Sunday, September 28, 2014

California Culture 4: The Son of the Sheik

California's most potent art form has always been film, spreading photographed dreams across the world. A common refrain I have heard from immigrants over the years: "When I arrived in California, I felt like I'd been here before in an earlier life," and in truth they had, except it was probably as toddlers watching old movies on television filmed on Hollywood backlots and in Southern California deserts and mountains which transformed itself into memory.

Last Saturday the invaluable San Francisco Film Festival organization projected a one-day festival of films from the birth of cinema at the Castro Theater, including Rudolph Valentino's last film, The Son of the Sheik, a lavishly produced 1926 sequel to his earlier breakout hit The Sheik, which was the 50 Shades of Grey of its time. Hollywood studios and sand dunes in the desert near Yuma stood in for Arabia very convincingly. Valentino played the dual roles of the Sheikh in old age makeup and his impetuous young son who falls in love with a dancing girl who works for a pack of thieves, including her dissolute French father. It's the latter group that ambushes our young hero above and tortures him all night, blaming the innocent Vilma Bánky for luring him into their trap. The camera loves Valentino and his understated acting style has aged well in comparison to many of the mugging antics around him.

Of course the dancing girl is blameless, but our young hero doesn't know that so he kidnaps her and maybe or maybe not ravishes her in his desert tent. After realizing his mistake, there is a rousing rescue scene that includes both the Sheikh and his son, not to mention a comic dwarf baddie who appears to be the inspiration for much of Jodorowsky's El Topo.

The movie was completely satisfying on its own terms, helped immeasurably by the live performance of a new accompanying musical score by the Alloy Orchestra above. From left to right, Roger Miller, Ken Winokur, and Terry Donahue gave a hard-charging performance that included a synthesizer and a vast array of percussion as they toyed with just about every Oriental musical cliche extant.

There was also a British Film Institute program devoted to a typical evening at the cinema in 1914, 100 years ago. It was a grab bag of short travelogues, newsreels, comic routines, a very entertaining Perils of Pauline serial, and one of Charlie Chaplin's earliest Max Sennett slapstick farces. World War One had just started, and it was bizarrely disturbing to see dispatches from the first few months of the conflict when everyone in Britain thought it would be a short romp.

In an animated short by "Lancelot Speed" called General French's Contemptible Little Army, Prussian Imperialism is sent on a hasty retreat, reminiscent of how American wars are sold to the public.

The pianist Donald Sosin above accompanied the mixture of shorts with patriotic marches, delicate tunes, and comic sound effects.

Friday, September 26, 2014

California Culture 3: Brant's Ice Field at the SF Symphony

Last week the San Francisco Symphony presented a bizarrely eclectic program of J.S. Bach's Brandenberg Concerto #3, the first revival of Henry Brant's 2001 Ice Field which was written specifically for Davies Hall, and Tchaikowsky's Fifth Symphony. The Bach performance by the eleven players (below), including violist Jonathan Vinocour and cellist Peter Wyrick (above) was surprisingly lively and fun, and for once Davies Hall didn't swallow up the chamber-sized ensemble.

Henry Brant was an experimental composer who ended up in Santa Barbara for the last couple of decades of his life. He was known as an expert orchestrator, where he assisted everyone from Alex North in his soundtrack for the Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra to the composers Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland. He was also known for spatial music, where musical forces that are usually on one stage are split into various groups around a performing space. In 2001, I was creating daily PowerPoint "FotoTales" about the world around us, and managed to capture the premiere along with the orchestra musicians making fun of the piece after a morning rehearsal. Excerpts from the slide show are below.

Henry Brant died in 2008, so this revival had the flamboyant organist Cameron Carpenter above playing the half-notated, half-improvised organ part that the composer performed himself at the premiere. On Friday evening, Carpenter looked terribly nervous and score-bound during the performance, as if he was in over his head, and the results were mostly tentative interjections, while my memory of Brant's performance was that he was wailing away on the Ruffatti organ throughout the entire 20 minute piece, holding the whole work together.

Still, it was ear-clearing fun to hear Ice Field again, and I hope the work returns to Davies Hall before another 13 years pass by. I also hope that the companion piece on the program is something more interesting than Tchaikowsky's Fifth Symphony which sounded like a schlock-fest after the Bach and Brant, and this is coming from a fan of the Russian composer.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

California Culture 2: Patterns of Plants

There are very few artists as quintessentially Californian as the pianist Sarah Cahill, seen above playing at the Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland Hills last Sunday at an event I'll describe in a later post.

Sarah specializes in contemporary classical music, often commissioning works from living composers, but her musical interests are catholic and wide. She began playing the composer Mamoru Fujieda's piano pieces in 1997, and has just recorded a 2-CD set of 32 of his "plant patterns."

Though Fujieda, above, was born and lives in Japan, in his youth he studied with the composer Morton Feldman at UC San Diego, so in a sense he's an adopted Californian.

I have heard Sarah play selections from the short piano pieces at various recitals, and they were almost too gentle to make any kind of impression. On a recording, though, used as background, they become quite trancelike and interesting. The CDs by the small San Francisco producers at Pinna Records are beautifully produced, including one of the most striking cardboard package designs in a long time. To order a copy, click here.

On Wednesday afternoon, Sarah gave a recital at the UC Berkeley Women's Faculty Club of over a dozen of the pieces, interleaved with a few doses of French Baroque composer François Couperin. The cozy front room in the beautiful John Galen Howard clubhouse is a perfect setting for a chamber music concert, and there was even a lovely buffet afterwards along with an outdoor patio to dine. Plus, admission was free, which felt like a small miracle.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

California Culture 1: Fertile Ground at the Oakland Museum

SFMOMA On-The-Go has loaned out more of their collection and joined with the Oakland Museum for a small exhibit called Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California. The show starts with "the circle of artists who worked with, influenced, and were influenced by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in San Francisco in the 1930s," which seems rather limiting in scope. It's also stretching the definition of "California Art" because Diego and Frida were Mexico City artists who would occasionally travel to destinations in the U.S. for Rivera's mural commissions. It's rather like asserting that writer Robert Louis Stevenson was a California writer because he spent some time in Monterey in the 19th century.

A better description would be a look at the Coit Tower muralists and their friends. (The painting above is Dorothy Winslade's 1934 Storm Over Coit Tower.)

Most of them were wild leftists and perfect bohemians.

The photograph above is Peter Stackpole capturing his painter father in Ralph Stackpole Sketching Nude.

The second of the four artistic group flowerings under consideration is the California School of Fine Arts. The school changed its name in 1961 to the San Francisco Art Institute, and that art school still looms over Russian Hill on Chestnut Street, home to many brilliant, neurotic rich kids and my favorite Diego Rivera mural in the world.

The period being addressed in the exhibit is the 1940s and 1950s where the roster of talented professors included Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Clyfford Still, whose the 1945 Untitled (formerly Self Portrait) hangs in the show...

...along with the 1953 James Weeks untitled painting above of a jazz club.

Marching along with the decades, the next section is devoted to the 1960s and 1970s at UC Davis art department where two of the star faculty members were Wayne Thiebaud (his 1961 Delicatessen Counter is above)...

...and the ceramicist Robert Arneson who has a number of pieces in the exhibit, including the 1989 Wolf Head sculpture of Jackson Pollock.

The final segment depicts something called The Mission School from the 1990s, which was basically a bunch of students from the San Francisco Art Institute who were doing art in the streets, and the work is hard to take seriously...

...including the constantly evolving, metatastic installation above by Barry McGee.