Serving the San Francisco Bay Area New Music Community

Phillip Greenlief

The Search Continues
Date of Interview/Article:6/29/2004
The Search Continues

After seeing the request to write something about a significant musical event over the past year, I found it hard to come up with much. My favorite experiences of art come when I'm completely confused or disoriented by the experience. I like things that take me outside of my critical self and into something that draws me in without necessarily knowing that it’s happening. There wasn’t a lot of that going on this year, although there were moments. In particular, I could cite:

1) A barely attended performance by Frank Gratkowski and Chris Brown at CNMAT allowed listeners to revel in a range of improvised sound areas, examined with both ecstatic abandon and microscopic details of rhythm, phrase, timbre and dynamics.

2) Evan Parker, Alexander Von Schlippenbach and Paul Lytton played for us at the Community Music Center in SF and sounded just the way you would expect these three great innovators to sound - which was somehow revelatory while never surpassing any expectations.

3) The 10-piece Industrial Jazz Group came up from LA to work out on a bevy of compositions penned by pianist Andrew Durkin that led its eager and overly-talented players through fascinating transformations of melody and form that somehow blended elements of Ellington, Mingus, Gil Evans, Braxton's Creative Orchestra projects, Reich (on finer days), Feldman, and Louis Jordan's jump bands of the late 1950's with more romp and humor than irony.

4) Braxton came to town recently and gave most of the new music scene here a host of valuable lessons that he has been teaching us for over 30 years.

In short, some great moments of things that we've come to know, but little examples that one could confuse with the heralding of a new century (perhaps a best of the end of the last century?). Little indeed that could describe the formation of a new century that has so far been dominated by tragedy - both here in the U.S. and, as usual, abroad, where the unnumbered victims suffer the manifestations of our very own tax dollars.

We've all seen tragedies before (or at least read about them) but what makes the last few years particularly frustrating is that no one out there seems to be able to call the perpetrators on their deeds or hold them accountable. This silence (and a myriad of related events) has infected the arts thusly: 1) what little arts funding there was out there is drying up. 2) ”They” (whoever they are) are too distracted by the malaise described above to support the arts (this activity is not without a long line of historical precedents). 3) And, perhaps worst of all, artists are swimming in pools of apathy and ignoring their role as cultural architects, spiritual cheerleaders, or critical watchdogs, but somehow not ignoring their role as public masturbators.

In the midst of this malaise described above, an event did occur, however, that shocked the scene and brought us close enough to personal tragedy to cut through layers of defense mechanisms and other forms of artifice long enough to recognize something valuable in the midst of our loss and suffering. That occurrence was the unexpected death of Matthew Sperry and the large waves and ripples of support that spread in its aftermath throughout Matthew's family and the creative music scene at large.

I helped to organize a concert to raise funds for Matthew's family around that time. But to begin, I should assert the Slusser clause and say that I am immediately suspect in writing about an event that I not only helped to produce but also performed in as well. Actually, it wasn't the performances that shook me (even though more than a few of them were truly inspired). Instead, it was the way that the community came together that evening (and in the days, weeks and months surrounding the tragedy, not the least of which was the remarkable event thrown at the Victoria with Tom Waits, et. al.) in a spirit of compassion that made many of us thankful to be a part of what's happening here. Matthew’s passing created a response that was bigger than any one of us (or any of our ensembles or factions) and that something was, namely, Matthew's spirit, which, upon its release into our enormous universe, unified us in a way that the best planned festivals and self-produced concerts rarely, if ever, are able to achieve.

Those are some of the moments that made me glad that I am here with all of you at this time. That said, the inevitable question that I have to ask myself is: does someone have to die in order for us to drop our usual attitudes and critical stances in order to accomplish something that could move so many of us so deeply?