Sitting shoulder to shoulder with her 28-piece Magik*Magik Orchestra last month, composer, vocalist, and musician Minna Choi performed a set of 10 grandiose songs with indie-rock darlings the Dodos inside the expansive SFMOMA. The collaboration was part of the museum's members-only anniversary celebration, and Choi strained to hear herself over roaming crowds of revelers. While she enjoyed the experience, she viewed it as a precursor to the main event — the show her crew will perform with the Dodos at the Palace of Fine Arts during Noise Pop 2010. "I'm excited, because I think the Noise Pop audience will be a much more attentive crowd," she says.
Choi's admiration for Noise Pop, San Francisco's sprawling music, arts, and film festival now in its 18th year, is surprisingly common. It's hardly the only music bender in town, and certainly not the only time to catch great live music here. But each year a skeleton crew works to book a singular festival. "We really set out to do something different," says Noise Pop's Jordan Kurland. "We set out to find unique collaborations, an interesting mix of bands and films you won't see elsewhere."
The event offers a distinctive perspective on San Francisco, a hearty grouping of major artists and tiny up-and-coming acts, collaborative art exhibits inspired by sound, movies not screened elsewhere, and a conference devoted to all things music industry. Popular locals Scissors for Lefty and Rogue Wave will play venues they sold out years ago, and divergent acts will share the stage — such as rocker John Vanderslice with San Francisco's all-female, pop-reinterpreting choir Conspiracy of Venus.
Since its 1993 inception, Noise Pop has showcased hundreds of local emerging artists; brought in such big name acts as Frank Black, Bob Mould, Modest Mouse, and the Flaming Lips to play venues far below their selling point; and premiered music-heavy films such as the psychedelic mindfuck that is Wayne Coyne's Christmas on Mars. This year, Kurland points to both the Cornelius-backed Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band concert at the Fox Theater and the Magik*Magik Orchestra show with the Dodos as the kinds of performances the Noise Pop team seeks out.
"The Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band was something we actively pursued," Kurland says. "We started making the calls the second we saw she was to play a few shows." The Dodos with Magik*Magik Orchestra show, however, just happened: "They were doing the MOMA show, so it made sense to include it for the public during Noise Pop." He also notes the importance of the collaborative art programs this year. "The Art of Noise," featuring art inspired by music, is on display Feb. 19 through 28 at Project One, and "Outside the Crowd" rock photography is up now through March 3 at Hotel Biran.
An often-forgotten natural feature of the festival is the venues map it offers residents. Events are spread out evenly across the city, so people can mix and match where they see shows. In that sense, Noise Pop is comparable to an early version of Austin's South by Southwest, and the similarities don't end there. Long-running cultural maps of their respective cities, these festivals struggle to balance booking big-name acts with remaining true to the local scene.
The documentary tentatively titled Austin, Texas: Live Music Capital of the World? is just one of the sneak peeks Noise Pop offers. It explores the question posed in the film's title and brings up many of the challenges that plague long-running music festivals, as well as the positive effects of exposure versus the ultimate overexposure of a scene. Director Nathan Christ spent two years filming three Austin acts as they dealt with their evolving music community. During Noise Pop, he will discuss his process and answer questions. He says he's curious to see how the audience responds to the film. "We watched these musicians struggle throughout the year, then the rest of the world rolls in" for SXSW, he says. "Noise Pop seems like a more accessible version of SXSW — it's very intriguing to me."
Christ won't be the only filmmaker making an appearance during Noise Pop. After spending years as an afterthought, the film side of the festival has finally become an equally significant entity. Of the 12 movies screening this year, most of the filmmakers will be on hand to discuss their work.
But, of course, movies are just one aspect of the multidisciplinary event. Noise Pop is an extended combination of all the festivals that make San Francisco great. It books the local underground bands from Mission Creek, the work of fine artists from International Arts Fest, and a few major players you might only be able to catch at the pricey and crowded Outside Lands or the Treasure Island Music Festival, which is coproduced by Noise Pop.
During the past three years, Kurland and Noise Pop founder Kevin Arnold have focused most of their energy into getting the Treasure Island festival off the ground. Now, with that fall music weekender afloat, Kurland says he's glad to return his attention to Noise Pop. "With [Arnold] and I, it's always been a struggle of 'Are we winding up or are we winding down?'" he says. "We never want to be treading water."