Serving the San Francisco Bay Area New Music Community

John Lee

Notes on SF Alt
Date of Interview/Article:4/28/2004
  • The idea for the San Francisco Alternative Music Festival (SFAlt) first surfaced a few years ago in conversations among Jack Wright, Rent Romus and Ernesto Diaz-Infante. Rent and Ernesto thought a festival was a good idea and sent the word out to other musicians and organizers of Creative Music in the Bay Area. A number of people were interested in participating and a few initial meetings were held in 2001 to discuss what the festival would be. Over the course of time, some participants dropped out of the committee due to philosophical differences or time constraints. The remaining committee members decided to hold the first SFAlt festival in May 2002.

Festival Objectives

  • Present a concentrated festival of good music in a variety of styles
  • Build local and international press awareness of the Bay Area Creative Music scene
  • Build audiences
  • Support the venues that support the music year-round
  • Provide opportunities for Bay Area players to interact with players from other cities in the US and around the world, including performance at the festival, workshops and recording sessions

Selection process

  • Present a variety of styles as defined by the coverage of the Transbay Creative Music Calendar and, Improvised, Noise, Electronic, Free-Jazz, Avant Garde and Modern Composition
  • Present a mixture of Bay Area and out-of-town players
  • Combine local and non-local players when it makes sense
  • Attempt, over the course of several years of the festival, to cover the broad spectrum of musicians in the local scene

Personal Observations of the Author

  • SFAlt has been very successful in presenting good music. With only a couple of exceptions, each set has met or exceeded my expectations. We’ve brought in some really great players that rarely play in the Bay Area such as Joe McPhee, Scott Fields, Seth Misterka, Natsuki Tamura/Satoko Fujii, Haco, Eugene Chadbourne, Chris Forsythe and others.
  • The pairings of out of town and local players have been great. For example, Joe McPhee with India Cooke and Donald Robinson and Eugene Chadbourne with Tim Perkis.
  • The workshops, partially subsidized by SFAlt, have been successful. The first 2 years Damon Smith brought in Wolfgang Fuchs, and this year Gino Robair is bringing in John Butcher.
  • There has been some benefit to the local musicians, including the ability to play and record with some of the out of town musicians.
  • Press awareness has not increased dramatically yet, although if the festival continues I believe in a few years we’ll start seeing some feature articles and additional press coverage.
  • Support from local alternative radio has been great. In addition to promotional announcements, there have been ticket giveaways, live broadcasts, and interviews with the musicians.
  • The first two years probably had too many sets, spreading out the audiences. For 2004 we’ve scaled back to 5 nights with 3 sets each.
  • We need to continue trying to diversify the musical content. It would be nice to have more electronics and modern composition in future festivals. We need to continue trying to include folks that haven’t played before. This year, about 70% of the musicians in the festival have not played the festival before, but in booking future festivals we need to continue to favor folks who haven’t played in previous years.
  • The long-term viability of the festival will be dependent upon getting outside funding from grants, sponsorship, donations, etc. This is one of the most challenging areas, since it takes a high level of concentrated focus and a certain talent for dealing with bureaucracy, building relationships with funding sources, and attention to detail. Currently, there is no one working in this area, which does not bode well for the future of the festival. Anyone who feels they have the desire and aptitude to contribute in this area should contact me.
  • There has been less feedback from audiences and musicians than I would have expected. There have been a few grumblings about the lineups, a few pats on the back from appreciative musicians and fans, and some interest from press and radio. But for the most part, I haven’t heard much, nor has there been much discussion on ba-newmus or other discussion venues. All input and suggestions are welcome, and especially positive input would be welcome in order to help justify the cost and effort involved in putting the festival together.
  • Attendance has been ok but needs to be better. Our shows have been better attended then the average Bay Area Creative Music show, which is encouraging, but still many shows have had only 25 or so paid admissions. I would encourage anyone who believes in the worthiness of the festival to make a special effort to attend this year as a sign of support.

SFAlt 2004

This year it appears that we have another strong festival. Looking at the lineup, it’s difficult to imagine any set being less than great. We have a number of special guests from around the world, including Ned Rothenberg, Gianni Gebbia, John Butcher, William Hooker and others. We are presenting several rarely heard or unusual pairings: Positive Knowledge with Kitundu, Subtle, William Hooker with Moe!, Jack Wright with German improvisers Sabine Vogel and Michael Griener, Alex Cline with Phillip Gelb and Shoko Hikage, and Brassiosaurus with Dina Emerson.

We are again sponsoring a workshop as part of the festival, this year featuring British saxophone virtuoso John Butcher. The workshop will be Tuesday May 11th. For more information about this workshop, please email Gino Robair at and put "Workshop" in the subject line.

--- John Lee