Sylvie Courvoisier
Sylvie Courvoisier | Credit: Caroline Mardok

Pianist, composer, and improviser Sylvie Courvoisier says with improvisation, it’s important to have musicians at the “highest level.” “It’s not like you play a song of the Beatles, and people have something to attach to,” she said. “If you have bad improvisation, it really sucks.”

That’s not going to be a problem at the Other Minds Festival at the Taube Atrium Theater Oct. 14–17, Courvoisier says, describing all her colleagues who will play there in glowing terms.

This program is unbelievable- you couldn’t have better improvisors,” she said. “Wadada Leo Smith is a master. He’s almost 80 — you have to listen to him. He has such a sound. Myra Melford — she’s incredible. Larry Ochs and William Parker? They’re like legends. Jen Shyu? She’s the best.”

That’s what Harry Bernstein was going for when he put together the program — the best improvisers on the planet, including Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton as well as younger, not as well-known performers like Darius Jones. Bernstein had so much talent he wanted to get into the program that he asked the executive director of Other Minds, Charles Amirkhanian, for a fourth night.  He describes himself “like a kid in a candy store,” when putting together the lineup.  

“I should have asked for a week,” Bernstein said. Twenty-six performers will be at the festival, which will be live as well as live streamed.

Bernstein, a former board member for the organization, which is “devoted to championing the most original, eccentric, and underrepresented creative voices in contemporary music, with an emphasis on composers of the American Experimental Tradition,” has been having musical house parties for about 10 years. So he had a reservoir of musicians to call for the festival. Asked who he’s particularly excited about, Bernstein talked about Shyu, a former child prodigy who speaks 10 languages, who will be performing Nine Doors. (See her playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at age 13.)

Jen Shyu
Jen Shyu | Credit: Steven Schreiber

“She is truly singular,” he said “She has a strong interest in contemporary music, and what she does really is a kind of confluence of ritual and drama and theater. In Nine Doors, she plays multiple instruments of Asian provenance and sings in multiple languages, and it’s all in service of telling a story of the loss of a close friend in a car accident.”

Amirkhanian also says he’s thrilled to have Shyu, as well as performers like Braxton, and he appreciates Bernstein’s personal relationship with many of the performers, who he had to convince to come three times since the festival was cancelled twice, due to the pandemic shutdown.

Amirkhanian, who grew up in Fresno, founded Other Minds with Jim Newman in 1992 to support experimental composers and contemporary music. In the early festivals, he says, all kinds of musicians came, meaning you could get anything from minimalism to jazz to avant-garde.

“One thing I love in a concert hall is being surprised,” he said. “As long as it’s a pleasant surprise.”

After a while, they switched to festivals with a single theme, Amirkhanian says, like sound poetry or microtonality. This year, the theme of the festival (called “Moment’s Notice” after the 1958 John Coltrane song) is improvisation.

Charles Amirkhanian
Charles Amirkhanian

Darius Jones, an alto saxophonist who will perform on Saturday night, says he found his way to improvisation after growing up with church music and the blues and then jazz. “It’s about freedom,” he said of the music he plays now. “And the extreme exploration of sound.”

Critics writing about Jones’s work often note that his sound is recognizable. That’s something he worked hard to develop, Jones says, telling a story about asking a teacher when he was young what was wrong with his sound, and the teacher telling him that was what the sax sounded like.

“I thought ‘I don’t care what he says,’ and I went on the journey to try and find the thing I was hearing in my head,” Jones said. “I loved the way the human voice sounded, and all voices are unique.”

Darius Jones
Darius Jones | Credit: Kholood Eid

Jones says he’s excited to perform on the same night with musicians he looks up to. “The night I’m playing there are so many artists I love, like Wadada Leo Smith and Roscoe Mitchell,” he said. “I’m looking forward to adding to the musical depth of the evening and giving my offering and having the opportunity to hear their offerings.”

With starts and stops due to the pandemic, it’s been a long wait for this 25th festival, but Amirkhanian says it’s worth it for the musicians to play together in one room. “People improvising have to look at each other,” he said. “It can’t be done very well in bedrooms.”

Amirkhanian is also excited that the concert will be livestreamed and says he’d just been talking with his co-host Pamela Z about the script. “We’re going to stream from the stage to homes around the world,” he said. “All the musicians are fabulous and at the top of their fields. It’s going to be fun to see who out there will discover our organization as a result of this.”

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