San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF): Celebrating John Cage

Today we review the opening concert of the Thirteenth Annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF). The concert was a tribute to John Cage on his centennial (one of many) and took place at SFMOMA. It specifically featured four of his conceptual pieces with chance processes or novel instrumentation.

The main included a performance of Cage’s Score Without Parts on SFMOMA’s rooftop terrace, conducted by Gino Robair with texts by Tom Djll. The performance was in conjunction with the opening of the museum’s intriguing minimalist design exhibition Field Conditions. There were even hors d’oeuvres served on tiles from one of the pieces in the exhibit. Unfortunately, because of another commitment I only arrived at the tail end of the performance, so I did not hear enough to reasonably review it.

[sfSoundGroup. Photo:]

The main concert opened with members of sfSoundGroup performing Cartridge Music. This is the same piece that concluded the Music of Changes: Variation VIII concert a few weeks earlier, and featured the same personnel: Matthew Goodheart, Kyle Bruckmann, Matt Ingalls, and Tom Dambly. However, I felt that this was a stronger performance. Some of this may have been the staging and the sound support, but it also seemed that the cues for various elements were crisper and tighter, and the selection of sounds to use with the contact mics (i.e,, “catridges”) was more focused and suited to the structure of the piece. As in all music, practice and review from earlier performances helps.

This was followed by a performance of Cage’s most famous work, 4’33”. Normally, the piece is for a single pianist, but this particular performance featured a laptop ensemble. After all, it is a festival of electronic music.

[4’33” performed with laptops. Photo:]

The performers (mostly members of SFEMF’s steering committee) sat in silence, as required by the score of the piece, with a few motions here and there. The audience mostly listened respectfully as well, I only noticed a few deliberate comments at soft volume. Thus, it was a successfully executed performance of the piece. I hope none of the laptops crashed.

The score for Fontana Mix, which is itself a work of art with curving lines and randomly distributed points, is actually a tool for generating other pieces. Aria is one such piece that Cage himself generated. For this performance, Fontana Mix with electronic sounds and Aria for voice were layered on top of one another, with Daniel Steffey and Christina Stanley performing the layers on electronics and voice, respectively.

[Daniel Steffey and Christina Stanley. Photo:]

My least favorite performance of a Cage composition was a boring and long version of Fontana Mix, so I had a little bit of trepidation. But this realization by Steffey and Stanley was vibrant and dynamic. Stanley’s vocals moved between numerous styles of singing (e.g., classical, popular, cabaret) and languages, punctuated by percussive strikes on found objects. Steffey’s foundation of electronic timbres was strong as well, with a lot of variation that left room for the vocals. Using these elements, they were able to realize genuine musical phrases and structure with a sense of narrative from the abstract scores.

The final performance of the evening was a realization of Variations II by Guillermo Galindo that featured a mariachi band. A mariachi band performing John Cage is certainly unusual, but in truth no different from any other interpretation of his scores with open instrumentation. For this performance, a four-piece group Mariachi Nueva Generación with traditional costumes and instrumentation, including violin, trumpet, the distinctive large guitarrón mexicano, and guitar.

[Mariachi Nueva GeneraciónPhoto:]

Like Fontana Mix, Variations II is based on graphical elements that are combined to form instances of the composition. Specifically in this case, the interpreter combines lines and dots that represent musical elements that can then be notated for the performers. The result in this instance was a very sparse texture. The musicians would often play a single or pair of disjoint notes surrounded by periods of silence. There were only a few moments where multiple members of the ensemble played at the same time. The texture is a familiar one from realizations of Cage’s indeterminate pieces, but the overall experience with the band was a novel one.

The musical performance was preceded by a video with documentation and commentary produced by Jen Cohen. The video had some fun moments, with befuddled Mills professors reacting to the idea of a mariachi band performing Cage, and allusions to the graphical elements of the Variations II score. It didn’t feel like it was necessary to the experience of the performance. Nonetheless, Galindo considered it an “inseparable part of the piece and one doesn’t exist without the other.”

Overall, it was a strong opening concert for the festival, and it was quite well attended.

Sylvano Bussotti and sfSoundGroup at SFMOMA

At the beginning of month, I attended a retrospective concert of music by the composer Sylvano Bussotti, performed by members of sfSoundGroup at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Bussotti is an Italian avant-garde composer whose body of work transcends into visual media and film as well. His music itself is very visual, and his graphical scores are works of art that combine standard music notation with graphical symbols, spatial positioning on the page and text instructions that inform the musicians on how to interpret and perform the piece. They are also known for being difficult to play, but sfSoundGroup is up to the challenge.

The performance took place in the museum’s expansive atrium, which was bathed in red light, with the musicians in the center and the audience orbiting around them. The space was bounded by two pianos, mysteriously set apart.

In the few minutes before the concert began, I was able to check out a couple of the scores up close.

[Score for “Phrase a trois” by Sylvano Bussotti.]

This score is for the piece Phrase a trois for string trio (violin, viola and cello). I also was able to view the score for Geographie Francaise alongside the percussion setup:

[Score for “Geographie Francaise”, by Sylvano Bussotti, with percussion instruments. (Click image to enlarge.)]

Unlike many graphical scores, which often allow for wide interpretation of visual elements and improvisation, these seemed more designed to describe precise instructions to the performer.

Bussotti himself performed in two of the pieces. For Geographie Francaise, he played piano and incanted stark vocal lines in French, alongside featured soloist Laura Bohn and percussionist Kjell Nordeson. I quite liked this piece for its starkness, conceptual simplicity (i.e., centering around the title itself) and the disparate texture of the instrumentation: voice, piano and percussion. One does not really hear traditional rhythms or melodies, even of the early-twentieth century “atonal” sense, but rather directly on the various sound, musical and narrative concepts, more like an abstract theater piece.

[Laura Bohn and Kjell Nordeson performing “Geographie Francaise” by Sylvano Bussotti. (Click images to enlarge.)]

Bussotti also performed in In Memoriam Cathy Berberian. Here, his voice was more central to the piece, and he spoke in Italian in more expressive tones. This is not surprising, given the subject of the piece was Cathy Berberian, his longtime “friend and muse”.

[Sylvano Bussotti performance with members of sfSoundGroup. Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click image to see original.)]

Different personel from sfSoundGroup were featured in different pieces, ranging from the full nine-member cohort in Autotono to a solo performance by Matt Ingalls on clarinet in one of Bussotti’s more recent pieces, Variazione Berio composed in honor of Luciano Berio who died in 2007. In the performance, Ingalls takes advantage of the portability of his instrument to move freely about the space. In doing so, he was able to employ spatial effects on the timbre of the clarinet within the music, which was filled with lots of empty space punctuated with occasional loud tones.

[Matt Ingalls performs “Variazione Berio” by Sylvano Bussotti. Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click image to see original.)]

The sparseness of the music and performer’s motion did in fact remind me a bit of Berio’s Sequenzas, and also made me think of the parallels between the theatricality of Berio’s music as compared to Bussotti’s. They were contemporaries in Italian avant-garde music – and as another link, Cathy Berberian was Berio’s wife in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The concert concluded with a performance of Tableaux vivants avant La Passion selon Sade (1964) for two prepared pianos. This was probably my favorite of the evening (along with Geographie Francaise). The pianos that were separated up to now were joined together in the center of the space. The two pianists (Christopher Jones and Ann Yi) playing cooperatively on a single piano, operating both the keyboard and elements within the instrument’s body. Their bodies often crossed paths and intertwined as they attempted to perform their respective parts – the motion seemed both chaotic and intimate at the same time. As the piece progressed, they spread out to both pianos – and in the final movement, they close their scores and attempt to play from memory. Throughout, the music was filled with intense, and sometimes violent energy especially when playing the interior of the piano. I contrast this to they very calm and contemplative nature of John Cage’s better known prepared-piano pieces. It fun to watch, and provided for a dramatic finish to the concert.

The concert was preceded by a screening of Bussotti’s 1967 silent Rara that included live piano accompaniment by Bussotti himself. The music, which was based on live interpretation of a graphical score in which he moved about at will, did not strictly follow the events and actions on the screen, but rather provided more of a backdrop and a counterpoint to images that would have otherwise been rather jarring to watch to watch in silence. [However, the music as performed did have a narrative structure of it’s own, moving between very abstract discrete tones and more idiomatic and even tonal sections.] The film itself consisted mostly of “film portraits” of figures from the Italian avant-garde – mostly images of men (though Cathy Berberian is also featured) in a variety of sexual and emotionally uncomfortable poses, including countless shots of tear-streaked male faces. As such, the film did not really hold my attention, although I did like the abstract imagery and close-ups of the musical score, as well as the play on the letters of the title R-A-R-A itself, that were used alongside the more homoerotic portraits. And certainly it was was interesting to see the composer and filmmaker respond musically to his own work after so many years.

Additional credit goes to Luciano Chessa, who organized the evening’s events. We had previously encountered him last year when he organized the event Metal Machine Manifesto, Music for 16 Intonarumori.