Saturday, November 29, 2014

Mobile Series 6

A gorgeous young male and female couple were sitting next to me on a 47 Muni bus last week, and one of the girl's delicate, chilled hands was being warmed up by her boyfriend's two large hands in a sensual, kneading massage.

It was a sweetly tender sight, and just as I had gathered enough courage to ask them if I could take out my camera and capture a photo of their mingled hands, she pulled away suddenly and grabbed a mobile device from her purse. The spell (and the photo op) was ruined.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wild Rumpus Musical Gift at The Center

There was an unusually generous musical event offered Saturday afternoon at San Francisco's Center for New Music involving a rehearsal and first musical readings by the brilliant new chamber ensemble, Wild Rumpus.

They were rehearsing first read-throughs of two commissioned pieces by David Bird and Ben Richter which will be played by the group, featuring cellist Joanne de Mars above, at a future concert.

The young composer-focused group, co-founded by Jen Wang and Dan VanHassel (above left), also extended an invitation to any composer under the age 40 or any obscure composer of any age to have a reading of their scores at the same rehearsal, an offer taken up by UC Berkeley student Scott Rubin (above right).

The first piece was by David Bird who was listening in and answering questions through an on-again, off-again computer connection, performed by (left to right) Amy Sedan on flute, Sophie Huet on clarinet, and Joanne de Mars on cello.

There was quite a bit of collaborative give-and-take between performers and composer on how to obtain a particular sound effect and which notes were actually impossible to play on a particular instrument. The funniest moment arrived when the composer requested an exact effect he wanted from Amy Sedan above on the flute, "I'm here on the East Coast where they have furnaces everywhere, and that's the sound I want, that "Hssssssssss..." which was greeted by the ensemble with the news that it was a particularly beautiful Saturday in California and people were wearing shorts and tank tops while drinking beers.

Ben Richter's computer connection wasn't working, so the larger ensemble under conductor Nathaniel Berman (above right) made a recording of the rehearsal, complete with pauses for questions to the composer along the lines of, "What are these notations supposed to mean, exactly?"

Scott Rubin's piece, which still didn't have a name, was played for the first time ever with the composer sitting in on viola, which he plays "at the back of the string section in the UC Berkeley orchestra, I'm not confident in my playing like these people at all."

He had quickly rewritten the score so that a clarinet could stand in for a trombone (or a trumpet, I've forgotten), along with a harp section that he had pianist Margaret Halbig strum on the piano strings. She protested at the beginning that it was too difficult going back and forth from inside and outside the piano while reading the score so VanHassel jumped in and played the faux harpist parts. The piece was lively as hell, particularly after the more austere previous scores, with David Wegehaupt's saxophone (above) and Halbig's piano particular standouts.

The young composer above was pushy and quick to correct matters of sound and tempo during the reading, but at least he knew what he wanted. Watching the look of joy on his face as one particularly tricky section came together after a few run-throughs by the ensemble was the highlight of the afternoon.

Finally, cellist Joanne de Mars performed a short solo she had written that had something to do with the ocean and palindromes, but her explanation was unnecessary. It was beautiful, hypnotic and though she apologized that she should have warmed up ahead of time, Mars' playing is thrilling to watch and hear. The ensemble is planning another one of these events at The Center early next year, and if you happen to get an invitation, I recommend it highly. Listening to complex new music being shaped by a group of smart young performers is a real privilege.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Road Construction Ahead

I have been living in the center of a construction zone for over a year, with the Veterans Building across the street being retrofitted and reconstructed.

For the last three days, the ante has been raised with a major repaving project along McAllister Street from Gough to Polk that involves jackhammers early in the morning.

To keep irritation away, it is best to pretend to be a two-year-old boy watching the 1991 Fred Levine video classic, Road Construction Ahead with its heavy equipment working hard.

My nephew Marshall watched it at least 1,000 times before the age of four.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

On The Silk Road with Pamela

The Asian Art Museum holds a monthly members' event called Tour, Talk and Tea. Last Saturday museum docent Pamela Fischer above gave a wonderfully helter-skelter tour of the museum's permanent collection illustrating centuries of porous east and west trade on the Silk Road of raw materials, finished goods, philosophies and religions.

The group was a bit grouchy at first because the event had been advertised as a tour of The Roads of Arabia exhibit rather than an improvised Silk Road. Pamela was also making them climb staircases, and wind through obscure doorways and exhibit rooms to arrive at the next treasure.

We started just off the main staircase with classic blue and white Chinese porcelain. Pamela announced that the blue was made with cobalt which wasn't mined in China but came from Persia thousands of miles away. The finished porcelains then became a luxury good in Western Asia, and Pamela noted that the best collection of this pottery can be found today in Istanbul.

Silk was not cultivated in the West until the 7th century when a couple of silkworm eggs were smuggled out of China to the Mediterranean. Bolts of silk became a form of currency, used to buy horses from Uzbekistan in the 4th century to equip a Chinese army. "Before that, all they had were Mongolian ponies," Pamela said.

The story of how Buddhism spread from northern India to the remainder of Asia is filled with all kinds of twists and turns. Tibet was once the center of a powerful empire that spread northward, and it could shut off Silk Road trade any time it desired. In the eighth century, the Tibetan king Songtsän Gampo was offered a Chinese Tang Dynasty princess, Wencheng, and a Nepalese princess, Bhrikuti, as tribute. Both princesses were Buddhists and soon their husband was too, followed by the entire empire.

The Seated Buddha above who looks like Gertrude Stein turns out to be the oldest dated Chinese Buddha sculpture in the world, from the year 338. The style came from the Pakistan/Afghanistan area when traders would wear small Buddha talismans as they traveled on the network of trails known as the Silk Road..

One of those traders is represented in the sculpture above, in a room devoted to precious "favorite things" found in Chinese tombs.

For Pamela, the exhibit room was a multicultural treasure chest of east and west influencing each other.

The final stop was the opening exhibit hall at the top of the museum where 4th century Buddhas stare out, looking remarkably like Western, specifically Hellenic, sculptures. The pieces were from the Afghanistan area, and Pamela reminded us that Alexander the Great had launched armies all the way to the Indus River and had left plenty of soldiers behind in those lands.

I walked out of the museum with my brain buzzing. If you'd like to join Pamela for a Roads of Arabia tour, her schedule is as follows: Tuesday, December 16th at 3:00, Tuesday, December 30th at noon, and Tuesday, Jan 13th at 3:00 PM.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mobile Series 5

Monday evening rush hour, 5:15 PM on a 21 Hayes outbound bus from San Francisco's Financial District, started off civilized but quickly devolved.

Near Sixth and Market Streets, a wheelchair user demanded to be let on the bus even though the vehicle was already packed with commuters going home. The passengers in the rear couldn't see what was happening in the front of the bus, but we could hear the action as people started screaming, "You're running over my foot" and "Ouch! What the hell are you doing?"

Then we heard a woman's voice yelling, "Get out of my way! Don't touch me! I'm disabled," which was answered by another woman's voice that shouted, "That's probably because you were down on Market Street smoking crack!" The response was, "Shut up, you motherf---ing white bitch."

The cacophony continued for another six blocks until we reached Van Ness Avenue and Hayes. A middle-aged man in a wheelchair with an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips also demanded a ride. The scene felt like an outtake from a John Waters film and quite a few of us got off and left the movie early.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Rapunzel Lets Down Her Hair at BluePrint

Conductor and professor Nicole Paiement presented a rich, theatrical, fascinating concert last Saturday as part of her BluePrint contemporary music series at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

The evening started with the first scene from Lou Harrison's foray into twelve-tone vocal writing in his 1953 opera Rapunzel. It's an adaptation of a poem abstracted from the fairy tale by the 19th century poet/designer/political philosopher William Morris, and it was so interesting I wish that Paiement and singers Cara Gabrielson, Mariya Kaganskaya and Sergey Khalikulov had continued through the whole hour-long opera.

Instead, we heard what was billed as a world premiere of Natural Systems by the 31-year-old composer John Glover with lyrics by Kelley Rourke above. The theme was the early 18th century naturalist Carl Linnaeus and his system of naming nature.

The orchestral writing was skittish, propulsive and absorbing while the vocal writing struck me as underwhelming. Baritone Daniel Cilli above gave a very good performance, though, with excellent diction and theatrical flair in the recited sections.

After intermission we were treated to a flute concerto called Terrestre by Finnish composer Kaiha Saariaho.

This was the only piece on the program without text so BluePrint decided to create a ballet on one side of the stage to keep it theatrical with dancers Dudley Flores and Vanessa Thiessen performing choreography by KT Nelson.

The dancing was charming but they were consistently upstaged by the extraordinary performance of flute soloist Bethanne Walters above. The entire chamber orchestra of two harps, a violin, cello, and percussion accompanying her were also top-notch.

The final piece was another take on the Rapunzel story by the recently deceased Conservatory professor Conrad Susa. It was taken from his most successful composition, a 1973 opera called Transformations that musically illustrates a series of poems telling twisted versions of classic fairy tales by the defiantly neurotic poet Anne Sexton. I had forgotten how dark the story of Rapunzel is. A prince tries to rescue a princess in a tower imprisoned by a witch, but he's foiled by the old crone and is blinded by thorns as he falls to the ground from the tower. Years, maybe decades later, he hears Rapunzel singing, calls to her, and her tears at his condition fall on his eyes and cure his blindness. In the Sexton version, the relationship between Witch and Princess is explicitly a May/December lesbian love affair that ends unhappily when the princess dumps her for a male prince.

San Francisco Opera used to have a spring opera season where they would perform offbeat, sometimes contemporary operas in smaller houses like the Curran Theater and the Palace of Fine Arts. Transformations was one of the operas they gave in the 1970s/1980s, and I remember it being very successful on its own terms, with lots of interesting vocal music for eight singers and a jazz-style chamber orchestra. It's a perfect piece for student ensembles and surprising that it's not performed more often.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Mobile Series 4

Documenting addiction to mobile devices has become an addiction in itself. Once you start noticing, it's everywhere.

The poet Kevin Killian, who I am friends with on the addictive Facebook site, mentioned recently that he was not surprised by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman because Killian was a faithful reader of the AGC Blind Gossip site which specializes in scabrous tales of substance abuse and sexual messiness in the lives of celebrities, and they had predicted Mr. Hoffman was going down after a heroin spree while filming The Hunger Games in Georgia. Thanks to Mr. Killian, I have also become addicted to the site, which is where I read this recent report:
97. ENTERTAINMENT LAWYER 11/13 **#4** This permanent A list singer/part-time actress/director might be one of the biggest stars on the planet but she won’t be invited back to this talk show after the cameras constantly had to shoot different angles of her and cut away from her because she wouldn’t stop texting on her phone even while being asked questions during the interview. When our singer wanted to hug after, the talk show host told her to fuck off. Barbra Streisand/Katie Couric or Gayle King

Another friend, Mike Wallach, sent me the above photo on Facebook after the recent epochal satellite landing on the comet Phillea, with the following note:
"This is from the live feed of ESA comet landing mission HQ. The screens in front of them are documenting one of the most momentous events in space exploration and human history. But I think they are checking their facebook status."

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Beach Bike Accident

An ambulance and two fire trucks with blaring sirens headed down the hill towards Ocean Beach Saturday afternoon, and I feared that another hapless tourist had drowned in the dangerous ocean there.

Instead, the emergency involved a man in the middle of the road who had been in some kind of accident on his bicycle.

Bicyclists on pedestrian sidewalks in San Francisco are enraging, but I have sympathy for why they are doing it.

The streets of San Francisco are damned dangerous, particularly for those not wrapped in vehicular steel.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Mobile Series 3

In San Francisco's Financial District, on Sansome between Bush and Pine...

...there is a lunch spot called Mixt Greens selling $15 custom-made, takeout salads, and it always has a line.

Generally, over 80% of the people standing in line are concentrating on their mobile devices...

...and some can't even get through their salad before being lured back.

It's not gender specific behavior, either, as you can see from the countertop of the Hunan Restaurant on Sacramento and Kearny where the three guys sitting next to me spent the entire meal reading from their devices.