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

In the Bag

By Marc Weidenbaum

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — The Luggage Store Gallery is an empty, white-walled, second-story office space on San Francisco’s Market Street, on a stretch with a certain old-time Times Square quality. At night, it’s all strip clubs and cheap eats — and, come Thursday, experimental music. The spot plays host most Thursdays to the long-running Luggage Store Gallery New Music Series. The gallery is less than two blocks from a major Bay Area transit hub, the Powell Street station, which may have something to do with the series’ success in attracting musicians from Oakland and the South Bay. This past Thursday’s concert, February 5, featured two electro-acoustic acts, both of which paired traditional string instruments with laptops.

Jorge Boehringer went first, performing solo under the moniker Sevencentralandmountain. He began playing at 8:15pm, Pacific Standard. He held a violin that was jacked into his laptop (yes, an Apple), which sat on the floor. In essence, the laptop was a very expensive effects pedal. Each pluck and stroke of the violin joined the previous ones in a process of layering. When the sound had accumulated sufficiently, he moved over to a microphone and chanted through the thick mass. Then he settled onto the floor, laid down the violin, and proceeded to work on the laptop, manipulating the material that had built up in its memory bank. The sounds became like those of thick loose cables reverberating in the wind. He sang again, a tenor wail, then returned to the laptop, turning the sounds into beading segments that resembled, of all things, the heavenly, and heavily echoed, guitar of U2’s the Edge.

While Boehringer, who studied music at nearby Mills College with Pauline Oliveros and Fred Frith, among others, prepared for a second piece, the audience got a glimpse at his technique. While tuning up, he plucked a string and the reverb lasted a good five seconds. That generous delay served him well as the piece got underway. He would slowly draw his bow across the strings, but instead of layering parallel, synchronous measures of music, as is standard in live looping, he instead let each pull of the bow start and stop wherever. As a result, there was no demonstrative downbeat, and instead an ocean of overlapping waves. The sound was occasionally like that of a warped audio tape. Boehringer sang atop this as well, and then sat at his laptop to fiddle with the results, much as he had in the first piece. The effect was a bit like that of someone at the end of the day making sense of the day’s events — organizing them, filtering them, making something of them.

Each Boehringer piece had two periods: that during which he produced original sounds, and that during which he manipulated these sounds. In this second work, the violin became a fog horn. Eventually, it built to a pounding rhythm, then faded after a series of scattered ruffles. After he was done, he accidentally played a loud snatch of that foghorn sound. He smiled by way of apology. His third and final piece, about 15 minutes long, as were the two previous, was his most songlike.

After a short break, the duo Mohtallah took over. Mohtallah is Brian O’Reilly and Stefanie L. Ku, joined for this performance by Peter Segerstrom. The group’s audio-visual setup was a little awkward in that they played in a cluster to the left of the audience, but the video was projected straight ahead, which kept heads turning back and forth, as if at a slow-motion tennis match. O’Reilly focused for the most part on his double bass, Ku and Segerstrom on a set of electronic instruments, including a laptop and a mixer. There were so many plugs in the mixer, it resembled a patch-cord spaghetti from the early days of audio synthesis.

The sounds were quiet and static, small music built from clipped noises and the touching and scraping of O’Reilly’s bass. The accompanying video started with rust-colored overlays of what might be urban scenes, and moved into what looked like a mood ring in fast forward, the goopy mix of purples and greens reminiscent of the acid visuals of bygone rock shows. As O’Reilly bowed his bass, the sound environment got richer and darker, with low froggy gurgles. Ku used a machine that responded, like a Theremin, to the motions her hand made in the air, adding heartbeat-like, yet arrhythmic, percussion. The video, meanwhile, changed to public transportation, and then, in its final sequence, to images of a hand and what appeared to be other body parts. At times the hand’s motion on the screen seemed to coordinate with the electric sounds, like a close-up from a snuff film of an electrocution. Toward the end, the music grew louder, like a signal straining to come into focus, while the hand writhed.

During concerts of experimental and unfamiliar music, the audience inevitably seeks something on which to focus. In Boehringer’s set, this meant process, the way sounds were built and manipulated. For Mohtallah, the hook appeared to be the relation between sound and visual, though until the end, such connections tested the audience’s powers of inference.

The trio finished the piece just before 10pm, and asked if they could do another. Matt Davignon, one of the Luggage Store series’ curators, said they had three minutes, so they did a short bit that featured Segerstrom on a small plastic air organ, which had sat on the floor the whole evening. The toy-like instrument, with its familiar keyboard, was an enticing sight during the more abstract moments of the Mohtallah performance, and it was comforting to hear its recognizable tones, played slowly, accompanied by Ku and O’Reilly.

The little organ was hooked up to a small amplifier. Even from across the room, with the lights low, the amp was identifiable as a karaoke machine (what other amp would have two built-in tape decks?). After the show, Segerstrom generously answered questions about his set-up. He explained that he loved the box’s echo, which has a charmingly cheesy exaggeration to it, and which he used to enrich the organ’s sound. It is also pleasingly prone to feedback. For most of the concert, he worked on a Sherman Filterbank, an analog filtering and distortion tool. In theory, he was manipulating sounds from O’Reilly’s bass. However, he explained that the machine has enough ambient noise in its system that, given the relatively low volume at which the trio performs, he was occasionally just working on that internal source material.

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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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