Other Minds 26, Well Part of It Anyway


Chinatown’s Historic Great Star Theater

I have attended nearly every OM annual concert series since 2012. But pesky adult responsibilities intervened for the last few years. Having had to miss OM 25 due to my out of town work I resolved to make it to OM 26 now that I am back in California. However circumstances conspired such that I was only able to make one night of this essential new music festival.

Sidewalk Projection in Front of Theater

I do plan to listen to the archived audio and video streams which Other Minds now provides. but nothing can truly take the place of live performances. And, in addition to providing some wonderful sonic ear candy, there is the spectacle of the performances themselves. On top of that, these performances have showcased many wonderful performance spaces such as the The Jewish Community Center, The SF Jazz Center to name a few of them. OM 26 was held at the historic Great Star Theater in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood, a venue known for presenting traditional Chinese Opera (in fact Chinese Opera continues to be on the bill for this charming little performance space).

Lobby entrance.

A heavy fog enveloped the northern end of the city as I approached the venue but the sun greeted me when I reached my destination. According to their website this theater is “Located in San Francisco’s renowned Chinatown, the historic Great Star Theater is a one-of-a-kind venue. Built in 1925, this traditional proscenium stage live theater was originally home to Cantonese Opera and Hong Kong kung-fu movies. Recently under new management and newly renovated and revitalized, it now features a variety of theatrical, musical, circus, and motion pictures for a new generation.”

View of stage

The 438 seat theater was more than adequate to accommodate the small but fervent crowd of Other Minds fans. There were seats to be had but the small audience was a highly appreciative one willing to open themselves to the adventure of new music curated by Charles Amirkhanian who has presided over the new music scene of the Bay Area ever since his tenure as classical music director of radio station KPFA which began in 1969. The Fresno native studied at Mills College, earning an MFA in 1980. While his tenure at KPFA ended in 1992, his involvement in new music productions continued. During that time he recorded interviews with nearly every area composer and musician as well as a panoply of international artists. His gentle, friendly manner along with his mellifluous resonant baritone voice (one that looms large in his sound poetry) has served him well in radio and in his large catalog of interviews. He founded Other Minds in 1992 with television producer (now president emeritus of Other Minds) Jim Newman.

What I Missed

In this 26th incarnation of this iconic series of new music concerts the following were presented on the first concert:

First Night

THERESA WONG

Fluency of Trees

MARI KIMURA

JanMaricana, D’Alembert Caprice, Motion Notions (Dai Fujikura), Rossby Waving

RAVEN CHACON & GUILLERMO GALINDO Improvised Set

Missing this fabulous first night was a painful experience. Theresa Wong is a fine musician/performer from the Bay Area. Her name, of course, occurs elsewhere in the pages of this blog, She is not to be missed as composer, as cellist, as performer.

Mari Kimura, no stranger to Other Minds fans, is one whose work I do not know. But it is by introduction of stunningly intelligent and skilled artists such as this one that the OM fan can safely put on their collective and individual radar, sure that their/our attention is not misspent.

Pulitzer Prize Winner Raven Chacon is one of those fine artists about whom Other Minds (aka Mr. Amirkhanian) can say “I told you so,” If you studied your emails you will find a link to an OM interview with maestro Chacon. He is a Native American (Navajo Nation) musician whose experiments caught the eye/ear of OM and resulted in an appearance and interview. How wonderful for him to return in his post Pulitzer appearance.

Guillermo Galindo is a respected Bay Area musician, sound designer, conceptual artist, and teacher. He is one you want to keep your ear/eye on. His unique instincts visually and sonically are a good bet in his performances. Paired with Chacon? How can you go wrong?

Third Night

DOMINIC MURCOTT

The Harmonic Canon

KUI DONG

Scattered Ladder

LARS PETTER HAGEN 10 Svendsen Romances, Seven Studies in Sadness, Diabelli Cadenza, Coda

And the grand finale, always the one you go to if you can’t make them all, the third night:

Dominic Murcott (who appears as percussionist/conductor on evening two) is one who, by a glimpse of his online CV, immediately was placed on high listening/reading priority in my links list. It will forever be a “one that got away” story for this absent fan. The bell and the backstory are alone worth the price of the ticket,

Lars Petter Hagen is a new name to this writer, a warning shot across my bow from OM. The Sternberg/Cahill duo here performing this composer’s work are also a guarantee of fine performance,

Kui Dong is another esteemed Bay Area artist whose work has long had a productive affiliation with OM. Any new work or recording of her work is a cause for attention. Her work for the Prism Percussion Duo was doubtless a substantive experience.

There is a link provided for each of the artists for the reader’s convenience. Please do click those links and explore further. I know I certainly will,

What I Did See and Hear

The panel style interviews before each concert are an opportunity to learn from the participants and to enjoy the interview style of Mr. Amirkhanian.

The concert began with the stylings of Hanna Hartman, a Berlin based Swedish composer who favors old and lower tech electronics. In this digital age with access to incredibly complex synthesizers and other sound technology, Hartman (at least here) worked with a Buchla 200 synthesizer and a selection of recorded and live sounds which were processed and created what sounded to my ears like a live performance of a tape composition. Quite a feat.

Hanna Hartman

Standing at a table stage left covered with electronic and non-electronic devices she looked like the host of a cooking show live mixing sounds into a logical flow which were projected in stereo to the audience.

The performance had her draped in multicolored tubes which she used to blow into and create sounds in miked containers of water. She stood actuating materials on her table that might have come from an erector construction set and/or a “Mouse Trap” game (familiar to listeners of a certain age) and which resulted in a veritable barrage of sound which moved from one speaker to another but created an immersive and room dominating flow of sounds.

Hanna Hartman in performance.

It might best be called a sound collage. It seemed to be guided by a program or sequence much as any musical composition. The sounds, sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes more drone like and serene, were engaging. And the curious image of her working with these various materials sometimes seemed indirectly connected to the sounds heard. It was as if the chef’s culinary efforts had taken on a sonic life of their own.

Though baffling at times the audience and this writer were very appreciative as the music revealed its internal logic. We had been introduced to yet another interesting artist by the Other Minds experience.

Joëlle Léandre (left) and Lauren Newton (right).

Then after just a bit of stage arranging Joëlle Léandre and Lauren Newton took the stage for a set of improvisations on double bass and voice. Going from the retro electronics and electroacoustic to good old live analog sound was a contrast.

Lauren Newton speaking in the live stage interview with conductor/composer Dominic Murcott looking on and Joelle Leandre on the right,

These two brought an intense energy to the stage in a sort of cosmic cabaret. Newton is a classically trained singer who now performs (at least on this night) a sort of glossolalia of non linguistic sounds in league with co-improviser Léandre.

Joëlle Léandre is a double bass player with skills sufficient to have had her included in the late conductor/composer Pierre Boulez’ “Ensemble Intercontemporaine”. Boulez was a very demanding and exacting man. Léandre was also influenced by hearing the work of the AACM (American Association of Creative Musicians), a Chicago based group which introduced African musical ideas into modern western performances.

Call it “free jazz”, “new classical”, or whatever you choose. These new sounds and performance styles launched the double bass player to another world and another career as an improvising musician.

Well, these two women brought a wild shared creative energy to the stage. In a set of (if I counted correctly) five separate improvisations they traded with Léandre beginning, then Newton beginning, and clearly demonstrated a comfortable relationship between themselves as performers. The set went from moments of angst to moments of gentle humor to virtually indescribable moments which all shared an intimate connection between the performers as well as the audience.

Léandre compelled a variety of sounds ranging from standard bowed string sounds to ethereal harmonics, percussive sounds, and even her own vocalizations. Newton’s instrument (her voice) seemed to channel a mysterious range of sounds from whispers to glossolalia, to almost words. She and Léandre seemed possessed by dance like movements and hand gestures resembling those of raga singers all of which were a part of a truly engaging performance.

Joelle Léandre and Lauren Newton acknowledging a clearly very happy audience response to their performance.

After that intense experience the audience was allowed a brief intermission to recover and be able to focus on the final performance of the evening. From the electric to the acoustic we moved, perhaps inevitably, to the electroacoustic.

Dominic Murcott, peripatetic conductor/drummer about to lead this major opus by Charles Amirkhanian.

Yes, THAT Charles Amirkhanian, the voice of OM. In addition to his leadership work with the various aspects of OM, he is a much respected composer/sound artist, His astute advocacy of the up and coming voices presented via OM are an enduring legacy. Here is an exciting local premiere performance of a major opus.

Amirkhanian noted his earliest compositional inspirations to have been a result of his experience with being a drummer in the high school marching band. So that kind of gives you a clue as to this unusual orchestration.

Add to that his unique take on sound poetry, his skills with tape manipulation, sound samples, etc. and this multi movement work takes on an epic proportion. I reprint the liner notes below but my personal experience is as follows:

Drummers to the left,

“Ratchet Attach It” (2021)by Charles Amirkhanian is a large multi movement work for eight percussionists and sound samples. It is a piece which succeeds on many levels. The composer’s background (and clearly cherished) experience as a percussionist is the most obvious driving force and framework but the inclusion of his sound art, use of language as both sound and syntax interpolated between and sometimes with the live musicians performance. The electronic interpolations are, whether intended or not, a sort of nod to Edgar Varese’ “Deserts”. Their function within the composition however, are quite different.

There is a characteristic humor which runs through much of Amirkhanian’s work. His gentle defiance of drum cadence structures and doubtless other performance conventions in this work become transformed via caricature, a sort of personal nod to fellow percussionists. They are punctuated with a variety of audio intrusions between and sometimes within movements. These intrusions are autobiographical and nostalgic as they refer or connote respectful homages of fellow artists as noted in the very useful program notes. These are not actually intrusions as much as connecting audio cadences as a sort of mortar for the deconstructing drum cadences that dominate the music’s structure. It takes on a character of ringing changes in bell ringing but that is deconstructed as well,

Drummers to the right,

There are a panoply of examples of the concept of humor in music at work here but as I am not a musicologist I will restrict my examples to the most obvious. In what may also be gentle parody, the conductor, Mr, Murcott, traveled between podium and fellow drummer leading the orchestra as did Mozart and Beethoven, with their instrument close by. Other players did their share of marching around in a visual ballet as they carried various bells that they played before returning to their assigned snare stations. A large bass drum asserted itself from back center in the ensemble, This was a disciplined performance making a strong case for the music. Quite a spectacle and maybe an “audicle” (sound spectacle) as well.

Replete with multiple references to personal and historical events as well as quasi minimalist manipulations of drum cadences in a live action electroacoustic visual and sonic event. It is a remarkably seamless mix of electric and acoustic, a major achievement. Dead serious but with great joy and humor.

Composer Charles Amirkhanian acknowledging the very appreciative applause.

The composer’s notes here add much to the appreciation of this complex work:

I – The U.S. Army
Postal Unit at Blandford, Dorset, 1944
When it became apparent during World War
II that Hitler’s Germany would take a route through Blandford to attack England, the bar- racks from WWI were re-activated and popu- lated, in large measure, by U.S. Army personnel starting in 1943. The following year, my 29-year- old father Ben, the commander of a unit of men assigned to sort the mail sent from the U.S. to England and Continental Europe, arrived to be- gin work in Dorset. On the weekends, the com- mander had the privilege of driving some of his men around for sightseeing, from Stonehenge, to Piccadilly Square, to Edinburgh. Ben’s enthu- siasm for the people of England, the landscape and its history, is evident in his many letters home to my mother who was about to give birth to me in January 1945.

II – In Praise of the Venerable Piano Roll

The wonders of music made available to many non-performers in the early 20th Century by the invention of the player piano brought an unimag- inable thrill of excitement to so many. Before the days of high-fidelity sound recording, hearing the acoustic sounds of an actual piano, playing note-perfect renditions of classical and popular repertoire in one’s own home, was a profound-

ly mesmerizing experience. Snare drummers everywhere will welcome the chance to honor this signal achievement with a roll of their own. My thanks to Dominic Murcott for suggesting that the percussion repertoire lacked a single piece comprised solely of the sounds of drum rolls.

III – Ticklish Licorice

This movement comprises a quick-time perfor- mance of the novelty piece Flying Moments, by Leo Livens (1896-1990), accompanied by crystalline bell sounds from the percussionists. Livens, in his day, was a renowned British composer
of light music. Here the player piano is useful
in brightening up the music with a high-speed rendition of this playful music, performed in a studio recording by Rex Lawson with his usu-
al nuance and panaache on the Bösendorfer Imperial Grand at Dulwich College in 1994—John Whiting, sound engineer.

IV – Chatteratchet

The sound up close of a concert orchestral ratch- et can be hair-raising. Also, full of bird-chirping- like overtones. I learned this early on by accident while sitting in the enclosed cab of my Volkswa- gen bug and turning the handle of this ear-split- ting instrument. I decided to compose a solo for amplified ratchet, followed by duos, an octet, and other combinations over the years. The act of playing this mechanical instrument somehow relates, for me, to the mechanism of the player piano, with its constant rotating of the paper roll on which music has been encoded. The ratchet came to mind in relation to Spitalfields and the history there of tailoring. My only visit to the neighborhood came some years ago when I visited the offices of my friend Timothy Everest, bespoke tailor. In this quartet for four amplified ratchets, much of the work is devoted to the practice of turning the instrument’s handle con- tinuously, but at the slowest possible speed. The counterpoint between the instruments literally is out of the control of the players due to the nature of the spokes and their response to the turning crank, resulting in an interesting irregularity.

V – Hopper Popper

Numerous different ethnicities produced piano rolls of their own folk and popular music, includ- ing my people, the Armenians. Here is a roll of the love song “Haperpan” (a woman’s name), with its irregular phrase structure, augmented by our percussionists with wire brushes on the snare drum heads. The rhythmic irregularities in the cutting of the roll are especially interesting, if subtle.

VI – Exculpatorium

An excuplatorium (a word I coined) would be
a large, highly reverberant room where elder- ly snare drummers (and The Blue Man Group) must go to be absolved of their youthful sins of exhibitionism. As my first original compositions were relatively sedate marching band drum ca- dences, unlike some later more flamboyant and theatrical Fluxus-inspired pieces, I return to my pedestrian roots in this movement.

VII – To the Riled Wrecks

In 1896, the American composer Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) and his wife Marian purchased a lovely rural farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire. MacDowell immediately set about writing a series of short piano pieces he titled Woodland Sketches, Op. 51. One of these, “To a Wild Rose,” heard here, was a favorite of my piano teacher mother Eleanor’s. I’d often request it from her as music to go to sleep to when I was seven and just beginning myself

to study piano. Rex Lawson here performs an 88-note roll of the music on a pianola adjust- ed to a setting for rolls that contain only 65 notes across the width of the roll, with crushing results.

VIII – Dominictrix

This solo for snare drum was composed for my invaluable collaborator in the composition and world premiere of Ratchet Attach It, Dominic Murcott. I incorporate some of his favorite licks— thus, Dominic tricks.

IX – Bum of the Flightlebee

This backwards rendition of the Rimsky-Kor- sakov favorite The Flight of the Bumblebee is played by Rex Lawson by reversing the physical roll on the spindle. This piece is the only one I’ve

discovered that is both interesting and recogniz- able in any of the four possible performances of the paper roll—forward, backward, and each of those with treble to bass reversed.

X – Pedestrian

The most memorable drum cadence ever, in
my experience, was written for and played
at the funeral of the American President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 25, 1963. Its somber use of strictly regular rhythm capped by a dotted figure still haunts me, long after I heard it at the age of eighteen during the day-long event televised nationally from Washington, D.C. Using an additive process of extending the roll figure, and doubling it with the grating sounds of ratchets, resulted in this variation on a most memorable walking tune.

XI – Tyrannus Rex

Three piano rolls played by Rex Lawson com- prise the core of this concluding movement: The Tarantella from Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos in an arrangement made by the composer, Percy Grainger’s roll of his own Molly on the Shore, and a roll of the popular song from 1933, “Stormy Weather,” by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Ted Koehler, on an 88-note roll played while shifting back and forth between 65- and 88-note settings on the pianola. Percussion em- bellishments orchestrated by Dominic Murcott lend an added spatial dimension.

Performers included:

MEMBERS OF
THE OTHER MINDS ENSEMBLE 

JEREMY STEINKOLER, DIRECTOR

DOMINIC MURCOTT, CONDUCTOR

ANDREW GRIFFIN
ANDREW LEWIS
CLAY MELISH
ROWAN NYKAMP
ERIKA OBA
BRIAN RICE
DAWN RICHARDSON
KEITH TERRY

They played their hearts out. And I’m sure glad I didn’t miss this epic night,

Charles Amirkhanian, Catalyst of New Music Turns 75


Charles Amirkhanian interviewed by Kyle Gann at Berkeley’s David Brower Center (Photo by Allan Cronin, Creative Commons license)

A large and sympathetic crowd filled the Goldman Theater in Berkeley’s David Brower Center on this 19th day of 2020, the 75th birthday of composer, broadcaster, producer, new music catalyst Charles Amirkhanian. His is perhaps not a household name except in the households of the legions of composers, musicians, and fans of new music (this writer’s household definitely included).  That is a substantial crowd actually and close to 200 of them were in attendance.  

It was somehow fitting that this celebration take place in this particular venue. The Brower Center also contains the office from which he administers the wonderful Other Minds organization, the current outlet for his various projects supporting new music including the annual Other Minds concert series. 

Joshua Kosman’s respectful article of January 14th served notice to all of this impending event.   

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Amirkhanian with his ASCAP Award in the background (Photo by Allan Cronin Creative Commons license)

Charles is the executive and artistic director of the Other Minds Music Festival in San Francisco, which he co-founded with Jim Newman in 1992.  That festival will mark its 25th incarnation this year.  In addition he produces Other Minds Records and maintains a huge archive of interviews and music as well as a weekly radio broadcast on KALW featuring new and interesting music presented by he and his musical confederates.  

His stint as music director for KPFA in San Francisco lasted from 1969 to 1992 during which time he also interviewed most (if not all) the significant new music composers and performers of the time.  This writer has dubbed him the “Bill Graham” of new music because of the detail and care he always takes in producing concerts, conversations, recordings, and happenings.

His musicological efforts can be seen in his writings and advocacy of the work of George Antheil (for whom he served as executor of the composer’s estate) and Conlon Nancarrow, expatriate American composer who spent much of his creative life in Mexico City.  It was in the composer’s studio there that Charles recorded all of the groundbreaking studies for player piano on the composer’s original instruments (a major undertaking).  Indeed Charles’ history of advocacy and support of fellow musicians and composers would be a worthy subject for a book on its own.  His advocacy is a large part of his legacy as well.

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Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith (all rights reserved)

The 178 seat Goldman Theater had but a few empty seats.  The crowd was a clearly enthusiastic one comprised of artists and supporters of the arts.  The evening commenced with an interview by fellow composer and scholar Kyle Gann, himself long associated with Mr. Amirkhanian (since at least 1982).  A professor of music at Bard College, Gann came here to the west coast expressly for this interview.  

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Kyle Gann, composer, scholar, professor of music (Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith)

After a brief intro from Blaine Todd, Other Minds’ Associate Director the interview (actually more of a friendly conversation) began  with brief discussion of Amirkhanian’s beginnings and subsequent history in music in the Bay Area (and beyond).  Just in this casual conversation we met the man whose experiences has had him cross paths with a virtual Who’s Who of the most significant figures in 20th (and now 21st) century music while pursuing his own compositional efforts.  

In many, or dare I say, most cases his relationships have been very beneficial to his peers.  This was quite evident in a few conversations which this writer had with fellow audience members.  One gentleman asserted that Charles has put his advocacy ahead of his own work in favor of supporting new and emerging talents.  Another reminisced about how much he had learned of new music as a result of listening to those KPFA shows and how much this meant in his life.  His support of this very blog is another example.  It came about during the experience of volunteering at the Other Minds office.  And one need only look at the histories of many of the composers hosted at the fabulous Other Minds festival to see the subsequent successes attained by the talented individuals invited to perform at those events.  Henry Brant’s Pulitzer Prize winning organ concerto, “Ice Field” (2001) was an Other Minds commission.  More examples abound.

 

Amirkhanian’s sound poetry can be found on albums such as Lexical Music (1979, now on OM records 1032-2), Mental Radio (1985, CRI records, reissued on New World Records), Walking Tune (1997, Starkland Records), and his genre defining anthology “10+2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces (1975, OM 1006).  

Loudspeakers

New World Records 80817

There is more to be had in this one man’s work than one evening could hope to contain but this program was also a CD release event of Amirkhanian’s sound collage works, a distinctly different genre from those who may know his language based works.  The two CD set on New World Records, “Loudspeakers” is a compendium of four works, Pianola (Pas de mains) (1997–2000; the subtitle is French for “no hands”), Im Frühling (“In Spring”, 1990), Loudspeakers (1990) ,  a vocal portrait of Morton Feldman, and Son of Metropolis San Francisco (1987/1997).  This release serves as a fine birthday present for the composer and his audience illustrating this important aspect of his oeuvre..

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Carol Law

At one point Amirkhanian quipped about his “long suffering wife” Carol Law who is a photographer and visual artist whose work includes some fascinating collaborations with Mr. Amirkhanian.  The two spent the mid 1960s traveling and meeting sound poets throughout Europe and the Nordic countries.  These efforts were very nicely showcased some of his work in the Other Minds 23 concerts.  I include one photo from that festival to give some idea of the significance of the collaboration. Law’s affable presence is a part of all these concerts and, far from suffering, she seems to derive much joy and satisfaction from this work.

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Amirkhanian performing his sound poetry in conjunction with Carol Law’s surreal slide show in which Amirkhanian becomes a part of the striking images.

 

Though Charles once remarked in an interview that one cannot really play these sound collages and expect people to listen in a concert hall (these pieces are originally conceived for presentation on radio) that is exactly what he did at this event.  We were treated to some or all of the pieces on this important new release including the entire 20 minutes or so Son of Metropolis.  And this sympathetic audience ate it like candy.  Indeed these sonic landscapes, the experimental Pianola, and the humorous homage to the late Morton Feldman in the titular Loudspeakers were absorbed by hungry ears and met with appreciative applause.  It is clear to those with new music ears that this release is a major event.

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Other Minds OM-1025-2

In a role reversal consistent with our guest of honor’s reputation for magnanimity a portion of the event was given to listening to an excerpt (the album is over 2 hours long) from Kyle Gann’s masterful Hyperchromatica, a piece written for three computer controlled disklaviers all tuned to a 33 tone octave and produced by Amirkhanian on Other Minds Records.  One cannot accurately describe the sound of this music except that it may remind some of a detuned old piano.  It is anything but detuned and Gann owes his inspiration in part to the experiments with tuning from predecessors such as La Monte Young and Ben Johnston (among others).  Actually he just recently released his own carefully researched tome on the subject of tuning.  

kyletune

Amirkhanian briefly took the role of interviewer and provided a very useful introduction to this work prior to hearing one of its movements.  As with the earlier pieces the audience listened with respectful attention and responded with warm applause.  This Other Minds records release was also available before, at intermission, and at the conclusion of the vent with both Charles and Kyle happily autographing and discussing their work.  Both the Hyperchromatica disc and this new book are major additions to the world of new music.

 

 

 

And, of course, no birthday is complete without a cake.

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Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith

Many lingered following the event (which exceeded its two hour original plan) to chat with the kindred spirits and share in the cake, cookies, and fine UBUNTU brand coffee.  It is an event that will live in this writer’s memory and doubtless in the many who attended.

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The man of the hour toasting his “semisesquicentennial”.

A very Happy Birthday to you, Mr. Amirkhanian.  Your vision and efforts have been and continue to be a blessing to the Bay Area and the new music community in general.  Salud!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gloria Cheng and Terry Riley Rock the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts


Ritorna vincitor!  I paraphrase from Verdi’s Aida but Charles Amirkhanian introduced this concert telling us that Other Minds held its first concert here 25 years ago.  Indeed this was a victorious return (though the first visit was also victorious)  featuring, as Amirkhanian correctly emphasized, musicians with a decidedly west coast aesthetic. In fact Mr. Riley was on the board of the nascent Other Minds organization founded under the loving and watchful eyes of Jim Newman (now president emeritus) and Charles Amirkhanian, executive and artistic director.

Charles Amirkhanian, 25 years later and going strong with Other Minds.

Gloria Cheng is a California native and is now professor of contemporary performance at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music.  She is a Grammy winning artist and has, for many years now, been a champion of Terry Riley’s music among many others.  

Cheng deeply focused.

Terry Riley (1935- ) is also born and educated in the Golden State and is a world renowned composer and performer.  His 1964 piece, “In C” pretty much represents the beginning of the “minimalist” style and remains his most performed work.

Terry Riley at 84 still going strong as both composer and performer.

This was your reviewer’s first time hearing Ms. Cheng live and it is an experience not to be missed.  Cheng’s command of the piano and of the wide range of musical styles she demonstrated on this night was nothing short of stunning.  In particular her command of the varying styles that are Terry Riley including ragtime, barrel house, jazz, classical, modernism, virtuosic romanticism, etc.  In addition to that she demonstrated a truly profound command of the keyboard which left the audience so deeply enthralled that they (we) almost forgot to applaud.  

The concert began with Ms. Cheng’s performance of Riley’s early Two Pieces for Piano (1958-59).  Here she seemed to be channeling Pierre Boulez and that whole school of post-Darmstadt pointillism with an ever present sense of trying to maintain equality for each of the twelve tones used in these pieces.

The uninitiated might have been put off by these early pre-minimalist works that are not generally the sound image conjured by the composer’s name.  Rather they represent Riley’s grasp of and subsequent working through of this material that preceded the compositional insights that characterize his mature style.  As a serious fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is a useful source for a metaphor.  On this 50th anniversary of  that film’s debut it seems that Riley, like astronaut David Bowman, steps through the star gate and is transformed beyond even his own wild and creative imagination.

By all appearances this audience seemed to be well-prepared and, as the young man who won the little drawing at intermission stated (I’m paraphrasing), Terry Riley’s concerts are always a good bet.  While  there may have been people who knew less it is clear that no one was less than entertained and many, this writer included, were positively delighted.

The next work, “The Walrus In Memoriam” (1991 rev. 1994) was originally commissioned for Aki Takahashi, one of several pieces based on Beatles tunes, this one a sort of elegy for John Lennon (1940-1980).  The CD is well worth seeking for its creative music and Takahashi is always worth hearing.

As if building to a climax, Cheng really put her performance into high gear with the next set of pieces from 1994 entitled, “The Heaven Ladder Book Seven”.  Don’t get me wrong, she was focused and in fine form for those first three pieces but when she sat down to perform the Heaven Ladder pieces one could feel an intensity such that the audience seemed hypnotized, paying attention to Cheng’s every gesture.  Despite a few stifled coughs (no doubt residue from our recent awful fires here) the audience was laser focused on this performer as she made Riley’s charming pieces come alive.

Intermission was an opportunity to stretch our legs and breathe again knowing that when we returned we would be hearing both Cheng and Riley.  It was a gathering of like minds for the most part and many people validated some of my perceptions that Cheng had transfixed the audience.  

During intermission there was more talk about the upcoming Other Minds 24 with programs scheduled on March 23rd and June 15 and 16.  More on that in future blogs.  And now on to the second half of the concert.

Terry Riley’s energy belies his age.  Riley will turn 84 in June and continues to compose, perform and travel extensively.  And when he sits down at the piano he is magical.

Riley opened with “Simply M” (2007) written in honor of the late Margaret Lyon, a longtime chair of the Mills College Music Department and one of the people who brought Terry Riley there to teach composition.  She had previously presided over teaching tenures by Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud.

The music had a quasi-improvisational feel (like much of Riley’s music) but channeled classical composers along with ragtime, jazz, ragas, and Riley’s usual eclectic mix of styles.  It was a free flowing piece going through abrupt changes in character at different points but the piece seems to rely on some basic classical composition techniques which function as a sort of scaffolding or mold into which the composer pours his creative ideas.  The piece was highly virtuosic but gave off a charming hypnotic flow.

He acknowledged the appreciative applause and moved right into the second piece on this half, “Requiem for Wally” (1997).  This piece is written as a memorial for Riley’s ragtime piano mentor, Wally Rose.  In the very useful notes, Riley states that he combines elements of ragtime with the Hindustani Raga Nat Bhairav.  In this piece we got to hear Riley’s distinctive tenor trained in raga singing by the late Pandit Pran Nath.  It is this ability to combine and synthesize various musics into a coherent style which this audience clearly knows well, Terry Riley.

Following these performances Riley left the stage and came back joined by Gloria Cheng again for the newest music of this evening, “Cheng Tiger Growl Roar” (2018).  It is, by the composer’s description, a four movement suite.  Like much of Riley’s music, it involves both notated and improvised material.  

Riley’s musical training has always involved a great deal of improvisation and that is true in this work.  Cheng, a classically trained pianist, mentions feeling challenged by Riley’s music as it asks her to move out of her comfort zone as an artist.  Well, except for Cheng mentioning this in her notes, there was no evidence of discomfort on the part of either artist.  They played as though they had always played together and their playing was ecstatic suggesting the depth of both artists’ grasp of the material and the affection they shared performing this piece for piano four hands.

Composer Terry Riley warmly greets fellow pianist Gloria Cheng at the end of a wonderful evening of Riley’s piano music from the last 50 years.

The audience, with their laser focus still intact, came out of their trance to share their warm applause.  What a transcendent evening!  What amazing artists!

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.

Amy X Neuberg

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.

Other Minds 20 and Why You Shouldn’t Miss It


Official Other Minds Logo

Official Other Minds Logo

The three days of concerts scheduled for March 6, 7 and 8 of this year at the beautiful SF Jazz Center will mark the 20th anniversary of Other Minds opening the ears and minds of bay area new music audiences.  Previously composers could only appear once at this festival (thought performers frequently return) but the anniversary celebration is marked by the return of several alumni.  In fact the entire program consists of composer alums.

Other Minds is an annual festival of new and unusual music curated by bay area composer, producer, broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian and his crew at Other Minds.  Along with co-founder, now president emeritus Jim Newman and a varied and sometimes changing crew of talented and dedicated archivists, fund-raisers and coordinators this festival was born in 1993.

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Every year (though the actual month has changed for various reasons related to venue availability and funding) an international group of composers is brought together first at the Djerassi Arts Center just west of Palo Alto where they share their work and ideas with each other for a week in preparation for the performances of their work to come at the concert series.  This residency is a sort of private retreat open only to the composers and the staff of the center.  And given the range of musical styles it must be a fascinating thing to witness as composers largely unfamiliar with each others’ work gather to share and wonder at each others’ strange and innovative ideas.  Who knows what seeds may have been sown?

Sadly, Dr. Carl Djerassi who founded the center passed away on January 30, 2015.  His arts advocacy will live on through his beloved Djerassi Arts Center and this OM 20 will be a testament to that legacy.

What makes this festival so significant is the fine tuned and prescient nature of the selected composers.  Just a quick look at the list of composers and performers who have participated in the past looks almost like a who’s who of new music as practiced in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  One of their commissions, Henry Brant’s (1913-2008)  won a Pulitzer Prize (Ice Field, 2001, Pulitzer Prize, 2002).  And it is programming with a uniquely west coast ethic, whatever that means.  I just know these programs are a different take on new music than that of the east coast.  Not a value judgement there, just a celebration of a different, equally important, point of view.

 

WHY YOU SHOULDN’T MISS OM 20

First you will find a generous (though hardly complete) selection of music by Charles Amirkhanian (1945- ) who has been at the helm of this festival from the beginning and was for 23 years the music director of KPFA radio where his programming and interviews with composers and performers of new music spanned a wide and eclectic gamut of styles and techniques.  Perhaps most significant has been his support of northern California composers whose work would otherwise have been poorly represented.  Amirkhanian’s keen ear has introduced a great deal of new and interesting music to bay area audiences and beyond.

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his ...

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his office with ASCAP award in background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to his abilities as producer and interviewer Charles is also a noted composer.  Trained as a percussionist, he has written quite a bit of music which deserves recognition for its innovation.  His best known works are those with tape recording, sound poetry and the uses of language.   His music will be featured in several performances and will be a welcome and tantalizing complement to the overall diverse tone that characterizes OM programming.

Amirkhanian’s oeuvre will be represented by “Rippling the Lamp” (2007) for violin and tape, three short pieces for voice and tape, “Dumbek Bookache IV” (1988), “Ka Himeni” (1997), “Marathon” (1997) and, on the third concert, “Miatsoom” (1994-97), a piece based on sounds (vocal, ambient and musical) recorded during the only trip Charles and his father made to Armenia in 1994.  This approximately half hour work is typical of his ability to create a fascinating and meaningful sound collage.  Miatsoom is Armenian for reunion, indeed the apparent theme of OM 20.

In an uncharacteristically political expression this year’s festival is in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.  Amirkhanian is the descendant (both he and his father Benjamin were born here) of Armenian immigrants and grew up in Fresno, California.  The genocide of 1915 (also the year of Benjamin’s birth) was in fact only the most infamous and fatal of the ongoing abuses by the Ottoman Turk government in response to Armenians seeking equal rights (a familiar social issue both then and still today).  Charles has been tactfully apolitical in his programming but his music at times has paid respectful homage to his ancestry and their struggles. It seems right to pay respect to one’s ancestors and perhaps acknowledge that we still have much to do and learn in our imperfect world.

Tigran Mansurian

Tigran Mansurian

Appropriately the esteemed Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian (1939-  ) has been welcomed back and will be represented by two major works.  Romance for Violin and Strings (2011) and Canti Paralleli (2007-8) for soprano and string orchestra are both scheduled for the third concert of the festival.  I was unable to find any details about these pieces but Mansurian’s work certainly deserves to be better known and these performances are a welcome opportunity to hear this major compositional voice.

Lou Harrison

Lou Harrison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Homage will be paid to two past masters who are no longer with us, American  composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014).  Harrison was a beloved bay area figure whose work with gamelan and other world musics led him to experimentation with alternate tuning systems.  Harrison will be represented by his “Scenes from Nek Chand” (2001-2) played on a National Steel Guitar tuned in just intonation by the wonderful guitarist David Tannenbaum who will also play Sculthorpe’s “From Kakadu” (1993) for conventionally tuned classical guitar.  Sculthorpe, born in Tasmania, was one of Australia’s best known composers who essayed widely in chamber, choral and orchestral music. His 14th string quartet (with didgeridoo played by Stephen Kent) “Quamby” (1998), played by the amazing Del Sol Quartet (who recorded all 18 of the composer’s string quartets) is scheduled to conclude the first concert.

Peter Sculthorpe

Peter Sculthorpe

 

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros (1932- ) is one of the grand ladies of new music.  Her theoretical work in defining music and the act of listening as partners in the creative process and her subsequent compositions including ground breaking work with early electronics with the San Francisco Tape Music Center and later at Mills College characterize her wide range of interests and her insights.  Her principal instrument, strangely enough, is an accordion and she will be performing as well.  OM has commissioned a new work from her, “Twins Peeking at a Koto” (2015, world premiere) for two accordions and koto.  to be presented at the second concert.  Playing the koto will be Miya Masaoka (1958-  ) whose second string quartet will receive its world première on the first night by the  Del Sol Quartet.  Masaoka, Japanese/American native of Washington D.C., is a New York based composer whose work brings her to the west coast frequently where she is a founding member of the Bay Area experimental improv trio Maybe Monday.  Her work involves improvisation and frequently uses unusual sound sources like bees and even cockroaches (not to worry, no insects are slated to perform) and creates site specific multi-disciplinary works in collaboration with musicians and dancers.

Miya Masaoka

Miya Masaoka

Errolyn Wallen (1958-  ) can be said to embody the OM ethic.  Born in Belize, Wallen  left the Dance Theater of Harlem to study composition in England and says of her work, “We don’t break down barriers in music…we don’t see any.”  Her Percussion Concerto (1994)  was the first work by a black woman to have been performed at the London Proms Concerts.   Her “London’s Burning and other songs” will be played on the second night by the SOTA string quartet and Wallen voice and piano.

Errollyn Wallen

Errollyn Wallen

Don Byron (1958- ) similarly states that he strives for “a sound beyond genre”.  Steeped in classical, jazz and folk musics, Byron’s quartet (Don Byron, clarinet; Aruán Ortiz, piano; Cameron Brown, bass; John Betsch, drums) is featured at the conclusion of the second night of the festival.

Don Byron

Don Byron

Maja S.K. Ratkje (1973- ) from Norway whose work is perhaps related to Mr. Amirkhanian’s  in her exploration of the possibilities of the human voice.  Her “Traces 2” (2014-5) will receive its U.S. premiere on the first night’s concert.

Maja Ratkje

Maja Ratkje

The third concert will be unusual for two reasons.  First it will take place beginning at 3PM and, second it will feature a full orchestra.  This night will conclude with U.S. premiere of the Second Symphony (2014) by Michael Nyman (1945- ) .  Nyman is perhaps best known for his numerous wonderful film scores but is also highly accomplished in his work in the concert hall.  In the past three years Nyman has turned for the first time to the Symphony form and has completed to date no fewer than 11  symphonies.  Quite a feat.

Michael Nyman in Sant Cugat del Vallès

Michael Nyman in Sant Cugat del Vallès (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tickets still available as low as $15/night.  Quite a festival!