Friday, March 13, 2009

Other Minds 14

Hello everybody in the blog world. I don't know how regularly Ill update this thing. Im starting this mainly because Id like a host for some of my writings and music so dont expect daily updates. That having been said only time will tell what this will turn into.
For the first post Im going to repost a sort of review of the Other Minds festival that I attended last week. Unfortunately all of the links to the artist pages were lost in the transfer and I dont have time right now to re-add them here now. If your curious about anyone mentioned you can check out That has almost all of the composer profiles and google can provide you with any of the others not on their site. You can also view it in its original context here. Enjoy...

Last weekend I volunteered for the fourteenth Other Minds festival. Other Minds is a San Francisco based nonprofit organization that puts on concerts of "new music" which translates to contemporary classical.

I originally volunteered because I was broke. The festival had an amazing lineup and I knew Id hate myself if I missed it. It ended up being an incredible experience that went above and beyond just seeing the performances.

Day 1 (Thursday)
I met some of the other volunteers who were all really cool people. One person I really enjoyed getting to know was New York based composer Brent Miller.

The first piece of the evening was a string quartet titled, Spiral X: In Memoriam (2007), by Chinary Ung. This piece was inspired by the Cambodian holocaust in which half of the composers family and many of his friends were killed. The Del Sol String Quartet not only played their instruments but also yelled and shouted, mimicking the cries of the holocaust's victims. I enjoyed this piece. It was my first exposure to the composer and it sparked my interest.

The next two pieces, The Shadow of Silence (2003-2004), and Phantasmagoria (2006-2007), were by Bent Sørensen. The first was performed by pianist Eva-Maria Zimmermann, the second was performed bythe Trio Con Brio Copenhagen. Both were good but neither stood out to me over all. I have to say that Phantasmagoria takes the cake for best title of the festival though.

After a brief intermission Ben Johnston's new piece, The Tavern (1998/2008) had its world premiere. It was written for, and performed by, John Schneider. Joining Schneider was baritone, Paul Berkolds. The piece was for just intonated guitar and voice. Johnston set the poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi to music for this piece. While Im a fan of Ben Johnstons music I didn't like this piece as much as others I've heard. The guitar didn't seem to work. He admitted in the liner notes that he is not a guitarist and I think that resulted in the guitar parts not being as good as they could have. That having been said, I enjoyed the text he chose. It was humorous, dealing mostly with wine, drunkeness, and at one point hash, yet still offering some interesting words of wisdom and insight.

The final two pieces were performed by the Cello Octet Amsterdam.
Both pieces were inspired by vocal music. The first was Motetten (2005) written by the recently deceased Mauricio Kagel. Its fairly easy to see that the piece was inspired by the motet style from the title. The music was lively and the performers were animated. The was a certain lightheartedness that was almost comedic at times. It was fun to watch and seemed to be equally so to perform.

The Final piece of the night was the US Premiere of O-Antiphonen (2008) by Arvo Pärt. Pärt was the only living composer that did not attend. Arvo's recent music is beautiful and peaceful. This piece was no exception. As is the case with most of his recent work, religious music was the inspiration for this piece. This time the inspiration came from the Great Antiphons which is a series of seven songs usually sung like a Gregorian chant over the week leading to Christmas in Eastern or Greek Orthodox churches.

Day 2 (Friday)
The evening began with a piece titled Hannah, for solo cello and electronics, by Dobromiła Jaskot. The cello was played by Hannah Addario-Berry and the electronics were handled by the composer. This piece was interesting. The hall had six speakers hung, four in the corners, and two in the middle on either side. The composer added effects such as delay and reverb, or used filters to change the timbre of the instrument, while performer played. While doing this the performer also panned the sound between the six speakers, sometimes taking the processed sound to one corner and the normal sound to another.

The second piece, by Los Angeles based Cat Lamb, was called Dilations (2008). It was the world premiere and was commissioned by Other Minds. The piece was for three tenors, (Carl Boe, Trey Costerisan, & Noah Miller) three bass clarinets, (Jeff Anderle, Phil O'Connor, & Jonathan Russell) and three cellos (Gianna Abondolo, Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick, & Thalia Moore). The piece, like Ben Johnston's prior and several upcoming, used just intonation. It was slow moving and sparse. It was made up mostly of long sustained tones and silences. As is the case with all music in just intonation that Ive been able to hear, the overtones were beautiful. The long sustained intervals and chords sang. While I enjoyed the piece very much, it wasn't received very well by all of the audience. Some left before it ended and the applause seemed halfhearted. Cat was the youngest featured composer (b. 1982). I had the chance to speak with her several times throughout the festival. She was very personable and bright. Watch out for her in coming years.

After the intermission Chico Mello's chamber piece, ...Das Árvores...(1999) was performed by Jeff Anderle & Jonathan Russell (clarinet), Peter Wahrhaftig (tuba), Richard Worn (contrabass), Eva-Maria Zimmermann (piano), and Rick Sacks (percussion). Chico was born in Brasil and now lives in Germany. His piece was really fun and similar in mood to the Kagel piece the night before but even more so. It had members of the ensemble lighting matches, shrugging their shoulders, and turning their heads to look at each other throughout it. I helped with the change over for this piece so I had to watch it from the side of the stage. I was a little disappointed because I couldnt see everything that was going on but it was still really enjoyable.

The next two pieces were by Canadian Linda Catlin Smith. The first was titled, Through the Low Hills (1994). It was performed by the composer (playing piano) and Gianna Abondolo (cello). Neither piece really stood out to me. I found them to be a bit boring.

Ending the night was another piece by Dobromiła Jaskot. it was titled Linearia (2007) performed by the Del Sol String Quartet. This piece wasn't bad but wasn't one of my favorites either.

Day 3 (Saturday)
Beginning the evening was another piece by Chinary Ung. This was titled Spiral XI: Mother and Child (2008). Ung Wrote this piece for his wife, violist Susan Ung. Again in the piece the performer not only played the instrument but also sang. Susan's voice was powerful and added quite a bit to the piece. I enjoyed this piece quite a bit.

John Schneider was next up. He performed two original pieces on just intonated guitars. The first was a slide guitar and was accompanied by some spoken word. The second was instrumental, performed on a steel string guitar. Both were very good. His CD's aren't widely distributed but if you ever happen to see them around make sure to pick it up. I believe Other Minds has some available for sale online.

John Schneider also performed two Harry Partch pieces. The first was on one of Partch's original instruments called a harmonic cannon. Here's a picture...

It was called Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales (1946/1950). The second piece is one of Partch's best known, Barstow (1941). John Schneider performed this brilliantly on a just intonated guitar. Schneider is gifted with a good singing voice but he took the piece above and beyond by playing the part of the narrator, sticking out his thumb for cars to and turning to watch as they passed him by, eventually announcing "Screw it, I'll walk!" and then walking across the stage while playing.

After the intermission Chico Mello played a 45 minute set of "brasilian" songs showing his great sense of humor. The first 20 minutes or so were made up of fragmented samba and other songs. He would play seconds of a song and change abruptly. He would begin to play familiar songs such as Girl From Ipanema juxtaposed with soft whimpers and noises. The whole thing was very funny and enjoyable. He announced afterward that it what he had just played was called John Cage on the Beach. He then played several songs with a distinctly samba feel but without the steady beat. He would stop unexpectedly or change the rhythm completely in middle of a song. The lyrics were in Portuguese but he also incorporated throat singing which was, in my humble opinion, awesome.

The final performance of the night was by La Monte Young's protégé Michael Harrison accompanied by the Del Sol String Quartet. The piece was called Tone Clouds (2008) which was based on his 2007 release for just intonated piano, Revelation. I enjoy the CD quite a bit and have listened to it often. While the performance was excellent on everyones part I felt that the string arrangement didn't add to the piece at all and in fact, detracted from it. That having been said it was still very powerful to hear.

Volunteering for the festival ended up being a incredible experience. I was able to meet almost all of the composers and performers. I also met a lot of the people involved with the Other Minds organization who were very cool. A highlight of the weekend was being able to meet Ben Johnston who will be 83 on the 15th of this month. He was a student of Harry Partch and a really interesting guy. I was only able to speak briefly with him a couple of times, he was surrounded by people most of the time, but the little I did speak with him was a great experience and a real honor.

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