Sunday April first (no joke!) was the fifth annual Switchboard Music Festival. One of several new music festivals/marathon concerts in San Francisco, Switchboard features eight hours of mostly modern music. I had been really looking forward to hearing the first set with Danny Holt (piano and percussion at the same time), but due to the ever-present “my muni bus didn’t show up when nextbus said it would” problem in San Francisco, I did not arrive at the Brava Theater until his set was nearly over. This year is the second year in a row Switchboard has been held at the Brava Theater, which is located in the middle of the Mission District. It’s a wonderful place to hold a marathon concert, because between sets the audience can literally walk half a block out the door and find several options for good Mexican food. If by chance you didn’t like Mexican food, the festival had hired a food truck, which was parked nearby selling Indian food (the samosas were amazing!).
The atmosphere in the lobby as I was waiting for the second set to start was that of camaraderie and excitement: many of the (overwhelmingly young) attendees knew each other already and those that didn’t were soon introduced. This festive atmosphere continued throughout the evening as the audience grew. While the theater was far from full at 3ish when I got there, by the time I left well after 10 it was packed full of happy people. It was a nice touch to have the performances piped into the lobby, making it possible to continue listening to the show while enjoying a cold beer/soda with one’s friends or have a piece of cake (donated by Safeway) lovingly sliced and handed out by a volunteer, adding to the friendly vibe of the festival.
My favorite performance on the festival by far was the 2:50 set featuring The Living Earth Show, a guitar/percussion duo composed of Travis Andrews (guitar) and Andrew Meyerson (percussion). The duo performed two pieces that were perhaps best described as total and complete opposites of each other. They began with Timo Andres’ “You broke it, you bought it,” a beautifully constructed piece of deceptively simple lines. The piece reminded me of a performance I heard a few years back on Other Minds featuring Wayan Balawan and his Balinese gamelan. Like the gamelan players, Andrews and Meyerson alternated with each other in what western music would call “hockets” to create the illusion of a single line. Following the Andres with something completely different, the duo then performed the world premiere of Jonathan Russell’s “Repetitive Stress.” After a crack about how the piece was repetitive and stressful for the performers (and the audience too…) the duo launched into what my neighbor called “guy music,” a fantastically distorted perpetual motion of awesome.
This year was the first (in a history of five festivals) that Switchboard had included the performance of a choir. Volti made their Switchboard debut singing selections by Huang Ruo, David Conte, John Muehleisen, and Robin Estrada. They had their texts and translations projected onto the screen behind them as they sang, a touch I wish some of the other vocal pieces would have employed (especially the Stravinsky, which was sung in English).
Many of the other sets were also great fun, featuring everything from Stravisnky’s Les Noces (with awesome hair sculptures and a girl singing bass) to Nico Muhly (clarinet + electronics), Dunstable’s Quam pulchara es played by Cornelius Boots on shakuhachi, or Beep (self-described as avant-pop). There were several extra-musical aspects to parts of this years’ festival. I especially liked the collaboration with a stylist to create a “set” and costumes for Les
Noces—although I wouldn’t want to have to wear the wig tenor Dominique Leone wore. The effect was that of a giant squid made out of hair eating him alive as he sang! Several groups also wore costumes: Cornelius Boots wore a monk’s habit for part of his set, and the Living Earth Show, Grains, and Nonsemble 6 all dressed as either hunters or the hunted (camo and orange vests versus wolf t-shirts and antlers).
I am interested in the idea of “sets” that Switchboard has adopted. Dividing 8-hours of music into smaller chunks performed by separate groups does have advantages – especially with organization and set-up times – but I wonder how much it changes the feel of the event. Would the festival be completely different if instead of sets they had single works performed by the various groups? It would create some logistical problems, but I wonder if the resulting further blend of genres and styles might be worth the added effort. Perhaps a true blending and bending of genres might more easily be achieved if there were less time to settle into each different group or genre’s sound before a set-change break into the next?
Kelsey Walsh is a pianist and currently resides in San Francisco. Follow her on twitter: @kwpianist