SFJAZZ.org | Kris Bowers - Launching a New Visual Experience

On The Corner Masthead

Kris Bowers:
Launching a new visual Experience

September 15, 2021 | by Richard Scheinin

Kris Bowers

Next week’s opening of the 2021-22 Season is a historic moment, as we welcome the public back to SFJAZZ for live concerts, and formally debut our amazing new immersive media system. SFJAZZ staff writer Richard Scheinin speaks to opening night artist Kris Bowers and explains how his concert showcasing his work as a soundtrack composer is the perfect way to inaugurate this new visual experience.

As a teenage piano prodigy, Kris Bowers dreamed of becoming a cartoonist. One year, he was hard-pressed to choose a summer camp: Would he study animation at one close to his home in Los Angeles, or would he attend a jazz camp at Stanford University? Bowers, 13, opted for jazz camp, and one could say the rest is history.

But, actually, it’s not. True, he went on to win the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition — Herbie Hancock was one of the judges, and Aretha Franklin, who was in the audience, nabbed him backstage and got his telephone number. But his goal wasn’t to become a traditional jazz star or even a touring musician.

“I’ve always been a very visual person,” he explains, and over the past seven years or so, Bowers, now 32, has mostly focused on scoring films. They include Hollywood features (Green Book, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Space Jam: A New Legacy), hit TV shows (Bridgerton, Dear White People) and television mini-series (When They See Us, about the Central Park Five).

When Bowers performs solo on Sept. 23 in the SFJAZZ Center’s Robert N. Miner Auditorium — opening night of the 2021-22 season — he will put the concert hall’s brand new, immersive media system through a test run. The results, if things go as expected, should be cinematic.

“It’s going to be like a 1960’s Bill Graham-style light show on steroids,” predicts Randall Kline, SFJAZZ’s founder and Executive Artistic Director. When he asked Bowers to consider ramping up his program by exploring the innovative system, he told the pianist, “We want the show to be as immersive for the audience as possible, so it’s a 360-degree event.”

Bowers was game.

Fascinated by production — he recently dipped his toes into film directing — he has choreographed a multi-media show pairing his film music with original video footage that will cover the walls of the hall, which were designed to function as projection surfaces. Jazz musicians “are storytellers,” he says. “And this SFJAZZ show is like an experimental way for me to explore storytelling.” He will improvise on some of the central themes from his scores, trying to work his way back to their emotional cores — “what it felt like at the moment I first discovered them,” he says. He hopes to “get into a flow state,” in the manner of solo performances by some of the pianists he admires; he names Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau and Fred Hersch.

But then he wants to augment the experience: “It’s always been fascinating for me to see how the arts can combine and create — it’s almost like 1 + 1 = 3,” Bowers says. “Adding another element — like video imagery — gives context and can alter the way the audience hears or sees or feels something.” As an example, his creative team has shot “slow-moving vignettes of fathers with their daughters that match some of the feelings” of his score for King Richard, the new feature film about Richard Williams, the father and coach of Venus and Serena Williams. Bowers, who has likened his creative process to being a “mad scientist,” plans to introduce yet another element to the show: the poetry of Yrsa Daley-Ward, the British writer and actor, whose texts will be pre-recorded by Mahershala Ali (star of Green Book), and Ava DuVernay (director of When They See Us) and woven through the performance. “So this is almost like a thesis statement for me. It’s the first time I’ve been able to try out these ideas in a musical performance, creating a show driven by a clear narrative, emotion, and story.”

Bowers’ performance is the latest addition to a lengthy timeline: A whole history could be written about immersive concerts in the Bay Area.

In the early ‘50s, Oskar Fischinger, an abstract animator and filmmaker, brought his “fantastic color plays” — lights dancing to musical accompaniment — to the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. Beginning in 1957, the California Academy of Science’s Morrison Planetarium hosted its famous series of “Vortex Concerts.” Produced by cinematographer Jordan Belson, they paired electronic music with cosmic imagery projected onto the planetarium’s 65-foot dome. It was just a hop, skip and a jump from Vortex to the liquid light shows at Graham’s Fillmore West, where psychedelic visual imagery added colorful counterpoint to performances by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and countless other bands between 1968 and 1971.

During the early 1980s, when SFJAZZ was in its infancy, Randall Kline worked as a publicist for a Bay Area theater company that staged multi-media shows: George Coates Performance Works. “They did transporting stuff,” Kline recalls. About 20 years ago, his interest in immersive performances was newly piqued. He remembers attending a talk by arts consultant Alan Brown, who noted that young listeners “like color” — and that symphony orchestras should consider adding colorful lighting to their performances as a way of attracting new and younger audiences. Kline thought the point was obvious: “Like, duh,” he says. “But that’s when I really started thinking about color, how to use it along with musical shows. I was always taken with the Montreal Jazz Festival’s approach to stage lighting; it was rock showy, Broadwayish stuff, incredible. And it really enhanced the music.”

For its first 30 years, SFJAZZ was an itinerant organization, presenting shows in rented halls around San Francisco and the East Bay. Occasionally, it collaborated with an artist who was tuned into the visual side of things: for years, cellist Zoë Keating has used a laptop and looping gear to turn herself into a one-woman electro-acoustic orchestra, sometimes matching the sounds with trippy background imagery. But it wasn’t until a decade ago, when SFJAZZ began designing its own concert hall, that the possibility of working consistently with color, light, video, and sound began to emerge. Opera houses around the world were already using computer-generated projections to create virtual stage sets — an astonishing leap in technology that was transforming productions.

Why not SFJAZZ? Architect Mark Cavagnero decided to line the new jazz hall’s interior with neutral gray wood surfaces, creating a kind of cool industrial-chic persona. At the same time, he designed those surfaces to double as projection screens. For the hall’s opening performance on Jan. 23, 2013, SFJAZZ rented several big computer-driven projectors and — as McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Joshua Redman and others performed — the audience was treated to a wraparound light show.

But hang on: In 2013, projectors were too big, too noisy, too expensive — an unaffordable distraction in a 700-seat concert hall.

The immersive media experiment was mothballed until 2016, when SFJAZZ partnered with Obscura Digital, a creative studio based in San Francisco’s Dogpatch district.

You may have seen some of Obscura’s rather mindboggling public events: projecting images of blue whales swimming in the ocean onto the sides of skyscrapers, or mapping large-scale projections onto St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Kline is particularly fond of one concert at the Sydney Opera House — you can watch it on YouTube  — where pipe organist Cameron Carpenter performs “while the whole inside of the hall is going f…ing berserk with these incredible projections.”

But these were one-off events.

SFJAZZ was hoping to install a permanent immersive system in its hall. Obscura estimated the cost at $1.6 million — too much. When a temporary (and, again, noisy) projection system was installed for the 2016 SFJAZZ Gala, the results were disappointing: “The technology had not yet caught up to the vision,” says Barry Threw, formerly software director for Obscura Digital. He is now executive director of Gray Area, a San Francisco arts-and-technology nonprofit, which is collaborating with SFJAZZ on the new system’s installation and future development — an investment made possible through the help of a very supportive and generous donor.

Amy Heiden, Director of Production at SFJAZZ, notes that today’s projectors are small, quiet, unobtrusive — and relatively affordable. At the same time, the images they project are far brighter and more vivid than what was achievable in 2016. Technologically speaking, it seems the time has arrived for SFJAZZ to make good on its original vision for the hall: “We’ve been talking about this for years, trying to figure out how we can get this system up and running,” Heiden says. “So everyone is excited. But it’s a big project and we’ve got an ambitious timeline.” After Labor Day, technicians raced to install the system in time for a Sept. 16 multimedia concert by Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, whose pre-season show was a kind of unofficial trial run for Bowers and opening night.

When Bowers performs, the video imagery should wallpaper the hall’s interior. The goal is to “marry the architecture to real-time generated visuals that happen in response to real-time improvised music,” says Threw, a former saxophonist who attended the Berklee College of Music. “It’s a real interdisciplinary exercise to do this. And there aren’t many examples of this kind of permanent installation, certainly not in a jazz hall.”

SFJAZZ Center opening night, January 23, 2013.

Not every artist will be interested in going multi-media; SFJAZZ knows that.

But for those musicians interested in using the new system, Threw says, “We have a vision: Let’s create a canvas and let’s give everyone this palette of possibilities and let’s see what can be created. It’s like we’re continually progressing toward this vision of having sort of a complete multi-sensory palette to compose with — and if we could get smell in there, we would.”

In fact, Bowers has already connected music to smell and taste.

A few years ago, he was commissioned to compose music for an exclusive dinner and “experiential art event” in Brooklyn. One of the sponsors was the Krug Champagne company whose founder “talked about finding the best grapes in the region and compared that to finding the best musicians for an orchestra.” At the dinner, Bowers says, the same champagne would be poured into two different glasses,” allowing the diner to experience “different palette sensations” in response to the music.

“For me, there are all kinds of connections between the senses,” he says. “I think that’s why I fell in love with film scoring. If I see the way something is shot — the textures, the colors, the cinematography — it makes me think differently about the way it ought to feel musically.”

Bowers' creative partners at SFJAZZ (and later this year at a similar program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic) will be his wife Briana Henry, an actor, and his friend David Wexler, a visual artist and founder of Strangeloop Studios in LA. Wexler, who has created visuals for Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and the Rolling Stones, is the grandson of the late Haskell Wexler, an Oscar-winning cinematographer whose work included In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair.

At SFJAZZ, Bowers says, the video footage should reinforce the message in the music, while the music amplifies the emotional content of the visuals. When They See Us tells the story of five young Black men who were falsely charged with assaulting and raping a white woman in New York’s Central Park in 1989. On Sept. 23, the audience will not be shown anything from the actual feature film. It will see new related footage — shot by Bowers’ team — of “mothers and their sons in families of color where the moms are constantly having to be aware of how their sons are being perceived by policing forces and the world.” Briana Henry will fine-tune the narrative, Bowers says, making sure the video focuses on “interpersonal connections, and showing how people relate through small gestures. She’s an actor, so she’s taking the lead there — the whole emotional aspect of how this imagery pairs with the music to tell a story.”

Bowers is “putting together the structure pretty meticulously with Briana and Dave. And maybe it’s because we’ve all grown up in this era, surrounded by so much stimulation and technology. But it just seems that people — audiences — have a stronger emotional response to things that are multi-dimensional, multi-disciplined, collaborative.” It’s led him to this multi-media moment, when he can play the role of mad scientist and smash the atom: “I’ve had these ideas for a long time,” he says. “So it’s amazing that SFJAZZ has given me the space to do something like this. It feels like the beginning of something for me.”

Kris Bowers performs 9/23 in Miner Auditorium. 

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.

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