SAN FRANCISCO -- Had Jimi Hendrix lived, what sounds would he be making? He would be 71 -- practically a kid in comparison to Morton Subotnick, the 81-year-old electronic music pioneer who continues to blow minds. Wearing jeans, sweatshirt and sneakers with bright red laces, he walked onstage Friday at the Sweet Thunder music festival, planted himself at his console -- it looked like the telephone switchboard on "Mad Men" -- and unleashed a new iteration of his "Silver Apples of the Moon."
His 1968 Nonesuch recording of the piece was groundbreaking: Here was an extended "classical" composition specifically created for LP format and home stereos. Along with Isaac Hayes's "Shaft" and Bing Crosby's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," the Library of Congress includes "Silver Apples of the Moon" in its National Recording Registry, a survey of the American soundscape, limited to 400 historic recordings.
For a variety of reasons, then, it was almost a no-brainer for the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players -- presenters of Sweet Thunder -- to have included Subotnick in their ambitious, feast-like festival of electro-acoustic music, which runs through Sunday at the Fort Mason Center Festival Pavilion.
As Subotnick hatched his 10 p.m. solo performance -- manipulating his console dials, as well as his Mac -- his piece seemed as radical as ever. "Silver Apples" (its title is drawn from a poem by Yeats) quickly became a sonic cauldron. Or call it a musical Rorschach: One could discern jet planes and race cars, bongos and trumpets, electronic rainstorms, Stravinsky melodies, hocketing Pygmy rhythms, techno beats (seriously) and boiling funk-jazz rhythms that showed up on Herbie Hancock's "Headhunters" in 1973.
Nearly 50 years old, the music was, and is, seminal.
Thickening and elaborating "Silver Apples" with updated samples from past performances, Subotnick finger-painted with textures and effects, which circled the audience via a phalanx of speakers. It got loud. He was using distortion. He was absorbed all over again. Segueing to his "Sky of Cloudless Sulphur," the performance went on for an hour, and you could say it shouldn't have lasted that long, that Subotnick was indulging. Maybe. But that's how he got to where he is, through his single-minded pursuit of breakthroughs in sound.
In 1962, he co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Lately, he's created an iPad app called Pitch Painter, to help kids compose electronically.
His performance at "Sweet Thunder" was wild. It was like the '60s, man.
It was even wilder than what preceded it on the night's double-bill: the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), eight young virtuosi from the Brooklyn-based consortium, which has premiered more than 650 works since its founding in 2001. ICE's performances were more finely wrought than Subotnick's, if more reserved. They were superb -- and also sensuous, not an adjective that generally gets applied to contemporary music.
George Lewis's "Shadowgraph, 5" began with fluid eruptions from the three winds: Claire Chase's flute, Joshua Rubin's clarinet, Rebekah Heller's bassoon. Their gestures -- overblown swoops and whooshes and grainy, snaking squiggles -- seemed grabbed out of the air, as if the music came from some pre-existing place, though Lewis's piece leaves much to the improvised moment.
It dates to 1977, when he played trombone in Anthony Braxton's band, and it feels like Braxton in its organization of sound and space, in its hesitations and implied rhythms, which seem to grow magically as the piece emerges -- like a matrix that's been hidden in the shadows. Percussionist Steven Schick (artistic director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, as well as the festival's co-curator) joined the ensemble for this meticulous and surprising performance.
Rubin next performed "Cyclone" (2013), a work for solo clarinet and electronics by Rand Steiger, the festival's other co-curator. Melodic cells, riffs and pulses from the clarinet -- these were picked up by a computer and sent flying around the room to teeming effect, turned here into bird calls and there into fog horns. Accelerating and decelerating and speeding up one more time, the piece was a looping thrill ride, like the Cyclone rollercoaster at Coney Island.
Performed by Jacob Greenberg, Nathan Davis's "Ghostlight: for gently prepared piano" (2013) began with flourishes somewhere between Gershwin and Eastern modalism, and became a slow processional, like gamelan court music. Elegant. (Davis, incidentally, is an ICE percussionist.)
Anna Thorvaldsdottir's "Luminance" (2014, a world premiere, scored for viola, cello, percussion, piano, harp and electronics) was an exercise in rustle, drone and stasis; the emergence from silence of sounds so focused as to be tactile. Maria Stankova's "La Bouche" ("The Mouth," 2013) was a face-off for bass clarinet and bassoon, plus electronics: lots of huffing, puffing, snorting, panting and humming through the instruments; funny, if forgettable.
This listener was most taken by Steiger's "Mourning Fog" (2014, another world premiere) for cello and electronics: like a self-multiplying world of elegies, it painted layers of grief, of blank disbelief, and was keeningly performed by Kivie Cahn-Lipman.
Presented by San Francisco Contemporary Music Players
When: 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Who: Saturday, SFCMP soloists and friends; Sunday, red fish blue fish
Where: Festival Pavilion, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco
Tickets: $30, $12 students; sfcmp.org/sweet-thunder or at the door.