By Chloe Roth

Minna Choi likes metaphors. Which is fitting for someone who composes, arranges, and conducts music for as wide an array of projects as she does. In 2008 Choi founded San Francisco’s Magik*Magik Orchestra. Though it started out as a session orchestra for indie-rock bands, Magik*Magik has quickly grown into a multifaceted group that is challenging and reinventing the definition of “orchestra.”

“This is going to sound very lofty, like ‘Girl, get your head out of the clouds,’” says Choi. But at Asterisk, we’re all about big ideas, and Magik*Magik’s refreshingly optimistic outlook for the future of arts and music in San Francisco is right on track.

Choi continues with the metaphor of the computer. Not too many years ago, she points out, a computer was a gigantic mammoth of a machine. There were just a few, and only a select group of people knew how to use them. “That’s kind of how the symphony is now,” she says. “There’s one big one in a town, and only very specialized people know how to access and use it. Those people are conductors and composers.”

Thirty years later, any kid can fire up a computer for something as mundane as sending an email. “Orchestral music is so big, in scope and in theme. And it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be about smaller everyday things, in the same way that computers can now be used for smaller everyday things.”

The “everyday things” Magik*Magik has had a hand in run the gamut from music to technology, literature to cinema. To date, Magik*Magik has done over 100 projects with over 70 different artists, including a sold-out show at The Fillmore with Geographer; two studio albums with John Vanderslice; a musical petting zoo for the Maurice Sendak exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum; Apple designer Matt Brown’s recording project Music For Shuffle, which required musicians to read programmed snippets of sheet music rotating randomly on iPad screens; and a five-week North American tour with Death Cab For Cutie. In 2009, classically trained clarinetist Annie Phillips came on board as a player but turned out to possess the management, administrative, classical repertoire—Choi is admittedly more comfortable with pop music—and children’s programming experience Magik*Magik needed.

Magik*Magik’s mission is “to attract new listeners and participants to the orchestral experience”—emphasis on new. So, rather than counting income, they celebrate their wins by asking how many of the people they worked with had never worked with orchestra before.

One of those people was Brian McMullen, head of McSweeney’s children’s imprint. Last year McMullen released Hang Glider and Mud Mask and commissioned Magik*Magik to write a piece to act as the book’s soundtrack. The band recorded the song at Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone studio and performed it at the book’s release party, with Phillips playing bass clarinet in full character and costume. (Check out an exclusive performance by tagging the barcode below.)

“McSweeney’s produces beautiful books in a way that can’t be reproduced digitally, from the do-si-do binding down to the feel of the paper,” Phillips says. “We can relate to that as an orchestra people can hire instead of using [digital] MIDI strings on their records.”

Is there a way to change the general impression of orchestras and the kinds of people who use them? Can an orchestra be made a daily phenomenon instead of a yearly one for everyday people? These are the kinds of questions Choi and Phillips constantly ask themselves.

“Can I easily envision a world where people are all of a sudden using orchestra in a similar way as people use their computers?” Choi continues. “No, but it forces you to think about the orchestra in a different way, and that’s the larger idea.” A big idea? Bring it on.


next page
Previous Page


This article was published in:
Idea Issue - Released March 2013
Issue 2 / Version 3 | Buy print copy here
Issue 11
Asterisk San Francisco Magazine is made possible by readers and advertisers like the one above. Support our sponsors!