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Meeting of the Minds

March 11, 2008

Four composers were seated onstage Thursday at the outset of the Other Minds Festival in Kanbar Hall of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. German cellist, composer, and inventor Michael Bach was dressed in simple concert black. Next to him, in a spiffy pinstripe suit with matching shoes, white silk tie, folded breast pocket handkerchief, and silvery rings for each finger was the Scandinavian composer Åke Parmerud. Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, an African-American trumpeter, with dreadlocks and graying beard, appeared in a rugged tan work jacket. The Uzbeki composer Elena Kats-Chernin wore a long dress, green shawl, and a shiny, teal disc on a necklace.

Åke Parmerud, Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, and Elena Kats-Chernin

Clothing expresses personality almost as much as speech, or a composer’s music. Indeed, as each artist talked about music, their differences became even clearer. Bach was pensive, Kats-Chernin charming, Parmerud funny and extravagant, and Smith spiritual yet defiant in his answers. Those who attended the panel discussion could have discovered a lot of congruences between the personalities and their music.

The concert began with Bach performing Dieter Schnebel's Mit Diesem Händen, with his custom-designed, curved bow. Arched and convex instead of the usual concave, the unique shape allows for a wide range of tightness in the bow hair. The "BACH.bow" is a result of 17 years of research and design. Loosening the hairs lets the strands embrace all four strings at once, enabling four-voice harmony on one string instrument. The result does not sound like a quartet, but there is a certain power that comes from the player’s struggle to negotiate four voices.

Schnebel’s piece opens with a sustained chorale of eerie chords suspended in the distance. Aside from the difficulty of activating all four strings at once with the bow in the right hand, the left hand has to contort and stretch to finger each voice of the chord. But Bach managed this with concentrated dexterity and, amazingly, succeeded in voicing the lines with even balance and pure intonation. The sections of Mit Diesem Händen are abstract and pensive, employing extended techniques and achieving new sounds. Its more sharply articulated movements require the use of a smaller, tighter bow, while the sustained movements use a longer, looser bow.

Michael Bach

The cellist returned after intermission to play some Bach — J.S. that is. "It is our 13th year," announced Other Minds Executive and Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian, "and wouldn't you know it, we've had some bad luck." Two of the featured artists were kept away by health problems. And so J.S. Bach received his Other Minds debut, filling in for the absentees.

Every string player knows about the difficult polyphonic writing in Bach's solo suites, and the awkward chords. But with the use of Michael Bach's special bow, the chords in four movements from the Sixth Suite in D Major (BWV 1012) sounded smooth and full. The looseness of the bow hairs did not compromise articulation — it was there when needed. The dance movements were slowly and thoughtfully performed, and the sound, whether owing to the unique bow, the excellent cello, or Bach's skill, was particularly mellifluous.
Machine-Age Music
Parmerud described his La Vie Mechanique (The mechanical life) as an "exorcism" of the ever increasing noise generated by the "products that were supposed to make our life more comfortable." But out of these complaints came electronic music that was exciting, fun, futuristic. Like something out of a sci-fi movie, and without live performers, this was about as unclassical as concert music can get. Yet the music had structure and was rhythmically infectious in its modernistic energy.

Although the music worked as absolute sounds clamoring together in a drama, it was impossible not to associate the sounds with images from the modern man-made world: hydraulics pumping, pistons firing, jet engines roaring, gears grinding, horns blaring, alarms alarming, machines whirring, and electrical wires spewing blue sparks. The piece climaxed at high decibel levels but never was the noise too offensive or over-the-top, thanks to an excellent audio system and sound engineering. At the end of the piece, the music subsided and the machines powered down, sighing robotic breaths, deflating with a gaseous hiss, decelerating their ticking, and finally breaking down, metallic hulks collapsing in exhaustion.

Elena Kats-Chernin's Purple Prelude and Tast-En were performed by Australian pianist Lisa Moore. The pieces ranged from childlike experimentation with resonance, using the sustain pedal, to Rachmaninov-like sequences, with handfuls of repeated chords running the entire length of the keyboard. One neat effect was achieved by silently holding down selected keys and banging on lower notes, which set the freed strings to silently ring in sympathetic vibrations. It is an uncommon sonority and creates a dreamy mood on top interrupted by rude interjections from the bottom. Abrupt accents also erupted in the opening of Purple Prelude, butting into streams of wandering scales. The pair of pieces were likable, but finely balanced with jumpy rhythms and impassioned utterances.

Last on Thursday's program was Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith’s Taif: Prayer in the Garden of the Hijaz. The piece was as far away as you can get from a hymn. Some prayers involve introspection, supplication, and remorse for your sins. This was the aspect of prayer captured in Smith's work for drum set, trumpet, and string quartet. Listening to it felt like divine punishment, or some kind of ritualistic self-flagellation. Practically everything in the piece was brutal — violent string attacks by the Del Sol String Quartet, a painfully piercing trumpet sound, and awesome drum work by Anthony Brown.

However, the ensemble never seemed to work in synchronicity, rhythmic or harmonic. I had trouble finding reason or purpose to it all. The prayer seemed to go unanswered, as rousing work-ups in volume and rhythmic intensity struggled to achieve a decisive catharsis. If the point was to show the dire frustrations and unrequited desires that are an honest part of the religious experience then the piece was successfully frustrating. Asked during the panel discussion if he had anything to say about his pieces, Smith replied, "Nope." This piece seemed to act similarly.

Del Sol Quartet

The next day, Parmerud returned to open the Friday program with another electronic piece, Dreaming in Darkness, which made use of spatial effects, including five speakers situated around the hall. Footsteps from various kinds of shoes circled around, doors opened in strange places, and liquids gushed in: The sounds were so realistic that I had to resist the urge to duck incoming projectiles, or to look behind me to see if an open window really was banging in the wind. Again, the sound engineering was well-done and the noises were organized into a musical story.

Bach was featured again, this time with his own composition. Before the concert and in the program notes, he detailed at length the contrivances and mathematical calculations through which he and John Cage came up with a series of compositions titled One13. Here Bach played against prerecorded versions of himself. Glissandos converged, intersected, and diverged, resulting in fascinating spectrums of sound.

The collaboration that followed between Bach and Cage, 18-7-92 (which refers to July 18, 1992, when the piece was conceived), featured a grand total of one note over the span of about 10 minutes. Bach figured out a way to play the same F-sharp in 20 different ways, reveling in the minute differences of each. When Amirkhanian asked Bach why this would be interesting, he seemed dumbfounded, as if the question had not even occurred to him. Cage once said (to paraphrase) that if something is boring, you keep doing it until it stops being boring. Unfortunately, this piece never reached that stage. It is a neat concept, but one that does not translate well to a concert presentation.
Fractured Signs, Nodding Heads
Schnebel's Quintessenz (1993) and "Poem für 4 Köpfe" from Zeichen-Sprache (Sign language) (1987–1989) were performed by a quartet of vocalists and Keisuke Nakagoshi on piano and percussion. Quintessenz, as the name suggests, concentrates on the interval of a fifth. Singers hummed and bellowed, twisting the intervals and returning to them for a marvelously dreamy effect. The opening chorale sounded much like Schnebel's Mit Diesem Händen from the previous night. Occasionally, the performers would turn their backs to the audience and sing into the piano, setting its strings in motion. Interspersed between vowels were the spoken words, "Music is the quintessence of life and its events," in various languages.

The next piece, a "poem for four heads," permuted only fragmented syllables. The melody was also fragmented, like clockwork. But the star feature of the piece was the performers' synchronized head movements. This subtle choreography had a mesmerizing effect. Was it dancing? Theater? Whatever you decided, the movements certainly added another dimension to the rhythm and melody.

Smith returned for his Moths, Flames, and the Giant Sequoia Trees. It was also difficult, but definitely more structurally coherent than the previous night's Prayer. The Adorno Ensemble brought the piece to life with intense energy and captivating musicality. Unpleasant sounds were plentiful, but it would take more than dissonant flute shrieks and scratchy violins to faze the weathered Other Minds crowd.

After repeating his dislike of talking about his music, Smith deigned to say that the piece is about regeneration, like fire in the forest. Moths are attracted to the light of the fire. The music displayed a diverse array of sounds, the product of an incredible imagination. In the ending, the instruments finally converged on a unison, the only one in the piece. After so much dissonance, the unison, followed by silence, had a powerful effect.

The long concert concluded with Dan Becker's Keeping Time. Many of the pieces in the festival seemed to focus on the idea of keeping time, from the mechanical clicking in the Parmerud, to the measured head-ticking in the Schnebel, to Becker's repeated pulsations. Adorno once again played with dedication and passion. Its direct understanding and fearless approach to contemporary music is exemplary. Becker's piece is obviously influenced by minimalism but is infused with an individual, rocking groove. Yet it contains serious and interesting structure, counterpoint, and harmony. Becker's style is an inspiring fusion of popular and classical idioms.

In the 21st century, people sometimes wonder where music has left to go. "Everything has been explored, nothing left undone," claim some disheartened pessimists. Some even ask if classical music is dead. But concerts such as these show us that the current era is as exciting a time as ever to be a composer. The human mind will never cease to invent strange and wonderful new ways to communicate musically. Other Minds is an important platform for this activity, a grown-up "show and tell" providing stimulation to everyone involved.

Be'eri Moalem (www.beeri.org) is a violist, teacher, writer, and composer.