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Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

SFEMF 2005

By Marc Weidenbaum

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Belatedly, some notes from each of the four nights at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, held August 18 through 21 of this year at the SomArts building. Between the abstract fragile sound art, courtesy of folks like Erik Glick Rieman and George Lewis, and material with a strict rhythmic intent, notably closing-night performances by Sutekh and Blevin Blechtum, SFEMF 2005 was either diverse or divided. Common ground was located by none other than Morton Subotnik, an elder figure in electronic music who managed to sound utterly contemporary, as if his next record were due out on the same label as Autechre and Aphex Twin. If there was one constant, it was the ubiquitous Apple logo, beaming from the vast majority of the laptops present; the Apple logo is to experimental electronic music what the Adidas logo once was to rap.

Night One, Thursday, August 18 Act I: Together the duo of Dina Emerson (voice, wineglasses, electronics) and Jonathan Segel (violin, guitar, electronics) go by the name Chaos Butterfly. Their music is ritual-like, with sonic ghost images, and the sundry sounds, including glass harmonica, have no inherent direct relation with each other, aside from a certain homespun quality, and that is probably to their credit. Electronic concerts such as these are so different from ordinary concerts. You hear noise instead of melody, and you seek something unfamiliar, rather than familiar. Even if you’re familiar with the musician, you may be disappointed if what they perform isn’t, in some way, new to you. Even visual cues mean something different from what they might elsewhere. When Emerson’s mouth doesn’t move in accordance with the voice emanating from the speaker, it’s not that she’s messed up a lip synch, but that she’s employing looping, that she is vocalizing against herself. And when Segel looks a little confused, it’s not that he hasn’t mastered his tools, but that he’s pushing the envelope of what his tools can do. He uses the laptop to chop up his violin. Her vocals are a bit histrionic, reminiscent at times of Diamanda Galas’ devilish glossolalia, despite which this is the sort of electronic music that would be at home in a public park on a Sunday afternoon.

Act II: Erik Glick Rieman took the stage with his disassembled Rhodes piano to what sounded like mechanized frogs gurgling and spouting. There was also a background drone that wasn’t part of his performance, and he seemed to complain when he brought his set to a close, apparently cutting it short. Anyone who’s been to the SomArts building is used to street noise, used to listening through unplanned sound, and if to Rieman it was like playing chamber music from inside a waterfall, for the locals in the house it really sounded just fine. No matter. He performed with a lot of focus on the tactile, on the moment when keys are hit, and apparently attention to such sonic detail cuts both ways.

Act III: Headlining the evening were George Lewis and Marcos Fernandes. Fernandes was billed as assisting Lewis, though indeed, as more than one audience member suggested after the concert, it sounded more like a Fernandes show than it did a Lewis one, more the nuanced real-world sound transformations of Fernandes’ Trummerflora Collective than the glottal exuberance associated with Lewis (of the much loved News for Lulu downtown-jazz trio albums with John Zorn and Bill Frisell, and now a professor uptown in Manhattan at Columbia). Here the street sounds were part of the source material, as were insect noise and other aural stuff. Lewis’ trombone sat on the table before them like a desk accessory or a trophy, though he eventually did pick it up to play, twice, for brief segments in which he augmented it — first with a mute, then with digital tools. Fernandes had his own old-school equipment, like a cymbal that he’d set on delay, so it played like we were hearing it through a thick wall of liquid. Lewis played sci-fi flares with his trombone, though even when the sounds were extended by processing, the mic picked up the physical touch of his playing, which was pleasurable. As the piece quieted down, it became apparent how even little sounds on his trombone would trigger a slow-motion flurry. Chaos Butterfly may have claimed the name, but Lewis and Fernandes were chaos theory in action.

Night Two, Friday, August 19

Act I: Victoria Jordanova played an amplified harp, enhanced with “live electronics” and what appeared to be a vibrating glove used by massage therapists. She plucked and strummed, using what may have been a toothpick to accent individual vibrations. Act II: Guillermo Galindo, aka gal*in_dog, entered wearing a helmet, looking like an astronaut lost on his way to an MTV awards show, holding a black cross that appeared to be made of microphones. (How did Madonna not think of this first?) The noise that he proceeded to emit was incredibly loud, easily the most aggressive of the four evenings, not as antic as what Blechtum would do, or as percussive as Heckert, or as classic-rocking as Parkins, but it was visceral, and audience members felt it deep in their stomachs. This could be the sound-art shortcut to six-pack abs, or to a heart attack. The heaviest sound of Galindo’s set resulted when he held a power drill next to his mic-cross. Big surprise there.

Act III: Easily the best performance of the night, probably of the entire festival, was Morton Subotnik, playing with Miguel Frasconi, manipulating sounds in space thanks to six speakers and a sub woofer. It sounded vaguely like Autechre, circa the Tri Repetae+++ album, and was funkier and, certainly, punchier than anything playing at any club in the city that night. Subotnik took such pleasure in what he was doing, setting off little circuitous routings of sound with little more than a whisper into his microphone. It was like some sort of 21st-century boogie woogie — you didn’t just want to listen; you wanted to get in line to try out the system yourself. Subotnik, whose classic Silver Apples of the Moon dates from the mid-1960s, was in the pocket with an intensely pizzicato sound, occasionally introducing a voice transformed to seem like a Beastie Boys song being covered by one of Battlestar Galactica‘s Cylons.

Night Three, Saturday, August 20 Act I: Matt Heckert brought along some familiar robot acquaintances, the sort of mechanized percussion instruments he’d performed with on the same stage for the Activating the Medium Festival in 2004. One instrument was a pair of three-tiered wooden bleachers, with chains roped across the top of each step. The chains would bang against the bleachers in accordance with Heckert’s directions. He sat to the side while the bleachers nailed a militarist cadence. As the chains sped up, the chipped wood approached a level of near-chaos for which Heckert could only be held partially responsible, which of course is the point. Given enough processing power or physical intensity, mechanisms appear to gain sentience. Behind the bleachers was a second instrument, a pair of vertical rods, atop which were placed big yellow buckets — well, until they were thrown free by the rods’ constant motion, revealing long chains that resembled pigtails and that confirmed Heckert’s creations as the Muppets of Burning Man. The robots may not have passed the Turing Test during their 15-minute set, but they sure were entertaining.

Act II: As with the previous night, the middle act was more performance than concert, in this case a modern dance piece put together by Patrice Scanlon. The music started with spacey, organ-like sounds that turned out to be a sort of prelude to the more dancey (in the nightclub sense of the word) and generic techno music to follow. There was the familiar elastic percussion, not to mention bleep-bleep melodies oddly reminiscent of Harold Faltermeyer. A dancer appeared, wearing red, then a second one in yellow, and then finally the composer, seated front and center and running her computer, stood to reveal she wore blue. This may or may not have been intended, but red frowned, yellow had a neutral demeanor, and blue smiled. They twirled and swooped, looking like yoga in motion.

Act III: The Hub is six accomplished composer-performers working across a live computer network: John Bischoff, Chris Brown, Scot Gresham-Lancaster, Tim Perkis, Phil Stone and Mark Trayle. Theirs was like a game piece, the six musicians on stage with their laptops and, in a few cases, secondary equipment, such as a keyboard or a motion trigger. The music was largely percussive, with snake rattles, bug-song, sawblade wave forms and a wide variety that would fit comfortably under the rubric of “bang!” There were high pitches, rings, and other upper-register sounds. On a screen projected behind them, bits of text appeared and slowly receded, mostly jokes at the expense of the performers, though some were informative. One sequence explained that each member of the Hub controlled one background element and one or more “foreground” elements. Another referred, correctly, to the ensemble’s “typically hyperactive” sound. At one point the screen appeared to display some computer code, which was edited in real time. Another background text read “funky, squishy,” which either provided the musicians with direction or the audience with adjectives to describe what was already being played. This line elicited considerable laughter: “What is that clicky stuff?” One bit of text expressed hope that the sound was better in the hall than it was in the musicians’ monitors. Also running in the background was evidence of the computer network: IP addresses, abbreviated names of the participants, and various command-line entries.

Night Four, Sunday, August 21 Act I: The night started with Sutekh, working on stage with a live visual presentation (by someone who wasn’t credited in the program). The music began with three minutes or so of mallet instruments and bell tones, all laptop-produced. Images of small geometric shapes moved about rapidly and jerkily, appearing to be hexagonal bits of metal, maybe magnetized fragments. These alternated with images of text being written, super-magnified, the ink’s absorption into the paper more of interest than the words themselves. Given the minimalist music and the text on screen, it all felt particularly Peter Greenaway, in a good way. When the tones faded, what came in their place was contact-mic stuff, which matched the written words, the scratching of pen on paper having intense appeal. Then horror-score strings and wind, and gorgeous images of street silhouettes against paper, the latter shown so every pore was visible, the grain texture self-evident, the moire pattern like a bloated Lichtenstein. A gorgeously flickering sound emerged amid the hum, but the hum had a disturbing quality. Silhouettes of cables appeared, like those on the cover of the festival’s program. Eventually reduced to a cricket’s idea of minimal techno, and then the most literal, or least transformed, sample of the set: a human chorus. Pop music reared its head, with a voice like Bjork’s, a warped female vocal as aware of its sibilant texture as of what it was saying. A nice piece of trip-hop, but somehow it felt inappropriate for the context.

Act II: Blevin Blechtum moves continuously through a massive sonic bag of materials, and it all seems of a piece. You want to credit it to stream of consciousness, but only a musician’s concentrated imagination could make sense of such disparate material. Call it techno’s theory of intelligent design. For a moment, early on, there was a pause in the noise. The second time this happened, perhaps it was a glitch. A third occurrence, though, made it seem that these were conscious ruptures in the onslaught; Blechtum was employing silence as a disruption. Her and Sutekh’s sets were both heavily rhythmic, especially for a festival such as this, one more associated with the abstract, with… well, with what? Classicism grafted onto new tools? Fragile sounds for their own sake? Well, increasingly, it appears, with performance. Blechtum wore a large cardboard horse head for the whole act, decorated like some courtly figure, like a fancy chess piece, with big white hemispheres for eyes, and teeth like bars of Ivory soap. Her laptops were disguised in pizza boxes, and she looked like a figment out of Sexy Beast or Donnie Darko.

Act III: Zeena Parkins closed the night and the festival, her harp a wooden triangle, some Danish modern furniture vision of a harp, unlike the more traditional one that Jordanova had played a few nights earlier. Next to Parkins was a desk of equipment, and below her some foot pedals used for looping, contorting and triggering. She worked her whammy bar hard (bringing to mind the performance at the 2004 SFEMF by former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud), then extending into quiet periods. The opening was very bluesy, but broken; she’d scratch on the strings and loop the sound in her foot pedals, and she’d spin the harp to gain access to it from various vantages. Occasionally she’d just let the loops play for a while on their own, building an automated maze of Hendrix-oid feedback and overtones, seesaw drones, fiddling and blurps. She twisted paper into the microphone for texture and dramatic effect. The highpoint occurred when she got down on her knees, working the pedals with her hands, harp be damned.

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