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).  

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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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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.  

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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!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ramón Sender Barayón, Always Going Toward the Light


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Ramón Sender Barayón at Arion Press in San Francisco (Photo Creative Commons 2011 by Allan J. Cronin)

 

This crowd sourced video opens with a sort of exposition of the various identities of its subject Ramón Sender Barayón (also known as Ramon Sender, Ramon Sender Morningstar, Ray Sender, and Ramon Sender Barayón).  His father was the renowned Spanish novelist Ramón J. Sender whose work was unappreciated (to say the least) by the Franco regime resulting in his spending the last part of his life as an expatriate in the United States of America.  His mother Amparo Barayón fared far less well.  Her short life and her death at the hands of the Franco regime are memorialized in her son’s book, “A Death in Zamora“, an experience which has understandably informed his life.  As a writer, in order to distinguish himself from his father, he adopted his mother’s maiden name appended to his given name.  Happily this and some of his other works are making it to the kindle format.

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The film unfortunately does not appear to be available in any commercial outlets at the time of this writing but one hopes that Amazon or some internet distributor will make it more widely available.  One small critique is the use of sometimes English narration and sometimes Spanish narration with attendant translation subtitles in the opposite languages is a bit difficult to get used to but hardly an insurmountable issue.

Sender’s personal website continues to be a source of useful information.  Links can be found here to many of his writings and other work as well as some discussion of his musical compositions.

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In addition to being a writer he is an acknowledged pioneer in the area of experimental music.  He, along with Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros, Joseph Byrd, William Maginnis, Tony Martin, Joseph Byrd, and Terry Riley (among others) founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1962.  This later became the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music and remains in operation as of the date of this review.  Barayon’s ” novelized history of this time in his life titled, “Naked Close Up” finally found itself in a Kindle release after having circulated in PDF format for years on the internet.  (This history is also further documented in David Bernstein’s excellent, “The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde“)

His curiosity and wide ranging interests saw him participating in alternative commune living situations (beginning in 1966) in northern California exploring spirituality and challenging established social norms through the exploration of viable alternatives.  He writes most eloquently about this in his recently published “Home Free Home“, a large edited tome on the Morningstar Ranch and Wheeler’s Ahimsa Ranch which includes material by several other former residents.  The book is as much compilation as it is historical writing and memoir.  It is a fascinating read and is filled with historically significant recollections and commentary by many of those one time residents of these (now sadly defunct) communities.

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This DVD is one of those increasingly popular crowd sourced productions (here is the Indiegogo link) which has allowed independent publication of countless books and CDs and countless other projects which stimulate little interest among traditional venues despite the significance of their content.  The content here is of a profoundly important nature to fans of new music as well as fans of alternative living experiments and 60s counterculture and philosophy.  It is contemporary history and biography.

Ramón is man possessed of both wisdom and humor as well as deep thought.  This film is the first documentary to cover the diverse interest and involvement of this affable cultural polymath.  It begins with an interview of Mr. Sender in the living room of his home in San Francisco.  From there it traverses more or less chronologically among the dizzyingly diverse events which comprise his life thus far.

From his birth in Spain in 1934 to his present role as a sort of spiritual/intellectual guru running a lecture series called, “Odd Mondays” in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood which he and Judith Levy have managed for some 17 years with a variety of carefully chosen speakers.  The film covers a variety of topics and while it leaves out details at times it is a cogent and balanced biographical documentary.

His early involvement in the establishment of the influential San Francisco Tape Music Center finds him connected with fellow luminaries such as Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick, William Maginnis, Steve Reich, Joseph Byrd, Tony Martin, and Donald Buchla.  This institution, now relocated as the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, saw the creation of a great deal of musical technology and significant musical compositions (Terry Riley’s groundbreaking “In C” was first performed there in 1964).

Sender was one of the organizers of the Trips Festival in 1966 along with Stewart Brand (later of Whole Earth Catalog fame), Bill Graham, Ken Kesey with his Merry Pranksters. Following this he left San Francisco for Sonoma County in northern California.

He states at one point that he has not wanted to be identified with a single career (as his father was) so, following his experimental music work, he became among the first to experiment with communal living in the Morningstar Ranch and later in the Wheeler Ranch in Sonoma County, California.  These are now well documented in his book, “Home Free Home” mentioned earlier.

Happily the film does a nice job of acknowledging the role that his wife Judith Levy has played in his life since their marriage in 1982.  In particular her support in Sender’s research into his mother’s death at the hands of Franco’s thugs in Spain is both sweet and heartbreaking.  The two appear to be constant companions in a mutually supportive relationship he sought for many years.  They are frequently seen together.

A segment of his work which gets less attention here are his fiction and spiritual writings including Zero Weather, Being of the Sun (co-authored with Alicia Bay Laurel), Zero Summer, and Planetary Sojourn.  He has a collection of unpublished manuscripts and is reportedly now working on his autobiography.  Something which will doubtless be worth the wait.

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Sender with unidentified man walking out of the Pauline Oliveros Memorial Concert at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes in December, 2016 (Photo Creative Commons 2016 by Allan J. Cronin)

Singing the Unsingable, Bethany Beardslee’s Autobiography


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by Bethany Beardslee and Minna Zallman Proctor

This is not, strictly speaking, an autobiography.  It is perhaps more in the style of a memoir.  It traces the career and life of a woman whose voice drove much of the avant garde from the 1950’s to the 1980’s.  It is told with a sober tone as the artist looks back on the highs and lows of life and career well spent.  She tactfully shares just enough of her personal life and relationships to provide a context for her tales.

Anyone with an interest in new music during those years had to encounter Beardslee’s carefully cultivated soprano voice.  Along with names like Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Cathy Berberian, and Jan De Gaetani, hers was a very familiar and welcome voice which led listeners (including this writer) reliably and frequently definitively through the plurality of styles that comprise the 20th Century.  Of course she was trained in and also sang the so called “classics” meaning Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann etc. but she will likely be best known for her extraordinary service to new music.

Beardslee’s lengthy and sometimes rambling tome is a very personal look at a long and productive career.   She recounts teachers, other singers, composers, conductors, accompanists, and husbands over the span of a rich and interesting career.  The rambling quality of her prose serves only to cast an even more personal light on these accounts of her life and artistry.  Never is there a dull moment and this book will delight singers, composers, historians, and just plain listeners.

In the end this was a very satisfying read and the intelligent decision to include a discography as well as a list of Ms. Beardslee’s world and US premieres makes this book a useful document for further research into her career and the music which drove it.

Thomas Kozumplik’s Percussion Symphony, “Child of the Earth”


This is a big work written expressly for these musicians and commissioned by conductor Jonathan Haas. It is titled percussion “symphony” which suggests a grand undertaking. It is the only work on the disc.

The composer, Tomas Kozumplik is an American composer unfamiliar to this writer and most likely to most listeners. Kozumplik is a percussionist and composer based in Brooklyn.  He is perhaps best known as a film composer but his interests and his collaborations reveal him to be embracing a wide variety of musical interests.His website is definitely worth your time as it describes this artist’s range.

This work is neither noisy modernism nor “lite classical”. It is almost neo-romantic at times as it lives up to the grand promise of its title. It is a great example of how to write for percussion. Indeed the genesis of this work lies partly in the collaborative. Kozumplik worked closely with the musicians to mold this work into its final form. Multiple listens reveal more of the structure and unity of this work.  It is not, strictly speaking, difficult music but it is also not simple either.

Indeed, as the titles suggest this piece has a sort of external program, “Child of the Earth” and the subtitle, “Un nino busca a Dios” (which my limited Spanish means, “A child looks to God”) are referred to in greater detail in each track. It’s not clear how these ideas are integrated musically it does couch this work in a sociopolitical genre. The music certainly works well by itself but astute listeners will want to be aware of the meaning these ideas have had for the composer’s and, doubtless, the performers whose intimate investment here is ultimately the joy in this release.

Beethoven, Bartok, and Davidovsky with the Julliard Quartet


The Julliard Quartet is a hallowed name in classical music. This release reflecting its current generation of musicians is consistent with their practice of playing established classics alongside the modern. These are interesting choices of string quartets from the 18th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

Many will likely speculate on the motivations for these choices but it is a typical set of choices for a Juilliard Quartet recital, an intelligent mix of standard repertoire, not the “usual suspects” or most popular but musically solid pieces. And, of course, there is their all important embrace of the modern.

The Beethoven and the Barton are lovely choices intelligently played but the real draw, at least for this reviewer is the Davidovsky. Mario Davidovsky (1934- ) is a major American composer who deserves more performances and documentation of his work. Fortunately Bridge Records has taken on this task.

He is best known for his “Synchronisms” series pairing electronics with various acoustic instruments. This won him a Pulitzer Prize. But his music sans electronics is just as substantial and this 2016 String Quartet, his sixth, provides ample evidence of that substance.

Near as I can tell this is only the second recording of any of his quartets but it is sufficiently intriguing to whet the appetite for the other 5.

As a recital disc this one is thoroughly enjoyable and it’s inclusion of the Davidovsky is gloriously consistent with the overall image of the hallowed name of the Juilliard Quartet.

Wilhelmina Smith Plays Contemporary Solo Cello Works


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The selection of repertoire suggests that this release is targeted Stan audience which enjoys contemporary solo cello music.  No pairing with earlier established warhorses such as Brahms Cello Sonatas, and no electronics either.  Just a highly skilled musician and her incredible technique navigating these relatively recent examples of this genre from two acknowledged living masters, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho.  It is a daring and unusual program for cellist Wilhelmina Smith but it works as a dazzling display of her skills.

Salonen is, of course, one of the best known composer conductors working today.  This reviewer’s only other exposure to Salonen’s work thus far has been the gorgeous Cello Concerto reviewed here.  No question that this is a name worthy of your attention.

And if you enjoy new music you will be familiar with Kaija Saariaho (1952- ).  Since she first burst on the scene in the early 1980s she has produced one success after another in pretty much all genres.  Like Salonen she is Finnish by birth but has taken her rightful place as an internationally renowned composer.

The performances are virtuosic and deeply felt. The complex range of sounds evoked are rich and stunning.  Highly recommended.

Ann Millikan’s Symphony


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The combination of Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project alone are reasons to buy this disc.  The process of discovering new music can be an arduous task with few hints along the way.  However certain musical gurus have been very helpful to this writer and one of the finest is Mr. Rose and his orchestra.  His curation and the dedication of these incredible musicians pretty much guarantees a satisfying listening experience. The useful liner notes by Bay Area music maven Sarah Cahill also serve to recommend this disc.

If those accolades are not enough for you let me tell you that this was my first encounter with this composer so I went in with few expectations and no negative prejudices.  What I found was a hugely entertaining work of deep substance which grows on the listener with each run through.

The work is in four movements, each concerned with each focused upon one theme or idea related to the life of Robert Millikan, the composer’s brother. The movements are, “science”, “animals”, “rowing”, and “violin”. Each one describes an aspect of his life and, while elegy is a part of the intent in this music (which it does well), each one stands on its own musically and the work entertains on a purely musical level as well.

That last movement is virtually a violin concerto and seems among the most personal of the four. No doubt there are many personal references but the overall feeling is celebratory, the step just past mourning.

All in all a great listening experience which will send this listener on a quest for more of this composer’s work.