Photo by Ryan Suzuki
That the West is a haven for musical iconoclasts and has a dynamic new music community is made manifest when one takes a close look at some of the activities of musicians as well as the organizations which support, present and otherwise champion contemporary work.
The San Francisco Bay Area is perhaps the American hotbed of free improvisation. Mills College in Oakland plays a role in supporting free improvisations as does a network of small venues devoted to the genre. Of course, we have the Rova Saxophone Quartet; headquartered in Oakland, whose reputation reaches around the globe. New Californian Fred Frith, founding member of the British Rock-In-Opposition group Henry Cow, has relocated to Northern California from his native England and teaches composition at Mills. In his many performances in the San Francisco Bay Area and around the world, he often works with a host of Northern California musicians, including members of Rova, Chris Brown (also on the faculty at Mills), koto player Miya Masaoka, drummer and owner of the record label Rastascan, Gino Robair, and electronics wizard Tom Dimuzio, among many others.
Newly invented instruments are very much associated with the West, most notably with Oakland’s Harry Partch, not to mention Henry Cowell with his pioneering string piano (i.e. played directly on the strings), Cage’s prepared piano, and the West Coast School of Percussion which gave us rice bowls and brake drums as instruments. (What self-respecting college music department doesn’t have a brake drum or two serving double duty as percussion instrument and door stop?)
Experimental Musical Instruments, a journal devoted to unusual, newly invented, as well forgotten instruments was published out of Nicasio, California from 1985 to 1999. The editor, Bart Hopkin, has helped to assemble and publish three CD anthologies of such instruments featuring instruments and music by Partch, Robert Moog, Wendy Mae Chambers, François & Bernard Baschet, Ellen Fullman, Lou Harrison & Bill Colvig, the Glass Orchestra, Skip La Plante and many others. Last year, Beth Custer gather together a slew of mostly California instrument builders, including Tom Nunn, Peter Whitehead and Oliver Di Cicco, to collaborate in her Vinculum Symphony. Experimental Musical Instruments carries on with a web presence (
While the West has nothing like the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, there are important new music series and festivals. In the 1980s, John Adams directed the New and Unusual Music Series produced by the San Francisco Symphony. That once dynamic series petered out under the aegis of George Perle after Adams left. Fortunately, new music was given a shot in the arm when Michael Tilson Thomas was brought in to revitalize the San Francisco Symphony, taking the orchestra up a few notches and turning them into a world class ensemble. Using his prestige and vision, Tilson Thomas instituted the American Mavericks Festival in June of each year (alas, on hiatus in 2001). And while he tends to focus on his favorite living composers (Harrison, Reich, Meredith Monk, Steve Mackey, and a few others), the festival has mounted important performances, including Antheil’s Ballet Mechanique featuring the original instrumentation with 16 player pianos in its West Coast premiere, and Carl Ruggles’ rugged but seldom performed masterpiece Suntreader in 200l.
These just offer the merest glimpse into the aesthetic environs in which music forges new paths and flourishes here in the West.