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Why Contemporary Music Is Like My Hairdryer

April 3, 2012

If the music I heard at the Fifth Annual Switchboard Music Festival can be used as a gauge of the state of contemporary composition today, I would have to say that contemporary music is a lot like my hairdryer.

I don't have a very good hairdryer; I adopted it from a friend and I rarely use it. It doesn't bother me that it only has two modes: low and slow, and high and hot.

But that the Switchboard Festival, a one day event in San Francisco showcasing the talents of new composers and the hip, young ensembles and soloists that perform this repertoire, should also basically have only "two settings" --- sparse and soft, and compressed and loud --- is of far greater concern to me.

Admittedly I was only able to hear a hear 13 of the 30 plus works presented during the day owing to having to rush off to Stanford for a singing rehearsal. Maybe the rest of the day yielded a wider variety of sonic expressivity.

Despite the limited scope of the compositional moods on display, certain parts of the performance left a mark on me.

I was very impressed with the quality of the musicianship. It't not easy playing music that is this repetitive and black and white in its mode of communication.

I especially loved The Living Earth Show (a duo comprising electric guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson.) The musicians clearly seemed to be enjoying thrashing about making the dirty-aggressive sounds in Repetitive Stress, an homage to heavy metal music by Jonathan Russell. The piece received its world premiere at the Festival and I was happy to be there to witness it.

The talented clarinetist Jeff Anderle's lyrical take on Nico Muhly's 2007 piece It Goes Without Saying, accompanied by a whimsical video montage crawling with humanoid and other creatures by Una Lorenzen, was also a highlight of the first two hours of the program. Anderle seemed to crawl inside the hazy contours of Muhly's musical landscape. I found myself transported into a dreamlike state with the bubbling clarinet and fleeting images on screen.

But despite the musicians' artistry, I came away from my time at the festival wishing for more emotional nuance. The music on the roster was all so samey. Next year, maybe they could invest in a hairdryer with at least three settings.

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