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Respite in the Unusual

October 14, 2008

For those seeking respite from overplayed classics (See Jeff Dunn's feature), there are a handful of daring ensembles in San Francisco that specialize in new and unusual pieces. While the mainstream presenters lure audiences with Mozart or Beethoven, the marketed draw for sfSoundSeries' Sunday night concert at the ODC Commons was Gino Robair’s Percussion Potluck.

Gino Robair

The idea behind the Potluck is "found art" — realizing novelty in nonartistic, everyday articles. Robair improvises with a pile of objects provided to him by the audience. The "instruments" submitted on Sunday varied from the metallic to the plastic to the organic, but playing a key role were a pair of mechanical vibrators that looked suspiciously like sex toys. The most unexpected feature of Robair's performance was his use of a microphone. He crushed the mic into a bouquet of dried flowers, shoved it into the bell of a saxophone, pumped it into some cardboard tubes, and rubbed it against the floor, the table, and any other surface available to him. The vibrators provided an ostinato to the whole performance, rattling, buzzing, clanging, and whispering, depending on which surface they were placed against.

The performance was engaging on a musical level because it had rhythmic drive, sonic variety, and a discernible form. The idea was engaging on a conceptual level, as well — there's something heartwarming about seeing a respected, grown man sit on the floor and invent toys with the vivid playfulness and rich imagination of a child. Yet Robair also possesses the disciplined know-how of an educated artist. The sounds were new and exciting, and the vibe was entertaining.
Anti–Bel Canto Opera
Opening the concert was Robair's I, Norton, a one-act opera about a mentally unbalanced person who fancied himself "Emperor Norton" and gained notoriety in 19th-century San Francisco. The actual Norton made plenty of valid sociological points, but his demeanor and declamations garnered him a quizzical respect. In the opera, the craziness of this character's mind was translated into music.

The work has an air of humor juxtaposed with terror. Norton's pronouncements were read by Tom Duff as he paced about the stage distractedly. As the piece went on, his lines became more disjointed, battling the instruments and the electronic alterations of his voice.

Soprano Aurora Josephson's part was notated in Morse Code–like rhythmic series, combined with a table laying out 64 wordless sounds producible by the human voice. Many of those sounds are rarely heard outside the zoo. Other sounds were at the limits of human capability — guttural sobs, erotic shrieks, and animalistic yelps. The experience was discomforting, as some of these raw noises are not usually shared in public. You can't get any farther away from bel canto. It was a courageous effort by Josephson.

The instrumentalists also performed a wide array of sounds — glissandos, scratches, trills, tremolos, and, believe it or not, even some conventionally sounded long notes, which, in the anything-goes context, sounded as weird as anything else. The instrumental parts were mostly improvised, their texture chosen by Robair via a set of hand gestures. The orchestra was his palette while he improvised the overall progression of the piece.
Machine Music
Electronics played a huge role in the concert — it still feels weird to see performers seated at laptops alongside clarinetists and violinists. The machine operators busily punched keys as their frowning faces were lit up by their computer screens. At one point, the vocalists imitated the computer-processed snippets of their own voices.

The most surprising aspect of I, Norton was its length: At the end of the performance, 45 minutes had passed. It felt more like 25, a truly time-altering and mind-altering experience.

The concert featured three other pieces. Memnosyne by Eric Ulman (who also performed superbly on the violin) was a small ensemble piece that required a lot of patience late on a Sunday night. It could easily be dismissed as random high-pitched squeaks. But beyond the lack of obvious contrast and the incomprehensibility glowed a delicate statement of understated beauty.
Mathias Spahlinger's Aussageverweigerung/Gegendarstellung: Zwei Kontra-Kontexte für Doppelquartett (Refutations/Counterstatements: Two contra-contexts for double quartet; 1981) featured tension-filled strikes that grew tighter and tauter in each sequence until finally it all snapped, unleashing a torrent of wild sounds from the unconventional ensemble. Gérard Grisey's Talea (1986) was a similar exercise in unconventionality and exploration of the acoustic instruments' sonic extremes.

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