Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Bye Bye to the Berkeley Art Museum Building

Designed by the San Francisco modernist architect Mario J. Ciampi in the 1960s, the 1970 Berkeley Art Museum on Bancroft Street closed its doors as a public museum on Sunday with a free admission day of "revels" and ceremonial final performances.

Though the cast-concrete building has always been a bit brutalist for my taste, the place was very important. Besides its decades of art exhibits, the building also hosted the original home of the Pacific Film Archive which burst on the scene in the early 1970s as an equal to the Paris Cinematheque.

The list of creative live performances by musicians, dancers and artists will soon become historic legend, and some UC Berkeley PhD candidate should get to work now interviewing and cataloguing the enormous range of performers and performances held in the space, with its fabulous sightlines and weird acoustics. A good place to start would be Joan La Barbara who recorded a live album in the building in 1976 and returned for a farewell concert earlier this year.

Those interviews should also include the pianist and concert "curator" Sarah Cahill who has been hosting Friday night concerts for years with the enthusiastic collaboration of Museum Director Larry Rinder above.

Their final collaboration in the building was a performance of György Ligeti's 1962 Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes. Composers, musicians, museum staff, donors, friends and patrons were recruited for this final musical gesture with about 50 people divided among the 100 metronomes.

A friend, Patrick Vaz, jokingly asked me if the performance used "original instruments," and the serious answer was "yes, the piece is going to become rarer and rarer because wind-up metronomes are going the way of the slide rule on account of digital technology."

After a short rehearsal with our metronomes, we fled an overamplified dance performance for the safety of the Durant Hotel bar across the street, and returned for the extraordinary composer and performance artist Dohee Lee's leaving the building ritual.

"This is imporTANT!" she instructed. "You must feel the floor with your feet before you leave it, stomp on the floor with the beat and really grasp it," and the audience surrounding her did just that.

After a few mercifully short speeches from a trio of museum directors, the metronome volunteers including myself assembled at our various tables. My table was under the direction of UCB Chorus Director Marika Kuzma above, with her former student James Parr roped in at the last minute.

Sarah Cahill gave a short explanation of the piece to the audience, turned to the assembled throng of performers and cued our ritualistic winding of the microphones (three full-turns or six half-turns), finally giving us the signal to unleash the phasing cacophony which wound down to a single metronome 28 minutes later. For a video of the entire performance by Tony Hurd, click here.


Kit Stolz said...

It's a crazy, smart, and utterly delightful musical experience.

janinsanfran said...

Odd to think that cold, awkward building which went up at Berkeley after I left the school and never seemed to quite fit (good and bad) will now be history.