SAN FRANCISCO – Every year about this time, the Other Minds Festival of Contemporary Music brings composers and performers from around the world to San Francisco for a week of residency and three nights of unabashed music-making. The results are always eclectic, and frequently revelatory; under Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian, this year’s edition – Other Minds 16 – demonstrated that new music thrives, and that this city remains a mecca for artists, iconoclasts and free thinkers.
Amirkhanian has an uncanny ability to identify important composers of the future while honoring the past; programs are divided between talent on the rise and new music’s established composers. The first two concerts, March 3 and 4 at Kanbar Hall, featured Louis Andriessen and Han Bennink (from the Netherlands), I Wayan Balawan (Indonesia), Agata Zubel (Poland); Kyle Gann, Janice Giteck and David A. Jaffe (U.S.) A third concert, on March 5, offered additional works by Andriessen, Gann and Jason Moran.
A decided high point was the world premiere of “The Space Between Us,” Jaffe’s tribute to Henry Brant’s pioneering work in spatial music. The composer’s 20-minute opus places two string quartets – the Del Sol String Quartet, and members of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble – on opposite sides of the hall, while a percussionist onstage (Andrew Schloss), sends remote electronic signals, via radio drum, to a piano, two xylophones and an array of overhead chimes (the installation was by Seattle composer/inventor Trimpin).
Jaffe’s score introduces richly textured, eerily prolonged voicings from the strings, which are interrupted by urgent, rhythmic phrases tapped out by percussion. As the work moves toward a poised, luminous conclusion, the instruments seem to reach out to one another, as if longing for connection. The performance stretched the mind and beguiled the ear.
Balawan, in his first U.S. appearance, blazed through an incendiary set fusing jazz and gamelan. The Balinese artist, deploying a double-necked, MIDI-processed electric guitar (played by touching the strings, rather than strumming them), produced a dizzying array of sounds; one heard sitar, trumpet and the composer’s own heavily effects-laden voice. Together with the fast, fleet duo of I Nyman Suwida and I Nyoman Suarsana on gamelan, Dylan Johnson on electric bass and Scott Amendola on trap drums, the music emerged in a liquid, if slightly overamplified, flow; a multi-cultural mashup, to be sure, but an enormously appealing one.
The festival’s other great discovery was Zubel. The Polish composer-vocalist introduced her brilliant “Cascando,” a 2007 song cycle for strings, woodwinds and voice that incorporates texts by Samuel Beckett. The score employs an astonishing range of vocal sounds: cries, whispers, pure tone and Sprechgesang, and Zubel delivered them all in a riveting performance. Her voice – a vibrant, voluptuous, precise soprano – is a marvel, and with the Seattle Chamber Players, for whom the work was written, her voicing of the Beckett texts shone against the odd effects and abrupt rhythmic shifts of the instrumental parts. The composer returned with a short second work, “Parlando” for solo voice and electronics, which was no less arresting.
The Seattle Chamber Players – Laura DeLuca (clarinet), Paul Taub (flute), Mikhail Shmidt (violin) and David Sabee (cello) – were featured in three additional works. The foursome imparted lithe, ambling tone to Gann’s “Kierkegaard, Walking,” joined pianist Eric Zivian and percussionists Loren Mach and Joel Davel for Andriessen’s shimmering “Zilver” and made a brilliant traversal of Giteck’s “Ishi (Yahi for ‘man’).” Accompanied by Emiko Omori’s film montage, Giteck’s 2004 tribute to the iconic Native American unfolds in six insinuating episodes, including a sepia-toned quotation from “Una furtiva lagrima” (from “L’elisir d’amore”) evoking Ishi’s well-documented love for Caruso.
Rounding out the sets were Andriessen’s whimsical “Le voile du bonheur,” with the composer at the piano and Monica Germino as voice and violin soloist; Gann’s jazzy “Triskaidekaphonia,” featuring pianist Aron Kalley, and Anthony Gnazzo’s “Hymn” for pre-recorded media, which captures “The Star-Spangled Banner” in many voices (and nearly as many keys.) Bringing the first two nights to a raucous close were composer-percussionist Bennink and guitarist Fred Frith, whose lengthy improvisation had Bennink pounding on a snare drum, the stage floor and his own body while Frith poured small objects into his instrument and strummed it with paintbrushes. Unruly and defiant, it hearkened back to the anything-goes early days of the new music movement. At Other Minds, anything still goes.