I have a great deal of admiration for Alan So (pictured), the energetic artistic director / programmer behind the eclectic San Francisco Soundwave festival. Over the course of two months in the summer, So brings together remarkable sound and visual artists in intriguing settings and integrates their work with thoughtful themes.
A concert I attended at The Lab in San Francisco’s Mission district on Friday night, for instance, epitomizes So’s approach to creating meaningful audience experiences. Friday night’s program brought together three contrasting musical acts as a way of exploring the theme of water, a sub-theme under this year’s overall festival theme of the environment.
The bluegrass/Americana trio Crooked Jades played sea chanteys and old baptism hymns. Then cellist experimentalTheresa Wong combined playing techniques with vocalizing to tell the story of a grain of sand battered by tides and currents. Finally, the new music ensemble Red Shift and composer Mason Bates collaborated on one of Bates’ compositions for strings, keyboard, clarinet and electronics. The piece, arranged in several movements, captured the journey of the Colorado river.
With the addition of a forest-like visual art installation complete with sound-activated video, the space came alive with the musical performances.
There were really only two downsides to the evening — one was Wong’s performance, which didn’t work in part because of some technical issues which caused her video projections to fail. The other less-than-appealing aspect of the proceedings, something that I have remarked on in the past while watching So in action, is the artistic director’s inability to introduce his performers compellingly.
This isn’t as trivial as it sounds. So is talented at creating innovative programming and draws many wonderful artists to his festival including the likes of Bates, Red Shift and The Jades alongside previous attendees like Odessa Chen and Zoe Keating.
But when he gets on stage and talks about them, he rambles and falls to pieces. Every other word is a superlative — he must have used “amazing” and “incredible” dozens of times in the course of his tedious entracte spiels on Friday evening.
Such an inspired producer should also learn to be an inspired speaker in order to get audiences excited about the performances he’s worked so hard to plan. Otherwise, he risks turning us off. If he cuts out the superlatives and makes his speeches shorter and more focused, So will make his introductions worthy of the artists which he is introducing to audiences.
Alternatively, So could always delegate the responsibility of talking to the house to someone else in his team who might do the job better.