Celebrating Five Years of Magik*Magik

Minna Chou and Magik*Magik Orchestra

This year marks the fifth anniversary of one of the Bay Area's most original and talented conglomerates of musicians. Magik*Magik Orchestra was founded by Minna Choi in 2008. During the last half decade, Magik has developed into a made-to-order one-stop-shop for local artists and creatives -- especially indie rockers -- looking to jazz up their productions.

Minna remains the orchestra's artistic and music director. While the orchestra currently works at a clip of between 30 and 40 performances or recording sessions a year -- with artists such as Death Cap For Cutie, John Vanderslice, The Dodos, Thao, The Walkmen, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind, just to name a few -- Minna and her minions have found the time to create an educational arm known as Magik For Kids. Annie Phillips, Magik's managing director, has played a major role in the sprouting and growth of the educational arm.

This Friday's show, while of a celebratory nature, will also serve to increase awareness of Magik For Kids and raise funds to be put toward its initiatives. When We Were Young will feature three 45-minute acts in which Magik*Magik Orchestra will share the stage with Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers, The Dodos, Geographer, Rogue Wave, John Vanderslice and many more. Each band will perform a song that influenced them as children as well as some of their original tunes. I chatted with Minna about the immanent show and French toast, among other topics.

Photo: Autumn de Wilde
Photo: Autumn de Wilde

Was it difficult getting the orchestra from the realm of idea to the realm of reality?

It was surprisingly quick, but that's not to say that it was easy. I got the general idea for Magik around March or April of 2008. I didn't have that much experience or even players for it yet, and I was going to sit on it for the summer. But randomly we got a show offer for August of that same year. So we just had to hustle and get all the pieces in working order -- at least enough to be able to pull off one live show. And that was our first show, in 2008 at the Herbst Theater (performing Johnny Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver). Our first year we did eight shows, and now we're up to between 30 and 40 shows or recording sessions a year.

Minna Choi of Magik*Magik Orchestra conducting rehearsals of "Sea Salt;" Photo courtesy John Vanderslice

So did you find local artists receptive to the idea right off the bat?

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I think so, but I think it was related to the fact that our first show was a dream scenario -- all the stars aligned in the perfect way -- and we couldn't have asked for a better opportunity to show what our group could do. So I definitely think it worked to our advantage to have that as our first thing, and we were able to show bands that this is what our orchestra can sound like. Also, when I first reached out to John Vanderslice about being his studio orchestra, he was incredibly receptive to the idea.

I think his enthusiasm rubbed off to a lot of bands that came to his studio, and then it was just word of mouth from there.

What is the most important thing you've learned about being a professional musician in the Bay Area over the past five years?

Something that's particular to the Bay Area is that there's a lot of freedom here to try out crazy ideas and not feel like if they fail that your career is over. People are really receptive to wacky ideas or ideas that haven't been tried before. They're down to try things with you even if there's no guarantee that it's going to be a great success. I'm sure that it has something to do with the start-up culture that's so prevalent here. There are people starting companies left and right, some of which fail and some of which are very successful. So I think people are willing to take a gamble here, and that really translates into the music industry, too.

You've compared composing an orchestral arrangement for indie music to "writing lines for the final character" in a script -- that it should be conversational. Would you rather the band sort of dictate that "conversation" or let you have freer reign?

When a band pens down a song, and they have their main melody, they have the general structure of the song in place. They're setting the scene in which your character -- the parts that you're writing -- can live within. That's really important to me. There's something about having a totally blank piece of paper and someone telling me, "Just write a piece -- you can write anything you want," that's just terrifying. At least give me something. Set a scene. What year are we in? What country are we in? Give me a couple characters. Then you can really get started. You have something to jump off of and really get creative. That's what arranging feels like. It's like someone's handing you a script, and they've already set the bulk of the story, but they're letting you enter into that story and create these new moments.

Tell me a little about going on tour with Death Cab For Cutie. Was it at all stressful coordinating the musicians playing so many dates across the country?

No, because [the ensemble] wasn't that large. It was eight string players, plus me, plus the band. The production team that works with the band is such a well-oiled machine. I think it was the most well-organized, cushiest tour that anyone had ever been on on our side. They really have it dialed in. And we played the same set every night, so there weren't these weird surprises. We weren't really on our toes waiting and thinking, "What are they going to throw at us next?" It was very scripted and easy to deal with.

Magik*Magik Orchestra on tour with Death Cab for Cutie
Magik*Magik Orchestra on tour with Death Cab for Cutie

Beside's celebrating Magik's fifth birthday, another purpose for the event at The Fox is to raise funds for your Magik For Kids program. What sort of educational experiences do you feel work the best in instilling a love of music in children?

We have a really amazing education director named Annie Phillips, and she has created four programs for us over the past four years that have really stood out. My favorite is a program that she created last year called Kids Conduct. It was coordinated with the Stern Grove Music Festival, and over the course of three days she taught 700 kids how to construct their own conductor baton, decorate it, and then conduct a "baby" Magik*Magik Orchestra.

It was the cutest thing -- she's so resourceful and creative. She called grocery stores all over the area and got them to donate their used wine and champagne corks. Then, she went to Chinatown and bought hundreds of chopsticks, and bought glitter and feathers and pipe cleaners. She drilled a hole into each champagne cork so the kids could squeeze glue into the hole, stick a chopstick in there and then decorate it. She taught them some of the more basic conductor patterns. I think that's a program that we would love to be able to reprise in a lot of different schools and not just do it once a year at Stern Grove.

I think that's one of her favorite programs, too, because it puts kids in the hot seat of leadership. Even though it's in a playful manner, they get to feel what it's like to direct. If they put their left hand up high the orchestra would play really loud, and if they put their left hand down low they would play really quietly. I think the kids really loved it, and we want to be able to bring that experience to more schools.

Do you feel it's important to inspire kids to seek music as a profession?

That's interesting... when we worked with Stern Grove, there was a lady there that we were working with that was their education coordinator. She was saying that people always make the direct connection between kids pursuing music when they're younger so that they can consider music as a career. According to her, that isn't exactly what her goal is. Her goal is to expose kids to making music when they're younger so that we can develop a range of people as adults, between professional musicians, music patrons and more informed music listeners.

I think there are so many ways to be involved in the process of creating music without actually being the creator yourself. When I was growing up, I wish someone had told me that you could actually have a career in the music industry without being a "singer." That was the only thing that I thought you could do -- or some famous classical soloist. Those were the two options that I thought were out there in the music industry, but you get older and you realize that within the music scene there are hundreds and hundreds of jobs -- all different types of jobs.

So our mission as an orchestra is to encourage more and more people to consider the orchestra as an instrument of creativity for themselves. However they want to want to use the orchestra to do something creative or express themselves, that's what we're interested in. Our tagline is "A Made To Order Orchestra For Artists and Creatives," and there's no reason why kids can't be included as little artists and little creatives. So Magik For Kids is a really natural extension of what we do.

Photo: Autumn de Wilde
Photo: Autumn de Wilde

In support of the Magik For Kids program, you guys are currently partnering with BandPage to offer "experiences," one of which being an afternoon of French toast with you and John Vanderslice. I'm curious, what do you feel sets your French toast recipe apart from all the others out there?

(Laughs) Let's see... well, I think cinnamon is a must have. I don't think you can have French toast without cinnamon. I also think that French toast should always have a little bit of a crust. It should be dark on the outside. I'm always like more butter, less maple syrup. I like the saltiness of the butter with a little bit of the sweetness.

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When We Were Young happens this Friday night, January 31, 2014, at The Fox Theater in Oakland. For tickets and information visit thefoxoakland.com.

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