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Rebellious Roots: The Avant-Garde Other Minds Festival Celebrates 20 Years of Making Music on the Fringe 

Wednesday, Mar 4 2015
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What do bird flight patterns, Twin Peaks, and the traditional Japanese stringed instrument called the koto have in common? This weekend, they'll all come together when Other Minds celebrates its 20th anniversary as a convergence point for the outcasts, outliers, and misfits of modern music.

Billed enigmatically as "A Festival of Unexpected New Music," this year's event takes place from March 6 through 8 at the SF Jazz Center, and features a preposterously diverse program, including multiple world premieres. These include a microtonal string quartet by avant-garde stalwart Miya Masaoka, a truly ambitious multimedia installation based on avian migration by Norwegian composer Maja S.K. Ratjke, and a musical interpretation of our very own Twin Peaks (the S.F. location, not the TV show) with a trio led by Bay Area new music icon and tape music pioneer, Pauline Oliveros. But according to the festival's founder and director, composer Charles Amirkhanian, this wildly eclectic programming results from the humblest intentions.

"We try to present unusual music that's attractive but also has an intellectual depth," Amirkhanian explains. A former DJ for Berkeley's fiercely independent KPFA, the composer has been embracing multiple strains of non-mainstream art for decades. With an ear for common intentions, he stopped hearing the differences between these strains years ago. Despite the lack of a shared sonic or aesthetic sensibility, the artists of Other Minds have one significant thing in common: community. Whether hailing from the Middle East, Europe, Australia, or the U.S., these creators are disparate branches of one tree.

In an era of intense genre fractalization, many artists have opted to dump the hybridized giddy mashup descriptors, either opting to go simple — improv, rock, classical — or dropping any signifier of genre at all. Maja S.K. Ratkje's pedigree, including stints with Norwegian Radio Orchestra, avant-metal band SunnO))), and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchetra, necessitates the latter route. She labels herself simply as a composer, encompassing a musical sensibility ranging from electroacoustic ensemble pieces that evoke silent snowscapes to the utterly feral vocal improvs that she routinely presents around the world as a solo performer and a collaborator. To borrow (and butcher) a cliché, she's a little bit classical, a little bit black metal. And, like so many of her comrades in arms, neither genre is willing to claim her.

The first night of Other Minds will see the world premiere of her piece Birds and Traces II, a sequel of sorts to a piece she premiered in 2010 with collaborator Kathy Hinde, created "in the fields of Aldeburgh, one of the largest stop-over fields for migrating birds in UK." Her piece may be the most technically ambitious offering of the weekend, a multimedia experience inspired by bird migration patterns that will incorporate origami bird sculptures, an electronically mangled chorus of tape-recorded Norwegian songs "interpreted" by English-speaking children, and an accordion (capably squeezed by Frode Haltli), among other things. If that sounds precious to you, spend a few minutes with the paint-peeling, visceral audio assaults on Ratkje's Soundcloud and revise your opinion accordingly.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the comparatively traditional but no less moving music of composer Tigran Mansurian. His orchestral classical works are by turns heartrending and uplifting, occasionally recalling the grandeur of a calmer, more pensive Mahler. He may seem less "out" than his peers at Other Minds, but his roots are in rebellion.

"Tigran was a radical composer when the former Soviet Union forbade such styles in Armenia," says Amirkhanian. His inclusion in Other Minds is also illustrative of this year's unique theme: reunion. He shares roots with Amirkhanian as an Armenian refugee and, more importantly, an omnivorous lover of music, a bond that stretches back decades.

"This is the first year we're inviting back artists from past years," says Amirkhanian. That includes Mansurian and Bay Area tape music pioneer Pauline Oliveros, who will also be premiering a new piece at the festival. For Amirkhanian, championing new music has been a lifetime goal, and this year's festival is a kind of homecoming. He speaks fondly of his work as a DJ in the '60s, turning new listeners on to the earliest compositions of then-unknowns Steve Reich and Philip Glass — as well as turning some off to these new sounds: "I was playing Steve Reich's [tape piece] Come Out, and I almost got kicked off the air."

He also recalls giddily sharing ambient field recordings (experiments which soon evolved into the musique concrète experiments of Luc Ferrari) with confused listeners, thrilling to the innovation and turning the other cheek to naysayers. He welcomes the advances of modern technology and the access it affords versus the exclusive narrow stream he offered as a lowly DJ on independent radio. "Getting that kind of [access] used to be a war." He invites today's sonic explorers to avail themselves of this infinite access via radiom.org, an exhaustive archive of avant-garde music, field recordings, and audio interviews, including talks with luminaries such as avant-rock forefather turned pop impresario Brian Eno. A composer in his own right, Amirkhanian will be presenting several pieces at this year's festival including Miatsoom, a half-hour aural documentary of the socioeconomic chaos of the modern day Republic of Armenia.

Enduring Bay Area new music icon and friend of OM Pauline Oliveros will also return this year to debut Twins Peeking at Koto, a collaborative piece based on live improvisation. Although her roots are in tape manipulation and sound art, her contemporary focus on deep, mutual listening informs this tribute to S.F.'s "two most famous twins." As she says, "The metaphor of Twin Peaks may be heard or not. For me it is an essential part of San Francisco, where there is wild life at its center."

At 82 years old, Oliveros is not wont to leave her home in upstate New York for just anyone. But Amirkhanian is not just anyone. "I have total appreciation for Charles and his lifetime of work supporting all this music," says Oliveros. It's that support and enthusiasm that buoyed the sonic adventurousness for Other Minds for two decades now — and beyond.

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Alee Karim

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