Making Up Their Minds

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

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."

"We're saturated by voyeuristic culture": So-called telephone terrorist Scanner.
"We're saturated by voyeuristic culture": So-called telephone terrorist Scanner.

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."

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