San Francisco’s Landmark New Music Festival Turns 20

by Larry R. Larson

The Other Minds Festival, headed by Charles Amirkhanian, made San Francisco a launching pad for new music.

Charles Amirkhanian, the co-founder and director of Other Minds, says that the looming threat of spreading radiation forced him to cancel European travel back then, and to reluctantly abandon carefully designed musical plans. A long chain of happy coincidences led, in turn, to Telluride, Colorado, where the prototype for Other Minds took shape. Within a few years, what would become Other Minds had moved to Amirkhanian’s home state of California, and the festival was on its way to being one of San Francisco’s musical landmarks.

Amirkhanian, a composer, producer and long-time nurturer of musical talent, has long been a leader of the Bay Area new music scene, and his San Francisco roots are deep. “San Francisco is very special to me, especially growing up in Fresno; I came up here a lot,” he says. “I discovered the [Mills College] Tape Music Center when I was very young and went to concerts of Ramon Sender and Pauline Oliveros. My first gig when I arrived here to go to graduate school was with choreographer Anna Halprin. She hired me sight unseen…because she had just lost her composer. I worked for free—gladly—and I discovered that [San Francisco] was my real home.” Amirkhanian became an on-air personality for KPFA in Berkeley and quickly established himself as the public voice of new music in the Bay Area.

“The Ojai concerts and the famous Monday Evening Concerts at LACMA in Southern California had been historically focused on the blue chip avant-garde, which invariably meant East Coast ‘uptown’ music,” he explains of how the San Francisco new music scene fit into what is known worldwide as the West Coast style. “Up in Northern California we didn’t pay so much attention to Pierre Boulez and some of his followers as we did to the founders of minimalism: Lamonte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich. They were at Mills or at Berkeley, where it all started in the mid-’60s. Steve and Lamont went to New York, and Terry of course stayed here. It is as if live electronic music got its start here and then moved to New York and Europe to make its mark. This provided the foundation for the second wave of minimalists—John Adams, Paul Dresher and me, among many others. … it seems to me that developing as a composer in this environment has opened people’s minds in a unique and identifiable way.”

Other Minds is not a festival in the sense that Coachella is. Amirkhanian selects approximately eight festival performers who have interpersonal
as well as musical synergy. A key part of the event is a series of four private days at the Djerassi Ranch, where the creative participants share their music, thoughts and plans. Those who have attended these rarified sessions speak of them with reverence.

“We bring unknown people—old people, young people, people with a background in avant-garde jazz, composers who do not write for traditional ensembles, some of whom are composer- performers, who can’t be featured by the Symphony but are not well-known enough to produce a concert on their own,” says Amirkhanian.

Other Minds has traditionally featured
new performer/composers for each of its 19 previous incarnations. With the sole exception of the protean Pauline Oliveros, who has appeared twice over the years, every festival has offered a fresh slate. To celebrate the 20th anniversary, however Amirkhanian has taken the opposite course—each of the featured artists is an Other Minds veteran. This
allows this year’s incarnation to be as valedictory as a festival devoted to new music can be.

Among the offerings are the first performance of Lou Harrison’s "Scenes from Nek Chand" with the instrumentation Harrison envisioned, an ultra-rare National Steel just intonation guitar, to be played by the virtuosic David Tanenbaum; the U.S. premiere of Maja S.K. Ratkje’s "Traces II," which features accordion by Frode Haltli and staging, involving digital projections of origami birds, by Kathy Hinde; Australian Peter Sculthorpe’s "Quartet #14" for string quartet and didjeridu—a long-time friend of Amirkhanian’s and Other Minds, Sculthorpe was to be a guest of honor at these performances, but sadly, he passed away last August.

Also among the performers are the talented clarinetist Donald Byron with his quartet, and Errollyn Wallen, who has been described as a cross between Laurie Anderson and Joni Mitchell, performing new songs.

The March 8 concert is a remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Amirkhanian, of Armenian heritage, vividly remembers his grandmother Aznive Kaprielian’s glass eye, a consequence of her being shot. Highlights of this concert include Amirkhanian’s "Miatsoom," a tape work based on conversations he and his father had on a trip through Armenia; two works by the Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian, both of which feature the School of the Arts Orchestra; and a performance of Michael Nyman’s new "Symphony No. 2" (2014), also featuring the School of the Arts Orchestra.

Back when new music was establishing itself here, at least once a year a local music critic would write (referring to Other Minds) that “the avant-garde is dead.” As the festival celebrates it 20th anniversary, Amirkhanian can look back on those pronouncements with amusement.

Other Minds

March 6 → 8

SFJazz Center

201 Franklin St., 866/920-5299

Also of interest:, which contains archives encompassing the the whole recorded history of Other Minds and its affiliated projects., the source for new Other Minds recordings