Characteristically distinctive sounds rang out throughout the day during the sixth annual Switchboard Music Festival in San Francisco on Sunday, March 24, 2013. This was the third year in a row the festival has been held at the Brava Theater in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District. The Brava is easily accessible by public transportation or car (although parking can be a nightmare), and makes a great venue for the festival. I hope they are able to continue using the space for many more years to come. Just like last year’s festival, Switchboard incorporated elements of local culture into their show, including a food truck parked right out front selling Indian food. Unfortunately, the food didn’t agree with some of the audience as well as last year’s truck did, I heard several festival attendees complaining of indigestion as the night wore on. Thankfully, the music suffered no ill effects.
The 8-hour marathon concert began at 2:00 PM with a set performed by the Rob Reich Quintet, featuring compositions by Reich, its multi-instrumentalist band leader. The quintet’s performance set the tone for this year’s festival very well. The tunes each showed influence from a different musical tradition (or sometimes several at once) including blues, pop, rock, and jazz. While most of the set was “composed” music, each piece featured improvised breaks from members of the quintet. Even though a hugely diverse set of influences was showcased, the set was held together by a post-minimalist groove-oriented and somewhat up-beat feeling characteristic of the “switchboard sound.”
It is totally wonderful that Switchboard is so committed to promoting the intersection of multiple styles and genres, and presenting acts from different musical traditions. However, even though I heard bands and ensembles from all corners of the country and the musical world, they all were connected musically. Each group had their own sound, yes, but Switchboard has a “genre.” It’s part of what makes the festival unique: unlike some other festivals (for example Hot Air at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music or Other Minds) Switchboard is unified by this distinct sound each of its performers share in a clearly discernible manner. In many ways the festival is a mini-series of sets each looking at the same sound-theme through the colors and instrumentations of many different performers. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s actually kind of cool. This year’s theme was improvisation. Several groups, including Areon Flutes’ world-premiere performance of Cornelius Boots’ Chthonic Suite and Billygoat’s performance of their multimedia pieces Lyric and Sophia performed music that was clearly composed. But most of the other sets I heard all had strong improvisatory styles.
A new addition to this year’s festival were Robin Estrada’s Paanyaya Interlude Pieces, performed during breaks on tongatong (bamboo tubes), bungkaka (bamboo buzzers), patetteg (bamboo plates), and saggeypo (bamboo pipes). Never before (to my knowledge) has Switchboard employed roving bands of performers winding through the theater between sets. Each interlude piece had a slightly different character, although due to the quiet nature of the bamboo instruments and the high volume of the audience chatter during the set breaks it was hard to listen with much attentiveness. I’ll be curious to see if Switchboard continues with the idea of interlude music between their sets in the future. I was sorry to miss hearing ZOFO and Sqwonk this year. The two ensembles come together in a performance of Jonathan Russell’s Sqwonkzoforus Rex, which I had the pleasure of hearing last year. I remember really enjoying the piece, and would have liked to hear it again.
The final three sets on the festival built to a raucous conclusion. Billygoat’s exquisitely whimsical stop-motion animation accompanied by their own musical performance was quietly wonderful. The ensemble Build then proceeded to do just that, building up sounds throughout their set. The final act on this year’s festival was Subharmonic, a new-ish band headed by the Jazz Mafia creator Adam Theis. Featuring five multi-instrumentalists and a little heavy on the brass, the band was really cool but amplified to ear-bending levels. I left after the first few songs and continued to listen from the lobby, where the volume was more to my tastes.
Overall, Switchboard 2013 was a wonderful experience. It was great to see a nearly full audience during the peak hours, as well as many dedicated marathon concert fans who stayed the whole time. In contrast with audiences at most modern music events, there were a large number of older attendees, perhaps indicating that Switchboard has become enough of a part of the music establishment in San Francisco to begin attracting an audience beyond the usual new-music-junkie suspects.
Kelsey Walsh is a pianist and currently resides in San Francisco. Follow her on twitter: @kwpianist.