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A Piano Made Out of People: The Magik*Magik Orchestra Celebrates Five Years 

Wednesday, Jan 29 2014

In 2010, S.F. indie rocker John Vanderslice wrote the outline of a song called "Convict Lake." He had just a few chords, some lyrics, and a vocal melody. His demo recording of the song sounds monochromatic, almost empty. Between the percussive strikes of acoustic guitar and the hesitant wisp of vocals, there are chasms of silence. It's the skeleton of a song, far from a finished product.

Then Vanderslice gave the demo to Minna Choi.

The final version of "Convict Lake," which appeared on Vanderslice's 2011 album White Wilderness, bears the same dragging tempo, the same chord structure, and the same vocal melodies, but everything else about it is bigger, deeper, more colorful: There's a slurring clarinet, flashes of piano, a winking brass section, and the effortless upward lift of orchestral strings. The song has acquired a tremendous new dimension, new melodies and counter-melodies, a richness that wasn't even hinted at in the demo. It's as if "Convict Lake" leaped from black-and-white to multicolored high-definition.

This is what Choi and the musicians of her Magik*Magik Orchestra do. Conceived as a loose group of classical players available to record with bands who don't normally think beyond the guitar/drum/bass set-up, Magik*Magik has grown into a professional quality orchestral appendage available to anyone who can pay its relatively modest fees. In the five years since Choi founded it, Magik*Magik has performed at dozens of concerts, on a national tour with Death Cab for Cutie, on the score of the film Looper, at weddings, children's birthday parties, and on countless recording sessions in groups as small as one and as large as 70.

It is, as Choi imagined while a master's student in composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, an orchestra that comes made-to-order. It is also a living advertisement for the power of traditional instrumentation. In a world where classical music is routinely dismissed as dead or dying, Magik*Magik is a reminder of the unique tones and dynamics that cellos, violins, oboes, French horns, and other classical instruments can lend that others simply can't.

"I want people to think of the orchestra as a creative tool that anyone can use," Choi says of the project, which she runs in addition to her full-time job as choral director for a local church. "I think of an orchestra as a piano made out of people. That kind of everyday-ness, where people are like, 'Oh, that's just a piano, that's not intimidating' — I want that character to be associated with Magik. It's important to us that people who would never have thought to use an orchestra feel like they can approach us with any weird idea and we'll engineer it on our side to make it really easy for them."

That engineering, not just the performance, is crucial to the nonprofit orchestra's mission. Outside musicians who hire Magik don't need to write parts or arrange charts for the classical musicians on their own if they don't want to. Magik*Magik has people who do that, and do it well. Vanderslice, who, as an analog recording geek and die-hard audiophile, is known to be just a bit picky about how things sound, has enough faith in Choi and the 150 or so musicians of Magik*Magik that he sends them demos like "Convict Lake," song ideas with big empty spaces to fill. He doesn't give any input on the parts they write.

The genesis of Magik came when Choi worked as an assistant at a recording studio in New York from 2004 to 2007. The studio was down the street from Juilliard, the classical music college, and one of the studio's regular producer clients was friends with a security guard who worked at the school. If the producer wanted a string part, he'd sing it to Choi, who would write it out. The security guard, meanwhile, would find students up for playing a $50 late-night session, and they'd record the part. But Choi noticed that the Juilliard students didn't seem very excited about the work.

But when Choi moved to San Francisco to study composition in 2007, her classmates at the conservatory said that they'd love to do session work. Choi envisioned a simple collective, a group of session musicians for a particular studio to call when a client needed them. She emailed John Vanderslice, who in addition to being a recording artist, runs and owns the famous Tiny Telephone studios in the Mission.

"She said, 'I want to be Tiny Telephone's house orchestra.' That was her first email to me, and it was oozing with the coolest kind of ambition," Vanderslice remembers. "It was clear that she was very focused, and that it was going to happen, somewhere."

It happened at Vanderslice's place, or at least that was the plan. Choi's idea of a recording orchestra expanded when her group was offered its first live gig in 2008: the West Coast premiere of Popcorn Superhet Receiver, the first major orchestral work by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. A flurry of live shows followed in Magik*Magik's first year, and it wasn't until the second that the group found its way back into the studio. In its third, the group broadened even more, to work on ballet productions and film scores.

But Magik*Magik is still quintessentially an indie rock orchestra. If an S.F. group like the Dodos wants some strings to back up a new song, or if Death Cab wants to take a big new live show on tour, Magik*Magik is the outfit they call. Partly that's because of the orchestra's affordability: A single musician costs $60-$80 per hour for recording, and $125-$175 per show. That isn't cheap, but it's not exorbitant, either, especially when you know you're getting someone who can do the music with minimal fuss. But Magik*Magik's success also comes from the fact that Choi and her musicians, classically trained though they are, have an enthusiast's respect for the skills and power of pop songwriting.

Along with studying piano and singing in a capella groups, Choi was once a singer and songwriter in a maximalist rock band in New York, a group she describes as being a cross between Fleetwood Mac (because of its three songwriters) and Arcade Fire (because of its elaborate instrumentation). "I know how hard it is to write songs," she says. "I've tried, and I actually gave up."

About The Author

Ian S. Port

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