Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Embarcadero Crash and Beautiful Young People

On Saturday morning, there was a crash in front of the Embarcadero Hyatt Regency where Steuart Street makes a left turn and becomes Market Street, San Francisco's perennially grubby version of the Champs Elysees.

An historic streetcar had run into the back of a doubledecker tour bus.

The mild crash blocked bus and car traffic in both directions, and a trio of Muni drivers were standing on a corner talking with each other. "Did somebody try to play chicken with a Muni vehicle?" I asked them, and they all laughed. "That's about right!" one of them replied.

Muni drivers may have the most heroic, difficult jobs in San Francisco, dealing on an hourly basis with crazy streets, passengers, drivers, bicyclists, and now electric scooter riders.

They also get no respect, which at heart reflects San Francisco's longtime institutional racism.

Walking along the Embarcadero waterfront, we tried not to get run over by bicycles, scooters and even a pack of young, nerdy characters on motorized skateboards.

Even dodging all the vehicular traffic, the Embarcadero still knocks me out with its beauty.

We saw a quintet of friends on surfboards at McCovey Cove next to the SF Giants ballpark and what was sublime was that there was no home game that day and they had the place to themselves.

It was amusing to watch them pulling cans of beer out of their swim trunks for an impromptu day drinking session.

After watching all the many people on vehicles staring at digital devices, this group looked paradisiacal in their analog languor.

Further down the Embarcadero we went to our secret cheap waterfront German beer burger joint, that was once fashionable and no longer is so I will not name it, and were soon swarmed by a bachelor/ette party. The bride to be is pictured above.

The woman above explained that the bride-and-groom-to-be shared all the same friends, so they decided to have a bachelor party where both genders were included. "Does this have a name?" I asked them, and they replied, "No." In other words, they were inventing it and I confidently predict there will be a New York Times trends article about bi-gender bachelor/ette parties within the next five years.

The group of about 20 friends were the sweetest, cutest group imaginable, and I asked who the central character might be. "The groom," another woman told me. "The bride to be is a nurse and the groom to be is a chef, and when he invites people to an event, everyone shows up."

As we made our way home dodging all the sidewalk distractions, I predicted that we would run into somebody on an electric scooter walking a pit bull while looking at a mobile device. Instead, we ran into a rollerblader staring at his mobile phone while exercising his pit bull.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Don't Be Trashy on Earth Day

An Earth Day celebration took place a day early in Civic Center plaza on Saturday because Sunday was reserved for the Cherry Blossom Festival Parade.

At 11AM, there was a lone yoga enthusiast posed in front of a low stage...

...where a percussionist played with amplified bowls...

...while his audience showed off her flexible form.

Nearby a woman was assembling what looked like a healing circle.

Various corporate entities had booths displaying their commitment to capitalism and the environment at the same time, including Capital One which had the best T-shirts of the entire event.

Happy Earth Day to all creatures large and small, including my Palm Springs critter dude explaining the power of windmills.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Scooter Scourge

A month ago, rentable electric scooters from three different "disruptor" startups began appearing on the sidewalks of San Francisco. There was no notification of city authorities, no parking infrastructure put in place, and no rules for where you could ride them.

This meant that oblivious characters of all ages, ethnicities, and physical coordination could now use an app on their mobile devices and hop on a balancing board while motoring down a crowded sidewalk at 15 MPH. What could possibly go wrong?

Last week, during a morning rush hour, three-block walk to Caltrain on 5th Street, I was just about hit by seven different riders and watched another one wipe out and crash into a wall after being diverted by a particularly large sidewalk crack.

A tsunami of citizen complaints has spurred some City Hall politicians into expressing alarm and proposing legislation. Last week the City Attorney sent a cease and desist letter to the three companies, which they have blatantly ignored.

Sections of downtown San Francisco are already at a Manhattan level of crowding, but at least in New York City they know how to walk on crowded sidewalks without slamming into each other.

San Francisco drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists are legendarily clueless as they hurtle along blithely, often with earbuds and mobile devices in full distraction mode. Throwing electric scooters into the mix without any restrictions will simply amp up the insanity.

The probable upcoming class action lawsuits will also be legendary. People are dropping off the scooters wherever they like, including at sidewalk bus stops where people are tripping over them trying to board and unboard. A very entertaining woman in her 70s was waiting for a Market Street bus with me and was yelling, "Yes, take a picture of that damned scooter, and send it to your Supervisor. I've already been hit twice now. This is crazy."

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Snuff Films at SFMOMA

There are two major installations at SFMOMA currently featuring film and digital video. On the third floor is The Train, an examination of Robert Kennedy's funeral train carrying his assassinated body from New York City for burial in Arlington, Virginia. The starting point is a series of blurry color photographs from Paul Fusco who was commissioned by Look Magazine. Fusco rode on the train and shot the onlookers along the tracks paying tribute. French artist Philippe Parreno was so taken by the photos that he recently rented a train and hired actors in late 1960s period clothing to reenact the event in a 7-minute, 70mm art film which you can watch in a small room while laying on the floor. In another room, Dutch artist Rein Jelle Terpstra assembled 8mm footage and photos that the mourners themselves had taken of the event. The overall effect can best be described as disembodied.

On the top floor is a three-screen work by the African-born Londoner John Akomfrah called Vertigo Sea, which combines stunningly beautiful nature imagery of the ocean juxtaposed with disturbing archival and contemporary imagery of whales and polar bears being slaughtered along with references to the 19th century Middle Passage slave trade and 21st century refugees drowning in leaking boats in the Mediterranean Sea.

The 50-minute work is set to a haunting score that mixes narrated poetry and snippets from novels with music, including reworked snatches of Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

There is a sign outside the screening room warning about the shocking footage, and it should be taken seriously. I have tried to watch the work twice, and both times lasted about ten minutes. Even the artist himself can't watch it again, according to a great interview by Jonathan Curiel in the SF Weekly. “I can’t watch it anymore, because in the course of trying to finish it, I think I crossed a line. There are one or two thinkers who basically told us over and over again that there’s this stage of being, and we have for a long time believed that [humans] were the only figures in that stage. And we know that’s not true. Deep down, everybody knows this is not true. Deep down. I happen to believe it passionately now. So I can’t watch it, because I know I’m watching fragments of a genocide. That’s basically what you’re watching."

On Saturday, April 28, there will be a free all-day screening of three of Akomfrah's other art films in the Wattis Theatre. In the description of the event, I also ran across a favorite typo, referring to "Stuart Hall, the Jamaican born pubic intellectual."

Friday, April 13, 2018

The World of Henry Cowell at Bard Music West, Concert 2

Before there was such a thing as "World Music," the California composer Henry Cowell pretty much invented it. The Saturday afternoon concert of the Bard Music West festival last weekend was dedicated to Cowell's international bent, which began with an improvisation by Shahab Paranj on the tombak, an Iranian percussion instrument that was surprisingly multi-faceted in its sounds.

This was followed by Urban Inventory, a 2015 work by Wang Lu, who was raised in Xi'an, China and now teaches at Brown University in Rhode Island. The performers were Third Sound, a recently formed contemporary music ensemble from New York, with Romie de Guise-Langlois on clarinet, Karen Kim on violin, Michael Nicolas on cello, Orion Weiss on piano, and Sooyun Kim on flute who also doubled on a loud, shrieking piccolo in a few movements that made me cover my ears. The six-movement work also included prerecorded urban sounds of voices over speakers, and though the performance was expert, I found the experience unpleasant which may have been intentional.

Sonorous beauty was restored with the 1924 Sonatina by Mexican composer Carlos Chavez who Cowell championed over the decades. The lovely performance was by Luosha Fang on violin and Allegra Chapman on piano.

Tim Padgett then led a percussion quartet in the 1941 Double Music by John Cage and Lou Harrison. Both composers were students of Cowell and he introduced them to each other in the late 1930s, where they essentially invented the percussion ensemble in Western classical music, writing pieces for modern dance troupes in San Francisco and Oakland's Mills College. Double Music is a fascinating chance music experiment, where Harrison and Cage wrote 200 measures for two percussion voices independently and then layered the results together. It worked brilliantly.

The quartet, consisting of Padgett, Ben Paysen, Sam Rich and Mika Nakamura, then played Cowell's 1939 Return which was originally written for dancers to play instruments, which must have been something to see.

Cellist Michael Nicolas from Third Sound was the soulful soloist in Cowell's 1924 Adagio from Ensemble for String Quintet and Thunder Sticks minus the thunder sticks which the composer decided later in life didn't add much to to the composition.

The concert's finale was amazing, a performance of Cowell's 1957 Homage to Iran, with Allegra Chapman on piano, Luosha Fang on violin and Shahab Paranj improvising on the tombak. One of the weirder detours in American history must be Cowell, imprisoned at San Quentin for homosexuality in the 1930s, being selected as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department in the 1950s. During a world tour, he landed in the Middle East during the Suez Canal crisis, and was sent off to program radio shows in Iran where the CIA had recently stage managed the 1953 coup that installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The rare chance to hear this music live, particularly in such a thrilling performance, was one of the many highlights of Bard Music West festival, which is one of the most exciting new developments on the Bay Area music scene in a long while. I can't wait to see what they do next.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The World of Henry Cowell at Bard Music West, Concert 1

A remarkable new musical festival, Bard Music West, began in San Francisco last year and had its second outing last weekend. Co-founded by two recent graduates of the New York liberal arts Bard College, cellist Laura Gaynon and pianist Allegra Chapman (above) are following the template of the annual summer Bard Music Festival which focuses on a single composer and their world: colleagues, influences, and cultural milieu. This year's West Coast festival, held at the minimalist, acoustically lively Noe Valley Ministry church, was dedicated to the World of Henry Cowell (1897-1965), a wonderful choice as he was a Bay Area local who can plausibly be called the most important and influential American composer that most people have never heard of.

The opening performer was Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill who has been one of Cowell's most passionate, informed advocates. She played High Color, which Cowell wrote in 1938 while serving four years of a 15-year sentence in San Quentin prison for being a homosexual who naively confessed it to the Redwood City police. In fact, the last time I heard High Color was when Sarah played it at a 2014 concert held in San Quentin prison featuring music that the composer had written while incarcerated.

This was followed by the local Volti acapella chorus (including the two basses above, Peter Dennis and Sidney Chen) singing a set of American church pieces by William Billings (1746-1800), William Walker (1809-75), and Cowell himself. The finale was Modern Musick, a funny 1781 piece by Billings that begins:
We are met for a Concert of modern invention;
To tickle the Ear is our present intention.
and ends:
And now we address you as Friends to the Cause;
Performers are modest and write their own Laws
Altho' we are sanguine and clap at the Bars,
'Tis the Part of the Hearers to clap their Applause
and the audience happily did so.

This was followed by the 1911 Charles Ives Piano Trio, which may rival his Fourth Symphony in complexity with its mashups of popular tunes piled on top of each other combined with stretches of mysterious, soulful beauty. Violinist Luosha Fang, pianist Allegra Chapman, and cellist Laura Gaynon were sensationally good and I can't imagine a better performance.

After intermission, Sarah Cahill returned to play the music of friends, students, and colleagues of Cowell, starting with two of Johanna Breyer's knotty 1934 pieces from Gebrauchs-Musik. This was followed by Bacchanale, a fun and nutty proto-minimalist prepared piano piece from 1940 by John Cage, and Dane Rudhyar's (1895-1985) Scriabin-like Stars from 1924 back on the grand piano. She finished with the wild, descriptive 1913 Suicide in an Airplane by the then-18-year-old Leo Ornstein who managed to live until he was 107. ("Lots of sleep and a big breakfast" were his keys to longevity according to Sarah who met him in his final years.)

The big surprise of the concert for me were the 1930 Three Chants for Women's Chorus by Ruth Crawford (1901-1953). Crawford is mostly famous for being the mother of folk singer Pete Seeger and wife of musicologist Charles Seeger who started the UC Berkeley Music Department and mentored the penniless Henry Cowell as a teenager. Crawford was also a daring modernist composer herself who unfortunately did not write enough because of marriage, motherhood and an early death. The three chants are titled To an Unkind God, To an Angel, and To a Kind God, and the text is a made-up language of sounds, rather like Meredith Monk would create 40 years later. Music Director Robert Geary above conducted the difficult music, with an occasional soloist stepping forward out of the sonic cloud. Shauna Falihee above was the exquisite soprano soloist in To an Angel, and the equally fine soprano Amy Foote and alto Celeste Winant shone in the Unkind/Kind God movements.

The To a Kind God chant was so dense, luminous and strange that it evoked the micropolyphony music of Ligeti 30 years before he started writing in that style. (Bard Music West's first festival, by the way, was devoted to the world of Ligeti.)

This was followed by violist Jessica Chang and pianist Allegra Chapman performing Cowell's 1947 Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 7, which featured Cowell's characteristic mixture of modernism and tuneful classicism.

The long evening ended with an art song set by soprano Sara LeMesh, singing music by Carl Ruggles, William Grant Still, Otto Luening and four of the Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson by Aaron Copland. By this time, I was feeling musically overstuffed, not to mention that I don't really enjoy art songs/chansons/lieder all that much. However, according to all my concert companions, it was a beautiful set, nicely sung. Stay tuned for an account of the second festival concert, which was just as interesting as the first.