Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Seance Concert 2: Nude Rolling Down an Escalator

The three concerts making up the "New Music Seance" on Saturday, December 3rd at the Swedenborgian Church required a small cadre of professional friends and volunteers...

...including this piano tuner.

He was actually called back after the first concert because the cold within the church caused the high notes on the keyboard to go slightly out of tune almost immediately.

There was a professional videographer, Jonathan Doff, who was documenting the event with three large cameras and a rotating cast of volunteer photographers for a DVD.

Clyde Sheets was the production manager, lighting designer, and house manager all rolled into one. The way he dealt with a distinct lack of wattage (the circuits blew out at least three times over the course of the day) and the complex needs of the historical site was both calm and inspiring. I don't think I've ever seen a better production manager.

Some volunteers were helping to beautify the place...

...and also make food for the performers and crew during the marathon session.

Richard Friedman, the president of the Other Minds board, greeted the concertgoers and played usher when he wasn't attending to a multitude of other tasks.

The pianist Sarah Cahill was 17 years old when the local composer John Adams wrote a solo piano piece for her in 1977 called "China Gates" which was the penultimate piece on the last Seance program.

She has gone on to become one of the most articulate performers and advocates of modern classical composers in the world. To get to her website, click here.

Though Cahill performed the vast bulk of the music, there was also a violin and piano duo, Kate Stenberg and Eva-Maria Zimmermann respectively, who played relatively long (20 minutes) pieces in the middle of each concert.

Their first selection was Charles Ives' Second Sonata for Violin and Piano (1910); the second an amusingly lively proto-minimalist duet by the Danish Henning Christiansen called "Den Arkadiske" from 1966; and finally "Trois Regards" by Ronald Bruce Smith (1988), a very intense-looking Canadian composer in attendance at the concerts who had originally written the music for Kate Stenberg. I loved all three of the pieces.

Other Minds, a new music advocacy group, was presenting the concerts as a fundraiser for itself, and in the above photo the artistic director Charles Amirkhanian was showing off the Yamaha Disklavier, which could either be played live or preprogrammed like a player piano.

The programming was in the digital music format MIDI, which I learned about in the early 1990s at SF State's Multimedia School. Randall Packer, a composer himself, was teaching a course in digital audio that was fascinating but went way over my head. When he explained how musicians had gotten together in the early 1980s and created a standard set of numbers for digital musical notation, I asked him why the same thing hadn't happened in the digital graphics fields where there were so many competing file formats. "Musicians are usually nicer people," was his simple reply and one I've never forgotten.

Amirkhanian is a ferociously intelligent character with a dry wit. His brief professional bio on the Other Minds website (click here) reads as follows:
"When American composer John Cage died in the summer of 1992, the New Yorker ran an unattributed obituary: "His epitaph might read that he composed music in other peoples' minds." Reading this, Jim Newman suggested "Other Minds" as the name of the major international music festival that he was about to launch in San Francisco, with myself as Artistic Director.

This moniker fit aptly with my typical roster, as my lifelong specialty has been the showcasing, via radio, concert, and commercial recording production, the careers of originals and outsiders in avant-garde music. As an electroacoustic composer and sound poet myself, I served as Music Director of KPFA Radio in Berkeley from 1969 to 1992. In the Fall of 1992 I became Executive Director of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, California where I remained until early 1997."

Above, Charles was demonstrating the piano for the composer Gary Noland, an ex-Berkeley composer who now lives and works in Portland.

Noland had written a 15-minute piece for player piano in the late 1970s called "Grande Rag Brillante." According to the program, "The world premiere was broadcast live over KPFA FM to inaugurate its (then) brand new facility (in particular its Yamaha Disklavier grand piano) in Berkeley, California on October 4, 1991. The music is, without question, the longest and most technically demanding piano rag ever composed." The program note also claimed that Noland "has been called the most virtuosic composer of fugue alive today," which he later contested to me, but in any case the piece was extraordinary and lots of fun.

Also attending the concerts was Bunita Marcus, who wrote a lovely set of variations to John Lennon's "Julia."

From Emeryville, Daniel David Feinsmith had two pieces performed, "Amalek" for player piano and "Self," which required Sarah Cahill to recite a poetic essay by Emerson while playing clusters of notes on the piano.

The church only held seating for about 100 people, so that the place was literally packed to the rafters for all three concerts.

The first two pieces were called "Stars" and "Sunburst" from 1926 by Dane Rudhyar, a composer more famous for the dozens of books he wrote on the subject of 20th century astrology, which he essentially created by injecting the notion of "free will" into the equation. He died in San Francisco in 1985 and is still revered by his followers.

There couldn't have been a better start to the first concert than Rudhyar's music, which was played exquisitely by Sarah.


Civic Center said...

Charles Amirkhanian identifies the nameless piano tuner as one of the greats: "Piano tuner is Al "Shabda" Owens who tunes for Terry Riley. He's an expert in various unusual modes although for this gig he was only doing equal temperament (the normal one)."

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