San Francisco Symphony performs 2001: A Space Odyssey

1912-1617_highlights-film_690x300
[Image courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony]

Today we look back at the live soundtrack performance of 2001: A Space Odyssey by the San Francisco Symphony. The performance featured the full orchestra on the direction of Brad Lubman along with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus directed by Ragnar Bohlin.

Kublick’s film is of course a masterpiece, as is the film’s score, which comes from a variety of sources, including Richard Strauss and György Ligeti (one of our musical heroes). Hearing it live in a concert hall with the movie on a big screen is a different experience. The orchestra seats did allow us to both see the film clearly and get spatial effects particularly from the chorus. Indeed, some of most powerful sounds was the choral sections featuring Ligeti’s eerie clouds of pitches. What was also particularly apparent in the live setting was just how sparse the score is. Much of the film has no music at all.

The scenes on the space station – overall an under-appreciated part of the film – popped out more strongly as a result of live score, contrasting the (Johan) Strauss music leading up the docking with sparse texture of dialog and machine sounds of station’s interior. Perhaps, however, part of the fun of these scenes is how dated they look, more like an idealized airport interior from the 1960s. By contrast, the scenes aboard the Discovery seem more contemporary. And the audience of 2016 had quite a bit of fun at HAL’s expense, as we live in an age where computers with both voices and voice recognition are becoming part of our daily lives (”Hey Siri, what do you think about HAL 9000?”).

2001: A Space Odyssey was presented as part of the Symphonies ongoing feature film series. Sadly, we were not able to attend the talk beforehand with professor of music Kate McQuiston, or the appearance by Keir Dullea on an earlier date.

SF Symphony Celebrates the Music of Steve Reich

This past September, the San Francisco Symphony celebrated the 80th birthday of composer Steve Reich with a week of performances, culminating in an all-Reich program on Sunday, September 11.

Steve Reich
[Steve Reich. Photo by Jeffrey Herman. Courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.]

The diverse program features a variety of works from his oeuvre. It began with Six Marimbas, a piece originally scored and titled in 1973 Six Pianos. It has the classic Reich sound of repeated but slowly evolving patterns that form a continuously moving harmony throughout the piece. I thought it was particularly well suited to the marimbas, which provide a percussive texture for the lines and a lightness for the harmony. I have not heard the original for pianos, but I can imagine it was a bit heavier.

Six Marimbas was followed by Electronic Counterpoint, featuring Derek Johnson on guitar. In addition to Johnson’s live performance, the piece includes multiple pre-recorded lines to form the counterpoint texture. It is also broken up into movements and involves the development of melodic and harmonic themes that give it a more traditional quality despite the unusual orchestration.

After the intermission, Steve Reich joined Michael Tilson Thomas (aka “MTT”) for an impromptu performance of Clapping Music. This is a fun piece, and it was great to see him perform it. In some ways, this piece formed the center of the “celebration” aspect of the concert, with a long ovation following the performance.

The formal program resumed with Different Trains, performed by the Kronos Quartet with pre-recorded voices. This is a much heavier piece. It combines the sounds of trains with the live quartet and vocal recordings. It starts somewhat nostalgic with reminiscing of train trips across the United States, including New York and Los Angeles, but takes a darker turn as the voices and sounds turn to memories of the trains carrying Jews to the concentration camps during the Holocaust. It then returns to the U.S. in the final movement but with the awareness that the memories of train rides have starkly different meanings depending on time and place.

Interestingly, the original program featured WTC 9/11, a powerful piece that would have had additional resonance and symbolism coming on the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was replaced by Different Trains – both pieces were originally written for and performed by the Kronos Quartet. There wasn’t any official mention of why the switch occurred. WTC 9/11 is a dark and difficult piece, even more so than Different Trains, and perhaps it was felt the anniversary was a distraction from the celebration of Reich’s full life and work.

The final piece of the evening was Reich’s Double Sextet, a piece that features two identical sextets – flute, clarinet, violin, piano, vibraphone, and cello. For this entirely live version, members of the SF Symphony were joined by Eighth Blackbird. The two groups formed the dueling sextets that played similar but different parts that proceeded a variety of interlocking rhythms and harmonies. The mixed instrumentation also gave it a more complex timbre than Six Marimbas (which sounded like a single instrument). It was also a more recent piece, composed in 2008, using the contrapuntal techniques he had developed in the earlier works.

I am glad that we were able to attend and be part of this event. I had studied Steve Reich as a composer and music student, and heard some of these pieces before, but not in a single unified symphonic setting. It was a fitting tribute.

SFEMF Night 3: Arcane Device, Thea Farhadian, Alessandro Bosetti

Today we look at the third night of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF), which took place on September 10 at the Brava Theater in San Francisco.

The evening opened with a set by Alessandro Bosetti, who performs with spoken-word vocals and electronics.

Alessandro Bosetti
[Photo by Pamela Z]

His texts are not traditionally lyrical, indeed they can be awkward or even absurd at times, or parts of imperfect translations. But he challenges himself and the audience to find the musicality within them. Most of what the audience hears are that result from the live electronic processing. The language remains audible, but it is transformed in a complex mixture of inharmonicity, noise and other types of musical sound. The performance was intense – and must have been physically exhausting for Bosetti, who is known for his work on radio.

While Bosetti’s set was intense and frenetic, Thea Farhadian’s performance was something altogether different. She performed a set featuring violin and live electronics.

Thea Farhadian
[Photo by Pamela Z]

Without straying into too-conventional territory, Farhadian’s sounds were lyrical and haunting. The harmonic qualities of violin were of course featured, but also the percussive sounds, which when combined with the electronic processing created rhythm and motion to the piece. Although there was no visual element other than the performer herself, the music had a visual quality, with long curving lines like brush strokes with thick paint punctuated by dots.

The final performance featured Arcane Device (aka David Lee Myers) on modular synthesizer with live generated visuals.

Arcane Device

He is known his creation of music from feedback and other noise sources, and so we were expecting a noise-centered performance. And we weren’t disappointed. But it was really the visuals that made this experience unique. The output of the synthesizer was fed into a special two-dimensional oscilloscope that was projected behind the performer. At first it was small, squished round elements as the sound started simply, but quickly grew complex creating chaotic textures that matched the sound. This was indeed a fun set to both watch and hear.

Overall it was a good night for this year’s SFEMF. And it was well attended. Other obligations kept we away from nights 2 and 4 this year, but I am looking forward to the festival’s return next year.

SFEMF 2016: IMA and Gen Ken Montgomery

Today we look back at the 2016 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, which concluded two weeks ago. The opening night took place at the Kanbar Forum of Exploratorium here in San Francisco. The large rounded space featured an immersive multichannel speaker system designed by Meyer Sound, and both acts that day took full advantage of this.

The evening opened with a set by IMA, the electro-­percussion duo of Nava Dunkelman and Jeanie Aprille Tang (aka Amma Ateria). They performed with an array of percussion instruments and live interactive electronics.

IMA at SFEMF 2016

Their sounds range from quite sparse to large clouds, often mixing in bits of vocals with the heavily metallic percussion. For this set, they played with space as well, spinning sounds around the room using the speaker array. There were moments when the individual sounds could be heard as a single point in space, others that were on the edge of a noise wall. I also appreciate that their sets are quite embodied, not simply standing on stage behind their gear but moving around as the sound and space suggest.

The second set featured Conrad Schnitzler’s Cassette CONcert, performed by New York musician Gen Ken Montgomery. Cassette CONcerts are boxed sets of cassettes that Schnitzler composed with the intent that others could perform and listen without his presence. Montgomery has become a primary interpreter of these pieces, “conducting” the eight-channel work on a variety of speaker systems. It fit quite well in the space, which was darkened except for projections on the main screen.

Gen Ken Montgomery

In many ways is the opposite of IMA’s set, completely disembodied, with long stretches of sound, and made from pre-recorded materials. One could even call it sculptural or a sonic painting. But it fit quite well in the context of the SFEMF concert and was a fitting second act to this first night.

Overall, it was a good start to this year’s festival, and a more casual setting ahead of the next three concerts to come. We will have more to share on those in an upcoming article.

Wordless Wednesday: The Docks at Mission Rock

Docks at Mission Rock, San Francisco

Docks near Mission Rock in the Mission Bay neighborhood of San Francisco (more info in the comments).