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Music Festivals Are Siblings, Invisibly Bonded
NEW YORK TIMES

February 28, 2010

The British-born electronic composers Kieran Hebden, who performs as Four Tet, and Natasha Barrett are both in San Francisco for concerts. Although Mr. Hebden is closely identified with the indie-pop scene, and Ms. Barrett with the contemporary classical world, they could easily be on the same bill. These musicians, creators of spiraling musique concrète-infused compositions that veer between sound art and trance, allow us to pick out tiny textural details in their work while basking in the music’s overall ambience.

But instead of appearing on the same program, the composers’ music is reaching audiences in entirely different settings. Mr. Hebden’s scheduled appearance on Friday at the Independent was part of the Noise Pop Festival, an annual weeklong indie-rock music celebration, ending on Monday, that attracts around 20,000 people to more than 50 events.

Meanwhile, two of Ms. Barrett’s works will be performed this coming Friday at the Other Minds Festival of New Music, a yearly forum for contemporary classical composers. Its public performance series, held this year from Thursday through Saturday at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, features three concerts of nine composers’ works. Attendance is expected to total around 1,300.

Despite the obvious differences of size, scope and demographics (Noise Pop’s audience skews about 20 years younger on average than that of Other Minds), the festivals have much in common. The crossover potential of artists like Mr. Hebden and Ms. Barrett is just one similarity. Since being founded in the same year, 1993, the festivals have helped to shape the Bay Area music scene.

Each grew organically out of one person’s vision. Noise Pop began life as a one-night stand produced by a local promoter, Kevin Arnold. He was a booker for a small Emeryville agency when a San Francisco club (now the Independent) asked him to find bands to fill an empty January date.

“The original Noise Pop Festival was just a ‘five bands for five dollars’ show,” Mr. Arnold said in an e-mail interview. “But I called it a festival and silk-screened a poster to make it seem more exciting. It was way more successful than anyone expected.” The Other Minds Festival emerged from the composer Charles Amirkhanian’s experience producing a similar event in Telluride, Colo., from 1988 to 1991. When financing for that festival ceased, Mr. Amirkhanian recreated it with new backing in the Bay Area. Combining a private composers’ symposium (held under the auspices of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, of which Mr. Amirkhanian was executive director) alongside three days of public concerts and discussions, the inaugural Other Minds Festival featured Meredith Monk, Conlon Nancarrow and Philip Glass.

From the beginning the two festivals have shared a desire to bring together local, national and international artists at different stages of their careers. This year’s Other Minds Festival features work by young composers like Gyan Riley and Carla Kihlstedt of the Bay Area and Lisa Bielawa from New York, with more established names, like the American composer Tom Johnson, who is based in Paris, and Jürg Frey of Switzerland.

“By having different generations involved, we have a much livelier discussion and interchange of ideas,” Mr. Amirkhanian said in an e-mail message. “We also relish the opportunity to expose Bay Area composers to guests from outside California and vice versa.”

The current Noise Pop Festival lineup has featured international bands, like We Were Promised Jetpacks from Scotland; household names, including Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band; and Bay Area up-and-comers like Deerhoof, Thao Nguyen and Glaciers. It also included the innovative partnership of the Bay Area indie-pop band the Dodos and the Magik*Magik Orchestra, a San Francisco instrumental ensemble.

Both festivals pride themselves on spotting emerging talent. Julia Wolfe, a co-founder of the Bang on a Can ensemble, got a boost from meeting Mr. Glass at the first Other Minds Festival. The next year he invited her to put out her first solo CD on his Point Music label.

The Chinese composer Tan Dun, the Oscar-winning composer of the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” score, appeared at the festival in 1995. And the Noise Pop Festival gave early exposure to well-known bands like the Flaming Lips, the White Stripes and Death Cab for Cutie.

Even the most balanced musical lineup isn’t enough to keep a festival bubbling for nearly two decades. Though serving different markets, the two festivals have devised remarkably similar strategies to enhance the standard concert fare. Each presents films and a visual arts component; broadcasts recorded music (Noise Pop offers podcasts, and Other Minds presents a weekly public radio show, “Music From Other Minds”); and runs live music events later in the year.

The Other Minds Festival presents fall concerts focusing on the music of past luminaries like Henry Cowell. Introduced in 2007, Noise Pop’s fall two-day Treasure Island Music Festival is fast becoming one of the most talked-about Bay Area music events, not least because of its rare location: an island in the middle of the bay.

Mr. Arnold and Mr. Amirkhanian have never met, but they really should; they could learn a great deal from each other. The Other Minds Festival could draw on the Noise Pop model to open up the insular world of contemporary classical music, while Noise Pop could look to Other Minds to build stronger bonds and unusual collaboration among artists. It may not be too long before the two festivals start seeing some audience and artistic overlap.

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