In the Beginning Was the Word: Other Minds 23


 

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Charles Amirkhanian performing one of his spoken word compositions at Other Minds 20 in 2015

Other Minds has been the the darling of composer/producer Charles Amirkhanian since its founding in 1993.  Along with television producer and arts patron Jim Newman he has presided over the 25 years of this renowned festival which has consistently brought the finest new music composers and performers to San Francisco.

There is little doubt that this year’s festival has to be very close to Amirkhanian’s heart.  Words have been central to his career at least since 1969 when he began his work as a producer at KPFA.  In the 23 years he spent there he presented countless hours of musical programming and interviews.  He crossed paths with most of the major stars in contemporary classical music and many stars whose genre may not be captured by the classical label.  A look at his programming choices and interviews from his time there defined new music for the Bay Area and beyond.  After his tenure at KPFA ended in 1992 he continued exploring cutting edge music and musicians bringing them to San Francisco for live performances.

His work as producer and curator has tended to overshadow his work as a composer, sound poet, and spoken word artist.  This year’s OM festival is dedicated to speech, sound poetry, and the spoken word.  It is about both the history and the present state of the art.  In many ways Amirkhanian’s 1975 release “10 + 2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces” on 1750 Arch Records (now on an OM CD 1006-2) can be seen as sort of the starting point for this festival.  This masterful anthology includes works by Charles Amirkhanian (1945- ), Clark Coolidge (1939- ), John Cage (1912-1992), John Giorno (1936- ), Anthony Gnazzo (1936- ), Charles Dodge (1942- ), Robert Ashley (1930-2014), Beth Anderson (1950- ), Brion Gysin (1916-1986), Liam O’Gallagher (1917-2007), and Aram Saroyan (1943- ).

 

“Word! Thou word that I cannot speak!

At the end of the second (and last completed) act of Arnold Schoenberg’s powerful opera “Moses und Aron” (1932) Moses sings, or actually half speaks and half sings this text lamenting his expressive deficits.  Speech song or, in German, sprechgesang is an invention by Schoenberg in which the singers are asked to find a point between speech and music.  Perhaps this is a good example of some of the artistic thinking going on at about the time when speech music/sound poetry began to take shape.

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Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)

Some of the history of sound poetry is featured in this unprecedented 6 day festival (April 9-14).  Some of the earliest practitioners of this unusual genre include the German artist Kurt Schwitters whose composition Ursonate (1922-32) will be performed in its entirety, a rare event by itself.

Another early gem will be the Spoken Music (1930) by German-American composer Ernst Toch.  This three movement suite has been known for its last movement, the Geographical Fugue.  The other two movements, once thought lost, were discovered in sketches in 2006 and reconstructed by Christopher Caines.  The now complete version will be presented I believe on day 3.

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Ernst Toch (1887-1964)

 

It is beyond the scope of this blog post to tell the history of text sound so I will refer readers to the Other Minds website for further details.  Or you could come to the festival too I suppose.

With due respect given to the past the festival will move on to the present.  San Francisco Beat Poet Michael McClure (1932- ) will make an appearance as will post beat colleagues Anne Waldman (1945- ), Clark Coolidge (yeah the guy from that cool anthology), Aram Saroyan (another guy from the classic text sound disc).

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Alvin Curran in conversation last year in Berkeley.

Other Minds alumnus Alvin Curran (1938- ) will be premiering his collaboration with Clark Coolidge entitled, Came Through in the Call Hold.  Curran’s eclectic sensibilities will doubtless result in an interesting composition.  This event alone, at least for this writer, is worth the price of admission.  And this is just the first day!

Other events include workshops, discussions of the history of the art, and even some curious variations on a theme.  Apparently the writer Lawrence Weschler is the grandson of Ernst Toch and has written a variation on the Geographical Fugue called, The Medical Fugue which will be premiered at this festival.

The increasingly ubiquitous pianist Sarah Cahill will be present to perform Virgil Thomson’s unusual but entertaining setting of a Gertrude Stein (a one time Oakland resident) text called Capital, Capitals.  She will accompany the men of the Other Minds Ensemble.  Jaap Blonk will be tasked with performing Schwitters’ Ursonate and, along with Enzo Miranelli will also perform other historical works including some by a couple of Italian Futurists.

Other Minds Administrative Director Randall Wong will end the evening by undertaking a performance of the late great Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody.  That promises to be a wild evening I think.

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Jaap Blonk (1953- )

Northern Europe, including the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries will literally have their day.  As it turns out they are doing a great deal of creative work in this increasingly diverse genre of speech music.  Other Minds is at its best in introducing the new and the innovative from wherever Charles’ radar has tracked it down.  Indeed Mr. Amirkhanian and his wife, artist/photographer Carol Law traveled throughout these regions in the early 70s talking with and learning from these diverse artists.  (Amirkhanian’s work, Just was recorded in a Scandinavian studio during one of those trips).

As usual homage will be paid to the past with some recorded classics by Sten Hanson, Åke Hodell, and Lily Greenham.  Some new voices will be introduced including Tone Åse and Sten Sandell.  The Norwegian/Russian-American duo OTTARAS (consisting of visual poet Ottar Ormstad and composer Taras Mashtalir will also perform.   One can fully expect a mind expanding experience which will redefine the possibilities of the art form.

Auspiciously or perhaps dangerously Friday the 13th has been reserved for Bay Area talents.  First up will be the man of the hour, Charles Amirkhanian.  Hearing him do his work live is an uncommon but entirely enjoyable experience.  If that alone weren’t enough we will get to hear the even rarer public collaboration between him and his life partner Carol Law whose photography and collage work deserves wider recognition and will happily get that here.

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Amy X Neuberg.

Trained in both linguistics and music, Amy X Neuberg will be on hand to perform her indescribable electronic cabaret including the world premiere of “Say it like you mean” and other genre bending work.  She is another valued Other Minds alumnus having given numerous performances at the festivals.

Stanford professor Mark Applebaum, another alumnus will present “Three Unlikely Corporate Sponsors” which premiered at Stanford in 2016.  Enzo Miranelli will conclude the evening with his theatrical combination of movement and text in “Fame: What I Want to Say”.

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Pamela Z

The festival concludes on Saturday April 14th with Jaap Blonk followed by the wonderful San Francisco based Pamela Z who, like Neuberg uses electronics, but creates her own unique sound world.  She too is an alumnus of Other Minds.

Another composer from that great anthology, Beth Anderson, will make an appearance to perform “If I Were a Poet”, “I Can’t Stand It”, and “Ocean Mildew Minds”.

The finale will feature Susan Stone and Sheila Davies Sumner performing excerpts from two works, “House with a View” and “Loose Tongues” both dealing with the lives of working class southern women.

This will be both a feast and a marathon but it promises to be one of the finest Other Minds productions maybe ever.  Come to be entertained, come to be challenged, come to expand your mind.  You’ll never be the same.  See you there.

More Than the Ears Can Hear: Bill Fontana in Conversation


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Despite being possessed of a rabid and eclectic interest in all music I had not been aware of Bill Fontana until I found this presentation sponsored by Other Minds and curated by Charles Amirkhanian (whose radar seems to capture just about everything).  This entry into the Nature of Music series last night featured this artist who extends the very meaning of composition and the very reach of our ability to hear.

This series is hosted by the David Brower Center in Berkeley, CA.  The center is a state of the art environmentally friendly building which serves, appropriately, as a center for ecological awareness and hosts various organizations within its walls (including the Berkeley office of Other Minds) whose missions serve various environmental concerns.  The Nature of Music series attempts to address ecological concerns and indeed the featured artists have all demonstrated connections to the environment in various creative ways.

Bill Fontana (1947- ) is a San Francisco resident but his art takes him all over the world.  He presented audio and video excerpts from his installation works in Kyoto, Lisbon, San Francisco, London, and Iceland.  The basic concepts behind his work seem to be the extension of hearing and, to some degree, of seeing.  He uses multiple microphones and transducers to extract sound from objects such as bridges, bells (when not ringing), musical instruments (not playing), etc.  His multi-layered video experiments are at least partly analogous to this.

The first presentation was perhaps the most striking.  Fontana showed a video of an old Zen Temple bell which was just hanging there in a still video recording.  He had attached a sonic transducer to pick up the subtle vibrations of the bell as it reacted to the ambient sounds around it, something it had been doing for its entire existence (though no one knew until this).  He quipped that the monk whose job it was to care for said bell was somewhat anxious about what Fontana was doing.  When the monk heard the sound that this “silent” bell made he was astonished.  What one learns is that there are sounds made which our ears do not hear.

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Another “not ringing” bell in a New York tower revealed its reactions to its environment sonically and in a still video overlooking Manhattan from the high atop the lonely tower.

One installation involved 8 microphones arranged around San Francisco Bay which transmitted the sounds they captured to an installation of 8 loudspeakers located at Fort Mason.  The effect was of having ears that could hear all of these sounds which were so geographically distant that one pair of ears could not hear them in this way.  This 1982 installation is scheduled to have the recordings of those captured sounds from the original presentation played continuously in a permanent installation at Fort Mason.

Other installations included a bridge and a river in Lisbon and some hydrothermal installations in a couple of places.  What these all had in common was this extension of hearing (and vision) and how this increases one’s awareness of the environment both sonically and visually.  The artist acknowledged a passion for environmentalism and took the time to answer the questions of a medium sized but very engaged audience.

There are things in his work that echo the work of John Cage, Annea Lockwood (who appeared on a previous Nature of Music program), Pauline Oliveros, and any number of drone/noise composers.  But his vision is clearly a unique one and it was revelatory to have been able to hear/see this little exposition.  Fontana is truly a phenomenon whose roots fit comfortably on the west coast but whose vision is global.

It is well worth your time to peruse Fontana’s web site which is full of videos and sound files depicting his unique visions from various locations all over the world.  Fontana seemed a warm and unpretentious figure led all these years and still going with a child-like sense of wonder and a spectacular imagination.  All in all a mind-blowing and entertaining evening.

Longleash: Incorporating the Modern


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The strikingly beautiful cover art reminiscent of Magritte is eye catching and make this reviewer nostalgic for the days of the 12×12 format of LP covers.  (Album Artwork: Pink Lady (2015), Scarlett Hooft Graafland, Album Design: Laura Grey).  It is, perhaps by virtue of its nod to modernism, a metaphor for the content of this album as well as being its title.

Longleash is apparently the oh so clever operations name of a CIA project whose goal was to help proliferate American modern art in the cold war era.  These days I guess that would be “weaponizing” art.  And this modern piano trio has (curiously) elected this for their stage name.

Well the content of this album is nowhere near your traditional piano trio and may even seem subversive to some listeners.  Longleash are modernist throughout.  Pala Garcia, violin; John Popham, cello; and Renate Rohlfing, piano self-identify as a group with “traditional instrumentation and a progressive identity.”  Indeed they have chosen a rather young and pretty much unknown group of composers: Francesco Filidei (1973- ) is the oldest of the group followed by Clara Iannotta (1983- ), Juan De Dios Magdaleno (1984- ), Christopher Trapani, and Yukiko Watanabe.

Despite the varied backgrounds these composers seem to share a particular segment of a modern aesthetic.  They seem fond of judicious use of extended instrumental techniques and quasi-minimalist cells but their styles are quite listenable.  They seem to have aspects of pointillism, the occasional terseness of Webern, some rhythmic intricacies and the occasional nod to a melody.  In short they seem schooled in the variety of techniques which rose largely out of the twentieth century but seem beholden to none of them seeking instead to judiciously use their skills to create their own unique sound worlds.

There are five works on eight tracks and none of them can be easily described except to say the the combination of listening with the aid of the liner notes can be helpful.  That is not to say the works cannot stand on their own.  That is a useful experience in itself.

I suppose it might be best to say that these works will likely evoke a variety of reactions from various listeners.  This is the sort of album, at least for this listener, that benefits from a direct concentrated listen without distraction but it is also worth experiencing as background music, letting the experience creep in where it might while you do other things.  And then a read through the liner notes to try to divine the composers’ intents.

I’m not being facetious here.  I think this is a very intriguing album but one which is difficult to characterize in words and one which is beyond this writer’s expertise in terms of any useful analysis.  Also the newness of these voices does not allow one to place these works even within the contextual canon of each individual composer’s work.  We have free floating modernism which, as was thought in the cold war days, may invade one’s intellect in subversive ways.

The review immediately preceding this one, Soft Aberration, features this piano trio on it’s first track.  Now Scott Wollschleger is very closely associated with the Manhattan School of Music.  What is curious here is that Longleash has managed to find the present disparate group of emerging composers with no directly discernible connections to the Manhattan School but with a clear affinity for the same sound world.  It is the luck of the draw that these reviews have appeared in this sequence but the similarities are striking.  So if you like the spare sounds of the New York School (John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff) and their successors in people like Scott Wollschleger, Reiko Futing, and Nils Vigeland (who, along with Pala Garcia provides the useful liner notes) then this will be your cup of tea.  But even if you don’t know these folks you are still in for a fascinating journey of cutting edge ideas by emerging composers.  And even if it is not “weaponized art” subverting your mind to western ideology you can be assured that it is genuine and uplifting work done by some wonderful performers of composers you will likely hear from again very soon.

 

Scott Wollschleger’s Soft Aberration


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The cover and the booklet that come with this CD contain art that is a remarkably fitting metaphor for the music contained herein.  The almost monochromatic images with sometimes barely visible lines defining a space which requires serious concentration to discern effectively at times is very much like the music we hear on the disc.

Scott Wollschleger (1980- ) is an American composer who studied with Nils Vigeland at the Manhattan School of Music.  His work has been compared to that of Morton Feldman and, more generally, to the other members of the so-called New York School.  Vigeland has been active throughout his career performing and recording definitive versions of some of the best of Morton Feldman, John Cage, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff.  It would appear that these voices and stylistic leanings are very much favored at the Manhattan School of Music.  A previous disc reviewed here with music by head of the composition department Reiko Futing, evokes a similar sound world.

This disc of chamber music contains five works on eight tracks ranging from 1’43” to 14’27” and all require almost as much concentration on the part of the listener as the extended techniques and performance requirements demand of the performers.  The dynamic range is from (generous) silences to forte.

The first track is by the seriously entertaining and odd piano trio called Longleash.  They demonstrate their expertise and concentration as well as their love for this musical genre in their performance of Brontal Symmetry (2015).  Unlike the other pieces here, Brontal Symmetry makes use of ostinati and there is a consistent sound field punctuated with silences.  It is an unusual but ultimately engaging piece.  Longleash consists of Pala Garcia, violin; John Popham, cello; and Renate Rohlfing, piano.

It is followed by the titular and sparse Soft Aberration (2013) for viola and piano played by Anne Lanzilotti, viola and Karl Larson, piano.  Though approximately the same length as the opening work the silences nearly suspend the perception of time and create a sense of sounds suspended in space in a sort of sculptural way.

Bring Something Incomprehensible into this World (2015) is for trumpet and soprano.  The three parts of this work are spread across the disc (tracks 3, 5, and 8) creating an even more spare sense.  It is interesting to play the three movements manually without the interruption of the intended track sequence to get a sense of the piece.  Again we have silences predominating with extended techniques demanded of the performers.  Andy Kozar plays trumpet and the soprano is Corrine Byrne.  The first movement at 6’39” is the longest followed by the second at 3’25” and the last at 1’43”.

America (2013) is a solo cello piece here played by John Popham (of Longleash).  It is a pointillistic mix of silence and extended instrumental techniques which makes reference to an art work by Glenn Ligon.

White Wall (2013) is for string quartet and is played by the Mivos Quartet consisting of Olivia De Prato, violin; Josh Modney, violin; Victor Lowrie, viola; and Mariel Roberts, cello.  This is an amalgam of unfolding processes which seem to be indiosyncratic to the composer.  It is very intimate music in that sense.  The piece is in two substantial movements.

The album concludes with the brief last part of Bring Something Incomprehensible Into This World.  Suffice it to say that there are attempts here to tie in philosophical as well as visual metaphors.  Wollschleger is apparently enamored of the writings of Deleuze, Nietzsche, and Brecht.  Her lies another tie in to the New York School with their love of visual metaphors and philosophy.  This is not an easy listen but it is a serious effort deserving of some attention.  The listener can decide whether the artists have indeed brought something comprehensible into this world…or not.

 

 

Of Mourning and Unity, 2016


 

oliverosolstice20160075Every year on June 21st, the Summer Solstice, there is a rather unique concert event in which musicians from the Bay Area and beyond gather in celebratory splendor in the sacred space of the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland.  The chapel is a columbarium  (a resting place for cremated remains) and a mausoleum.  The space is in part the work of famed California architect Julia Morgan.

On December 19th Sarah Cahill with New Music Bay Area secured permission to use this space for four hours from 11AM to 3PM.  She invited many musicians who had been involved in one way or another with Pauline Oliveros whose death preceded by a week or two the tragic “Ghost Ship Fire” as it’s become known.  The idea was to pay homage to both this wonderful theorist, composer, performer and teacher and also to pay homage and to mourn the losses of some 36 young artists who will now never realize their ambitions.

What follows here is a simple photo essay of my personal impressions of this event.  The slant of the winter light added a dimension to those beautiful spaces as a large roster of musicians played pieces by and about Pauline Oliveros.  It was a lovely and reverent experience.

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The angle of the winter light adds its dimension.

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