On Wednesday, May 25, Blevin Blectum and Christopher Willits, two of San Francisco’s most charismatic and accomplished electronic-music performers, shared a double bill in a small back room at a bar in the city’s Tenderloin district. Blectum, whose laptop often dives headlong into cacophony, fiddled with numerous samples that would be suitable to a nightclub, though she didn’t chew on any given soundbite for longer than a few seconds. Willits, an electric guitarist who filters his playing through custom software, invited a guest vocalist on stage for two songs, which gave them the feel of a breathy trip-hop affair, and a drummer for his fifth and final piece, supplying a solid back beat he often intentionally avoids.
That the two co-headliners each played particularly accessible sets was welcome, if a bit of a surprise, given the sponsor if not the locale, the Hemlock Tavern. The show was part of a new monthly series called Brink, organized by Other Minds, which has held an annual Bay Area festival of outward-bound composition since 1993. Brink is planned to bridge the year-long gap between Other Minds fests, and also perhaps as an outreach program to a broader (feel free to read that as younger) audience.
The night began with a birthday sing-a-long for Other Minds board member Jim Newman (producer of Sun Ra’s Space Is the Place). Blectum, looking like she’d stepped out of a Vermeer painting, took the stage to play a solid half hour of seamless maneuvers between snippets of drum patterns, with occasional lapses into what felt like silence but was, in fact, a thick muffle of noise. She repeatedly suckered you into thinking that the moment’s given rhythm would be around a while, and then just as you got comfortable — heck, just when you got comfortable with the possibility of getting comfortable — she shot off in another direction. This didn’t keep folks from trying to bob their heads along, though it frustrated those it didn’t delight. If you think about Charles Ives’ relationship with John Philip Sousa, you have some sense of what Blectum does with the raw materials of drum’n’bass and other dance music. Toward the end of her piece, what sounded like birdsong entered the mix, and she tinkered with the natural melodies until they came to resemble pure oscillating waves.
Willits divided his set into five pieces, between about four and twelve minutes each. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the sort of wolf’s head you’d see on a black-light painting, he fingered figures on his guitar and then worked his laptop magic, sometimes opting for his characteristic abstract cascades of notes, and generally constructing song-like arcs of tension and release. One of the many pleasures in seeing Willits live is the disconnect between his motion on stage and the groove of the music that gets heard; he bobs and weaves, wearing his headphones in the style of a DJ (over one ear) to allow him to hear both his mid-process sound, and the post-processed sound that the audience experiences. For two of his shortest pieces that evening, the second and third, he invited singer Latrice Barnett to join him, and though her voice, a subtle haze of soul, provided a soft backdrop, it wasn’t amplified properly to have much presence. For the final piece, he called up a drummer (Gabriel Coan, of the band Continental), who suggested a strict, if swinging, framework.
Here’s hoping that Other Minds will post the recordings at archive.org, alongside the free downloads from its many festivals. More info on the various organizations and participants at the following addresses: Blevin Blectum (blevin.lsr1.com), Christopher Willits (christopherwillits.com), Other Minds (otherminds.org), Hemlock Tavern (hemlocktavern.com), Latrice Barnett (latricebarnett.com), Continental (thecontinentalwebsite.com).