Sunday, February 27, 2005

Other Looping Minds

Friday night I volunteered at the Other Minds Festival, the 11th annual, at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. I helped to run the CD table with Blaine, the volunteer coordinator. He told me that last year, the CD table was not in a good location. This year, it was right outside the doors to the theater and people could come right to it as soon as they had finished applauding.
This meant a bit of a rush right before the concert, in the intermission, and after the show. It was fun though to have to move fast and take all that money for the organization and the musicians.

The concert that evening consisted of a piece by Charles Amirkhanian called Son of Metropolis San Francisco; improvised music by Fred Frith and Sudhu Tewari; and a world premiere commission by Maria de Alviar, performed by her, Amelia Cuni, and Joan Jeanrenaud.

Charles' piece was called Son of Metropolis because the original is about an hour long, and the version played that night was only half an hour or thereabouts. It was a soundcape characterization of San Francisco, but of course it didn't incorporate obvious sounds like the cable car or anything. I enjoyed hearing what Charles' conception of San Francisco is. Some of the sounds that were in the piece were a Chinese soap opera, a conversation two guys were having in the Tongan language, water lapping against piers, the elephant seals at Ano Nuevo, and conga drums being played on Ocean Beach. After the performance the signed and numbered CDs of Son of Metropolis sold steadily.

I was excited to hear Fred Frith, of whom I've become a big fan. Of the three performances of the evening, two of them incorporated looping, and his was the first. I am struck by how common looping has become in contemporary music. In the mid-nineties, when I was kind of living under a rock, I heard looping for the first time, and it was Rick Walker who was doing it. Since then I have run across it pretty much everywhere, used by elder statesmen/women of new music as well as newcomers. I kind of feel weird that I've never done it myself.

But back to Fred Frith. He started by dedicating his performance to a musical colleague who had died tragically three days before, and in the time thereafter, he did beautiful things. It's hard to explain other than to cite the fact that often when you go to hear improvised music, there's a significant portion of it that sounds really random and/or out of control. When you hear someone improvise who REALLY knows what he's doing, you realize that there is nothing random about it. No matter what object or implement Fred touches his guitar with, no matter what he does to its tuning, and no matter what he decides to do in the moment, it always makes sense in that moment and it's all musical.

Likewise with the looping, it's so common now that there are plenty of misuses of it occurring. Some players can make it sound really obvious or really lean on it too much but this hasn't been the case anytime I have heard Fred play.

Sudhu Tewari joined him for the second half of the set with his homemade instruments. A lot of them were percussion instruments and some were bowed strings. The two of them meshed well. There was a loud, harsh portion in the middle which kind of challenged my ears but most of the textures I liked.

The final piece was a new trio work by Maria de Alvear. It is about three honorable female trees at the beginning of life on earth. This piece also featured looping, just from cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, and it was used very sparingly. Joan was physically intimidating and reminded me of Linda Hamilton in Terminator II. :) The players' costumes all incorporated white and/or a green/gold iridescence, and even dressed all in white with the lights shining down on her I couldn't help staring at Joan's impressive upper body musculature, which cast very artistic shadows.

I always come to Other Minds with really high expectations and this piece really met and exceeded them. All three performers were technically extremely proficient and the piece seemed well rehearsed and under their control. I love hearing extended techniques that don't even sound extended because they are played so well. This was very much the case with both vocalists and the cello. There were some moments where the tuning was challenging to my ears. The final third of the piece really picked up commanding steam.

I always used to tell my flute students how important it is to be completely prepared because the audience is on your side. They are there because they want you to play beautifully and blow them away, but if they sense you're scared, they will be distracted and they won't hear the music very well. You have to be so prepared and so confident that the audience never worries about you, and then they'll sit back and hear what you have to say.

No comments: