Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Other Minds 19 at the SFJAZZ Center

The Other Minds festival moved to the SFJAZZ Center this year for their 19th annual festival, and the sophisticated lighting and audio system at the venue felt like a perfect match for the wandering New Music festival.

Most Other Minds festivals make a concerted effort to mix up living composers from all countries, genders, ages, and musical genres, but this edition concentrated on composers with vital links to the Bay Area. Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian wrote in the program notes:
"I stand by my long-held conviction that, per capita, the San Francisco Bay Area is America's healthiest place for unconventional and inventive composers to emerge and thrive. Our proud history includes such great figures as Henry Cowell, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, LaMonte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Donald Buchla, John Adams and so many others...You'll be hearing some uncompromising heroes of mine who deserve greater recognition for their lifelong, dedicated creativity."
The heroes at the Friday evening concert were (above, left to right) Joseph Byrd, Donald Buchla, John Bischoff, and Mark Applebaum in fuschia.

The concert started with Aphasia, a ballet for seated performer and electronic tape by Stanford professor Applebaum. He had explained all three of his pieces at great length in a pre-concert interview, where he confessed that he was personally in a period of "hating most music." Thankfully, he turned out to be a compelling performer, and Aphasia worked wonderfully well at explicating an abstract electronic score with simple, explanatory movements. There was laughter at first in the audience at the jerky hand gestures, but the piece was sincere and at the end, the physical gestures slowly stop while the music becomes dense, complex and thanks to the earlier gestural sign markers, you can now hear/picture it all.

Metaphysics of Notation has been a year-long installation at the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford Campus that stretches around the hall as a graphical music score on 12-foot banners. Performers have recently gone to the Center and tried to figure out how to play the fanciful score with their own rules and intuition, and on Friday, an ensemble was assembled improvising off the full, scrolling score that included a number of the Other Minds Festival composers with Amirkhanian himself on percussion. It was fun and fabulous, and the composer pickup band did themselves proud with a sonic interpretation that felt amusingly consonant with the elaborate images.

Applebaum finished with a solo on an instrument he had invented, The Mouseketier, which he describes thus: "a musical Frankenstein consisting of threaded rods, nails, combs, doorstops, springs, squeaky wheels, ratchets, a toilet tank flotation bulb, and other unlikely objects which are plucked, scratched, bowed, and modified by a battery of live electronics." In the pre-concert interview, he also proudly boasted that he was the instrument's Best Player in the World and also the Worst Player in the World, which allowed for a certain freedom.

The 76-year-old Joseph Byrd above has done just about everything in his career, from being part of the "West Coast Wave" in New York in the early 1960s as a student of John Cage, a deviser of art "Happenings" in Los Angeles, and the founder of an influential cult psychedelic rock band called The United States of America. Besides working off an on in academia, he was also a musical arranger, movie soundtrack composer, and even the inventor of the electronic sound language for the robot in Doug Trumbull's film Silent Running.

New Worlds Music recently released a CD called Joseph Byrd, NYC 1960-63 (click here for a nice review at NewMusicBox), and two of the pieces from that period were performed on Friday. Water Music sounded a bit like one of Lou Harrison's gamelan pieces played over an electronic tape, while Animals was a strange, proto-minimalist work that sounded to me like insect music for string quartet, prepared piano and percussion, with Sarah Cahill above on piano, the Del Sol String Quartet plucking strings, and Robert Lopez & Alan Zimmerman on percussion.

John Bischoff above is a legendary Mills College professor who has specialized in computer music for over forty years. He played Audio Combine and Surface Effect off of his laptop, which felt very austere in the context of the other performances.

The final work was an amusing art film, Drop by Drop, by Silvia Matheus, with a live score by Donald Buchla on an analog synthesizer he had built himself, and Nannick Buchla on piano.

The 76-year-old Buchla, wearing deliberately mismatched socks on Friday, is one of the founding pioneers of synthesizer technology and continues to build and sell cutting edge musical products (click here for the website). Joseph Byrd, in the pre-concert interview, noted that Robert Moog's synthesizer were useless for most composers because they were so expensive while Buchla's first generation of products were geared for the experimental starving artist. "Thank you, Don," he concluded, and thank you, Other Minds for the introduction to all these essential characters.

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