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Making Up Their Minds 

S.F.'s Other Minds Festival continues to blur the boundaries of modern composition

Wednesday, Mar 15 2000
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People consider that composers are, for the most part, dead," says New York composer/performer Annie Gosfield. "So the fact that festivals give people the opportunity to see that composers are in fact living, breathing, working people is certainly helpful."

Gosfield is one of 11 composers featured in the sixth annual Other Minds Festival, a program of concerts and artist forums that runs March 16 through 19 and offers local audiences a chance to see and hear some of the world's most interesting contemporary composers. Founded in 1993 by Bay Area composer Charles Amirkhanian and modeled on a similar festival he ran in Telluride, Colo., Other Minds has grown from a one-man, half-time labor of love into one of the most important new music festivals in the country, presenting renowned avant-garde artists like Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, Terry Riley, and the Kronos Quartet. Along with Gosfield, this year's lineup features musicians and composers of a vast stylistic range, from the aggressive urban classical sounds of Bang on a Can All-Stars composer David Lang to the jazz-inspired bowing of violinist Leroy Jenkins to the electronic samplings of club artists DJ Spooky and Scanner.

"We're looking for people with really unique voices, whatever those voices might be," explains local composer Carl Stone, host of KPFA's Sunday night show, Ears Wide Open, and guest artistic director of this year's program (Amirkhanian is in Italy on a Rockefeller Foundation grant). "We look to composers that have something brand-identifiable in what they want to say musically, whether they write in a 12-tone, serialist style or whether they do club music."

Composers themselves find inspiration in the festival. "I've gone to Other Minds as a listener for many years," says local Korean-born composer Hyo-shin Na, who will premiere her new work Blue Yellow River at the festival on Friday. "And I've heard a lot of different types of music that are not taught in a classroom situation, which is very interesting and very valuable." For a few days prior to the San Francisco events, Other Minds composers live and work together at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, where Amirkhanian was executive director until 1997. "What we do is lock them up in a beautiful location for four days and throw away the key," explains Stone. "And we have them share their music and their philosophies and their thoughts, and ask each other the hard questions -- the theory being that people of very different musical and cultural and generational backgrounds can learn a lot from each other."

Gosfield, who has participated in several festivals before, agrees that being in a closed environment with colleagues allows for far deeper and more intimate communication. "Usually your work is being performed for only an hour or two out of many hours of programming," says Gosfield. "And while you do get to know composers and their work that way, going somewhere and being isolated with them is very different. I'm looking forward to the interaction with people who I haven't met before, and being able to spend time and share ideas with people I already know."

Gosfield's Flying Sparks and Heavy Machinery, which receives its world premiere at Theater Artaud on Thursday, was commissioned by Other Minds and is considered one of the highlights of this year's festival. "I think there's nothing more important that a music organization like Other Minds can do than to ensure the life and viability of music in the future," says Stone. "And one of the most important ways to do that is through the commissioning of new work." The work, a double quartet for string and percussion, grew out of a piece that Gosfield presented last summer in Nuremberg, Germany, that utilized samples of factory sounds. "I made a lot of samples from visits to all different factories," she says, "so I could collect sounds to sample and use, and for inspiration in terms of both texture and rhythm. But at the same time, I was thinking that this would be a really great project to write for string quartet and percussion quartet, because I wanted to be able to transfer those ideas to acoustic instruments so I could send the score to anybody anywhere in the world and they could perform the piece."

Much of Gosfield's work, as evidenced on her CD Burnt Ivory and Loose Wires, is influenced by the percussive, syncopated rhythms of machinery, which the New York composer credits to living in the city. "I think that we're all products of our environment," she says. "And whereas a lot of composers in previous centuries were inspired by the sounds of nature around them, being an urban dweller, that's not too realistic for me. And I think that the sounds within the factory are incredibly beautiful and fascinating. They're something beautiful that were created for utilitarian purposes."

Classically trained composers who use electronic instruments and samples have always been a mainstay of the experimental Other Minds festival, and this weekend's concerts spotlight many such artists, including Gosfield, Christian Wolff, and Jacob ter Veldhuis, who samples everything from the Gulf War to The Jerry Springer Show. And this year, Other Minds has expanded its electronic-based programming even further to include club artists Scanner and DJ Spooky. "We've never done that before," says Stone, who performs his own computer-generated compositions live on his Macintosh. "I think there's a lot of interesting stuff going on in the area of club music, and so I wanted to provide a glimpse into what's being done."

On the surface, such programming may seem almost too disparate to be successful, but the electronica of today has its origins in the early tape experiments of avant-garde classical composers such as Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick, and Steve Reich. "There is no question that a debt is owed to the early pioneers of electronic music," says Stone. "And either consciously or unconsciously, a lot of the innovations made back then were adopted by people working in electronica now."

Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner), who's been incorporating recorded voices and city sounds into his music since he was a teenager, says one of his earliest influences was conceptually based classical composer John Cage. "At the age of 11 I had a very good piano teacher at school," he says from his home in London, "and I remember very vividly being played the prepared piano pieces by John Cage. Of course, it meant nothing to me at the age of 11, because I never heard of Cage and it sounded so eccentric for somebody to put nuts and bolts in the back of a piano and strike it so it sounds like a gamelan orchestra. But what amazed me was that I heard this whole new world of sound; and I started playing around with that."

Dubbed a "telephone terrorist," Rimbaud first made a name for himself as "Scanner" in the mid-'90s by using a scanning device to pick up snatches of mobile phone conversations and sampling them into highly textural, deeply moving electronic aural collages. The issues of personal privacy brought up by such voyeuristic methods of musicmaking are interesting to Rimbaud, who is often asked to speak on panels about intellectual property rights and surveillance. "You have to remember that we're in a situation where we're saturated by voyeuristic culture," he argues. "But for me, the point of using voices is not to exploit people -- I'm an ethical person just as much as the next person, and on my recordings I always pitch-change the voices so you can't recognize the original voice anyway. Of course, in a live context it's different -- it becomes a form of improvisation, and you don't know quite what you're going to pick up and where it's going to turn next."

Improvisation is a crucial component of Rimbaud's work, from his recent gig performing a live soundtrack to Jean-Luc Godard's classic film noir Alphaville, shown on Britain's largest IMAX screen, to concerts such as his Other Minds appearance with DJ Spooky at the Justice League. Rimbaud, who is a longtime friend and collaborator of the conceptual hip-hop mixmaster, has performed at the Justice League with Spooky before, during a three-week nationwide tour that the pair made back in 1997. "We've done quite a lot of concerts together where we basically just turn up and improvise. And I think that's going to happen in San Francisco."

Having collaborated with modern classical composers before, Rimbaud is delighted to be participating in Other Minds. "I think the fact that these festivals are opening up to people like myself and Spooky, outside of the more acceptable classical avant-garde, is really positive," he says. "I find it really important that people float between these genres and develop their own work. Hopefully this experience in San Francisco will teach me a lot about my own work."

The organization is also expanding its mission as a presenter of new music. Last season OM brought local audiences the first-ever Bay Area appearance of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, held a special 50th anniversary concert for KPFA radio, and helped present the fourth annual Common Sense Composers Collective OPUS415 New Music Marathon. This year, along with its regular festival shows on March 16 and 17, the Spooky/ Scanner concert on March 18, and the fifth annual OPUS415 Marathon on March 19, OM will also collaborate with the San Francisco Symphony on a George Antheil Centennial concert in June. Next year's festivalgoers, Stone promises, can expect to find more eclectic musical events with more world-premiere commissions.

"Through Other Minds you can get a really exciting look at the diversity of musical life in America and around the world," says Stone, "with an emphasis on the experimental and innovative work that exists outside of the academy and the commercial mainstream. And I think audiences really appreciate that."

The Other Minds Festival runs from Thursday, March 16, through Sunday, March 19. Tickets are $30-40 for festival passes and $12-16 for individual concerts; call 437-9001 or see www.otherminds.org for more information.

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Stacey Kors

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