San Francisco: Summoning the Ghosts of Ideas Past

Roddy Schrock
Roddy Schrock
Photo by Hideki Kubota

It was another concert of difficult modern music and the seats were packed. At this rate, one might be led to believe this stuff is actually becoming popular in San Francisco. Maybe it was due to the marketing brilliance of Other Minds presenting the day’s marathon three concerts under the moniker of a New Music Séance. And really, what is a concert besides a reconnection with the ghosts of ideas past.

Inside the mystical atmosphere of the Arts and Crafts-style Swedenborgian Church, the ghost that haunted the final concert of the day was that of Henry Cowell. His sound, that of a particularly West Coast experimentalism, was the link that held the puzzle of the evening’s program together. From John Cage up to Mamoru Fujieda, one could hear the ring of Cowell’s piano the whole way through. This aesthetic trajectory is one of rugged yet sensitive individualism, a gritty determination to express an idea in the most direct but sweet language possible, sort of like the cowboys in Brokeback Mountain.

The program began, appropriately enough, with Alexander Scriabin’s Vers la Flamme, positing the direction the evening was to take. Sarah Cahill then performed Dissonant Counterpoint 5, 7, & 8 by the relatively little-known Johanna Magdalena Beyer, a composer active in the circle around Cowell in the ’20s and ’30s. The piece was intensely intimate and, as one might expect, dissonant.

Cahill continued with a playful work by Lou Harrison, A Summerfeld Set. Following was a piece by the Bay Area composer Daniel David Feinsmith, called Self, for speaking pianist. This is admittedly the first work of his I have heard. The piece was energetic, built on a richly rewarding rhythmic and tonal framework. However the gimmick, the pianist playing while reciting a text by Ralph Waldo Emerson, was dull. Watching Cahill perform on piano and speak the text in rhythm was something like watching a tightrope walker attempting to sing an aria: the quality of both the aria and the tightrope walking seem diminished by combining the two.

One of the standout pieces of the evening was the highly virtuosic and deeply communicative performance by the duo of Kate Stenberg and Eva-Maria Zimmerman of Trois Regards, for violin and piano, by Ronald Bruce Smith. It is a contemporary piece that looks to the past, full of quartertones and passacaglias. The duo knocked it out of the park, giving a startlingly powered interpretation, full of character and presence.

In the second half, Cahill really came into her own, giving performances with directness, subtle detail, and richly personal interpretation. This was put to full effect in her presentation of Mamoru Fujieda’s Patterns of Plants, a work I have had a fondness for since I first heard it in Tokyo years ago. Though the original Tzadik recording sounded somewhat distanced, Cahill’s reading was very warm. Whether or not one is actually able to understand the relationship between flora growth patterns and musical patterns isn’t the point—in as much as one is challenged to imagine the precise process of moving towards a flame in the Scriabin piece. Patterns of Plants stands on its own as an important piece of late-20th-century piano writing, simultaneously humble and strikingly beautiful.

The evening was rounded out by Cowell, Cage, Adams, and a couple of piano rags. Taken as a whole, the program was inspired, marking a clear introduction to a strand of new music that is still vital. This line, from Scriabin to present-day ultra-modernists and post-minimalists is a refreshing one, clearing away much of the intellectual phlegm of many other trends and reminding the listener that music can be a sublimely atmospheric experience and maybe sometimes even spiritual.

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Roddy Schrock is a sound artist who digitally mines everyday sound for the profound and canvasses the glitzy, rough edges of pop for its articulate immediacy. He has lived and worked in Tokyo, The Hague, New York, and San Francisco, with performances in the Czech Republic, Holland, Japan, and North America. He is also an educator, teaching summer workshops on SuperCollider software at STEIM (Netherlands).