Pick a Genre, Play it Loud

April 12, 2014


The genre-busting Switchboard Music Festival, an annual eight-hour event, presented 13 ensembles Saturday at the Brava Theater in San Francisco’s Mission district. The acts ranged from a gamelan ensemble, to rock bands that play with music stands, to rock bands that play with dynamics, to amplified chamber ensembles, to a DJ-rapper, and a lot more in between.

KronosSome of the experimental-music diehards were there for the entire marathon, but I only caught the latter third. I arrived at around 7 p.m. in time to catch Grex, whose dynamic range borders on hazardous to the ears. One second they would play a delicate ballad, and in an instant they would burst into a blistering hard rock explosion. Somehow they would then segue into a quirky atonal bebop texture with quasi-random riffs, then yield to an innovative drum solo. Some of the contrasts were so stark, especially dynamics going from super-soft to super-loud, that it hurt my ears, so I moved to the back of the hall, near the sound guy’s mixers, to get the intended volume; much better up there. Grex’s Karl Evangelista has the chops for tuneful and expressive guitar playing, Robert Lopez is very versatile on drums, and Rei Scampavia Evangelista is somewhat timid on the keyboard, sometimes drowned out by the others.

Mobius Trio, by contrast, consists of three guitarists who only play music commissioned specifically for their ensemble. The three click together, playing counter-rhythms in a cool groove and well in tune with each other. Their sound is mostly mellow and sparse, yet capable of swelling into larger, more intense textures.

The Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (SOTA) orchestra, consisting of high school age musicians, played without a conductor, using instead some incredible chamber-ensemble communication. They gave Anna Clyne’s Within Her Arms an exquisitely expressive performance. They could be heard breathing in sync with each other, looking up from their music stands, and swaying to the beat together. Their intonation and timing are well on their way to reaching a professional level, and they play with a deep earnestness and cohesion that is seldom heard at typical concerts by older, more jaded pros. As students at SOTA, they have the benefit of learning together in several rehearsals per week for many months — a luxury that is difficult to find in the real world after school days are over.

The Mobius Trio clicks, playing counter-rhythms in a cool groove and well in tune. Their sound is mostly mellow and sparse.

And then there’s Dublin, a true disestablishmentarian (it’s his favorite word — the second is the f-word), who flicks off the audience while yelling obscenities at us critics, with hilarious flow. His parody of an attempt to categorize music into genres had me laughing out loud because he called out exactly what was going through my mind. Dublin performs with a live drummer: a nice touch that allows for more nuance and variety, as opposed to the synthesized beats that pervade most of hip-hop. Dublin is also capable of heartfelt singing that switches to cynical mode on a dime.

A casual attitude prevailed at the festival, with old San Francisco Conservatory friends smoking on the sidewalk or socializing in the lobby during the performances, people walking in and out, drinks being allowed into the hall, and phone screens glowing throughout the audience. In between acts, what sounded like Tibetan chant was played through loudspeakers. The venue is located in the south Mission where excellent and cheap tacos can be found — one of the city’s few holdouts that is struggling with gentrification. The Brava Theater anchors the 24th Street neighborhood. Codirectors Jeff Anderle and Ryan Brown have organized a community that strikes an equilibrium somewhere between a classical concert and a rock concert.

The SOTA orchestra’s intonation and timing are well on their way to reaching a professional level, and they play with a deep earnestness and cohesion.

But when the Kronos Quartet came on stage, everyone rushed inside, the hall filled up, and phones were put away. The indefatigable Kronos has been busting genres for 40 years and was a perfect fit to headline this festival. They started with Polish composer Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa, originally for string orchestra, in an arrangement by Krzysztof Urbański. Like the music of Kilar's contemporary, Henryk Górecki, it is a minimalist-style piece that features blocks of exhilarating counter-rhythms under occasional melodies drawn from the folksong of the Tatra Mountains in Poland. Nicole Lyzée’s Hymnals and Michael Gordon’s Clouded Yellow also featured minimalist-style, étudelike perpetual motions with “dissonant” parallel lines and occasional prerecorded sound effects as well as songs snippets piped in over the PA system while the note-churning went on. Pizzicato is the Italian musical term that indicates plucking for string players, but it literally means “pinched,” providing the title of Ryan Brown’s new quartet. The work is, therefore, all about plucking the strings in fun rhythmic patterns.

Sahba Aminikia’s Tar o Pood (Persian for “Warp and Weft”) stood out from the lineup as Kronos’ most expressive piece. The quartet achieved a convincing imitation of a Near Eastern sound world in which the sense of time and harmony feels more relaxed and patient. It was less intent on being a flashy and impressive display, and instead focused on soulful searching, while also injecting some vivid dance sections and well-placed overdubs of Persian carpet weavers, including the composer's grandmother, singing weaving songs. For Kronos’ encore, the lights went dark red for some tango-flavored Venezuelan-Colombian “cowboy music.”

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