Distinctive Sounds at the Sixth Annual Switchboard Music Festival

Characteristically distinctive sounds rang out throughout the day during the sixth annual Switchboard Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, March 24, 2013. This was the third year in a row the festival has been held at the Brava Theater in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District. The Brava is easily accessible by public transportation or car (although parking can be a nightmare), and makes a great venue for the festival. I hope they are able to continue using the space for many more years to come. Just like last year’s festival, Switchboard incorporated elements of local culture into their show, including a food truck parked right out front selling Indian food. Unfortunately, the food didn’t agree with some of the audience as well as last year’s truck did, I heard several festival attendees complaining of indigestion as the night wore on. Thankfully, the music suffered no ill effects.

Composer, accordionist, and multi-instrumentalist Rob Reich (photo credit: robreich.com)

Composer, accordionist, and multi-instrumentalist Rob Reich (photo credit: robreich.com)

The 8-hour marathon concert began at 2:00 PM with a set performed by the Rob Reich Quintet, featuring compositions by Reich, its multi-instrumentalist band leader. The quintet’s performance set the tone for this year’s festival very well. The tunes each showed influence from a different musical tradition (or sometimes several at once) including blues, pop, rock, and jazz. While most of the set was “composed” music, each piece featured improvised breaks from members of the quintet. Even though a hugely diverse set of influences was showcased, the set was held together by a post-minimalist groove-oriented and somewhat up-beat feeling characteristic of the “switchboard sound.”

It is totally wonderful that Switchboard is so committed to promoting the intersection of multiple styles and genres, and presenting acts from different musical traditions. However, even though I heard bands and ensembles from all corners of the country and the musical world, they all were connected musically. Each group had their own sound, yes, but Switchboard has a “genre.” It’s part of what makes the festival unique: unlike some other festivals (for example Hot Air at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music or Other Minds) Switchboard is unified by this distinct sound each of its performers share in a clearly discernible manner. In many ways the festival is a mini-series of sets each looking at the same sound-theme through the colors and instrumentations of many different performers. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s actually kind of cool. This year’s theme was improvisation. Several groups, including Areon Flutes’ world-premiere performance of Cornelius Boots’ Chthonic Suite and Billygoat’s performance of their multimedia pieces Lyric and Sophia performed music that was clearly composed. But most of the other sets I heard all had strong improvisatory styles.

A new addition to this year’s festival were Robin Estrada’s Paanyaya Interlude Pieces, performed during breaks on tongatong (bamboo tubes), bungkaka (bamboo buzzers), patetteg (bamboo plates), and saggeypo (bamboo pipes). Never before (to my knowledge) has Switchboard employed roving bands of performers winding through the theater between sets. Each interlude piece had a slightly different character, although due to the quiet nature of the bamboo instruments and the high volume of the audience chatter during the set breaks it was hard to listen with much attentiveness. I’ll be curious to see if Switchboard continues with the idea of interlude music between their sets in the future. I was sorry to miss hearing ZOFO and Sqwonk this year. The two ensembles come together in a performance of Jonathan Russell’s Sqwonkzoforus Rex, which I had the pleasure of hearing last year. I remember really enjoying the piece, and would have liked to hear it again.

David Klein and Nick Woolley of Billygoat (photo credit: Billygoat)

David Klein and Nick Woolley of Billygoat (photo credit: Billygoat)

The final three sets on the festival built to a raucous conclusion. Billygoat’s exquisitely whimsical stop-motion animation accompanied by their own musical performance was quietly wonderful. The ensemble Build then proceeded to do just that, building up sounds throughout their set. The final act on this year’s festival was Subharmonic, a new-ish band headed by the Jazz Mafia creator Adam Theis. Featuring five multi-instrumentalists and a little heavy on the brass, the band was really cool but amplified to ear-bending levels. I left after the first few songs and continued to listen from the lobby, where the volume was more to my tastes.

Overall, Switchboard 2013 was a wonderful experience. It was great to see a nearly full audience during the peak hours, as well as many dedicated marathon concert fans who stayed the whole time. In contrast with audiences at most modern music events, there were a large number of older attendees, perhaps indicating that Switchboard has become enough of a part of the music establishment in San Francisco to begin attracting an audience beyond the usual new-music-junkie suspects.

Originally published on I Care If You Listen on 4/12/2013



A Man Made of Music: Joel Sachs on Henry Cowell


I just finished reading Joel Sachs’ new book, Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music for the third time. I had previously read it for my own pleasure, and I was delighted to be asked to review it. I’ve read an enormous amount of material on Henry Cowell (although nowhere near as much as Sachs has!), and I must say, this book is by far the best comprehensive biography available. Sachs speaks of the “indigestion” that followed reading every piece of paper associated with Henry Cowell plus background information on San Francisco history, 1920s politics, and so forth. Perhaps it took a while to digest all that information, but the resulting book is well worth the wait. It is a wonderful read, both accessible and informative, full of information and stories so vivid you can’t help but be drawn into Cowell’s life. From Cowell’s humble beginnings at the Menlo Park of the late nineteenth century—then a muddy stretch of nothing worlds from the Silicon Valley suburb it is today—the book chronicles a life so full of adventures it could be a novel.

Henry Cowell

Henry Cowell was much more than the composer of such experimental piano pieces as “The Banshee” and “Tides of Manaunaun.” He is without a doubt one of the single most influential figures in 20th century American music. He wrote a vast catalogue of compositions in a wide variety of styles for practically every possible combination of the usual instruments and some less familiar, including thunder-sticks, shakuhachi, Koto, tap-dancer, and Léon Theremin’s lesser known project, the Rhythmicon—an instrument capable of producing rhythms so complicated no human musician could perform them accurately (the rhythmicon was built to Cowell’s specifications). Cowell created such organizations as the New Music Society (with the associated publications including New Music Quarterly, Orchestra Series, and New Music Recordings), and the Pan-American Association of Composers. He was one of the first Western advocates for musics from around the world, and helped bring such composers as Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Ives to the attention of the public. Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, John Cage, and Lou Harrison credit Cowell’s influence in their life’s work. Besides his compositions and texts, Cowell contributed much to western music: he was one of the first composers to use sounds from outside the western chromatic scale, thus planting the seeds of “noise” as music. Both Berg and Bartok requested his permission to use tone-clusters in their work.

In addition to his influence on American music, Cowell traveled the world and brought his influence with him. Still today the Cowell drumming prize is awarded every year in India. Cowell was one of the composers asked to write a Singaporean National Anthem (although his was not selected in the end). He was the first American composer/performer to be invited to tour soviet Russia – in May of 1929 he played concerts in Moscow and Leningrad. His music was performed, broadcast, or published in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, North and South America.

Even Cowell’s tragic years in San Quentin couldn’t prevent him from working on his projects: he wrote a book, several articles, and countless arrangements, small pieces, and lectures while serving time for what his prosecutor felt was a trivial morals charge. Speaking of which: now that papers and other materials have been made available, Sachs has been able to clear up much of the stir around Cowell’s guilty plea and subsequent imprisonment. The book goes into great detail about the legal ins and outs of the whole affair, but suffice to say there would have been no crime nor trial in today’s much less puritanical world.

Henry Cowell A Man Made of MusicWhat makes Sachs’ work different from other materials I’ve read concerning Cowell’s life, especially the more controversial aspects of his sexuality and his time in San Quentin Penitentiary in California, is his ability to weed through the enormous volume of previously unavailable material and find the objective voice in what has up to now been primarily rumor and myth. Sachs’ book presents an inclusive and (mostly) chronological biography detailing everything from Cowell’s boyhood activities through Sidney Cowell’s memories of his last year. Sachs succeeds in showing Cowell as truly human. In the conclusion, Sachs asks himself “after getting to know Cowell so intimately, do I still like him?” and concludes “most definitely,” that “[Cowell] thought of himself as a man made of music, but he was also a man made of ideas and action. Full of fun, and a lover of life, he intended to get the most out of it and bring the most to it. His finest gift was his music at its best.”

Out of all the material on Cowell I’ve read (an extensive and still growing list), Joel Sachs’ book is the first truly comprehensive biography I’ve encountered. There are other books that cover bits and pieces of Cowell’s life quite well, in fact Sachs doesn’t cover the New Music Society years in any great depth in his work but instead points the reader toward Rita Mead’s excellent book on the topic, Henry Cowell’s New Music (1925-1936). There is enough information packed into this book that I think I’ll be reading it at least another 3 times (and probably learning more and enjoying it all over again each time through!) It reads very smoothly, and is filled with just the right amount of humor to balance out what was at times a very difficult life. While one could sit down and read any given chapter/section, the book read from cover to cover flows together into a very complete biography of a man who is—in my opinion—one of music history’s most unjustly neglected figures.

Originally published on I Care If You Listen, 1/22/13


SF Symphony plays Sam Adams and Mahler

Pairing Samuel Carl Adams‘ new work Drift and Providence with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was a bold move on the San Francisco Symphony’s part and also undoubtably placed a lot of pressure on Adams, who already has a lot to live up to (so would you if your father was John Adams). While some on the audience were clearly there for the Mahler and merely tolerating the west coast premiere occupying the first half of the concert, most of those seated around me appeared quite open to the idea of hearing something new. The ones who listened were rewarded with a well-thought-out journey through a musical landscape scattered with enough “landmarks” to keep the ear from wandering.

Samuel Carl Adams

Samuel Carl Adams

Drift and Providence is structured around what Adams refers to in Scott Foglesong’s program note as “three imagined places,” with the two “Drift” movements leading from each “place” to the next. All five movements are performed without pause, although Adams makes wonderful use of silences. “Silences,” Adams says,  ”can be really loud.” In Drift and Providence silences don’t always mean the same thing, “early in the piece they heighten the tentative or lost quality, and towards the end they serve a heightened sense of intensity.”

The piece began with a rubbed-cowbell drone, which quickly grew into a wash of Ravel-like string figurations swirling around the more clearly defined melodies. In addition to the strings brass and woodwinds, Drift and Providence is scored for an impressive battery of percussion including timpani, vibraphones, sizzle cymbals, bass drum, low toms, brake drums, snare, sandpaper blocks, crotales, tam-tam, large and medium triangles, cowbells, and gong. The percussions were lightly amplified and processed through a laptop run by the composer at the back of the hall. Some of the percussion effects were reminiscent of some of Adams’ other works I’ve heard performed over the past two years including the Tension Studies (No. 1 and No. 2) for guitar and percussion (also with laptop). This intrepid use of texture permeated the entire five movement work, and helped give Adams’ music a unique sound.

I was especially appreciative of the careful use of subtle amplification and processing in combination with “traditional” playing. The blend between live performance in the “classical” style and electronic elements was absolutely seamless, and achieved, I think, what many other attempts at mixes of the two haven’t: a complete unification and blending of sounds both live and electronic. Adams indeed found ways of blending sounds together than reminded me strongly of impressionism, but not in a sappy, pseudo-French way. This music had its own voice, its own sound. It had swirls of sound rushing chaotically around points and lines that emerged from the texture like trees pushing up out of the fog. Clear, easily heard, but never in danger of clashing with the overall soundscape.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the SFS in the Opening Concert of the American Mavericks Festival.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the SFS in the Opening Concert of the American Mavericks Festival in March 2012.

The program notes—which seem to be based on an interview with Adams—indicated that Drift and Providence was composed in many different locations. This may have added to the piece’s feeling of searching for (and finding) a sort of foundation amongst swirls of sonic fog. While the movement titles are all also real places, (Divisidaro and Embarcadero are both streets in San Francisco, and Providence is the capital of Rhode Island) the movements were not, in fact, inspired by these real places. Instead, Adams was trying to capture internal or imaginary places.

Interestingly, I thought that the Mahler was a good companion piece to Drift and Providence. I commend the San Francisco Symphony for pairing Adams with an established work, thereby putting it on equal footing with the standard repertoire. The Mahler contrasted nicely with the Adams, and principal trumpeter Mark Inouye grabbed our attention with his opening solo. Michael Tilson Thomas took a tempo that was too slow for my tastes, but the audience clearly enjoyed the performance and gave a lengthly standing ovation.

Previously posted on I Care If You Listen, 10/10/2012