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.

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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.

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!!

Musikal Menazeri

The local music scene is a significant part of what draws me again and again to the city of San Francisco. When living in Chiang Mai, it’s probably the single thing I miss the most about this city. While it’s easy to find live music in Chiang Mai, very little of it is original, the city being home to a scourge of cover bands.

This past Friday, my first full day back in San Francisco, I went to the Rickshaw Stop for the Michael Musika Spells novella/album release show. Musika is a local singer-songwriter who has been getting some media attention recently. I had seen him perform live before, but (somewhat ironically given my complaint about Chiang Mai) it was a show in which a number of different local bands each performed a cover from the Velvet Underground’s Niko album.

Friday night’s show opened with Toshio Hirano, a yodeling Japanese country singer. His set was ending as we were arriving and saying hello to friends I had not seen in a while, so I didn’t take in very much. I started to pay more attention when a brass section, including trumpeter Ara Anderson, started playing near the club’s entrance. It was a little bit of a let-down when the lively ensemble eventually made its way to the stage, only to disappear behind it.

Musika performed his first folksy song offstage, then climbed up in his black hooded wizard’s coat to join his band, which included Matt Adams of The Blank Tapes lurking behind a bass and a pair of colorful plastic sunglasses. Kacey Johansing, Indianna Hale, and Emily Ritz, all singer-songwriters in their own right, provided the delightful harmonies that went down like a spoonful of honey. About half way through the set, the brass section returned to the stage, giving Musika’s sound more energy and more gravity at once. Bodies swayed rhythmically in the dark.

When Musika’s set ended, my friend Tony, who had been hesitating all evening in his approval, finally declared: “Okay, it was good. But I’m glad it’s over.” We were all by then a little itchy for the main act.

Brass Menažeri is a nine-piece Balkan Romani (gypsy) ensemble I’ve seen perform numerous times and which I once described as the ultimate proof that there’s no free will. Wild and crazy dancing will happen. Struggle is futile. Having spent the entire day shivering on the sofa with both the heat and a blanket on, it was good to get out and sweat on a dance floor, and remind myself why it is I love this city.

The brass ensemble consists of a snare and tupan making up the percussion section, a sousaphone, trombone, and two baritone horns in the bass horn section, and a saxophone, clarinet, and trumpet as the lead horns. The band has been working on a lot of new material, including some compositions by band leader and clarinetist Peter Jacques, who occasionally also sings a Balkan song or two. Over half of Friday’s music I had not heard before.

Some of the time signatures of Romani music completely confound me, I have to say, and I’m unable to wrap mind or body around them. I sometimes think I would like a brief lesson on Balkan time signatures or even just for someone to count out the beats when they become too crazy for me to follow by myself. Because of this, I am always especially impressed by the tightness and virtuosity of Brass Menažeri.

Saxophonist Sheldon Brown, the band’s newest member, is a welcome addition to the mix. Apart from when he’s with Brass Menažeri, I’ve only ever seen Brown play jazz, but his ease and confidence with the material suggests he is an old-hand with this style of music. When jazz trumpeter Darren Johnston joined the band a while ago, replacing clarinetist/saxophonist Mary Harris, he told me how challenging he initially found playing some of the Balkan time signatures, which was very reassuring for a music pleb like me to hear.

The night ended with DJ Zeljko from Serbia spinning some infectious Balkan tunes. By then, the crowd had thinned out, which created more space for even more crazy dancing. My friend Roxy noted that in all her years of seeing Tony dancing like a madman, she had never before witnessed such . . . expressiveness. I’m paraphrasing a little here.

Welcome Home

It’s not a balcony, but a big, drafty bay window with a view of many rooftops and two green peaks to the west. There is no golden temple, no sense of a continental vastness beyond. Just over those hills, where the sky has finally broken blue, the Pacific stretches out for thousands of miles.

It has been raining almost constantly since I’ve been back. Today, Sunday, we are enjoying some respite. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Last night I battled the wind and rain for two blocks to Dance Mission on 24th Street to see a dance performance by some friends. I had not seen people move their bodies in this way in some time.

The night before, I went to see one of my favorite local bands, a nine-piece Balkan brass ensemble that are so tight, you could gather them up and hug them all at once. Despite the jet-lag, I danced like a crazy fool.

In the time it has taken me to write this, they sky to the west has almost entirely disappeared behind a thick blanket of cumulus clouds. It will probably rain again in a few hours.

Sadness, Anticipation

Sounds like it could be the name of an Astor Piazzolla: Sadness, Anticipation. I could certainly dance a tango to it. A slow, intense tango. An achingly passionate tango with a kind of precision that could only come from deep melancholy.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a tango quite like that.

Sadness

It’s nighttime and I’m standing alone on my balcony, enjoying the last of a particular treat bestowed upon me by a good Thai friend. I lean out and look to the west, toward Doi Suthep with its golden, mountain-top temple glowing high above the lights of the nearby apartment blocks. I know it will be one of my last nights to have this particular view of the world. The rains come, fourth night in a row.

Anticipation

It’s nighttime and I’m walking along 22nd Street in the Mission, taking it all in, adjusting to my new but familiar universe. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, so perhaps that buzz I’m sensing is because there are many more people out and about. Or maybe that buzz is just the Mission on a Thursday night. I’m back, and despite having just stepped off the plane, there’s at least three different music venues I want to hit. First on the list: Kaleidoscope…

On Leaving Chiang Mai

One night this week, as I was zooming along the outside of the city moat on my way to the North Gate Jazz Co-op, I passed what could only be described as a Thai hipster fixie convention. They gathered in their tens outside of Velocity, a bicycle shop on the north side of the moat, with their skinny black jeans, tattoos, stretched earlobes, and über-cool haircuts. And they all had fixies.

Now, some of you might not know what a hipster is or, indeed, what a fixie is. Let me explain.

A hipster is a category of youth subculture, known for a fairly understated but distinctive attire that usually consists of dark, tight-fitting jeans, hoodies or t-shirts, often with obscure cultural allusions or ironic messages, and bicycle hats, beanies, or fedoras. Tattoos and piercings are generally de rigueur.

Many wear ironic-looking glasses, meaning that on somebody else they might look dorky, but on the hipster they are the height of fashion. The glasses speak with confidence about the hipster’s ability to transform the mundane, the tedious, the gauche into the impertinent, the daring, the innovative with just a hint of ironic self-consciousness. Ditto for ironic-looking mustaches.

Don't Hate, Appreciate: Mission Hipsters

Hipsters tend to like independent music and film and are often of an intellectual or artistic bent. According to negative stereotypes, they are apathetic, phlegmatic, and supercilious. In short, they are too cool for school.

I was first exposed to the hipster genus in the San Francisco Mission District, where they are a dime a dozen. Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood is also notorious for its hipsters.

Let me come clean here and declare right off the bat that I ♥ hipsters. And I’m not being ironic. Amongst the general population it seems to be rather fashionable to hate hipsters, but I cannot condone this hatred.

The arguments I hear about why it is appropriate to direct one’s contempt at hipsters is that they all look alike and are unoriginal trend-followers posing as balkers of convention, inverters of fashion, as unique individuals who refuse to conform to society’s mores. To this I say: whatevs.

For a start, just because one likes to dress in a way that is against mainstream culture, it doesn’t follow that one cannot dress like anybody else. Hipsters need a sense of belonging just as much as anybody else, and their dress code serves to identify them as part of that particular subculture. Why should we hate them for that? Hipster haters, as far as I can tell, are just projecting their own insecurities about individuality and conformity onto the hipsters they hate. They should turn the mirror inwards and leave the hipsters alone.

I ♥ Hipsters

If we’re talking about hipsters who hate other hipsters for being hipsters, well that’s a different issue altogether. This is the only group of hipsters it is permissible to hate, as far as I’m concerned, which is why I “like” this Facebook page a Mission hipster friend of mine created: Hipsters who Hate Hipsters who Hate Other Hipsters for Being Hipsters. ‘Nuff said.

Another reason hipsters might dress alike is that the clothing is quite functional, given the hipster lifestyle. Big baggy jeans are not going to work so well on a bicycle, now are they?

And here we have another reason to love hipsters—they often travel by bike. Surely, we should extol the virtues of any group of individuals that encourages us to ditch the gas-guzzlers in favor of human-powered, energy-efficient, environmentally-sustainable transportation. All praise the hipsters!

Which gets us to the fixies. A “fixie” is a fixed-gear (or fixed-wheel) bicycle. It has one speed only. There is no coasting on a fixie because if the wheels are moving, so are the pedals, which allows the rider to stop without a brake, to stay stopped (at a light, say) without putting a foot to the ground, and also to ride in reverse.

A "Fixie" or Fixed-gear Bicycle

Riding around a corner and stopping safely might be tricky for the novice fixie rider and accidents are common in the early days of fixie use. There are, apparently, advantages to the fixed-geared bicycle, though I don’t really know what they are. It has always been a mystery to me why hipsters love their fixies, but it is an empirically undeniable truth that they do.

And now, I have discovered, it is a universal truth. Thai hipsters also love their fixies.

In the past month or so, all of a sudden I’ve been seeing gaggles of Thai hipsters riding around Chiang Mai on their fixies. One Friday night I thought perhaps that Critical Mass, the massive monthly biking event that originated in San Francisco in the nineties, had reached Thailand. And then, just when I thought it couldn’t get more exciting, the hipster fixie convention outside of Velocity.

As I zoomed past on my scooter (I was a mod in my teens, hence the scooter), I thought about stopping to join the party, see what was going on. But I didn’t.

It was not because I thought the hipsters would sneer at me. They might be hipsters, but they are still Thai and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Thai person sneer in my life, so I was not worried about that. No, it was more that I didn’t have the need to stop. Just knowing they exist is enough for me.

I continued along the moat road, then did a U-turn to get inside the old city, where the North Gate Jazz Co-op is. I slowed down as I passed Velocity again from the inside and looked across the moat at the reveling hipsters on their bikes.

“Damn,” I thought, “I’m going to miss this city.”