Dialing it up at the Switchboard Music Festival

On April 3, the Switchboard Music Festival was back with their fourth marathon concert, one of the most hotly anticipated events on the Bay Area’s spring calendar, and with excellent reason. Switchboard brings us local music representing a range of genres. Every year the show has been better and bigger, and each year I have attended for a longer period of time.

The event itself was awe-inspiring. The absolutely beautiful Brava Theater, a new venue for the Switchboard Festival, was ornately decorated and set up so that the entrances were located at the center back of the theater to prevent bottlenecks, and at the bottom of a staircase, allowing the audience to come and go without adding too much light to the room and disturbing the vibe. The building is also oh-so-blissfully air conditioned (last year’s festival had many people literally stuck to their seats). All in all, it was a perfect setting for this community of wacky and eccentric artists to gather in.

Telepathy
The band Telepathy performing at The Switchboard Festival

Let’s talk highlights. (For those in attendance, I apologize in advance if I do not mention your favorite.)

First, The Genie, a pioneer of what he calls “scratch guitar.” For this show, he brought his guitar and several different pads of electronics on stage and began by playing a very simple, very elegant, very groovy figure with the guitar on his lap. He touched a button, and the figure began to loop. He slowly added layers, then removed layers for a while, and then added a beatbox layer. It was very relaxed at first, with the interplay between the parts engaging enough on its own. Just when I was confident that I knew what this set was about, he let the layers he had created serve as a bed for him to improvise on top of. He soloed on the guitar with his hands, and used his feet to adjust the electronics, even making the groove react to his playing. He tripped things up, skipping beats, restarting patterns mid-pattern, and was more technically sophisticated than one normally expects from whatever you call this style. He was fun, engaging, and he looked like he was having a blast.

Also worth mentioning is Jonathan Russell, one of the festival directors, who wrote a piece called Twelve Bean Groove Machine for twelve players. It was excellent fun, with great sounds and textures popping out as the trumpets tried to best each other going down in register, and the bass clarinets tried to best each other going right back up. I think a special shout-out is in order to both Russell for writing, and Michael Williams for playing an incredibly virtuosic, rocking, and musical flute solo in the middle of the piece.

The Wiener Kids, a quirky trio that reminded me instantly of New York’s Gutbucket, had silly and engaging titles paired with aggressive music and phenomenal stage presence. That set, in particular, was just packed with joy and fun. They wailed on their instruments; virtuosity and elegance was effortless to them.

Wiener Kids
Wiener Kids. Photo by Glen Cornett.

Causing a Tiger, an improvising group featuring Carla Kihlstedt, Matthias Bossi, and Shahzad Ismaily, went off the deep end in all the right ways. They opened with a humorous story about a boy who is nervous about having dinner at a girl’s house with her parents, and who has a sick feeling in his stomach. The focus slowly turned away from the narration and towards the music, and here is where the musicians shined. Textures were intermingled beautifully, and this group truly improvised as a collective. They understood that sometimes it was appropriate for one person to step back; they understood that sometimes you want to play together and sometimes against each other.

Oddly enough, the group’s name comes from a Borges quote, and listening to their music it felt incredibly apropos. The quote: “As I sleep, a dream beguiles me, and suddenly I know I am dreaming. Then I think: This is a dream, a pure diversion of my will; and now I have unlimited power, I am going to cause a tiger.” In a sense, that is exactly what they did. They created their own musical world in which they were all-powerful and which the rest of us could merely observe. It was quite an experience.

Causing A Tiger
Causing A Tiger. Photo by Glen Cornett.

Switchboard has been moving slowly and interestingly away from its classical roots. If I didn’t know better, it would be easy to forget that this festival was founded by three friends, Jonathan Russell, Ryan Brown, and Jeff Anderle who are all alumni of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Their aesthetic ideas and goals have shown the similarities between the cutting edges of various genres. The Wiener Kids were cutting-edge jazz, Russell was cutting-edge classical, Loren Chasse was experimental, Birds and Batteries were Indie Rock, and Bay Area Composer’s Big Band played, etc. In one sense they were successful at persuading me that this music all belongs together. But in another sense, I personally would have loved a little more variety from an eight-hour show. Switchboard defines itself on its website as “genre-defying.” I’m all in favor of that, but the trend I noticed throughout the festival was actually the remarkable sameness of the sounds. Sure, this group has a jazz background, and this guy is experimental, and those people are classical, and this group is playing indie rock, but they all were doing very similar rhythmic-based grooves and loops, with soloistic virtuosity standing in for compositional complexity. It’s true that simplicity is wonderful and accessible, but complexity is not a vice.

The nature of these concerts is that your experience will be determined very much by where you have been and what you have been thinking about in your life. This is actually truer at marathon concerts than at standard length concerts. While a standard length concert can be a reprieve from your life, a marathon event has so much more length that your mind has to return to your life, has to engage with the thoughts you may have been trying to avoid. This means that your current thoughts (in this case, mine), will color how you feel about the show as a whole.

But I guarantee that I’ll be thinking about this concert for months.