Feel the Magik Magik

Between its fantastic name and emphasis on helping San Francisco musicians make a worthwhile living, the Magik*Magik Orchestra caught my attention with its pressure-filled beginning. (No garage band start here). The orchestra’s founder and artistic director, Minna Choi, was studying composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music when she received a request by the booker at Cafe du Nord to put together a 34-piece string orchestra. And not just for the exercise, but to play the West Coast premiere of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral work, Popcorn Superhet Receiver.

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“The performance was slated to occur that summer while Greenwood was in town to play the Outside Lands Festival with Radiohead, and would be his first U.S. hearing of the work,” production manager Julia Vanderham recalled. “Minna set to work putting together an ensemble of some of the finest talent at the Conservatory and, in August at a sold-out show at the Herbst Theater, the Magik*Magik Orchestra was born.”

Most of the Magik’s original members were students and it now accepts players on a word-of-mouth basis through application. The full service “orchestra-for-hire” typically works on a contractual basis with bands who want to add classical musicians to their own music, whether live or recorded. Music arrangements, sheet music preparation, coordinated rehearsals, and the opportunity to work with a bank of talented young folks are among the reasons their work is solicited for social music gatherings and a full-length album with John Vanderslice.

Magik*Magik is the house orchestra of Vanderslice’s “jewel of a studio,” Tiny Telephone, where they’ve done most of their recording work to date. Imagine curling up with a cup of the musician’s original blend of herbal tea and listening to a string quartet recording in the studio hidden under the freeway at the bottom of Potrero Hill. Tough to put yourself there, I know.

Beyond preferring a diverse—and cozy—range of locations, the group says it prefers to view paid projects as original artistic collaborations in pursuit of a new sound. And I imagine there’s a sense of creative fulfillment in succeeding at creating a unique opportunity to play. As Vanderham says, “the livelihood of young professional musicians is often necessarily dependent on income from teaching…Magik strives to provide its players with more than just a random gig here and there, but to be a project that musicians can make as much of as they like.”