Offside starts tonight!

night1Alex and I have been working very hard on the 2nd annual SF Offside Festival and starting tonight, we get to reap the rewards!

We’ll be at Awaken Cafe for some brand new collaborations and projects tonight—Waystanders, Mucho Stereo, and Wiener Kids Family Band.

night 2Friday night at Duende we’re really proud to present the Mads Tolling Quartet and the Howard Wiley Trio, two leading Bay Area jazz ensembles.

The festival closes Saturday night at the Community Music Center in SF with some Bay Area ambassadors of jazz—Lisa Mezzacappa-Steve Adams DuoSheldon Brown Group, and Dave Mihaly’s Shimmering Leavesnight 3

It’s going to be three nights of amazing local music!

Hope you can join us!

RSVP here

If jazz isn’t what you think it is…

On Tuesday, we announced the line-up for the 2nd Annual SF Offside Festival with the tagline “So, you think you know jazz? Think again!” On the very same day, Canadian jazz writer Peter Hum wrote a blog post in the Ottawa Citizen titled, “If jazz isn’t what I think it is, then what is it?”

Was he responding to our announcement? Not directly, no. It was actually a response to the Victoria International Jazzfest, whose slogan this year happens to be “Jazz ain’t what you think.” But his puzzlement over their slogan surely applies to ours as well.

jazzfestSo, what does Mr. Hum find so puzzling about a slogan that suggests jazz may not be what it is perceived to be? For a start, he’s bored, as many others are, with “that tedious ontological debate about what jazz is,” and thinks that any marketing ploy that tries to capitalize on the idea that jazz “suffers from an excruciating identity crisis, and no one knows what it is,” is doomed to failure.

If, on the other hand, the slogan is aimed at jazz-haters instead of jazz-fans and is shorthand for “Jazz is really good, not as bad as you think it is,” he wonders if there isn’t a more effective way to try to disabuse the haters and draw them in with a message that says something more than just, “You’re wrong.”

The last option he considers is that their slogan is intended to signify that the Victoria Jazzfest is abandoning the grand tradition of instrumental jazz in favor of pop- and soul-infused “crossover vocal stuff,” which, he laments, is what “puts the most butts in seats” these days.

Obviously, I can’t speak for any other festival but our own, and I have no idea what the producers of the Victoria International Jazzfest were thinking when they decided on their slogan. But as far as Offside is concerned, let’s rule out this last option right away. There will be absolutely no “crossover vocal stuff” at our festival, however many butts that might be likely to attract. It’s not that Alex or I have anything against that kind of music—it’s just not what rocks our boat, so to speak. It’s not what excites and compels us, as audience members or as curators and event producers.

So, what does our tagline mean? Is it aimed toward jazz-fans or jazz-haters? Or is it just a “harmless throwaway line,” as Hum might hope?

First, I take full responsibility for the line. When I wrote it, my first goal was simply to say something bold, attention-grabbing, and yes, Mr. Hum, something with sass. It was also, I confess, a play on the TV show, So You Think You Can Dance? Yeah, whatever.

Second, there’s no denying that our tagline blatantly says that jazz may not be what you or I or anybody else thinks it is. Which, of course, begs Hum’s question: well then, what the hell is it? And: is pointing out this identity crisis really the best way to build new audiences? (Indeed, if that’s our marketing strategy, we may as well just hire Nicholas Payton to do our PR. “So, you think you know Postmodern New Orleans Music??” Um, actually, no. I have no clue what that is.)

Now, despite my most excellent taste in music, I’m no authority on jazz. I’m neither a jazz musician nor a jazz historian, and I don’t claim to have any special insight on what does or does not constitute jazz. So, what on earth was I thinking when I wrote that line?

I was thinking about my own journey that ultimately led to me co-founding a grassroots jazz festival, despite certain associations I had with the label that would seem to prohibit that very possibility. Let me explain.

As a kid, my parents were both jazz fans. They liked mostly old style jazz, which was popular in Ireland when they were young—big band swing, bebop, and dixieland jazz. My father loved Ella Fitzgerald, my mother Billie Holiday. They both loved Louis Armstrong. On Sunday afternoons when I was a pre-teen, we would drive out to the harbor town of Howth, on the north side of Dubin Bay, to an old hotel that hosted a weekly jazz jam. I loved going there each week. Until I reached a certain age, that is, and the thought of spending Sunday afternoons with my parents just seemed like the most uncool thing ever.

Skip ahead to my mid-twenties, when I moved to the Bay Area for graduate school. I had a boyfriend at one time who was a professor at another institution and about six years older than me. He was a huge jazz fan, but it was not the kind of jazz I had heard before, certainly not the old jazz I grew up listening to. I remember he would go to Yoshi’s, back when it used to be on Claremont Avenue, to see people whose music I knew nothing about, like Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett. Although I was invited to go, I always declined. I viewed his obsession with jazz in much the same way I viewed his habit of wearing knit cardigans—something I tolerated because I found his “old-man” tendencies vaguely charming, albeit in a rather comedic way. I teased him incessantly about both his love of jazz and his cardigans.

It was probably not till about ten years later that I finally rediscovered jazz for myself. That was when I started to go out regularly to see live music played by local musicians in the Bay Area. The jazz I was hearing—from the straight-ahead to the more adventurous—really ignited my interest and made me realize that I did, indeed, love jazz. How could I not? But certain associations I had with the label made me so closed-minded, I had written off a lot of it as “boring” without ever actually listening to the music. What were those associations? In a nutshell, that jazz was for middle-class, old, white guys who liked to wear cardigans.

“So, you think you know jazz?” is a question directed at my former self just as much as it is directed at anybody else. I thought I knew jazz in my twenties and, as a result, I probably missed out on hearing some amazing music. Back then, I wouldn’t even consider attending a “jazz” concert, never mind a whole goddamn festival. And, I’m pretty sure, there are many others out there who are just like me.

But will our tagline do anything to entice those who are not already sold on the idea of jazz?

Well, I grant Mr. Hum that the line by itself probably won’t have much effect. By the same token, nor will the “Jazz ain’t what you think” slogan. But we didn’t use our line by itself. It was paired with a photo from last year’s festival and, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. To me, this photo subverts expectations, not exactly about what the music sounds like, but rather about who is producing the music, where they’re performing it, and, by inference, who the consumers of that music might be.


For diehard jazz-haters, this piece of visual rhetoric will hardly convince. But for young people in their twenties and thirties, part of the demographic we’re trying to reach with our festival, it presents an alternative picture of what a jazz scene looks like. And it’s one in which they are included. It’s one in which they can see themselves. It’s cool. Definitely not the kind of jazz their parents or their prematurely middle-aged boyfriends might have taken them to.

Of course, a picture of the super cool Esperanza Spalding or Vijay Iyer (who are both playing at the Victoria International Jazzfest) might convey the same message to this demographic, but with one significant difference. The price tag. The kind of festival that books folks of that stature, which, let’s face it, is pretty much every regional jazz festival in the US and Canada, is not going to be affordable to as many young people. Tickets to see Vijay Iyer perform in Victoria, for example, cost more than a full festival pass to Offside.

Interestingly, Iyer recently played a free solo concert at Community Music Center in the Mission, which is where we host the last night of our festival in May. Afterwards, Alex asked him his thoughts about how to build specifically younger jazz audiences, to which he responded: make it affordable. And that is definitely what we are doing with our festival.

We’re also focused exclusively on local musicians and composers. It’s not about flying in big names from out of town. It’s about celebrating the incredible jazz talent found right here in our own backyard.

So, you think you know jazz?

You think you know jazz festivals?

Think again!

2nd Annual SF Offside Festival – May 23-25

We just announced the 2nd annual Offside festival on Here are the deets!

Klaxon Mutant Allstars

So, you think you know jazz? Think again!

Now in its second year, the SF Offside Festival presents three nights of incredible music that at once defines and defies the genre.

Featuring the best and brightest of the Bay Area scene—including local legends Howard Wiley and Marcus Shelby, two-time Grammy Award-winner Mads Tolling, Bay Area bulwarks Dave Mihaly, Steve Adams, Sheldon Brown, and Jaz Sawyer, plus emerging stars from a new generation of composers, Aram Shelton, Lisa Mezzacappa, Jordan Glenn, and Alex Pinto—SF Offside demonstrates why San Francisco is on the cusp of becoming the epicenter for new innovations in jazz.

Night 1 – “Streams” – Thursday, May 23, 8-11pm  
Awaken Café, 1429 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612
Wiener Kids Family Band + Mucho Stereo + Waystanders 

Night 2 – “Currents” – Friday, May 24, 9pm-midnight 
Duende, 468 19th Street, Oakland, CA 94618
Howard Wiley Trio + Mads Tolling Quartet

Night 3 – “Tides” – Saturday, May 25, 8-11pm 
Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street, SF, CA 94110
Dave Mihaly & the Shimmering Leaves Ensemble + Sheldon Brown Group +
Lisa Mezzacappa-Steve Adams Duo

Tickets are sliding scale: $10-20 at the door or $25-45 in advance for a festival pass.

Offside banner 13

“A recent three-day gathering of top local talent, wove the area’s diverse talent into one intense weekend showcase, generating buzz for the local scene.”
-NPR’s A Blog Supreme (June, 2012)

“San Francisco is on the cusp of becoming the epicenter for new innovations in jazz, and we have Alex Pinto and festival co-founder Laura Maguire to thank for giving the whole scene a much needed boost.”
Popdose (December, 2012)

“A brilliant cross section of the Bay Area’s thriving jazz scene. . . . This year’s Offside Festival could not have been more successful in demonstrating the vibrancy of the community, drawing a healthy crowd each night to witness the depth of jazz that is often overlooked.”
Untapped SF (May, 2012)

More buzz about Offside…

San Francisco Offside Festival

SF Offside was created to fill a perceived gap in the regional jazz festival circuit. With an exclusive focus on homegrown talent, our mission is to draw attention to the incredible creativity to be found right here in our own backyard, and to build larger audiences for specifically local jazz offerings. The inaugural festival took place May 24-26, 2012, garnering both local and national attention on its very first outing. Our hope is that San Francisco ultimately gets the recognition it deserves as home to a rich, diverse, and exceptionally talented jazz community.

San Francisco Offside Festival is a fiscally-sponsored project of San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the service of chamber music in California.

RSVP on Facebook

SF Offside Spark Series

This month, Alex Pinto and I are presenting four shows in four different venues in the Bay Area. It’s all part of the SF Offside Spark Series, a little taster before our three-night festival in May.

SF Offside logoThe series kicks off this Thursday, March 7, at the Red Poppy Art House with saxophonist Marcus Stephens’ Markstep Trio and drummer Eric Garland’s Hodge Podge Ensemble. Check out my recent interviews with both Stephens and Garland on the SF Offside site. I’ve been having a lot of fun with those and will continue to do features on each of the composers we present this month as part of this series.

On Friday, March 15, at Cafe Royale, we present reed master Aram Shelton’s brand new Golden Age quartet. Included in that program is Shelton’s Kodachrome Music, a suite inspired by the sparse, enchanting landscape of southern Utah.

Then on Saturday, March 23, at the Revolution Cafe, we’re having the Spark Series Jazz Jam. This show opens with the Sonny Sharrock Experience, a new collaborative project featuring saxophonist David Boyce that grew out of last year’s festival. After the first set, we’ll open things up to our many talented friends in the jazz community. The Rev show is also a fundraiser for SF Offside, so a $5-10 donation in the tip jar is greatly appreciated.

The series closes with a show on Wednesday, March 27, at Awaken Cafe in Oakland, which will be our first East Bay show (and certainly not our last!). We’ll be presenting two guitar trios—Roger Kim’s First Day and the Alex Pinto Trio.

Click on the links above or just visit SF Offside for more details on each show. You can also get the full line-up of musicians in the Spark Series here.

I hope to see some of you there!

A Letter Home

Last July, on a sunny summer Sunday at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, composer and trumpeter Darren Johnston premiered his Songs of Seven Miles, a song cycle for three vocalists plus ensemble, based on interviews Johnston conducted with various Bay Area-based immigrants. As an immigrant himself (originally from Canada), living in a city where it’s rare to meet natives, the immigrant experience—people’s reasons for leaving, the stories of their journeys here, and the new lives they create for themselves in our wonderful city—is a topic he wanted to explore.

Following that project, Yerba Buena invited Johnston to do a second piece along the same lines, which will premiere this June, again as part of the Gardens Festival. For this project, Letters to Home, Johnston commissioned letters from eight local immigrants, and wrote the libretto using excerpts culled from these letters. I was absolutely thrilled to be included in this distinguished group of letter-writers. As you can see (if you click on the “Darren Johnston” tag associated with this post), I’ve been a huge fan of Darren’s music for some time, so it truly is an honor to participate in this new project of his.

Johnston asked his letter-writers to write “either to a beloved of their choosing back in their country of origin, or to themselves at the time they first arrived in the US, sharing advice they wish they’d received at that time.” Although it did not quite fit the description, I decided to adapt a piece I wrote here, last time I was in Dublin. It was written one month after my father passed, and a few days before my mother passed. I was preparing to leave my parents’ house for the last time, and contemplating leaving Dublin forever.

Dublin is not a city I feel especially connected to. It has never felt like home to me in the way San Francisco does, for example. But at the time I wrote what is essentially a goodbye letter to Dublin itself, very literally a letter to home, an old and thoroughly sentimental song called “The Dublin Saunter” kept going through my head. Just thinking about that song now brings tears to my eyes.

Though I have yet to hear Darren’s composition, I keep hearing about “my song” all over the ‘hood from friends who’ve heard it performed by Broken Shadows Family Band, Johnston’s group dedicated to his newfound interest in writing music with lyrics, and from various friends involved in the Letters to Home project, some of whom didn’t realize right away that this particular song they were working on—”Laura from Dublin”—was inspired by the letter I wrote.

Letters to Home is a more ambitious piece than Johnston’s previous Songs of Seven Miles. For the premiere this summer, Johnston is assembling a massive, multi-generational group he’s calling the Trans-Global People’s Chorus, featuring vocalists of a variety of backgrounds and training, and also some dancers and theatrical performers. There’s going to be all sorts of clapping, stomping, and body percussion happening. I can’t wait to see it!

Broken Shadows recently began a new residency at my favorite Mission hangout, the Revolution Cafe, every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month. I missed the first night of the residency, and thus the first opportunity to hear “my” song, as I ended up staying home that night to watch the opening concert of the new SFJAZZ Center. Two weeks later, when they played again, I was sick, so I missed another opportunity. But I will be there this coming Wednesday, February 27, come hell or high water.

I was excited to learn that violinist Matthew Szemela, possibly the most in-demand musician on the local music scene, has joined Broken Shadows. Having spent many years in New York, Szemela came to the Bay Area fairly recently when he got hired in the Berkeley Symphony, led by the adventurous Joana Carneiro. Pretty quickly, he was playing everywhere with everyone—Musical Art Quintet and Classical Revolution, Todd Sickafoose, Family Folk Explosion, Quartet San Francisco, Rupa and the April Fishes, and now Broken Shadows, to name a few. That list, which cuts across many genres, surely indicates what a versatile musician he is. I’m hoping Szemela will also be performing with the Trans-Global People’s Chorus at the Yerba Buena premiere.

Darren Johnston’s Broken Shadows are at The Revolution Cafe, 3248 22nd Street, SF, every second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Letters to Home premieres Saturday, June 22, 2013, at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.

SF Offside Presents: Secret Sidewalk and the Alex Pinto Trio with David Boyce

Last Friday’s show with Klaxon Mutant Allstars and These Are Our Hours was a great success. We had a packed house and, of course, fantastic music. Thanks to everyone who came out to support, and to both ensembles for bringing it.

This Saturday, November 17, we’ve got another Offside show.

Secret Sidewalk are returning to Viracocha to bring their genre-bending sound, combining electronic music and experimental jazz. To give you taste of their music, here’s their set from the third night of Offside, courtesy of Bay Taper. Can’t wait to hear them perform live again! 

Opening the show will be the Alex Pinto Trio with special guest David Boyce on sax. They will be performing Sonny Sharrock’s seminal album, Ask the Ages. Here’s a track from that album to whet your appetite. 

Coincidentally, November 17 is also the one-year anniversary of the incredible Kneebody show at Viracocha, the first collaboration between me and Alex, which ultimately led to us founding SF Offside together. That was also Alex’s first time playing at Viracocha, so it’s a real pleasure to get to present his trio again, one year later on the dot.

I’m really excited about Saturday’s show. We’re expecting another packed house for this one, so come early, especially if you want to get a seat!

Doors open at 8pm and the show will start sometime around 8:30pm.

Offside 2×5: Klaxon Mutant Allstars & These Are Our Hours

Earlier this year I embarked on a major adventure with Alex Pinto—SF Offside—a three-night festival showcasing some of the best from the local jazz/creative music scene. While we are already working hard toward next year’s festival, I wasn’t quite ready to let go of this year’s incredible experience. In particular, I wanted to bring together the two quintets that debuted at the festival into one night of awesomeness called Offside 2×5.

These Are Our Hours is one of many projects led by composer, saxophonist, and clarinetist Aram Shelton, and includes members of the Oakland Active Orchestra. Alex and I had originally invited OAO to close out the first night of the festival, but given the significant size of that collective, the logistics didn’t work out. We kept talking with Aram about possibilities, however, which ultimately resulted in him putting together this quintet to perform all new compositions, specially written for the festival. And thus was born These Are Our Hours.

TAOH making their debut at SF Offside 2012
Photo by Roger Kim

In addition to Shelton on alto sax, TAOH features one of my current favorites, the very talented Mark Clifford on vibes, highlighted to great effect in Shelton’s arrangements, as well as Theo Padouvas on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass, and Sam Ospovat or Shaun Lowecki on drums—a crew of young and talented players. Since their debut at Offside in May, they’ve been building a strong body of work playing a monthly at Bar 355 in Oakland. One Tuesday recently, I got to see them play the Uptown in Oakland with Alex Pinto’s trio opening, part of the ongoing Active Music Series. That was a great evening of music with a surprisingly full house for a Tuesday night, so I’m excited to hear TAOH play again, particularly at Viracocha, where the sound is so good. They will be playing the first set of the evening.

Meanwhile, check out this nice article in the San Francisco Chronicle about Shelton, whose Chicago quartet recently performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Klaxon Mutant Allstars is an intergalactic confederacy of Bay Area players—trumpeter Henry Hung, saxophonist Kasey Knudsen, keyboard player Colin Hogan, bassist George-Ban Weiss, and drummer Eric Garland—that emerged from the Amnesia Wednesday night jazz jam. While all five write for the ensemble, Hung and Garland do the bulk of the composing. The story of how KMA came to play the third night of Offside is not a whole lot different from the TAOH story. I was talking with George Ban-Weiss about Atomic Roger, his trio with Eric Garland and guitarist extraordinaire Mike Abraham (these three also play together in violinist Mads Tolling’s Grammy Award-winning quartet). Abraham, who took over the Wednesday night jam when Mitch Marcus moved to NY, has since moved to LA, so logistically it didn’t work out for them to play the festival.

KMA playing at Viracocha on the last night of Offside
Photo by Hernando Buitrago

George told me about a new group he, Garland (who now leads the Wednesday jam), and some others had formed, but at that point they did not yet have a name. I knew all the players involved and was already really impressed with Garland as a composer, not to mention bad-ass drummer. So, we invited the group to play at SF Offside, they promptly came up with a name for themselves, then performed an appropriately stellar (or interstellar?) set on the last night of the festival.

We were very lucky to have Bay Taper in attendance that night, so the entire evening was documented. Craig from Wedge Radio also covered the show on his blog.

For a little taste of what’s to come in November, listen to this Bay Taper recording of Klaxon playing a delightful Hung composition called “Jamie Moyer” (Wedge Radio explains the joke for those of us that don’t get sports references). The group also recently spent some time in the studio, so their debut recording will be released some time in the new year.

I’m very excited to be presenting these two quintets in one show. While different stylistically, both have mastered that fine balancing act between structure, melody, and rhythm on the one hand, and openness, improvisation, and inventiveness on the other. The music is accessible while also full of surprises. So, please, save the date!

Offside 2×5: KLAXON MUTANT ALLSTARS & THESE ARE OUR HOURS          Friday November 9th at Viracocha. Doors at 8pm, show at 8:30pm.

It’s going to be a night of ridiculously good, fresh new music.

Electric Chamber II: The Hurd Ensemble & Squid Inc.

The first installment of the “Electric Chamber” series in January was a great success, so we’re doing it again!

Here are the official deets:


Friday, September 28th @ Viracocha, SF.

$12-20 suggested donation.

What explains the enduring appeal of chamber music?

No doubt the beauty, subtlety, and complexity of the music are a part of it—not to mention the passion and virtuosity of its players. But these qualities can be brought to bear on music of any kind, and more and more, classically trained musicians are venturing beyond the traditional confines of the chamber into new and exciting territories. The San Francisco Bay Area, in particular, is a fertile breeding ground for such genre-bending, cross-pollinating creativity.

The ELECTRIC CHAMBER series showcases some of this incredible creative talent.

In this, our second installment of the Electric Chamber series, we present two exciting, innovative ensembles.

Performing original music by San Francisco-based composer George Hurd, The Hurd Ensemble unifies the worlds of electronic and classical music. All the music is written for string quartet (violin, viola, cello, upright bass), piano and electronics, meticulously bound together with digitally-arranged sounds collected from Hurd’s travels. Absolutely no stock electronic sounds are used – every sound produced is of his own creation, recorded, edited and manipulated himself. The electronics are layered to create textures that perfectly complement the acoustic instruments, giving rise to a sound that is extremely organic despite its partially digital origins. Hurd’s music is both wildly, intricately rhythmic and aglow with shimmering harmonies and melodies. Accessible and daring, its percussive yet lyrical qualities make it at home in both concert halls and nightclubs.

George Hurd: composition & electronics
Solenn Seguillon: violin
Jacob Hansen-Joseph: viola
Anton Estaniel: cello & steel drums
Ari Gorman: bass
Elyse Weakley: piano

Listen to The Hurd Ensemble’s mini-EP Strange Lands on Bandcamp

Made up of some of the Bay Area’s fiercest string players, Squid Inc. will open your ears as the world of popular music dances with classical tradition. Fun, fiery, and fully engaging, Squid Inc. plays original tunes and unusual arrangements with a style and flare all of its own. Where Bossa Nova meets Coldplay and Sorcerer’s Apprentice melds with Muse, you don’t want to miss Squid Inc., the future of the string quartet.

Hrabba Atladottir: violin
Jory Fankuchen: violin
Darcy Rindt: viola & arrangements
Beth Vandervennet: cello

ELECTRIC CHAMBER is brought to you by Live ‘n’ Local SF, whose goal is to promote and support innovative music played live by local musicians, regardless of genre, and Classical Revolution, a social movement of global reach and local origin, now in its sixth year of bringing chamber music to the masses.

This concert is also part of Classical Revolution’s first ever music festival, taking place in 23 different venues across the Bay Area throughout the month of September.

More info at:

From Graphic to Sonic: New Works at Outsound 2012

Starting tomorrow, Sunday, at the Community Music Center in the Mission is the week-long Outsound New Music Summit, an annual festival, now in its 11th year, showcasing the best from the avant garde and new music scene in the Bay.

Like last year’s summit, this year opens with the (free) “Touch the Gear” expo, a chance for you to wander around and play with all kinds of sound-making gear, everything “from oscillators to planks of wood with strings attached.” Monday night is the (also free) “Composers Symposium” where John Shiurba, Christina Stanley, Benjamin Ethan Tinker, and Matthew Goodheart, four composers who will premiere works at this year’s festival, talk about their various composition techniques and creative processes. Three of the four featured composers will be presenting their work at Thursday night’s “The Composer’s Muse,” an evening curated by flautist, composer, and Outsound organizer, Polly Moller.

I talked with Polly about her curatorial choices and what to expect that night.

Christina Stanley, Matthew Goodheart, John Shiurba

“I picked composers whose work I had experienced before and who I was confident anything new they did for this festival would be really interesting, deep, and accessible and engaging,” she says. Of the three new works being performed, Moller has heard just one piece—John Shiurba’s—and that is only because she is performing in it. The other two will be complete surprises, though as Moller says, “I have faith in these artists.”

The evening opens with composer, violinist, and vocalist Christina Stanley, who will present two graphic scores, both 40×40 oil and charcoal on canvas. One will be performed by her Skadi Quartet, the other a duet for cello and violin.

“Christina Stanley is a fairly recent Mills graduate,” Moller says, “and I had the opportunity to see her work performed at their Signal Flow annual festival of student work. I made note of her at that time because she had this beautiful, large graphic score and she was playing violin and singing as part of the ensemble. The visual aspect combined with the beauty of what was being played made me remember her.”

Next up is sound artist Matthew Goodheart, who combines unusual piano techniques with sonified metal percussion. Moller chose to include a piece by Goodheart because “he has impeccable academic credentials and I’ve always admired the sheer intelligence and complexity, and yet just sonorousness of his work.” She asked him to create new work for this year’s festival and he said that “he would evolve and elaborate on his amplified symbol works. So, this is what we’ll be getting this time around.”

Headlining the evening is composer and guitarist John Shiurba with his 9:9, a suite of nine pieces to be performed and interpreted by nine musicians, including Moller, though lest anyone thinks otherwise, “it was after I confirmed with him that he would present this work that he asked me to be a part of it. The two are not connected!” His 9:9 follows a previous suite he did using a number matrix called 5:5. You can read an interview Moller did with Shiurba about his work earlier this month.

Like Stanley, Shiurba’s work also involves a significant graphic element. As Moller explains, “Some of the music is written out in standard notation and some of the music is written out on musical staves but using numbers instead of notation. And the graphic score part of it is small cut-outs from newspapers, and graphs and charts from newspapers, but with all their captions removed so they can be interpreted musically. There are also small cut-outs from the comic pages.” Laughing she adds, “There’s one of Garfield and the musicians have been arguing about who gets to play Garfield.”
The very idea of a graphic score is something I find fascinating. Until recently (specifically at last year’s Outsound New Music Summit), I had never heard of this technique. Without a doubt, the highlight of last year’s festival for me was a performance by Italian guitarist IOIOI (Cristiana Fraticelli) who performed an unseen (by the audience, that is) and rather mysterious graphic score by Kanoko Nishi. I was so blown away by that performance that I awarded it a Live ‘n’ Local Completely Non-Arbitrary, Totally Objective, and Fully Informed 2011 Music Award!
I was glad to hear from Moller that for Stanley, unlike Nishi last year, “it’s an essential part of her artistry [for the audience] to see the graphic score.” I’m hoping I might develop a better understanding of the curious process involved in musically interpreting a non-standard visual. I asked Moller, as a musician, how she works with graphic scores.

“The graphic score is used to convey instructions to the performers in a way that standard notation can’t get across,” she says. “This is a more organic and more abstract way to communicate composer to performer. And when I’m given a graphic score to perform with, as I’m doing in John Shiruba’s piece, I take the composer’s instructions about it very seriously. But ultimately the picture that’s there is connecting with my musicianship on a non-verbal level, on an improvisatory level, and it’s cuing me in the moment to do something. And I decide what that is based on color and form and just inspiration in the moment.”

In an interview Moller did with Stanley, the composer explains how the various visual components—different media, colors, and shapes—come to have significance for the musician performing her work.

“Each shape has a technical or timbal meaning for the performer,” Stanley says. “Intensity of color always translates into intensity of sound, but the color itself is up to the performer to interpret. I personally don’t have synesthesia, but color has an extreme emotional impact on me, much like music itself. The gradations of the color in the score are relative to gradation in dynamic or timbre, or both. I usually create a key for performers, and though some forms are consistently interpreted throughout multiple scores, they do change and new ones are introduced.”

Of the other nights of the festival, Moller says she is most curious about Friday’s percussion night, “Twack! Bome! Chime!” She elaborates: “I have a lot of faith in Pete Martin’s ear as a curator, and I’m interested in a whole concert made up of percussion, because I know what diverse timbres and sounds can come out of that. And I’ve never heard most of the artists, so I’m looking forward to that one.”

Wednesday night’s performance, “Sonic Poetry,” will present three distinct collaborations between some of the Bay Area’s leading poets and music improvisers, the first of which features one of my personal favorites, percussionist Jordan Glenn. For an in-depth look at the collaborative work of Wednesday night’s headliners, composer Jon Raskin and poet Carla Harryman, check out the Wedge Radio blog.

The final blow-out on Saturday night, “Fire & Energy,” features four different free improv-inspired ensembles.

All the details for each night can be found on the festival schedule.

Meanwhile, Moller has just started a regular radio slot called DJ Post-Pink’s Inner World, which you can hear Tuesdays from 3am to 6am on KUSF-In-Exile and also archived later on her blog. Explaining where she got the title, she says, “It came about because Amar [Chaudhary], when he’s writing his blog, he often has auto-correct errors, and he was writing about something and was trying to say ‘post-punk’ and instead it came out ‘post-pink’.”

And I had thought Moller was making a feminist statement! Turns out, she was. She liked the auto-correct error for that very reason. “That’s exactly what I mean by it, because I detest the color pink and its anti-feminist implications. So I am saying: I am DJ Post-Pink.”

Now, there’s a graphic waiting to be sonically interpreted!

Polly “Post-Pink” Moller will be presenting “The Composer’s Muse” on Thursday July 18 at the Outsound New Music Summit at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street, San Francisco. The evening will begin at 7:15pm with a Q&A with the three composers, followed by the performances, which start at 8:15pm.

Hidden Depths

In the past year or so, I’ve not been attending so many dance performances, primarily because I was finding myself routinely bored out of my mind by most of what I was seeing. I kind of gave up on dance.

Last weekend, however, Liss Fain Dance premiered its performance installation, The Water is Clear and Still, a collaboration with designer Matthew Antaky and composer Dan Wool, with selected text from Jamaica Kincaid‘s collection of short stories, At the Bottom of the River. It sounded like a performance I ought to check out, not least because of my pal Dan’s contribution to the piece, a subtle and evocative sound score that conjured a variety of shifting moods, landscapes, and textures.

Matthew Antaky’s installation at Z Space. Photo by Frederic O. Boulay

Entering the Z Space (the old Theatre Artaud), a venue in which I’ve seen many multidisciplinary dance performances (and co-produced two!), I was immediately struck by its radical transformation. The front bleachers had all been removed, leaving a dark emptiness where the audience normally sits; and the stage, at its full 60-foot depth, had become like a dreamy, under-water forest. Antaky’s installation consisted of several towering, geometric-looking, tree-like structures made with panels of what at first appeared to be mottled green glass. Closer inspection revealed the panels to be ingeniously constructed from pipe and plastic wrap! The majestic “trunks”—all straight lines and angles—were crowned with thin, wiry branches, sparsely adorned with leaves, creating a surprisingly organic effect. Fallen leaves dotted the black Marley.

Although the audience was invited to move around the space and perceive things from different perspectives throughout the performance, the dance area, upon which no audience member ought trespass, was clearly delineated by three adjacent white rectangular spaces. Sepia-toned images of twisting branches floated like shadows across the floor, and the green lighting gave the whole environment a sub-aquatic feel. The total visual effect was quite stunning.

Six dancers moved between the spaces, seamlessly shifting from solos into duets, into solos again. A dance would begin in one space while attention was already on another, these shifts in attention prompting corresponding shifts in physical perspective. A voice was heard, at first distant and disembodied, but nevertheless fully present. Then amidst the surrounding busyness, the compelling figure of actor Val Sinckler emerged from the proverbial shadows, slowly but surely revealing the true heart of the performance.

Val Sinckler in The Water is Clear and Still

To say that Sinckler “spoke” or “performed” selections from  At the Bottom of the River might be an accurate statement, but it would utterly fail to capture the depth of her relationship to Kincaid’s “stories” (more on that later). If flesh and blood can become a text, then this is exactly what Sinckler did. She embodied Kincaid’s words and images with such clarity and presence that many in the audience, apparently, assumed she actually was the author.

My favorite part of the evening was a section called “Girl,” a story consisting of a series of directions from a Caribbean mother to her daughter (the troubled mother-daughter relationship being a recurring theme) on the proper way to do sundry tasks: “Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don’t walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil.” During this section, the dancing and the text were at their most integrated. Sinckler moved amongst the dancers, gracefully mirroring their movements, while she offered them various instructions (“This is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well.”). It felt, for the first time in the performance, that the dancing had penetrated to that deeper layer Sinckler’s character already naturally inhabited.

It’s hard to know what to say about the text that could truly capture its power. Before this performance, I had never heard of Kincaid, though some of my more literary friends assured me she was a writer of significant talent. During the piece, there was so much going on competing for attention, it was difficult to devote enough cognitive bandwidth to fully absorb the text. And it was clear that it was a text that warranted complete attention. Although described as a collection of short “stories,” Kincaid’s writing jumps between disjointed moments without any over-arching narrative. There are fragments of conversations, recalled impressions, pictures painted. Many things are suggested, though never explicitly spoken. Scenes move between shadows and light, between the beautiful and the grotesque.

I wished I was already intimately acquainted with the text, or (given that I wasn’t) that I was better able to focus on it during the performance. At times, I wished the only performer in the piece was Sinckler. While I appreciated the precision and control of Fain’s dancers, I didn’t find the choreography especially interesting. I wanted to see something with more edge, something that explored the full three-dimensionality of the space, that played more with the particularities of Antaky’s installation, rather than relegating it to the background shape against which some dancing took place. But mostly, I wanted to see less, and understand more. I wanted the dancing to have a smaller role in the entire performance, for it to be used more selectively (and thus, more powerfully).

But despite my best efforts to concentrate on the text, it was the dancing that ultimately managed to dominate much of my attention. I suppose, sudden or rapid changes in the visual field is something we are naturally inclined to pay attention to, like when you repeatedly find your eyes fixating on that TV in the bar, even though you have no interest in whatever is happening on the screen.

The water at the bottom of the river may indeed be clear and still, but I wonder if the most effective way to communicate that is by pointing to the obvious perturbations on the surface.