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Review of Other Minds festival 9 from the San Francisco Classical Voice

Living Up To Its Name

By Thomas Goss

She understands dynamics and phrasing better than people who merely listen. Her energy and focus on a performance are total, pulling the audience completely inside her tactile vision of music. I write, of course, of Evelyn Glennie, whose solo percussion recital marked the apex of an immensely satisfying festival for this year’s Other Minds participants. For all that this yearly celebration is about composition and experimentation, the real impact of what contemporary music can be was brought home by the presence of a world-class virtuoso on the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre stage.

Glennie can make a simple snare drum sound like the most fascinating and articulate instrument, and did so in both the whimsical Pezzo da Concerto No. 1 by Nebojsa Jovan Zivkovic and Asjekk Masson’s Prim. In the latter piece, the tips of her drumsticks alternated between two subtle harmonic overtones on the snare head, and then gradually increased the frequency of the events into a devastating drum roll. Every step along the way had a perceptible dynamic shade. As a marimbist she was no less amazing, pulling out all stops in pieces like Keiko Abe’s Michi, wherein she treated us to an improvisatory interpretation that was revealing of her multivarious musical directions, and Rhythmic Caprice, a composition by marimba-God Leigh Howard Stevens, whose new stick-handle clicking effects sounded completely idiomatic in Glennie’s hands. It was a testament to her quality that even the weaker material on the program suffered not a bit by comparison to the stronger, so intense was the commitment given to each work.

One of advisor Lou Harrison’s last contributions to Other Minds was the recommendation of two extraordinary musical thinkers to the attention of the organizers. One was an obvious choice: Ned Rorem, whose art and thought engaged an entire evening in the performance of his song cycle Evidence of Things Not Seen. The other designation represented a hopeful step forward in the appreciation of the contemporary music of New Zealand, represented in the person of composer Jack Body. Even more than the significance of his moving and original music was the mere fact of his presence, a connection for the festival to the contemporary artistic world of the Asian Pacific region, almost astoundingly ignored by most San Franciscan esthetes.

A softer edge

Body has an approach to composition both worldly and charming. There was an essence of schoolboy nostalgia in his Three Sentimental Songs for piano and percussion, both in the subject matter and the sense of mischief. This work reconfigured in harmony, pulse and mood the old tunes of “Little Brown Jug,” “Daisy Bell,” and “All Through the Night,” the last spookily hummed by the whole audience against eerily descending tremolos. The piano pieces entitled Sarajevo as performed by Sarah Cahill seemed closer to the heart of Body’s oeuvre, processing sometimes with passion, sometimes with reserve the processes of memory, death and grieving. The quiet dignity of the final section, “Lachrymae,” struck a chord with an audience troubled by the shadow of a coming war.

Other Minds kept the vision on variety this year as in all preceding, with appearances as disparate as ethnic-instruments-innovator Stephen Micus, the Colorado College Bowed Piano Ensemble performing the works of their idiom’s veritable messiah Stephen Scott, the politicized but playful ramblings of William Parker, loop-mistress Amy X Neuburg, the cabaret oratorio of Daniel Lentz, and Onyx Quartet. This last group appeared with pianist Gloria Cheng in a premiere of Ge Gan-ru’s rather prosaically-titled Four Studies of Peking Opera. Gan-ru needs to find a more captivating title for this captivating music. The gestures and inflections of Chinese opera were lovingly and innovatively realized on the keys and strings of the quintet, with slides and pops and fingerboard col legno. The most moving section imitated a particular affectation of Peking Opera aria singing by getting right under a pitch and pushing up to it, slowly repeating with unbearable tension, then gradually increasing speed until the effect became a big vibrato. This theme was developed instrument by instrument throughout the ensemble with a craft that recalled the part-writing craft of Bartók, though with a flair uniquely Gan-ru.

The aforementioned offering of Daniel Lentz was a study in purple and crimson. Masterfully conceived, it was nothing less than a full-scale assault on the senses and emotions with the concept of courtship, infatuation, and consummation. Moods would build slowly and cumulatively from patchworks of heartfelt melody, love-song lyric fragments, and far-out textures combining piano, electronics, violin, and wineglasses both rubbed and struck. Sometimes the intensity of the mood was hard to maintain in this hourlong-plus frenzy, and early tumults robbed by a degree the climactic arc as it ascended to its zenith near the end. Yet the blend of humor, innovation, and real artistic joy was hard to discount, and made this piece an unforgettable experience.

Put upon their proper mettle

Other Minds has its own floating riot of followers, a distinct crowd of seekers. The response to the music offered was discerning, as interesting in many cases as the festival itself. Yes, there are many like me who are also musicians and creative types who are coming to see old friends or experience the scene. But there is also a multiplicity of the unexpected, a truly demanding audience that you won’t find in most greatest-hits symphony concerts. They are respectful, but discerning. They have patience, but are as ready to value their own time and commitment against self-indulgence. There is no doubt that this group, an imagined quantity when Other Minds was cutting its teeth a decade ago, is now keeping the festival on its toes in its realization. It is to the organizers’ credit that they have found a way to raise the bar in response to this monster of its own making.

One of the most effective and fun signs of this was the presence of Amy X Neuburg. On little stages in the Mission and South of Market like Z Space and ODC, she has shown herself to be a worthy voice in the San Francisco avant-garde. On the big stage of the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, with a well-planned light show and Herb Heinz at the sound controls, she was nothing less than brilliant. Her stage persona transcended the gadgetry of loop and sample, taking flight when she stepped away from the flashing, glowing electronics and took the stage, coming closer to the audience by seeming to inhabit the deep reds and magentas of the open floor. Neuburg has an artistry and potential that is truly compelling, and it may prove to be bigger than the local fishbowl can contain.

(Thomas Goss is resident composer for Moving Arts Dance Collective, is a member of New Release Alliance Composers and the Cabaret Composers Consortium, and sits on the steering committee of the Bay Area Chapter of the American Composers Forum.)

© 2003 Thomas Goss, all rights reserved