Author Archive

Gabriela Lena Frank

When the 2010 Composer Collaboration Awards call for proposals went out on May 10, 2010, music presenters, ensembles, and composers all over the San Francisco Bay Area called, paged, and emailed one another, then got together to put their dream projects down on paper in time for the deadline.

Today the staff and Boards of six organizations, their chosen composers, and their artistic collaborators are popping champagne corks and dancing around their offices.  They’ve received $75,000 each from the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, to make six world premieres.

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary MusicLaura Karpman and Independent
Producers/Authors, The Kitchen Sisters
The Cabrillo Festival is one of the leading festivals dedicated to contemporary classical music. The work brings together Emmy award-winning composer Laura Karpman together with The Kitchen Sisters (authors and radio producers Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson) to create a multi­-media, full evening length symphonic production titled The Hidden World of Girls. The Hidden World of Girls will focus on stories of lives shaped by the secrets girls carry with them into adulthood. The premiere is scheduled for July 28 & 29, 2012 at the 50th anniversary season of the Cabrillo Festival.

Corporation of the Fine Arts Museums (FAMSF)Sarah Wilson and Aerial Dance Company, Catch Me Bird
Inspired by the incredible architecture, landscape and visual arts collections of the de Young Museum, Off the Walls will be a new jazz composition for aerial dance, which will be performed at assorted locations outside, inside and on the sides of the museum. It will be an evening­ length, site-specific work performed by composer Sarah Wilson, Catch Me Bird Aerial Dance Company, and an ensemble of 12-18 Bay Area musicians and dancers. The premiere is scheduled for March 2013.

Jewish Community Center of San FranciscoMark Izu and Choreographer, Kimi Okada
The JCCSF’s Friend Center for the Arts aims to create a forum for innovative projects in multi­-disciplinary and multicultural contemporary and traditional performance. It will commission a multi-media, multi-disciplinary work composed by Mark lzu and choreographed by Kimi Okada entitled Mu. Incorporating Korean, African, Indian, Japanese, and Hawaiian traditional music and dance, the piece heralds the end of the Mayan calendar and uses the legend of Mu, an ancient empire of blessings and noble values destroyed by materialism and greed, as a parable for today. The premiere is scheduled for December 2012.

Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana de San Jose Incorporated (MACLA) Guillermo Galindo and Chamber Ensemble, Quinteto Latino
MACLA is a San Jose-based contemporary arts space grounded in the Chicano/Latino experience. The company incubates new visual, literary and performance art in order to engage people in civic dialogue and community transformation. Guillermo Galindo and Quinteto Latino will create Voces del Desierto, a piece that will explore the journeys of unnamed immigrants who cross the Mexican-American border in search of a better life. The premiere is scheduled for late 2011 or early 2012.

San Francisco Girls ChorusGabriela Lena Frank and Librettist, Nilo Cruz
One of the premier girls’ choruses in the U.S., the San Francisco Girls Chorus will commission Gabriela Lena Frank to create a cantata for treble chorus, chamber orchestra, and vocal soloists in collaboration with librettist Nilo Cruz. Marrying Western classical music tradition with Latin American folk music, Holy Daughters (working title) examines the cultural clash and interchange between European colonialism and indigenous tradition, and the role and perception of women in both worlds. The premiere is scheduled for June 2013.

Z Space Studio (Z Space)Marcus Shelby and Co-Creator, Margo Hall
Known nationally as a premier performance development lab for artists, Z Space will create a new work by composer/musician Marcus Shelby and actor/director/singer Margo Hall. The new musical performance piece will explore the journey of a young black woman growing up in Detroit during one of the most exciting times for music and one of the most turbulent for civil rights. Loosely based on Ms. Hall’s life, Detroit represents a link to her childhood where her father was a well-known Detroit musician and as a child, she sang with her “aunties,” who were members of the Supremes band.  The premiere is scheduled for January/February 2013.

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I first heard about the Long Now Foundation a couple years ago from friend and former bandmate Daniel Magazin. I remember visiting their web site and thinking that San Francisco was the perfect place for such an entity.  “The Long Now Foundation hopes to provide counterpoint to today’s “faster/cheaper” mind set and promote “slower/better” thinking,” the web site declares.  “We hope to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.”

Such a perspective seems custom-made to partner with the minimalist and conceptual streams of contemporary music.  UK-based artist, musician, and composer Jem Finer thought so too. He first discovered Long Now through reading about the Foundation in Brian Eno’s book, A Year With Swollen Appendices, and thereafter became a close friend and artistic collaborator.

Finer began conceiving of his 1,000-year composition, Longplayer, in the mid 1990’s when he was “struck by a general lack of long-term vision” as the turn of the century loomed. “Longplayer grew out of a conceptual concern with problems of representing and understanding the fluidity and expansiveness of time,” he says. “While it found form as a musical composition, it can also be understood as a living, 1,000-year-long process – an artificial life form programmed to seek its own survival strategies.”

has indeed survived. Since it began performance at midday on December 31st, 1999, in the lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf, East London, it has been going on continuously at several global locations and, of course, online.

This Saturday, October 16th, Long Now organizers will offer a live segment of Longplayer to accompany the Foundation’s seminar, Long Conversation. Live musicians, equipped with 365 Tibetan singing bowls, will perform the 1,000-minute excerpt from 7:00 a.m. to 11:40 p.m. in the Forum at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The six-hour Long Conversation, featuring nineteen thinkers from many disciplines, runs from 3:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at the nearby Contemporary Jewish Museum.

One ticket, priced at $28.00, secures admission to the concert and the seminar.  For more information, contact Danielle Engleman at the Long Now Foundation.

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If, like me, you’re a composer and you routinely ask yourself “What am I doing six months from now?  Can I get something on the calendar?”, Other Minds has a suggestion – especially if you have a piece on the shelf for flute, Bb clarinet or bass clarinet, violin, cello or some combo thereof.  Or if you’re eager to write a new one, knowing that the players involved could be the Other Minds or Navitas Ensembles.

And if, like me, you’d rather be on stage than squirming out in the audience the whole time, you have the option to perform in your own piece.  You can also include electronics.  Applicants need to limit the piece duration to 20 minutes or less.

If you can meet these criteria the good folks at Other Minds would like you to apply for the Other Minds Composer Fellowship. The application deadline is October 15, and Fellows will be announced by November 5. That’s when you’ll know if you will be in San Francisco six months from now, participating in a week-long residency in conjunction with the 16th Other Minds Festival, from Sunday, February 27 through Saturday, March 5, 2011.

One work by each of the Fellows will be performed on March 2, 2011. Leading up to that, the Other Minds and Navitas Ensembles will workshop these compositions in open rehearsals.  Fellows will also get to discuss their pieces in a public panel discussion as and take home panel and performance recordings.  Their recordings will be uploaded to Other perks include lots of contact with the Festival composers and a full Festival attendance pass.

Check out the full RFP here – and break a leg!

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Matthew Sperry

The beginning of June has taken on a certain meaning to the San Francisco Bay Area new music community, and every single one of us would erase that meaning if we could.  It’s once again time for the Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival, held every year around this time in memory of one of our own, lost to us in a tragic accident on June 5, 2003.

The eighth annual festival happens this week, and the theme is “Homegrown”, since organizers are taking a break from the out-of-town headliners who’ve graced the event each year up till now.

First up, on Thursday evening June 3rd, dozens of improvisers will convene in a Tag Team Trio Shift at the Luggage Store Gallery. Refereed by Matthew’s close friend John Shiurba, the performers will play continuously, but only three at a time.  The Luggage Store Gallery is located at 1007 Market Street near 6th Street in San Francisco, and donations will be accepted at the door — from $6.00 all the way up to any amount the donor desires.

On Saturday, June 5th, the somber date we all remember, the mood shifts to contemporary classicism, and the festival shifts to the other side of the bay.  Two precious handwritten scores from Matthew’s notebook — “Wadadaism” (1991) and “Veins” (1995) — will share the program with works by Anthony Braxton, Cornelius Cardew, and James Tenney, all of whom inspired and influenced Matthew.  The Bay Area’s renowned sfSound ensemble holds the reins of this concert at 21 Grand, located at 416 25th Street in Oakland. The same $6.00-to-infinity sliding donation scale applies.

All proceeds from the festival benefit the Matthew Sperry Memorial Fund, which is the new music community’s way of caring for Matthew’s surviving family in his absence.

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Susan McMane

A year ago at this time, Susan McMane, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, had no idea what a hot-button issue immigration would be in June 2010.  For her, the works of immigrant composers formed a compelling programmatic mix for her five-time Grammy-winning ensemble’s concert series, which she’d entitled A New Land, A New Song.

Now, in the midst of nonstop political debate and a deployment of additional National Guard troops to the border, SFGC will celebrate the contributions of immigrant composers to the choral music oeuvre.  Composers come literally from all over the map, from Russia with Igor Stravinksy and his Four Russian Peasant Songs, from Cuba with Tania Léon and her work May the Road Be Free; and Austria with Ernst Krenek’s Three Madrigals.  The Cypress String Quartet, SFGC’s 2010 Artists in Residence, will contribute Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op.96, “American”.  Choral pieces by Kurt Weill, Vernon Duke, and colonial Moravian composers are also on the bill.   

Chen Yi

But the centerpiece of the series will be a world premiere, commissioned by the Chorus from Chinese-born Chen Yi. The new work, Angel Island Passages, commemorates the 100th anniversary of Angel Island Immigration Station, known as “the Ellis Island of the West,” and evokes the experiences of Chinese immigrants.  Artistic Director McMane came up with the idea for the work in 2009, and sent the book “Island, poetry and history of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940” — by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung — to Dr. Chen for her reference as she began work on the commission.   

The piece is written in three movements for treble voices and string quartet. The first movement, entitled “1882,” refers to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 passed by Congress to halt Chinese immigration into the United States. The music is based on a Cantonese folk ensemble piece, “Prancing Horses”, and contains a traditional scale in a sorrowful mode. Dr. Chen expands and develops the melody, and uses it horizontally and vertically throughout the movement. The second movement, “Longing,” continues in a slow, agitated and melancholy mood. The third movement contrasts small groups with the larger ensemble to symbolize the experience of assimilation into American culture. The text of the three movements includes nonsense syllables to convey emotional pain, and the words “We are America” sung in Cantonese, Mandarin and English.

Dr. Chen has already written for the San Francisco Girls Chorus – her piece, Chinese Poems, received its world premiere as part of the Chorus’ 20th anniversary season in 1998.   Twelve years later, she says, “My experience writing…for the San Francisco Girls Chorus in 1998 convinced me that it is a world-class performing arts organization whose singers can handle any repertoire. I am confident that these young women have what it takes to bring this powerful subject matter to life.”

Angel Island Passages may officially be a piece for treble chorus and string quartet, but a compelling visual accompaniment, commissioned by the Chorus from documentary filmmaker Felicia Lowe, will be integral.  Ms. Lowe’s past films include Carved in Silence, a documentary about the experience of detainees on Angel Island; and Chinatown, a short film about the history of the Chinese in San Francisco.  She shared both films, along with her video production Road to Restoration, with Dr. Chen as Angel Island Passages was being written.

Dr. Chen relates the experience of the Angel Island immigrants to her own personal history. “I was born and raised in China and went through the dark period of Cultural Revolution 40 years ago, during which general education was interrupted and Western music was prohibited for 10 years,” she says.  “My passion and hard work helped me overcome this hardship and to become the first woman to earn a masters degree in music composition in China. I’ve painfully learned about the history of Chinese immigration through Angel Island. Along with SFGC and Cypress String Quartet, I want us to use our music to share the true history, to voice our belief in equal rights, to improve our society, and to look forward to a brighter future.”

Performances of A New Land, A New Song will take place at 8:00 p.m. on June 4th and 5th at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, located at 50 Oak Street, San Francisco. Tickets are priced $18-$32 and are available for purchase by phone from City Box Office, by phone at 415-392-4400 and online at

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Gyan RileyThe 15th Other Minds Festival kicks off this evening, offering San Francisco a three-day immersion in contemporary music from around the world.  One of the locals headlining this year is Gyan Riley, who’ll premiere his new quartet work commissioned by Other Minds, entitled When Heron Sings Blue.

Equally well known as a classical guitar virtuoso and as a composer, Gyan will take on his own guitar part in the quartet on the third festival night, joined by his Gyan Riley Trio bandmates Timb Harris (violin & viola) and Scott Amendola (percussion).   Electric bassist Michael Manring will complete the quartet.

Concert Three of the Other Minds Festival begins at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 6 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. Full details and tickets are available here.

Gyan naturally had a lot going on this week but I was still able to get a few questions in front of him for the readers of Sequenza21.

S21:  How did the quartet instrumentation of When Heron Sings Blue come about? What was it about the piece that wanted an electric bass underpinning, and specifically Michael Manring?

GR:  As a guitarist, my early works consisted of primarily solo guitar writing.  In the last several years, however, my compositional output has shifted in the direction of ensemble writing.  One medium that is particularly enticing to me is that of violin, guitar, and percussion, and I assembled my trio as an ongoing project to satisfy this interest.

There are several reasons why I chose the violin.  To begin with, it was my first instrument (I played violin for five years, beginning at age 6).  As an element in the ensemble, the two main assets of the violin are the potential to slide between the notes, and the ability to crescendo on a given note (things that the guitar cannot accomplish without electronics).  Composing for violin has allowed me to vicariously express these musical desires.  Additionally, I’ve learned that these two qualities are wonderfully complimentary to the guitar, creating a uniquely beautiful composite sound.

The other reason that the microtonal possibilities of the violin are important to me is their close association with Indian music, which has been in my ears literally since birth.  (As a vocalist, my father has studied North Indian raga for nearly 40 years.)   Timb Harris, the violinist in my trio, although classically trained, has long since been fascinated with the music of Eastern Europe, and has traveled extensively in Romania to pursue this interest.  One of the reasons I invited him to join this project was his understanding non-Western idiom, and there is an audible and historical connection between the sentiment of Indian music and that of Romania.

Although Scott Amendola’s main instrument is the drum set, using chopsticks, brushes, mallets, and even his hands, and supplementing that with a variety of hand percussion instruments, he creates a plethora of sound unlike that of any other drummer I’ve heard.  His breadth of experience and understanding of jazz, avant-garde, and experimental improvisatory idioms contributes a vast array of possibilities to this project.

I have worked with bass guitarist Michael Manring on and off for about two years.  He has a unique ability to seamlessly drift in and out of the foreground, occasionally drawing from his vast repertoire of extended techniques, yet always in service of the musical objective.  In working with this ensemble, I grew to greatly enjoy the broad timbral spectrum and solid rhythmic foundation that the bass guitar provided—qualities that I now know would be fruitful additions to the existing trio, greatly benefiting our overall sonority. Read the rest of this entry »

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Lisa Bielawa2009 Frederic A. Juilliard/Walter Damrosch Rome Prize winner Lisa Bielawa has returned to her hometown of San Francisco to take part in the 2010 Other Minds festival. Her piece, Kafka Songs, will close the first night of the festival on Thursday, March 4th.  Violinist, vocalist and rock star Carla Kihlstedt, for whom Kafka Songs was written, will perform.  OM 15 takes place at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, and tickets can be purchased online here.

Despite her whirlwind schedule leading up to the festival, Lisa was able to take time out to answer a few of my questions.

S21:  During your student years, did you ever feel pressure to become exclusively a composer, or exclusively a performer?

LB:  Since I received musical training at home as a child (my parents are both musicians as well), in college I decided to major in French literature, not music. I didn’t think of myself as either a performer or a composer really until later, when I was trying to figure out how to make a living.

S21:  What parameters have you set up for yourself for allotting time and energy to composing, versus performing?

LB:  Decisions about which projects to do, whether composing or performing, have to be made very carefully. Above all, I want every musical experience I have, no matter what form my participation takes, to expand my own awareness, make me grow in some way. It is also wonderful if it can provide a focused inquiry for me around some particular musical issue I am fascinated by or grappling with at the moment in my compositional work. I suppose this is the ultimate test for me: if involvement in some project will result in making me better able to accomplish/address the things I want to accomplish/address in my composing (thereby making my work communicate better and clearer), then I will make the time to do this. Many performing experiences have done this for me, so I do not begrudge the time I invest in them, even though in the short term they may “take me away” from composing.

S21:  Having grown up steeped in the San Francisco arts community, did you experience culture shock when you moved to New York in 1990?

LB:  I had 4 years at Yale in between, which were really important ones for me. Although I wasn’t majoring in music, I was involved in vocal music and jazz through various student-run groups, and these experiences were an important transition time for me. Many of the musical friends I made at Yale came to New York as well, so the transition was rather smooth, under the circumstances. Of course there was the shock of being an adult and needing to figure out how to earn money and live a real life.  These things were much more challenging than any cultural differences.

S21:  The Time Out New York review praised your “organic experimentation”.  Can the organic aspect of your work be identified, and how does it manifest?

LB:  I suppose (I hope!) this writer could have been responding to my practice of making work about and on people. I am not so interested in experimentation as an abstract value, as much as I am interested in how one might use “experimental” or creative, unexpected ways to celebrate and heighten awareness of a particular performance experience, involving specific people in a specific place and time. This means that if I am writing for one unique performer who sings and plays the violin at the same time (that’s Carla), I will experiment with ways to celebrate and heighten the awesome strangeness and wonder of this act, whereas if I am writing for a 70-member volunteer orchestra of community music lovers (as I happen to be doing at the moment, for the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra), I will experiment with ways to heighten their experience of music-making in a community with intense musical passion and a broad range of abilities.

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Gyorgy Ligeti

Gyorgy Ligeti

I like to plan ahead.  But does that just mean I’m too old to decide where I’m going at the last minute, like the Generation Y and Z impulsives we hear so much about at arts participation conferences?  You know, the ones who don’t know where they’re going until somebody they’re following tweets their destination on the night of?

Mid-life insecurities and fuddy-duddiness aside, I know where I’ll be this coming Saturday evening: in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s sweet new Concert Hall, taking in new short works by ten local composers, all presided over grandly by Gyorgy Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto for 13 instruments.  sfSound is the presenter, and they’ve cast a wide commissioning net to figures from our many micro-scenes.  Including, as my colleague Christian Carey reported earlier this month, Greg Saunier from avant-prog adventurers Deerhoof; plus Heather Frasch, a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley, Canner MEFE of underground harsh noise fame, Mills College Contemporary Music Co-Director Maggi Payne, and composer/improviser/performance artist Theresa Wong.

All of the composers were commissioned to make new works especially for this concert, entitled Small Packages. Some works are inspired by, and others are meant to contrast with, the regal Ligeti Chamber Concerto. The eight core sfSound performers, plus seven other veterans of the series, will spread their expertise around from the Ligeti work to each of the new pieces.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music Concert Hall can be found at 50 Oak Street in San Francisco’s Civic Center neighborhood, convenient to the eponymous BART station.  Admission is $15.00, although those of us who are “underemployed” can take advantage of an $8.00 price.  If you don’t want to take your chances at the door, you can order tickets online from Brown Paper Tickets.

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Matt Davignon

Experimental music impresario Matt Davignon is known all over the San Francisco Bay Area for organizing unusual music performances.  In addition to being responsible for such events as the San Francisco Found Objects Festival, he’s a member of the Outsound Presents Board of Directors and the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival Steering Committee.  This Thursday evening, November 19, at 8:00 PM, Matt will present one of his DroneShift concerts at the Luggage Store Gallery, where he curates regularly.  The gallery is located at 1007 Market Street near 6th Street in San Francisco, near Powell Street and Civic Center BART. Admission is $6.00 – $10.00 sliding scale, with no one turned away for lack of funds.

I lured Matt into conversation with the assurance that there would be no artichoke hearts involved.

S21:  So how did your geographical wanderings bring you to San Francisco?

MD:  I was raised in Western Massachusetts, and moved to Santa Rosa, California with my family as a teenager. I moved down to San Francisco as a college student because I wanted to encounter the experimental music scene.

S21:  And how about your musical wanderings?

MD:  I started as a teenage bass player, who aspired (but lacked the motor skills) to be in a prog rock band. After moving to California in the early 90s, I was increasingly influenced by industrial music and ambient music (both of the 1990s variety and the Brian Eno variety).

By 1994 I was improvising, but using many different sound sources such as turntables, tape collage, household objects and drum machine. In the early 2000s I most frequently performed with just a turntable and CD player, improvising music by layering irregular loops of pre-recorded music. In 2004, I decided I wanted to put all the things I learned from my previous musical wanderings into one instrument. I was surprised to find that drum machine was the best choice.  It not only comes with a wide variety of sounds, but it also has the potential to be used melodically. Most importantly, since the drum machine can be played with one hand, the other hand is free to operate devices that process the sound.
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Many of us can recall a time, back in the day, when we brought cups of strong coffee to class and heard a professor tell us about the distant early days of “new music”.  Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away (Italy), Luigi Russolo created his hand-cranked noise intoners – the intonarumori – and wrote his treatise, The Art of Noises, which would ultimately inspire a marvelous British new-wave band to contribute their song, Moments in Love, to a zillion compilations of makeout music.  But I digress.

Here in San Francisco we are fortunate enough to have a Russolo scholar and composer, Luciano Chessa, to oversee the creation of 16 authentic intonarumori and curate a concert of original and newly commissioned scores especially for the noise intoners.  His efforts are all coming together this Friday night in a highly anticipated concert presented by Performa and SFMOMA with the Italian Cultural Institute and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Original scores by Luigi Russolo and Paolo Buzzi will share the evening with new compositions by Blixa Bargeld; John Butcher and Gino Robair; Luciano Chessa; James Fei; Ellen Fullman; Carla Kihlstedt and Mattias Bossi; Ulrich Krieger; Pablo Ortiz; Mike Patton; the sfSoundGroup; Elliott Sharp; Text of Light; and Theresa Wong.  Curator Chessa will perform along with many of the composers listed above, plus Ellen Fullman and ensemble players from Magik*Magik Orchestra.

Music for 16 Futurist Noise Intoners starts at 8:00 p.m. in the Novellus Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30 general and $10-$25 for lucky members of SFMOMA and partner institutions, students, and seniors. Tickets are available online through or by phone at 415.978.2787.

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