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)

Other Minds 24 Revives the Quartets of Ivan Wyschnegradsky in San Francisco


I admit to some trepidation as I proceeded to the beautiful War Memorial Opera House in downtown San Francisco.  While I had heard of this composer, Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979), it was only through one work which was contained on a disc with other microtonal works by John Cage and Harry Partch performed variously by Joshua Pierce, Dorothy Jonas, and Johnny Reinhard (among others).  And microtonal music can be tedious in some hands.

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This helpful sign in the elevator directed concert goers to the 4th floor recital room known as the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater

Adding to the sense of obscurity, the concert was in a small chamber music hall on the fourth floor.  Other events ran concurrently on this night.  The hall was nearly filled to its capacity of just under 300 people most of whom I would guess have never heard of this composer.  But they likely had heard of the Arditti Quartet and clearly put their trust in the amazing ear and mind of executive and artistic director Charles Amirkhanian to deliver a satisfying musical experience which he does most reliably.  This concert was no exception.

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The stage awaits the performers with that OM logo projected on the floor.

The Arditti Quartet was formed in 1974 and quickly became known as one of the finest interpreters of contemporary string quartet music.  Their repertoire is vast and they do not shy away from technical difficulty or other artistic challenges.  In fact they had recorded the Wyschnegradsky Quartets but, sadly, that recording is out of print.  Even more interesting is the fact that tonight’s performance constitutes U.S. premieres for all the works on this concert except for the Haas Quartet (included at the suggestion of Mr. Arditti to fill out the program).  Another astonishing fact shared by Amirkhanian is that this is the only time that the quartet has been asked to play this music in concert.  There are plans to release those recordings in the near future pending negotiations with record companies.

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Amirkhanian reminded the audience to silence those pesky cell phones.

Mention needs to be made of the talents of OM’s graphic designer (and stage manager among other duties), Mark Abramson.  His work on this and last year’s program booklets take things to a new level of excellence.  The program notes by Charles Amirkhanian, Randall Wong, and Blaine Todd are both lucid and comprehensive (a very necessary thing in dealing with new and obscure music).  And the photos of the composer and the performers along with some of the composer’s own art work make this another true collector’s item.  Previous programs were certainly well done but this is a step up.

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The Arditti Quartet

I chose to just listen and to read the notes later rather than get caught up in details.  Indeed that was a good choice.  Wyschnegradsky’s approach to the use of microtones seems more focused on the possibilities of extending melodic language than the harmonic and my understanding of complex harmony is admittedly limited anyway.  Of course the harmony is necessarily different than the western models of the 18th and 19th centuries but the music, at least in the hands of such talented interpreter’s such as the Arditti speaks rather directly to the listener.

The music was presented chronologically in order of the years these pieces were composed (String Quartet No.1, 1923-4, rev. 1953-4), (String Quartet No. 2, 1930-1), (String Quartet No. 3, 1945, rev. 1958-9), and (Composition for string quartet, 1960, rev. 1966-70) completed the first half of the program.  There was surprisingly little in the way of dissonance and the quartet played with a palpable intensity and concentration creating very convincing performances.

 

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Blaine Todd holds the OM bag (a Carol Law design) as Amirkhanian picks two raffle winners after intermission.

The second half began with Wyschnegradsky’s last composition, a String Trio (1978-9).  Incomplete at the time of his death the trio was revised completed by Claude Ballif.  Again what one hears is not what you might expect from microtonality.  The composer has realized a uniquely effective way to use microtones.  Hearing this survey makes the composer’s vision clear and places him in the company of such as Alois Hába (1893-1973), Harry Partch (1901-1974), and Ben Johnston (1926- ) to name a few.  

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The Arditti Quartet sans second violin Asot Sarkissjian on stage to play the Wyschnegradsky Trio

The revelation for this listener was hearing a good sampling of the composer’s vision and a creative way to use microtones unlike any other composer really.  And it became clear too why Charles chose to revive this unique voice in the musical world.  This is beautiful music.

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As mentioned earlier Mr. Arditti had remarked that the Wyschnegradsky Quartet and Trio music would not quite fill an evening and he suggested they play the Second String Quartet (of about 6 now I believe) by Austrian born composer Georg Friedrich Haas (1953- ).  It was the only work which was not a U.S. premiere.

Arditti’s ear for programming was finely as tuned as ever and this quartet provided a very satisfying finale to the evening filled with wonderful discoveries.  While this particular quartet uses some microtones the style is denser and more dissonant overall than the preceding music.  This is not to say that it was not entertaining, rather it is illustrative of the rich possibilities of microtonal composition.  The Arditti again shows itself to be at the forefront of the finest interpreters of the modern string quartet and clearly Haas is a name worth knowing as well.  Bravo!

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The musicians acknowledge the standing ovation and warm applause

Save the dates June 15 and 16 for the last two concerts in this year’s Other Minds 24 program.

The Alchemy of Diversity at Sound and Savor


 

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Freshly baked bialys right out of the oven opened the brunch.

This is another in the continuing account of my encounters with Philip Gelb’s underground vegan salon now called Sound and Savor.  For some twelve years now he has hosted a series of dinners, brunches, and cooking classes.  Many of the multi-course meals also feature some of the finest musicians, many from San Francisco and the east bay.

Today’s brunch started with fresh brewed coffee with a dollop of ginger (vegan) ice cream along with fresh baked bialys with cashew cream, pickled red onions, and “carrot lox”.  So we began with a vegan Jewish theme.  Needless to say these were delicious and the coffee helped waken anyone not ready for this 11AM start.

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The next course was a similarly delicious borscht (beet soup) with beet pakoras.  And clearly Phil has introduced this traditionally Indian dish which worked remarkably well with that soup.  Again all were hot out of the pot/fryer clearly in our view.

As Phil performed his culinary alchemy in the kitchen we were most attentively served by his assistant for this meal, Letitia, a smiling joy of a woman who seems to have the knowledge and genuine caring of customer service in her blood.  She was equally attentive to all in the crowd of about twenty diners with the usual mix of familiar faces and few new ones.  Indeed the beautifully presented courses came at just the right pace.

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The main course in this brunch was a Potato-Onion Tortilla, blood orange salad.  And once again the diversity of cultures mixed to truly savory results as the friendly conversations flowed.  At this point even the hungriest would hope for a pause and that’s exactly what happened.

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With a judicious touch of rearranging Phil prepared a performance space for the three musicians who graced us on this beautiful sunny Oakland day.  Jay Ghandi, bansuri (Indian Flute), Sameer Gupta, tablas (a staple of Hindustani music), and David Boyce, saxophone and bass clarinet (need I say a staple of jazz?).  The alchemy of the food would now find an analogy in this jam session.  Boyce and Gupta had played here about a year ago and Ghandi is a frequent collaborator with both musicians.  All three had played yesterday in San Jose and were scheduled to play in San Francisco at the Red Poppy Art House.  They are touring to promote their recent release A Circle Has No Beginning.  These are just three of the musicians who participated in this crowd sourced disc which is itself worth your attention.

The energy was immediately palpable as seen in this excerpt from one of three pieces they played.

This last excerpt demonstrates the ease of communication between these musicians who blend diverse backgrounds of jazz and Hindustani musics seamlessly into something new and wonderful.  The audience was energized to a level beyond what coffee could do and broke into appreciative applause after each piece.

The brunch ended with a dessert of (again fresh baked) Citrus Semolina Cake and more of that delicious coffee and ice cream.  And, of course, more conversation.

These events have become a regular part of this writer’s recreational time and a real reason to celebrate living in the diverse and creative east bay.  Phil’s judicious blend of cultures in his culinary experiments provide a parallel to his curation of some of the finest musicians with the only purpose in both case to entertain and enlighten.  He achieved both is a big way this day.  Thanks to all who participated.

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.

Captain Kirk and the Buddha Speak Esperanto: Other Minds 22 Commemmorates Lou Silver Harrison at 100


Esperanto is a constructed language brought into being in an 1887 book by a Polish-Jewish doctor by the name of L. L. Zamenhof (1861-1917).  This constructed language was intended in part as an intellectual exercise which might contribute to greater international discourse and perhaps understanding.  He outlined his intentions as follows:

  1. “To render the study of the language so easy as to make its acquisition mere play to the learner.”
  2. “To enable the learner to make direct use of his knowledge with persons of any nationality, whether the language be universally accepted or not; in other words, the language is to be directly a means of international communication.”
  3. “To find some means of overcoming the natural indifference of mankind, and disposing them, in the quickest manner possible, and en masse, to learn and use the proposed language as a living one, and not only in last extremities, and with the key at hand.

Esperanto did gain a great deal of popularity and there are still adherents today (an estimated 2 million people worldwide).  Lou Harrison was one of the users of this language (users are known as “Esperantists”).

L. L. Zamenhof (1859-1917)

In 1966 a horror film, “Incubus”, written and directed by Leslie Stevens (of Outer Limits fame) was released starring the just pre-Star Trek William Shatner.  Once thought lost, this film was restored from a copy found in a French film library.  It was only the second (and apparently last) feature film done entirely in Esperanto (the first being the 1964 French production, “Angoroj” or Agonies).  It was thought that the use of Esperanto would add a mysterious dimension to the production though detractors challenged the actors’ ability to properly pronounce the dialogue.  A link to a Shatner scene is here.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=accFmyaOj7o

And if you want to sit through the entire film (definitely a cult film experience) you can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHUfHj2lTaM

Curiously 1917, the year of Dr. Zamenhof’s death, is also the birth year of Lou Harrison, the principal subject of this essay.  This patriarch of 20th century modernism was a composer, conductor, musicologist, performer, teacher, dancer, calligrapher, and Esperantist.  He used Esperanto to title many of his works and set some Esperanto texts to music.

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And the Buddha Becomes an Esperantist

In his masterful big composition, La Koro Sutro (1972) translated portions of the text of the Buddhist Heart Sutra (into Esperanto) are set for mixed chorus and American Gamelan.  Gamelan is an Indonesian mostly percussion orchestra which Harrison studied extensively following the example of pioneering Canadian ethnomusicologist and composer Colin McPhee (1900-1964).

Gamelan was first introduced to western audiences at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair where composers such as Claude Debussy and Erik Satie heard the instruments and later incorporated some of those sounds in their music.  (That Gamelan now resides in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.) Harrison’s life partner Bill Colvig, an instrument maker, constructed a percussion ensemble which they called the American Gamelan to differentiate it from the traditional Indonesian ensemble.  The American Gamelan, consisting of five percussion instruments (augmented with organ, harp, and chorus) was first used in the cantata La Koro Sutro.

Harriso (left) with Bill Colvig

This composition is very much a synthesis of the composer’s musical and philosophical ideas.  Harrison was an avowed pacifist and the Heart Sutra is a key Buddhist scripture which supports introspection and non-violence.  Here he uses his expertise as an esperantist, his knowledge of Indonesian as well as western classical music to create one of his largest and finest works.

Lou Harrison with Charles Amirkhanian (curator of this concert series) in 1966

It is a testament to Harrison’s influence that this is the fourth performance of La Koro Sutro in the Bay Area.  It was written for an Esperanto conference in Seattle in 1972 with a translation by fellow esperantist Bruce Kennedy and was premiered that same year at Lone Mountain College  in San Francisco (now part of the University of San Francisco).  Additional performances (available on You Tube) were staged in Berkeley in 1973 and again in 2012.  This is truly an American masterpiece as well as a prayer for our times.

The performances will take place in the Mission San Francisco de Asís Basilica, better known as Mission Dolores.  The mission was founded in 1776 and the still active small adobe church next to the Basilica, built in 1791, is the oldest surviving building in San Francisco.  The much larger Basilica next to the adobe church (and the actual location of said concert) was dedicated in 1918.

Interior of the historic Mission Dolores Basilica

For the record, a Basilica is a reference to both architectural and spiritual aspects of any church so designated.  In the Catholic Church a Basilica is a pilgrimage site, a place to which the faithful travel in a spiritual quest.  I don’t believe it is too much of a stretch to view this event as a musico-spiritual pilgrimage open to all ears and minds, and hearts.  You won’t come out speaking Esperanto but you will never forget what you’ve heard.
The program will include:


Threnody for Oliver Daniel for harp (1990) 

Suite for Cello & Harp (1948)

Meredith Clark, harp

Emil Miland, cello

Pedal Sonata for Organ (1987/1989) Praises for Michael the Archangel (1946-47)

Jerome Lenk, organ

Suite for Violin & American Gamelan (1974, composed with Richard Dee) 

Shalini Vijayan, violin

William Winant Percussion Group

La Koro Sutro (The Heart Sutra, 1972)

For large mixed chorus, organ, harp, and American Gamelan

The Mission Dolores Choir, Resound, Jerome Lenk, organ, Meredith Clark, harp, and the William Winant Percussion Group conducted by Nicole Paiement.
Saturday, May 20, 2017- 7:30 p.m. 

Mission Dolores Basilica

3321 16th St.

San Francisco, CA
The very affordable tickets ($12-$20) are available at:

http://om22concerttwo.brownpapertickets.com/

Revido tie. (See you there.)
 

When Politics and the Arts Clash, OM 22


Isang Yun (1917-1995)


The relationship between politics and music is complex and varied.  There are many instances of clashes between these two disciplines from the politics of state and church sponsored music to its repression by those same institutions.

After centuries of Catholic church sponsored music a decision was made in 1903 to repress the performance of anything but Gregorian chant and any instruments except for the ubiquitous organ.  The reasons for this decree have been discussed but the end result was less work for musicians.

More recently the Nazi “degenerate art” concepts and the later proscriptions on “formalist music” in Soviet Russia similarly put artists and musicians out of work.  In fact many were jailed or killed.  Shostakovich and Prokofiev were high profile musicians who endured bans on performances of their music based ostensibly on claims that it brought (or potentially brought) harm to the state’s political visions.

Even more recently the blacklist created by Joseph McCarthy and his acolytes perpetrated a similar assault on actors, directors and writers like Dalton Trumbo (recently dramatized in the excellent film Trumbo with Bryan Cranston leading the fine cast).  This sad chapter of history did not completely end until the 1970s and only recently have efforts succeeded in restoring suppressed screen credits to these films.  Many lives were destroyed or irreparably harmed.  One hopes, of course, that such travesties will not be repeated but the recent efforts to eliminate the NEA suggest that such struggles remain with us.

On February 18th Other Minds will present a centennial celebration of two composers’ births.  Lou Harrison certainly expressed some political themes in some of his music but did not incur state sponsored political wrath.  Unfortunately this was not the case with the other honoree of Other Minds’ 22nd season.

In 1967 Korean composer Isang Yun was kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officers and taken to South Korea to face accusations of collaboration with the communist government of North Korea.  He was held for two years and was subjected to interrogation and torture based on information later acknowledged to have been fabricated.  Even so South Korea declined to allow the ailing composer’s request to visit his hometown in 1994.  He died the following year in his adoptive home in Berlin, Germany.

A petition signed by over 200 artists including composers Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hans Werner Henze, Gyorgy Ligeti and conductors Otto Klemperer and Joseph Keilberth among the many was sent to the South Korean government in protest.  A fine recent article by K. J. Noh, Republic of Terror, Republic of Torture puts the incident in larger political context. It is a lesson sadly relevant even now in our politically turbulent times.

The concert will feature works from various points in his career, both before and after the aforementioned incident.  It is a fine opportunity to hear the work of this too little known 20th century master.  Conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies knew and worked with both Harrison and Isang.  It is so fitting that he will participate along with his wife, justly famed new music pianist Maki Namekawa, in this tribute to the the late composer.  This can’t right the wrongs but what better way to honor a composer than by performing his music?

The performance is at 7:30 PM at the historic Mission Dolores Basilica at 3321 16th Street
San Francisco, CA 94114.  Tickets available (only $20) at Brown Paper Tickets.

February 18th, Mark Your Calendars: Other Minds 22, A Must Hear


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Lou Harrison (1917-2003)

The American composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and Korean composer Isang Yun (1917-1995) turn 100 this year and Other Minds 22 has a wonderful celebration that is not to be missed.  On February 18th at 7:30 PM in the beautiful, historic Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco’s famed Mission District.  This is actually only the first of two concerts which will comprise the Other Minds season 22 which is subtitled, “Pacific Rim Centennials”.  It is curated by Charles Amirkhanian, the reliable arbiter of modern musical tastes in the Bay Area and beyond.  (The second concert, scheduled for May 20, will be an all Lou Harrison concert closer to the composer’s May 14th birthday.)

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Yun Isang (1917-1995)

Harrison is well known to new music aficionados, especially on the west coast for his compositions as well as his scholarship and teaching.  His extensive catalog contains symphonies, concertos, sonatas and other such traditional classical forms as well as some of the finest of what we now call “world music” featuring instruments from non-western cultures including the Indonesian gamelan.  He is also the man responsible for the preparation and premiere of Charles Ives’ Third Symphony in 1946 which was subsequently awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

Yun is perhaps less of a household name but is known for his many finely crafted compositions in the modern western classical tradition and, later, incorporating instruments and techniques from his native Korea.  He was infamously kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officers in 1967 and taken from his Berlin home to South Korea where he was held and tortured due to allegations (later proven fabricated) of collaboration with North Korea.  Over two hundred composers and other artists signed a petition for his release.  After several years he was returned to his adopted home in Berlin in 1969 where he continued to compose prolifically and teach until his death in 1995.

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                              Dennis Russell Davies (from the American Composers Orchestra site)

This celebratory and memorial concert will feature world renowned artists including Grammy Award winning conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies who knew and collaborated with both Harrison and Isang.  Other artists will include pianist Maki Namekawa, violinist Yumi Hwang-Williams, percussionist William Winant (with his percussion group), and the Other Minds Ensemble.

The program is slated to consist of:

Sonata No. 3 for Piano

(1938, Lou Harrison)

Dennis Russell Davies

Kontraste I for Solo Violin

(1987, Isang Yun)

Yumi Hwang-Williams

Gasa, for Violin & Piano

(1963, Isang Yun)

Yumi Hwang-Williams, Dennis Russell Davies

Grand Duo for Violin and Piano (excerpts)

(1988, Lou Harrison)

IIII. Air
II. Stampede

Yumi Hwang-Williams, Dennis Russell Davies

Intermission

Canticle No. 3

(1941, Lou Harrison)

William Winant Percussion Group
Joanna Martin, ocarina
Brian Baumbusch, guitar
Dan Kennedy, Loren Mach, Ben Paysen, William Winant, Nick Woodbury, percussion
Dennis Russell Davies, conductor

Interludium A

(1982, Isang Yun)

Maki Namekawa, piano

Suite for Violin, Piano & Small Orchestra

(1951, Lou Harrison)

I. Overture
II. Elegy
III. First Gamelan
IIII. Aria
V. Second Gamelan
VI. Chorale

Yumi Hwang-Williams, violin
Maki Namekawa, piano
The Other Minds Ensemble:
Joanna Martin and Janet Woodhans, flute
Kyle Bruckman, oboe
Meredith Clark, harp
Evelyn Davis, celesta
Andrew Jamieson, tack piano
Emil Miland and Crystal Pascucci, cello
Scott Padden, bass
William Winant, percussion
Dennis Russell Davies, conductor

Other Minds is also co-sponsoring (with the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive) a screening of the 2015 German television produced film, Isang Yun: In Between North and South Korea on February 19th (4:15PM) at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.  Dennis Russell Davies and composer Charles Boone will also be present to discuss the film.

If you do know these composers you probably already have your tickets but if you don’t know them you owe it to yourself to check out these performances.

 

Lara Downes Making Magic at Noon in San Francisco


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Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco

A much needed light rain fell as I ventured out to hear Lara Downes play at the noontime concert series at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood.  I had just recently reviewed this artist’s new CD release (here) and I jumped at the opportunity to hear her live.

The trip from my home in Alameda to this venue, a distance of some 15 miles took me almost two hours.  Construction rules right now.  In the course of the concert Ms. Downes commented that it took her 45 minutes to get there from her hotel in San Francisco (no doubt less than 2 miles).

Being familiar with this trip I managed to arrive at about 12:15PM.  When I arrived I was a bit surprised to find a service in progress so I sat quietly observing this beautiful little church.  Though raised Catholic I haven’t ventured into a church in some years.  The experience did place a sort of spiritual context on my concert experience.

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Priest saying mass at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral

The service ended a little after 12:30 and, after some of the congregants left I moved closer to the front.  Technicians moved the piano in place and Ms. Downes was introduced.

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Downes intensely focused as she plays Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces

She chose to open with Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Op. 12 Fantasy Pieces Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 5 (1837).  I have but a passing knowledge of Schumann’s music.  It is highly virtuosic romanticism. Beautiful melodies, classical harmonies with just a dash of dissonance and a very high level of technical difficulty which characterizes these pieces.  Downes played them with confidence and ease seemingly casting a spell as she did.  She played the set without interruption and received much deserved applause from the somewhat sparse audience of perhaps 50 or so people.

She followed with a selection from her upcoming release America Again, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s (1875-1912) setting of the spiritual Deep River Op. 59 No. 10 (1905), one of a set of 24 so-called “Negro Melodies”. Coleridge-Taylor was a black British composer of the late 19th century sometimes referred to as the “African Mahler”.  This setting, very much in the same spirit as the Schumann was pretty much what one might have expected had Schumann encountered black spirituals.  This selection added again to the spiritual dimension.  Deep River is a majestic and celebratory piece which, like the Schumann, was well received.

Downes deviated from the printed program to play another selection from that forthcoming album, Morton Gould’s (1913-1996) American Caprice.  This short piece was a delightful foray into jazz reminding us of Gould’s connections with his contemporaries like Aaron Copland and George Gershwin.  Gould is a composer whose work deserves more attention and this listener is grateful to the artist for bringing this little masterpiece back into the light.

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Downes making Rhapsody in Blue sound anew.

In some ways this functioned like a precursor to the next piece on the program, Gershwin’s (1898-1937) Rhapsody in Blue (1924) in the composer’s arrangement for solo piano. Downes, whose speaking was as comfortable and natural as her playing, asked the audience to try to hear this oh so familiar piece with new ears.  Indeed her fluid and dynamic playing put her own stamp on this popular gem and demonstrated again her seasoned virtuosity.  She played the work with passion but also with ease and confidence.

The ample applause and standing ovation brought her back for a wonderful encore.  It was Gershwin again for sure but this time in an amazing arrangement by Nina Simone (1933-2003) whose spirit seemed to be channeled by Downes.  “I loves you Porgy” from Porgy and Bess is featured on her new CD and it brought the afternoon to a very pleasing close.

I took the opportunity to meet and thank Ms. Downes who was, in turn, gracious and pleasant.  I went back out to the ordinary world charmed and invigorated and that is what I had hoped for.

 

Black Notes Matter: Lara Downes’ America Again


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Sono Luminus DSL-92207

The lovely cover photo for this album by San Francisco born pianist Lara Downes is reminiscent of any number of socially conscious folk/rock stars of the 60s and 70s. It would seem that this is no accident.  This delightful album of short pieces by a wide variety of American composers takes its title from the Langston Hughes (1902-1967) poem, Let America Be America Again (1935).  By so doing the pianist places this interesting selection of short piano pieces firmly in the context of black racial politics and the artistic expression of black America as well as those influenced by this vital vein of American culture (both musical and literary).  It is a graceful and deeply felt effort and I hope that the metaphor of the title of my review is not too tortured a one to reflect that.

This is also a very personal album.  Downes seems to share some deeply felt connections with her materials.  This artist, born to a white mother and a black father, invokes a careful selection of short piano pieces steeped sometimes in jazz and blues but also the political directness (and optimism) which was characteristic of the inter-war years that brought forth the Hughes poem.  There is both sadness and celebration in these virtuosic and technically demanding little gems (most apparently recorded for the first time or at least the first time in a while).  The pianist’s comments on each individual piece are also critical to the understanding of this disc as she shares the impact and meaning that the music has had for her.

There are 21 tracks by 19 composers in all and the selections themselves are quite a feat. They range from the 19th to the 21st centuries and are composed by both men and women of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.  All seem to share the sort of  populist charm befitting the idealized America yearned for in the poem which is to say that they represent a kind of idealized or hopeful nationalism.  Downes is well acquainted with a large variety of American music and recognizes no distinction between classical and so-called “vernacular” traditions.

In fact none of these things are atypical for this artist.  Her previous albums Exiles Cafe (2013) featured music by composers exiled from their homelands, A Billie Holiday Songbook (2015) celebrated the life of this iconic black artist and her American Ballads (2001) demonstrated her deep mastery and affection for populist (but not jingoistic) nationalism.  Her tastefully issue oriented albums define a very individual path and the present album appears to be a very logical and well executed next entry into her discography.

This disc shares a similar heritage to that of Alan Feinberg’s four discs on Argo/Decca entitled, The American Innovator, The American Virtuoso, The American Romantic and Fascinating Rhythm: American Syncopation.  Another notable antecedent is Natalie Hinderas’ groundbreaking two disc set of music by African-American composers.

And now on to the music:

Morton Gould (1913-1996) was a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and conductor with a style informed by his study of jazz and blues in a vein similar to that of Bernstein and Copland.  He is represented here by American Caprice (1940).

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)  was a composer, conductor and teacher.  He was a modernist and an innovator in the promotion of non-western musical cultures.  His New York Waltzes (1944-1994) are three brief essays in that dance form.

The traditional folk song Shenandoah (apparently in the pianist’s transcription) is next.   This tune will be familiar to most listeners as a popular selection by choral groups and the melody is a common metaphor for things American.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was one of the first successful female American composers.  Her “From Blackbird Hills” Op. 83 (1922) is representative of her late romantic style and her incorporation of Native American (Omaha) elements in her music.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is a English composer with Creole roots, a black composer, known as the “African Mahler” in his day.  Deep River (1905) is his setting of this spiritual which also was one of Marian Anderson’s signature pieces.

Dan Visconti (1982- ) was commissioned by the International Beethoven Festival to write his Lonesome Roads Nocturne (2013) for Lara Downes.  It receives its world premiere recording in this collection.

Swiss-American composer and teacher Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) is certainly deserving of more attention.  His At Sea (1922) is used here to represent the sea voyages of the many immigrants (willing and unwilling) whose journey defined in part who they were.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) mastered both the vernacular tradition (as one of the finest song writers of the 20th Century) and the classical tradition in his too few compositions written in his sadly abbreviated life.  His opera Porgy and Bess (1935) is contemporary with the Langston Hughes poem mentioned earlier.  Downes most arrestingly chooses the arrangement of “I loves you, Porgy” by the classically trained iconic singer, musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone (1933-2003).  Quoting from Downes’ notes (Nina Simone expresses what she knew) “…about being a woman, being black and about being strong and powerless all at the same time.”  Indeed one of the most potent lines of the Hughes poem reads, “America was never America to me.”

Angelica Negrón (1981- ) was born in Puerto Rico and  now lives and works in New York. Her Sueno Recurrente (Recurring Dream, 2002) is a lovely little nocturne which is here given its world premiere.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) held credentials as composer, conductor, teacher and ardent civil rights supporter.  His Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim (1988) is one of a series of Anniversary piano pieces he wrote.  Bernstein did much to help modern audiences (including this reviewer) comprehend the vital musicality of jazz and blues. Like Downes, he drew little distinction between popular and classical and celebrated all the music he believed was good.

David Sanford (1963- ) is a trombonist, teacher and composer who works in both classical and jazz idioms.  His work Promise (2009) was written for Downes and this is the world premiere recording.

Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was a conductor, teacher and Pulitzer Prize winning composer (though not at all an advocate of ragtime, jazz or blues).  His brief but lovely piano piece Slumber Song (1915) is a nice discovery and one hopes that it will be taken up by more pianists.

Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917) was discovered largely due to the scholarship and recordings of musicologist Joshua Rifkin (who incidentally did some arrangements for folkie Judy Collins) whose three volumes of piano rags on Nonesuch records introduced this wonderful black composer’s work to a wider audience once again.  Marvin Hamlisch famously incorporated Joplin’s music into his score for the motion picture The Sting (1973).  Downes chooses the Gladiolus Rag (1907) to represent this composer.

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline 1888-1989) is another of the greatest song composers this country has produced.  In another characteristically clever choice Downes chooses the arrangement of this hugely optimistic song, “Blue Skies”(1926) by the great jazz pianist Art Tatum (1909-1956).

Florence Price (1887-1953) was a black female composer (the first to have one of her orchestral works programmed by a major symphony orchestra) whose work is only recently getting some much needed exposure.  Her Fantasy Negre (1929) is based on a spiritual, “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass”.  Price was involved in the New Negro Arts Movement of the Harlem Renaissance and was professionally connected with Langston Hughes among others.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is perhaps the most iconic American composer.  Dubbed the “Dean of American Composers” his earliest work has strong jazz influences and his later work created the American romantic/nationalist sound incorporating folk songs and rhythms.  For this recording the artist chose the first of the composer’s Four Piano Blues (1926) which also appeared on her 2001 album of American Ballads.

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) was a composer and band leader whose sound virtually defined the Harlem Renaissance during his tenure at the famed Cotton Club.  Melancholia (1959) is the piece chosen here, again a nice little discovery.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) was, like Copland, a populist but the Oklahoma born composer studied Native American music as well as American folk songs.  His American Ballads (1946) was included on Downes’ American Ballads album.  Here she includes an unpublished work from a projected (but never finished) American Ballads Volume II.  This piece is a setting of the spiritual, “Lil Boy Named David”.

The album concludes with one of the ultimate hopeful dreamer songs, Harold Arlen’s (1905-1986) Over the Rainbow (1939) from his score for The Wizard of Oz (1939).  The adolescent yearning of Dorothy for something better than her dust bowl farm life touched a chord in many over the years and it is a fitting conclusion to this beautiful and hopeful collection.

As mentioned earlier the insightful liner notes by Lara Downes complement this production and tactfully position its politics.  She shares a personal journey that is as American as the proverbial apple pie.  The album is dedicated to the artist’s ancestors in recognition of their struggles as well as to her children in hopes that dreams for a better future can become their reality.

This beautiful sound of this album is the result of work of Producer Dan Merceruio and Executive Producer Collin J. Rae along with Daniel Shores and David Angell.  The lovely photography is by Rik Keller and as with the previous release Skylark: Crossing Over (reviewed here) the graphic design by Caleb Nei deserves special mention for its ability to truly complement this disc.

It is scheduled for release on October 28, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A shamanic effort to raise consciousness and further socially progressive ideas.

Memories and Memorials: Guy Klucevsek’s “Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy”


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Starkland ST-225

As someone who grew up attending Polish weddings and hearing more than his share of polka music I was fascinated at the unusual role of the accordion as I began to get interested in new music. People like Pauline Oliveros and Guy Klucevsek completely upended my notions of what this instrument is and what it can do.  The accordion came into being in the early 19th century and was primarily associated with folk and popular musics until the early 20th century.  It has been used by composers as diverse as Tchaikovsky and Paul Hindemith but the developments since the 1960s have taken this folk instrument into realms not even dreamed of by its creators.

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Guy Klucevsek with some of his accordions

Guy Klucevsek  (1947- ) brought the accordion to the burgeoning New York “downtown” new music scene in the 1970s.  He began his accordion studies in 1955, holds a B.A. in theory and composition from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an M.A. (also in theory and composition) from the University of Pittsburgh.  He also did post graduate work at the California Institute of the Arts.  His composition teachers have included Morton Subotnick, Gerald Shapiro and Robert Bernat.  He draws creatively on his instrument’s past even as he blazes new trails expanding its possibilities.  The accordion will never be the same.

Klucevsek has worked with most all of the major innovators in new music over the years including Laurie Anderson, Bang on a Can, Brave Combo, Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, Rahim al Haj, Robin Holcomb, Kepa Junkera, the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant, Present Music, Relâche, Zeitgeist, and John Zorn (who also recorded him on his wonderful Tzadik label).  He has released over 20 albums and maintains an active touring schedule.  He recently completed a residency (April, 2016) at Sausalito’s Headlands Center for the Arts.

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Starkland ST-225

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Starkland ST-209

Starkland has released no fewer than three previous albums by this unusual artist (all of which found their way into my personal collection over the years) including a re-release of his Polka from the Fringe recordings from the early 1990s. This landmark set of new music commissions from some 28 composers helped to redefine the polka (as well as the accordion) in much the same way as Michael Sahl’s 1981 Tango and Robert Moran’s 1976 Waltz projects did for those dance genres.

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Starkland ST-218

The present recording, Teetering on the Edge of Normalcy (scheduled for release on September 30, 2016), continues this composer/performer’s saga.  His familiar humor and his unique experimentalism remain present but there is also a bittersweet aspect in that most of these compositions are homages and many of the dedicatees have passed from this world.  Klucevsek himself will turn 70 in February of 2017 and it is fitting that he has chosen to release this compilation honoring his colleagues.

On first hearing, many of Klucevsek’s compositions sound simple and straightforward but the complexities lie just beneath the surface.  What sounds like a simple accordion tune is written in complex meters and sometimes maniacal speed.  To be sure there are conservative elements melodically and harmonically but these belie the subversive nature of Klucevsek’s work which put this formerly lowly folk instrument in the forefront with the best of the “downtown” scene described by critics such as Tom Johnson and Kyle Gann.  You might mistake yourself as hearing a traditional music only to find that you had in fact wandered into the universe next door.

Many favorite collaborators have been recruited for this recording.  Most tracks feature the composer with other musicians.  Four tracks feature solo accordion, two are for solo piano and the rest are little chamber groupings from duets to small combos with drum kit.

The first three tracks are duets with the fine violinist Todd Reynolds.  Klucevsek’s playful titles are more evocative than indicative and suggest a framework with which to appreciate the music.  There follows two solo piano tracks ably handled by Alan Bern. Bern (who has collaborated on several albums) and Klucevsek follow on the next track with a duet between them.

Song of Remembrance is one of the more extended pieces on the album featuring the beautiful voice of Kamala Sankaram along with Todd Reynolds and Peggy Kampmeier on piano.  No accordion on this evocative song which had this listener wanting to hear more of Sankaram’s beautiful voice.

The brief but affecting post minimalist Shimmer (In Memory of William Duckworth) for solo accordion is then followed by the longer but equally touching Bob Flath Waltzes with the Angels.  William Duckworth (1943-2012) is generally seen as the inventor of the post-minimalist ethic (with his 1977-8 Time Curve Preludes) and he was, by all reports, a wonderful teacher, writer and composer.  Bob Flath (1928-2014) was philanthropist and supporter of new music who apparently worked closely with Klucevsek.

Tracks 10-12 feature small combos with drum kit.  The first two include (in addition to Klucevsek) Michael Lowenstern on mellifluous bass clarinet with Peter Donovan on bass and Barbara Merjan on drums.  Lowenstern who almost threatens to play klezmer tunes at times sits out on the last of these tracks.   Little Big Top is in memory of film composer Nino Rota and Three Quarter Moon in memory of German theater composer Kurt Weill. These pieces would not be out of place in that bar in Star Wars with their pithy humor that swings. They also evoke a sort of nostalgia for the downtown music scene of the 70s and 80s and the likes of Peter Gordon and even the Lounge Lizards.

The impressionistic Ice Flowers for solo accordion, inspired by ice crystals outside the composer’s window during a particularly harsh winter, is then followed by four more wonderful duets with Todd Reynolds (The Asphalt Orchid is in memory of composer Astor Piazolla) and then the brief, touching For Lars, Again (in memory of Lars Hollmer) to bring this collection to a very satisfying end.  Hollmer (1948-2008) was a Swedish accordionist and composer who died of cancer.

As somber as all of this may sound the recording is actually a pretty upbeat experience with some definitely danceable tracks and some beautiful impressionistic ones.  Like Klucevsek’s previous albums this is a fairly eclectic mix of ideas imbued as much with humor and clever invention as with sorrow and nostalgia.  This is not a retrospective, though that would be another good idea for a release, but it is a nice collection of pieces not previously heard which hold a special significance for the artists involved.  Happily I think we can expect even more from this unique artist in the future.

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Guy Klucevsek, looking back but also forward.

The informative gatefold notes by the great Bay Area pianist/producer/radio host Sarah Cahill also suggest the affinity of this east coast boy for the aesthetic of the west coast where he is gratefully embraced and which is never far from his heart (after all he did study at the California Institute of the Arts and has worked with various Bay Area artists). Booklet notes are by the composer and give some personal clues as to the meaning of some of the works herein.  Recordings are by John Kilgore, George Wellington and Bryce Goggin.  Mastering is by the wonderful Silas Brown.  All of this, of course, overseen by Thomas Steenland, executive producer at Starkland.

Fans of new music, Guy Klucevsek, accordions, great sound…you will want this disc.

 

Navigation Without Numbers: George Hurd and his ensemble


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The San Francisco Bay Area is a rich and varied musical scene with a plethora of talented and creative musicians.  Given that I am not surprised and perhaps just a touch chagrined to not have heard of George Hurd.  After a bit of research I learned that this is his debut album so I guess I feel better.

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George Hurd (promotional photo)

For an emerging composer he is well represented by his web page referenced above and another for the George Hurd Ensemble.  Like Philip Glass, Steve Reich and many others he is taking the composer/performer route which is certainly a better guarantee of getting one’s music performed and performed well.

Hurd is also a promoter of an interesting gaggle of other musicians and musical organizations as well and while this is his debut recording Hurd has a significant history of success and a composer, performer and arts administrator.

Now to the album at hand.  Navigation Without Numbers consists of 11 tracks of chamber music with electronics, electroacoustic music.  Each is an individual piece but they seem to create a unity and this listener’s experience was that of a soundtrack to a film yet to be made.  Indeed Hurd has written a few film scores as well.

The musicians are: Solenn Suguillon, violin; Jacob Hansen-Joseph, viola (and stomping); Erin Wang, cello; Ari Gorman, double bass; Elyse Weakley, piano; Annie Phillips, bass clarinet; Adam Murray, violin; Andrew  McGuire, vibes; Anton Estaniel, cello; Theresa Au-Stephen, violin; Jason Hallowed, viola; Anna Steinhoff, cello; Alana Grelyak, piano; Stephanie Wallace, harp; Katie Weigman, vibes; George Hurd, electronics with Anna Singer and Joseph Voves, stomping and clapping.  There is also an appearance by well known bay area violinist Carla Kihlstedt appearing on the fourth track.

There are no liner notes here so one is left only to one’s ear and heart to extract meaning and significance from these compositions.  To this writer’s ear it seems to be a combination of gypsy influence and jazz at times in a tonal context with an almost dance like feel at times.  This is not background music but it can be enjoyed with varying degrees of attention.  By that I mean that the music is assertive enough to be useless as Muzak which requires little attention and perhaps even none and that it benefits from closer attention and multiple hearings.  The overall experience is perhaps that of a good chamber group entertaining a knowledgeable clientele at a hip coffee shop.  Not your run of the mill classical, not exactly jazz but a very pleasant album.

 

Paula Matthusen’s Pieces for People


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This is the first disc devoted entirely to the music of Paula Matthusen who as of July is a newly minted associate professor at Wesleyan University where she walks at least partly in the footsteps of emeritus professor Alvin Lucier whose course Music 109 she inherited from him.  I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Matthusen at Other Minds 18 where she was one of the featured composers.  In our all too brief conversation she was affable and unpretentious but certainly passionate about music.

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Paula Matthusen performing her work, ‘…and believing in…’ at Other Minds in 2013

 

She holds a B.M. from the University of Wisconsin and an M.A. and PhD. from New York University.  She announced her recent promotion to associate professor on Facebook as is, I suppose, customary for people of her generation.  It is on Facebook that I contacted her to request a review copy of this CD to which she quickly and graciously agreed.

This CD contains 9 tracks representing 8 works.  They range from solo to small ensemble works, some with electronics as well.  Her musical ideas seem to have much in common with her emeritus colleague Alvin Lucier but her sound world is her own despite some similarities in techniques, especially her attention to sonic spaces and her use of electronics to amplify sonic micro-events which might even include her heartbeat.

 

sparrows in supermarkets (2011) for recorder looks at the sound of birds in the acoustic space of a supermarket and their melodic repetition.  It is for recorder (Terri Hron) and electronics

limerance (2008) is another solo work, this time for banjo (James Moore) with electronics.  She says she is working with the concept of reciprocation here but that seems rather a subjective construct.  Like the previous piece this is a contemplative and spare work with some spectral sounds as well.

the days are nouns (2013) is for soprano and percussion ensemble and electronics.  Here she is concerned with resonances within the vibrators of the instruments as well as the acoustics of the room.  It is a dreamy, impressionistic setting of a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye whose poem supplies the title but the text is fragments of a Norwegian table prayer.  A very subtle and effective work.

AEG (2011) is represented by two movements (of four?) all of which were written for the Estonian ballet.  It is similarly concerned with resonances and words at times.  Of course it would be interesting to hear those other movements but perhaps another time.

of architecture and accumulation (2012) is the first of two purely acoustic compositions on this disc.  This one is for organ solo (Will Smith) and explores long tones within the acoustic space.  It is a very satisfying work even if one doesn’t go into the underlying complexities.

corpo/Cage (2009) is  the longest and largest work here and is the second purely acoustic piece on this recording.  It has echoes of Stravinsky at and it is an enticing example of Matthusen’s writing for orchestra.  This reviewer certainly looks forward to hearing more of this composer’s works for larger ensembles.  Very effective writing.

in absentia (2008) is the earliest work here.  It is written for violin, piano, glasses and miniature electronics (not quite sure what that means).  Like many of the works on this disc the concern or focus seems to be on small events and sounds.  This is a rather contemplative piece that nicely rounds out the recording.

Matthusen resembles Lucier in some of her techniques and focus on small sounds otherwise missed and she certainly owes a debt to people like Pauline Oliveros.  But in truth she sounds like no one as much as Paula Matthusen.  The composer presents a strong and intelligent voice and one wishes for more from this interesting artist.  Thank you for the opportunity to review this.

Certitude and Joy, the World of Wold


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MinMax 019

This is one of those operas whose title evokes irony right at the start.  Like Ruggero Leoncavallo‘s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (Rustic Chivalry) and Virgil Thomson‘s “Four Saints in Three Acts” the title Certitude and Joy hardly seems to evoke the right emotions in this harrowing story taken right from the headlines of a case in 2005 in which a mother kills her children and dumps their bodies in San Francisco Bay.  This is contrasted with the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac in which God tells Abraham to slay his son.  Of course God stopped Abraham in the bible story but that was not the case with the more recent story.

English: portrait of composer Erling Wold, pai...

English: portrait of composer Erling Wold, painted by Lynne Rutter. oil on panel, 2002 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Erling Wold (1958- ) is a composer of whom I had been only distantly aware.  He is a California native and has studied with Andrew Imbrie, Gerard Grisey and John Chowning.  That right there gives you a clue to this man’s compositional range and skills.  He completed a Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley in 1987 and has worked for Yamaha creating new synthesizer programs in addition to pursuing his musical interests.

The San Francisco Bay Area has such a rich and varied musical culture that it is not all that surprising to me that I hadn’t come to know this fascinating composer.  And it’s taken me a while to absorb enough about Mr. Wold to feel that I could write something intelligent about this CD.

The composer’s web site (click here) contains a plethora of scores and sound recordings of this prolific and interesting composer.  And there are numerous offerings on You Tube and there is a blog linked on his web site in which he discusses a variety of topics not the least of which is his own music.  It seems that he has created several operas including one based on William S. Burroughs’ early but long suppressed novel, Queer.  His chamber operas, A Little Girl Contemplates Taking the Veil and his opera on Pontius Pilate illustrate his interest in both religious and political themes.

I won’t even try to get into his orchestral, chamber and solo piano works.  That is the job of a future blog which I can assure you will happen.  But the main point of this blog is to look at this most recent offering of his chamber opera Certitude and Joy.

As best as I can describe in words, Wold’s accompaniment figures remind me of Philip Glass or John Adams at times but he is not a simple derivative  of these composers.  His vocal lines, almost all sung as opposed to spoken, are more like recitatives than arias and  suggest a more ensemble feel as opposed to the grand opera style of arias, duets, etc.

Aldous Huxley, Famous Last Words

Aldous Huxley, Famous Last Words (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

His libretto, ripped from the headlines so to speak, is a combination of philosophical musings, imagined dialogue and commentary from texts as diverse as Aldous Huxley’s writings on psychedelics and the more pedestrian musings of newspaper columns.  I think there is some affinity for Robert Ashley’s mysterious texts but again nothing derivative.  The work is perhaps political as social commentary but not as social protest.

What is important is that this work, thinly scored (though hardly thin in sound) for two pianos and a cast of singers, speaks directly and affectingly to the audience.  He manages to tell this tale in a fairly straightforward manner with occasional digressions for philosophical commentary.  But he never loses control of the narrative which flows on drawing you in to this sad story and leaves you with the questions he raises, albeit rhetorically, about the nature of religious revelation, mental  illness and the current state of our society and our world.  This is a tall order but Wold manages to fill it with just the right amount of drama and music that leaves the listener (and viewer if you see it live in person or on You Tube) seemingly with exactly the emotions I think the composer wrestled with in writing it.

Like the aforementioned Four Saints and Cavalleria, Certitude and Joy is a listener friendly opera with messages that are disturbing and go to the core of what it means to be human.  The performances by the fine duo piano team of Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmerman (ZOFO) and singers Laura Bohn, Talya Patrick, Jo Vincent Parks, Kerry Mehling, Tranvis Santell Rowland with Bob Ernst, speaker and a cameo by the composer (I’ll leave that for listeners to find).  The beautiful recording on Paul Dresher’s MinMax label is distributed by Starkland and is available on Amazon and other outlets.  A worthwhile experience for all lovers of contemporary opera and drama.

Coming Up, Other Minds 19 at the SF Jazz Center


Official Other Minds logo

Official Other Minds logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On February 28 and March 1 the SF Jazz Center will host Other Minds for the first time.  OM 19 is the latest incarnation of this annual festival which presents an amazing range of new music.

The Other Minds Festival, brainchild of filmmaker/producer Jim Newman and musician, composer and broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian, was first heard in 1993 and, except for the years 1994, 1998 and  2007, has been an annual event in San Francisco  gathering mostly new but  always innovative composers to share their inspirations and innovations with each other and with bay area audiences.  Being curious about those apparent gaps in this festival I sent a query to the Other Minds office and received a prompt reply from none other than Charles Amirkhanian.  He stated as follows:

Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian in his ...

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

“Hi Allan,
Here’s the story:
After our first festival in November 1993, we needed time to raise more funds to produce OM 2 and get back on the Yerba Buena Center’s schedule. So we postponed until March 1995, the next available spot in the Djerassi schedule. Our timing for the festival is determined by when we have access to empty rooms at DRAP, so we need to be there either in Feb/March or November.
In 1997, once again, we needed time to raise more funds and simply postponed to the next available Djerassi time. Same for OM 13.
In each case, the delay was about eight months (for a November event) or four months (for a March event), giving us a festival in succeeding concert seasons, but not “annual” events. (A concert season is Fall ’07 through Spring ’08, for example.)
Thus the mysterious gaps.
Charles”

This internationally known festival is not just a series of concerts.  The diverse selection of composers gathers first for an artistic residency at the Djerassi Resident Artist Program (DRAP in Mr. Amirkhanian’s note), a pastoral setting nestled between the Pacific coastline and the hills west of Palo Alto, where the invited composers live, work and share ideas for a week prior to the public concerts. The Djerassi Foundation for the Arts was founded by biochemist Carl Djerassi whose daughter, an artist, committed suicide in 1978.  The area is a sculpture park and the facility operates all year round with residencies for artists of all media.  Charles Amirkhanian is one of the former directors of this venerable artist colony and is now the executive and artistic director of Other Minds. The selection process for OM artists is based on the incredible range of interests of the Other Minds Operating Board and in consultation with their advisory board which are very open to suggestions from the general public.  Just e-mail them.  They actually read all their e-mails and respond. This along with New Music America, the ONCE festival, the Telluride Festival (also one of Amirkhanian’s efforts) are among the important music festivals which have yet to receive adequate treatment and exposition of their histories. This year’s OM 19 (which also looks forward with eager anticipation to a very promising gala OM 20) includes Mark Applebaum, John Bischoff, Donald Buchla, Joseph Byrd, Charles Celeste Hutchins, Myra Melford, Roscoe Mitchell, Wendy Reid and John Schott.  For the first time in the history of the festival all the composers will be from northern California.  The dates for the festival, which moves this year to the new SF Jazz Center, are Friday February 28 and Saturday March 1. One might think that limiting the selection of composers would be limiting in the variety of artistic efforts to be had but one would be quite wrong.  In fact it would not be difficult to argue that music by musicians from northern California have been unjustly neglected in favor of the more dominant musical cultures of New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.  A quick look at the roster for OM 19 reveals a great deal of variety:

Mark Applebaum at TEDx Stanford

Mark Applebaum at TEDx Stanford (Photo credit: Tamer Shabani Photography)

The Chicago born Mark Applebaum is currently associate professor of composition and theory at Stanford University.  He counts Brian Ferneyhough, Joji Yuasa, Rand Steiger, Roger Reynolds and Philip Rhodes among his teachers.  He also performs as a jazz pianist. He appears to be the first composer at these concerts to have given a TED talk.  In this talk he speaks of being “bored with music”, at least with traditional music and how he used that boredom to break through to another level of creativity creating new instruments and elaborate scores.  He is an engaging speaker and his presentation will no doubt be fascinating.

John Bischoff (1949- )

John Bischoff (1949- )

John Bischoff studied at the California Institute of the Arts and Mills College.  His teachers include Robert Moran, James Tenney and Robert Ashley.  He is currently visiting professor and composer at Mills College. He is one of the pioneers of live computer performance and he is a frequent performer at the Garden of Memory concerts held annually on the summer solstice at Oakland’s beautiful Chapel of the Chimes. Mills College with its Center for Contemporary Music can be said to be the primary life blood of northern California composers.  Bischoff is part of a long line of composers who  have guided musical pedagogy in the Bay Area and have included Chris Brown, Luciano Berio, Darius Milhaud, Lou Harrison, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, John Cage, Chris Brown, Maryann Amacher, Maggie Payne, Larry Polansky, Robert Ashley, and many others. Bischoff has released 16 albums and numerous publications.  He founded the League of Automatic Composers, the first computer network band and continues to be a driving force in the computer music scene. Don_Buchla_and_200e

Donald Buchla is one of the elder statesmen of new music in California.  His collaboration with Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick produced one of the first modular synthesizers in 1963.  He continues to develop synthesizers with his Buchla and Associates corporation (founded in Berkeley in 1962) . He studied physics, physiology and music.  His importance in the field of electronic music and music synthesis cannot be underestimated.  His electronics have driven many classical, rock and jazz music.  He and his corporation continue to make new electronic instruments such as the marimba lumina and the piano bar and has made available again some of the classic analog electronics which first made his name familiar to musicians worldwide. I was able to find very little about his musical compositions but it is worth noting that his electronics will power the performances of several of the artists in this concert series in addition to his own.

Joe Byrd in 1968

Joe Byrd in 1968

Kentucky born Joseph Byrd is an electronic musician, composer and producer.  His album, “The American Metaphysical Circus” (1969) is legendary and considered a cult album which has been reissued on CD and can also be heard on You Tube.  His band, Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies never performed live but this work of 60s psychedelia has established itself as a landmark recording and a cult classic.  He also did an album of synthesized Christmas Carols in 1975. Byrd has also been a producer with estimable credits such as producer and arranger of Ry Cooder’s amazing ‘Jazz’ album from 1978.

I can’t imagine how his latest work sounds but I am looking forward to it.

Charles Céleste Hutchins at SOUNDkitchen

Charles Céleste Hutchins at SOUNDkitchen (Photo credit: hellocatfood)

Charles Celeste Hutchins is, as far as I can tell, the first instance in which an Other Minds operating board member has been featured as a composer in this series.  The advisory board consists largely of composers who have already been featured on OM concerts.  Until this booking I was not aware of this man’s work.

Hutchins worked in the dot com business for a time and is now working on his musical interests.  His work involves the digital music program called Supercollider which he uses to manipulate sounds.  Discogs lists an MP3 compilation of some of his work in this area.

Melford in Helsinki, 1993

Melford in Helsinki, 1993

Myra Melford is an internationally known jazz pianist and composer with some 17 albums and some 20 years of playing.  Melford is originally from Illinois.

She has played with AACM musicians like Leroy Jenkins, Joseph Jarman and other musicians including Marty Ehrlich, Henry Threadgill, Mark Dresser, OM alumni Han Benink and Tyshawn Sorey.  Currently she teaches at the University of California Berkeley.

saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell at the Pomigliano ...

saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell at the Pomigliano Jazz Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Roscoe Mitchell is one of the founding members of the venerable AACM (American Association of Creative Musicians) which redefined both jazz and contemporary classical music from its founding in 1965 to the present.  Other notable members include Anthony Braxton, Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, George Lewis and Lester Bowie among others.  Mitchell is currently professor of music at Mills College where he holds the Darius Milhaud chair.  He has collaborated with Frederic Rzewski, George Lewis, Anthony Braxton, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors, Muhal Richard Abrams, Albert Ayler, Henry Threadgill, Thomas Buckner and many others.

Mitchell is one of the acknowledged living masters of American music and he plays and teaches widely.  In 2012 her performed at the “All Tomorrow’s Parties” festival in Minehead, England.  Any performance by this musician is an event.

Wendy Reid is a new name for me.  She is a composer who works with nature sounds.  I did buy her CD entitled “Tree Music” which features 5 of her Tree Pieces with various combinations of violin, percussion, piano, mandolin, oboe and Don Buchla on “thunder” interacting with nature sounds.  For her OM performance she will be sharing the stage with a parrot.  Yes, it does sound like a Monty Python sketch, but this promises to be interesting if not revelatory.  Her work is clearly concerned with the sounds of nature and is at least distantly related to the work of Pauline Oliveros whose album ‘Troglodyte’s Delight’ involves musicians responding to the sounds of water in a limestone cave.

John Schott is another name with which I am not familiar.  But lack of familiarity spells adventure in this series of concerts.  A quick internet search reveals that he is a Berkeley based composer, guitar player and banjo player.  His web site is a blog which reveals his interest in a wide range of musical styles and literary interests.  He lists 8 CDs which feature his work.  He also lists his “compositions in the classical grain”.  It’s anyone’s guess as to what he will present at Other Minds but if the preceding artists are any indication it will be unique and interesting.

All in all this promises to be a very exciting event with the ‘revelatory’ music which Other Minds uses as a tag line in their publicity materials. I won’t miss it and neither should you.

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Alvin Curran at 75, Experimentalism with an Ethnic and Social Conscience


English: The American composer Alvin Curran pl...

English: The American composer Alvin Curran playing the shofar in his composition “Shofar 3,” for shofar and live electronics (2007). Photo taken at a concert of Curran’s music in Warner Concert Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia

Alvin Curran (1938- ) is an American composer currently living and teaching in Rome whose career began as an expatriate artist working with the cutting edge improv electronics group Musica Elletronica Viva (MEV) in 1966. He turns 75 on December 13, 2013.

Curran was born in Providence, Rhode Island.  His father was a musician in a dance band and he learned to play piano and trombone early on.  He was exposed to big band music, jazz, traditional Jewish music and western classical music during his formative years.  Following his father’s example he also played in dance bands during boat crossings of the Atlantic.  He earned a B.A. in music from Brown University in 1960 where he studied composition with Ron Nelson.  He went on to complete his M.M. at Yale in 1963 were he studied with Elliott Carter and Mel Powell.

A 1964 Ford Foundation grant allowed him to go study in Darmstadt where he met the likes of Stravinsky, Xenakis, Berio, Yuji Takahashi, Andriessen, Remo Remotti, and above all Frederic Rzewski.  He joined with Rzewski,  Richard Teitelbaum and Allan Bryant, all fellow expatriate American musician/composers, with whom he formed the legendary ‘Musica Elettronica Viva‘ or MEV.  This was in early 1966 where their use of largely home made electronics in their improvisational ensemble live performances preceded the days of easily obtainable and operated electronic musical instruments. That wouldn’t begin to happen until about 1964 when Don Buchla, in collaboration with Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick and the San Franciso Tape Music Center created the first modular instrument, the “music easel” later known as the ‘Buchla Box’ and Robert Moog on the east coast developed the “Moog” synthesizer.  Curran crossed paths with many of these people during his tenure teaching (1999-2006) at Mills College in Oakland where the San Francisco Tape Music Center had been integrated into the Mills Center for Contemporary Music.

Curran says that during all his years in Rome he met and interacted with many in the Italian avantgarde and new music circles like Franco Donatoni and Guiseppe Chiari.  He was mentored by the reclusive (think Thomas Pynchon) Giacinto Scelsi who held regular salons at his villa.  It was in these days that Curran developed his individual style further.  He lived and taught in Rome from 1966 to 1999 and was very active on the European scene.  After his teaching stint at Mills College Curran returned again to Rome.

Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer at NYU

Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer at NYU (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to electronics he uses acoustic instruments ranging from conventional instruments such as piano, strings, woodwinds, voices, etc. to the ancient shofar and environmental sounds including site-specific sound installations, multi-media works and film scores.  His works include the massive set of piano pieces ‘Inner Cities’ (1993-2010) which lasts about 6 hours in a complete performance, the early multi-media Songs and Views from the Magnetic Garden (1973), Maritime Rites (1984) written to be played by musicians in boats in various harbors incorporating, of course, the ambience of the given harbor’s acoustic properties.  Maritime Rites has been performed in its various incarnations in Central Park in New York as well as Philadelphia, Berlin and Sydney.

In a wonderful interview from 2003 with the ever vigilant composer/journalist Frank Oteri (published online at New Music Box) he was asked about the political and ethnic/religious content of his music.  Curran replied that he did not set out to express these things as aspects of himself, that the pieces  just happened due to an inspiration at the time.  He says that he is composing all the time and his influences are as wide ranging as his teachers and his milieu.  His style varies widely in part due to his many influences but also because a given style seems to work for the piece.  It sounds as though music is channeled through him.

Unfortunately, as with most expatriate composers, his music is generally less well known in his native country but there are quite a few recordings including some recent releases of some out of print recordings.  In addition there are quite a few videos on YouTube including pianist Kurt Jordan’s live performance of Inner Cities 1-13 from 2009 at Azusa Pacific University which is more than the previously complete recording by Daan Vandewalle who recorded 1-11 (as of 2010 there are 14 parts according  to Curran’s official web site).   As is frequently the case with much contemporary music YouTube provides a great resource, especially for the casual and/or cash-strapped listener.  It is a really good way to get familiar with this man’s diverse and fascinating music.

Not infrequently his music takes on sociopolitical issues as well as inspiration from the composer’s Jewish heritage.  His Schtetl Variations (1987), dedicated to Morton Feldman is an improvisatory meditation on these poor villages of eastern Europe and Russia (think of Fiddler on the Roof) which became the settings for the notorious anti-semitic pogroms. A later piano piece called 11 Schtetl Settings (1988) continues his exploration of this part of his ancestry.  Animal Behavior (1992) for sampler keyboard and optional percussion is a pretty transparent indictment of 1990s American politics.  And the list goes on.

His “Nineteen Eighty Five: Piece for Peace” (1985) involved three ensembles performing at 3 different radio stations in Venice, Amsterdam and Frankfurt (which was simulcast by all three countries) is a a sort of precursor to what is perhaps his most integrated and powerful political composition, his ‘Crystal Psalms’ of 1988.  Here the historical, sociopolitical, ethnic and even geographical are joined to the avant garde in a stunning sonic commemoration and condemnation of the fascism and genocide that characterized the horrors of the second world war.

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Seventy Five years ago this November (9th and 10th) Jewish shops and synagogues were vandalized and looted over those two nights throughout much of Nazi Germany and Austria in a most extreme incarnation of the “pogroms” that became known as “Kristallnacht” or the “Night of Broken Glass“.  It was one of the first major and overt expressions of Hitler’s genocidal plans then still being formulated. Unfortunately this event continues to be imitated by like-minded hateful individuals and groups worldwide. So the sociopolitical context of this musical work written for the 50th anniversary of that event sadly has an ongoing relevance for our contemporary world even 25 years after its creation.

At its most basic level this piece is a sort of concerto for six instrumental ensembles playing in radio stations in six different countries live mixed by the composer and broadcast throughout Northern Europe on October 20th of 1988. There is no text as such but the sounds of people praying and the apparently random Hebrew letters and German numbers are scattered throughout the piece along with environmental and found sounds on the tape Curran prepared which plays throughout the performance as a sort of political pedal point.

English: "Hebrew alphabet" in Hebrew...

English: “Hebrew alphabet” in Hebrew, modern serif typeface. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The liner notes of the recording describe the piece as “radio concert for six choruses; six sextets each including a quartet (violas, cellos, bass clarinets, bass flutes, trombones, tenor sax/tuba) plus accordion and percussion; tape.”  All were individually conducted with the conductors coordinated by a click track and mixed live by the composer. The recording on New World records is the document of that broadcast.

The effect is that of a collage connected by the electronic nervous system, the radio stations, which link the various performances.  The program is largely implicit here and listening to this piece evokes images that can vary from one listener to the next as any great piece of art provokes different experiences. The sound images here are not pretty and the work is very emotionally intense. Those images are guided by the tone of the music and fueled by the cryptic words and sounds mixed in with the live performances.  It is, in effect, his Mitzvah to the memories of the fallen.  You will not come away unmoved.

Kristallnacht occurred in November of 1938, a month before Curran was born but  the impact of that action continues to resound from that generation to this.  As a politically aware artist he was compelled to respond and he did so in a most emphatic, creative and powerful manner.  Perhaps it is the inherited duty of one generation to exorcise the demons and the atrocities of the previous ones.  Curran has certainly contributed most memorably to such an effort with this work.

Thank you, Mr. Curran, for your prolific and varied contributions to music and your efforts through your art to exorcise the demons of our collective past.  I wish you a happy 75th birthday and wishes for many more creative years to come.

Secret Rose Blooms: Rhys Chatham at the Craneway Pavilion


Craneway Pavilion

Craneway Pavilion

On Sunday November 17th I attended one of the most unusual concerts in my experience.  The performance of Rhys Chatham‘s ‘A Secret Rose’ at the beautiful Craneway Pavilion in Richmond was produced by Other Minds and the eclectic bay area new music bloodhound Charles Amirkhanian.

Charles Amirkhanian speaking briefly to introduce the performance.

Charles Amirkhanian speaking briefly to introduce the performance.

Rhys Chatham is an American musician and composer who has spent much of his career in living in France.  He was a part of the New York post-punk downtown music scene in the 70s working with musicians like Glenn Branca, La Monte Young and Charlemagne Palestine.OMChathfinal0131

English: Rhys Chatham at Islington Mill, Salford

Sunday’s concert was the west coast première of this piece which is scored for 100 electric guitars, bass guitar and drum kit.  It is sufficiently complex as to require at least 3 conductors in addition to the principal conductor (Chatham).  In this respect it brings to mind the work of Charles Ives and Henry Brant.  But this music resembles neither of these composers, at least not precisely so.  Beginning with his work with drones and harmonics Chatham has developed compositional techniques and honed them to a point of mastery.  The multi-movement work was microtonal, polymetric, aleatory/improvisatory, dissonant, melodic and enthralling.  Did I mention that it was loud?  No?  Well loudness may be the most obvious aspect of this music but that loudness is organic to the music.  The volume paired with the very live acoustics of the cavernous performance space elicited a wide range of harmonics which, through Chatham’s skillful techniques evoked a variety of timbres.  (Complementary ear plugs were provided.  I took a pair but did not use them.)  I heard guitars, certainly and drums and bass.  But at times it sounded like there were brass instruments and even vocals.  (I swear I heard words being sung.)

Craneway Pavilion is a 45,000 square foot former Ford assembly plant that was remodeled for use as a performance space and conference center.  Its size and waterfront location remind me of Chicago’s ‘Navy Pier’ on  the lakefront.  Craneway is on San Franciso Bay and faces south with a view of the bay bridge eastern span as well as views of San Francisco.  The appearance is that of a large loft space with metal beams and a general industrial appearance.  Its floor, walls and ceiling are surfaces that are highly reflective of sound and therefore ideal for this performance.  As promised in the promotional materials the full moon rose in the east over the bay before the performance began.

Full Moon rising over the bay just before the performance.

Full Moon rising over the bay just before the performance.

Looking toward the seating and the stage in the performance space at Craneway Pavilion.

Looking toward the seating and the stage in the performance space at Craneway Pavilion.

Chatham’s music was not about complexity for the sake of complexity.  His compositional strategies required the complex goings on we heard on Sunday.  The room itself became a sounding chamber itself amplifying, canceling and propagating the swirling harmonics that resulted from specialized tunings in addition to the other techniques mentioned.OMChathfinal0101

OMChathfinal0100

The multiple movements ranged from drone-like structures to more rhythmically complex sections and even melody.  Yes, melody. Chatham writes catchy melodies and motives that sound like they’ve been taken from one rock album or another.  Sonic gestures evoked impressions of Ozzie Osbourne, Eric Clapton, and many others depending on your personal listening experiences.  This music was ritual as much as expository.  His techniques were not limited to rock music but extended to free jazz and classical techniques as well.  Taken as a whole the piece was a multi-movement symphony, each movement sustaining its own argument in service of the whole.  For the finale Chatham set aside his conductor’s baton and picked up his guitar, not for a solo as one might expect in an ordinary concert, but to participate in the ecstasy of performance.

Chatham conducting.

Chatham conducting.

It is tempting, if a bit cliché, to suggest that this ritual music stirred the ghosts of the past.  While standing in the ticket line one gentleman said to me, “I walked out of a Jimi Hendrix concert in 1967 because it was too loud”.  Almost immediately someone else said, “I was at that concert…”.  Perhaps the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Pretty Things were stirred from their slumbers.  They were certainly evoked.  I don’t know if the aforementioned gentleman ultimately stayed for the performance but I suspect he probably did, maybe in honor of Jimi.

Chatham playing guitar in the finale of 'A Secret Rose'

Chatham playing guitar in the finale of ‘A Secret Rose’

The crowd was several hundred strong ranging in age from about 5 to 85.  Most appeared to be enjoying this loud and driving rhythmic composition.  Some rocked or nodded to the beat.  Some sat entranced and/or perplexed but attentive.  At the end there was a standing ovation and, from Mr. Chatham, a welcome encore featuring seriously de-tuned guitars.

The encore piece was also captivating and inventive though certainly not as long.   Chatham’s music is not easy to categorize or describe.  Even having heard a fair amount of his music on recordings over the years I could not have anticipated what I heard at this concert.  I now understand how some music cannot be adequately represented even by our best recording technology.

I’m not sure of the significance of the title but it does bring to mind William Butler Yeats’ book, ‘The Secret Rose’.  Its stories steeped in Irish mythology are introduced by an opening poem which reads in part:

 

Far of, most secret, and inviolate

Rose,

Enfold me in my hour of hours; where

those

Who sought thee at the Holy Sepulchre,

Or in the wine-vat, dwell beyond the stir

And tumult of defeated dreams; and deep

Among pale eyelids heavy with the sleep

Men have named beauty.

OMChathfinal0140

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Other Minds 18, three nights on the leading edge


The stage at Kanbar Hall stands ready to receive performers on opening night of OM 18

The stage at Kanbar Hall stands ready to receive performers on opening night of OM 18

OM 18 has been my fifth experience at the Other Minds festival.  The most amazing thing about Other Minds is their ability to find new music by casting a wide net in the search for new, unusual and always interesting music.  As I said in my preview blog for these concerts this year’s selection of composers was largely unfamiliar to me.  Now I am no expert but my own listening interests casts a pretty wide net.  Well this year I had the pleasure of being introduced to many of these composers and performers with no introduction save for the little research I did just before writing the preview blog (part of my motivation for doing the preview blog was to learn something about what I was soon to hear).

Gáman

Danish folk trio Gáman

The first night of the series consisted of what is generally classified as “folk” or “traditional” music.  Not surprisingly these terms fail to describe what the audience heard on Thursday night.

First up was the Danish folk trio ‘Gáman’ consisting of violin, accordion and recorder.  This is not a typical folk trio but rather one which uses the creative forces of three virtuosic musicians arranging traditional musics for this unusual ensemble.  On recorder was Bolette Roed who played various sizes of recorders from sopranino to bass recorder.  Andreas Borregaard played accordion.  And Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen was on violin.

The first piece, ‘Brestiskvædi’ was their rendering of this traditional song from the Faroe Islands (a group of islands which is under the general administration of Denmark but which has its own identity and a significant degree of independence).  It struck my ears as similar in sound to the music of Scotland and Ireland, lilting beautiful melodies with a curiously nostalgic quality.

Next was a piece by Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen.  It was the U.S. premiere of his ‘Accvire’ from 2008, a name derived from the two first letters of the instruments for which it was written (as we learned in the always interesting pre-concert panel).  It was commissioned by this ensemble.  The work reflected the composer’s facility with instrumentation and retained some suggestion of folk roots as well.  It employed a rich harmonic language within a tonal framework in what sounded almost like a post-minimalist piece.  The trio met the challenges of the music and delivered a lucid reading of this music which seemed to satisfy both the musicians and the audience.

The trio followed this with three more folk arrangements, two more from the Faroe Islands and one from Denmark.  Like the first piece they played these had a similar ambience of calm nostalgia.

The Danish folk piece set the stage for the next work, a world premiere by one of Denmark’s best known living composers, Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen.  The piece ‘Together or Not’ from 2013 is an Other Minds commission.  The composer, who was not present, wrote to Other Minds director Charles Amirkhanian saying, “the title is the program note”.  While the statement was rather cryptic the music was not.  This was less overtly tonal than the Rasmussen work and was filled with extended instrumental techniques and good humor.  Again the instrumentalists demonstrated a comfortable facility with the technical challenges of the music and delivered a fine reading of this entertaining piece.

The nicely framed program continued with two traditional drum songs from Greenland (the violinist, holding his instrument rather like a guitar produced a sort of modified pizzicato technique which played the drum part).  These haunting melodies seemed to evoke the desolate landscape of their origin.

The program ended with a Swedish polka and, in response to a very appreciative audience, an encore of another spirited polka.  These were upbeat dance music that all but got the audience up and dancing.  The audience seemed uplifted by their positive energy.

Sachdev

G.S. Sachdev (left) and Swapan Chaudhuri.

The second half of the first night’s concert consisted of two traditional Hindustani Ragas.  These pieces are structured in aspects of the the music but allow for a great deal of repetition and improvisation in which the musicians bring the music to life.  Hindustani music is deeply rooted in culture and spirituality.  The ragas are associated with yogic chakras, moods and time of day.  Their performance is intended to enhance the audience esthetically and spiritually.

G.S. Sachdev is a bansuri player.  The bansuri is a wooden flute common in this type of music (though Sachdev’s level of mastery is hardly common).  He was accompanied by the familiar tanpura drone produced by digital drone boxes instead of the actual instruments which produce the familiar drone sound that underlies Hindustani music performances.  Swapan Chaudhuri played tabla.  It is difficult to see the tabla as an “accompanying” instrument as much as it is a complementary instruments especially when played by a master such as he.  Chaudhuri is the head of the percussion department at the Ali Akbar Khan school in San Rafael in the north bay.  Sachdev has also taught there.  Both men have ties to the bay area.

The musicians performed Raga Shyam Kalyaan followed by Raga Bahar.  Originally I had thought of trying to describe these ragas in their technical aspects but my knowledge of Hindustani music cannot do justice to such an analysis.  Rather I will focus on the performances.

Raga Shyam Kalyaan was first and received an extended reading.  How long?  Well I’m not sure but this music does create a sort of suspended sense of timelessness when performed well.  Indeed that was the effect on this listener.  The whole performance of both ragas could not have exceeded one hour  but the performances by these master musicians achieved the height of their art in producing riveting performances of this beautiful music.  Sachdev’s mastery certainly has virtuosity but his genius lies in being able to infuse his performance with spirituality from within himself and to impart that spiritual resonance to his audience.  He was ably aided in that endeavor by Chaudhuri who, clearly a master of his instrument and connected with Sachdev, channeled his connection with the infinite.

The audience responded with great warmth and appreciation concluding the first day of the festival.

D. Lee OM18

Composer, performer, designer, shaman Dohee Lee performing her work, ‘ARA’.

Friday night began with the world premiere of the music theater performance piece, ‘ARA’ by Korean-American artist Dohee Lee.  Continuing with the spiritual tone set by yesterday’s Raga performances Lee introduced her multi-disciplinary art derived from her study of Korean music, dance and shamanism as well as costume design and music performance.

She was aided in her efforts by the unique instrument designed for her by sculptor and multi-disciplinary artist Colin Ernst.  The Eye Harp (seen in the above photo) is an instrument that is played by bowing and plucking strings and is connected to electronics as well.

The art of lighting designer David Robertson, whose work subtly enhanced all the performances, was clearly in evidence here.  This was  a feast for the eyes, ears and souls.  Dohee Lee’s creative costume design was integrated with the visually striking Eye Harp instrument.  And the music with sound design processing her instrument nicely complimented her vocalizations.  All were lit so as to enhance the visual design and create a unified whole of this performance.

Dohee Lee on the carefully lit stage off Kanbar Hall.

Dohee Lee on the carefully lit stage off Kanbar Hall.

Her performance began slowly with Lee in her beautiful costume took on the role of a modern shaman conjuring glossolalia in shamanic trance along with choreographed movement and accompanied by her Eye Harp and electronic sounds through the theater’s great sound system.   Like the raga performances of the previous night I wasn’t aware of how long this timeless performance lasted (the program said it was 10 minutes) .  But I wished it would have gone on longer.  Even with photographs the experience here is difficult to articulate.  The sound enveloped the audience who viewed the carefully lit stage in the otherwise darkened hall as the sounds communicated a connection with the sacred.

I am still trying to digest what I saw and heard on this Friday night.  I don’t know how most of the audience experienced this piece but they seemed to have connected with it and responded with grateful applause.  She seemed to connect as both artist and shaman.

Anna Petrini performing with her Paetzold contrabass recorder.

Anna Petrini performing with her Paetzold contrabass recorder.

Following Dohee Lee were three pieces for an instrument called the Paetzold contrabass recorder (two before intermission and one after).  Paetzold is the manufacturer who specializes in the manufacture of recorders, forerunner of the modern flute.  The square contrabass recorder is a modern design of this woodwind instrument.  However, knowing the sound of the recorder in music of Bach and his contemporaries, gives the listener no useful clues as to what to expect from the unusual looking instrument pictured above.

Anna Petrini is a Swedish recorder virtuoso who specializes in baroque and modern music written for the recorder.  At this performance she played her contrabass instrument augmented variously by modifications, additions of microphones, little speakers and electronic processing.  These pieces were perhaps the most avant-garde and the most abstract music in this festival.

Anna Petrini performing on the stage of Kanbar Hall at the Other Minds festival.

Anna Petrini performing on the stage of Kanbar Hall at the Other Minds festival.

The creative stage lighting provided a useful visual counterpoint to the music.  The first piece, ‘Split Rudder’ (2011) by fellow Swede Malin Bang was here given it’s U.S. premiere.  This piece is concerned with the sounds made inside the instrument captured by small microphones inserted into the instrument.  The resulting sounds were unlike any recorder sound that this listener has heard.  The piece created percussive sounds and wind sounds.

The next piece, ‘Seascape’ (1994) by the late Italian composer Fausto Rominelli (1963-2004) used amplification but no electronic processing.  These abstract works were received well by the audience.

‘SinewOod’ (2008) by Mattias Petersson involved introducing sound into the body of the  instrument as well as miking it internally and setting up electronic processing with which the performer interacts.  Like the two pieces that preceded it this was a complex exercise in the interaction between music and technology which is to my ears more opaque and requires repeated listenings to fully appreciate.

Taborn

Craig Taborn performing on the stage of Kanbar Hall at the 2013

The second concert was brought to its conclusion by the young jazz pianist and ECM recording artist Craig Taborn.  Detroit born, Taborn came under the influence of Roscoe Mitchell (of AACM fame) and began developing his unique style.  Here the term jazz does little to describe what the audience was about to hear.

Taborn sat at the keyboard with a look of intense concentration and began slowly playing rather sparse and disconnected sounding notes.  Gradually his playing became more complex.  I listened searching for a context to help me understand what he was doing.  Am I hearing influences of Cecil Taylor?  Thelonius Monk?  Keith Jarrett maybe?

Well comparisons have their limits.  As Taborn played on his music became more complex and incredibly virtuosic.  He demonstrated a highly acute sense of dynamics and used this to add to his style of playing.  I was unprepared for the density and power of this music. Despite the complexity it never became muddy.  All the lines were distinct and clear.  And despite his powerful and sustained hammering at that keyboard the piano sustained no damage.  But the audience clearly picked up on the raw energy of the performance.

This is very difficult music to describe except to say that it had power and presence and the performer is a creative virtuoso whose work I intend to follow.

Amy X Neuberg along with the William Winant percussion group playing Aaron Gervais.

Amy X Neuberg along with the William Winant percussion group playing Aaron Gervais.

The final concert on Saturday began with the world premiere of another Other Minds commissioned work, ‘Work Around the World’ (2012) for live voice with looping electronics and percussion ensemble.  This, we learned in the pre-concert panel is another iteration in a series of language based works, this one featuring the word ‘work’ in 12 different languages.

Amy X Neuberg singing at the premiere of Aaron Gervais' 'Work Around the World'.

Amy X Neuberg singing at the premiere of Aaron Gervais’ ‘Work Around the World’.

Language is an essential part of the work of local vocal/techno diva Amy X Neuberg’s compositions and performance work.  With her live looping electronics she was one instrument, if you will, in the orchestra of this rhythmically complex work.  William Winant presided over the complexity leading all successfully in the performance which the musicians appeared to enjoy.  The audience was also apparently pleased with the great musicianship and the novelty of the work.  Its complexities would no doubt reveal more on repeated listenings but the piece definitely spoke to the audience which seemed to have absorbed some of the incredible energy of the performance.

Michala Petri performing Sunleif Rasmussen's 'Vogelstimmung'.

Michala Petri performing Sunleif Rasmussen’s ‘Vogelstimmung’.

Back to the recorder again but this time to the more familiar instrument if not to more familiar repertoire.  Recorder virtuoso Michala Petri whose work was first made known to the record buying public some years ago is familiar to most (this writer as well) for her fine performances of the baroque repertoire.

Tonight she shared her passion for contemporary music.  First she played Sunleif Rasmussen’s ‘Vogelstimmung’ (2011) which he wrote for her.  It was the U.S. premiere of this solo recorder piece.  Vogelstimmung is inspired by pictures of birds and is a technically challenging piece that Petri performed with confidence.  At 17 minutes it was virtually a solo concerto.

And then back to electronics, this time with Paula Matthusen who now teaches at Wesleyan holding the position once held by the now emeritus professor Alvin Lucier.  Her piece for recorder and electronics, ‘sparrows in supermarkets’ (2011) was performed by Ms. Petri with Ms. Matthusen on live electronic processing.  This was a multi-channel work with speakers surrounding the audience immersing all in a complex but not unfriendly soundfield.

Michael Straus (left) with Charles Amirkhanian

Michael Straus (left) with Charles Amirkhanian

 

Some technical difficulties plagued the beginning of the first piece after intermission so the always resourceful emcee, Other Minds executive director Charles Amirkhanian took the opportunity to introduce the new Operations Director Michael Straus.  Straus replaces Adam Fong who has gone on to head a new music center elsewhere in San Francisco.

Mr. Amirkhanian also spoke of big plans in the works for the 20th Other Minds concert scheduled for 2015 which will reportedly bring back some of the previous composers in celebration of 20 years of this cutting edge festival.  No doubt Mr. Straus has his work cut out for him in the coming months.

 

Ström, part of the video projection

Ström, part of the video projection

With the difficulties sufficiently resolved it was time to see and hear Mattias Petersson’s ‘Ström’ (2011) for live electronics and interactive video in its U.S. premiere.  Petersson collaborated with video artist Frederik Olofsson to produce this work in which the video responds to the 5 channels of electronics which are manipulated live by the composer and the five lines on the video respond to the sounds made.  The hall was darkened so that just about all the audience could see was the large projected video screen whilst surrounded by the electronic sounds.

The work started at first with silence, then a few scratching sounds, clicks and pops.  By the end the sound was loud and driving and all-encompassing.  It ended rather abruptly.  The audience which was no doubt skeptical at the beginning warmed to the piece and gave an appreciative round of applause.

Paula Matthusen performing her work, '...and believing in...'

Paula Matthusen performing her work, ‘…and believing in…’

Next up, again in a darkened hall was a piece for solo performer and electronics.  Composer Paula Matthusen came out on stage and assumed the posture in the above photograph all the while holding a stethoscope to her heart.  The details of this work were not given in the program but this appears to be related to the work of Alvin Lucier and his biofeedback work on the 1970s.  Again the sounds surrounded the audience as the lonely crouching figure remained apparently motionless on stage providing a curious visual to accompany the again complex but not unfriendly sounds.  Again the audience was appreciative of this rather meditative piece.

Pamela Z (left) improvising with Paula Matthusen

Pamela Z (left) improvising with Paula Matthusen

Following that Ms. Mathussen joined another bay area singer and electronics diva, Pamela Z for a joint improvisation.  Ms. Z, using her proximity triggered devices and a computer looped her voice creating familiar sounds for those who know her work while the diminutive academic sat at her desk stage right manipulating her electronics.  It was an interesting collaboration which the musicians seemed to enjoy and which the audience also clearly appreciated.

Pamela Z performing Meredith Monk's 'Scared Song'

Pamela Z performing Meredith Monk’s ‘Scared Song’

For the finale Pamela Z performed her 2009 arrangement of Meredith Monk’s ‘Scared Song’ 1986) which appeared on a crowd sourced CD curated by another Other Minds alum, DJ Spooky.  Z effectively imitated Monks complex vocalizations and multi-tracked her voice as accompaniment providing a fitting tribute to yet another vocal diva and Other Minds alumnus.  The audience showed their appreciation with long and sustained applause.

All the composers of Other Minds 18

All the composers of Other Minds 18

Undercover Performance Practices in the Bay Area


The practice of “covers” in pop music is part of the long tradition in music of making arrangements, variations, homages, etc. in response to a given composition.  To be sure the majority of these efforts are, though well-meaning, mediocre or worse.  But on the whole they can be quite fascinating and even revelatory.  Ravel’s masterful orchestration of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ is so well done that few people are even aware that the original is a piano solo work.  The orchestration so enhances the original as to immortalize it and upstage the original version.  Similarly The Byrds’ cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ has become the most recognized version of that song.

‘Undercover Presents’ is a concert organization which has been producing a very unusual set of concerts.  Taking an album by a given artist and recruiting a different band/musician to cover each of the songs and then presenting  both a studio recording and a live concert of the results.  So far they have done  Velvet Underground and Nico, Pixies’ Doolittle, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and, most recently, Joni Mitchell’s Blue.  The musicians are all from the San Francisco Bay Area and that comprises a huge trove of talented and innovative artists.  Their albums are available on bandcamp.com

I saw the production of Blue this past September and I will be there again this coming Monday having recruited some additional friends, “You gotta come see this!”

1Killbossa

The first band, ‘Killbossa’ is inspired by the Brazilian art/music/political movement of the late 1960s known as ‘tropicalismo’ and is a combination of a variety of different musical styles including bossa nova, psychedelic rock, avant-garde and Brazilian popular music.  They covered the first song on the album, ‘All I Want’.

Next up Bharathi Palivela, a singer with traditional Hindustani vocal training teamed up with San Francisco bassist and teacher Daniel Fabricant covering ‘My Old Man’.

Georgia native, now San Francisco based bluegrass singer with her banjo and band put their spin on ‘Little Green’.

‘Carey’ was given a reading by clarinetist, vocalist Beth Custer with her strongly jazz inflected ensemble.

Kitka is an all female a capella group specializing in eastern european style folk singing.   Their a capella cover of ‘Blue’ was alone worth the price of admission.

Amy X Neuberg is an Oakland based singer, performer and tech wizard.  With her voice and electronics she created a unique version of ‘California’.

7mafia

Jazz/funk/hip-hop/R and B Jazz Mafia with  Aima the Dreamer and Erica Dee did a raucous version of ‘This Flight Tonight’.

Cajun/blues/southern fiddler and singer with her band did a country blues version of ‘River’.

The Seshen is an electro-pop ensemble that, like the other musicians in this show, is hard to categorize.  They did an ecstatic cover of ‘A Case of You’.

Katy Stephan and her group Classical Revolution ended the evening with ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’.

All the musicians barely crowded on to the stage to acknowledge the standing ovation from the very appreciative crowd.

Whether you know the original Joni Mitchell album or not you can’t fail to find something exciting, eye-opening and enjoyable in these performances.  The range of creativity and talent is staggering.  The bands played with a subtle but effective visual display that unified their efforts and added another aspect to both the music and the performance.  I’m sure Joni would be pleased.

Did I say that the ticket price includes a free download of the studio album?  Well it does and it serves as a great reminder of a truly unique bay area experience.  Maybe I’ll see you there.