Archive for the “Other Minds” Category

[The latest iteration of the always-stellar Other Minds festival is now done and in the books. We asked our equally-stellar Bay Area musician friend Tom Djll if he'd like to cover a bit of it for us, and he happily sent along his impressions of  the second and third concert evenings.]

Other Minds 16
Jewish Community Center, San Francisco
Concert Two, Friday, March 4, 2011

There’s a shard of spotlight on my shoulder. A music stand hovers off the sphere of peripheral vision; under it, the shadow of fingers curl like the violin scroll toward which they crawl, spiderish. The fingers belong to a violinist of the Del Sol String Quartet; on both sides of the audience the quartet and the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble are arrayed up the steps toward the back of the hall. In forward vision is percussionist Andrew Schloss, standing behind a computer and percussion-controller on a table. Over these hover his wired drumsticks, sometimes striking the controller yet often just floating, stirring the atoms above it, sending flocks of musical messages to various slave percussives onstage, offstage, and hung from the ceiling above. The composer is David A. Jaffe, protegé of Henry Brant; the percussion-controller builder, German-born, Seattle-based Trimpin, master of MIDI and commander of solenoid soldiers.

The Space Between Us might be called a “cubistic” composition. The subject is suggested by the title, or “what can be communicated and what remains unsaid,” in the composer’s words, as, with sticks held aloft in a gentle but dramatic gesture, percussionist-conductor Schloss signals yet another beginning, another foray into the problem of separation and identity. Somewhat reminiscent of Ives’ The Unanswered Question, each new attempt answers nothing but only brings more questions to the surface, adding facets to the cubist puzzle in the hearer’s mind. Strings quiver in mournful, canonic dirges in one phase; other times they signal impatience in brusque, un-pretty gestures. Later on, massed plucking is attempted, to better match the percussive chatter. Desperate glissandi from the computer-driven piano onstage are gobbled and hurled back by cello and viola, all to no avail. The space remains and separation seems unbridgeable, yet the sonic discussion has pushed the gloom back for at least a few moments of transcendent, clouds-clearing beauty. The conversation is aptly dedicated to Henry Brant, an Other Minds spiritual father.

Next up was I Wayan Balawan, guitarist/composer of Bali. OM 16 marked the first appearance in the West of this gifted young man of Olympian technique and globe-trotting musical mind. He also possesses an awareness of stagecraft and audience engagement, reflected not only in his pleasing hybrid music but also humorous asides which broke the performer-audience barrier, and a precise approach to costuming. Onstage with him were, from left, Balinese compatriots I Nyoman Suwida and I Nyman Suarsana on gamelan instruments. They were clothed in traditional Balinese musician dress: Nehru-ish jackets, beaked fezzes, sari-like sashes and bare feet. Balawan himself kept the hat but otherwise he and the added rhythm section (Scott Amendola and Dylan Johnson on drums and bass) decked themselves casually. Sort of a stylistic continuum, with Balawan as the mid-point.

All the brilliance of Balinese music was in evidence as the trio launched into the first of three numbers (Amendola and Johnson laid out at first), with Balawan leading on double-neck electric guitar and voice, and xylophone doubling and drum accompanying. Balawan has all the chops and effects of any guitar god you can name, and his lightning-fast melodies were as often hammered out on the fretboards with one or both hands as they were plucked traditionally. Another electric guitar stood ready on a stand; both instruments were routed through various samplers and synths and footpedals. The tunes shone the happy sunlit sound of dissonance-free scales and world-pop beats. Balawan opened the final number with a demonstration of the hocketing melody as laid out by the Balinese players on each side of a metallophone; part by part, slowly, then briskly together, then doubling with guitar at warp speed in the tune’s performance, and the audience slurped it up like Singapore noodles. This kid is going places.

Agata Zubel of Poland opened night two’s second set with Parlando, voice + electronics in a rigorous yet easy-to-digest demonstration of vocal/computer self-accompaniment of the non-looping kind. One might have expected more integration of the hairier side of contemporary vocal extension (Diamanda Galas, Phil Minton, Shelley Hirsch), but Zubel’s range of techniques was focused, precise, and mostly omitted noises in favor of dramatic gestures. The sounds and ambiences immediately brought to mind Cathy Berberian (more on her, later), but then an outbreak of avant-beatboxing shocked one back to this century. Then, after just eight minutes, it was over. (Zubel was given more of a presence on Thursday night.)

Friday night’s ultimate act was the duo of Han Bennink (drums, Holland) and Fred Frith (guitar, devices, Oakland, by way of England). About esteemed Dutch drummer, improviser, and provocateur Han Bennink’s stage presence, one’s first impression is of a pair of malformed albino salami – wait, those are his legs? – revealed via Bennink’s now-patented stage getup of beachcomber’s shorts, teeshirt and headband. All that was missing was the metal detector, although had there been one available there’s no doubt Bennink would have beat some music out of it. As it was, everything within the man-child’s reach was fair game. That reach extended beyond the stage at times – backstage, an unguarded piano was hijacked for a short joyride; then he turned his back to us and set his bum on the drum and wailed away on the wooden stool; later, Bennink took to rattling his sticks on the railings flanking the audience, giving a fair approximation of gamelan, no doubt an intentional nod to the Balinese set that came before. And for a long while, Bennink simply sat spread-legged on the floor and ecstatically pounded it with his palms, generating an insistent beat in nearly every performing permutation. He also had a snare drum onstage for a few demonstrations of his peerless brush technique.

Bennink is one of the few improvisers around who can make Fred Frith look like the conservative guy onstage. Frith surely knew what he was in for, and kept his part well under control and always gorgeously musical. He even drew some laughs of his own, strumming the strings of his lap-held guitar with paint brushes. I’ve seen him drop rice grains on his strings a few times before, and this time the stunt made its beautiful, random plinks fit Bennink’s manic-percussive thrash just right, somehow. These two together, who can turn practically any liminal sound-construction into compelling music without ever suggesting a tune or idiom, could lay claim to being the world’s greatest bad buskers.

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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 www.radiOM.org. 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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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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Champ pianist Sarah Cahill performing Henry Cowell’s Tiger and Lou Harrison’s Largo Ostinato, from the December 2008 Other Minds “New Music Seance”:

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Given the rarity of records and performances of the music of Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964) through the 1970s, my first encounters with him were like everyone else: references in the “populist music of the 30s and 40s” section of 20th-century history books, and as arranger of the American version of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera that we all knew from the old (& wonderful) original-cast recording. Works such as his iconic The Cradle will Rock and Airborne Symphony were still talked about, but quite hard to track down and hear. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that revivals and reassesments began, with good biographies coming even later.

Though his trajectory parallels Weill’s or Copland’s in some way, moving from serious, cutting-edge classical to more readily accessible forms derived from popular music and musical theater, Blitzstein stuck with the agitator’s role to the end: works with a strong social message, whether against dictators of fascism or capitalism, and solidarity with the dispossesed and outsider. His reward as a political outsider was to be blacklisted in the red-scare 50s; and as a sexual outsider (though married, Blitzstein was rather openly gay) to be beaten to death in Martinique.

But before all that, there was the 20-something student from a well-to-do Jewish family, studying in Europe with both Arnold Schoenberg and Nadia Boulanger. This younger self, as John Jannson’s Blitzstein website writes, was “a self-proclaimed and unrepentant artistic snob who firmly believed that true art was only for the intellectual elite. He was vociferous in denouncing composers – in particular Kurt Weill – whom he felt debased their standards to reach a wider public.”

That young, arty-elitist composer is the one that our good friends at Other Minds have set out to document, with a new CD hitting the shelves May 12th. Titled First Life, it contains a number of unpublished and barely-heard works from the late 20s and early 30s, given passionate performances by pianist Sarah Cahill and the Del Sol String Quartet. This is smart and energetic music, filled with then-experimental flourishes, and well worth putting on your shelf or in your playlist.

WNYC’s Sara Fishko recently profiled the CD, as well as the rest of the great Other Minds CD catalog, on her The Fishko Files program; it’s still up for listening here.

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Our West Coast colleagues at Other Minds marked what would have been Lou Harrison’s 90th birthday on Monday by relaunching radiOM.org, their amazing, free treasure trove of streaming audio and video programs that span the history of new music. 

The still expanding Other Minds Archive contains 4,500 hours of recorded materials, which includes 3,500 hours of audiotape recordings from the KPFA Radio Music Department collection; highlights from past Other Minds Music Festivals; materials from the private archive of composer George Antheil; selected programs from the Cabrillo Music Festival, and other rare and unusual recordings of classical music, jazz, and experimental forms.  This unparalleled collection of on-air performances, interviews, concerts, rehearsals, conversations and more, is now available completely free of charge at www.radiOM.org.

Artists represented in the collection include John Adams, Laurie Anderson, Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Henry Kaiser, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Igor Stravinsky, Virgil Thomson, and Frank Zappa, among hundreds of others.

Elsewhere, here’s some film of a fist fight at the Boston Pops.

And this is pretty amazing.

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Our friends at the Other Minds new music community have announced the program for their 12th Other Minds Music Festival and, as usual, it is a dandy.  This year offers a rare opportunity to hear important works by eight of today’s most innovative composers, invited by Other Minds Executive Director and Festival Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian.

On the program are American premieres from two of contemporary classical world’s elder statesmen, Per Nørgård of Denmark and Peter Sculthorpe of Australia, as well as guest composers Maja Ratkje (Norway), Joëlle Léandre (France), Ronald Bruce Smith (Canada), Daniel David Feinsmith (U.S.), Markus Stockhausen (Germany), and Tara Bouman (Netherlands).

The annual festival begins with three days of private retreat for guest composers, and continues with concerts and panel discussions at the Jewish Community Center, San Francisco, December 8-9-10, 2006.

The dates are Friday, Dec. 8 (8pm); Saturday, Dec. 9 (8pm); and Sunday, Dec. 10 (2pm), 2006, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco’s Kanbar Hall, 3200 California St. at Presidio Ave. Panel discussions with composers and performers, hosted by Charles Amirkhanian, begin one hour prior to each concert.  The program is here.

Other places:  Our friend Brian Sacawa, saxophonist extraordinaire, has buffed up his blog, Sounds Like Now, and moved it to a new location.  Go visit.

If this page looks funny to you and you are using a PC, it is probably because you are using Internet Explorer 6 or earlier.  You can fix this problem in about three minutes by going here and downloading and installing IE 7.  It’s free and painless.  (You Mac users are on your own.)

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