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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Like everything else, NWEAMO Festival goes virtual

NWEAMO 2020 trailer

Coronavirus pandemic notwithstanding, San Diego’s 22nd annual NWEAMO (New West Evolving Arts and Music Organism) Festival is taking place this weekend (May 16 and 17), obviously online.

NWEAMO Festival 2020 commences Saturday with a live-stream concert from Seoul, Korea, at 6 p.m. PT. A second “concert,” created from curated YouTube videos, is set for Sunday at 2 p.m. PT.

“Social distancing is giving us opportunities to explore new ways in which artists can contribute in a meaningful way to helping us understand ourselves,” says NWEAMO founder Joseph Martin Waters, also San Diego State University professor of music composition and computer music, and founder of acclaimed rock/classical/electronic music ensemble Swarmius.

“Like many festivals, NWEAMO is proactively exploring ways in which social distancing creates new opportunities. Rather than fight it, we are exploring what is better. The result is perhaps our most eclectic festival ever.”

Waters founded NWEAMO in 1988, its mission being to dissolve barriers, foster discovery, celebrate diversity, and promote cross-pollination among today’s multi-faceted music communities. In attendance at this year’s festival will be composers, sound artist inventors, and musicians from Korea, Japan, Canada and the U.S.

“The works range from sample-based electronics, works composed for musical theater, works that combine the music and aesthetics of eastern and western traditions, and classical adaptations of iconic rock pieces, ballads, and orchestral works from some of the world’s most original new thinkers,” says Waters.

The Saturday concert from Seoul stars Jeonghyeon Joo, a virtuoso of the traditional Korean fiddle-like haegeum, and harpist Seunghee Han. Sunday’s curated videos include both performances and animations, and feature artists including Waters, Pulitzer Prize winners Jennifer Higdon and Roger Reynolds, award-winning Broadway composer Bobby Cronin, Korean-American composer Texu Kim, rock composer and Peter Asher bandleader Jeff Alan Ross, and composer and Yale School of Music composition department head Martin Bresnick.

“Together, these composers say something that is bigger than the sum of the parts,” says Waters. “There is a hidden intuitive dialogue that weaves these far-flung pieces into a conversation about who we are collectively. Together they weave tapestries that we can only guess at intellectually, but which we can begin to understand emotionally. It’s like walking though the Impressionist gallery at the Museum of Modern Art: Seeing all those masterpieces together in the same room creates a context that reveals something about their world. Such is the mission of NWEAMO.”

Meanwhile, Waters has been releasing a digital single with video—either from Swarmius or solo under his own name--every two weeks on Friday. He is also completing his opera The Magic Hummingbird (El Colibrí Mágico)--A California Story—nine pieces from which were premiered in 2018 at New York’s Cutting Room.

Evocative of West Side Story, The Magic Hummingbird centers on three Southern California teen rockers who end up in Tijuana when a night of clubbing takes a surreal turn and transplants them among a group of stranded Honduran refugees who are connected to ancient Mayan rituals and secrets.


Waters’ single “Shouldn’t” is from The Magic Hummingbird, and its video is included in Sunday’s YouTube concert. It is sung by the character Clara as she brings water to the refugees who are stranded in the desert. The simple and direct clip, says Waters, was filmed with a cell phone, and features Swarmius with vocalist Nina Deering and bassist Harley Magsino.

The video for the single “We” was released last Friday. Also from The Magic Hummingbird, the clip shows greater production value and also stars Swarmius, this time with Mexican-American opera singer Karen Garcia in the opera’s role of a magic ghost curandera (shaman)--based on the sacred poetry of Maria Sabina.


“It’s a visual interpretation conceived by Karen, based on her experiences of Mexican curandera ceremonies and the ancient traditions interwoven into contemporary Mexican experience,” says Waters. “The lyrics are based on the sacred psilocybin mushroom chants of Maria Sabina, a great healer and true saint, who lived in abject poverty in the mountains of Oaxaca. While we were shooting, a young rat emerged from the bushes and stood there smiling with us. It felt as if the tree and flowers were listening in the moonlight and fog.”

And he notes that the singles are credited to both Swarmius and Joseph Martin Waters--instead of only Swarmius.

“I was running into problems with people not being able to find my music,” he explains. “Also, for the past 10 years I have been listed only as Swarmius, but many people do not know that I am in Swarmius.”



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