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Other Minds
New Music Séance

Sarah Cahill

Eva-Maria Zimmermann

Kate Stenberg

February 24, 2007

Sarah Cahill

Eva-Maria Zimmermann

Kate Stenberg

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We Appreciate

A Séance for the Ear

By Mickey Butts

The wind howled, the candles flickered, a playerless piano spun out possessed melodies, ghostly voices moaned from inside the piano, and suddenly a spirit appeared — the amplified voice of pianist Sarah Cahill, channeling the bedtime alter ego of Frederic Rzewski in his eerie spoken-word-and-piano rendition of the Mother Goose children's story, Snippets II for Speaking Pianist. The last of the all-day, three-concert Other Minds New Music Séance was in full swing on Saturday night at the Swedenborgian Church, the rough-hewn Arts and Crafts refuge in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood. (See the companion review of the minifestival's earlier two concerts.)

Pianists Sarah Cahill and Eva-Maria Zimmermann and violinist Kate Stenberg led the séance, with Other Minds artistic director Charles Amirkhanian on the drums in George Antheil's Sonata No. 2, and composer Dan Becker operating the Disklavier that reproduced a range of Conlon Nancarrow's works for player piano. Throughout, Cahill and Zimmerman alternately played with great confidence and sensitivity, while Stenberg offered cool-headed articulation.

The two-and-a-half-hour program featured a who's who of the well-known (Morton Feldman), the difficult (Anton Webern), the trendy (Conlon Nancarrow), and the obscure (Peggy Glanville-Hicks). Of the 17 pieces on the concert set, highlights included the latter composer's Prelude for a Pensive Student; William Albright's Fantasy-Mazurka; Howard Skempton's Well, Well, Cornelius; Jonathan Russell's Meditation No. 1; and the premiere of Ronald Bruce Smith's Tombeau. The pieces shared a meditative and generally tonal disposition, but that's about all they had in common.

Boogie-Woogie on a Demonic Piano

Glanville-Hicks' piece was, indeed, full of pensive chord changes over a winding bass line, with a quietly emotional, even Romantic, core. Albright's mazurka sounded like a Chopin score placed upside down on the stand and played at half speed. It growled at times, with hushed fragments of melodic material popping out at every turn. The simple, repeated melody in Skempton's Well, Well, Cornelius stuck in the memory, and was hypnotic in its repetition and stingingly close intervals.

Russell's Meditation (one of four) was a suitably peaceful and powerfully simple work marked by rapidly undulating waves of long-sustained tremolos over evolving lower chords. And Smith's Tombeau, dedicated to Stenberg's late father, was a satisfying mélange of plaintive violin lines — which Stenberg played with wispy, sometimes brittle, harmonics — and repeated, insistent descending lines that answered from Zimmermann on the piano.

At other times throughout the night, the ghost of renegade American composer Conlon Nancarrow took center stage with his migraine-inducing blend of physically unplayable cross-rhythms and twisted keyboard licks for player piano — or at least I used to think they were unplayable until, in December, I heard Thomas Adés sit there in Herbst Theatre and play the damned stuff. The effect here was precisely inhuman in Study No. 12, which sounded like flamenco night at A Clockwork Orange. The Disklavier was downright demonic in the boogie-woogie Study No. 3a, and then it just went berserk in the hyperactive Para Yoko.

At the beginning of the second half, Sarah Cahill, that redheaded new-music force of nature, opened up the poor piano specimen in the altar area and proceeded to dissect it with clinical dispassion in Ear-Walking Woman. The atmospheric work, by provocateur/composer Annea Lockwood, is a study in the effects of dropping, rubbing, and letting loose objects (small stones, screws, a bowl gong, and a mallet) on the piano strings. The effect was, at times, reminiscent of the sound of prayer gongs in a Buddhist temple and, at other times, like those ghostly recordings of whales singing underwater. In all, it was an apt evocation of the thoroughly enjoyable Ouija-board character of the entire haunted evening.

(Mickey Butts is executive director and publisher of San Francisco Classical Voice. His writing has appeared in Salon, Food & Wine, The Industry Standard, Wired, Parenting, Sunset, The Nation, and The San Francisco Chronicle.)

©2007 Mickey Butts, all rights reserved