that prevented the character from ever slipping into caricature. The punishingly high part of Mao was sung securely and admirably by tenor Simon O’Neill, with a stridency entirely appropriate to the figure he was portraying. But the person that everyone will likely remember when they recall this performance is the petite 29-year-old Hye Jung Lee, just two years out of the SF Opera’s Merola young artists program, who completely took over the stage from the moment she declared, “That is your cue!” and shot Kissinger. “I am the Wife of Mao Tse-tung,” she fearlessly announced, and one could easily see how millions of people would “hang/ Upon her words” through Lee’s powerful and astonishingly precise performance.

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That same weekend, across the bay in Berkeley was another performance of a John Adams work in a much more modest venue. The Friction Quartet, a group of young musicians who have all studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, performed the second movement of Adams’s String Quartet as part of a triple-bill at the Subterranean Arthouse, a small (above-ground) “community art space” near the UC Berkeley campus. (You can hear part of the Friction Quartet’s performance of the Adams quartet at the conservatory’s Hot Air Music Festival on YouTube.)

Living Earth

The concert was organized by composer Brendon Randall-Myers, who was leaving the next day to move to the East Coast, and was a manifestation of the enthusiasm for new music that is coming out of the conservatory right now. The other performers, guitar/percussion duo The Living Earth Show and members of the chamber ensemble Nonsemble 6, are all recent graduates of SFCM and approached this program of contemporary music—which also included two works by Randall-Myers, a piece by Timo Andres that was also performed at this year’s Switchboard Festival, and works by Adrian Knight, Kevin Villalta, and Frederic Rzewski—with exuberance and a complete lack of pretense.

Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge

This was best exemplified by Nonsemble 6’s performance of a section of Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge, which is “for any number of musicians playing melody instruments and any number of nonmusicians playing anything.” According to Rzewski’s performance instructions, “nonmusicians are invited to make sound, any sound, preferably very loud, and if possible are provided with percussive or other instruments.” Nonsemble 6’s solution for this was to write out their cell phone numbers and tape the papers to their stands. They then encouraged the audience members, many of whom seemed to be friends and colleagues, to call and text the numbers during the performance so that the rings would allow the nonmusicians to participate.

As it turned out, the ringtones weren’t loud enough to register, so the audience switched to other methods of making very loud sounds, including, but not limited to: stomping on the ground; snapping a leather belt; taking shoes off and pounding them on the walls; clapping; and making vocalizations that started as good-humored “boo”s, which then transformed into “baa”s. In the end it felt more like a raucous jam session than an actual performance of Moutons, but one couldn’t deny the infectiousness of the joyful abandon in their music-making.

Legacy of Lou Harrison Showcased at [email protected] in Berkeley

Lou Harrison remains, even nine years after his death, the quintessential West Coast composer. He often referred to the region as Pacifica (as opposed to the East Coast’s Atlantica), and felt the pull of Asia rather than Europe. “Well, why would anyone choose the East?” he asked rhetorically, in response to an interviewer’s question in 1995 as to why he chose to make his home on the West Coast. “We’re not bound up with industrial ‘twelve-tone-ism’ quite so much as the East seaboard is,” he continued, “and also we’re not afraid out here if something sounds pretty. I don’t see that increased complexity is any solution at all.” Even though these battle lines are not as starkly drawn as they once were, the flowering of “pretty music” throughout the country is certainly influenced by the West Coast aesthetic Harrison embodied.

“He followed his own path, and it took decades to be recognized,” says pianist Sarah Cahill. “I think a lot of young composers today—not just in the Bay Area but across the country—are picking up on what he started: writing melodic, tonal music, embracing simplicity rather than complexity, going back to ancient dance forms for inspiration, incorporating elements of music from Asia and non-Western cultures. Lou Harrison was doing that in 1940 and it took more than half a century for the rest of the world to catch up to him.”

Evidence that the original “pretty music” still resonates with listeners came in the form of the large crowd that gathered in the Berkeley Art Museum on May 25 to hear a selection of Harrison’s works, programmed by Cahill, including his transcendental La Koro Sutro. Also noteworthy was the “re-premiere” of an early piano work, Dance for Lisa Karon. Composed in San Francisco in 1938 when Harrison was just 21 years old, it was first performed in April 1939 on a dance concert involving Karon. The manuscript was subsequently lost for decades before resurfacing earlier this year. Daniel Katz, who found the manuscript, detailed his remarkable discovery in an email to Cahill in February.

I am writing to you because I recently came upon what appears to be a manuscript of a work for solo piano by Lou Harrison, dated 1938 (in San Francisco), entitled “Dance for Lisa Karon.” Lisa Karon was also known as Alice Reawold, an instructor at Estelle Reed’s dance studio on Geary Street in SF. I found the manuscript in a box of sheet music belonging to my father-in-law, several of which had at one time belonged to Alice/Lisa. (Several were signed by her.)  It turns out that Lisa was my wife’s childhood piano teacher and a family friend. My wife then remembered having met Lou several times at Lisa’s house.

“Daniel Katz showed this score to Leta Miller, co-author of the only published biography of Lou Harrison, and I showed it to a number of people who worked closely with Lou Harrison and know his work well,” Cahill says, “and no one had ever heard of it.  So most likely, this manuscript is the only copy, forgotten since that early performance in 1939.  I’m tremendously grateful to Daniel and his wife, Allana Lee Katz, for the opportunity to perform it after all these years.”

This recent concert of Harrison’s music was just the latest programmed by Cahill as part of  [email protected]: Friday Nights @ BAM/PFA  at the Berkeley Art Museum, an evening series featuring extended gallery hours and performances. “Larry Rinder, the director of the Berkeley Art Museum, started the [email protected] series a few years ago, with the idea of bringing new audiences to the museum and creating an informal, engaging atmosphere for music, films, readings, and various art forms,” Cahill explains. “He invited me to program one evening a month, and asked especially for experimental and new music.”

The musical performances take place in Gallery B, an open space on the ground floor of the museum that is surrounded on all sides by several stories of galleries and balconies, and Cahill feels that this unique space is part of the appeal. “The gallery setting, in which people can sit or lie on the floor, or walk around and look at what’s on view in the galleries, or get different perspectives from overhanging balconies, makes these concerts attractive to people who might not enjoy sitting still in a seat through a whole concert.  We get a younger audience, a lot of kids, a diverse group of people.” The crowd on Friday night was certainly diverse, and even included several serious contenders for the Lou Harrison look-a-like prize.

Gallery B at BAM/PFA pre-concert

Gallery B at BAM/PFA pre-concert

The concert opened with the brief Solo for Anthony Cirone for tenor bells. William Winant played the melodic, modal work—dedicated to Tony Cirone, a percussionist in the San Francisco Symphony and colleague of Harrison’s at San Jose State University—with wonderful lyricism. Next came Dance for Lisa Karon performed by Cahill. It’s written in a bracing, modernist idiom that Harrison explored prior to his more well-known work with different tuning systems and the music of Asian cultures. Here’s what Cahill had to say about the new work.

There’s only a marking of “Maestoso,” so it’s hard to figure out the tempo, but big leaping chords in the climactic middle section establish a speed which isn’t too fast (with any of these early dance pieces by Lou Harrison, you try to take the pulse from imagining what the dancers would be doing).  The right hand and left hand are in different keys.

It begins with brash, muscular music; dense chords in the left hand buttress angular melodic gestures in the right, which is then followed by a more subdued section in which oscillating harmonies accompany a circuitous melodic line. A third contrasting section recaptures the brashness of the opening with leaping melodic lines in octaves above the oscillating harmonies heard earlier—this time in a descending sequence—before the opening material returns to close the piece. The music is striving and assertive, and Cahill’s playing captured this sense of barely harnessed power while maintaining great clarity in the live acoustics of the gallery.

Tenor Bells used in Solo for Anthony Cirone

Tenor Bells used in Solo for Anthony Cirone

Next the Abel-Steinberg-Winant trio performed Varied Trio, a five-movement work Harrison composed for them in 1987. Fleeting pitch and ensemble issues did little to detract from an otherwise strong performance. The second movement, titled “Bowl Balls,” is a moto perpetuo for rice bowls that Winant played with scintillating energy. In “Elegy” pianist Julie Steinberg’s swooshing, modal arpeggios evoked the strumming of a koto. In the fourth movement “Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard”one of the ancient dance forms Cahill noted—violinist David Abel subtly darkened his tone to capture the music’s wistful spirit, and was mirrored beautifully by Steinberg. Even in the work’s loudest moments, like the central section of the final movement “Dance,” the ensemble remained well balanced, the piano and percussion playing crisp and lively without overpowering the violin.

Rice bowls—from Harrison’s own kitchen—used in Varied Trio

Rice bowls—from Harrison’s own kitchen—used in Varied Trio

The centerpiece of the concert was Harrison’s La Koro Sutro, a setting, in Esperanto, of the Heart Sutra scored for chorus, harp, and American Gamelan. The eight-movement work opens with Prelude: Kunsonoro Kaj Gloro, a paean to “Blessed, Noble, Perfect Wisdom,” and the following seven movements, sequentially numbered “Strofos,” set the text of the Buddhist scripture that details the enlightenment of Avakiteshesvara, who in a moment of deep meditation realizes that the phenomenal world is an illusion.

The gamelan used in this performance is named Old Granddad and was built by Harrison and his partner Bill Colvig in the late 1960s. Harrison called the gamelan “the single most beautiful musical ensemble on the planet.” , and he loved its range and ravishing tone colors. Colvig said that their motivation for building one was simply to recreate this sound and create music for it.

The composer Lou Harrison and I decided to make our own Western Gamelan based in general on the traditional ones but not copying anything for the sake of authenticity. Our primary consideration was to make beautiful sound; our primary purpose to build a usable musical instrument for which new serious music could be composed.

It is tuned to a just-intonation centering on D. Colvin describes the ideas behind the tuning in an essay titled “An American Gamelan.”

The tuning of any instrument is determined by its use . . . Certainly it could be made with “sharps and flats” and all tuned up out-of-tune Western style in 12 equal tones so you could play “Stormy Weather” on it. Why bother? We already have pianos and marimbaphones etc. to play your favorite tunes on. Marvelous new (to us) sound sensations can be achieved by trying different musical modes in “just intonation”, the expression used for rational tuning.

Harrison and Colvig began with a pentatonic scale on D (D-E-F#-A-B), and added the pitches C# and G, again “justly tuned.” The result resembles a D Major scale but in just intonation rather than equal temperment and is, in fact, the syntonous, or “stretched,” diatonic scale described by Ptolemy in his 2nd-century C.E. treatise Harmonics.

Old Granddad is composed of pitched and non-pitched instruments, some handmade, some “found” objects, and a small organ. The pitched metallophones range from short tubular pipes to large, low-pitched xylophone-like instruments whose resonating pipes, composed of several restaurant-size tin cans, soldered together, are several feet long. Non-pitched instruments include enormous dinner bells, suspended oxygen tanks played with baseball bats, and trashcans. “Using Western materials our Gamelan is a “happy hybrid” of pipes and slabs and metal resonators and rubber mountings for the pipes and wooden stands to hold everything up,” Colvig wrote.

Oxygen tank bells

Oxygen tank bells

On the whole, this was a remarkable performance of La Koro Sutro. The chorus was occasionally outmatched in the outer movements when the full gamelan is employed (a dozen extra voices would have helped), and sounded unfocused and hazy at times in “Strofo 2,” but there were flashes of brilliance as well. The unison singing in “Strofo 4” was perfectly balanced from top to bottom, and the sopranos deserve special praise for their crystalline purity in the chant-like “Strofo 5.” The William Winant Percussion Group was rock solid and Old Granddad sounded like the single instrument—as opposed to a group of instruments played by individuals—the Javanese consider it to be. They captured the otherworldly mood of “Strofo 1” which depicts Avakiteshesvara in deep meditation, and the tranquility of “Strofo 4” where Avakiteshesvara shares his insight with his pupil Shariputra: “Therefore, O Shariputra, in the voidness there is neither form, nor yet sensation, no perception, no impulses, no awareness: nor the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, the mind.” These movements feature melodic percussion writing on the pitched instruments of the gamelan, and the players created beautifully shaped phrases.

Performing La Koro Sutro

Performing La Koro Sutro

Marika Kuzuma led the combined forces with a sure hand, her conducting crisp and assertive when needed, each vocal phrase carefully molded. Other than the sections referred to earlier, the overall balance between the choir and gamelan was excellent; no small feat in a multi-faceted concrete cavern. After the final, ecstatic bars of the piece, where the choir sings the mantra “going, going, yonder going on beyond awake, all hail!” and the gamelan sends up glorious peals of sound from oxygen tanks and gongs, she kept her hands raised and everyone held their breath as the sound reverberated for several long moments.

It bears repeating that, from where I was standing at least, all of the performances on this concert worked wonderfully well in the live acoustic of Gallery B and the performers should be commended. Sarah Cahill also credits BAM Administrative Coordinator Sean Carson, a composer himself, whose knowledge of the gallery’s acoustics is instrumental in determining the ideal setup and location for each concert.  Kudos to all involved, both behind the scenes and on stage, for a memorable musical experience in Pacifica.

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

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.

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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.

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

SOLO FOR VOICE 88

DIRECTIONS

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.

SOLO FOR VOICE 26

DIRECTIONS

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.

SOLO FOR VOICE 46

DIRECTIONS

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.

SOLO FOR VOICE 51

DIRECTIONS

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

SOLO FOR VOICE 63

DIRECTIONS

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.

PARCH

PARTCH, photo courtesy of sfmike

SOLO FOR VOICE 15

DIRECTIONS

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

SOLO FOR VOICE 35

DIRECTIONS

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.

Annual Mavericks: Other Minds Festival 17

“The San Francisco Symphony does ‘Mavericks’ every ten years; we do it every year,” joked Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian at this year’s Other Minds Festival of new Music, the Bay Area new music community’s annual three-day get together. This was the 17th iteration of the festival, which has been running regularly with only a few skipped years since 1993. Each year a group of eight to twelve composers is featured in three concerts, several composers per night, with sets focusing on each composer in turn.

OM 17 composers with Charles Amirkhanian (far right), photo from <a href="http://www.henceforthrecords.com/2012/03/other-minds-festival-of-new-music-2012-day-2/">Henceforth Records</a>

OM 17 composers with Charles Amirkhanian (far right), photo from Henceforth Records.

This year’s event (March 1–3) included a characteristically diverse group of nine composers, including 75-year-old Harold Budd and 31-year-old Tyshawn Sorey; Berkeley-based Ken Ueno and Lotta Wennäkoski from Finland; and glissando virtuoso Gloria Coates and laptop improviser Ikue Mori. Also featured were John Kennedy, Simon Steen-Andersen and Øyvind Torvund—a multiplicity of compositional voices, from various locations, by composers at different stages in their artistic careers. In a separate fourth performance on February 29, the festival also highlighted work by four younger American composers who had been named OM Fellows, a program now in its second year.

“Community” is frequently used these days by arts organizations as a buzzword, but OM concerts truly have the feel of a gathering of a certain community within the Bay Area. The sense of familiarity among those in attendance is immediately noticeable: people seem to be greeting old friends and colleagues constantly from the moment they arrive at the hall. Board members are publicly acknowledged for appreciation during the show. The announcements are informal and there’s a notable lack of pretense—when the raffle winners were announced, one was greeted from the stage by Amirkhanian with a homey “Oh, hey, Tony, nice to see you. Glad you could make it.”

Djerassi

The Djerassi property. Photo by Richard Friedman via Kyle Gann.

This sense of community building extends to the festival composers and Fellows as well, who spend five days together at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program on a rural ranch about an hour south of San Francisco prior to the concerts. (Here are some charming and bucolic photos from previous years by Kyle Gann and Richard Friedman.) In fact, although the festival concerts are the most publicly visible component of Other Minds’ work, they are only a detail of a bigger picture in which international and intergenerational dialogue is encouraged among individual artistic creators.

I attended the second and third concerts this year, as well as the performance featuring the four Fellows’ work. (The first concert, with works by Torvund and Steen-Andersen performed by the Norwegian ensemble asamisimasa, I unfortunately had to miss due to illness.) Some sets were performed by the composers themselves (Budd, Mori, Sorey); others by the San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet, mainstays of the festival, and by members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra, a young, malleable instrumental ensemble with roots in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

The works presented were as wide-ranging as OM audiences have come to expect. (A full list of repertoire can be found here.) Concert 2 featured Coates’ Fifth String Quartet (two movements of which were composed almost exclusively using glissandi); a quiet, spare and introspective work by Budd for piano and bass; and almost overwhelmingly aggressive simultaneous improvisations by Mori on her laptop, Sorey on drums, and Ueno on vocals that included overtone throat-singing, death metal growls, and extreme high-register squeals. Concert 3 had Magik*Magik in different configurations, ranging from a percussion duo playing Kennedy’s First Deconstruction (in Plastic) on upturned Glidden paint buckets to a 12-person chamber orchestra configuration with string quartet plus bass and winds/brass. That was followed by improvisations by Sorey solo, first on a drum kit and then on piano, and the world premiere of Ueno’s Peradam for string quartet (who are asked not just to sing, but throat-sing).

Coates-DSSQ

Del Sol String Quartet with Gloria Coates (center). Photo by Charles Amirkhanian.

Though Other Minds has apparently cultivated an audience that knows that they are coming to hear something unexpected—attendance in the 410-seat Kanbar Hall at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco was very respectable at the concerts I attended—the format of the concerts makes certain demands of the concert-goers. Because each composer is represented by a set that is approximately a half-hour long and often there are dramatically contrasting compositional approaches, there is sometimes a disjointed quality to the festival’s performances. In addition, the performing forces change from set to set, so the added time for changeovers and announcements affects the pacing of the performances significantly. For the listener, the result can be disorienting, and during Concert 2 especially I wished there were more of a sense of journey and connectedness throughout the evening.

rootstock

Rootstock Percussion performing Jen Wang’s Renderings of Things We Couldn’t Take Home at The LAB.

In that sense, the most satisfying performance event of the festival for me was actually the Composer Fellowship Concert, which was held at a small, 100-seat visual art space in the Mission called The LAB. Rootstock Percussion, a Bay Area trio, performed all the works on the program, which featured one work by each of the four Fellows—D. Edward Davis, Peter Swendsen, John P. Hastings, and Jen Wang—framed by pieces by John Cage. Having the instrumentation limited to percussion allowed each composer’s identity to come into relief in relation to the others’. While Swendsen’s Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is for bass drum solo and electronics (controlled by the composer via iPad at the back of the hall) took inspiration from the sounds of weather and seasonal transitions in Norway, Hastings created numbered grids for Terce that provided guidelines for the three percussionists to construct the work by playing wine glasses like bells and by bowing Styrofoam and large metal springs. Cage opened and closed each half, ending the program with Amores, Parts II and III—the only obviously pulse-driven pieces in an evening of percussion music.

cactus

Cactus awaiting its star turn in Cage’s Child of Tree.

The Other Minds Foundation is in the process of digitizing its audio archive, and the results can be accessed for free online at RadiOM.org. Recordings of many past festival concerts and panel discussions are available, and the current festival recordings should be added soon. The site also includes a trove of archival material from KPFA-FM in Berkeley, where Amirkhanian was music director for over two decades.

Ensemble Parallèle Tackles Harbison’s Great Gatsby

John Harbison’s grand opera The Great Gatsby, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1999, received its first production in a decade in a new chamber version created for San Francisco’s Ensemble Parallèle. Though founded by Nicole Paiement nearly 20 years ago, the ensemble has only recently turned its full attention to chamber productions of contemporary opera, filling a niche that Bay Area audiences are apparently very happy to explore.

This well-attended production of Gatsby, staged over three nights on the main stage at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, featured a slightly abridged version of the score (approximately half an hour was cut) in a newly commissioned re-orchestration by Jacques Desjardins. The original 80-piece orchestra was reduced to 30, including a stage band for party scenes. Before authorizing the chamber orchestration request, Harbison had asked Desjardins first to try his hand at scoring one of the large parties set at Gatsby’s estate.

Though only a short while ago I might have described Ensemble Parallèle as plucky, right now they’re actually flat-out audacious. Never mind their tight budgets and bare-bones administrative structure; somehow their productions have quickly become known as must-see events in town. In just the past two years, they have presented fully staged productions of Philip Glass’s Orphée with circus artists, a new chamber orchestration of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts (in the abridged version) paired with a new composition by Luciano Chessa as a prelude. Prior to that, they presented the world premiere of Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar; just announced for next season is Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata.

At the core of the ensemble are Paiement, a Bay Area new music dynamo who is the group’s conductor and artistic director, and her husband Brian Staufenbiel, who designs the productions and is the stage director. The casts are mostly drawn from singers with strong ties to the Bay Area, and while Ensemble Parallèle is not a repertory company, certain voices and faces become familiar from production to production. The company is a resident ensemble at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where Paiement is director of the New Music Ensemble and of BluePrint, a new music series sponsored by the school.

Principals

L-R: Marco Panuccio (Gatsby), Susannah Biller (Daisy), Julienne Walker (Jordan), Jason Detwiler (Nick), Daniel Snyder (Tom)

It is explicitly part of Ensemble Parallèle’s goals to promote chamber opera as a way to make the opera-going experience more intimate, and also to give large-scale, large-budget works another life that remains true to the original intent but in a more easily presentable form. On these points, their new version of Gatsby was certainly successful. It wasn’t nearly as opulent as the original version I saw at the Met in 1999, but I didn’t feel that we lost out in this “translation,” as Desjardins says. The substantial and straightforward sets by Staufenbiel and scenic designer Matthew Antaky were enhanced by Austin Forbord’s video design, which included the Eckleburg billboard at the top of this post, watching over the proceedings.

Hearing and watching this music performed in a 700-seat hall naturally made for a more intimate experience than the Met, yet the music was still well-served. Though the performances were solid across the whole cast, special notice can be given to Susannah Biller, whose portrayal of Daisy Buchanan was expressively sung with gleaming, youthful energy.

Shirts

“Such beautiful shirts!”

Nevertheless, the cast had to struggle with the challenges that are inherent in Harbison’s theatrical adaptation. The principal characters are not people we find sympathetic: in Act Two, when Gatsby and Tom push Daisy to the point of publicly rebuking her husband, shrieking, “You’re reVOLting!”, one can’t help but agree with her, and unfortunately his companions do not elicit much more warmth from the audience either. And while Harbison’s music often ingeniously evokes the Jazz Age without slipping into a feeling of pastiche, to my ears it interacts awkwardly with the libretto, in the setting of the text as well as the choice of texts that are musically emphasized.

Even so, I am grateful to Ensemble Parallèle for finding a novel way to bring this music to San Francisco’s ears and for allowing me a chance to revisit what I remembered of the opera from a dozen years ago. For those who are interested in hearing the work, the Met has released the recording of the January 2000 broadcast as a 3-CD set.

Fast Forward

This March features an explosion of new music activity in the Bay Area, starting with the 17th annual Other Minds Festival, three nights of concerts at the SF JCC’s Kanbar Hall that are already underway (March 1-3). Concurrent with that is BluePrint’s concert Anosmia at the Conservatory on March 3, as well as new-music choir Volti’s series of performances March 2–4. The San Francisco Symphony launches its American Mavericks Festival with five programs in Davies Symphony Hall on March 8, before taking it on tour to Ann Arbor and New York.

Back at the Conservatory, the Hot Air Music Festival (March 4), an eight-hour marathon concert in its third year, features one of two SF performances of David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion this month; on March 23-25, San Francisco Lyric Opera teams up with Butoh-based physical theatre troupe Bad Unkl Sista to dramatize the story at ODC Dance Theatre.

ODC Dance Company is also premiering new music in the first program of their season, with composer/cellist Zoë Keating performing live with members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra (5 performances, starting March 15). And the Kronos Quartet continues its three-year residency at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with Fragile, an installation piece created with movement artists Eiko & Koma, also starting March 15.

Disclosure: I will be performing at the American Mavericks Festival, am the Artistic Advisor and often sing with Volti (though not in these concerts), and am employed by the Kronos Quartet. Gatsby production photos by Steve DiBartolomeo.

[email protected] at BAM/PFA: A Tribute to Julius Eastman

Julius Eastman

Julius Eastman, photographer unknown, from Mary Jane Leach’s collection.

Until now my knowledge of Julius Eastman (1940–1990) came almost entirely through recordings and articles. I was first introduced to Eastman’s commanding singing voice through the classic recording of Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music, and my immediate impression based on the sound of his vital and seemingly bottomless bass was of a super-sized, uncontainable personality. The bass part in Dolmen Music was created and crafted for him, and when I later had the opportunity to learn and perform his part, I distinctly recall having the sense of a very large space to fill.

The first opportunity I had to hear Eastman’s compositional voice was in 2005 with the release of Unjust Malaise, the three-CD set that was the result of Mary Jane Leach’s Herculean efforts in researching his recordings. But I had never heard any of his music live until this month’s tribute to Eastman and his compositions at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA), programmed by Sarah Cahill and Luciano Chessa for the [email protected]: Friday Nights series.

Hexagon

The strange and sobering story of Eastman’s life and early death has been told most notably by Kyle Gann, first in the obituary he wrote for the Village Voice and then his liner notes (PDF) for Unjust Malaise. Mary Jane Leach also wrote an article for NewMusicBox detailing her extraordinary experiences chasing down all the recordings and scores she could find of Eastman’s work. In short, for those who aren’t already familiar with him, this exceptionally gifted composer/singer/pianist suffered a number of setbacks in his life – some situational, some arguably self-created—and he died without attracting any attention in the musical community for eight months, until Gann published his obituary. Most of his scores are now lost, in no small part due to an eviction from his apartment, and the few recordings that exist have taken Leach years of work to recover.

The tribute performance in Berkeley consisted of two vocal compositions and two works for multiple pianos, set in the spacious concrete atrium of the Modernist museum, where the ramps provided the audience with aerial vantage points on the hexagon of upright pianos.

Ramps

The evening opened with an invocation and plea titled “Our Father” for two male voices, written during the last year of Eastman’s life:

O God, my God,
Our Father, Holy Spirit, great God
Holy Ghost, spirit of truth, great God
All-knowing God
[…]
O Lord, forgive me
Thy will is always done
O God, my God, have mercy
Your servants are weak
Our Father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name

Bass Richard Mix and tenor Kevin Baum emerged from the audience, which was variously sprawled out on an installation by Thom Faulders, to sing the score (downloadable from Leach’s site). The short, linear work, built almost entirely on homophonic open fifths, was clearly written for Eastman to sing: when Mix descended to the lowest point of the work—an E-flat on “My [God]”—it was easy to imagine Eastman’s sepulchral voice filling the hall. Likewise when Mix declaimed the Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc (text transcription as PDF), a 12-minute unaccompanied solo in which a litany of saints passionately exhort Joan to “speak boldly,” I had a visceral sense of Eastman’s presence. From a singer’s perspective, there is a peculiar feeling when performing a work that was clearly written for a specific person’s voice: you’re obligated to inhabit that person’s body in a sense, finding the resonances that were individual to that person and exploring his particular strengths and tendencies. Hearing Mix’s voice channeling a work that Eastman had made for his own brought Eastman into the space in an almost physical way.

Mix Joan

Richard Mix performing Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc

The Prelude Mix sang was indeed written as an opening to another work, a larger piece for multiple cellos which was not performed at this concert. But the format of using multiples of the same instrument was one that Eastman explored in other works, including the pieces for multiple pianos on this program titled Evil Nigger and Gay Guerrilla. Eastman was African-American and gay, and Unjust Malaise includes a spoken intro that he gave at a concert explaining his intent behind the titles. For him, “nigger” meant a person with a “basic-ness or a fundamental-ness”; one who “eschews that which is superficial.” He saw “guerrilla” as a term implying strength, so the title Gay Guerrilla expressed his hope that “gaydom,” himself included, would be strong if called upon to fight for a cause.

Whereas the two vocal works were intensely personal statements from Eastman as an individual, these pieces—written for any number of instruments, performed here on six pianos—showed a community moving in concert. Both pieces are structured as a progression through timed modules, and the six pianists (Chessa, Cahill, Chris Brown, Joseph M. Colombo, Dominique Leone, and Regina Schaffer) kept their synchronized iPhone timers in sight throughout. A cursory glance at the scores showed, for example, a page marked 18:00-18:30, with a number of lines that each performer could choose from within that module.

EvilN iPhone

Sarah Cahill performing Evil Nigger

Evil Nigger is potent and incessant, a 20-minute emotional tour de force full of unbridled energy—supersized, uncontainable. Like Terry Riley’s In C, clouds of harmonies appeared and shifted as the performers moved through the modules. Dramatic register shifts appeared and crossfaded; bright pulsations gave way to impressionistic clusters. Gay Guerrilla initially revealed a more quiet and meditative aspect of his compositional voice, with very slow builds and large waves. But it also provided the most unexpected compositional moment of the night, when about two-thirds into the half-hour work, the Lutheran hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”) emerged from the texture—a behemoth appearing through communal action, full of strength, ready to do battle for a great cause.

This intermission-less tribute gave us an opportunity to take a concentrated look at the work of an artist who was almost allowed to disappear into history. Eastman’s huge voice was ringing loudly in that space, and hopefully the reconstruction work that these performers did so dutifully (most notably Colombo, who created a legible, computerized score for Evil Nigger) will help others to bring his music to life again in the future.

[email protected]: Friday Nights at BAM/PFA has programs every Friday for $7. Some upcoming events programmed by Sarah Cahill include a concert of Edmund Campion’s music (March 9), Amy X Neuburg (April 13), and a performance of Lou Harrison’s La Koro Sutro in May.

BAMscape

Every Sound Is Consequential

Sidney Chen

Sidney Chen

Ed. Note: Over the past few months, NewMusicBox readers have been introduced to a new team of regional editors stationed in cities across the country. These contributors have been our eyes and ears on the ground, surveying the new music landscape in their areas and delivering regular coverage.

It is my pleasure to welcome yet another voice to this dialog, Sidney Chen of San Francisco, California.—MS

I Was Sitting in a Room: SF Tape Music Festival

A friend who’s a record collector has always said that she wishes all concerts could take place in a completely darkened room so that audiences might train their focus entirely on the music. She seems to have some kindred spirits in the folks at the San Francisco Tape Music Festival, who presented three nights of fixed-media audio compositions with all the lights off at the newly renovated ODC Theater in the Mission in San Francisco (which, ironically, is primarily used for dance, where good lighting is a positive character trait).

Lights up

Lights up

Presented by the San Francisco Tape Music Collective and the ever-intrepid sfSound, led by Matt Ingalls, the annual festival has been running since 2002. Works by 25 composers were chosen to be diffused through the 16+ speakers that surrounded the dedicated and attentive audience that comfortably filled the 175-seat hall the two nights I attended (January 20 and 22). I say dedicated because the festival happened to fall on the stormiest night of the season so far, and attentive because I’ve never heard such a quiet, coughless audience in winter.

Lights down, EXIT sign excepted

Lights down, EXIT sign excepted

Each night’s performance began with short mid-19th century phonautograms—primitive sound recordings by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville that had no playback method when they were created and which predate Edison’s phonograph recordings by two decades. The phonautograms, explained in detail in the Studio 360 story below, were realized at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley by First Sounds, a collaborative group of audio historians and recording engineers.

These brief glimpses of another time via some of the world’s earliest sound recording technologies were a curiously and charmingly crude introduction to the densely layered, complex, and diverse selection of compositions that followed. In addition to the tape assemblages and new realizations of John Cage’s work that the festival presenters programmed to celebrate the centenary of Cage’s birth, they took care to present a wide variety of compositional approaches and source material among the other artists represented. Some used voices speaking; others, voices singing; many others, no voices at all. Some referenced acoustic instruments while others eschewed them altogether in favor of electronics. Works that employed entirely abstract sounds were juxtaposed with ones constructed from clearly identifiable ones.

Two works of particular interest in the latter category were by Matthew Barnard and Adam Basanta. Barnard’s The Piano Makers was constructed from recordings made at a piano factory; inspired by a book by David Wainwright of the same title that points out that “the frame and strings of a fully strung grand piano must withstand the pressure of about 20 tonnes,” Barnard’s piece is an unusual and dramatic portrait of a piano, filled with a palpable sense of tension using the sound of taut metal strings being tightened, among other things. In a glass is not a glass, Basanta narrows his focus to the sounds created from a wine glass—through striking, rubbing, bowing, clinking, and smashing. Some sounds are manipulated and abstracted, and Basanta explores (as did other composers) the effect of small sounds writ unnaturally large.

One thing that makes a festival of fixed-media music different from most other new music performances is that you can hear much of the music again immediately on the web—Barnard’s work is embedded above, and Basanta’s can be downloaded in its entirety from his website—but it can’t be denied that the works are transformed by the immersive environment provided by the Tape Music Festival. I am no audiophile, but I was nonetheless astonished by the impact that the fidelity and the enormous dynamic range of the sound had on my experience of these pieces. Of course everyone loves the high-volume viscera-shaking bass frequencies that make us feel all funny in those special places—Rubber (0) Cement’s “The Hydrogen Affair” Tritum fast talks the Szilard simpletons elicited a particularly male YEEEAAAAAAAAAHHHH! from a gentleman seated nearby—but more often I was struck by the effect of a crystal clear audio image of a small event, an unexpected high frequency, that unsettling silence that is only possible in a studio-like environment. The soft splash of footsteps in the water that concluded Orestis Karamanlis’s Στέρφος (Sterfos) were particularly memorable, especially when mixed with the sound of the pouring rain that had started outside.

***
RE:COMPOSITION at SoEx

I missed out on the second night of the festival and went instead to Southern Exposure, another Mission venue a few blocks away that’s used more for visual arts than music. We got a respite that night from the storm but not the cold, and in an unheated, high-ceilinged concrete gallery space with large uncovered windows, a hardy crowd blew into their cupped hands for RE:COMPOSITION, a program curated by Julie Lazar. Using John Cage again as a touchstone, the evening’s program featured four works. A performance installation aptly titled Still Movement by Croatian visual artist Sandro Đukić opened the evening, with the audience standing while Đukić walked methodically and glacially among black pillars in a red-lighted space. The program closed with JD Beltran’s electronic, beat-driven music synchronized with Marc Barritte’s digital film of shifting shapes and colors.

The two more memorable works of the evening were sandwiched in between. It was the first public outing for Bar Hopping, a music and video project collaboratively created by cellists Joan Jeanrenaud and Paul de Jong (one half of The Books). Jeanrenaud performed the work solo with pre-recorded music and video—as of this performance, the two creators hadn’t yet met in person. The seven movements moved from lyrical melodies to melancholic viol consorts to martial ricochets, paired with video that reflected historic and contemporary visions of California. Several of the movements have been posted on de Jong’s Vimeo page; here’s the Intro:

The other work that has stayed with me was not “music” per se, but of course it was: poet Joan Retallack’s INTERRUPTUS: a Procedural Lecture for Two Voices, in homage to John Cage. Retallack, who teaches poetry at Bard and has published on Cage, constructed the piece using chance operations to determine the time structure of the performance, which consisted of her and writer Michael Ives simply sitting at a table with little clocks in front of them, reading prepared texts for specific periods of time—sometimes alternating, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes not at all.

Joan Retallack and Michael Ives perform INTERRUPTUS: a Procedural Lecture for Two Voices

Joan Retallack and Michael Ives perform INTERRUPTUS: a Procedural Lecture for Two Voices

Retallack was professorial, discussing Anarchic Harmony and poethics as they apply to Cage’s work; by contrast, Ives was, well, absurdly unhinged in a way that was at times reminiscent of Artaud. Together they were thought-provoking and hilarious, occasionally both at the same time. At one point in Retallack’s lecture, she offered the thought that “every word is equally consequential”—an idea that put me back into the crystalline clarity of the ODC Theater where every sound, whether they were coming from the speakers, the audience, or the world outside, was indeed consequential.