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Zappa and Spooky and Grainger -- oh my! 

Other Minds' Eyes & Ears film festival

Wednesday, Nov 6 2002
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Open your mind and your art will follow During the 1986 BBC documentary West Coast Story: Frontiers of New Music, when a journalist asks John Cage why he never stays with one style of work, the esteemed composer answers, "Thoreau invented the pencil, you know. And someone said, 'Now you don't have to do anything else -- you can just manufacture pencils.' And he said, 'One is enough.' That's how I feel."

California's experimental composers are known for being similarly restless, prone to hopscotching between approaches, creating their own instruments, and borrowing from divergent musical cultures. Locally, the nonprofit organization Other Minds works tirelessly to bring these sounds to the public (see Jeremy Mullman's "Mind Over Clatter," May 29), both with its annual music extravaganza and now with the Eyes & Ears film festival, which takes place Friday through Sunday, Nov. 8-10, at the Castro Theatre. Fans of difficult listening should thrill to the 12 films scheduled, while initiates may find the offerings surprisingly rewarding.

The Lars von Trier/Björk feature collaboration Dancer in the Dark is the festival's most mainstream offering, but its inversion of the happy Hollywood musical archetype should prepare audiences for such intriguing shorts as In Absentia, in which German electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen scores the Quay Brothers' disturbing live action/ animation antics, and Music With Balls, which captures Mills College vet Terry Riley improvising sounds with sculptor Arlo Acton's huge, swinging pendulums.

But perhaps the best place for the new-music novice to start is West Coast Story, an overview of the California scene's history. There's terrific footage throughout the documentary, including Riley performing his groundbreaking minimalist piece "In C," irreverent multimedia composer Harry Partch explaining how he wants his musicians to have footwork like Muhammad Ali, and Cage giving a commencement speech at Cal Arts while wearing green, heart-shaped antennae on his head. The film drags a tad at the end, but it's highly satisfying overall.

Although Frank Zappa appears for a moment in West Coast Story, he plays a far bigger role in two other movies during Eyes & Ears: Baby Snakes, a 1979 piece that seesaws between Zappa concert footage and Claymation by Bruce Bickford, and Frank Zappa: Phase II -- The Big Note, which makes a good case for the composer as a serious artist. "Serious" was a relative term for Zappa, who died in 1993. While he was heavily influenced by the orchestral innovations of Edgard Varèse and Igor Stravinsky, as well as native music from Tibet, India, and the Middle East, Zappa wasn't above naming a song "Titties 'n Beer" or instructing an Australian TV show audience to make fart noises as part of an impromptu sound piece. The documentary, screening in the United States for the first time, includes some fascinating bits, including a clip of a pre-mustache Zappa accompanying Steve Allen and the Tonight Show orchestra by playing a bicycle.

Australian pianist Percy Grainger may be lesser known than Zappa, but he was equally talented and controversial. Two festival films cover the maverick's life: Percy Grainger: The Noble Savage, a doc focusing on his ethnomusicology, his inventive scoring, and his attempts at building an early synthesizer; and Passion, a 1999 feature film zeroing in on the more salacious facets of his life, namely his unhealthy love of both flagellation and his mum.

The most eagerly awaited event of the festival may well be DJ Spooky's remixing of D.W. Griffith's revered and reviled silent film Birth of a Nation. For this piece, Spooky has re-edited the blatantly racist 1915 film and written his own score, which he'll perform live with the movie at the Castro. For more information about Eyes & Ears, call 934-8134 or go to www.otherminds.org.

Boogie chillin' The Boom Boom Room celebrates its fifth anniversary -- and an increased interest in showcasing music beyond blues and funk -- on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 8-9, with an event called "Frequinox," featuring the likes of Papa Grows Funk, Tea Leaf Green, Extra Action Marching Band, DJs Apollo & Vinroc, Will Bernard, and DJ Zeph. Shows start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20; call 673-8000 or go to www.boomboomblues.com.

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Dan Strachota

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