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Switchboard Music launches its monthly series of concerts at CNM

The three guitarists of the Mobius Trio: Mason Fish, Matthew Holmes-Linder, and Robert Nance
The three guitarists of the Mobius Trio: Mason Fish, Matthew Holmes-Linder, and Robert Nance
courtesy of the Tangents Guitar Series

At the end of last month, I announced that Switchboard Music, the group that organizes an eight-hour marathon every spring to showcase adventurous new music on or beyond the “bleeding edge,” would sponsor a monthly series of concerts. Called Switchboard Presents: Split Bills of Eclectic Bay Area Music, the plan is to bring together two or more groups on the scale of an evening concert, rather than an all-day marathon. These events have been scheduled at the Center for New Music (CNM) and will be held on the third Friday of every month.

Last night at CNM was thus the “official launch” of the Switchboard Presents series. To get things off to a roaring start, the program was split among three ensembles, The Living Earth Show, Mobius Trio, and Friction Quartet. Including the two intermissions for setup changes between the groups, the evening clocked in at a little less than two and one-half hours, a generous slice of time for the latest showcase for boundary-pushing local composers and musicians.

The Living Earth Show, consisting of guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson, began the evening with their energetically provocative approach to exploring a wide dynamic range. They opened on the soft end of that range with Chris Cerrone’s “Double Happiness,” for which Meyerson spent most of his time on vibraphone. By working with a limited set of pitch classes and the metallic sound of Meyerson’s instrument, Cerrone conceived a contemporary perspective on Indonesian gamelan traditions. This was reinforced by the use of the electric guitar to highlight specific pitches, sometimes through ingeniously conceived hocket effects. The result was an “overture,” for both the evening and the new series, which combined a highly imaginative approach to these two strikingly different instruments with a rhetoric bordering on solemnity.

Then it was time for things to get loud. The second piece was Sahba Aminikia’s “Sooge Sohrab,” whose title comes from an ancient Persian legend. The tale concerns young Sohrab, raised only by his mother, learning who his father is and riding off to find him. He is discovered by his father, who, not knowing who he is and viewing him as a threat, kills him. The guitar and percussion are joined by electronics, providing both sonorities and a narration of the story in English.

The primary focus of the music is its rhetorical technique for evoking the aggressively unbridled energy of both son and father. Both are portrayed as “hero figures;” but they are both concentrated only on action without any thought for consequences. The murder itself is realized by screams from Andrews’ instrument, wailing at the highest possible register. In a space as confined as CNM, that made quite an impression on the eardrums; but there was no denying the visceral impact of Aminikia’s score.

Things then quieted down for the second set by Mobius Trio, consisting of guitarists Matt Linder, Rob Nance, and Mason Fish. They began with the world premiere of “Edges” by Belinda Reynolds, who was on hand to give a few introductory remarks. The music itself was an elaborate fabric of interleaving arpeggio patterns within which upper and lower “voices” emerged through melodic lines of pitches contributed by each of the instruments (another hocket effect). There was a quiet subtlety to this music that allowed things to calm down after the intensity of Aminikia’s score. That sense of calm continued into Adrian Knight’s “Bon Voyage,” for which the instruments were enhanced with subtle amplification.

The final piece turned out to be a fascinating study in sound effects. Kevin Villalta’s “Witch Wagon” was another piece based on a folk tale. In this case it concerns a man who takes out his ox cart on the Sabbath, when everyone else is in church. This will be recognized as the tale in Gottfried August Bürger’s ballad “Der wilde Jäger” (the wild hunter), made into a tone poem by César Franck. However, “Witch Wagon” is less concerned with telling the story than with capturing the creaking sounds of the cart through percussive effects on the three guitars, effects that become more sinister as they become more incessant.

The evening concluded with the Friction Quartet of violinists Kevin Rogers and Otis Harriel, violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Doug Machiz. This turned out to be my third encounter with Ian Dicke’s “Unmanned.” This time Dicke himself provided the introduction, explaining how he composed the music to reflect his personal feelings about the dehumanization of warfare through drone technology. The CNM space also allowed Friction to provide the same dramatic conclusion they had performed at the work’s West Coast premiere at the end of January.

Dicke’s score uses real-time sampling for electronic processing to create a sense of detachment between what the musicians are playing and what is coming out of a pair of loudspeakers. Over the course of the piece, the dominant role of the performers is undermined by the electronic sounds. Eventually, the performers are instructed to leave the stage. Each of them took a seat in the audience space (as they had done when the piece was given its West Coast premiere), thus bearing witness “from a distance” to conditions of their own creation. This continues to be a highly chilling composition, due, in no small part, to its contemporary relevance.

The evening then concluded with a performance of Philip Glass’ fifth string quartet. Composed in 1991, this was the oldest piece on the program (as Glass was the oldest composer). Friction gave the work a loving interpretation, recognizable to those familiar with Glass’ tropes but still fresh through his ability to apply those tropes through different approaches to instrumentation, harmonic progression, and an episodic structural framework with a da capo conclusion. One might say that this quartet was the “classic” of the evening; but it is still very much music of the present.