Growing New Music With Other Minds

Lou Fancher on January 21, 2020
Composer Jen Shyu will perform on the Taiwanese moon lute and other instruments at this year's Other Minds Festival | Credit: Lynn Lane

Encounter anyone involved with the experimental contemporary and new-music organization Other Minds and you will begin to suspect that some human brains have three — not just two — hemispheres. How else to explain artists like multilingual vocalist, composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, and dancer Jen Shyu, who speaks 10 languages and says in an interview her current goal is to learn a new language every year.

Or consider Minneapolis-based composer Mary Ellen Childs, whose blend of music, dance, and theater most uniquely arrives in kinetic, body-percussion-produced works set in motion — on office chairs with wheels, human legs, or other locomotion. The compelling, dynamic works for 30 years have earned for Childs worldwide commissions, fellowships, awards, and acclaim.

Annea Lockwood recording underwater sounds | Credit: Ruth Anderson

A third example? New Zealand composer Annea Lockwood, whose scores layer electronic and acoustic sound with source material from the natural world that might include recorded earthquake tremors, river sounds captured with hydrophonic microphones, bat calls, tigers mating, people breathing, geese braying like donkeys, and more.

And then there is founder, executive and artistic director, and composer Charles Amirkhanian who, with Jim Newman in 1993, launched the multichannel organization to support — according to the Other Minds website — “the most original, eccentric, and underrepresented creative voices in contemporary music, with an emphasis on composers of the American Experimental Tradition.”

Charles Amirkhanian

Other Minds in 2020 consists of an annual festival (this year, April 2–5 at the Taube Atrium Theater); nonfestival concerts and symposiums; and two free online archives: radiOM, which hosts archived KPFA broadcasts, concert performances, and hundreds of interviews with leading contemporary composers, and, which offers OM concert recordings and photos. And there is Music from Other Minds, a weekly radio program on KALW, plus the Other Minds Records label.

Notably, a founding principle to support the best in new music by women, people of color, and artists from diverse age and cultural groups, has for 25 years resulted in projects and tributes involving Henry Cowell, John Cage, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Julia Wolfe, Pandit Pran Nath, Terry Riley, Lou Harrison, Laurie Anderson, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Brant, Brian Eno, Childs, Shyu, and dozens more.

Celebrating his 75th birthday at Berkeley’s Brower Center on January 19, Fresno-born Amirkhanian combined a benefit concert with the release of his new two-CD set, Loudspeakers, (New World Records).

In an interview, Amirkhanian says, “We’ve always had an interest in music that’s by people trained in the Western European canon, but who dive off and get involved in rock, world, jazz, and improvisation. I’ve always said, the new music composer is in itself a minority group.”

Reluctant to boast, Amirkhanian, with coaxing, says, “I’m proud that a couple of factors have changed because of Other Minds.” Primary among the changes is the recent, long-deserved uptick in attention to women composers. He is pleased to note the momentum sweeps across new music to include symphonic and chamber music. “It’s a revolution. It started in 1920 with Henry Cowell and later continued into the ’80s with the New Music America Festival; that was a revolt against grants going to the uptown, but not the downtown people. A lot of people in our first Other Minds festivals were also a part of that movement.”

An incident while interviewing Herbert Blomstedt, conductor laureate of the San Francisco Symphony and SFS music director from 1985 to 1995, remains emblazoned on his memory. “I asked him, onstage for a radio program, why there weren’t more women composers on their programs. He told me, “We play just good music.” I said that implied that there are no good women composers. They shut me down and told me to leave,” he recalls. “I figured, what the hell, I wanted to ask the question.”

The original cover of New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media didn't note that all the composers on it were women.

Another decision made — and about which he has no regrets — was to publish one of 1750 Arch Records’ first recordings, New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media, without the word “women” on the cover. “All of the composers were women, but I didn’t release records with “male composers” on the cover, why should I do that with women?” he asks. “The music should speak for itself: Shut up and let it. Oh, and New World put it out again now and guess what? They put “women” on it. I think it’s unnecessary.”

What is absolutely necessary — in fact, essential — to Other Minds is Amirkhanian, according to longtime supporter, composer, and conductor Robert Hughes. The cofounder, with Lou Harrison, of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music and founder-director of the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra, he says Amirkhanian has had an enormous influence on California’s music scene. “He has a wonderful sense of how to put people together to have new music come out of it,” Hughes says in a phone interview. “There’s synergy. You know, he was one of the first people to get Laurie Anderson on the airwaves.”

Robert Hughes | Credit: Walter Baumann

Amirkhanian says that Hughes, an 86-year-old polymath, is “on fire intellectually” and credits him with encouraging him in 1969 to apply for music director at KPFA Radio. “He found me working in a record store,” Amirkhanian recalls. “He’s an icon and the world’s leading expert on the music of Ezra Pound. We talk all the time. He’s one of my major inspirations because he’s so articulate about this strain of music.” Amirkhanian will never forget a performance Hughes led of Kingdom Come by Henry Brant. Arranged by Hughes for the Oakland Symphony and Youth Orchestra, a huge eruption from the balcony came in the middle of the piece. “There was a massive percussion section in the balcony; the wind and brass all screaming away. It was electrifying.”

Hughes is not a huge fan of the improvisation featured in this year’s festival, titled, “Moment’s Notice.” A frequent new-music concert attender and inundated with spontaneous composition, he attributes the prevalence of improv in new music to John Cage. “You can’t get away from it. It’s because he wrote textbooks on the aleatory process being the best way to express yourself. Cage was the easiest to follow and many people have.”

At two out of every 10 concerts, Hughes says, he hears something original. Other Minds consistently lands among the two. “There’s always something different, either because it’s terribly unusual, or it’s terribly good. This instinct Charles has for people who have fecund ideas: he’s been good at that for years. It’s an instinct about people who grow.”

To the good fortune of Associate Director Blaine Todd, Amirkhanian’s instinct reaches beyond composers to all manner of new, young talent. “I became involved in 2012 as a volunteer, having just finished college and studying English,” Todd says. “I was welcomed into this world, just based on my enthusiasm and willingness to learn, to rise up.”

Blaine Todd

Working with Amirkhanian is unpredictable. “Curating the festival, there’s an exhuming of things from the past, but also a high level of unpredictability to it. I never know when he’ll come into the office with a harebrained scheme of who he wants to do next.” A piece by Rhys Chatham, A Secret Rose, for 100-piece electric guitar orchestra, surprised Todd. “It’s not highbrow and Charles is known for deeply intellectual presentations. The music was accessible, the orchestra was made up of volunteers, like a kid who was 14 years old. There were great gaps in skill level and familiarity with avant-garde music.”

It reminded Todd of a band he performed in, Common Eider, King Eider. Performance included members playing instruments “less than competently” and singing as if in a church. “Singing hymns, a lot of them not tunefully, but passionately. We might be singing loudly, out of tune. I came across a lot of people who were confounded by it.” Todd also remembers as a performer feeling deeply vulnerable, like the kind of “other” that Other Minds is designed to embrace.

Mary Ellen Childs

Mary Ellen Childs reflects in an email on her participation in the 1999 festival and the genesis of Sight of Hand, a work that became a component of the composer’s CRASH ensemble. “The work would not even exist were it not for the commission from OM. The fact that they supported my work with a commission was huge and is the reason the concert version was created. The piece was premiered and for 10 years has been an important work in CRASH repertoire. SOH has been performed in Minneapolis, Russia, Milwaukee, Cuba, and elsewhere. Another group also learned the work (percussive dance group Flying Foot Forum) and they have performed it around the U.S.”

The festival included, until 2016, a Djerassi Foundation residency for festival participants. Amirkhanian says the four-day interactions with composers in learning mode defused fighting over rehearsal time and established a unique atmosphere. “The meetings in a private setting — it was suddenly not about me, me, me and can I get my work played perfectly. It was about learning other cultures, breaking down barriers,” he says. “It really worked. All of the composers were outsiders; not established or worshiped. It was a chance to bolster their self-esteem and to expose their work to other people. It was cross-pollenating.”

The residencies were ended with deep regret by Amirkhanian due to the overwhelming administrative and organizational burden he was nearly singlehandedly orchestrating. Childs says the gatherings remain the activity she most appreciates. The collegial atmosphere allowed composers to become acquainted with each other and understand the depth of the work presented at the festival.

Jen Shyu | Credit: Steven Schreiber

Even without the residency, Jen Shyu arrives this year without an agenda, but hoping to “listen humbly to what the other artists and composers will share and ask many questions about process, inspirations, and current projects of theirs.”

Shyu interned at Other Minds in the early 2000s. After graduating from Stanford University and while fluctuating between pursuing a career as an opera or a jazz singer, she said the experience shaped the “artpreneur” she is today. “I knew very little of contemporary music at that time, and it was at Other Minds that I first was exposed to giants such as Tania Leon, Ellen Fullman, Robert Ashley, John Cage, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, Jon Jang, Philip Glass, Conlon Nancarrow ... not only was I learning about the impact that these artists had on music today, but I was astonished with the influence that Charles and Other Minds had on bringing these musicians together and (making them) more known in the world.”

For “Moment’s Notice,” Shyu will present Nine Doors. The work finds its origins in 2014, when the sudden, tragic loss of a close friend, Javanese shadow puppeteer Sri Joko Raharjo inspired a tribute. Shyu provides the work’s score, lyrics, vocals, and instrumentation, including Taiwanese moon lute, Korean gayageum and soribuk drum, Japanese biwa, piano, Timorese gong, and Korean gong (ggwaenggwari). She will also dance and created the sound and set design and choreography. “I sing the work in eight languages: Indonesian, Javanese, Taiwanese, Mandarin, Tetum, Korean, Japanese, and English. I speak all these languages (except for Taiwanese) at varying levels of fluency in addition to Malaysian, Spanish, and Portuguese.”

Shyu’s generous, extensive descriptions of Nine Doors sent in an email are intriguing, but too lengthy to include. A quick perusal of her bio — and for that matter, of the biographies of Hughes, Childs, Todd or Amirkhanian — is eye-popping. Examples? At the ripe age of 13, Shyu had won several piano competitions and performed the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto (3rd mvmt.) with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. Today, at age 41, she has produced seven albums (including Song of Silver Geese, included on The New York Times’ Best Albums of 2017), and is a Guggenheim Fellow, USA Fellow, Doris Duke Artist, Fulbright Scholar, and Steinway Artist.

Which leads full circle back to the astonishing minds behind Other Minds. If there is a third realm with a common denominator reached by their curious, intellectual and highly-trained artistic practices, it is a moving landscape, but one with surprising unity. Asked what futuristic visions they have for Other Minds and new music itself, Todd mentions bringing back the residency component; Hughes supports a commissioning project to underwrite new work from big-ticket composers like John Adams; Childs points to like-minded organizations that support women and people of color — Opera America, the American Composers Forum, New Music USA and others — and pumps for more “long-past-due” work to be done. Amirkhanian, offered the last word, dreams of a flexible performance hall owned by Other Minds and publishing high-quality recordings of concerts so the music survives beyond live performances. And then, being of three minds, he adds a final dream shared with Hughes: an endowment that will continue the work begun 25 years ago to build, share, promote, and pursue contemporary and new music, now and forevermore.

Corrections: As originally published, this article included several errors, now corrected.
The proper name of the festival associated with Henry Cowell is the New Music America Festival. 
The label that released New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media was 1750 Arch Records
Kingdom Come is by Henry Brant.
Blaine Todd's name was transposed in a caption.