17th Street in San Francisco

17th Street is one of the longer numbered streets in San Francisco, though not the longest. What makes it unique among its peers is that it forms an almost perfect horizontal line through a large swath of the city, cutting through a variety of neighborhoods and terrains. Like reading geological strata or tree rings, it is an efficient way to explore San Francisco’s geography and history. For quite a long time I have wanted to walk the length of 17th Street. And on March 17 of this year, things lined up in terms of numbers, schedule and weather to make the perfect day for this walk.

17th Street begins at a modest corner with Pennsylvania Avenue at the base of Potrero Hill, next the I-280 elevated section. This used to be a rather forlorn block, but it has been upgraded quite a bit with the addition of a small park at the end of the street.

The street then heads westward through the flat land below Potrero Hill and crosses many of the streets named for U.S. states. Along the way one passes Bottom of the Hill, a club that I recently played at (you can read the gig report here). There is also Parkside, where I have yet to play. The architecture in this area changes between industrial and the modest wooden houses that typify San Francisco. There is also some newer condo and office development.

The street then heads uphill and underneath the US 101 freeway. From here, one can look down at the junction with I-80 and the downtown skyline beyond.

This neighborhood, at the boundary between Potrero Hill and the Mission is the location of Art Explosion, where I have had photography shows over the past couple of years. I have since left that space in order to focus on my other creative projects. From here, 17th Street heads downward into the Mission.

This is a huge neighborhood with numerous subsections each with their own character. We start off in a very industrial area that continues until we cross South Van Ness, at which point we enter the very densely packed core along Mission Street. Continuing westward we find ourselves in the heart of San Francisco hipsterdom, particularly along Valencia Street and the wide park-like Dolores Street.

The houses along this section of the street are a more upscale variety of the ornate San Francisco Victorians, some in colors that one would never instinctively think to paint a house. There are also numerous alleys that poke in either direction off the street.

From here, we continue eastward into the Castro. I have never been entirely sure where the Mission ends and the Castro begins, but I think it is probably at Church Street. Further on it becomes pretty clear where we are as 17th Street approaches its six-point intersection with Market and Castro streets. At this intersection, we find the huge landmark pride flag.

This is also the terminus for the F-Market streetcar line, which uses vintage streetcars from around the world.

After crossing Market Street, we come to the 4000 block of 17th. We have already come a long way, but there is still quite a bit ahead of us.

From here, the street heads up a steep hill into a very upscale neighborhood with large (and undoubtedly very expensive) houses. While 17th Street remains straight as it goes uphill, the intersecting streets, a few of which are named for planets, are more curved and follow the contours of the terrain. There are also numerous staircases here, providing access where it is too steep to build cross streets or alleys.

17th Street eventually reaches its apex at a large intersection with Clayton Street. To the south is Twin Peaks. To the north is Mount Olympus, the geographical center of the city. I had explored the strange little park at that point on a previous excursion. There is a pedestal that presumably contained a statue at one point. I used it as a backdrop for some of my doll photos, one of which you can see here. From this point, 17th drops precipitously into the Cole Valley neighborhood.

This section is purely residential, and the streets straighten out. Even after descending the hill, the street still remains higher than the rest of Cole Valley and the Upper Haight to the north. 17th Street comes to an end here at an intersection with Stanyan Street.

Thus, the mission to walk the length of 17th Street was complete. But this was not the end of the story. The city recently opened the long-closed Interior Greenbelt park, and the main trail begins half a block away on Stanyan. One ascends a narrow wooden staircase and enters into a completely different world.

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I am surprised I had never before made it to this gem of a park, though it did only open to the public in 2011. The woods are not unlike those one might find in parks outside the city, with no visual cues of the urban surroundings at all. There are some sounds from the city that penetrate into the woods, but they are overshadowed by the combination of silences and natural sounds. The late afternoon lighting was perfect on this trip as well. I spent about 30 minutes or so wandering the main “historic” trail of the park before exiting on a small brick-paved street with a spectacular view of the city.

Tired but contented, I picked up a nearby MUNI Metro to get home. And this really is the end of the journey.

Surplus 1980, Satya Sena and Electric Chair Repair Company, Bottom of the Hill

Today we look back at the December 5 show featuring Surplus 1980 with Satya Sena and Electric Chair Repair Company at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. It was a “post punk” affair, a night of loud, intense, and creative rock music. It was also my first time playing on stage with Surplus 1980.


[Photo by Polly Moller.]

I am somewhere there in the “back line” along with Thomas Scandura on drums and Steve Lew on bass. With guitarists Melne Murphy, Moe! Staiano and Bill Wolter in front. We were loud and aggressive with a lot of percussive pounding on otherwise tonal instruments, but there was also just the right amount of complexity with metric changes and chromatic riffs. Things were also deliberately out of tune, which when combined with ring modulation and other effects made it challenging to follow in a traditional melodic sort of way. But that would not have been the point. And the audience got that, enjoying moving along with our noisy percussive lines. It was also fun to play the vintage toy piano for our improvised piece and our finale Ed Saad (though I wish the contact mic had not fallen off halfway through it).

The evening opened with a performance by Electric Chair Repair Company, a self-described “post-punk noise trio.”

They lived up to their description with their instrumental performance, a bit more of the traditional sound that one would expect with loud driving chords and drums and switching between fast and slow tempos. During the set. they also joined forces with guests from “The Girlfriend Experience”, who were quite entertaining.

Electric Chair Repair Company was followed by Satya Sena, a duo of Jason Hoopes on bass and Peijman Kouretchian on drums. They also had a huge column of amplifiers.

Satya Sena was impressive to say the least. Their music was full of complex and intricate rhythms and they had a full dense sound that one wouldn’t necessarily expect from just bass and drums. I found myself watching Kouretchian’s frenetic drum playing through much of the set. It was almost impossible to capture a moment where he wasn’t in motion like this:

Hoopes of course was technically strong as well, and was interesting to see him performing in a different context like this.

Overall it was a fun night of good music. Our audience (on a Wednesday night in San Francisco) was not particularly large but was certainly appreciative, and I look forward to more performances with Surplus 1980 next year.

William Leavitt, Boyce/Greenlief duo and Karl Evangelista trio

I continue to work through the backlog of art and music reviews by presenting some of the openings and performances I saw on the particularly busy and fun evening of February 19 here in San Francisco. Although the evening included both musical performances and exhibitions of visual art, music was present as a central theme throughout.

First up, we visited Jancar Jones Gallery for the opening of William Leavitt: A Show of Cards. The exhibition featured “over 300 ink drawings on index cards” (though I only counted 248) arranged in three groups on the walls of the gallery.


[William Leavitt, A Show of Cards: Installation View. Photo courtesy of Jancar Jones Gallery. (Click to enlarge.)]

The gallery’s stark white walls presented a great surface for drawings, which were sometimes very sparse and sometimes quite detailed. Many featured musical elements, such as instruments or notes on a staff. There were also mathematical pieces (such as an x-y plot of a sine function), electronic circuit diagrams, architectural drawings, animals and abstract textures.


[Click photos to enlarge.]

It was fun to scan the rows of cards, picking out individual ones for closer inspection and comparison, particular the abstracts and the references to some of my own areas of expertise (e.g., music and electronics). It turns out Leavitt has a long-standing interest in electronic music, and was featured in this article at GetLoFi alongside circuit-bending godfather Reed Ghazala.

William Leavitt, Pyramid Lens Delta. Image courtesy of Jancar Jones Gallery. (Click to enlarge.)

In addition to being works of art in their own right, the cards serve as a source material for chance procedures that Leavitt uses in other works. In particular, a random subset of cards were used to generate a narrative that was incorporated into the text for his play “Pyramid Lens Delta” (the title came from the first three cards in the set). The script for the play was part of the exhibition. The back of the script contained the card set, and glancing through the text one could see where portions of the dialogue seemed to be drawn from the cards, particularly dialogue associated with Ivan, one of the characters in the play.

Leavitt has used chance processes for past works, including a theater piece The Radio which premiered in 2002. This piece includes not only dialogue but also an original score that included musique concrete. I would have liked to have seen this.


After Jancar Jones, we made a brief detour into that ambiguously defined area at the base of Potrero Hill to Project One for The Art of Noise, a visual exhibition coincident with the Noise Pop Festival. It featured large artistically altered portraits of well known musicians, as well as some installations, such Ted Riederer’s piece featuring drums covered in rose petals.


We finally ended up in the Mission District, and after a brief stop for tacos arrived at Bluesix for a pair of musical performances.

The saxophone duo of David Boyce and Phillip Greenlief. As noted in previous reviews, Greenlief’s virtuosic saxophone performances cover a wide variety of instrumental techniques. The duo weaved effortlessly between idiomatic jazz riffs and more free-form sections featuring multiphonics, noise production and vocals. The change between sections was both sudden and subtle; I was immersed in a jazz riff with long up-and-down lines or rhythmic patterns and only later would realize that we had moved to a more non-tonal (i.e., “noisy”) and arhythmic section. They demonstrate that these modes of music making need not be at odds (as they are sometimes portrayed on musician discussion lists) and can be part of a single piece of music. The performance did, however, inspire a short discussion with a friend about what is “experimental music” and why the performances this evening did or did not qualify as “experimental”.

Boyce and Greenlief were followed by the Karl Evangelista Spaceman Explorer Trio, featuring Karl Evangelista on guitar, Cory Wright on baritone sax, and Jordan Glenn on drums. Evangelista in his various groups blends jazz traditions with elements of late-20th-century experimental music. This of course led back to the question of whether or not this performance was “experimental”, particularly given strong jazz foundations on the pieces that we heard. The trio opened with loud driving rhythms and Evangelista and Wright trading long fast melodic runs. The piece “Hurdles” on Evangelista’s MySpace is quite representative. Another piece a somewhat slower groove with strong quarter notes (one might say a little bit “funkier”, more 1970s). Within this context, the melodies, riffs and one-off notes were often atonal, which helps to keep things moving forward. Overall, it was a fast-paced and virtuosic performance.