French Radio @ Luggage Store, San Francisco

When abstract music is performed live in an art gallery, the art can’t help but lend form to what is heard. When the trio French Radio played at the Luggage Store Gallery on November 10, the art didn’t just lend form; it provided commentary. The current exhibit at the gallery is all text-based: words scrawled on the walls, emblazoned like commercial signage, framed like art, dangling like mobiles. While French Radio played, words surrounded the group. Above them was written the following, in the same sort of bubbly script that might trumpet the weekly special at a corner store: “Every aesthetic detail considered, determined, emphatic and at the same time oddly diffuse.” Though attributed to the March 2005 issue of the magazine Artforum, it could easily apply to what French Radio accomplish. The trio consists of Bruce Anderson (of MX80) on guitar, James Kaiser (aka Petit Mal) on bowed bicycle wheel, and Andrew Way (a partner with Kaiser in the group NF Orchest) on turntable and microphone, all three of them processing those sounds until they become quite removed from their sources.

At times the noise the group produced sounded of a piece, just one enormous and sad whale song, a stunning kind of singularity that few improvising ensembles manage to achieve. At others the three men’s individual contributions to the whole grew more distinct: a shuddering guitar chord, a primordial foam of tone, a rich static of verbal cues. Kaiser wrenched deep notes from his unlikely instrument, a microphone stuck in the guitar wheel’s spokes like a dirty daffodil. Way alternately spun a cheap turntable by hand and uttered into his mic, directing the signals through a variety of processors that gave him the broadest range of the evening’s performers. Standing between them, Anderson struck a spartan figure.

The evening didn’t go off without a hitch. The start was delayed while Anderson employed the scientific method to determine which of his many foot pedals was impeding the route of his guitar’s output, and Way later dropped a large Heineken and risked saturating his equipment.

The night’s second act had only just arrived from L.A. as the half-hour improvisation came to a close, so French Trio performed a short encore in which Anderson’s guitar adhered to a more recognizable form. He played a mournful series of chords that suggested the most downtrodden country music, all the while Kaiser and Way framing it with a thick aura. Toward the close, Anderson set a fragment of a chord to loop in one of his many tools, drawing attention to the stark divide between the circular motion of his strumming and the mathematical precision of a loop. The coldness of that loop emphasized the naturalness of what had preceded it.

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