September was chock-a-block with musical activity in the San Francisco Bay Area. The month ended on Sunday with one of those extraordinarily warm and beautiful days that makes the whole city gloat with pride, and Soundwave had the good fortune of scheduling the final concert of their summer-long festival in an outdoor venue with a clear blue sky overhead. Soundwave is an ambitious and multi-disciplinary biennial series founded by Alan So that has been running since 2004, featuring not just concerts but also exhibitions/installations, panel discussions, and other performance events that merge sound or music with, say, Zen meditation or wilderness exploration. This year’s festival included around 15 events in a variety of indoor and outdoor locations around San Francisco.
Sunday’s event was essentially a straightforward new music concert dropped into the expansive Beaux Arts open-air courtyard of the California Palace of Legion of Honor, steps away from one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The bass clarinet duo Sqwonk (Jeff Anderle and Jonathan Russell, who are two of the co-founders of the Switchboard Festival) opened the performance by walking on from opposite sides of the courtyard while playing Black, a highly caffeinated piece of nonstop rhythmic patterns by Marc Mellits. (Videos from a different performance of Sqwonk playing Black and Cornelius Boots’ Sojourn of the Face, which they played on Sunday, can be found here.)
The intermission-less concert also featured 12 members of the Oakland Active Orchestra, a collective of improvisers and musicians/composers founded in 2009, performing member Aram Shelton’s the Days are the Same. This performance included four percussionists, brass, winds, a cello, and a bass, which at times were asked in this episodic work to produce a soft sound bed of non-pitched material, and in other sections to sound more like a jazz big band, playing themes over a harmonic progression.
The concert finished with two substantial works for unaccompanied chorus sung by the 20-voice new music choir Volti.** The set opened with Volti positioned at a distance on the side of the courtyard, where the sustained harmonies from “Dawn,” the first movement of Stacy Garrop’s Songs of Lowly Life, gently emerged. (A live recording, audio only, from a different performance, can be heard here.) Their performance also included Shawn Crouch’s 16-minute The Garden of Paradise, a setting of poetry by Iraq War veteran Brian Turner alternating with texts by Rumi. In a curious coincidence, during the two quietest moments of the piece, planes flew overhead, lending an unexpected poignancy to Turner’s poem about an Iraqi father trying to comfort his son during a nighttime bombing.
Whereas Soundwave was an entirely acoustic event, the month opened with the annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF), a five-day exploration of electronic and electro-acoustic music and sound art with three concerts at the Brava Theater in the Mission, and a Cage celebration at SFMOMA. Though SFEMF ran from September 5 to 9, I was only able to hear the well-programmed and well-attended September 7 performance at Brava, which presented three contrasting and complementary performances by L.A.-based Damion Romero, Machine Shop from the Bay Area, and New York composer William Basinski.
Romero opened with an untitled work built with drones and pulsations that began from near-imperceptibility, and gradually grew over 25 minutes into an almost overwhelmingly saturated audio image that was palpably vibrating the seats. The duo Machine Shop worked with a wall of gongs and cymbals of different sizes, which were struck, rubbed, bowed, and manipulated by percussionist Karen Stackpole in every mode imaginable; the sounds were then processed by electronic musician Drew Webster, extending and amplifying the gongs’ vibrations and exploring the harmonics produced. Basinski treated us to two works from 30 years ago, Shortwavemusic and Piano Varations. There was sweet nostalgia to be sure from seeing him gently position analog tape loops in now-antiquated equipment, but I was more taken by the aural beauty of the ambient sound created by the short repeating passages of piano music, as well as the chance to quietly reconnect with the idea that even electronic music can be physical.
Caution: Actual nudes descending a staircase
In the middle of the month were two multidisciplinary events in the East Bay that I wasn’t able to get to. At the Berkeley Art Museum on September 14, video artist John Sanborn staged PICO (Performance Indeterminate Cage Opera), a reportedly sold-out happening inspired by John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and Nam June Paik that included musicians (pianist Sarah Cahill, cellist Theresa Wong, electronic musicians Wobbly and Negativland), dancers, video art, and audience participants (a call went out soliciting people to email if they wanted to “receive a ‘task’ to perform as part of PICO”).
The following weekend, composer/performer Laura Inserra’s wide-ranging Art in Nature: The Nature of Art Festival took place for the third time at the Redwood Regional Park in Oakland. Dozens of musicians, dancers, theater artists, and visual artists gathered for this free six-hour outdoor event along a mile-long trail, organized under Inserra’s principle that not only can art be experienced in conjunction with nature, but that community members should be able to gain insight on the nature of the creation of artistic work.
And finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the opening of the San Francisco Symphony’s season. Given the concentration of 20th-century and contemporary works last season for the American Mavericks Festival, it’s understandable that this season would reflect a return to more conventional programming. One of the few contemporary works scheduled is the West Coast premiere of Samuel Carl Adams’s Drift and Providence, a 20-minute work for a large orchestra with significant percussion battery and electronics (performed by Adams at the back of the hall). The reception for the Bay Area native’s piece was enthusiastic, particularly in the press—extensive coverage can be found in the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, and even The New York Times. The Symphony will take the work on tour later this season.
**Disclaimer: I sometimes sing with Volti, though I didn’t perform in this concert, and am the group’s artistic advisor.