Thursday night was the opening concert of Other Minds 17th annual series at the beautiful Kanbar Hall in the San Francisco Jewish Community Center which features a typically eclectic selection of new and recent music. Six countries are represented this year including the United States, Germany, Japan, Denmark, Norway and Finland.
This first night featured the palindromically named Norwegian ensemble Asamisimasa. They are a group of highly trained young musicians who dedicate themselves to the performance of post war avant garde and recent music (some written for them).
What makes them unique is their integration of traditional instruments with various types of electronics and techniques to modify and enhance their sound. They include standard video, digital processing and extended instrumental techniques as well as uncommon enhancements such as hand held megaphones and found sounds like tearing newspaper, spray cans and sliding blocks that rub on various surfaces.
The result was a wonderful embodiment of the post- Cagean musical esthetic which is the driving force behind Other Minds as they describe it in their mission statement. These dedicated skilled classical musicians played a program of a fellow Norwegian and a Danish composer. It was a performance that was adventurous, humorous and engaging.
The first half featured two works by Oivind Torvund. The first work from 2009 was “Neon Forest Space” for clarinet, cello, guitar/radio, percussion and pre-recorded media. Brief motivic segments, mostly by solo instruments, were strung together by a variety of sounds controlled by a musician who doubled as conductor. The overall impression was one of a spare impressionistic piece informed equally by the sound worlds of Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and, according to the program, Black Flag.
The second piece was the world premiere of “Willibald Motor Landscape” written last year. This piece, using essentially the same instrumentation was built upon a recorded soundtrack of traffic sounds creating an impressionistic picture presumably of the road in the title.
The audience was very appreciative and we learned following intermission that all of the Oivind Torvund CDs had sold out! Welcome to America Mr. Torvund.
The second half of the night featured what was to have been a performance without pause of four pieces by Simon Steen-Andersen of Denmark. Unfortunately, following the performance of “Study for String Instrument #2” (for cello and whammy pedal, 2009), the cellist lost her footing on the darkened stage. The crashing sound seemed at first a part of the performance. But the lights were brought up quickly finding that the cellist was thankfully mostly unharmed and able to continue performing. However her cello had sustained a broken tuning peg. Charles Amirkhanian, the festival director tactfully asked the audience’s indulgence while another cello was obtained, a process which required only about 10 minutes (!). The cellist with the replacement cello returned to the stage to relieved and appreciative applause. Mr. Amirkhanian thanked the audience, who barely moved in the interim, for their patience.
The stage lights were darkened again and the ensemble restarted the piece which had been so briefly interrupted. From the microtonal glissandos duet of cello and whammy pedal they began the second piece, “Half a Bit of Nothing Integrated” (2007) for extremely amplified clarinet, percussion, cello and live video operated by the percussionist. In good humor and with professional showmanship the percussionist began by speaking, “Now where were we?”. And they performed with sounds of seemingly malfunctioning electronics evoking a post apocalyptic sound world which evoked worlds like that of “Blade Runner”.
This time there was no pause as they moved on with an illuminated stage to “On And Off And To And Fro” (2008). This piece featured megaphones operated by musicians who at times were miking the instrumentalists and at other times playing percussive effects with the microphones (blowing into them, scraping them, etc.) and playing quite skillfully with feedback created by holding the mikes various distances from the speakers. The sight of four musicians reading from scores and following a conductor with these megaphones evoked appreciative laughter from the audience. The final piece, “Study for String Instrument #3 (2011)”, was for cello and video. The cellist, Tanja Orning, played her instrument in non-melodic fashion with a bow which produced scraping sounds. Superimposed upon her was a video of her playing and the interest of the piece is a fascinating mostly visual duet between the live performer and the video. Her actions sometimes duplicated, sometimes opposed that of the video and the effect, sometimes humorously reminiscent of the Marx Brothers mirror routine, was an engaging and occasionally disturbing image (I’m not sure why it was disturbing actually).
Warm applause followed this lively and dedicated performance from this fine young group. All in all a very entertaining evening opening the always unpredictable and eclectic Other Minds Festival.