Entertainment & Arts

Review: S.F.'s Other Minds concerts create some otherworldly sounds

‘Other Minds’
Don Byron, left, with drummer John Betsch play a tune at the Other Minds music festival.
(Mike Melnyk)
Los Angeles Times Music Critic

Other Minds has been a San Francisco new music treat since 1993. Composers and performers broadly representing the experimental side of classical music, jazz, rock, world music, instrument building and whatnot come together for an annual weekend of concerts. The roster includes both famous and emerging artists.

That’s the treat for the city. But there is also a treat for the participants, who gather in the Silicon Valley hills beforehand for a private retreat where they exchange ideas and musical traditions.

What remains most fascinating about Other Minds is the range of music represented. Saturday and Sunday, I heard two of this year’s three programs, which were held at SFJAZZ Center.

The participants included, in alphabetical order: text sound composer Charles Amirkhanian (who is also the Other Minds co-founder and director), jazz clarinetist Don Byron, Norwegian accordion player and composer Frode Haltli, dean of Armenian music Tigran Mansurian, koto player and composer Miya Masaoka, British composer Michael Nyman, dean of American experimental music (and also an accordion player) Pauline Oliveros and composer, singer and pianist Errollyn Wallen.


Mansurian and Nyman were given U.S. premieres of orchestral works. Both are leading international composers who frequent L.A. — Nyman writing for films; Mansurian dividing his time between Glendale and Yerevan, the Armenian capital. Yet L.A. orchestras, like all American orchestras, ignore them.

Also of interest is the Other Minds scene. This was my first visit to SFJAZZ, which opened two years ago in the trendy Hayes Valley. The San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera and the new Twitter headquarters are neighbors.

The steeply raked, arena-like interior of the 700-seat SF JAZZ may lack intimacy, but the amplification by Meyer Sound Laboratories is the most fetching I’ve yet encountered in a space that size. Unamplified chamber music is natural and detailed. This festival was the first to bring in a 60-piece orchestra. The hall is a huge success and booked every night.

Saturday’s program, all amplified, was conspicuously diverse. Amirkhanian recited, along with tape, short pieces in which he rhythmically cuts up word to create striking percussive effects. Wallen accompanied herself at the piano (and was also joined by the Del Sol String Quartet) in songs that wandered in a netherland between jazz and Lieder.


In the premiere of Oliveros’ “Twins Peeking at Koto,” drones led her (playing an electronic accordion, capable of microtones), Haltli (on normal but amplified accordion) and Masaoka (on amplified koto) into novel sonic worlds. Out of the hums and whirs came bright cascades of instrumental colors. Rather than seeking common ground between the music of America, Norway and Japan, Oliveros simply sought, and found, something new to all.

Byron’s jazz quartet includes two jazz veterans — John Betsch, drums; Cameron Brown, bass — and a young, excitingly adventurous pianist, Aruán Ortiz. In their set, avant-garde and tradition held hands.

The Sunday program with the orchestral works by Mansurian and Nyman was meant as a centennial memorial of the Armenian genocide and began with Amirkhanian’s haunting half-hour electronic soundscape of Armenia.

The haunting continued in Mansurian’s “Canti Paralleli,” settings of Armenian love poetry for soprano, piano and strings written in memory of his wife, and Romance for Violin and Strings. The 76-year-old composer reveals an adamant spirituality in his works yet wastes no notes. He had the advantage of Hasmik Papian as the moving soprano and Movses Pogossian as the incandescent violinist.

He did not, however, have the advantage of a professional ensemble. The SOTA Orchestra, which also played Nyman’s Second Symphony, is made up of students from San Francisco’s School of the Arts high school, conducted by their capable music director, Bradley Hogarth.

Finding serious high schoolers playing this music is a sign of hope. But they cannot be expected to have achieved a state of accomplishment. Nyman’s upbeat symphony — taken from music he wrote for Polish films and given added Coplandesque overtones, had its premiere by a youth orchestra in Mexico City in November. Still, it needs professional polish.

This is where Other Minds seemed a little sad this year. It no longer attracts the kind of young crowd that could be seen milling around San Francisco Symphony’s hip new Soundbox on Saturday night. Twitteristas willing to wait half an hour to spend a tenner at a nearby ice-cream store could care less for artistic adventure.

Real estate and art have never mixed. San Francisco was once a new-music mecca, but with the highest rents in the country it felt last weekend as though its soul is increasingly for sale to Silicon Valley. Can it be a coincidence that a week ago the San Jose Mercury News reassigned its music critic to the real estate beat?


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