Friday, August 07, 2009

A Sweeter Music in San Francisco

San Francisco's Old First Church at the corner of Van Ness and Sacramento
has been hosting classical, jazz and "world music" concerts since 1970. The surprisingly inexpensive tickets, with a $15 ceiling, are matched to an acoustically beautiful small church with sophisticated performers and audiences. It sort of reminds one why it's cool to live in San Francisco.

It also features a beautiful sounding Steinway grand piano for its soloists to play, and last Friday evening Sarah Cahill brought her set of new music commissions involving the concept of peace and war, "A Sweeter Music," to San Francisco for the first time. I heard a preview last year of some of the pieces at Mills College, and then a formal debut at UC Berkeley's Hertz Hall in January. The great excitement about this concert was hearing Ms. Cahill play this brand new music after it had gotten into her bones over the course of performances around the country over the last six months. It sounded immeasurably better than the Cal Performances concert in Hertz Hall.

Three of the 18 commissioned composers are still working on their music: Paul Dresher, Carl Stone and Meredith Monk, whose reworked "Steppe Music" opened the concert. There were two new pieces for the West Coast by New York composers Phil Kline and Kyle Gann, both of which were violent and sensationally good. As Sarah noted when she started the concert (I'm paraphrasing), "Depending on which pieces I play, it's a very different reaction. Kosman in The San Francisco Chronicle noted the UC Berkeley concert's emphasis on peaceful music, while The New York Times wrote that the emphasis at Merkin Hall was on violence and war."

The music is so good that this may turn out to be one of the more important and lasting commissioned music projects in history. Though Peter Garland's two new pieces, part of "After the Wars," and Michael Byron's "Devotion to Peace" were a bit too sweet and dull for my tastes, every other composition Cahill played this evening struck me as music that's going to be around for a long time.

There's only one problem, and it's a big one. Ms. Cahill is married to the video artist John Sanborn, who has a long and established career in the New York art world. He has decided to create a multimedia piece over three screens for each of these commissioned musical pieces and has unintentionally created a "Fantasia" informed principally by an encyclopedia of multimedia cliches. I could hear Sarah Cahill play Terry Riley's "Be Kind to One Another (Rag)" happily at least another dozen times while I never want to see Sanborn's visual accompaniment again. According to a friend, it looked like "1980s computer screen savers."

Even more problematic is the visual accompaniment to Jerome Kitzke's brilliant nine-movement composition, "There is a Field." The composer asks the pianist to recite poetry by Whitman and Rumi, drum on the piano, and yip into a microphone while playing an amazing mix of rousingly patriotic music mixed in with its opposite. Sanborn's three screens, meanwhile, were reducing the complexities of the music and poetry to an MTV version of Ken Burns' Civil War documentary, complete with the same Matthew Brady photos zooming in and out. The result was grotesque in ways that I don't think were intentional. For a wiser and more nuanced take on the image versus music issue, check out Patrick Vaz's post about the same concert.

1 comment:

sfwillie said...

Dear Mike,

It is a nice venue.

I saw Nyíregyházi there in 1973, which from a music history perspective was a major rare chance.

It was probably free. I wonder if it was the same piano.

I'm sure you've heard of the guy, but others can check out the wikipedia article on Nyíregyházi. If he were alive today he'd be living in an SRO, sharing bottles with h. Brown.