The World Beyond the Classroom: SFCM Nurtures Community Creativity and Optimism

In the past several years, the San Francisco new music community has been energized by a wave of performers emerging from SFCM who are deeply, and in some cases exclusively, committed to the creation of new work, supported by a tightly knit network of composer peers and mentors.

Written By

Sidney Chen

The school year has begun anew at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with a fresh class of students, but a remarkable group of recent graduates exhibits no sign of floating despairingly at sea, idly wondering how to move on with their lives. They aren’t chasing orchestra auditions or applying for an endless stream of competitions either. In the past several years, the San Francisco new music community has been energized by a wave of performers emerging from SFCM who are deeply, and in some cases exclusively, committed to the creation of new work, supported by a tightly knit network of composer peers and mentors. And while there certainly has been no shortage of composers and new music performers coming out of schools across the country, the concentration of commitment to new music and the interconnectedness of the network coming out of SFCM in recent years has been exceptional.

Virtual tour of atrium at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s new building
It is not a coincidence that the school relocated to a new facility in 2006. Previously situated in a foggy residential area which felt isolated and well removed from downtown, the school’s move to a new glass-filled building with a large, open atrium represented a major identity shift for the institution. The new building is located just off one of the main city crossroads, around the corner from Davies Symphony Hall, the War Memorial Opera House, and City Hall. Not only has the proximity benefitted the students, who are more integrated into the city’s daily cultural activity; the city’s audience has become more aware of the school’s activity in turn—getting to the conservatory’s performances has gotten immeasurably easier due to the location and is therefore more appealing.

One result of this integration into the city center has been a noticeable reconfiguration of the community of new music makers in San Francisco. The local influence of SFCM alumni has been growing for several years: the multi-genre Switchboard Festival, now in its 7th year, was founded by SFCM graduates (Jeff Anderle, Ryan Brown, and Jonathan Russell), as was alumna Minna Choi’s fabulously flexible Magik*Magik Orchestra, which gave the West Coast premiere of Jonny Greenwood’s string orchestra piece Popcorn Superhet Receiver to a sold-out audience in 2008. And though the focus is not on new music, Classical Revolution—founded by Charith Premawardhana in 2006 and designed to increase chamber music’s accessibility by placing performances into a broad range of non-traditional spaces—now boasts over 30 chapters internationally and exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit that has been internalized by many of these recent graduates.
But in the last couple of years several new music ensembles with their roots in the conservatory have reached a new stage in their development, growing up together almost as a collective in close collaboration with an intergenerational community of composers. Among these groups are the Living Earth Show, Mobius Trio, Friction Quartet, and Nonsemble 6, all of whom are commissioning and pioneering new work. The unusual concentration of activity begs a look at how this environment nurtured this development.


Nonsemble 6 in costume for Pierrot Lunaire

Nonsemble 6 in costume for Pierrot Lunaire
Photo by Irwin Lewis, Corsetry by Autumn Adamme/Dark Garden

In speaking to members of each of these four ensembles, there is an admirable sense of entrepreneurship, empowerment, and self-motivation across the board. Soprano Amy Foote, who co-founded Nonsemble 6 with clarinetist Annie Phillips, says simply, “I wanted these opportunities, so I created them!” This self-possessed sentiment is echoed by her colleagues in other ensembles: the lesson that it is possible and even necessary to make things happen for oneself has clearly hit its mark. Nonsemble 6 first began to take shape in 2009, when Foote and Phillips approached the chamber music faculty with the idea of performing Pierrot Lunaire. The request was green-lighted, and the school helped them to fill out the ensemble with Justin Lee (flute), Kevin Rogers (violin), Ian Scarfe (piano), and Anne Suda (cello). Since then, the group has memorized and staged the work, and has toured the production in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. In continuing support of their efforts, SFCM also presented them on their newly established Alumni Recital Series last season. In the meantime, Nonsemble 6 has begun to commission new works, specifically with the goal of developing staged monodramas where the instrumentalists are equal theatrical participants with the vocalist. (A current project is wishes, lies, and dreams by fellow graduate Danny Clay, with a libretto developed in writing workshops for children aged 8 to 12, led by Foote and Clay at Dave Eggers’s 826 Valencia.)
A milestone in Nonsemble 6’s development, which was later shared by the Mobius Trio, was the school’s choice to have them represent SFCM at the Kennedy Center’s Conservatory Project, a performance series hosted by the Center to showcase the nation’s top musical talent. Nonsemble 6 was given the opportunity to present their production of Pierrot Lunaire in Washington in 2010; the Mobius Trio performed on the same series the following year with a program of works written for them that included Persian Dances by SFCM composer Sahba Aminikia. Both groups cited access to this national platform as a major opportunity and motivator to hone their work.

Mobius Trio

Mason Fish (left), Robert Nance, Matthew Holmes-Linder
Photo courtesy of Mobius Trio)

While Nonsemble 6 had the canonic Pierrot Lunaire to launch their group, the Mobius Trio—classical guitarists Mason Fish, Matthew Holmes-Linder, and Robert Nance, all protégés of David Tanenbaum and Sérgio Assad—had no established repertoire to draw on, and therefore had to build an entire catalogue of music for themselves from scratch, a situation that Tanenbaum points out has been the case for guitarists since Segovia’s time. Through an interdepartmental program at the school called Doublespeak developed by the guitar and composition chairs (Tanenbaum and Dan Becker, respectively), 20 composers were paired with guitarists to create new works, yielding 150 minutes of music for guitar. Doublespeak was modeled on an existing, successful program at SFCM called the Viola Project, begun in 2004 by string department chair Jodi Levitz and Becker. In addition to the benefits that composers gain from working in-depth with instruments that might not get a lot of their attention otherwise, both Tanenbaum and Levitz have spoken of the deeper sense of identification with a piece that performers gain while working on music written expressly for them. “Students would make extreme efforts to stretch their technique to new heights to perform ‘their’ works,” Levitz says. “This made me realize the power of ‘ownership’ of a work.“ Thanks in part to Doublespeak, the composer base that had experience writing for classical guitar was enlarged, and the trio went to work commissioning not only their peers, but also their teachers.

The integration of faculty members into this community, not only as mentors but also as collaborators, has been particularly gratifying to observe. Becker has an obvious, deep-rooted affection for his composition students and their performer colleagues alike, and has himself composed works for several of these groups. Sérgio Assad, who with Odair Assad forms the awe-inspiring Assad Brothers guitar duo, doesn’t simply coach or advise Mobius; he agreed to produce their first album and is writing for the ensemble as well. Students speak gratefully of Becker and Luciano Chessa, who is on the music history faculty, hosting informal listening parties in their homes. As a performer himself, Chessa has worked with The Living Earth Show and is writing a new work for Nonsemble 6.

The Living Earth Show

The Living Earth Show at Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland

The Living Earth Show—Andrew Meyerson, percussion, and Travis Andrews, electric guitar—started in 2010 out of Meyerson’s realization that the most musically rewarding path for him would be “to commission new works and play things that wouldn’t otherwise be played.” The duo, which has an album scheduled to be released on Innova this fall, has also had three works written for them by faculty members. When asked to describe the support that he and The Living Earth Show have received from the administration and faculty, Meyerson uses the words “endless,” “loving,” and “seemingly unconditional”—terms more commonly applied to one’s favorite grandmother than the administration of an institution.

In addition to the duo, Meyerson co-founded the annual Hot Air Music Festival in 2010, a full-day new music marathon event that takes place at the conservatory each spring. (Last year there was also an off-site Hot Air After Party concert at the Hotel Utah, a saloon dating back to 1908 that regularly presents independent music in the South of Market area, where Mobius, Living Earth, and the Friction Quartet shared the bill.) With Becker as a faculty sponsor, the organizers of the festival received academic credit as an independent study project, free space provided by the school, and some PR assistance. Building on the model of the Switchboard Festival (which is independent of the school, though founded by alumni) and Becker’s own experience producing OPUS415 marathons with his Common Sense Composers’ Collective, the Hot Air Music Festival was launched, allowing Meyerson and his co-founders the experience of entrepreneurship within a supported environment.

The Friction Quartet is one beneficiary of Hot Air’s greenhouse: founded by violinist Kevin Rogers and cellist Douglas Machiz, Friction wanted specifically to play John Adams’s String Quartet and programmed it for Hot Air in 2012. (In addition to Rogers and Machiz, the quartet includes violinist Otis Harriel and violist Pei-Ling Lin.) According to Rogers, a number of people came to hear that work specifically, and their performance, which was then posted on YouTube, brought them to the attention of other composers, who began contacting them. Among those writing for the group now is Becker, who is collaborating with Friction on a major project for Bay Area dance luminaries Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton titled A Show of Hands, which Friction will perform live with Garrett+Moulton Productions in October.

Rogers’s interest in contemporary music began well before coming to SFCM. He speaks of becoming familiar with Penderecki and Berio before Beethoven, and cites the experience of hearing the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet’s recording of Black Angels as an inspiration.** With this existing interest in new music, Rogers (who was the violinist assigned through the chamber music program to the Pierrot Lunaire ensemble that has now become Nonsemble 6) is grateful that his teacher Bettina Mussemeli was “willing to get her hands dirty and explore” contemporary works with him that she didn’t know herself. Likewise, he also credits conductor Nicole Paiement, who directs both the school’s new music ensemble (a student ensemble) and Opera Parallèle (the conservatory’s resident professional new music ensemble, which recruits students to perform with professionals) for sharing her “infectious energy for new music.”


Now that they have graduated, all of these ensembles fully embrace the idea that their paths forward require them to be enterprising and to take on the responsibility of cultivating their own paths. As Mason Fish of Mobius points out, “To come out of college with direction like this is rare.” The school has also recognized the need to continue developing this ethic in their current students: Switchboard and Sqwonk Duo co-founder Jeff Anderle, Magik*Magik founder Minna Choi, and Nonsemble 6 co-founder Annie Phillips are teaching a two-semester graduate-level course this year titled “Musical Startups,” developed by Anderle and the Dean’s office at SFCM. Phillips says the curriculum will include information about “how to found a project, structure it in a way that makes sense, and other practical business” skills. As each ensemble has found, the division of labor has tended to emerge organically, as individuals tap into natural skill sets to further each group administratively.
Nonetheless, the barriers they are now encountering outside the conservatory environment are painfully familiar. About fundraising, Rogers says simply, “We don’t know how to do it.” Mobius’s Nance notes, perhaps jokingly, “90% of my time for Mobius is admin.” As for Nonsemble 6, Foote adds, “I know that there’s a learning curve… There’s a lot we don’t know about the ins and outs of certain institutions. It takes years before you learn that, let alone how to write a good budget, a good proposal. We need support from people who know these organizations.”

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To help guide these young ensembles through this transitional period, the newly formed Center for New Music, founded by Adam Fong and Brent Miller, has stepped in to provide guidance and access to an infrastructure that disappears once students have graduated. Fong, a composer himself who worked as Other Minds’ associate director prior to starting the Center, says that behind the Center is the idea that a community working together helps everyone thrive. “We’re very fortunate in the Bay Area to have not just one, but multiple generations of leaders in contemporary music who are very present and active,” Fong says. “We work in such a small niche of the musical world that it behooves us to think collaboratively, to work together, to function as multipliers of each other’s artistic impact.”
The Center, which just opened last fall in San Francisco’s still developing mid-Market district, is a performance space, a rehearsal space, an office space, a meeting space—in short, an area that allows young artists and artists without an established infrastructure to work and experiment. The Center has also begun to offer workshops on grant writing and other administrative tasks, as well as provide consulting to select ensembles, including the Mobius Trio who are appreciative of the fact that Fong and his colleagues are willing to share the “stuff you don’t learn in school” in their regular meetings.

Fortunately the school’s new music community is aware that it provides a web of support as everyone tries to find a successful transition into their professional performing careers. Foote speaks of her hope that the “community will build support for itself,” with ensembles and composers “legitimizing each other.” “Together we form a conglomerate, a collective,” she says. “Finding a way to congeal these groups together will help us all out.” Meyerson of The Living Earth Show expresses a similar sentiment, saying, “I can’t really imagine a healthier and more creatively rewarding sense of camaraderie among students, faculty, and staff.” Indeed, the interconnectedness of this community, fostered by the environment at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, has proven itself to be amazingly fruitful, yielding dozens of new scores which are getting committed performances from excellent musicians. Our job now is to continue nurturing this environment of creativity and optimism.

When I asked how the new music community can help extend the wave of energy currently in motion, Meyerson said, “I think the only support we could ask from the established new music community is to check out our recordings and shows, and check out more if they like it.” Websites for some of the emerging ensembles and composers who are part of this community are listed below.
Anthony Porter | Classical Revolution | Danny Clay | Friction Quartet | Joseph Colombo | Kevin Villalta | The Living Earth Show | Magik*Magik Orchestra | Mobius Trio | Nonsemble 6 | Sahba Aminikia | Sqwonk | Switchboard Festival

**(Disclaimer: I work for the Kronos Quartet, and Dan Becker has also developed a mentoring program for his composition students who observe rehearsals and have access to Kronos’ Artistic Director David Harrington. Some students have written and arranged works for Kronos, and some performers mentioned are receiving mentoring advice from Harrington as well.)