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MUSIC REVIEW

Call it other-dimensional

The 10th edition of the Other Minds Festival is determinedly eclectic and international.

March 09, 2004|Josef Woodard | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — It's no hyperbole to report that this city's Other Minds Festival, which celebrated its 10th anniversary over the weekend, is possibly the premier new music festival on the West Coast. Then again, the festival covers a sparsely populated and elusively defined field, helping to reinvent the very rules of the game.

Founder-director Charles Amirkhanian has presided over an entity -- also involving a record label and other events -- that refuses to abide by standard visions of what a classical festival should be. In the gospel according to Other Minds, the eclectic identity of contemporary music naturally engages with influences from various parts of the world, along with sprinklings of jazz, improvisation and computer music.

Those elements were fully, unabashedly in evidence at this year's OM10 -- the operative moniker -- in a program that included inspiring visits from Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian, Polish-born composer Hanna Kulenty and German accordionist Stefan Hussong. A clear, and typically multicultural, highlight was a captivating conceptual setting of Indian dhrupad vocalizing by Italian Amelia Cuni, in collusion with electronic manipulation by Werner Durand and elaborate projections by Uli Sigg. From the anti-visual contingent, audiences heard Montrealer Francis Dhomont's latter-day musique concrete work in iridescent, abstract and fully enveloping sound in a speaker-filled hall.

Indeed, Other Minds' 2004 edition carried an emotional weight connected to its taking place at the site of its inaugural event, the then-new Yerba Buena Center. Nomadic through the years, it alighted in different venues before finally returning to the Yerba Buena in fitter form.

Mansurian is a composer suddenly in some degree of a spotlight thanks partly to the German ECM label, which has begun to record his music, including "Hayren," performed Thursday. Armenian roots emerge in spare, haunting strokes in the piece, with the composer at the piano humbly singing songs of the treasured Armenian songwriter Komitas. Mansurian's dry, strained voice brings the songs to life, in ways both coolly detached and rustically fervent. These mostly melancholy pieces about displacement were enhanced by evocative parts for violist Kim Kashkashian and percussionist Joel Davel.

In contrast to Mansurian's folk song colorations, Kulenty's Flute Concerto No. 1 presented a fascinating new model of Euro-minimalism, full of elastic pulses and spiraling energies rather than the steadier grooves of American Minimalists. Kulenty wrote the piece for quarter-tone flute specialist Anne La Berge, who, fronting the Parallele Ensemble, conducted nimbly by Nicole Paiement, expertly traversed a beguiling structure that works its way from driving density to eerie sparseness.

U.S. and world premieres lined the way during the festival, which was spread over three long concerts, Thursday to Saturday. Diversity was almost dogmatically key to the organizers' philosophy, but subtle themes threaded throughout. Friday night's program, for instance, if stylistically broad, was focused on the solo performers Cuni, Hussong and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud. The sound, however, was hardly lean or lonely, thanks to technology in the wings.

Cuni was the sole live performer in the "Ashtayama -- Song of Hours," alternately sensual, bold and contemplative. The hourlong work, in its U.S. premiere, combined her intense and measured singing with swirling electronic effects. She became part dancer and performance artist, surrounded by a translucent circular screen on which Sigg's projections conveyed the elements -- water, fire, weather -- and abstractions.

Hussong's performance was a revelation. A Baroque specialist, among other things, he plays a mean Bach. But this set was dedicated to contemporary ideas, with one notable exception: He opened with an example of 10th century Japanese court music for the sho, an ancestor of the modern accordion. He then segued naturally into expert squeezebox adaptations of 1948 music by John Cage, with the composer's blessing. During one, stilt-dancer Pamela Wunderlich moved in the background, adding weird stately mystery to the suitably titled "Dream."

Edgier and more tonally active material arrived via Keiko Harada's visceral "Bone+" and Adriana Holsky's "High Way for One," in which the accordion's varied expressive language of throbbing and bellowing sounds was artfully exploited.

From the Bay Area new music contingent came an ambitious hourlong piece on opening night, Jon Raskin's "The Hear and Now." Raskin, a member of the veteran Rova Saxophone Quartet, arranged for the quartet to join an array of musicians from various Asian traditions gamely heeding a guided improvisatory road map. Despite incidental pleasures, the work was too long and loose to transcend the noble experiment status.

Bay Area cellist Jeanrenaud, formerly with the Kronos Quartet, has been fruitfully experimenting with cello contexts. Here, she presented two premieres: Mark Grey's "Sands of Time" blends the live cellist and four prerecorded and processed tracks of her, building a kind of one-person Kronos effect; her own "Hommage" found her gracefully layering varied melodic materials atop real-time-generated loops.

For its jazz component, OM10 chose bassist Alex Blake's group to close on Saturday night. The Panamanian-born musician unleashed a set pumped full of energy and allusions to African and Latin styles. But although that worldly breadth linked up to the Other Minds sensibility, the performance was the festival's most "traditional" in its given genre. This admirably adventurous event is normally focused on the restless pursuit of newer musical orders.

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