Other Minds Festival 2021


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The Other Minds organization is the musical brain child of Charles Amirkhanian, who himself is a musician in addition to composer—and since 1993, also a producer. Other Minds is devoted to bringing both experimental and avant-garde music to a wider audience. What they often present falls most closely into the modern experimental (classical) music and free jazz realms. The OM 'association' presents an annual festival, which is always exciting and cutting edge. "Moment's Notice," the title this of year's festival, gives a nod to the classic John Coltrane tune, and to the improvisatory nature of the proceedings. Presented at the Taube Atrium Theater in San Francisco's War Memorial Building, the festival consisted of four concerts that ran from Oct. 14th through the 17th. The line-up featured a veritable Who's Who of this genre-defying music and multimedia performances

Day 1

The evening kicked off with a most unusual and impressive improv trio—pianist Myra Melford, bassist Mark Dresser, and Butoh dance master Oguri. Their spontaneous interplay was mesmerizing. Melford and Dresser were like wizards in their respective workshops, each brewing up their own magic. Their musical ministrations seamlessly moved the speed-of-light responsive, stick-like-but-limber Oguri like a gentle breeze. In accord with the players' masterful musicality, Oguri made it visually fascinating to behold. He was the music, and the musicians were the dance.

The second improv set presented three well-established performers: Ikue Mori (electronics-via-laptop musicienne extraordinaire), Zeena Parkins (concert harp and various small instruments of her own design), and the estimable William Winant performing from inside his unique percussion quadrangle of instruments that included four different-sized roto-toms, tympani, gongs, cymbals and more. They coordinated their improvisations so naturally, that it appeared that the three performers functioned like a single organism. The effect of these "special effects" was enthralling and even mind-bending. You have never heard such an infinitude of novel sounds.

[Note: Due to the diffuse nature of the music, there are no song titles for the first two performances, rather they are musical works.]

During an intermission, multimedia performer Jen Shyu furiously busied herself, artfully setting up her numerous world-musical instruments around the stage. Before beginning her performance of "Nine Doors," Ms. Shyu dedicated it to the mourning and remembrance of a close friend—an Indonesian puppeteer—and asked the audience to remember someone they've lost. Jen Shyu is a wonder, a Stanford grad polymath who speaks ten languages and is a composer, vocalist, raconteur, dancer, an accomplished pianist, and percussionist who plays many unusual instruments. There was a Japanese Kota and Biwa (a Japanese short-necked lute that is plucked), Korean Soribuk drum and gong, Timorese gong, and Taiwanese moon lute, to mention just a few. She sang and narrated in many of her ten languages. Jen Shyu is a rare and extraordinary individual who gave a spell-binding forty-minute performance that grabbed and emotionally hung me out on so many levels that it is impossible to describe. Upon the completion of her performance, the audience gave an involuntary standing ovation.

Day 2

The second evening of the 2021 Other Minds Festival 25 took place took place on Friday, Oct. 15. It was kicked off with an improv set entitled "Porch Music Material" led by Ben Goldberg (clarinet), Liberty Ellman (guitar)< and Gerald Cleaver (drums).

Goldberg began the proceedings by playing a soft single line that formed a motif for the others' accompaniment. The musicians perfectly tuned in to each other, taking turns making natural and seamless shifts of emergence into the lead. The music was powerful without being unduly loud. At times, both guitar and clarinet soloed simultaneously, all the while remaining in perfect accord. The phrasing on both instruments had an intuitive logic that produced a delightful harmony which Cleaver always highlighted, using his total command of the drum set. Goldberg produced a hollow, almost diaphanous tone that Ellman contrasted with sharp clean lines (reminiscent of Sonny Sharrock). It was amusing that for the final tune Goldberg actually counted off the time, as if—given that everything was in free time—it was something he had to do! The group was so in sync that all three tunes effortlessly wound down to easy and satisfying conclusions. It was thrilling to see these three masters at work.

The evening's second performance featured with William Parker—mostly on contrabass, but with excursions on the double-reeded argol-like and an outsized recorder. Hamid Drake manned drum set, with Patricia Nicholson declaiming and singing poetry while doing interpretive dance. Parker is a trip. Attired in a colorful orange and gold dashiki pulled over a maroon long-sleeved t-shirt, bright orange yoga pants (with matching light oxblood shoes), and a pink and cobalt-blue knit, tassel-free fez, he looked like the embodiment of free-jazz. Without a doubt, he commanded your attention. Drake was dressed somewhat nondescriptly but was nonetheless crowned with a distinctive piece of haberdashery. Nicholson wore a transparent patterned dress over florid leggings with one side of her face painted dark blue. The trio was quite a sight.

Ms. Nicholson declaimed a poetic offering to begin their improv set. Parker and Drake soon joined the party with their sonic presence, alas making it difficult to ascertain all her words. Parker's full thick and powerful tone, often functioned as a melodic time-keeper, at times using his hands on the bass's body and strings as "drumsticks." His thick, cherry-wood bow was a striking sight. Drake used any and all parts of his hands, fingers, drumsticks, and brushes to produce creative rhythmic accompaniment. At times, Nicholson, both in dance and word, was just flat out outré. Despite the pleasant eeriness of the scene, the trio gave a thoroughly captivating performance.

For the set's final section, Parker and Drake seated themselves side by side—Parker starting with a haunting melody on "argol," accompanied by Drake on tar (a large, circular frame drum), while Nicholson floated about on the stage. This section, too, proved to be an exciting and tramontane interlude, given the diverse voicings of their instruments and the otherworldliness of Nicholson. When Parker switched to his recorder, its tone sounded similar to a Shakuhachi flute.

After an intermission, MacArthur-genius drummer Tyshawn Sorey and "DJ" King Britt took the stage for the final performance of the evening. Britt began by tweaking his various Moogs, deliberatively plugging wires in and out, turning many knobs, and thereby setting up a repetitive ambient and rhythmic tone-drone structure over which Sorey would take command. Sorey, a big man, is a tower of power when he plays. Every stroke of his stick is forceful, defining the groove with never even a soupçon of doubt. Even when he plays softly, there is never even a nanosecond's lack of precision. The only problem with the set was that throughout, it essentially remained in similar rhythmic and tonal grooves that were almost indistinguishable from each other. This had to have been challenging for Sorey, but he managed it well. Given the challenge he took on, it is no wonder that Sorey has garnered the accolades he so richly deserves.

Day 4

The fourth and final concert of the Other Minds 2021 Festival, "Moment's Notice," was in the afternoon on Sunday, Oct. 17— what a grand finale it was. The lineup was stellar, and the turnout was heavy despite the impending rainstorm.

Leading off the afternoon was the duo of MacArthur fellow Mary Halvorson on guitar, and wildly creative pianist Sylvie Courvoisier—both luminaries of New York's avant-garde jazz world. Ms. Courvoisier played a mic'd Steinway grand and Ms. Halvorson employed an array of pedals and switches to 'EQ' and augment her hollow body electric guitar's sound. Both dressed tastefully but in a manner that belied the stunning music they were about to play. At times, Ms. Halvorson would "go underneath" to provide a bass line for Courvoisier's energetic, at times almost gymnastic keyboard ministrations, gyrating her fists and smashing her forearms and fingers against the keyboard to generate a furious wall of sound from what one might imagine to be the piano sagging under the weight of her attack. The pair could be amelodic in a most melodic kind of way. Their excursions ranged from brashly atonal to soft, lush, and lovely. Despite playing from written musical schematics, the music often sounded entirely improvised. The petite Courvoisier could make the piano roar when she played. Halvorson employed the use of wide, almost surreal chordal intonations, in her signature style.

Next up was the notable New York avant-gardist, guitarist, and distinctive-looking Elliott Sharp, whose instrument functioned more like a synthesizer than a guitar. Its eight-string neck was narrow and its bridge exceedingly wide. His set didn't consist of what we normally think of as music. Rather it was a symphony of varying and variegating electronic sound that would occasionally include a chord or two. This is not to say that he wasn't loaded with chops; it is just that they were outward-bound, with controlled feedback loops and sound effects made with small objects functioning as plectrums. Listening to his set was an experience that demanded a lot, at times even shaking my attention, but in the end left me transfixed and wanting more. Sharp too, has a taste for the atonal.

Finally, the long-awaited master Anthony Braxton humbly took the stage, with his partner in exploration, James Fei. Braxton had an array of three saxophones: alto, soprano, and sopranino, as did Fei, but with a baritone sax replacing the sopranino. The concert started with them both playing alto saxophone.

Professorial looking in appearance and comfortably dressed, Braxton could produce more sounds from his sopranino than anybody. They ranged from high-pitched, almost electronic feedback sheets of sound, to lush velvety tones that were pillows for the heart. He has an uncanny way of counting off time. He would strike a still pose of sharp attention—like a great blue heron—and then in a flick extend a number of fingers either horizontally or vertically, only to finger-snap to count one-two and then pause for a few beats, that led both players to enter the music simultaneously. This was quite a feat because the pauses were unpredictable and seemingly in no regular cadence. The Braxton-Fei duo played only three compositions, but they held us mere mortals spellbound. It was an historic performance.

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