OAKLAND, CA — It began with someone playing a renaissance melody on a recorder and ended, four hours later, at midnight, with rough scraping noises amid a machine whine. In between there were dead bodies, a wicked game of Tempest and, according to the evening’s host, “the only goth DJ who matters.” It was the first night of the first ever Disquiet Festival (the name is a coincidence — the festival has no affiliation with this website), which brought together gothic industrial music and sound art in one dim white room. Held at the 21 Grand in Oakland, California, the September 30 concert featured four acts, with a DJ playing what the program noted as “interstitial” music in between. (The second night, October 1, which I was unable to attend, was set to feature four more acts: nO thiNg, a project by Loop.pooL’s Rick Walker; the duo nullspace; Dark Muse and Frozen in Amber.)
Forms of Things Unknown, a solo act by a fellow who goes by the name Ferrara Brain Pan, took the stage first, playing a melody on his recorder that wouldn’t have been out of place in Sherwood Forest. This shifted to a tape of a voice speaking, and soon a single phrase, an older man saying the two words “and sound,” started to loop. For the remainder of the FoTU performance, looping was the focus, layering the blurts of a kazoo, the sinuous intonations of a bass clarinet, and a unique setup in which each of the performer’s hands held a separate bow. When FoTU took a breath during his clarinet sequence, it became clear that the loop, about four seconds with an attenuated fade, gave the impression of intense breath control. The layering had a different impact depending on the instrument. With the kazoo (perhaps a duck call) it had a muezzin resonance, like a shofar call to worship. With the clarinet, phrases were able to overlap enough to present a patient, slowly developing sequence of long lines; he sounded like Eric Dolphy visiting Tuva. The bows were particularly remarkable. Though he wasn’t especially ambidextrous, he was able to crosscut what sounded like two violins. Furthermore, the loop delay allowed him to build up a fast Hitchcockian run on one bow and a more sedentary line on the other. FoTU closed by returning to the recorder, which brought the listener out of the trance of those more extended interior pieces, in part because the recorder melody made little to no use of the delay, but also because it was a familiar sound, reprising what had opened the piece.
Filling the gap between each set was DJ Merrick (an Elephant Man reference?), who spun industrial buzz tones and dropped in vocal samples. Of the night’s four acts, none meshed as cleanly with Merrick as did Whormongr (Wolfgang Chan), a solid figure with a slick of a Mohawk whose 35-minute set tumbled together shifting layers of static and noise, glitch and rhythm. Medical footage was projected in the background at first, archival images of hearts pumping and surgery being performed in rooms that looked like Twilight Zone sets. As if the footage weren’t artifactual enough, superimposed on top were narrow vertical striations that made the images seem even more old and worn, but since these scratches didn’t move along with the images, they had about as much verisimilitude as the trompe l’oeil condensation drawn into the design on soda cans. As Whormongr’s rhythm intensified, the images changed from medical cadavers to war, poverty and, most abundantly, state-sponsored killing of prisoners. The images of dying people provided such a visceral presentation of dissolution, both moral and physical, that the music, for all its elegantly stripped gears and artful static, just couldn’t compete. Pictures of the dead are a staple of goth culture, but sitting in a white room sipping Jim Beam on ice while one human being after another slumped to the ground with a bullet to the skull, it was difficult not to reflect on another recent situation in which images of brutalized prisoners served as entertainment.
Few acts today combine image and sound as successfully as do S.S.S., a trio from France. One of the members, Atau Tanaka, couldn’t make the show, but the other two, Cecile Babiole and Laurent Dailleau, split the duties over the course of five short pieces. Palms raised, they looked at first like they were going to initiate a seance, but their hands were suspended in mid-air for more practical purposes. S.S.S. uses motion sensors as its primary interface, so both Babiole, controlling the visual projections, and Dailleau, the sound, stood nearly still, save for their hands. Babiole produced images that combined the look of an old video game and the elegance of digital art, while Dailleau worked a theremin to shape freeform sounds that ranged from field recordings to electronic tones. The performance opened with a slow roil against a background like some colorful game of Tempest, but when it came to a close, after only six minutes, people applauded tentatively, not out of disinterest in the music, but because the first two acts of the evening had set a precedent with their music-by-the-yard soundscapes; it took a moment to recognize that S.S.S. trafficked in individual pieces. Though Dailleau’s music was interesting, especially moments that sounded like Conlon Nancarrow working an electric piano and another in which he appeared to reverse the tape of a plane crash, Babiole’s simple kinetic digital images were just breathtaking. One was so musical in its motion that it seemed like Luc Ferrari’s idea of Dance Dance Revolution. There were flowing grids of boxes you could watch for hours, minute variations in gray lending depth (a lesson some musicians could learn from). One work looked like the daydreams of a CAD machine, another like the cover to Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album come to life. After 40 minutes, you had to wonder how tired their arms were.
How do you follow such great visuals? You hunker down in the dark, illuminated only by a laptop screen and the light seeping in from the alley, and let the music speak for itself. Doing just that, the temporary autonomous duo of Thomas Dimuzio and Dan Burke closed the evening with 40 minutes of noise improv. The collaboration marked a common theme for Dimuzio, who has a penchant for room-filling sounds, but who likes to work with people who specialize in the fragile. When they started their piece, Dimuzio and Burke might have seemed like they were still setting up. The reason was that Burke’s primary instrument for the evening was a contact microphone, which amplified whatever he was doing on the table in front of him, well beyond the usual sense of scale. Occasionally those noises were overcome by Dimuzio’s wash, but they also provided brief interludes in the storm. An early highpoint came when Dimuzio introduced the sound of a jazz band, and peaked it out amid the white noise. Burke apparently had trouble with his laptop, and had to reboot it a few times, but the familiar sound cue of an Apple boot easily got lost in the rapturous noise, just another sound among so many.