Wednesday, March 11, 2015
Farther Out at SoundBox
SoundBox, the San Francisco Symphony's nightclub at the back of Davies Hall, offered its fourth monthly concert last weekend and the series seems to be getting better with every outing. The installations in the orchestra pit as you enter have all been interesting, but Oliver DiCicco's Sirens above just reset the bar. The top half of the sculptures swung back and forth in irregular rhythms, looking rather dangerous, while water and air was pushed back and forth inside plastic tubing which created a subtle musical soundtrack that was amplified throughout the concert hall during the hour before the concert.
Adam Larsen's video projection of a dark ocean made for an apt background both for the sculpture and the first piece on the program, Keyboard Study No. 2, written by authentic San Francisco hippie Terry Riley in 1965. The composer is one of the founding fathers of modern musical minimalism and is celebrating his 80th birthday this year.
Pianist Sarah Cahill has commissioned a series of piano pieces in honor of the birthday boy this year, which she has started to premiere throughout the country (click here). After the early Keyboard Study, she played Riley's more maximalist 1994 Fandango on the Heaven Ladder, with wisps of cloud floating on a huge screen behind her. I was apprehensive about what the Meyer Sound System would do with a solo piano, but the amplification was subtle and effective.
I have seen Sarah Cahill play everywhere from San Quentin Prison to a redwood forest, so it was a special treat seeing her being validated by the San Francisco Symphony as a performer. She deserves it and gave a splendid performance of both pieces. The composer and co-curator of the concert, Nathaniel Stookey above, is to be thanked for inviting her, and Terry Riley's music fit in perfectly with the theme of Farther Out with its hints of nostalgiac psychedelia.
After intermission, a five-minute teaser from Lisa Bielawa's upcoming "serial video" opera, Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser, was sung by a contingent from the San Francisco Girls Chorus surrounding the perimeter of the audience in an excerpt too short to form much more of an impression than the girls' voices sounded pretty.
The lights suddenly focused on a small stage in the middle of the audience where a string quartet launched into San Francisco composer Nathaniel Stookey's String Quartet No. 2, Musée Mécanique. I've heard only a handful of pieces by Stookey over the years, but they are always intelligent, impressive, delightful in sound and texture. His string quartet was no exception.
The only problem was that the five movements were accompanied by five different videos (I assume by Adam Larsen) and they were so evocative on their own that it was impossible to listen to the music without seeing it through the videos' lens. I wanted something more neutral so my brain could come up with its own pictures.
The last piece was a world premiere written specifically for the SoundBox space by Canadian composer Nicole Lizée above. In terms of a multi-hyphenate, Nicole wins the SoundBox Cracker Jack prize without competition. She not only wrote the music for the 30-minute Kool-Aid Acid Test #17: Blotterberry Bursst, but she created the audio sampling, video sampling, accompanying visuals, and played DJ at the end of the concert.
The music was fun, accessible and inventive, sounding a bit like an extended version of John Adams' Grand Pianola Music, especially with the use of the two sopranos, Silvie Jensen and Tania Mandzy Inala, who were so good you couldn't wait until they started singing again in each section. The piece was very episodic, stopping and starting with each new film clip, which ranged from Roger Corman's cheesy The Trip starring Peter Fonda to 60s classics like The Graduate and The Conversation. One section was a sampling of Grace Slick singing White Rabbit which made me feel like an official, historical relic since I heard Grace sing the song in Golden Gate Park while I was tripping on acid over 40 years ago.
The piece went on 10 minutes too long and I think made a mistake using two Hitchcock films, Vertigo and The Birds, as sampling touchstones. Hitchcock's imagery is too powerful and hijacked the music in ways that weren't intended. The perfect ending point should have been the close-up montage of a young man's tongue, framed by a goatee, swallowing a small square of blotter acid repeatedly, with different designs on the paper with each swallow, including conductor Edwin Outwater and the San Francisco Symphony logo itself.