René Magritte: The Fifth Season at SFMOMA

We at CatSynth have been extraordinarily busy since the start of summer with work, music, and other obligations.  As a result, our explorations of visual art have suffered a bit.  But we start correcting that today with a report from the blockbuster René Magritte: The Fifth Season exhibition at SFMOMA.  I’m glad I was able to get in to see it before it closes in two weeks!

The exhibition focuses on his later works, from World War II through the late 1960s.  It is billed as “If you think you know Magritte (1898–1967), think again.”  Yet, this period includes many of his most iconic works – other than perhaps his most famous La Trahison des images (aka “this is not a pipe”), including many of my favorites from the broader Magritte retrospective I had seen at SFMOMA in the early 2000s.

Les valeurs personnelles
Les valeurs personnelles (1952)

The work depicted above,  Les valeurs personnelles, is perhaps my favorite of all.  I find myself drawn to it not just because of the stark juxtaposition of larger-than-human-sized objects in a smaller-than-human-sized space, but for the various textures that defy painting.  The objects themselves have the hyperrealistic sheen of graphics from the 1990s (we were all proud of our ability to render glass) with the more pedestrian room space and strangely realistic sky on the wall.  These are the characteristics of many of Magritte’s pieces during his Hypertrophy period in the 1950s.  It’s taken to an extreme in a piece that features one of his iconic green apples swelling to gargantuan proportions and pushing against the walls of a modest room.

The Listening Room
The Listening Room (1952)

And of course, there were many bowler-hatted gentlemen, some with green apples, some without.

The Son of Man
The Son of Man (1964)

The image of the bowler hat and the bowler-hatted man has appeared throughout Magritte’s career, but it was more closely associated with the artist himself in his later works, a form of self-portraiture.

The Happy Donor
The Happy Donor (1966)

In addition to the green apple, we see many objects and concepts that appear in other works from this period applied to the bowler-hatted man, such as the small round stone, birds, and negative spaces.

In both sets of works, we see the discrete juxtaposition of elements that may or may not fit with real-life experience.  I see this is as “quintessentially Magritte” and consistent throughout most of his career.  In that sense, I disagree a bit with the thesis of the exhibition that this later period was a break with surrealism, but rather a reimagining of it with different subjects and techniques and without the heaviness of the movement’s manifesto.  If there was one section of the exhibit that truly represented a break from what I know of the artist, it was the first section that featured his vache period immediately following World War II.

Lyricism (Le Lyrisme) 1947
Lyricism (Le Lyrisme) 1947

I would never have guessed these grotesque parodies of van-Gogh-style impressionism were his work if they were not presented and explained.  At the same time, it is not surprising that the experience of the war (Magritte remained in his native Belgium during the Nazi occupation).  It feels like his weakest and least memorable work, but one theory suggests that his retrograde style during this period helped avoid Nazi attention and persecution.  We are certainly glad he returned to form in his later years.

One of late series, collectively called The Dominion of Light, brings together a nighttime city streetscape with a daytime sky. 

The Dominion of Light

It takes a moment of adjustment to realize the confounding of night and day in the image, as our eyes are so used to assumptions about the passing of time and light.  The series is at once playful, but also a bit melancholy, pointing to the later years of a life and life’s work.   Fortunately, there was one more chapter to come that was both more curious and more uplifting.

A Sense of Reality (1963)

This bizarre series of boulders floating in space or sitting isolated on an apartment terrace is a return to form, but also an exploration of time and gravity and even more fundamental assumptions that we make in everyday life.  Their lightness and starkness also make an interesting statement at the end of a career that spanned several decades and saw the massive changes of the 20th century.  We should note that the bowler-hat portraits featured in this article were done during the same late period, and are stronger both as works in themselves and as a career-spanning statement. 

The exhibit was overall a delight to experience.  It was hung in a minimalist but also warm style without too much crowding or overwhelm, and it weaved a narrative even as I took in the works as individuals.  It also marked a return a place of solace, the museum, after a long period of intensity and focus on other practices.  I won’t stay away as long again.

If you are in San Francisco over the next couple of weeks, I strongly recommend checking this exhibition out before it closes on October 28.  For more information, please visit https://www.sfmoma.org/exhibition/rene-magritte/.

Wordless Wednesday: Canyon (4906)

SF Symphony Performs Perséphone and The Firebird

Even as Septembers and Octobers go in San Francisco, this one has been crazy, careening between rehearsals and performances for various projects, growing in a new job, and dreading whatever new political development occurs.  So our recent outing to hear SF Symphony perform the music of Igor Stravinsky was a bit of a respite.  It was part of a two week-festival celebrating the music of Stravinsky that included not only the “big three” (The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring) but other less-frequently performed works.  We were there for the night featuring The Firebird and enjoyed the bar’s special Firebird martini in celebration.

The Firebird, the first the “big three,” premiered in 1910 and while was considered avant-garde by some in Paris, it’s a very accessible work that draws more from 19th-century romanticism than from the innovations of the time.  For us at CatSynth, this is about as conservative as our live music gets.  But it is nonetheless an adventurous piece and very richly textured, especially in its focus on brass and wind instruments.  As it was performed without staging, it was easier to concentrate entirely on the music.  The early “Prince Ivan” sections had phrases and idioms that foreshadowed L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale); then there is that iconic ending with the slow big chords.

If anything, it was the opening performance of Perséphone that was more unique an exciting.  It far less often that Stravinsky’s other large-scale works, and it is complex to stage.  For this performance, the symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas was joined by the great Leslie Caron as the narrator and Persephone, Nicholas Phan on tenor as Eumolpus and other characters, as well as San Francisco Symphony Chorus, San Francisco Girls Chorus, and the Pacific Boychoir.

Despite the massive number of performers between the orchestra and the choruses, Perséphone has a sparse and more minimal texture than The Firebird or the other big ballets.  It also has a very deliberate and punctuated quality, with each note and each syllable of the text standing alone.  It does have a joyous, lyrical quality at times – it is a celebration of spring.  But it also has dark, unsettling moments, which is keeping with the mythological story of Persephone, the spring goddess and daughter of Ceres being brought to Hades by Pluto.  The story is one of balance between light and dark, and between the seasons.  But the text in this version is somewhat more ambiguous, emphasizing Persephone’s descending to Hades by choice.  It does also celebrate her worldly existence as the bride of Triptolemus and joy of rebirth, and of course the springtime.  Musically we are treated to a light touch without leaning too heavily on major/minor emotional tropes, much as the story projects its ambiguity between light and dark.  The winds, and piccolos, in particular, were prominent. And as stated above the space within the music leaves ample time to consider each note and word.  It was a quietly but powerfully dynamic performance; and orchestra, soloists and chorus were treated to many well-deserved rounds of applause.

It was our first trip back to the Symphony in a while, as their 2017 program was far more conservative and focused on traditional repertoire compared the numerous shows we had enjoyed in 2016.  We do look forward to more adventurous and contemporary programming again soon.

Club Foot Orchestra performs their Greatest Hits

Last weekend the Club Foot Orchestra teamed up with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, to perform some of their “greatest hits”, contemporary live performances to silent film classics.  A full day of live music by the venerable and indefatigable ensemble! 

The Club Foot Orchestra was started 25 years ago in 1983 by Richard Marriott (brass, winds), and still includes original member Beth Custer on woodwinds.  They were joined in this performance by Sheldon Brown (woodwinds), Will Bernard (guitar), Chris Grady (trumpet), Gino Robair (percussion), Kymry Esainko (piano/keyboard), Sascha Jacobsen (bass), Deirdre McClure (conductor), and Alisa Rose (violin).   They performed some of their most memorable scores, including interpretations of the German expressionist classics Metropolis and Nosferatu.  We at CatSynth were not able to attend Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s futurist masterpiece and a personal favorite of mine.  But we were on hand for Nosferatu, the iconic and controversial horror film directed by F. W. Murnau and starring Max Schreck as the eternally creepy Count Orlock.

The history of Nosferatu is as intriguing as the film itself.  It was an unauthorized adaptation from Bram Stoker’s original Dracula, and although the names and some details were changed, in many ways it conforms more closely to both the story and spirit of the original than many later interpretations.  Perhaps too closely, as the Stoker estate successfully sued Murnau’s production company and won a judgment that included an order to destroy all copies of the film.  Fortunately, some prints had already been distributed internationally and have been used for restorations of the original.  The version screened on this occasion was a beautiful restoration from the 2000s that included color tinting for various scenes.  The colors added an even more eerie and otherworldly quality to the film.  It worked particularly well for the Transylvanian scenes and those in and around Orlock’s castle.

The orchestra delivered a highly dynamic and varied performance paired with the images.  There were many sparse sections that fit with the tension of the film, and I particularly liked the spots that featured single lines, such as percussion hits, extended-technique winds, or synthesizer samples.  But the sections where the ensemble came together to deliver punchy and sensuous jazz lines were especially fun.  It added an element of humor and modernism, which is inevitable for a twenty-first-century viewing of a movie from nearly 100 years ago.  The mixture of noises and extended sounds with bits of Eastern European melody and harmony worked especially well for strangely colored Transylvanian scenes.

As a small group, each of the wind players had multiple instruments.  Richard Marriott had a quite an arsenal of flutes and lower brass, and both Beth Custer and Sheldon Brown had bass clarinets in addition to their other instruments.  Gino Robair also had in an impressive array of percussion instruments (though no electronics on this particular occasion).

It was a delightful evening of music and visuals that worked well together – a more concrete film-centered version of the discipline we had a seen a week earlier in Andy Puls’ abstract set at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.  And while I’m sorry to have missed Metropolis on this occasion, Nosferatu was probably even more of an “event” in the space of the Castro Theatre.  We look forward to hearing more of Club Foot Orchestra’s scores in the near future.

Wordless Wednesday: Sutro Baths Graffiti and Cliff House

Sutro baths and Cliff House in the distance.

Graffiti on some ruins in the Sutro Baths.  The Cliff House restaurant is visible in the back.

You can see one of our previous photos from this Hipstamatic shoot in a previous Wordless Wednesday.

San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF) Night 3

The 19th annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival concluded yesterday, and we at CatSynth were on hand for the final concert. There were three sets, each showcasing different currents within electronic music, but they all shared a minimalist approach to their musical expression and presentation.

The evening opened with a set by Andy Puls, a composer, performer and designer of audio/visual instruments based out of Richmond, California. We had seen one of his latest inventions, the Melody Oracle, at Outsound’s Touch the Gear (you can see him demonstrating the instrument in our video from the event). For this concert, he brought the Melody Oracle into full force with additional sound and visuals that filled the stage with every changing light and sound.

Andy Puls

The performance started off very sparse and minimal, with simple tones corresponding to lights. Combining tones resulted in combining lights and the creation of colors from the original RGB sources. As the music grew increasingly complex, the light alternated between the solid colors and moving patterns.

Andy Pulse

I liked the sound and light truly seemed to go together, separate lines in a single musical phrase, and a glimpse of what music would be if it was done with light rather than sound.

OMMO, the duo of Julie Moon and Adria Otte brought an entirely different sound and presence to the stage.

OMMO

The performance explored the “complexities and histories of the Korean diaspora and their places within it.” And indeed, words and music moved freely back and forth between traditional and abstract sounds and Korean and English words. Moon’s voice was powerful and evocative, and quite versatile in range and she moved through these different ideas. The processing on her voice, including delays and more complex effects, was crisp and sounded like an extension of her presence. Otte performed on laptop and analog electronics, delivering a solid foundation and complex interplay. A truly dynamic and captivating performance.

The final set featured a solo performance Paris-based Kassel Jaeger, who recently became director of the prestigious Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM). Sitting behind a table on a darkened stage, with a laptop, guitar and additional electronics, he brought forth an eerie soundscape.

Kassek Jaeger

The music featured drone sounds, with bits of recognizable recorded material, as well as chords and sharp accents. The musique concrète influence was abundant but also subtle at times as any source material was often submerged in complex pads and clouds over which Jaeger performed improvisations.

It is sometimes difficult to describe these performances in words, though we at CatSynth try our best to do so. Fortunately, our friends at SFEMF shared some clips of each set in this Instagram post.

Much was also made of the fact that this was the 19th year of the festival. That is quite an achievement! And we look forward to what they bring forth for the 20th next year…

Secret Chiefs 3 and Cleric play Zorn’s Masada

Greetings, and L’Shana Tovah! Today we look back to a show from last weekend at The Chapel in San Francisco where two bands interpreted selections from John Zorn’s Masada songbook. It was part of a four-day residency by Zorn at the Chapel in celebration of his 65th Birthday.

“Masada” has morphed and grown as a musical concept since Zorn’s original Ornette-Coleman-inspired group from the 1990s. There have been follow-up projects, notably Electric Masada that we at CatSynth are most familiar with. But it is as much a songbook as a collection of ensembles. The “Masada songbook” contains hundreds of short compositions, sometimes just fragments, scales, or concepts. Originally intended to be performed by the ensembles, these compositions can be interpreted by other bands. And on this night, the bands took them in decidedly rock direction.

First up was Cleric. The Philadelphia-based “avant-metal” band currently features Matt Hollenberg on guitar, Nick Shellenberger on keyboards and vocals, Larry Kwartowitz on drums, and Daniel Ephraim Kennedy on bass.

Cleric plays Masada

As their background implies, the performance was decidedly metal, a full-on triple-forte projection with growling vocals and fast runs punctuated by heavy drones. Nonetheless, it was top-notch musicianship and an adventurous choice of music. Within the mix, I found myself mostly focused on Shellenberger’s vocals and keyboards, though Kennedy’s six-string bass took center stage visually, and Hollenberg’s guitar performance added a solidifying aspect to the music. It was a solid set, and certainly an interpretation of the Masada songbook we have never heard before (and may never hear again).

Next up was Secret Chiefs 3, who brought a decidedly different sound and presentation to the stage.

Secret Chiefs 3 plays Masada

Led by guitarist and composer Trey Spruance (formerly of Mr. Bungle and Faith No More) and heavily featuring Eyvind Kang on violin, the group weaved together jazz, rock, folk, klezmer, and Middle Eastern influences into their eclectic set. Rounding out the group on this night were Jason Schimmel on guitar, Matt Lebofsky on keyboards, Shanir Blumenkranz on bass, Ches Smith on percussion, and Kenny Grohowski on drums.

It was an inspired and highly dynamic performance from these hometown favorites, and the band seemed a good match for the Masada songbook. There is an explicit thread of mysticism and the esoteric in both Zorn’s music and the work of SC3, so this is not surprising. I even recognized a couple of songs from Electric Masada recordings. The orchestration was brilliant and clever, bringing out each of the musicians as well as the Jewish influences of the songs. There were contrapuntal moments where the musicians played different lines and rhythms but coming together for short emphatic choruses with syncopated lines. It was crisp, tight, but also fun. And one could sense that the audience – a packed crowd on both levels of the Chapel, was having a great time along with them. The set was also the perfect length, keeping up the energy without petering out or overstating their welcome, leading to a single climax note that ended the music and cued Zorn and the musicians from Cleric back to the stage for a final group bow.

All together with John Zorn

Overall, a fine night of music. As with many multi-day festivals, I regret not being there for the other nights, but glad I was able to make it to the one that I did. September is always the busiest month for music (and art) in San Francisco, and we will have much more to experience and share in the coming weeks.

Wordless Wednesday: Kate (I-80 Bay Bridge)

I-80 towards the Bay Bridge from Kate St.

I-80 towards the Bay Bridge from Kate St.

Wordless Wednesday: SQUARED (Hayes Valley, San Francisco)

Squared, Hayes Valley, San Francisco

SQUARED by Charles Gadeken, a 50-foot LED-and-metal sculpture currently on display at Patricia’s Green in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco.

Outsound New Music Summit: Bobby Bradford’s Brass’n’Bass, KREation Ensemble with Marilyn Crispell

For the final night of the Outsound New Music Summit, we invited two jazz legends to collaborate with noted local musicians. Each of them has performed and recorded with a whos-who of jazz in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  Sometimes such collaborations can go awry in practice, but we at CatSynth are happy to say that both were a resounding success.

Bobby Bradford has had a long career as cornet player and composer who enjoyed long collaborations with the likes of Ornette Coleman and John Carter.  He has taught multiple generations of musicians, including Bill Noertker, who invited Bradford to lead a project for this year’s summit.  The cornetist and bassist teamed up with cornetist Theo Padouvas and bassist Scott Walton to form Bobby Bradford’s Brass’n’Bass.


[Photo by Michael Zelner]

The performance focused on Bradford’s compositions, but as in any good jazz setting, each of the musicians brought their own creativity to the set.  The instrumentation makes for a sparse texture, with each member of the group having to perform multiple duties on melody, harmony, and rhythm.  But the result is an unusual sound.  Bradford’s cornet led the way, with Padouvas filling in some of the space with fast runs and other sounds.  Noertker and Walton took turns on the rhythm at times but also worked together as a unit.  They also doubled as additional melodic instruments in the group.  One memorable moment featured Noertker playing long bowed harmonics atop Walton’s back-and-forth plucked bass notes.  There was a ballad with Bradford and Padouvas playing nearly the same line what seemed like a different scale and harmony to the basses, resulting in a very haunting effect.  Another faster tune was reminiscent of Ornette Coleman in the 1960s (i.e., before the Prime Time era).

Bobby Bradford
[Photo by Michael Zelner]

As Bradford is perhaps best known as a sideman and a teacher, it was great to see him lead the band with his own music on this occasion. The group did end with a more open improvisation, which Bradford himself admitted he wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out.  It was short and sweet, with the musicians bouncing off one another but not overstaying their moments.  Overall, I thought this group had a fine debut, and it will be interesting to see if they play together again, perhaps in Bradford’s home turf of Southern California.

The second set brought together pianist Marilyn Crispell with Kevin Robinson’s KREation Ensemble that also included Lee Hodel on bass and Tony Gennaro on percussion.

KREation Ensemble

On the surface, this coming together would seem to be a more traditional jazz quartet, but Gennaro had an unusual percussion kit with a variety of hand drums, bells, and more.  Indeed, there were times it seemed all four musicians were playing melody lines.  And there was a lot of open space, with Robinson’s meditative poses acting as a fifth instrument.

Kevin Robinson

Robinson has a very sparse, detailed and contemplative style of playing, even when he was playing faster sections.  This contrasted with Crispell’s frenetic runs on the piano.  Hodel was able to match her with percussive notes on the bass.  I really liked the way the two of them interplayed.  I found myself re-focusing throughout on Crispell to see what she would do next.  There was something clever, even mischievous, about her playing, even when it was darker long chords.

Marilyn Crispell

The ever-changing style and energy throughout the set make sense in the context of the work being premiered.  As stated in the program, “Through the Twisting Prisms is a collection of intervallic, rhythmic, harmonic labyrinths and mazes that explore ideas convergence, expansion, contraction, and meditation.”

Together, the two sets made a fine conclusion to this year’s Outsound Summit.  And we had a full house at the Community Music Center, even in the balcony.  We finish exhausted but satisfied at a job well done and a great week of music brought to life.