Carla Kihlstedt is a perfect match for Other Minds, the city's premier festival for adventurous music created from unlikely connections. The classically trained violinist and DIY vocalist has long explored songcraft as a bridge to multiple worlds. For her Other Minds debut, the local artist intends to merge dramatic readings of old texts on the rise of the machine with contemporary improvisations based on a tactile graphic score.
The springboard for Pandæmonium, her 20-minute piece written for renowned Bay Area avant-gardists Rova Saxophone Quartet, comes from a book of the same name compiled by Humphrey Jennings. This curious tome, "an imaginative history of the Industrial Revolution," collects various documents from the 17th through 19th centuries that responded to the growing mechanization of life. Opinions on the technological juggernaut ranged from the utopian idealism of scientists, capitalists, and first adopters to the humanistic hand-wringing of the Luddites. Not surprisingly, these same concerns are still with us today, and this is where Kihlstedt found her inspiration.
She explains in an interview on Rova's Web site that nearly everything is reproducible now. Picture countless yards of mass-manufactured fabric or endlessly cut-and-pastable e-mails versus the hand-sewn cloth or pen-and-ink letters of pre-hotwired times. "I decided to juxtapose the idea of the coming of the machine with something that counteracts it," she says.
The voices from Jennings' book will be presented by Matthias Bossi, one of Kihlstedt's bandmates in the art-rock phenomenon Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and Joan Mankin, actress and old-school alum of the infamous San Francisco Mime Troupe. The 21st-century rebuttal will come from Rova's collectively improvised interpretation of the "composition," which Kihlstedt literally stitched into pieces of cloth. The soundtrack's movements — tone, tempo, dynamics, and melodic possibilities — will be suggested by the colors, fabrics, and thread designs of the score.
At first blush, Pandæmonium may seem a too-strange combo of disparate elements to cohere as a listenable work of art. Indeed, with its unique notation and reliance on in-the-moment musicmaking, the danger of the performance devolving into its namesake is great. But Kihlstedt thrives on precisely this kind of edgy fun.
An overview of her other projects underscores her career-long commitment to unusual combinations. In Sleepytime, she brings arthouse deconstruction to a head-banging freakfest. With Two Foot Yard, she marries the tunefulness of pop with ear-bending improvisation and classical harmonies. Her ever-evolving work for more than a decade with Tin Hat has fused and exploded a range of musical styles, including tango, jazz, and country. In Minamo, an improvised duet with Tokyo pianist Satoko Fujii, the violinist erases the lines between rigorously arranged classical composition and the avant-garde. In each of these efforts, powerful — and often beautiful — music emerges from fearless risk-taking.
Transcending centuries, media, and methodologies, Pandæmonium follows suit. The piece is a testament to the Other Minds ethos, and it's about time Kihlstedt gets her moment in the spotlight as one of the Bay Area's top forward-thinking composers.