Kihlstedt’s Monstrous Success

Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, an extensive taxonomy of fantastical creatures from various folklores and mythologies, is the inspiration for Carla Kihlstedt’s latest project, Necessary Monsters, a staged song cycle that recently premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Kihlstedt, a highly-regarded violinist, singer, composer, and bandleader who spent seventeen years working and performing in Bay Area, just recently transplanted to the East Coast to take up a position teaching Contemporary Improvisation at the New England Conservatory. She is best known for her work with experimental rock band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum as well as with the acoustic composers’ collective Tin Hat.

Necessary Monsters, a collaboration with poet/lyricist Rafael Osés, is Kihlstedt’s most ambitious project to date. The song cycle is staged for seven musicians and one actor. Each performer plays a different character, each one selectively culled from Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings. While Kihlstedt’s Necessary Monsters has existed in various forms for a number of years, this most recent incarnation is co-directed by Rinde Eckert, a writer/performer/director renowned for an ouevre that integrates musical and physical theater with philosophical musings that penetrate deep into the human soul.

Monsters opens with Kihlstedt sitting alone atop a ladder at the back of the stage while Denmo Ibrahim, the actor who plays The Collector—part zoologist, part Master of Ceremonies—carries nondescript white boxes onto the stage and arranges them in front of the elevated platforms where all the instruments are positioned. Dotted around the stage are ragged-looking signs indicating the various characters’ names. The scene is somehow reminiscent of Yeats’ foul rag and bone shop of the heart from “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”

The musicians, each one decked out in idiosyncratic style to reflect their characters’ specific traits, trickle onstage and take up their respective stations. It is The Collector’s job to introduce the characters in turn, giving each both its common and Latin name, its usual habitat, and its distinctive features and proclivities.

While each of the fanciful beings—with names like “The Squonk,” “The One-Eyed Being,” and “The Lamed Wufnik”—has bizarre and exotic qualities, it becomes clear that each represents different aspects of humanity, and indeed, different aspects of a single, albeit fragmented self. Osés poetic script and libretto poignantly capture the frailties and foibles of each character, extracting, often with humor, the right emotional resonance while avoiding even a hint of hackneyed sentimentality, and Eckert’s theatrical direction adds a level of physicality needed to bring the various monsters to life onstage.

The seven musicians involved in the project are outrageously talented virtuosos and multi-instrumentalists. Many, like Michael Mellender (also of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), move from percussive instruments to strings, then to brass with such ease you’d think they were simply changing their shoes. Add to the mix Kihlstedt’s singing, which at once embodies something earthly and fragile, and also something superlunary, something transcendent, the combined effect is utterly captivating.

Despite Eckert’s welcome directorial input, at times I felt like the staging was a little static. I wanted more physicality, more movement. The musicians, particularly Kihlstedt, do move around onstage, and who could forget multi-instrumentalist Freddi Price, who almost steals the show, as The One-Eyed Being is wont to do, with his hilarious song and dance routine?

Perhaps it is an inevitable consequence for that monstrous half-breed, the staged song cycle. It’s not quite a play, not quite a concert, but has essential elements of each. Striking exactly the right balance, no doubt, is difficult to achieve, especially with the challenge of having many cumbersome instruments that need to be positioned in a particular place, which naturally leads to the performers tending to maintain a fixed position. But having seen some of Eckert’s previous work, I think Monsters can move a little more in the theatrical direction without detracting from what makes it work musically.

Interestingly, a number of people I spoke to afterwards mentioned that they could have done without Denmo Ibrahim’s performance as The Collector. Granted, these comments came from composers, who might be more likely to find the one actor in the production dispensable (an unnecessary monster, perhaps?). One commented that her delivery was too much like slam poetry, an assessment for which I have no real experience to judge.

However, there was something about Ibrahim’s delivery that made her seem more Master of Ceremonies than monster. She does not embody a character in the same way that the various musicians do, which is odd, given that she is the only actor in the bunch. Her role as collector of these imaginary beings is obviously distinct; she is not supposed to be a monster in quite the same way. Yet, surely The Collector is a meta-monster of sorts—the narrating self, if you will—the self that chooses which of the other identities to amplify in a given situation. That conceit, it seemed, was lost in the production.

I also found it curious that after Friday’s premiere, I couldn’t remember a single tune I had heard that night. Contrast that with my Saturday night, when I attended Stravinsky’s Les Noces and afterwards repeatedly found myself singing its melodies to myself. It was pointed out to me, by someone who had also attended both shows that weekend and had noticed a similar phenomenon, that we had both previously heard Les Noces, which, to be fair, was not the case for Kihlstedt’s Monsters.

Still, given how engaged I was during the performance, I would have expected some melody or other to have stuck, but that was not the case. And while there could be no doubt in anybody’s mind who attended Friday’s performance that we were watching musicians of the highest caliber, there were times when it felt like this was a fact more known to me from past experience than perceived directly on the night.

Take Rob Reich (also from Tin Hat) or Dina Maccabee, for example, both sickeningly talented and versatile musicians. I would have liked to see them be given more room to shine in this production as I know they surely can. I’m not sure if it was Kihlstedt’s musical compositions or her own dominating stage presence that gave me the impression that not all of her musicians were being fully utilized, but it was an impression others who know how good these musicians are shared with me.

Quibbles aside, Necessary Monsters was a stunning success for such an ambitious project and I’m sure it will see many more successes in the future. YBCA’s Novellus Theater is quite large, so it made sense that there were only two shows in this opening run. However, given the nature of this particular beast, it would make sense to have a more extended run, which would provide sufficient time to allow some of the creases from opening night to be ironed out.

Stravinsky’s Les Noces Reworked for Five Voices and Four Hands

Toward the end of Stravinsky’s “Russian” period, before he dove into Neo-Classism and twelve-tone music, he wrote a rather unusual non-symphonic piece for four pianos, percussion, and a full chorus. Like Stravinsky’s The Rite of SpringLes Noces (translated as The Wedding) was composed for the Ballets Russes. It premiered in the Parisian Théâtre de la Gaîté with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska in 1923, though Stravinsky had been working on different versions of the cantata since as early as 1913.

Looking for a new and ambitious project, local composers Dominique Leone, Kanoko Nishi, and Regina Schaffer decided they were going to tackle Les Noces and make a difficult work even more difficult by arranging it for just two pianos and five voices. Their goal was to stay as true as possible to Stravinsky’s score and capture the fullness of the original arrangement with a much paired-down ensemble.

The results?

We’ll find out this weekend when the ten-piece Ensemble Épouser premieres Les Noces at Berkeley’s Maybeck House. Meanwhile, take a listen to this remarkable recording with Nishi and Schaffer on piano and Leone doing all the choral parts, including the soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass soloist parts.

In case you’re wondering how that was possible, Leone uses a computer pitch shifter to reach all the high and low octaves that are outside his natural range. He also uses voice amplification pedals to double or triple the voice and thus give the effect of a chorus.

The recording is all the more remarkable once you understand the circumstances under which it came into existence.

“Dominique actually tricked us into doing the recording!” says Nishi with a laugh. While she and Schaffer were still just learning the grueling piano parts, Leone spent a month recording them, often only eight bars at a time, apparently for “a demo” to help him learn all the vocal parts.

“It was a very arduous process of stopping and starting and stopping and starting,” says Leone, who later edited all the piano parts together and then recorded the voice parts over them. After Nishi’s initial surprise when Leone released the recording, she was very pleased with the results.

However arduous recording Les Noces may have been, this weekend’s live performance of the piece presents its own set of challenges. As Leone explains, the five singers will be continuously switching in and out of different choral and solo parts with no rest, like they would normally expect to have in a choral performance. They will also have to deal with a lot of the same kind of technology Leone used in the recording, which presents somewhat of an onstage logistical quandary.

Another major challenge for the small ensemble they have put together, says Nishi, is “trying to embody the power of the piece as it’s written originally for a bigger ensemble, trying to accommodate that.”

Her approach to adapting the eight-handed piano for four hands has mostly been to choose what seem to be the most essential parts in each movement. But she also has broken up the different piano parts so that at a given time one pianist may be playing one hand from one piano part, and the other hand will be playing from a different part. Blithely summarizing her approach, she says, “I just try to make it convincing when I play that it’s written for four pianos somehow, so I can get people to believe it and hypnotize them.”

The biggest challenge of all, though, is simply Stravinsky’s score in itself, independently of the way in which it is being adapted for this particular performance. “It is a very very hard piece to start with,” Nishi says, laughing again. “So, that’s been the main challenge, more than the fact that we are doing a different version of it. The parts are just very hard for every single player.”

Leone agrees. “Stravinsky is a very difficult composer for singers,” he says. “He wrote some but not a lot of choral music. He is much more of a instrumental composer. For the singers, that means they have a lot of very tricky lines, a lot of very tricky rhythms, big leaps, lyrics that don’t really seem like they go with the melody that you’re singing. So, it’s kind of odd. You always think that something’s wrong and you never can quite feel it. So, that’s really difficult.”

This, of course, is all part and parcel of what attracts these music adventurers to such a formidable project. While Leone has been a fan of Les Noces for many years, Nishi was unfamiliar with Stravinsky’s choral work till Leone proposed the collaboration. When she first hear it, she too immediately liked it.

“It sounded so contemporary, the way he used the voice in relation to the crazy orchestration he has,” she says, adding, “His writing for piano is just always really amazing. And the idea of having four pianos I thought was really cool.”

Friday and Saturday’s performance of Les Noces will be conducted by Kate McLoughlin with Diana Pray (soprano), Elise Cumberland (mezzo-soprano), Danishta Rivero (alto), Dominique Leone (tenor), Alexandra Buschman (bass), Kanoko Nishi and Regina Schaffer (pianos), Jordan Glenn (percussion), Jason Hoopes (bass), and Mark Clifford (mallets).

Stravinsky’s Les Noces by Dominique Leone, Kanoko Nishi, and Regina Schaffer will be performed at 8pm on July 29 & 30 at the historical Maybeck House in Berkeley. Advance tickets can be purchased here.

Outsound New Music Summit Celebrates 10 Years

The annual Outsound New Music Summit, possibly the best kept secret in local music festivals, is celebrating its tenth year of showcasing the most exciting new music, experimental jazz, sonic gadgetry, electronics, and noise art from the Bay Area and beyond.

Inventor Walter Funk will be performing on Saturday's "Sonic Foundry Too!" finale event.

This year’s festival, which runs July 17-23, promises to be full of surprises, both for the uninitiated and for summit veterans. Taking place in the San Francisco Community Music Center in the heart of the Mission District, each evening’s events are organized around a different theme.

Starting things off on Sunday night is the aptly named “Touch the Gear” expo, a free event that attracts kids of all ages. This is a unique chance to play with lots of different one-of-a-kind gadgets and inventions, acoustic and electronic instruments, and effects pedals of various sorts. And yes, you can push the buttons.

Monday night’s panel discussion, which is also free, features four local composers in conversation with Outsound’s Polly Moller. Despite the scary-sounding title of the event—”Elements of Non-idiomatic Compositional Strategies”—Moller assures us it will be an informal conversation, not too cerebral or stuffy. Imagine hanging out with your composer friends over a couple of drinks and quizzing them about their creative processes. Later in the week, you can hear world premieres from the four featured composers.

You can see bran(...)pos perform at Wednesday's "Face Music"

After a break on Tuesday, the summit returns with Wednesday’s “Face Music,” an extraordinary-sounding event that features Theresa Wong, Joseph Rosenzweig, Aurora Josephson, and bran(…)pos (AKA Jake Rodriguez), four musicians who all use their faces in weird and wonderful ways to create a variety of sounds and textures. Don’t be surprised to see mics being put in places you never thought you’d see a mic! As summit and Outsound Presents director Rent Romus says of this event, “You never know what to expect…”

Thursday night’s “The Freedom of Sound” performance is focused on non-idiomatic, free improvisational music. There will be three very different performances ranging from operatic avant-rock to free jazz, with Tri-Cornered Tent Show, Positive Knowledge, and Grosse Abfahrt performing. Apart from the poem libretto in the first performance, everything will be freely improvised.

Krys Bobrowski's metal pipes and balloons

“The Art of Composition” on Friday night premieres new works from the summit’s four featured composers, Krys Bobrowski, Andrew Raffo Dewar, Kanoko Nishi, and Gino Robair. Each piece has been composed especially for the event. Some of the descriptions of these new works sound very intriguing, like Bobrowski’s—a “series of short pieces exploring the sonic properties of metal pipes and plates and the use of balloons as resonators.” Can’t wait to see what that’s all about!

Saturday night’s big finale “Sonic Foundry Too!” co-presented by Thingamajigs, brings together ten sonic inventors—one for each year of the summit—to collaborate on five different performances. The ten inventors are Tom Nunn, Steven Baker, Bob Marsh, Dan Ake, Sung Kim, Brenda Hutchinson, Sasha Leitman, Bart Hopkins, Terry Berlier, and Walter Funk. None of the paired collaborators have worked together before, so it should prove to be an interesting performance.

Dan Ake is one of the inventors featured in Saturday's Summit Finale

For anybody who is just a little curious about checking out the festival but not sure which evening to attend, Saturday night may well be the winner. Not only will you be exposed to cutting-edge sound installations and novel instruments made from metal, wood, string, plastic, rubber, and paper, but the display itself will also be visually stunning. One of the invented instruments that will be unveiled that night, for example, is over 12 foot tall! The evening promises to be an architectural and sonic treat, the likes of which you’ve never seen or heard before.

The danger, of course, of waiting till Saturday’s finale to attend, is that then you’d have to wait a whole year to have another chance to see such wild inventiveness and creativity in action.

Perhaps you’re more curious than you thought?

The 10th Annual Outsound New Music Summit (July 17-18 & 20-23) takes place at the San Francisco Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street @ 21st, San Francisco.

The Riot of Spring, 2011

A strange thing happened recently. On Sunday June 5th, after writing Zero Point (a post, in part, about avant-garde art and the challenges audiences may face in “getting it”), I attended a concert at the Royce Gallery, a small venue in the Mission District. It was an evening dedicated to the much-neglected viola—or, perhaps, to the much-maligned violist—curated and produced by experimental composer/performer Pamela Z. This particular installment of Z’s “ROOM: Avant-Chamber” series was called “Longer Burning.”

In case you didn’t get it, the title of the event comes from the punchline to a joke that starts, “Why is the viola better than the violin?” Yeah. . . because the viola burns longer. Get it? The Facebook page advertising the event used a photo of a viola sitting on top of some burning logs in a fireplace, though Pamela Z assured us in a comment on the event page’s wall that “No violas will be harmed in the making of this concert!”

This, for better or worse, was not to be the case.

Starting the program was Charlton Lee, violist and founder of Del Sol String Quartet. He performed three solo pieces, the first of which—Edmond Campion’s “Melt Me So”—was written for solo cello, violin, or viola with a live interactive computer accompanist. The computer takes input, in this case from Lee’s viola, and analyzes it to enhance “temporal, spectral and gestural details of the performance.” (Program Notes) It was fascinating to watch this novel interaction between musician and computer.

Lee’s second piece, the charming “Calligraphy “by Iranian composer Reza Vali, Lee explained, explored Persian tuning, rhythm, and form. His third, local composer Matthew Cmiel’s “Insistence,” was a thoroughly modern piece, though nothing that ventured too far “out” there. In the program notes for this last piece, Cmiel (presumably) writes: “It is really fun to ask someone to go insane for you on stage in front of an audience. This piece comes from Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony portrait of Stalin, from Mozart’s Queen of the Night Aria in The Magic Flute, Berg’s title character throughout Wozzeck, and Stravinsky’s elders in The Rite of Spring.”

It would not be the only time Stravinsky’s Rite would be referred to that evening.

The second solo violist to perform that evening was JHNO (pronounced juh-no) AKA John Eichenseer, who describes himself as “a nomadic musician, recording artist, and music technologist.” He has written music software for Bjork, Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, and Thomas Dolby and has performed with Todd Sickafoose, Scott Amendola and Nels Cline, amongst others.

I had never heard of him before this event. Charlton Lee of Del Sol and Kronos Quartet’s violist Hank Dutt, who was performing in the second half, were the main attractions for me that evening. The program did not give much information about JHNO’s piece, other than it was “Untitled” for viola and electronics.

When the performance began, a viola sat on the floor while Eichenseer, a tall, long-haired young man, fiddled around on a computer. It’s difficult to remember much, given what unfolded afterwards, but there was some kind of amplified feedback system between computer and viola and the effect that was generated was more soundscape than music per se. (I say this recognizing, of course, that what counts as “music” is a complex question, especially when the avant-garde is concerned.)

While it seems to be unpopular to say this now, I was not especially enjoying Eichenseer’s performance. I worried a little about my friends, one of whom had just arrived the day before from Thailand. I had dragged them to this concert, so I felt some responsibility for their enjoyment and I guessed that they were most likely not enjoying this piece much either.

Not long into the performance, an elderly couple in the front row (I was sitting behind them in the third) started to become visibly agitated. Eichenseer had picked up the viola by this point, but he was still not “playing” it, in any traditional sense of the word. Its movement in space and Eichenseer’s occasional plucking seemed to affect the noise that the computer was generating. The old woman in the front row fussed with her purse and the couple looked like they were about to walk out. But they didn’t.

Instead, the old man began to applaude loudly, shouting, “Bravo! Bravo!” It was clear he was trying to stop the performance, perhaps hoping that others in the audience would follow his daring lead. But nobody did. The protest eventually stopped and the performance continued.

A member of staff approached the couple, whispering something to the old woman. Audience members looked around at one another with vaguely amused faces. While many of the performances I attend—both dance and music, it seems—involve at least one person in the audience walking out, I had never been to a concert where someone had actually tried to stop the performance because he didn’t like what he was hearing. It was bizarre, to say the least. I wondered again what my friends must be thinking of it all.

Now Eichenseer had the viola tucked under his chin and was playing it with a bow. After a short time, the old man raised his hands for the second time and began to applaud, repeating his shouts of “Bravo! Bravo!” Eichenseer seemed to increase the intensity of the sounds he was making in response to the heckling. Tension in the room mounted. My sense was that people wanted this old dude to shut up, but nobody knew what to do.

As the old man’s heckling continued, Eichenseer suddenly stopped playing and, like a petulant teenager, threw his viola to the ground and attempted to storm off the stage, though he got tangled in the black curtains that covered the side door. After a few seconds negotiating the curtains, he disappeared. A loud slamming was heard and we all sat there completely stunned by what we had just witnessed.

Meanwhile, the amplified feedback from the viola continued. I and others had to cover our ears, such were the noise levels. Eventually a member of the audience—a local musician and friend of Eichenseer—walked on stage, knelt down and slowly turned over the mangled viola, finally ending the feedback. That image is indelibly etched in my memory. The broken viola, the mess of strings, the horrible sound, the palpable tension in the room. I had never seen a musician destroy his own instrument and I never expected it would be a viola at a chamber concert. It was a very sad moment, indeed.

Another member of the audience, a young man, got up from his seat, announced that he was also a violist, and called for a “real round of applause for the performance” we had just heard. In solidarity with the artist whose performance had been so rudely and abruptly brought to and end by this old geezer in the front, the audience clapped and clapped. Pamela Z announced that this was the end of the first half and requested we return after an intermission.

A chorus from the audience then started to confront the old couple, telling them they ought to leave, that they had destroyed everyone’s else enjoyment, that if they didn’t like something they could just go. The elderly man defended himself, saying, “I am a violist and this was not music. It was a desecration!” One man in the audience responded to this, repeatedly telling the old man that he was nothing more than “an asshole.” Again, the old man defended himself, restating that he was, in fact, a violist, to which one woman, possibly Joan Jeanrenaud, rebutted, “Violists can be assholes too!”

The couple was not moved in the slightest by any of this and stayed, unapologetic, for the second part of the performance. I exited to the lobby to drink some wine and calm my nerves a bit. Discussion with the couple apparently continued inside.

Outside, others had the same idea as me. We were definitely grateful for the wine that was being served liberally. People tried to make light of the situation and joked around with one another to relieve the stress we all felt. My Thai friend, who was feeling quite upset by what she had just seen, was assured that this was not normal for performances in San Francisco.

Already by this point references were being made to the 1913 opening night of the Ballets Russes’ The Rite of Spring, where a riot broke out in the theater in response to Stravinsky’s score and (what these music folks never seem to remember) Nijinsky’s groundbreaking choreography. Let me make it clear: what we had just witnessed was nothing compared to that, either in terms of the artistic innovation of the performance or the violance (pardon the spelling!) of the reactions, but it was as close as any of us had ever gotten to it and probably ever would.

We returned to the house for the second half, which featured Hank Dutt playing three pieces, the first a solo piece by Nils Bultmann inspired by Bach’s cello suites, the second a classical Hindustani composition by Ram Narayan, and the third, “Waiting” by Jeanrenaud, a multi-layered solo composition, originally written for cello, created using live looping. Eichenseer, to his credit, reappeared onstage to accompany Dutt in the Narayan piece, this time playing a droning tambura with Z on shruti box (something akin to a harmonium).

Z then did a mesmerizing solo performance using voice, samples, and MIDI processing. The finale was a group improvisation for voice, electronics, and violas with everyone except Eichenseer, who could not participate for obvious reasons.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next day, everywhere I went friends were talking about the “Viola Riot.” The story got told and retold and I heard many versions from people who had not actually been there themselves. I started to record exclusively second-hand versions of the so-called “riot,” including, most notably, Brian Rosen’s account. Rosen, a composer himself, is responsible for coining the term “ViolaGate” in his blog piece about the incident he also calls a “mini-riot.”

A few days after Rosen’s post, which got a lot of attention in the music community, the New York Times picked up the story, calling it “an artistic melee more appropriate for a Metallica show.” In the Times’ story, Pamela Z is quoted making the comparison with The Rite of Spring premiere.

So, what is it about this minor kerfuffle that has ignited passions and sparked such controversy? And why is it that the incident, dramatic and upsetting as it was at the time, is so often described in hyperbolic terms? Some of these overwrought descriptions are clearly intended to be facetious, but some seem like they are meant to be taken seriously.

No doubt, part of what has attracted so much attention to the story is the identity of the old geezer, who, as it turns out, happens to be a well-known and respected eighty-five year-old violist, Bernard Zaslav. To get his side of the story, see the considerable comments section of Rosen’s post, where Zaslav alleges the “desecration” was to his sensitive hearing, and not to his aesthetic sensibility, which, by all accounts, is surprisingly forward-looking. For what it’s worth, I don’t buy it, and neither did a number of others who were also in attendance and witnessed the events first-hand.

Certainly, the high drama, the unexpectedness and (it must be said) childishness of Eichenseer’s response to Zaslav’s equally childish heckling makes for a great story. Even before the heckler’s identity was revealed, people were already talking and tweeting voluminously about the episode.

In one second-hand version of the story I recorded, the storyteller, a local composer, is interrupted at the point when Eichenseer has thrown his viola to the ground, breaking it “into a million pieces,” and is storming off stage.

“That sounds awesome!” another local musician/composer interjects.

“Yeah,” our storyteller continues, “It sounds fucking awesome!” They both wished they had been there to witness the drama for themselves.

In another version, the storyteller, also a local musician, has little sympathy for either party:

And then the viola motherfucker apparently, like, who doesn’t even—I heard he doesn’t even play viola, so that fact that he gets away with “out” music when he doesn’t even necessarily know how to play “in” music anymore is pretentious as fuck anyway. And so, because his artistic integrity was insulted so much by some old fucking beyotch, he broke his viola instead of giving it to somebody who would actually play it. Yeah, they can all kiss my fucking ass. That’s the version I heard.

It is curious to behold mythologies in the making.

With all the additions and exaggerations that inevitably come with subsequent retellings, combined with the many allusions to The Rite of Spring, I began to wonder how we distinguish myth from history, even after only a short amount of time has elapsed since the episode.

Then I began to wonder about the events of Paris, 1913. What in the accounts now familiar to us was fact and what was fiction? And how, almost 100 years later, might we ever pull those two apart?

According to music scholar, Richard Taruskin, author of “A Myth of the Twentieth Century: The Rite of Spring, the Tradition of the New, and ‘The Music Itself'”:

As early as the 1920s (the time, as I say, of the real “breaks”), Stravinsky was busily revising the history of The Rite and erasing its past. It was in 1920 that he first told an interviewer that the first inspiration for the ballet had been not a vision of its final dance (as he had previously stated) but a musical theme, and that consequently he had written “une oeuvre architectonique et non anecdotique” (an architectonic and not an anecdotal work).

Taruskin’s point is that this revisionist history, which many music scholars seem to follow without question, mistakenly relegates Nijinsky’s choreography, as well as the interdisciplinary conditions under which Stravinsky’s score was composed, to history’s backseat. We now know very little of Nijinsky’s original choreography for The Rite—it was lost, some say deliberately suppressed, after its last performance in 1914—though it was, disputably, “reconstructed” by Millicent Hodson in 1987 for the Joffrey Ballet.

Stravinsky’s score, on the other hand—”the music itself”—was, of course, preserved, though interestingly, the score was not published till 1921. Both extant score and lost choreography now have reputations of mythic proportions, due, in large part, to the ballet’s infamous opening night. But, according to Taruskin:

It took a long while for the score to achieve the awesome reputation we now assume it possessed from the beginning. In 1913 it was not the primary object of attention. The most cursory perusal of the Paris reviews of the original production, conveniently collected in Truman C. Bullard’s dissertation, reveals that it was the now-forgotten Nijinsky choreography, far more than Stravinsky’s music, that fomented the famous “riot” at the premiere. Many if not most reviews fail to deal with Stravinsky’s contribution at all beyond naming him as composer.

Indeed, the noise levels were so high in the Paris theater, the music was mostly inaudible. It is said that Nijinsky had to shout musical counts to his dancers from the wings, such was the racket in the theater.

It is ironic that Zaslav now claims it was not “the music itself” but the decibel level in the small theater in San Francisco that compelled him to so rudely disrupt Eichenseer’s performance. While I don’t doubt, as some apparently do, that noise levels contributed to his irascibility, it was obvious to all present that there was more to the story than this.

For Eichenseer, an unknown young composer catapulted from obscurity into the limelight, the results couldn’t be better. Like Stravinsky, the fact that his composition ultimately went unheard on its debut has not prevented him from receiving ample attention for it. On the contrary, it is precisely because his music ultimately went unheard that it has gained such notoriety. History, or mythology, whatever the difference is, will eventually reveal whether or not he will be known for anything more than this, his smashing debut.

A Little Pre-Rapture Rapture

Last night, the night before the Rapture officially hits the fan (at something like 6pm today, if I’m not mistaken), I had considered staying home and praying. But then I saw that Amendola vs. Blades were playing in the Mission and I thought, fuck that shit.

So, off I went to the Red Poppy Art House, a tiny little venue on the corner of 23rd and Folsom that has some of the best music concerts you’re likely to hear in this city. Amendola vs. Blades promised a night of “sonic deity conjuring” and the duo did not disappoint.

Amendola vs. Blades is jazz drummer Scott Amendola and Hammond B3 organ player Wil Blades. As composers and bandleaders, Amendola plays with the likes of Nels Cline, Jeff Parker, Larry Ochs, Ben Goldberg, and Devin Hoff, and Blades with New Orleans drummer Stanton Moore, Billy Martin from Medeski, Martin, & Wood, and legendary jazz drummer Idris Muhammad, amongst many others.

The two have been playing together for five years, though they first started collaborating musically back in 2003. In the Spring of 2006, Amendola undertook a project to adapt the 1966 Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn Far East Suite, making an arrangement for drums and organ. Naturally, he thought of rising star Wil Blades for the organ part and since then, the two have been creating a buzz around town as Amendola vs. Blades.

Many of tunes they started with in 2006, like “Blue Pepper” and “Tourist Point of View” from the Ellington/Strayhorn suite, are still on the repertoire these days, as well as some Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk interpretations, and a lot of original compositions by both Amendola and Blades.

The duo glides seamlessly between tracks that range from straight ahead jazz and grooving funk to more experimental pieces, some sounding closer to glitch or IDM than jazz, music that Amendola describes as “almost post-electronic.”

Despite being packed into the Red Poppy like sardines, it was obvious from watching how bodies were moving in their seats that everyone was loving the musical journey. Indeed, one friend (a fellow dancer) was having great difficulty sitting still beside me. “This is torture,” he groaned. “I want to dance!!”

God was obviously punishing us by making us sit in such cramped quarters while this amazing music was being played. We did attempt an inconspicuous chair dance together, but when a piece of art work was almost knocked off the wall, we returned to a more contained rhythmic head-nodding and resisted further temptation.

Whatever about the audience, the performers certainly have no problem playing in such an intimate venue.

“There’s just something about having everyone right on top of you,” says Blades. “We’ve played shows here where it’s even more packed than this. There was one particular show that was just crazy. People were literally right up against the organ and all around us and behind us against that piano.”

The Red Poppy Art House is definitely a favorite place for the duo to play. “It’s a really comfortable, friendly, fun environment,” says Amendola. “Easily, we’ve had some of our best shows here,” adds Blades.

“Playing small venues, for our music, gives us—gives the music—so much more room to breathe,”Amendola continues. “There’s so many more possibilities. . . This place is just really special.”

This night too was really special, and not merely because it was quite possibly our last. It’s hard to convey how rich and full a sound the two musicians are able to create together. At times Blades’ organ makes you think you’re listening to a bass and guitar with Amendola’s drums, at other times the two manage to conjure the impression that the whole Ellington orchestra is present. With lots of improvised tempo changes and playful exchanges between the two, their manifest joy playing this music together is easily transferred to the audience.

At one point in the evening, I felt myself possessed by the Holy Spirit and thought the ascension to Heaven had come a day early. But then I remembered I was probably amongst the damned. Good thing I had not wasted my last night at home praying.

The coming Rapture has not deterred the duo from making plans for the future, however. With an Amendola vs. Blades album in the works—they will be starting to work on that this Summer—and more gigs lined up, there are, in theory at least, more opportunities to see the two play together soon.

Blades, especially, seemed confident of his own post-Rapture chances. “I play organ,” he reminded us with a smile. “I actually play at a church every Sunday. . .  I’ve been playing hymns almost every Sunday that I’ve been in town for the last six years. I’m good.”

Amendola vs. Blades are playing tomorrow, God willing, at Blades’s weekly residence at the Madrone Lounge in San Francisco, which each Sunday features Blades and a rotating cast of local musicians. You can also catch Amendola vs. Blades on July 7th at the Starry Plough in Berkeley.

Too Many Irons (and Other Recipes)

Some of my fondest memories from Dublin in the mid-eighties involve me spending vast amounts of time in the kitchen pretending to do homework while listening to Capitol Radio, an alternative radio station broadcast from various shifting locations in the city.

My favorite show by far was Tony Gahan’s 20th Century Promised Land. It was through Tony that I was introduced to some of the best punk and new-wave music from the late seventies and eighties, bands such as Joy Division, The Only Ones, Magazine, The Chameleons, Ciccone Youth, This Mortal Coil, and Bauhaus.

It was devastating to those of us who religiously listened to Capitol, and particularly 20th Century Promised Land, when the government cracked down on all pirate radio stations in the country, shutting them down permanently on December 31, 1988. I distinctly remember how depressed we all were on New Year’s Eve at the Capitol Radio closing party. We solemnly counted down the seconds to 1989 and, just like that, on the stroke of midnight, a significant musical education ended for me and many others of my generation.

Fast forward more than twenty-two years later to the Mission District in San Francisco. A friend is telling me about an upcoming benefit show he’s doing. “We’re all doing covers of Cardiacs’ songs. You’ve probably never heard of Cardiacs. Hardly anybody over here has heard of them.”

Cardiacs? Yes. The name is definitely familiar. Cardiacs? How do I know that name? What did they sing again?

I go home, do a youtube seach, and discover the answer. “There’s Too Many Irons in the Fire.”

Bingo! Mr. Gahan had been especially fond of this 1987 song, or maybe it’s just the Cardiacs’ song I remember best from his radio show. How exciting it was to rediscover a forgotten piece of my youth! And how exciting it was that a bunch of local musicians were going to be paying tribute to this unique, iconoclastic band all these years later.

Little did I know that since the eighties and until fairly recently, Cardiacs have been continuing to make incredible music that has evolved from the early punk music I would have heard back in the day to more of a progressive, though none the less idiosyncratic, sound.

Ironically, a few years ago, Cardiacs’ composer and lead singer, Tim Smith, suffered a heart attack, followed by a number of strokes that have left him physically incapacitated. He is currently undergoing the protracted process of neurological rehabilitation.

Two Bay Area experimental musicians, Moe Staiano and Dominique Leone, both big Cardiacs fans for some years, decided they wanted to help out Tim Smith by organizing a benefit concert featuring a bunch of different local bands covering Cardiacs’ songs. In addition to raising money for Smith, the aim was also to expose more people to the music they loved so much.

Performing on Sunday’s benefit at Cafe du Nord, were a whole host of local music innovaters: Amy X Neuburg, Wiener Kids, Grex, Inner Ear Brigade, Dominique Leone, and a Cardiacs’ tribute band, ReCardiacs Fly, which included organizer Moe Staiano on drums and members of Reconnaissance Fly.

Most of the musicians had never heard of Cardiacs before organizers Staiano and Leone introduced them to it. But in the process of doing this show, all of them have become huge fans.

So, what is it about the music that inspires people, once they finally discover the band, to become such “obsessive fans,” as Leone says?

Bill Wolter, who leads progressive rock band Inner Ear Brigade, sums up the music in a single word: “transcendent.”

“The structure is complex and beautiful,” says Amy X Neuburg, who opened the show with a solo performance of two Tim Smith songs. There are “beautiful chord patterns that take twists and turns that are unexpected. It’s like art music. . . The compositions are classical in nature.”

Echoing this view, guitarist Marc Laspina of ReCardiacs Fly says, “Musically it’s like opening God’s cookbook. . . The melodies, the time changes, the energy. It’s completely unique!”

Laspina’s bandmate Polly Moller, who was introduced to Cardiacs by Staiano about a year ago, wonders, “How did I live this long and not know this band?”

Staiano himself says, “It’s like nothing else, and it’s very intense and energetic, and very well written and really thought out. There’s not very much music I’ve heard like that.”

But none of these descriptions can truly capture the music. You can talk about the incredible energy, the theatricality of the band’s performances, the weird time signatures, the sometimes spastic phrasing, the unique chord progressions, the distinctness of Tim Smith’s voice.

“But,” as Leone says, “it doesn’t even begin to sum up what they sound like, which is why so many people are surprised when they first hear them.”

Although all the musicians who performed at Sunday’s show have obvious technical chops, they still found it a challenge to recreate Smith’s music. Because Cardiacs are not especially well known, you can’t find tablatures for their songs on the web or, indeed, reliable lyrics sheets, so it was up to each band to piece together and notate the songs by themselves. In addition to the sheer complexity of the music, there were also other challenges.

Bassist Tim Walters of ReCardiacs Fly said that on some of the songs he couldn’t always hear the bass, so there was a lot of guessing and filling in the gaps involved.

On a similar note, interrupting her own performance, Neuburg issued a wry disclaimer about the accuracy of her lyrics. When you figure out what words Smith is singing, the lyrics are often pretty bizarre, so it’s hard to tell if you’ve really gotten them right.

None of this detracted from anybody’s fun. On the contrary, it was an evening of stellar performances that, by all accounts, left everybody wanting more, more, more.

My own personal favorite performance of the night was ReCardiacs Fly’s. With the longest set—doing four songs, all from the mid-eighties—there was really time to settle in with the music. Three songs were from Cardiacs’ 1984 album, The Seaside, and the other, which I was especially excited about, was (you guessed it) their 1987 single, “There’s Too Many Irons in the Fire,” the one song I actually knew some lyrics to.

ReCardiacs gave a spirited, high energy performance in full Cardiacs costume and face paint (white faces with red lipstick smeared willy nilly in the general vicinity of the mouth!). Lead singer Polly Moller played Tim Smith next to saxophonist Chris Broderick’s Sarah Smith, Smith’s then wife. Broderick with his golden curls bounced around onstage in a black dress and tiara, while Moller, in a mod suit complete with vintage eighties tie, twitched and grimaced, and smiled maniacally.

What a blast! All that was missing was a good ol’ eighties mosh pit, which probably would not have been that difficult to instigate.

The night ended with Leone and his band performing his favorite, “Dirty Boy” from the 1995 double album, Sing to God, a song, according to Leone, “so epic in every possible respect, pushing every kind of button that Cardiacs push for me, and doing it to the nth degree.” It certainly was an epic ending to an epic evening.

All the of musicians who performed on Sunday are excited to incorporate Cardiacs’ music into future performances with their respective bands. All of them, it seems, have become diehard fans. Leone was very encouraged to hear that audience and performers alike came away wanting more. Maybe another such benefit for Smith will happen again soon.

In the meantime, Leone’s message to those thirsty to hear Cardiacs’ music, and especially those who would like to help Tim Smith on the road to recovery?

“Go to iTunes and buy Cardiacs’ music.” It’s that simple.

All Aboard the MS Connah

I always feel frustrated whenever I see Graham Connah and his big band perform. Why? Because I look around and wonder, “Where the hell are all the people?” Seriously. Where are all the people? It’s a mystery.

Last Sunday, I was amongst the privileged few at Berkeley’s Jazzschool to enjoy a concert with the one and only Connah and his ensemble, which goes by several names, including Ted Brinkley (the ensemble’s full title being Admiral Ted Brinkley’s Hornblower Cruise!) and Neptune’s Rogue Apothecary. On Sunday, it was Graham Connah’s NoPorkestra (and chorus).

Connah describes his own music thus: “Stylistically, rock and jazz strategies predominate, with superficial nods towards glee clubs, musical theater, traipsichore, and gratuitous indulgent abstract cacophony.”  Hell, I like it already! I have no idea what “traipsichore” is, but that’s okay. I don’t need to understand everything. Anyone who uses a phrase like “gratuitous indulgent abstract cacophony” to describe his own music is cool in my book.

Connah’s tongue-in-cheek cleverness, the dry, self-deprecating wit apparent in his writing, is just as evident in his music. Have you ever been to a performance where the music itself (not the lyrics, not funny asides between songs) makes you laugh out loud? And you take a quick glance at your neighbors and find them grinning impossibly, ear to ear?

Connah’s music is that good. Complex compositions, full of unexpected twists and turns, and improvisations that show off the immense talent of his band are par for the course. The ensemble is a veritable Who’s Who in the Bay Area jazz scene, with most of the members being composers and bandleaders in their own right. Ben Goldberg, Beth Custer, Aaron Novik, Lisa Mezzacappa, Vijay Anderson, Darren Johnston, Sheldon Brown, Dina Maccabee, and Sylvain Carton, to name just a few, are included in the all-star line-up.

Connah sits at the piano and every now and then during a piece he gets up, removes his spectacles, shuffles over to a band member and whispers in her ear. This is usually the cue for a solo improvisation, though sometimes he gives other directions that get spread from musician to musician in a line of whispers.

So much of what happens seems impromptu, yet the tightness of the large ensemble speaks against that. After the performance, my neighbor wondered how they were able to coordinate rehearsals with such a large group of in-demand musicians. My guess was that there were few, if any, rehearsals, but not because it sounded like they hadn’t rehearsed.

All these musicians play with multiple other projects, so the chances of finding times to rehearse together seemed slim. Also, the kinds of directions Connah intoned to the musicians before playing a piece suggested that this might be the first time they had played it together as a group. It turned out this guess was correct and that these performances are something akin to a public rehearsal. Knowing this just makes the musicians seem all the more remarkable.

This is clearly difficult music to play. As Connah promises (or warns?), there are moments of “abstract cacophany” where many sounds compete for attention. So much is happening at once, there’s so much to follow, and you have a choice—to try and chase the waves, or to let them just lap against your cheek. Either way is its own trip.

Speaking of trips, we are on a cruise ship. It’s 1959. There’s a strange and wonderful orchestra aboard, led by a roguish semi-retired admiral in reading glasses. When they play each evening in the ballroom, something happens. It is as if the music has enticed everyone, put them under a spell, and made them behave in ways they might never have imagined. Nobody ever remembers disembarking the MS Connah…

Where were we? Abstract cacophony. Yes.

There is one piece of abstraction in particular that stands out in my memory, toward the end of the concert. The musicians break up into pairs, with each group playing a different part together. While the cacophony is scripted, there is a wildness, an unruliness to the composition. The overall effect is rhythmic, albeit in an irregular, unpredictable way. Here and there, members of the audience laugh out loud in delight. All aboard!

I can’t help but notice the significant number of women who regularly play in Connah’s varied ensembles. This is not noteworthy in and of itself, but only because it is still rare to see women playing this kind of music. While I doubt Connah chooses his musicians for any other reason than that they kick ass, it is still appreciated that he is not blind (or deaf) to the many talented female musicians in the Bay Area.

Connah’s NoPorkestra (and chorus) will be playing again at the Jazzschool in Berkeley on July 3rd.

Electric Chamber

“Reinventing the wheel” may not be as useless an undertaking as it first sounds. The wheel has been around an awfully long time, so perhaps a new take on it is exactly what it needs to stay fresh and exciting. Let’s jazz it up a bit! Find new uses, new interpretations that make it relevant to contemporary life in the post-industrial era.

Okay, maybe the wheel is a bad example. It is still, after all, one of the most widely used inventions ever. Its future is not, let us say, under imminent threat. Most likely, the wheel will continue to enjoy its ubiquitous popularity without the need for any special “reinterpretation.”

Can we say the same for chamber music?

From the private chambers of the aristocracy to the concert halls of the bourgeoisie, for a long time this particular style of music has been associated with the rich and cultured, with those occupying the “higher” strata of society. We don’t often think of the young and hip, of subversiveness, of revolution when we think of chamber music.

But perhaps that is exactly the kind of reinvention chamber music needs.

San Francisco’s own Classical Revolution certainly thinks so. More of a socio-cultural phenomenon than a musical group with static membership, Classical Revolution has been transforming how chamber music is being enjoyed all over the globe.

It all started at my favorite Mission haunt, the Revolution Cafe, where violist Charith Premawardha and some friends from the SF Conservatory of Music decided to revolutionize how and where chamber music was being heard. Their aim was to bring classical music out of the stuffy concert halls and into bars and cafes where younger (and less well off) people would be exposed to it. Their slogan? “Chamber music for the people!”

A few years later, Classical Revolution has grown from a weekly event in a tiny bar to a movement of epic proportions with chapters all over the country and in several large cities throughout the world, such as Amsterdam and Berlin. In addition to the goal of crushing the bourgeois state by bringing chamber music to the people, Classical Revolution also fosters music that is experimental and innovative, classical music that pushes traditional boundaries.

In that spirit, this past Monday at the Rev, Classical Revolution introduced composer Sebastian Plano and his cello quartet playing the entirity of Plano’s debut CD, The Arrhythmical Part of Hearts. Live. Or so I thought.

One thing that had intrigued me about the description of the music I read beforehand was that it combined live strings with electronic music.

Classical Revolution’s own Ensemble in Residence, Musical Art Quintet, which plays original compositions by bassist Sascha Jacobsen as well as some sweet interpretations of Astor Piazzolla, have a couple of “electo-tangos” in their repertoire. An electronically produced pre-recorded track is played in the background and the quintet play over it, creating a fresh and exciting sound that makes Gotan Project seem thoroughly dated. The live strings always take center stage and the electronic tracks, on the few occasions they are used, are never heavy-handed.

Unfortunately, this was not the case for Sebastian Plano’s quartet.

For a start, the prerecorded tracks were too much the main focus, often carrying the melody, which does not work well in a live performance. The four cellos seemed like an afterthought in the arrangements, the background accompaniment to the electronic music, which often went on and on for what seemed like ages before the four cellists even picked up their bows.

Secondly, the tracks themselves were often cheesy ambient or progressive trance with cloying vocals over Yanni-like piano and thumping beats. Fans of Enya might like it.

Thirdly, both the pre-recorded music and the cello accompaniment quickly started to sound repetitive. It seemed like there was some formula used for the construction of the music, so by the third or fourth iteration I had lost interest.

Having said that, the musicians, when they played, played well and there were some very pretty moments. If I had only heard one or two tracks, I might have really liked it. But sitting through the entire album was a bit painful, especially when Mr. Plano felt the need to stand up and speak before each and every track. I understand that a young composer wants to promote his music, but there are times when it’s just good to shut up and play.

For a live musical performance, the audience’s attention should be focused on the live music. Otherwise, why bother? A few times I thought it could have worked better if it had have been a dance performance with the cellos accompanying in the background. Plano did mention that one track was indeed written for a dance collaboration, but in the absence of actual dancers, we were left to imagine the central focus.

Lessons to be learned from this? Over-reliance on pre-recorded tracks for a “live” performance is bad idea. I am always impressed by multi-instrumentalist composers who can create a rich sound all by themselves in a studio, but when playing out for an audience, they need to get other musicians to play those parts, or figure out how adapt the music in some way.

Plano and his cello quartet certainly have potential, but they have a long way to go before they are at the standard of an ensemble like Musical Art Quintet, whose seamless integration of electric and chamber consistently delights and charms.

Another revolution of the wheel? Sure, why not.

Excursions to the Edge

When do the sounds emanating from a musical instrument cross the boundary of what we call “music” and venture into an unknown territory of mere clatters, dins, and squeaks? Indeed, does such a boundary exist at all? If it does, it is certainly elusive and constantly shifting.

Some of the most interesting music around these days plays in this penumbral region, making excursions into strange and foreign lands, then returning again to the known, the familiar. Some music, on the other hand, blasts off into the superlunary realms and keeps going, never looking back toward home. It is then we might begin to wonder if it still counts as “music” at all, or what it even means to make this judgment.

Questions of this sort were on my mind Thursday night after seeing the ROVA Saxophone Quartet play at El Valenciano. ROVA (an acronym formed from the last initials of founding members, Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, Andrew Voigt* and Bruce Ackley) has been pushing the definition of music since the late 70’s. Leaders in the world of free jazz/new music, ROVA eschews conventions of rhythm and melody to create a rich landscape of timbres and sounds. The music is complex and interesting and the four saxophones, ranging from soprano to baritone, seem to speak to each other, albeit in a language whose meaning, if it has any, is beyond my ken.

This was my first time seeing ROVA live.

After their set, Sergei Varshavsky, co-founder with his son Peter of the local record label Porto Franco Records, leaned over and asked what I thought. “I really appreciate the incredible skill required to play such difficult and complex music,” I told him, “but I think it pushes against my edge with avant-garde music.” He laughed in agreement. ROVA was probably not anything we would listen to while relaxing at home, though it is certainly fascinating to see them perform live, to witness artists invent new territories, even when these territories lie outside those that we are naturally inclined to frequent.

Following ROVA, the Darren Johnston Quintet, which on Thursday night was Johnston on trumpet, quintet regulars Ben Goldberg on clarinet and Sheldon Brown on saxophone and bass clarinet, and new additions, Hamir Atwal on drums (wow!), and David Ewell on upright bass, played a mixture of brand new compositions and tracks from Johnson’s first quintet album, Edge of the Forest (Clean Feed Records).

While Johnston’s music certainly ventures out there into avant-garde territory, its sojourns never feel too long and the melodies that frame the improvisations echo throughout the unfamiliar terrain enough for me not to feel lost on the journey. The tracks have a kind of structure that, though playful and unpredictable, guide the music in a way that feels “organic and logical,” to use Johnston’s own words. Older tracks, such “Broken” and “Edge of the Forest,” sounded fresh and new, quite different from their previously recorded incarnations.

In conversation afterwards, Johnston admitted the tension he feels between the desire to create avant-garde/experimental music and the desire to create music that is more accessible, music that inspires people to dance or sing along. Playing trumpet with Brass Menazeri, a band whose infectious Balkan rhythms defy anyone in the crowd to stand still, clearly satisfies the latter desire. I can imagine how gratifying it must be for musicians to see fans dancing wildly to their music. But what about the experience of playing this kind of jazz to a small group of people sitting in chairs?

“Concert music,” Johnston said, a category in which he includes both contemporary jazz, chamber and orchestral music, “has been in trouble in this country for a while.” Whereas it is still popular for large foundations and rich patrons to sponsor symphonies, thus ensuring their survival in times of economic downturn, jazz is not so fortunate. In Europe—where, Johnston says, consumers of culture don’t require everything to be “pre-processed and pre-chewed” as they seem to do in the US—the survival of jazz seems more assured.

The number of people in attendance at Thursday night’s Mish-Mash appears to confirm Johnston’s suspicion. While there is so much going on musically in San Francisco (in terms of eclecticism, virtuosity, innovation, and sheer artistry, at least!) there is not always a significant audience to appreciate experimental jazz and new music. This may say more about the marketing and promoting of this kind of music than it does about its accessibility to a broader audience.

Certainly, the Thursday night Mish-Mash at El Valenciano is not on a lot of people’s radar. But I suspect that there’s more to the story than this. While ROVA might be about as far out as I’m willing to go when it comes to avant-garde music, for a lot of people, even straight ahead jazz is too far gone. At the end of the day, all that’s left to offer is some worn-out platitude about how there’s no accounting for taste.

Maybe that’s true, but here’s another platitude: there’s no harm in trying.

The Darren Johnston Chicago Quintet will be releasing a new album, The Big Lift, on Porto Franco Records later this year. You can hear the title track on Porto Franco’s 2011 Sampler, along with some other great local jazz artists including Marcus Shelby and his orchestra, Aaron Novik, Seth Ford-Young (with a gorgeous, shiver-inducing interpretation of Satie’s first Gnossienne), and The Nice Guy Trio, with compositions by Johnston and accordionist Rob Reich.

Klanging the Farben

Life does not wait to be written about. And books, sadly, don’t read themselves. I returned to work this week and have been a little overwhelmed with the amount of reading I have to stay on top of. I had started writing a blog post about all the incredible shows I saw last weekend and then just didn’t have time during the week to return to it.

Since then, I’ve seen so much more music that I want to write about. I just can’t keep up with myself. The weather has also been gloriously sunny, so it has been truly delightful to be back in my beloved SF.

I have a little bit of time today before heading out to Switchboard Music, an eight-hour festival of eclectic, inventive, genre-bending music featuring some of the Bay Area’s most interesting composers and musicians. I really should be reading Marx, but what the fuck!

Last weekend was a big one, as far as performances go. Since the jetlag wore off, I’ve been packing in as much as possible.

Friday night I went to see Beats Antique at the Fillmore. In the space of just a few years, this Oakland trio has gone from underground sensation in the local electronic music scene to a band of national and international popularity. The music is a tantalizing blend of breaks, hip-hop, dubstep, and glitch layered with Middle and Near Eastern riffs, and contemporary circus music. The sound is part digitally produced and sampled, part acoustic instrumentation.

After many months on the road, the trio returned to the bay for a sold-out performance at San Francisco’s celebrated Fillmore Theater, a “dream come true” for the band, according to David Satori.

Opening the show was The Real Vocal String Quartet, an innovative all-female string quartet that incorporates pop/folk singing to great effect with traditional chamber music. They also provided the string section for several Beats Antique numbers throughout the evening.

The second support act was a young man calling himself The Tailor who wriggled and writhed around onstage in a skinny pair of stripy low-riders and a wife-beater, singing and playing a looping guitar over mostly electronic prerecorded tracks he pulled up on his computer. The music had a danceable groove and was a good choice given the tastes of the audience, though several times I thought he would have been better able to play to the large crowd had he had some musicians accompanying him. There are lots of musicians who play multiple parts when they create and record their own music, but when playing out they get other musicians to take on these parts for a richer live experience. The Tailor could do with that kind of support onstage, especially at such a big venue like the Fillmore.

Beats Antique put on a great show accompanied by RVSQ on strings, as mentioned, Dan Cantrell on accordion, and a horn section that included Sylvain Carton on baritone sax and Peter Jacques on clarinet and trumpet.

A major factor contributing to Beats Antique’s meteoric rise is, no doubt, Zoe Jakes’ sultry tribal belly-dancing, which she performs throughout their shows when she’s not banging on a big drum and grimacing like a rockstar. On Friday, Jakes brought a bunch of friends with her to perform, so the crowd got to see some great dancing that ventured beyond tribal style. At one point, a hot guest dance troupe came out to perform a mixture of belly and hip-hop. Let me tell you, these ladies could shimmy and grind like nobody’s business.

Saturday night I managed to squeeze in two performances, Schick Machine by the Paul Dresher Ensemble, which was definitely the highlight of the weekend, and jazz guitarist Alex Pinto at my favorite local haunt, The Revolution Café.

Schick Machine is a collaboration between Paul Dresher, a well-known local composer and inventor of some of the wildest instruments you’ve ever seen or heard, Daniel Schmidt, another inventor and builder of musical instruments, Matt Heckert, maker of kinetic sculptures, and writer/director Rinde Eckert. The one-man show is performed by Steven Schick, a master percussionist with an astounding ability to extract every texture of sound from objects, be they simple household objects, sparser inventions born of an idiosyncratic mind, or wildly inventive creations that are both visually stunning and rich with sound possibilities.

Schick moves around from station to station in his subterranean (I imagine) sound laboratory that looks almost like the whirring, spinning, grinding internal workings of a giant piano organ. At times he conducts a kind of locomotive symphony between the different parts of the huge machine, at other times he plays a single instrument tenderly and slow, and the playing becomes a kind of meditative dance.

Renowned writer/director Rinde Eckert is known both for the physicality and musicality of his theatrical work and has collaborated with the Paul Dresher Ensemble on projects in the past.

In Schick Machine, an unseen voice introduces the character Lazlo Klangfarben (“klangfarbe” means “timbre” in German), an eccentric and solitary genius whose obsessive creative machinations have brought forth into existence the “Schick Machine,” an innovation that can reconcile the past and future. Lazlo is unsure whether the time is right to unleash his creation on the world, whether humanity is truly ready for such a powerful invention. Lazlo’s own sense of belonging in the world outside of his laboratory is also in question. We learn that connection and intimacy are problematic, that his wife has already left him.

Eckert’s philosophical ponderings through the character of Lazlo punctuate Schick’s virtuosic playing, and add the kind of intellectual depth and emotional poignancy these wild inventions demand. His words capture beautifully the emotional resonance Schick extracts from each instrument and the narrative provides a frame for Schick’s sonic explorations.

After Schick Machine, we headed over to the Rev for Alex Pinto’s CD release party. As always, the tiny venue was packed to the gills. Pinto is an accomplished young jazz guitarist who blends Hindustani classical music with contemporary jazz and indie rock. In addition to his original jazz compositions, he also does a number of very sweet interpretations of some Radiohead songs. He just released his debut album, Inner State. Definitely one to watch out for!

Sunday night it was time for a contemporary dance performance to balance out all the music. The Contact Improv Research Forum, which organizes the annual West Coast Contact Improv Festival, had a curated show at CounterPulse and Sunday was its last night. One of the biggest challenges for improv-based dance performance is to create something that does not look like a contact jam with lights and costumes, especially because the audience at these shows tends to be mostly other CI dancers who probably don’t want to pay three times as much to see what they could see at a regular jam.

This challenge is all the greater when the performance is conceptually heavy, as was the case with the first performance, Kristen Greco’s The Red Door. The piece was inspired by Jung’s Red Book, though I’m not sure if knowing this contributed anything to my appreciation of the dancing. One of the performers, Antonio Alemanno, switched roles between dancer and musician and even did a kind of contact dance with his upright bass, which I enjoyed. There were also some nice solos, most notably, from the Santa Cruz-based dancer Daniel Bear Davis, whom I just love to watch.

The second performance that evening, Sense Object, is a work-in-progress by Miriam Wolodarski with juggler/dancer Zack Bernstein, who often dances with Scott Wells and Dancers. I loved the names of the three scenes: “1. The polite dinner guest always speaks with restraint. 2. Another person is a foreign country. 3. Say something! Can’t you see I’m hiding?” It was a whimsical dance theatre piece that had me laughing out loud several times. A favorite moment was Wolodarski’s contact dance on and with a huge ladder. I look forward to seeing how this piece develops.

While I’ve seen a bunch more performances since then (it’s been a whole week, for God’s sake!), I will write about them later. The Switchboard Music Festival starts in a few minutes and I want to post this before I leave the house for that. More reviews coming soon!!