To me, this modernist home in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco represents the height of “California Cool” of the 1950s and 1960s (even if it was probably built more recently). It stood out from the more conservative brick-and-stone mansions to either side.
Greetings, and happy third night of Hannukah! Today we look at the Soundtracks exhibition currently on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) through the end of the year. It is also the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV episode.
The exhibition explores the intersection of sound, visualization, and space, and features over 20 artists. There are a variety of interpretations and methods of making sound, from acoustic to mechanical to electronic. None of the sound installations are overpowering, but many do arrest ones attention. Upon arriving at the 7th floor for the exhibition, one is created by Anri Sala’sMoth in B-Flat, which features a mechanically triggered snare drum hanging inverted from the ceiling.
[Anri Sala. Moth in B-Flat (2015_]
The electro-mechanical theme continues with O Grivo’sCantilena, which includes several motorized sound-making sculptures primary made of wood.
[O Grivo. Cantilena (2017)]
These were fun to watch, and I found myself wanting to make one myself (we shall see if that actually occurs).
Simplicity reigned in Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’sclinamen v.3. A large shallow pool of water contained floating ceramic bowls. The frequent collisions of the bowls created a music that was very captivating.
This piece was deeply calming, and I found myself zeroing in on groups of bowls as they collided and separated to form rhythms and harmonies.
Ambient soundscapes were also the heart of an installation by Brian Eno, New Urban Spaces Series #4: “Compact Forest Proposal,”, with a darker tone and more complex technology.
[Brian Eno.New Urban Spaces Series #4: “Compact Forest Proposal” (2001)]
One is free to wander the darkened space amidst the moving columns of LED lights. Every once in a while, the light increases and one gets glimpses of shadowy figures on the wall. The sounds ranged from small percussive synth hits to trumpets to electronic noise.
Electronic noise was also at the heart of Christina Kubisch’s installation Cloud. Kubish’s work explores sonification of data and electricity. The mass of red electrical wires emits electromagnetic radiation, which was interpreted as sound using customized headphone devices.
[Christina Kubisch. Cloud (2011/2017)]
Of all the installations, this was the among the most challenging to take in sensually or to document. I love the concept, and I think it really needs an extended period of time alone to experience fully.
From the large to the small. We had fun with Sphere Packing by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, which featured several spherical speaker arrays made from those ubiquitous white Apple earbuds.
[Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Sphere Packing (2013 and 2014)]
Each was playing a different selection of classical music from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, rearranged and diffused asynchronously through the speakers. Lozano-Hemmer also had an installation Last Breath that included a recording of breathing by the late Pauline Oliveros.
We conclude with another project visualized as a sphere. Lyota Yagi’sSound sphere featured a sphere wrapped in cassette tape that freely rotated and revolved. Customized pickups rendered the sound from the tape, which is chopped, looped and distorted based on the chaotic motion of the sphere.
[Lyota Yagi. Sound Sphere (2011)]
All of these pieces were inspiring for my own work, as I want to do more sound installation in the coming year. There were more in the main the exhibit and spread around the museum, but beyond what I can cover in this article. We do encourage you to check out our video to hear how some of these pieces sound. And if you are in the Bay Area, we strongly recommend checking the exhibition out before it closes on January 1, 2018.
Today we look back at the San Francisco Symphony’s “Music for a Modern Age” concert that took place in late June. This wasn’t simply a concert or even a concert focused on American music of the last 100 years. It was a theatrical event, with video projection, staging, and more.
The evening began with two pieces by Charles Ives. First, there was the incantation-like From the Steeples and the Mountains with its interconnecting tones on chimes, followed The Unanswered Question. This was a more complex piece both musically and logistically, as it featured a small wind-and-string ensemble on stage and an offstage antiphonal string ensemble (conducted by Christian Rief). The two groups alternated in a call-and-response form. It isn’t necessarily one ensemble asking the questions and another answering, as the wind instruments are involved in both, but it added another dimension to nature of the piece, which was deliberately unsettling but also hauntingly beautiful. Both Ives pieces featured video by Adam Larsen and lighting design by Luke Kritzeck.
Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo by Spencer Lowell. Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony.
The segment featured a piece by conductor and music director Michael Wilson Thomas, Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind. It was an interesting format, with the orchestra alongside a standard jazz/rock bar band with horns, bass, guitar, keyboard, and drums, complex video and lighting (again by Larsen and Kritzeck, respectively) and singers in elegant dress. The music freely mixed modernist orchestral sounds with jazz and rock idioms as the moved through the text by Carl Sandburg. The subject matter was quite dark – with images of death and decay and ruins of a once-great city that overflowed with pride – ”We are the greatest city. Nothing like us ever was” – that is now left to rats and other wildlife. But it was also a very playful and fun piece, especially in the sections with singing and dancing by the three lead vocalists (Measha Brueggergosman, Mikaela Bennett and Kara Dugan) around the stage in a cabaret style to the rhythms of the jazz band. MTT stated that his influences for the vocal sections included Sarah Vaughan and James Brown, as well as classical influences Leontyne Price and Igor Stravinsky. It is safe to say that we really liked this piece and the performance. Even at a length 32 minutes, it kept our attention and enjoyment throughout.
Lou Harrison was a major force in American music, but is also considered one of California’s own, blending influences from the landscape and culture of the state and bridging them with his interests Asian music. This simultaneously local and world character was well represented in the selections from Suite for Violin and American Gamelan. The American Gamelan is a collection of instruments inspired by the materials, timbres and tunings of traditional Indonesian gamelan but new and different. Harrison often combined his Asian and invented instruments with more conventional western orchestral instruments, in this solo violin played by Nadya Tichman. The piece unfolded as a series of movements. The first, “Threnody” was a lamentation as the title would suggest, showcasing the violin, but all four movements had a distinctly Asian or abstract sound from the preponderance of sounds from the American gamelan.
The final piece of the evening was George Antheil’sJazz Symphony. It is musically and sonically quite different from Antheil’s most famous piece Ballet méchanique in that it is less noisy, more tonal, and focuses on traditional orchestral and popular instruments. Think of it as a predecessor of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which was in fact influenced by Jazz Symphony. Once again, however, this was not simply an orchestral performance. The lighting and video (this time by Clyde Scott created an enveloping environment reminiscent of a jazz-age cabaret or club. This was further enhanced by the dancers (directed by Patricia Birch) who wore 1920s-style costumes. The overall result of music, visuals, costuming and choreography was energetic, but also rather sexy – as our romanticized view of that era tends to be. There were a lot of fun and even comedic moments a the dancers attempted to distract and even “lead on” members of the orchestra (some of whom turned out to actually be dancers themselves who were soon replaced by the actual musicians).
Overall this was a very strong concert, and perhaps one of my favorites I have seen with the SF Symphony – and we have been going to quite a few in the past year or so. As the symphony often has intriguing programming outside the traditional catalog of 19th century classical works, we certainly expect to be back again soon. I do leave the experience pondering what it means to be “modern” or be in a “modern age”, however. Perhaps the span of time marked by these compositions is in some ways more “modern” than the period that is unfolding now, but that is a discussion for another time.
In February, the San Francisco Symphony performed The Gospel According to the Other Mary by composer John Adams with libretto by Peter Sellars. The event was part of the celebration of Adams’ 70th birthday.
[Photo courtesy of San Francisco Symphony]
The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a monumental opus, over two hours in length and featuring a full orchestra, chorus, and staging with the principal singers. The orchestra also included some additional interesting instruments, including this large collection of gongs.
As implied by the name, the libretto is drawn heavily from the New Testament, specifically the story of Mary and Martha of Bethany whose brother Lazarus is raised from the dead by Jesus. But it also incorporates many other modernist elements. The story moves back and forth between the Biblical setting and a more contemporary setting, weaving in scenes of women protesting as part of Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers’ strikes, and Mary witnessing a fellow inmate in jail suffering through a painful drug withdrawal. The setting of Mary and Martha’s home is depicted as a women’s shelter that would not be out of place in any large American city. And the milieu surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion is a modern urban uprising, complete with police sirens.
Another unusual element in this telling of the story is that Jesus is never specifically shown on stage as a character, although he is sometimes represented by a trio of tenors who also act as something akin to a Greek chorus. The full symphony chorus meanwhile acts as a tertiary level of narration, with Biblical quotes, Latin phrases, and more contemporary sources in English and Spanish. All of this makes for a complex setting around the main characters on stage: Mary (Kelly O’Connor), Martha (Tamara Mumford) and Lazarus (Jay Hunter Morris). Mary is the central character – she is listed as “Mary Magdalene” in the program although biblically she is not the same character as Mary of Bethany – introducing the piece and then reappearing frequently with long arias and monologues. Martha is the solid rock providing structure but also her own story running the shelter and caring for her sister and brother. Both women are portrayed as major “fan girls” of Jesus, excited when he comes to town, but each in their own way. Lazarus comes across as a bit of a skeptic and in one scene questions and challenges the somewhat amorphous Jesus.
The simplicity and familiarity of the central story combined with the complexity of the visual and sonic setting make for a compelling performance – even those who cynically eye-roll at “yet another musical setting of Biblical texts” should be impressed by this work. It is also a departure from earlier compositions by John Adams – he is best known for his minimalist works, similar to that of Steve Reich but with a softer tone and west-coast source materials. But there is nothing soft about this piece. It is dark, angry, anguished at times, especially during Mary’s multiple scenes of personal anguish and confusion as well as the tense scenes leading up to the crucifixion. The modern elements blend effortlessly with the biblical elements and help to bring home to brutality and harshness in both contexts.
The two-hour-plus length did seem a bit daunting at first (there was an intermission between acts), but it actually went quite quickly as were were wrapped up in the many aspects of the performance. Overall, it was a great experience and I am glad we were on hand for it. As this is Adams’ 70th birthday year, we are looking forward to hearing more performances of his music, new and old.