Shake It To the Ground: SF Musicians Re-envision Classic(al) Career Paths

The San Francisco Bay Area has always been home to musicians who explore the boundaries of, and move freely between, genres and musical traditions. Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, and Harry Partch all lived or worked here at some point in their lives, and the Kronos Quartet is based in San Francisco, to cite just a few prominent examples. Factor in the long history of activism and counterculture, and an atmosphere of openness and experimentation is simply an inherent part of the landscape.

Today, local enterprising young musicians continue to embrace this unique ethos. They inhabit a musical world almost totally free of the boundaries previously posed by genres and traditions, a world where contentious issues—formal attire, “alt-classical”—aren’t even issues anymore. They have sidestepped whole entire philosophical debates and simply decided to do what they wanted to do, which, of course, is what people in the Bay Area have been doing for a long time.

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In a small rehearsal hall in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra sit in a semicircle facing Zach Rogue, front man of Bay Area bands Rogue Wave and Release the Sunbird. They have a performance the following night and are rehearsing string arrangements, written by Magik*Magik founder and director Minna Choi, that accompany Rogue’s songs. There’s an easy give-and-take between Rogue and Choi, and the rehearsal is relaxed. There is also a fair amount of arranging on the fly as the two search for the right sound or texture. The young Magik*Magik string players–everyone taking part in this session is a current or former student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music–scribble changes into their parts without missing a beat.

Choi’s arrangements go way beyond simple, sustained, chordal accompaniments. She is skilled at creating unique textures and is not afraid to explore extended techniques. One of the rehearsal’s more light-hearted moments comes when a violist loses a guitar pick inside the body of his instrument during an arrangement that calls for extended strumming, and spends the next few minutes trying to extricate it. This leads to a brief brainstorming session on the topic of pick tethers and how they might be used to prevent further mishaps.

Throughout the entire rehearsal it is clear that Rogue is enjoying this process, though at one point after a particularly emotional section he asks, “Do you think it’s too over the top?”, to which Choi replies emphatically, “No, no, no!” At the end of the night Rogue tells the Magik*Magik players that this is his first time working with musicians who can read music, which is not at all unusual for the members of this orchestra to hear.

Zach Rogue and Minna Choi, far right, rehearsing with members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra.

Zach Rogue and Minna Choi, far right, rehearsing with members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra.

The Magik*Magik Orchestra almost always works with other groups: singer/songwriters, rock bands, and anyone else who wants to add a bass clarinet, choir, or full orchestra to their album or live show. Choi, who founded the Magik*Magik Orchestra in 2008 while a graduate composition student at the San Francisco Conservatory, contracts the musicians from a roster of over 45 Magik*Magik players and writes the arrangements. Clients can record at Tiny Telephone studios, where the group is orchestra-in-residence. It’s one-stop shopping for bands looking to add an orchestral element to their sound.

Being in constant contact with such a diverse group of musicians, and by extension their audiences, has put Magik*Magik in a unique position to reach out to listeners who wouldn’t normally attend an orchestral concert. This has always been a goal, says Magik*Magik’s manager and clarinetist Annie Phillips. “Magik’s mission is to attract new listeners and participants to the orchestral experience,” she says. Educational programs are a big part of this strategy, and Magik*Magik runs an instrument petting zoo for kids at multiple San Francisco museums. At the Stern Grove Music Festival this summer they created a program called Build a Band, in which youngsters were able to build their own guitars and rattles from household items. Build a Band culminated with a group performance of a song by the San Francisco band The Dodos, complete with choreography, putting a Magik*Magik spin on the event.

Their outreach is not limited to kids, however. At a show in June with singer/songwriter John Vanderslice, Phillips manned the same instrument petting zoo in the lobby of San Francisco’s Herbst Theater. “I was like, ‘Oh my God! I’m bringing this to adults. I’m just going to be standing there by myself in the lobby.’ But it was really popular. All these people were coming up and trying all the instruments, and it’s cool because . . . they’ve never seen an orchestra back up a rock act before and then in the lobby there are all these instruments that are kind of weird-looking but they can try them out. We have a trombone, so all these people were playing the trombone in the lobby of Herbst.”

In addition to continuing their collaborative work, Choi and Phillips are also thinking about expanding their repertoire and presenting stand-alone Magik*Magik shows. “We’re starting to think about and plan: If we were to do just a season of Magik concerts, what would it be like?”, she says. “Minna and I have started to talk about non-work-for-hire things, like educational programs. We’re not really sure at this point, mostly because it works really well when we collaborate with other musicians.”

It does work well. The Magik*Magik orchestra has addressed a serious need in the San Francisco music scene and has either performed or recorded over seventy times since their inception. Plus, with each gig bringing new repertoire and excited, appreciative collaborators, why rush to change?

The inter-genre limbo inhabited by Magik*Magik is familiar and comfortable territory for composer Ryan Brown. Brown, together with fellow San Francisco musicians Jeff Anderle and Jonathan Russell, created a festival based on the idea. Their annual Switchboard Music Festival, founded in 2007, focuses on Bay Area musicians whose work “falls in the cracks between genres,” and has featured everything from jazz and gamelan ensembles to a heavy metal-influenced bass clarinet quartet. Brown says that he and his colleagues mainly just book groups that they’re interested in hearing, rather than actively promoting a cross-genre sensibility. He sees this not only as a characteristic of the San Francisco scene–welcoming to all comers–but representative of his generation of classically trained musicians. “It’s not just a Bay Area thing, but also a generational thing –being a generation that got into classical music at a time when a lot of those battles had already been fought. A lot of the battles over whether rock is a legitimate music, or jazz, and whether it’s legitimate to incorporate them into your music.”

Guitarist Travis Andrews expresses a similar sentiment. Andrews is a member, along with percussionist Andrew Meyerson, of the guitar/percussion duo The Living Earth Show. The two have commissioned works from Samuel Carl Adams, Timo Andres, and Dan Becker, among others, and also play in the avant-metal band Freighter. “There’s kind of a lot of crossover between the two things that we do. The people that are apt to nerd out on rock and roll music are, I think, just a short push away from nerding out with chamber music.” That sentiment seems a lot less far-fetched when you hear them perform some of the new pieces being written for them, and there are a lot of new works being written for them because they’re basically building a repertoire from scratch.

The Living Earth Show rehearses in a small rented room above a commercial warehouse. The room’s walls are covered from floor to ceiling with oriental rugs, and the room itself is almost completely filled with percussion equipment, keyboards, amplifiers, electronics, and bikes. They’re currently rehearsing a new piece written for them by Max Stoffregen titled Quasimason. In some sections Stoffregen uses multiple guitar loops to create dense, layered textures accompanied by heavy drumbeats. In others he contrasts these heavy textures with sparser ones featuring frenetic, Zappa-like melodic fragments or serene, sustained passages. Andrews says the composers the group has worked with so far are eager to write for the unorthodox duo, and are taking full advantage of the electric guitar’s effects and looping possibilities. “A lot of people are more excited now–at least the crop of people we’ve talked to–in writing for electric guitar as opposed to writing for acoustic guitar,” Andrews says. “They feel like they have a lot more options with the sonic spectrum.” Meyerson and Andrews are also preparing Brian Ferneyhough’s Renvoi/Shards for quartertone guitar and vibraphone, and are about to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for custom instruments on which to perform the work, as well as others they’ve commissioned. It’s hard to imagine an instrument more custom than Meyerson’s current vibraphone, though. According to his bio, it’s made from the bones of his enemies.

Andrew Meyerson, percussion, and Travis Andrews, guitar, rehearse Max Stoffregen’s Quasimason

Over in the Richmond district, the chamber group Nonsemble 6 is rehearsing in a space with slightly fewer wall hangings, much better acoustics, and familiar to chamber musicians of all stripes–a church. They’re working on John Harbison’s song cycle The Natural World for an upcoming performance as part of the Noe Valley Chamber Music Series. In the third movement, titled “Milkweed,” they work to achieve a tentative, probing quality in the movement’s murky opening bars. They have a wonderfully versatile ensemble sound, and the dark, blended timbres they create really illuminate the evocative elements of Harbison’s score. In addition to the Harbison, their upcoming program also contains Mario Davidovsky’s Biblical Songs, and the Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. As the group’s clarinetist Annie Phillips (yes, the same) says, “We don’t mess around.”

Nonsemble 6 rehearses John Harbison’s The Natural World

The musicians of Nonsemble 6 originally came together while graduate students at the San Francisco Conservatory to perform Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, and have since taken up other pieces written for Pierrot ensemble, including the Davidovsky and Harbison. Like The Living Earth Show, Nonsemble 6 is also working to expand the repertoire for their unique instrumentation through commissions. Like the Magik*Magik Orchestra they do innovative educational programs–creating expressionist melodrama with third graders, for example. In an effort to reach new audiences the group also focuses on cross-genre collaborations, whether with other musical groups like math rockers Grains, or with visual artists. N6 has commissioned visual artists to create works that draw inspiration from pieces in their repertoire.

The members of Nonsemble 6 are active on multiple fronts. Pianist Ian Scarfe is one of the founders of Classical Revolution, an innovative chamber music series emphasizing community, collaboration, and access. Their concerts (usually free or very affordable) feature local musicians and lots of different musical styles and genres. Founded in 2006 when a few San Francisco Conservatory students and graduates got together for a chamber music reading session at Café Revolution in San Francisco’s Mission District, Classical Revolution has grown into a global endeavor, with active chapters in the U.S., Canada, England, and Germany. The original San Francisco chapter continues to present fifteen to twenty concerts a month at locations throughout the Bay Area. Scarfe, like Phillips, cellist Annie Suda and vocalist Amy Foote also performs with the Magik*Magik Orchestra. Foote feels that a diverse career path is the best, and for her, most satisfying way to build a career. “You do have to create this portfolio career where I’m not just an opera singer, I’m an opera singer, I’m a teacher, I play in a band,” she says. “You can’t build your career in the same way you did thirty years ago. Whatever your instrument is, it’s not like you can audition for one company and once you know this one person you’re in to the larger scene and you essentially work your way up. It just doesn’t work that way anymore.” What’s more important today, she says, is distinguishing yourself from the legions of other talented young musicians. “It’s not just that you’re really, really good at your craft anymore; lots of people are totally awesome at what they do. What the San Francisco scene is about, what it is to be a musician right now, is kind of a cliché. It’s to find what you’re passionate about, whether it be one thing or many things, and be working in all of those directions and having your hand in every basket so that someday one of those things your working on will work out.”

For musicians in the new music world, capitalizing on opportunities usually means creating them for yourself, and these young musicians willingly accept the responsibility of administering their ensembles and promoting their own shows in exchange for artistic freedom. For Phillips, the sense of satisfaction is well worth the effort. “I like creating something new, and I think there’s something very entrepreneurial about it. There are all these different little things that need to get done and it’s like running a business. So it’s more engaging for me to be able to do all of the non-musical things on the side and play, and there’s more opportunity there because if you want to do something, and know how to do all the work, then it happens.”

Cellist Michelle Kwon
Cellist Michelle Kwon

Cellist Michelle Kwon agrees. Kwon is active in the Northern California freelance scene, playing with the top regional orchestras as well as with the Magik*Magik Orchestra and the Delphi Trio, a piano trio she co-founded with violinist Liana Bérubé (also a Magik*Magik member) and pianist Jeffery LaDeur. She estimates that her time spent working with Delphi is split evenly between playing and administration, but feels that the extra work is not only necessary to the success of the group, but also important on a personal level. “Our goal is to really spread the love of chamber music as a genre, but also as a means of expression,” she says. “We believe that it’s one of the best representations of a player in terms of their own expressivity, their own ability to work with others in a very civil and intimate way.” For Kwon, the Bay Area’s acceptance of personal expression is one of the region’s defining characteristics. “I really think that on the individual level there’s a real attention to the ability to be expressive,” she says. “I think that it’s something that’s really hard to attain by training. You really have to be courageous, really be in tune with your instrument, and whether or not you play it technically perfect, you at least try and say something to someone else.”

In many ways the experiences of these musicians are similar to those in cities around the country. They’re hustling for gigs, teaching, working day jobs, and doing all the other things that musicians do to make ends meet. But they’re also part of a larger, interconnected community that is unique in its support of new things. Composer Ryan Brown feels the Bay Area new music scene is less competitive than other cities because people aren’t necessarily coming here to make a name for themselves. “That really contributes to that sense of open welcome-ness,” he says. “There’s a sense of ‘We’re here because we want to be here, and the more cool stuff you do here the more enjoyable it is for everybody’.” For Nonsemble 6 vocalist Amy Foote, this sense of community is part of what keeps her here. “Part of me has the desire to go to New York and strike it rich; I think every musician experiences that from time to time,” she says. “The reason I don’t go is the community out here. It’s the fact that I do know a lot of composers and I like what they do and I want to keep working with them.”

The San Francisco Bay Area is often caricatured as a “touchy-feely” place where you’re not allowed to hurt anyone’s feelings–an adult version of kid’s sports leagues where score isn’t kept and everybody wins. It’s not that simple, of course, but it is true that personal expression is something to be valued (not just tolerated), and this is liberating for young musicians. It gives them license to explore and experiment and pursue their passion, no matter how offbeat, because that’s simply what everyone expects. “The whole thing about audiences here is that no matter how weird your project is, someone will come listen to it. It’s a very accepting community,” says Phillips.

Because the musicians here feel free to pursue projects they’re most passionate about, they tend to be pretty enthusiastic about their careers. Even for those whose most rewarding projects may only represent a small percentage of their professional lives and income, the satisfaction and fulfillment they receive outweighs, or at least balances, the more mudane and frustrating aspects of a freelancer’s life. Michelle Kwon, who is dismayed by the dissatisfaction she senses in many of her “freeway philharmonic” colleagues, says projects like the Magik*Magik orchestra are extremely satisfying for her. “Magik*Magik is probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve done with my life. It really is the most grass-roots, altruistic form of playing music I can think of,” she says. Magik*Magik founder Minna Choi created such an atmosphere of trust and respect that it didn’t matter, in the early days of the group’s existence, whether or not they were making much money. “We didn’t get paid very much back then, but she had gathered people that were so interested in the same things she was that it actually really didn’t matter, which is something ideal. I can’t think of a better way to approach music.”

With so many musicians enthusing about their experiences with the Magik*Magik Orchestra, it’s not surprising that more players want to be involved. The group held auditions for the first time in September, and plans to continue these annually. What began as a group of motivated and entrepreneurial conservatory students has grown into a serious organization complete with interns and support from Fractured Atlas, and is a destination for a wider swath of musicians interested in their unique brand of collaboration.

If the musicians in the Magik*Magik Orchestra, Nonsemble 6, and The Living Earth Show have any advantage in this transformative time in the classical music world it is that this state of flux is nothing new for them. They have come of age in this environment, and as a result (and thanks to a few trailblazing individuals and ensembles), they have fewer preconceived notions of what a successful classical music career should entail. What they value most is pursuing projects that express who they are as musicians. Living in a region that values collaboration, experimentation, and personal expression makes it that much easier.

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Dustin Soiseth is a conductor and co-founder of the Loose Filter Project. He lives in Oakland.

2 thoughts on “Shake It To the Ground: SF Musicians Re-envision Classic(al) Career Paths

  1. Dan Becker

    Enlightened self interest here, as I Chair the Comp Department at the SF Conservatory, but please notice that I think every single enterprise cited in the article above involves SFCM alumni. And there’s more where that came from !
    The Conservatory moved downtown to a new, 80-million dollar fantastic facility several years ago. The changes in the zeitgeist these last few years is exciting to behold, and the above article shows just a handful of a new breed of students coming out of a school that is truly re-inventing itself — at least on the new-music front — and is truly becoming an exciting and essential part of the SF Bay Area. A real “Player”. Truly exciting times.
    Best wishes to each individual cited above. Miss you all !

    Reply
  2. Pingback: The “Indie Rock”-ification of Chamber Music, Part 2: Culture | Aaron Gervais, composer

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