Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Coming Attractions: Balawan, Books, and Bach

On Thursday, June 30th, the Asian Art Museum will be holding its monthly MATCHA party with a pair of short concerts by I Wayan Balawan (above middle), a Balinese rock/jazz/gamelan guitarist who is one of the more amazing musicians in the world right now. He thrilled the audience at San Francisco's Other Minds Music Festival earlier this year, and just did the same at the Melbourne Convention Centre in Australia (click here for an interesting account by Adam May at his Guitar Carnival site). Highly recommended, and it's only $10 to get into the museum for the music, Bali exhibit and festivities.

One of the best Bay Area photographers working right now on the internet is Donald Kinney with his A Photo A Day website, which is more like half a dozen photos a day. He's going to join the dead tree crowd with the publication of his first book, a collection of photos from Marin County's Lagunitas Creek. It's happening Thursday, July 7th, at Modernbook Gallery, 49 Geary, 4th floor, from 5:30-7:30 PM. Free wine is promised.

For those who plan their lives more in advance, the American Bach Soloists and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music are combining forces for a summer Bach festival from July 15th to July 23rd. Performances are at the Conservatory on Oak and Van Ness, and include everything from chamber music to the Mass in B Minor. There is also a concert version of Handel's opera "Ariodante" along with student forces under Corey Jamison performing Bach cantatas, my favorite music by the composer. This is the first summer Bach festival in San Francisco's history and they are hoping the event is successful enough to become an annual affair.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Bill Selby and Original Decals by Monté

My friend Bill Selby above is a smart, talented multi-hyphenate: illustrator, genius Photoshop retoucher, graphic designer, and writer of screenplays, a forthcoming novel, and an artist's biography, "Monté: King of Atom-Age Monster Decals," which was published earlier this year by the legendary San Francisco publisher Last Gasp Press.

The beautiful design and layout is by Selby himself, and at $14.95 for a full-color art book it's something of a bargain, complete with a set of vintage Original Decals by Monté.

In an afterword, Selby writes, "I bought the first of many Monté decals in 1960 when I was ten -- it was the gloriously repulsive "SHALL WE DANCE?" hunchback that sported a purple suit coat, purple shoes, black tie, and copper pants."

Selby writes at the beginning of the book:

"In the late '50s...Originals by Monté decals tossed a cherry bomb into the toilet of conformity. As Americans traveled, every terminus and tourist trap sold inexpensive promotional decals that could be plastered on cars, windows, campers, and bikes. If the road had a destination, the destination had a decal...Monté satisfied an itch kids had never been able to scratch. Ignored or disdained by grownups, Originals by Monté water slide decals were a way for crewcut American boys to give the finger before they even knew what giving the finger was."

Above all, the book is an archaeological dig about an outsider artist who has never been given his due outside of a small group of commercial art insiders, even though his Los Angeles hot rod art became some of the most influential post-World War II imagery in the world.

As Selby explains, "When I first wondered 'Who is Monté?' decades ago, I had no idea I'd be the person uncovering and sharing this story. [It started with] my casual obsession of buying Monté decals on eBay, posting a web site showcasing his work [click here], appealing for information, and finally Monté's son finding my Monté tribute site" which led to the creation of this biography.

Donald Ricardo "Monté" Monteverde was born in 1926 in Los Angeles, joined the Navy in World War Two, and then returned home to L.A. where he became a UPS driver during the day while creating commercial art and pinstriping vehicles on the side. An interesting detail from the book:

"In 1948, at the age of 22, Monté was invited to Walt Disney Studios for an interview. After showing his portfolio he was seated at one of many "in-between" cell animation stations. Incredibly fast and precise, Monté was immediately offered a contract. But being an assembly line drone didn't appeal to Monté's independent nature. He worked half a day and left."

The most controversial assertions in the book are about the provenance of the legendary Ed "Big Daddy" Roth Rat Fink illustration above. According to the official Roth website:

"The most popular Ed "Big Daddy" Roth monster was Rat Fink. Rat Fink started as a drawing that Ed had put on his refrigerator. Ed "Big Daddy" Roth was a genius at designing cars, but it was Rat Fink that brought him fame. By 1963, teenagers across America were buying Rat Fink model kits and mass-produced Rat Fink T-shirts by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth."

According to the legendary psychedelic artist Stanley Mouse on his website, he was the originator of Rat Fink:

"During that period, Big Daddy Ed Roth, hero and self-promoting genius of the monster rod cartooning movement, dropped by Mouse’s airbrush booth at a major hotrod show. He admired Mouse’s work, then threw down the gauntlet by offering to show him how to make $300 in a few hours...Naturally, Stanley Mouse was drawing mouse monsters with their wheels, so Big Daddy dubbed Mouse “Rat Fink.” Then he took Mouse’s catalogues back to his own studio in California, where he had his artists copy many of Mouse’s original themes and figures. Thus, the Rat Fink was born."

Selby's book posits a more complex set of influences and robberies. Monté was the originator of the style, Stanley Mouse picked up his influence as a Detroit teenager, Ed Roth "refined" it and probably hired Monté to actually create the art that had been originated by one of his unwitting disciples. Roth ended up rich marketing Rat Fink products, Mouse went on to his moment in the sun during 1960s San Francisco, and Monté continued driving UPS trucks while drinking and smoking too much, dying in 1993 at the age of 67.

Stanley Mouse is quoted on the Last Gasp website:

“All these years I've wondered about Rat Fink's origin. I knew Roth couldn't have done it. I'd worked beside him at car shows and knew it had someone else's hand. Sorry, big daddy fans. I'm a huge fan of Roth too -- Big Daddy played a giant part in my life -- but now that I can put it all together, I see it was the hand of Monté screaming out in the Rat Fink. Bravo Monté!”

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Chapel of The Chimes 1: I See Dead People

The Chapel of the Chimes is a sprawling columbarium in East Oakland...

...that sits next to acres of cemeteries separated by religious affiliation.

The place was designed in 1928 by the pioneering Bay Area architect Julia Morgan, one of the first women allowed in the architectural field.

She is best known for her design of a number of William Randolph Hearst buildings, including the Castle in San Simeon.

Since 1995, an annual summer solstice concert of "new music" has been presented in the complex by a group called New Music Bay Area.

According to this year's program, "Julia Morgan conceived the new[ly rebuilt] facility as a haven of peace and tranquility. From this vision, she designed an innovative array of gardens, cloisters, alcoves, stair wells, fountains and chapels that rose toward vaulted ceilings and were illuminated by soothing natural light. The project is considered by some as her masterwork."

The program also explained how the founding of the "Garden of Memory Summer Solstice Concert" came about.

"Sarah Cahill was writing a cover story for the East Bay Express about public bathrooms of the East Bay. In search of interesting bathrooms, she wandered into the Chapel of the Chimes and heard some distant organ music as she got lost in the maze of the building."

"Inspired by that combination of sensory stimuli, she pitched the idea of a concert to other board members of New Music Bay Area. They said yes, and were pleasantly surprised when the Chapel of the Chimes also said yes to a big wild concert of avant garde and experimental music."

Chapel of The Chimes 2: I Hear Live Music

On Tuesday evening, there were close to 40 different performing groups scattered throughout the columbariam, ranging from a young man accompanying French songs on an accordion... a long, improvisational duet between cellist Theresa Wong and winds player Cornelius Boots above.

I write "winds" because Cornelius kept changing instruments, from one exotic instrument such as a shakuhachi to another...

...finally ending up with a bass clarinet.

The two musicians also occasionally sang, in droning tones that suited the instrumental music and the high-ceilinged chamber space perfectly.

Amy X. Neuberg is usually a solo artist, singing over loops of her own virtuosic voice and sampled sounds, but in the last couple of years she has decided to make music with others and her solo set on Tuesday was an adaptation of a few of these collaborative works.

They were wonderful, and then she ran to the third floor to join the Del Sol String Quartet in one of those collaborations.

Because there is so much going on at the same time, the music can bleed from one performance space to another, which isn't a problem with some music but is trickier for others, such as the very soft and delicate violin solos composed by Adam Fong (above with volunteer Katina Conn).

He was in the tiny "Meditation Chapel" which bordered the central entrance area so that his music was competing with conversations, other performances, chimes, and crying babies. This didn't matter so much when he performed his percussion pieces with friends (left to right above) Brent Miller, Jacqueline Goldgorin, and Eric km Clark.

The solstice concert was well worth the effort involved in getting ourselves to the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. (And thank you, Axel, for playing chauffeur for a passenger seemingly suffering from dementia.) The only thing that's missing is an outdoor rooftop Biergarten like the San Francisco Opera is featuring this month at their "Ring" cycles, although maybe it should be a Vino Garden since one of the rooftop bands, Orchestra Nostalgico, specialize in the music of Nino Rota.

The pianist Sarah Cahill (above with guitar legend David Tanenbaum) was not only playing cheerful and resourceful organizer, but she also performed a Terry Riley piano duet with Regina Schaffler throughout the evening. She and her crew of volunteers pulled off an amazing event.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Arab Spring Photo Ops

Every weekend seems to bring a new group of demonstrators to Civic Center Plaza, usually as part of a photo opportunity for television cameras or online sites.

Two weeks ago there was a group with Libya signage, along with flags from various other "Arab Spring" countries who are in the process of trying to overthrow corrupt old regimes.

It's hard keeping track of what's happened over the last six months in the Mideast, particularly since the focus of much American journalism is "how does this affect the United States and its ally Israel?" Plus, there is so much misinformation it's hard to know what to trust. For example, there was the spectacular recent con job of the "Gay Girl in Damascus" blog turning out to be written by a "Straight Man in Scotland" (click here for that story at aljazeera).

Though the British are historically responsible for many of the disasters currently unfolding in the Mideast, they are also The Great Explainers, so click here for The Guardian's interactive timeline from December 19, 2010 to the present. It's a beautiful visual presentation of a library database with links to every story they have published on the Arab Spring for the last six months, breaking each one down by country and type of article.

Last weekend it was the turn of a small group of Moroccans to demonstrate in Civic Center Plaza for a KGO television camera.

They were showing their support of Moroccan King Mohammed VI, who announced a set of constitutional reforms on Saturday (click here for an article at another English paper, The Independent).

This crowd looked a bit older and more prosperous than the previous weekend, and the lady above kept breaking into infectious laughter.

According to an aljazeera article (click here), most of Morocco also celebrated after the King gave up some of his constitutional powers to other entities, but as his detractors point out, he's still in complete charge of the army which is what counts in Morocco as elsewhere.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

California Indian Big Time Gathering at Yerba Buena Center

The Ohlone Indian tribe were San Francisco's natives who barely survived a diaspora 200 years ago to Carmel and then further south to the Los Angeles area.

Last Saturday, their descendants returned under the auspices of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, and held a powwow at Yerba Buena Center.

There was a fire pit in the middle of the Yerba Buena Center lawn...

...with young boys and teenagers...

...dancing to the chants of an elder on a microphone.

At one point, the public was invited to join in the dancing and girls of all ages jumped into the fray.

According to a few neighbors who visited, the scene became a bit rowdier later in the evening, but in the afternoon it couldn't have been sweeter.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Yuja Wang Bares It All for Bartok

The 24-year-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang (above) was the focus of a Project San Francisco week at the San Francisco Symphony, which was to have included a solo recital, an evening of chamber music, and a soloist turn with the symphony playing Bartok's Second Piano Concerto.

However, Wang had injured herself and cancelled the solo recital on doctor's orders. In an interesting interview with Cedric at SFist last year (click here), she confessed after a similar cancellation of a San Francisco Performances recital, "Hopefully, it's just because I played so much, and I have small hands. So constant stretching and forcing it, it's not too good. The important thing was to have time to relax and not do anything for the muscles to go back."

She should attempt to take it easy because her musicianship and artistry are in a very special league of their own, and she has a long career ahead of her if she wants it. I didn't attend the chamber concert earlier in the week but did read about Wang's revealing dress and platform shoes which managed to titillate and shock any number of writers. She wore the same ensemble again at Friday night's full orchestra concert when she played the Bartok Second, and she was extraordinary, although the performance itself didn't cohere all that well with the orchestra.

Wang played from a score, which is fairly unusual for a symphonic soloist. In a wonderful blog post at the Telegraph about playing with a score vs. playing from memory, the great British pianist Stephen Hough gives both sides of the story (click here):
"If you get a performer talking in a rare moment of complete honesty one of the principal reasons you will hear over and over again for stage fright is the fear of forgetting. The terror of suddenly not knowing where you are, an obvious wrong entry, that blackout, the orchestra and you in a train wreck of harmonic collision and confusion. It is one of the reasons some pianists start to conduct; it is one of the reasons others choose to focus on chamber music or accompaniment, when the use of a score is acceptable; it is one of the reasons still others go into early retirement and start to teach; it is one of the reasons some artists play the same repertoire season after season; and I often wonder whether Glenn Gould’s premature move away from the concert stage to the recording studio had something to do with a gradually failing memory."

The concert started off with Bartok's 1915 "Rumanian Folk Dances," which was originally written for solo piano and then scored for a chamber orchestra. According to the program notes, Bartok wrote,
"The right type of peasant music is most varied and perfect in its forms. Its expressive power is amazing, and at the same time devoid of all sentimentality and superfluous ornaments. It is simple, sometimes primitive, but never silly. It is the ideal starting point for a musical renaissance."
I heard the New Century Chamber Orchestra play the Rumanian Dances last February, and they managed to capture all those qualities, but they seemed to elude the larger San Francisco Symphony. Both Bartok pieces sounded simply too far removed from their folkloric starting points.

Tthe ubiquitous Rik Malone (above), host at the radio station KDFC and "External Affairs Manager" at the SF Conservatory of Music, invited the audience to stay after the concert for a Q&A he would be conducting with Yuja Wang. Then Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the orchestra in Act 3 of Tchaikowsky's "Swan Lake" ballet. This might have worked well in the context of a Summer & The Symphony pops concert, particularly since the unsubtle performance sounded like they could have been playing John Philip Sousa highlights, but it was a strange choice to accompany the spiky Bartok of the first half.