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Track Meet

By Marc Weidenbaum

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — On the fourth night of this year’s San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, upon entering the concert venue, you were hand-stamped, given a pamphlet, and offered DayGlo-orange earplugs.

The earplugs proved unnecessary, thankfully, but the show otherwise lived up to expectations for an ambitious festival now in its fourth year.

The evening, Saturday, July 26, featured four sets, all electronically mediated, by three solo artists and one small improvising ensemble. Musicians from New York and the Bay Area gathered to flesh out a loose agenda, “East Meets Left,” the title of this year’s festival. Many of the works on Saturday involved digitized mutations of real-world sounds — the human voice, street noise, slot machines — but the range of treatments was much broader than that generalization might suggest. Laptops bearing the Apple logo were a common sight, but there were plenty of other machines involved, including an electric guitar and contemporary Theremins.

Stephen Vitiello, from New York, was the night’s first performer. His untitled piece was over half an hour in length. It began with a rich, reverberating tone that rang out and grew in volume and then settled back, followed by occasional swells. On its own it would have been an achievement. The tone was simultaneously limpid and resolute in its beauty, and Vitiello knew to sustain it before moving on. He worked that sound for some time from a bank of conspicuously wired machines and one laptop. In short order, the ringing sound came to share the room with others: a delicate crackle, a field recording of voices, an occasional 4/4 rhythm. At one point, about midway through, the sounds just stopped, and Vitiello, casually dressed, with the air of an enthusiastic college student, joked from the stage about the dramatic ending. It was the first of three glitches during the evening, none of which significantly affected the event. A note in the program explained that Vitiello was using a small photocell to trigger sounds as a result of light frequencies, and he could be seen throughout the piece moving amid his tools, pointing the photocell at the diodes, laptop screen, and other parts of his equipment, locating signals in that illuminated nest of wires and boxes.

Sean Rooney, a Bay Area musician who is on the festival’s steering committee, came second. He performed two ten-minute pieces on laptop, titled “Slots” and “Pile Driver.” He sat right next to the soundboard, in the center of the audience, perhaps to better situate himself within the space defined by the hall’s speakers. (Amid his small setup was an Emagic 2|6 interface device, which allows for multi-channel output, or surround sound.) As with the Vitiello, a brief program note assisted in locating the provenance of the sounds, but wasn’t necessary to appreciate them. In part this was because both Rooney pieces were built from familiar sources. In “Slots,” percussive noise sat side by side with the ringing of a casino (the pamphlet divulged Circus! Circus! in Reno, Nevada, as the location). It turns out that the “noise” was sounds of a motherboard, and the resulting mental image was pleasing: the active casino overlaid with the circuit-level pinball machine that is the inner workings of a computer. “Pile Driver” was a kind of site-specific work, in that the field recordings on which it was based were recorded a few blocks away at a construction site. The piece was coolly metamorphic, as the common banging of the machines was altered slowly, in real time, by a hunched Rooney, while audience members turned inward for a glimpse of his actions.

During the intermission as much as a fifth of the audience appeared to have left. Perhaps the concert hadn’t lived up to the promise of those orange earplugs, and they’d headed across the bridge to Oakland, where a noise fest was taking place. In any case, the vacaters missed one of the evening’s highlights, which occurred at the end of a set by Elise Kermani.

Kermani, who teaches at Hunter College in Manhattan and runs the IshtarLab Records label, first performed “Floating Bodies,” which came in two segments. She recited text that the night’s pamphlet attributed to Archimedes, her voice affected digitally throughout. She then played back that recording, mixed it with sounds of liquids, which complemented the text (“Let it be supposed / a fluid”), and she sang along, perhaps an octave higher than she had originally. The second Kermani piece, “Meta_morphosis,” involved a dance-like routine that triggered an accompanying video, bars of bright color radiating across the screen at the back of the stage. But shortly into it, a cursor appeared on the screen. A cursor appearing on a screen during a multimedia event is the equivalent of seeing a boom microphone descend into a frame during a movie. The piece faltered and then ended, those color bars on the screen taking on an unintended meaning. We were experiencing technical difficulties. Kermani noted the inopportune malfunction, much as had Vitiello, and moved on. What followed, “Viva,” was wholly musical, with none of the performance or vocal aspects of Kermani’s first two pieces, though all three were attributed to Onadime software. The work was a live remix of a Vivaldi concerto, the various elements strung into something with striking similarities to the minimalism of John Adams and Michael Nyman. Heard during this evening of rangy abstractions, the compact achievement of Kermani’s cut’n’paste arrangement stood out.

Fortunately for the Bay Area trio known as SPL, the night’s final performers, their technical issues were handled in advance of their playing. As David Slusser, Len Paterson and Scott Looney — their initials spell the band’s name — set up on stage, the start of their piece appeared to be delayed by some wiring issue. At one point a cable was suspended between Looney and Paterson like an unwelcome umbilical cord, but in short time it was all sorted out. Each member had a table of gadgets and one main axe. For Looney it was a laptop; for Slusser a pair of Theremins, or Theremin-like devices, tall antennas that responded to his arm motion; and for Paterson an electric guitar. The performance had more in common with European free improvisation than with the works performed earlier in the evening, as the group mixed samples and noise, melodies and rhythms, for a jam-like, open-ended piece.

Previous evenings in this year’s festival included performances by Dan Joseph, who applies electronics to hammer dulcimer; David Wessel, director of UC Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies; J Lesser and Kid606, performing as Disc; and others. One evening was curated by 23 Five Inc., and featured Jim Haynes, the organization’s editorial director. The final evening, on July 27, curated by the New San Francisco Tape Music Center, included premieres of works by Joseph Anderson, Thom Blum, Cliff Caruthers, Kent Jolly and Aaron Ximm, as well as material by Christian Marclay, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis and others. The fourth annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival was held on five consecutive nights, from July 23 through July 27, at the SomArts Cultural Center, at the far end of a neighborhood that had, during the Internet boom, been the city’s nexus of business and technology. Business may have dried up, but the technology continues to blossom.

Related links: The San Francisco Electronic Music Festival's website. Stephen Vitiello's website. Sean Rooney's blog. Elise Kermani's IshtarLab Records website. More information on David Slusser, from the Bay Area Improviser organization. Len Paterson's website. Scott Looney's website. The New San Francisco Tape Music Center's website. 23Five Inc.'s website.

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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