The festival brought together Robert Ashley, Thomas Buckner, Barbara Monk Feldman, Philip Glass, Jon Jang, Meredith Monk, Foday Musa Suso, Conlon Nancarrow, Trimpin, Jai Uttal and Julia Wolfe and was hosted by Charles Amirkhanian. I was able to attend most of the panels and performances and what follows is some of my experiences and impressions of the three day festival of music.
First, let me tell you how wonderful San Francisco's new Yerba Buena Center is. I've passed by the construction site on my way to and from work every day for a year and I was pretty unimpressed by the building. Now that I've spent some time there, I've definitely changed my mind. The center has been set up very well and looks like it will have a good future as a place of the arts -it's a very pleasant place to spend a day. The galleries are well lit and large (a sharp contrast to San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art). Now on to the festival. It opened with a concert showcasing Conlon Nancarrow, Trimpin, Julia Wolfe and Foday Musa Suso. Nancarrow was definitely the highlight of the festival, his musical presence even overshadowing the more famous Philip Glass. Nancarrows work is written for the player piano and contains multiple rhythms and harmonies that made it impossible for humans to perform. Trimpin, who seemed to be some sort of electronics genius, built a device that responds to MIDI and hooks onto any piano to turn it into a player piano. The contraption rests on top of the keys and has pistons which hit the keys at the right time. Trimpin also invented a device to turn Nancarrows piano rolls into MIDI data files. Two world premieres of Nancarrows pieces were performed and then world premieres of two pieces by Trimpin featuring two computer-controlled bass clarinets. The second half of the concert featured a beautiful quartet piece by Julia Wolfe. Foday Musa Suso then performed a few of his songs and was joined by Philip Glass to play one of the songs they wrote together from "The Screens."
The next day, there was a panel discussion with all of the composers and a demonstration / conversation with Trimpin and Conlon Nancarrow discussing their work and collaborations. Nancarrow celebrated his 81st birthday the week before. His memory seems to have gone, but he was still able to answer some questions about his music. Trimpin had set up a truly amazing installation in the Forum of the Yerba Buena. Essentially, he had build 12 mini xylophones which were suspended from the ceiling around the room. Each note on each xylophone had a corresponding note so that songs could be played on the "instrument." It sounded quite amazing.
The second nights concert featured Jon Jang, Philip Glass, Barbara Monk Feldman and three pieces by John Cage. I had not been aware of Jang's music before, and I was impressed by what I heard. His music combines elements of jazz,classical and Chinese classical music. Glass gave a performance of Mad Rush which is on his "Solo Piano" CD. It was a good rendition, but it might have been more interesting to hear a piece that was not available on recording. Barbara Monk Feldman's piece was sparse, a piano and percussion duet. It did not captivate me very much. It reminded me of some old computer music records I had heard with a lot of empty space punctuated by an occasional "beep." There was an interesting choice of pieces from Cage. There were two early pieces ( a solo piano piece and his Nocturne ) and one of his later pieces which sounded more like what people expect of his music. I was really surprised by his older pieces. They were very beautiful, and highly melodic, which is not a word that is normally associated with Cages' music.
On the third day there was a panel discussion about the influences and importance of John Cage, which turned out to be more of a session of anecdotes and stories about the man and his music. The audience was small, and it seemed that I was the only one in the entire room who hadn't at least met Cage in person. (Or kissed his arse. ed.)