View from the West: Other Minds

View from the West: Other Minds

Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

The Other Minds Festival in San Francisco offers a healthy and provocative departure from the conventional new music series or festival. Whereas most new music organizations focus on their own favorite style or flavor—it makes sense; you present what you like and know—it takes a bold, daring organization with a visionary at the helm to mix things up, present quality music, and still draw an audience. Other Minds, with Charles Amirkhanian (composer, sound poet, radio and record producer, impresario, and new music champion) as Executive and Artistic Director, is such an organization. While there can be no doubt that Other Minds has a “downtown” bias, their festivals take a more broad and catholic approach, and juxtapose a remarkably wide range of styles and genres. What other series would include not only Robert Ashley, Lou Harrison, Laurie Anderson, Conlon Nancarrow, David Lang, and Gavin Bryars, but also such disparate composers, artists and performers as Ned Rorem, Scanner, Olly Wilson, DJ Spooky, Luc Ferrari, Glen Velez, Henry Brant, Stephan Micus, Trimpin, Tania León, Henry Kaiser, and Hamza El Din?

As an example of their eclectic approach, Other Minds mounted its first film festival last fall, dubbed “Eyes & Ears,” focusing on three musicians: DJ Spooky, Frank Zappa, and Percy Grainger. While all are nonconformists in one way or another, it is not a trio that would immediately leap to mind when putting together such a festival. Other composers and musicians represented in the film series included Terry Riley, Björk, Stockhausen, Leon Theremin, Pandit Pran Nath, George Antheil, John Cage, Henry Cowell, and Robert Erickson, among others. About the only common factors that one could site for such a collection of artists is that all are unconventional, all seek to push the boundaries of their art and all are mavericks of one stripe or another.

Victoria Hansen rehearsing the American premiere of Stephen Scott’s Paisajes Audibles at Other Minds 9.
Photo © 2003 Charles Amirkhanian.

This past March, over the course of four evenings, one heard, for example, in a single evening, Daniel Lentz’s post-minimalist theatrical secular cantata, Café Desire, free jazz bassist William Parker‘s mixed ensemble piece Spirit Catcher, and New Zealand composer Jack Body‘s Three Sentimental Songs based on such familiar ditties as “Little Brown Jug” and “All Through the Night” (the latter including audience participation singing), transformed in the most curious, yet satisfying way, on the one hand, and the much gnarlier Sarajevo on the other. Another night featured the “taut, expressionist” music of Ge Gan-ru, Amy X Neuberg‘s experimental avant-pop songs in her solo performance including gorgeous classically trained cum rock singing, live electronics, and percussion, and a dazzling solo recital by the Scottish percussion phenom Evelyn Glennie performing on snare drum and five-octave marimba. Other composers participating in this year’s festival included Stephen Scott, Rorem and Micus.

Other Minds, however, is more than merely eclectic. It not only offers composers, musicians, and audiences an opportunity to encounter music that they might not otherwise choose to hear, so diverse are each concert’s programs, but there is a chance for real interaction. Prior to the three or four nights of concerts, the composers gather at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program near Woodside, just outside of Palo Alto and the Stanford University campus where Carl Djerassi, the chemist who created the birth control pill, and also an acclaimed author and playwright once taught. Often such festivals finds the participants preoccupied with getting their music together at the expense of interaction with others, whether other composers, performers, or audience members. The composers and some of the performers assemble at Djerrasi with the express purpose of engaging in a dialogue with one another. Each of the featured artists makes a presentation about their own work and there are opportunities to discuss music, the arts, and whatever else they fancy. How many festivals are designed with the composers’ growth and development in mind, rather than a fixation solely on the concerts? Once the concerts begin, each evening’s music is preceded by a panel with the composers and Amirkhanian before an audience. Amirkhanian, ever the informed, probing, and intelligent interviewer, is the perfect conduit between composer and audience member. Even the intermission offers opportunities, as the composers mingle with attendees rather than hiding out backstage.

Evelyn Glennie in residence at the Djerassi Program.
Photo © 2003 Charles Amirkhanian.

The genius behind such a festival is the cross-fertilization and dialogue that can and does take place. Within the brief span of a week or so, composers, musicians, and music lovers can hear and learn about the creative process, improvisation, music technology from high tech to low tech, personal aesthetics, and more.

Amirkhanian notes that the Other Minds Festivals have been modeled after the ground breaking and most memorable New Music America Festivals of the late 1970s (originally New Music New York in 1979) and 1980s that similarly offered a variety of styles and genres. One might find not only experimental music, but free jazz and edgy rock artists such as The Residents and Brian Eno, even Jack Bruce (singing, playing bass and snare drum in a Carla Bley mini-opera). The range of music, which was quite remarkable, from the sublime to the shocking, can be observed in the great success of the festivals as well as John Cage’s infamous judgment and condemnation of Glenn Branca‘s concert as a performance of “fascist” music.

In its own way, a more analogous kind of forerunner to Other Minds can be found in Bill Graham‘s Fillmore Auditorium (later Fillmore West). In the wake of The Beatles‘ experiments and extensions of rock, the burgeoning San Francisco music scene of the mid to late sixties was already quite eclectic, belying the journalistic moniker of the “San Francisco Sound.” There was not a monolithic psychedelic style, rather the San Francisco scene was characterized by musical diversity, though mostly in the guise of rock music. One could encounter elements and hybrids of old timey music, jug band music, western swing, salsa, country, funk, folk, what was then called “raga rock” (almost anything smacking of Indian ragas), blues shouting, jazz, roots rock, bluegrass, cajun, and more in the likes of such disparate groups as the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe & the Fish, Tower of Power, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Santana, Moby Grape, Blue Cheer, and the Flaming Groovies. However, all of these groups were, at their core, rock bands.

Graham helped break down musical barriers by regularly programming remarkably diversified bills that seemed at once be pushing the envelope, and, on the other hand, in touch with the eclecticism that was manifesting itself in contemporary Western culture. Just as young people were investigating non-Western religions and practices, including various forms of Buddhism, Hare Krishna, yoga, and the like; or co-ops and natural, macrobiotic diets, and other then unconventional lifestyles, so were they investigating new styles of music, albeit mostly of the vernacular or popular types.

A perusal of concerts at the Fillmore yield the following bills: the Denny Zeitlin Trio, the Jefferson Airplane, the Great Society, and Wildflower; Bola Sete, Country Joe & the Fish, and the Buffalo Springfield; the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Mount Rushmore; Chuck Berry, the Charles Lloyd Quartet, and the Steve Miller Blues Band; the Young Rascals, Charles Lloyd Quartet, and Hair; Love, the Staple Singers, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk; the Yardbirds, It’s a Beautiful Day, and Cecil Taylor; the Grateful Dead, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and the Sons of Champlin; the Jefferson Airplane, Ballet Afro-Haiti, and A. B. Skhy; Santana, the Impressions, and Blues Image; and The Who, Woody Herman & His Orchestra, and A. B. Skhy. Amid the broad spectrum of rock styles are examples of jazz of many types including swing, New Orleans, free improvisation, and hard bop, along with bossa nova, gospel, soul, and even a concert rendering of a Broadway musical and world dance. It is difficult to imagine Cecil Taylor and It’s a Beautiful Day or Woody Herman and The Who appearing on the same bill today. And this was decades before Lollapalooza. There can be no doubt but that the rock groups absorbed and learned from the non-rock artists on the bill and that the dialogue was likely a two-way street.

In this day of laser-beam focused music programming on commercial radio, from hip-hop radio to classical stations that play classical and romantic repertoire almost exclusively, to the lamentable situation on public radio with new music being one of many losers, to the metamorphosis of PBS into VH1, an organization such as Other Minds offers a more than welcome alternative to new music programming. Indeed, it is increasingly apparent that it represents a model that can help revitalize and energize the new music community. To further the cause and dissemination of new music, Other Minds not only mounts festivals, it has branched out into CD production (including releases by Nancarrow, Antheil, pianola performances of music by Stravinsky, Lutoslawski and others, and most recently, Ezra Pound), web-radio broadcasts, audio and video archives, the offering of autograph scores for auction as important historical, artistic, and collectible documents, and a newsletter, all reminiscent of Henry Cowell’s championing work through his New Music Quarterly endeavors which included the journal, concerts, music publication, recordings, and more.

While this year’s Other Minds Festival was another artistic success, there was at least one area of concern. I noticed that the audience was not as diverse as I had expected or hoped. Especially lamentable was the relative absence of younger listeners, in spite of the presence of Evelyn Glennie and Amy X Neuberg who might especially appeal to a younger audience. There were plenty of baby boomers and those older; there was rather more grey hair than I expected and fewer fresh faces than I had hoped. That being said, it must be noted that Other Minds 6 concerts featuring Scanner and DJ Spooky were attended by a more youthful audience, though they did not cross over to the more conventionally classical concerts. Likewise, “Eyes & Ears” also attracted a younger audience suggesting that, at the very least, new music on film might appeal to a more youthful demographic, but pulling in a similar audience to a concert situation might require more innovative programming, some re-tooling, woodshedding, and the engaging of twenty-something composers into the festival.

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