Since its inception three years ago, The Magik*Magik Orchestra has become the Bay Area’s go-to orchestral group for rock bands looking to transform their music through the addition of classical elements. I suspect that making those sorts of collaborations work isn’t always easy, and Magik*Magik’s success is surely due in no small part to the many talents of Artistic Director Minna Choi. In anticipation of Magik*Magik’s upcoming performance at Herbst Theatre on June 17th, where the orchestra will also join John Vanderslice for a performance of White Wilderness in its entirety, I spoke with Choi via e-mail about the joys and challenges of collaborating with rock musicians, the Orchestra’s origins, and who her dream collaborators might be.

Was the goal with Magik*Magik to work with rock musicians from the get-go? How did the orchestra get started?

Yes, working with bands was the focus of Magik from the beginning. I first started Magik intending to do mostly recording projects, so I reached out to JV

[John Vanderslice] to form a partnership. I wasn’t really thinking about live shows in the beginning and was planning on taking some more time before delving into that scene. But then soon after JV and I connected, I got a call from Wordless Music Series to help them organize a show for Jonny Greenwood in San Francisco. They wanted to program an orchestra show of Jonny’s music the day before Radiohead’s performance at Outside Lands so that Jonny could attend the show, which he had never done before in the US. They said that if I helped them pull it off, that I could put Magik’s name on it and have that be our official debut show. It was such a no brainer that even though we had no players or experience, I just said yes. That was three years ago at the Herbst. I think JV came to that show actually!

Are there particular challenges to working with rock and pop artists? In your experience, do some rock/pop musicians have limiting preconceptions about how classical instruments should fit into their music?

The biggest challenge that we had to find a solution to early on is that most of the bands we work with don’t read music, and most of the classical musicians we work with, don’t improvise. So my job was to create systems that made it easy for both types of musicians to work together as seamlessly as possible. I’m happy that we’ve developed some really great tricks to help each group record together super efficiently and musically.

I think bands have to be eased into the orchestral thing kind of in stages. There a level of trust that has to be built up between the band, the arranger and the players. Usually the first time I work with a band, I expect that the collaboration will be a little more on the conservative side, because we’re still feeling each other out. Like The Dodos is a good example. When we worked together the first time around, Meric really wanted to be there at arranging sessions with me and make sure we were on the same page. Kind of like a parent wants to be with their kid on the first day of school, just making sure the environment is safe and they’ll be taken care of. A song is kind of like a kid in that way. It’s a precious item that you don’t just let any stranger off the street babysit. So that was the right thing for Meric to do at the time. But the second time around for recording No Color, he was just like “I trust you so just write whatever you want, I don’t have to hear any mock ups, record it without me there and send the files to Portland when you’re done.”

What has surprised you most about Magik*Magik’s work so far? What have you learned from working with the orchestra?

The thing that continually surprises (and encourages) me about Magik is how enthusiastic and excited the orchestra players are for every project. We kinda only do one thing, we play shows and records with bands. You’d think that maybe after a while the players will be like, “been there, done that.” But every band is so different, and have different personalities that each show feels fresh and exciting and the players respond to that newness. It’s like making new friends every month or every couple of weeks.

I’ve learned a lot about how to how to be a leader. It’s kinda square sounding but its true. There is nothing worse than standing in front of 40 people at a rehearsal and not knowing what to say or what to do next. In the beginning it was really rough because I didn’t really have the confidence to lead and I’d just be up there rambling on and on because I was nervous. I’ve gotten better at cutting the fat and getting right to the point when I’m leading a rehearsal. Now the challenge is how to do that without seeming like a soulless robot woman.

What do you think separates Magik*Magik from other orchestras, musically or culturally, or in terms of the organization’s aesthetic?

Most orchestras today exist as stand-alone entities. They perform season concerts, and sometimes have guest artists come in to play with them, but almost everything they do is just the orchestra. Magik, however, is almost entirely collaborative, so we’re always supporting or playing with a band, we rarely perform just by ourselves. Also, it’s one of our goals to be as accessible to everyone as we can, and I think that people see us that way–a band who has never worked with orchestra players before can come to Magik and get an arrangement written for their song, and an awesome group of players to track the song. Our players all play at a very high level, but they have indie rockish personalities–they are fun to be around, and easy to work with musically. Along with that is the kind of music we play, which is mostly indie rock anyway–that’s the kind of music we all listen to, so its really fun to be a part of creating it whenever we can.

What are the musical backgrounds of the members of Magik*Magik? Could you tell me a little bit about your own musical history?

I met most of the members of Magik*Magik through attending the San Francisco Conservatory, so they are all “classically” trained, which basically means they’ve been playing their instrument a really really long time. A lot of them play around San Francisco in various orchestras and chamber music groups as part of their musical careers.

My musical background stems more from a pop background than classical, but thanks to my time at the conservatory, I’m starting to feel pretty comfortable in the classical environment. Before I started Magik, I worked mostly as an arranger in hip hop and indie rock. I worked for a producer named Lazy Legz Dymond in the Bronx for like 4 years as a string arranger and also played in an indie rock band called illuminea. Before that, I spent a few years directing a choir at NYU and writing vocal arrangements there. The classical thing is pretty recent for me, just in the past four years or so of music making.

What would be your dream collaboration? Magik*Magik and _________?

Bjork. Followed very closely by Beyonce. Also, I think if Beck ever asked Magik to play with him, my heart would totally melt. The sound of his voice just brings back so many fond memories for me, he was the first artist I had a severe rock crush on.