Beyond Laptops

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — San Francisco regularly has more than its share of sound-art activities, but for the week that began on April 9, the fruits were even more plentiful than usual. Here’s a run through of a great week of experimental music, focusing on just three of the period’s many events: five nights, three concerts, two French horns — and one refrigerator. It’s worth noting that of the nine musicians involved, only two made prominent use of a laptop computer. The following reviews had been intended as brief individual entries in this site’s new Field Notes section for quick notes, but they ended up being longer pieces.

TAKING THE MEASURE OF ELLEN FULLMAN: Ellen Fullman brought her 70-foot string instrument to the San Francisco warehouse gallery space SomArts on Saturday, April 9. The hour-long concert, titled “Phantom Coincidence,” featured Fullman and her Long String Instrument in solo and trio settings. The instrument is less a tool than it is a workshop, its several dozen strings held taut across a room larger than most apartments. They’re divided into two separate strands so that she can walk back and forth among them, hands outstretched like someone stroking the tops of tall grass. The combined strings resemble a mechanical cobweb, and Fullman was the spider not the fly. She coaxed a range of sounds, which brought to mind sitar, bowed violin, and some alien bellows.

The evening’s program notes made mention of the different sonorous properties of stainless steel wire and “phosphor bronze wire.” Small clamps weighted down several strings near their midway point, defining their length (and, thus, their tuning: capos courtesy of Home Depot). But the overall effect was more holistic, a broad depth of sound and resonance (and, to those fortunate enough to sit front and center, a wide stereo spectrum).

After an extended solo work, Fullman was joined by two musicians. First came Krystyna Bobrowski, whose French horn brought brief melodic riffs into Fullman’s aural space. The trio was rounded out by Luciano Chessa, who strummed his autoharp like it was a washboard. For a second trio piece, Bobrowski switched to another homemade tool, her Gliss Glass, which is Dr. Frankenstein’s idea of a glass harmonica, two deep decanters suspended on metal tripods and fixed with plastic tubes that allow the player to alter their tunings in real time. After Chessa switched from autoharp to musical saw, he moved around the room regularly, by all appearances in an attempt (quite successful) to trigger different clusters of sympathetic vibrations in Fullman’s strings.

If Fullman’s guitar-of-the-gods was the focal point during the performance, afterward many eyes were on the floor. There, a lengthwise ruler divided the Long String Instrument down to the inch, and Fullman had taped on the ground other markings and instructions that served as the compositions. Here are some examples: “Beat Frequency / Ellen cues; go out together alternate smoothly with overlap play 2 strings fade out at 12.5 (5/4 clamp).” “Improvisation starts with duet; Ellen and Krys. Luciano goes outside waits 2-3 min — begins outside and walks in after a few minutes to continue playing.” “Cue #1 / Bass drone in Ellen’s solo / in 1 meter, out 1 meter.”

The concert was the first in a series celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Just Intonation Network. The shows, which run through June, will feature music from Terry Riley, Michael Harrison, Lou Harrison, Robert Rich and others.

TWO TURNTABLES & THREE GUESTS: Japanese turntablist Otomo Yoshihide played a small quartet show at Naut Humon’s space in the SOMA district on Wednesday, April 14. He was joined by Ikue Mori, the former DNA drummer, who has transformed into an adventurous laptop performer, and the Norwegian noise duo Fe-mail (Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje and Hild Sofie Tafjord). They performed in a white cube of a room, the lights kept on to aid two camera operators shooting DVD footage. The bright illumination diminished the concert’s intimacy, but laid bare various strategies and affinities. Can noise art survive outside of its native shadow realm? In a word, yes.

The half-Japanese, half-Norwegian foursome played one half-hour piece plus three shorter pieces that added up to a second half hour. A cardboard box of individually wrapped earplugs greeted concert attendees, but the music never registered near the level of discomfort. The second piece, for example, began with beading, soft guitar lines, a kind of melodic minimalism that provided Yoshihide and Mori their most pronounced period of interplay that evening.

Yoshihide switched back and forth between that guitar and his trademark equipment (his turntables) while Mori sat patiently at her laptop, the image of composure. Both members of Fe-mail alternated between an array of secondary electronics (mixing board, Kaoss pad, ring modulator and more) and what amounted to a “primary” instrument: French horn for Tafjord, voice for Ratkje, whose high forehead creased when she shrieked. More often than not, those shrieks were muted, clipped or otherwise transformed by whatever black box she’d hooked her microphone into. Tafjord and Ratjke have such a remarkable musical kinship, it was possible, at times, to forget anyone else was playing. Each knows the other’s routine backward and forward, and one would occasionally smile, knowingly, when the other opted for a particular move.

Yes, a “move,” as in a game, for these four works were, in essence, game pieces, along the lines of the dueling makeshift ensembles that John Zorn has curated. There was a sense throughout the evening that the individual players were passing a baton from one to another, each taking the momentary lead, and contributing to a consensual tumult. Of course, it always came back to Yoshihide, whether he was providing a blanket of sound with his feedback-laced guitar, or commanding attention by clanging upturned record albums like the small, vinyl gongs that they are. RODEN VS. BISCHOFF BY THE SEA: On Thursday, April 14, Steve Roden and John Bischoff played what will likely have been the final in a series of concerts hosted by Matmos member M.C. Schmidt at the San Francisco Art Institute. Or so said Schmidt that evening, having billed the event as a “two headed monster,” though technically speaking Roden and Bischoff played solo sets. Schmidt also apologized for the refrigerator that purred throughout the concert, but more on that machine later.

Roden’s peformance capped an extended residency at SFAI. His visual-art exhibit, titled “seamarks,” ran in the Walter and McBean Galleries from January through March. At the start of March he gave a lecture at the school, during which he revealed the musical basis for much of his abstract, geometric paintings, sketches and sculptures. He detailed how individual pieces were based on such inspirations as the organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral, Eric Dolphy (a painting he did with the brush in his mouth) and Richard Strauss. He showed slides of a large wooden sculpture he designed with two scientists; it was topped with a functioning glockenspiel triggered by seismic data. And the “seamarks” exhibit itself included a sound-art work based on a recording of the speech given by Saint-John Perse (pen-name of Alexis Leger), the French author of Seamarks, when accepting the 1960 Nobel Prize in Literature.

For the April 14 concert, held in the Art Institute’s cafe, which has a phenomenal view of the bay, Roden, who is based in Los Angeles, performed a quiet series of fragile sounds for just over 20 minutes. Seated at a small desk, he sequenced through tiny, pitched materials. He fed them in loops with brief half-lives, allowing for momentary overlays that lent the work the sense of a round. He blew or lightly sung into a small can, which brought sparse melodies to a performance that had already suggested something more musical than pure sound for sound’s sake, even if those impulses were on display at a near microscopic level.

Bischoff, a significant figure in electronic music who is based at Mills College in nearby Oakland, prefaced his set by warning that it would open with a loud noise, which it did. That clang was followed by a buffet of randomness, which was particularly striking, following as it did on Roden’s near-melodiousness. Also at a small desk, Bischoff played four laptop-based pieces, each in the 10-minute range. They included analog synthesizer sounds, those old oscillators moving, plus razor-edged sine waves and pachinko madness, much of which would resolve to extended deep hum-buzzes. Each was marked by a sense of control on Bischoff’s part, and even the most disparate elements were balanced exquisitely in volume and timbre.

The highlight of the evening was his closing piece, which explained the six small contraptions that sat at the audience side of his desk. Each was a tiny wooden frame holding a small bell and connected to a nest of wires. The bells, apparently, could be triggered by his laptop. The final piece of the night opened with synthetic bell-like sounds, followed by slurry whistles that morphed into thick burrs (one hum to rule them all), out of which sounded these six small bells that lent the music a physicality, and also connected his work back to Roden’s often sound-based visual art.

Now, about that refrigerator…. The one in the back of the cafe was loud. Not police-siren loud, but still quite loud, given the context — loud enough that upon entering the room prior to the show’s start time, you might have imagined one of Roden’s CDs was playing. The fridge had two modes: the base level noise of a functioning industrial-strength machine, and the cooling cycle. When it switched from base level to cooling cycle, it cast a kind of aural shadow, not enough to distract, but certainly enough to add color. Perhaps, should Schmidt host another series in the future, the refrigerator will one day get a show of its own.

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