Archive for the “San Francisco” Category

Putting a musical program together is always a challenge, but it’s one thing on paper, and another live, in front of people. The San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra’s Silence of the Wolves program, which it performed a couple of weeks ago at San Francisco’s Old First Church was a curious one. Was it about wolf tones, or the devil’s interval–the tritone –which has more or less been the foundation of modern music since Schoenberg and his school began to exploit it? Or was it about the West, and San Francisco’s being on the wild edge of the continent, which its music director and co-founder composer Mark Alburger implied in his opening remarks from the stage? It seemed to be vaguely and particularly about all these things, and its contents varied considerably in tone, content, and impact. But thankfully no one was thrown to the wolves.

Loren Jones’ Wolf Wood, which he described as ” a solo piano piece inspired by the music of Eastern Europe, ” sounded to these ears like one of Satie’s evocative miniatures, especially in its opening, which was followed by lush yet still transparent variations , which Jones, on piano, played movingly. John Beeman’s 2 movement  Fancy Free , with the composer on double bass, was carefully written and expressive; its most striking sound image being a sequence of unison rising fourths near the very end.

But what was one to make of Cindy Collins’ Kinesthesia which she described from the aisle — there were no program notes –as being about physical states of mind she’d felt? There’s nothing wrong with musical autobiography if the piece justifies it, but Collins ‘ didn’t seem to. We’ve all had vague or unfocused moments but these don’t necessarily make for an absorbing experience when made into music. Collins did however produce at least one arresting image — a viola/cello drone, played with great concentration by Nansamba Ssensalo and Areilla Hyman, which slowly changed pitch, and evoked an acute sense of disquiet. Davide Verotta’s  An Enticement of Silence, which began like an off pitch version of Ives’ 1906 The Unanswered Question, progressed into a series of reasonably varied harmonies and textures, but didn’t add up to much more than that. Our sense of our postmodern world as a chaotic place has produced some provocative music –John Zorn’s comes to mind–but Verotta unfortunately failed to make
anything as powerful, or succinct as his.

Lisa Scola Prosek’s Three Songs from her new opera Ten Days, Dieci Giorni, based on Bocaccio’s Decameron  was, as so often with this composer, full of surprises.  Transparently scored, clearly played, and vividly sung in English and Italian by soprano Shauna Fallihee, it said what it had to, then stopped . And the 16 person band — the largest complement of the evening — was obviously moved in several places. Conductor Martha Stoddard’s Cowgirl Rondo (with Stoddard sporting a Western handkerchief around her neck) for string quartet and double bass), was vigorous and fresh, though top honors in that department went to Darius Milhaud’s Chamber Symphonies #1 – # 3 ( 1917-22 ) whose polytonal moments barely disguised their very French folk-like structures.

The playing throughout –under Martha Stoddard and John Kendall Bailey–seemed both accurate and enthusiastic, though the more obviously complex pieces by Collins and Verotta suffered from Old First’s unforgiving acoustics — the walls are concrete, the outside brick. Maybe a an orchestra friendly adjustable partition behind the players would help?

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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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Music has always come from two basic sources, and served two quite different masters — thought and emotion. The Western tradition, especially in its modern and contemporary permutations, has given the upper hand to thought, as if it was superior to feeling, and therefore inescapably deep. Hence our worship of Bach’s “pure” architectural lines and use of forms, and Schoenberg and his Second Viennese School and their satellites’ obsession with 12-note sets, have driven the wedge between the two even deeper . And that’s why some composers have claimed that that their music is music better than it sounds because it exists as “pure” thought on paper.

But most of the music by the 10 Bay Area-based composers on sfSoundSeries “Small Packages ” at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s handsome and warm-sounding Recital Hall 23 January , which revolved around a rare performance of Ligeti‘s 1970 Chamber Concerto, seemed to focus on  feeling as not being divorced from thought, or vice versa. This wasn’t paper music. And one had the distinct sense, to paraphrase Dorothy, that we weren’t in Vienna any more.

Music always plays with time, and the 10 pieces here, which ranged from a little over 2 minutes to a whopping 6, teased one’s sense of duration as each filled its space with different kinds of weights, lines, and densities.  The physical character of sound , which is of course a central modernist concern, also varied widely from piece to piece. Tom Dambly‘s Chamber Concerto, op. 3 (second movement) for 8 players, including the composer on trumpet, even had 12-note stretches, as well as a delirious sense of shifting tonal anchors. Nick Bacchetti‘s String Trio, which obviously evokes Schoenberg’s late masterpiece in this form, was expertly delivered by Graeme Jennings, violin, Alexa Beattie, viola, Monica Scott, cello, and Christopher Jones, conductor. Canner MEFE‘s witty Pen and Pencil Drawer, played here by Kyle Bruckman, oboe, and Matt Ingalls, clarinet, with its rapid glissandi, sounded like a virtuosic series of hockets/canons both elegant and forceful.

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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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The San Francisco Electronic Music Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary this week.  On the final festival night, Saturday, September 19th, the program will include a special all-electronic performance of the opera I, Norton, by San Francisco Bay Area composer Gino Robair.

I, Norton is based on the proclamations of Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, who lived during the Gold Rush era in San Francisco. The concert begins at 8:00 p.m. at the Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online from Brown Paper Tickets.

Gino RobairGino Robair has created music for dance, theater, gamelan orchestra, radio, and television. His works have been performed throughout North America, Europe, and Japan. He was composer in residence with the California Shakespeare Festival for five years and served as music director for the CBS animated series The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat. His commercial work includes themes for the MTV and Comedy Central cable networks. Robair is also one of the “25 innovative percussionists” included in the book Percussion Profiles (SoundWorld, 2001). He has recorded with Tom Waits, Anthony Braxton, Terry Riley, Lou Harrison, John Butcher, Derek Bailey, Peter Kowald, Otomo Yoshihide, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, and Eugene Chadbourne, among many others. He is a founding member of the Splatter Trio and the heavy metal band Pink Mountain. In addition, he runs Rastascan Records, a label devoted to creative music.

S21: His Imperial Majesty Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, is an “only in San Francisco” kind of personage.  What inspired you to make him into the central character of an opera?

GR: He’s the kind of complex character one needs for an opera. And I like the fact that he’s mythologized somewhat.

Although many people see him as this incoherent, homeless vagrant, I think the reality is that he was bright man who was determined to make a difference in a world that was hostile, confusing, and often out of control. We’re talking about the Old West, here!

Remember, he was a Jewish immigrant from South Africa. Try to imagine the culture shock he experienced arriving in mid-19th-century California during the Gold Rush. It makes total sense to me that he’d conclude that the only way to solve the problems in his new environment was to roll up his shirt sleeves and do the job himself.

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