Even in its very first year, in 2008, the Switchboard Music Festival brimmed with confidence. Presenting a day-long program, the event staked its reputation on the ability of genre-breaking, left-field Bay Area artists to seize audiences' ears and hold on tight through one very long day.
Judging from the strength and diversity of the music presented, the consistently strong turnouts, and some well-deserved national recognition, Switchboard’s initial faith seems well-placed. When the festival returns to San Francisco’s Brava Theater on Saturday, June 18, with a dozen acts from 1pm-9pm, the presenters can take a bow for earning an ASCAP/CMA Adventurous Programming Award, making the festival the only event outside the Northeast to earn the distinction last year.
“We’ve always showcased a lot of local artists, and it feels like we’re representing the community here,” says Switchboard co-director Annie Phillips. “Not that we really need it, but we consider this a stamp of approval for the Bay Area scene.”
In some ways, the festival’s increasingly ambitious scope and commitment to local artists work in creative tension. The most buzz-inducing act on this year’s roster is headliner Tyondai Braxton, who presents his solo electronic project HIVE1. The son of influential avant-garde composer/saxophonist Anthony Braxton, he’s cut a fascinating path in the six years since leaving the New York experimental rock band Battles. Born out of a 2013 installation at the Guggenheim and documented last year on an album for Nonesuch, HIVE1 is a percussion-driven piece featuring Braxton on modular synthesizer.
Switchboard has tried to book Braxton since the release of his first solo album, 2009’s Central Market (Warp Records). In order to get around the necessity of numerous rehearsals for that album's music, his management suggested a solo set focused on HIVE1, music “that’s quite different from Battles,” Phillips says. “It’s all electronic, and partly improvised. In truth, we’re not sure what it’s going to be like, which is fine. We give artists free reign.”
Founded by Ryan Brown, Jon Russell and Jeff Anderle as a forum for the Bay Area’s perpetually mutating underground, Switchboard has started to develop its own conventions and traditions, such as kicking off with a group performance of a landmark minimalist composition. After 2015’s gleefully atomized rendition of Terry Riley’s “In C,” this year's program opens with Julius Eastman’s seminal 1973 pop-inflected “Stay On It,” featuring a cast of Switchboard regulars (including current co-directors Phillips, Anderle and Brown).
Two early sets by Bay Area artists represent Switchboard’s embrace of the divergent musical axis of art-pop and new instrumental music. Majel Connery and Ken Ueno collaborate with the Living Earth Show (percussionist Andy Meyerson and guitarist Travis Andrews) for a tuneful conflagration of avant-opera, throat-singing harmonics and performance art. They’re followed by the four-hand piano duo ZOFO (Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmermann) performing the world premiere of Gabriella Smith’s “Mancora to Huaraz,” Terry Riley’s “Praying Mantis Rag,” and Ryan Brown's “I Heard Bells from My Rotating House.”
Versatile fiddler Alisa Rose, a founding member of the Real Vocal String Quartet, plays a solo set of her “Solo Caprices and Pizzicato Pieces.” And the five-time Grammy-winning San Francisco Girls Chorus performs music by the ensemble’s director, composer Lisa Bielawa, Philip Glass, and Timo Andres (material that the choir performed last week at the New York Philharmonic Biennial).
The center of the Switchboard lineup captures the shifting nature of the Bay Area scene with two artists who’ve recently relocated to New York City. Music journalist, DJ and composer Dominique Leone returns to present the music from his latest album San Francisco, a 2015 farewell love letter to the City by the Bay. He’s joined by an all-star band of Switchboard alumni, including drummer Jordan Glenn, clarinetist Matt Ingalls, flutist Mary Clare Brzytwa, oboist Kyle Bruckmann, and bass clarinetist Aaron Novik.
Novik follows with his own set, introducing a new body of tunes he began sculpting shortly after moving to New York City last year. His presence provides some welcome Switchboard continuity, as he’s performed at almost every festival, including the inaugural show with Cornelius Boots’ bass clarinet quartet Edmund Welles.
A graphic artist and composer adored by his Bay Area peers for creating expansive works bristling with intricate plotlines and heady, often abstruse musical concepts, Novik rarely takes a musical shortcut when there’s a long and twisting route to his destination. An abstract minimalist meditation on the nature of the essential jazz pulse known as swing, his new music “O+O+” reflects his gradual acclimation to New York, and his resistance to giving up his hard-won San Francisco identity.
“I started writing it during my first winter back in New York when it had snowed two feet by December,” he says. “I was staying in this house that my friend had bought, which was completely empty with a real vibe from The Shining. I’m in this place and I had this David Bowie-in-Berlin moment, thinking I could reinvent myself. And I was remembering that Lisa Mezzacappa in particular told me before I left, ‘Don’t change! You let them know who you are.’”
At its best, that’s what Switchboard does: brings together a disparate cast of doggedly inventive musical explorers, and allows these artists to show us who they are.