Final Read of Other Minds

Be'eri Moalem on March 4, 2013
Pamela Z

The Other Minds Festival concluded its 18th season this Saturday at the SFJCC with a far- ranging program that included electroacoustic music, improvisation, video, and a Baroque instrument reimagined.

Canadian composer Aaron Gervais’ Work Around the World was first on the program, in its world premiere. Mezzo-soprano and master electronic looper Amy X Neuburg, a star in the local new music scene, was backed by the William Winant Percussion Group — four players on a sizable mélange of instruments. The piece is set in 12 languages, evoking the nonstop daily rhythm of productivity across various time zones. Gervais and the performing ensemble captured both the wearisome, monotonous grind of work and the exciting generative capacity of humankind’s labors. Neuburg sang with her characteristic effusive energy, arms flailing around on her array of consoles.

The percussionists were impressive in their rhythmic accuracy, executing interlocking patterns in finite subdivisions of the beat. But with music as challenging as this, concentration goes into counting rather than phrasing — highlighting a general problem in difficult new music: The performers are so focused on getting these intentionally wacky rhythms correct that there’s little room for phrasing, and the feeling of emotional expression, so central to the traditional concept of music, tends to get lost.

Recorder virtuoso Michala Petri, hailing from Denmark, played two pieces. It’s almost impossible to disconnect the sound of the recorder from Baroque connotations, but Petri’s fingerwork and extended technique goes far beyond ancient recorder music, eliciting an exciting sound world I had never experienced before. Sunleif Rasmussen’s three-movement Vogelstimmung (Bird voice) showed off the many possibilities of the often-dismissed recorder. Switching from bright, flickering pops on the soprano recorder in the outer “Vogelkomedie” movements to a haunting melody sung along with grainy multiphonics on tenor recorder in the central “Vogeltragoedie” movement, the piece held its own as the only non-electro piece in the concert.

Michala Petri’s fingerwork and extended technique … elicited an exciting sound world I had never experienced before.

Paula Matthusen’s piece for the recorder also alluded to birds in its title, sparrows in supermarkets. It didn’t call for nearly as much dexterity as the Rasmussen and generally paled in comparison. A collage of prerecorded sounds combined with onstage playing, it was short and rather forgettable. Matthusen’s …and, believing in… later in the program was similarly unimaginative: another amorphous collage, with the composer kneeling for some reason on the stage without movement for the entire piece.

Lights! Sound! Action!

Intermission was extended by about 15 minutes due to technical difficulties with alignment of a projector. This is commonplace when dealing with experimental technology, but the result was definitely worth the wait, even though the composer and staff had to settle for a slightly “compromised version.” Swedish composer Mattias Petersson’s Ström is a massive crescendo, growing from barely audible crackling to deafening screeches at the climax. The projected video showed a symmetrical array of sound wave vector displays in black and white, a line for each channel. The concept is simple, but as the volume increased the waveforms grew in complexity, generating beautiful abstractions. The lines were arranged like vertical columns in a corridor with a vanishing-point perspective. Watching and listening, I felt like an electron traveling through a wire on a superhighway.

Pamela Z too is tech savvy, flipping loops with flair and using a wireless motion-sensor to trigger sounds with theatrical effect.

While the concert started with precisely controlled music, that of Gervais, it ended in free improvisation with another local new-music vocal star, Pamela Z. She too is tech savvy, flipping loops with flair and using a wireless motion-sensor to trigger sounds with theatrical effect. Compared to X Neuburg, her style is earthier and jazzier. She improvised on Sacred Song, by Meredith Monk, conjuring a jungle of sounds ranging from tongue clicks to vocalized melodies, self-harmonized and self-counterpointed to form a one-woman, electroacoustic symphony.

After seven years at the SFJCC, Other Minds is moving on to the new SFJAZZ venue next year, promising to continue its vital work at the forefront of new music while exposing it to a new group of listeners.