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

Monthly Archives: June 2006

Memoryscape MP3s

Musician William Fowler Collins is relocating from San Francisco, California, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and judging from some recent music, his ears were there before he himself was. Collins produced two five-minute pieces as part of the “call for soundart” at soundlab.newmediafest.org. The loose theme for this project is “memoryscapes,” and Collins composed a pair of untitled dreams, both of which mix guitar into a rough audio terrain, something along the lines of what Ennio Morricone might have done had he studied contemporary music at Mills College in the early 21st century, as did Collins. “Untitled Dream #2” (MP3) has arrhythmic percussion and raspy fragments amid its undulating foment. The real keeper is “Untitled Dream #1” (MP3), in which the guitar is more pronounced even if the overall track is less present, a sour lead line hovering over the horizon. At his website, wfowlercollins.ath.cx, he has generously detailed what went into each track. (Oh, and the deadline for the “memoryscapes” project is July 31.)

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Superstitious MP3s

In a photo taken at their debut performance, the duo known as 2&, consisting of Heather Heise (musewings.blogspot.com) and Roddy Schrock (fundamentallysound.org), are seen standing side by side, eight eyes between ’em, looking off camera, all smiles. She’s holding a thumb piano and he’s dangling over it a microphone the size of a burrito. Two downloadable tracks on their website, fundamentallysound.org/2&, hint at what they’re up to. And though their self-descriptive text emphasizes the overlap between visual and audio, the audio alone makes a strong enough impact. “New Superstitions” (MP3) features Heise’s delectably crisp enunciation of the title subject, including admonitions against encountering police and recommendations about sardine bones and toothpicks. The accompanying sounds mix quotidian background noise and event-specific cues, like the militaristic planes that telegraph and illustrate the reference to police. The second track, “Bird Beat Song” (MP3), likewise features vocals, but muted to the point of sublimation, hinting at human presence without ever fully disclosing it; the opening birdsong eventually gives way to dance floor beats, suggesting we’ve gone from above ground to under. … Oh, and you can see the photo on flickr.com.

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Thomas Koner Live at Recombinant (SF)

Once upon a time, the San Francisco performance space run by Naut Humon was essentially a trailer in the middle of a field, far from the city’s center. The mixing equipment at the Compound, as it was called, sat in the middle of the trailer on a handful of tables, its video screens were pulled taut until they resembled tortured ponchos, and the surround sound was accomplished by speakers that took up a substantial chunk of what floor space there was.

With his new space, Recombinant Media Labs, Humon has gone high-end: a south of Market Street address and a performance room that is structurally refined and whose technology is transparent, unless one reclines on the floor and looks up, in which case a small army of porcelain-white video projectors stands out against the black ceiling.

Entrance is gained to the room by ducking under a screen, which continues around the rectangular space, providing surround visuals to match the sound. Though the Labs and its associated label, Asphodel, suggest a fixation on music, those projectors are what distinguish Recombinant. It isn’t just a place to hear exemplary electronic music, though that it certainly is; it’s also one of the best places in the world to witness what electronic musicians are doing in the realm of audio-video.

Thomas Koner, who is known to minimal techno fans for his bracing work as half of Porter Ricks, performed three audio-visual pieces at Recombinant on Thursday, June 22, and Friday, June 23. I attended the Thursday set: three pieces that each paired droning, churning sound with visuals. The sounds were abstract: mechanized but hazy, abrasive but never necessitating earplugs, occasionally reaching a teeth-rattling thrum but more focused on the listener’s ears than chest.

The images, to the contrary, were almost entirely recognizable. The first piece came slowly into focus. A series of still images, seemingly appropriated from webcams (a supposition confirmed by some notes at Koner’s website, koner.de), showed wintry scenes that moved so slowly from one to the next that it was difficult to discern what details belonged to which image: the one fading out, or the one fading in. The second piece switched locales to the urban, with time-lapse images of a building complex shot throughout the day and night. The first piece focused attention on a single screen, but this second displayed the same sequence around the room. The third piece mixed up the screens: some showed motion, others stills, others images processed beyond recognition until they’d come to resemble the sound. The sequence of the images, much like the music itself, toyed with the place where stasis and motion can be mistaken for each other. More info at asphodel.com.

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Matmos at Barney Opening

People rush the stage at a Matmos concert. They just wait until the concert is over. Then they head studiously to the front of the room, as they did after the duo’s set on Wednesday, June 21, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, to see what, exactly, had occurred. Matmos has developed a reputation for employing unusual materials in the production of its music, and the SFMOMA show, part of a members-only opening of the Matthew Barney exhibit, Drawing Restraint, was no exception.

Matmos performed the 15-minute piece twice: M.C. Schmidt, one half of the group, used tuning forks to “play” hunks of dry ice; Drew Daniel, the other half of the group, lent some synthesized momentum to the proceedings. Schmidt’s activities were projected overhead, so everyone in the room could witness the metal making its fjord-deep incisions into the ice. The resulting sounds ranged from the nearly visceral waves of the fork tunings to the crunch of ice being defiled and, presumably, of metal being cooled. The printed program for the evening listed Jay Lesser, a frequent Matmos collaborator, as a special guest, but from where I was standing I couldn’t see anything aside from that projected image, which, due to the ground floor Schwab Room’s design, was partially obscured by an exit sign.

Matmos has been doing more and more with visuals in recent years. At a 2004 concert at the Compound, Naut Humon’s remote performance space in the outer reaches of San Francisco, they paid tribute to Christian Marclay’s video art (dragging a piano, in place of Marclay’s original guitar) and showed video of Daniel being spanked by Schmidt, the sound of the impact being the primary audio material of the performance. For their most recent album, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast (Matador), they commissioned original images for each of the album’s tracks. A show at the nearby Yerba Buena museum in 2003 included still shots from the Civil War and video close-ups of the innards of a piano. The close-up video technique with the piano and, at SFMOMA, with the dry ice is a fine visual match for their music, emphasizing the transformative powers of the microphone by likening it to a microscope. Despite appearances, those fjords were maybe a few millimeters high.

Matmos was one of at four musical acts performing at the Matthew Barney opening. Wobbly (aka Jon Leidecker, another frequent Matmos collaborator) DJ’d in the lobby, the Japanese Music Institute of America performed two sets in the ground floor theater, and the Rondo Brothers played some rock music toward the end of the evening.

Despite word of Bjork’s attendance at the opening (she’s the mother of Barney’s child, and has collaborated with Matmos in her concerts and on her recordings), there was no significant sound evident in the Barney exhibit, which includes numerous video monitors and takes up an entire floor. Perhaps it was drowned out by the crowd. The Barney video Drawing Restraint 9, for which Bjork composed the score, is being shown daily, and I’ll be headed back to see it. The exhibit runs through August 13. More info at sfmoma.com and brainwashed.com/matmos.

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Field Recordings and Amplified Rocks

The Echo de Pensees Sound Series, an ongoing series of events and installations at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, hosted two performances on Friday, June 23, that provided an interesting study in contrasts. Aaron Ximm‘s “Guantanamo Express,” which came first, is a tape work. He dimmed the lights, lit two lamps and hit play. After the intermission, Cheryl E. Leonard led a live trio, rounded out by two other women, A.L. Dentel and Parry Liu. Neither set included much in the way of sounds typically associated with a concert: Ximm’s tape work was composed of field recordings of a trip he took with his wife to Cuba in 2004. Leonard and her trio’s instrumentation consisted almost entirely of rocks with contact microphones.

Ximm’s was a single, 40-minute piece, which by his own admission might induce sleepiness, thanks to its languorous pacing; it was knitted together from recordings of conversation, music and travel (especially by train, a favorite of phonographers), all focused on a pair of musician-brothers, Jesus Avila Gainza and Julio Gainza, whom he’d befriended during the trip and who invited the Ximms to accompany them to visit family in Guantanamo. The collected snatches had the feel of one’s own memories, how various sounds filed from one to the next, occasionally overlapping, their connections at best a matter of loose inference. Ximm, recording and performing as Quiet American, has a long career working found sound into performance, and this, his longest piece, suggests an interest in narrative that supplants an earlier emphasis on texture and tone.

Leonard’s trio performed a handful of short pieces, each of which required some set-up time. In one piece, Leonard used snare brushes to detail the topography of a large stone while Dentel rubbed a small rock in circles around a larger one and Liu rolled small stones. In another, they each had an amplified wood board on which they moved around large and small pebbles. In another, the sound of three different grains of granite sand were contrasted. At one point Leonard explained how different the rocks sounded if not played in precise pairings and according to specific instructions. Each work was fully notated, and they generously let me photograph the scores for perusal after the show. Each rock has its own name (Purple Potato, Tickle Rock #1, Cylinder Rock, the Sea Egg), and the transcriptions appear to be gestural in nature, evidenced by shapes that suggest volume level, direction and, perhaps, speed.

What the works had in common was an air of political transgression: Ximm’s not only because it was recorded in Cuba, where travel by Americans requires jumping through some legal loopholes, but because of its association with the prison at Guantanamo Bay, lightning rod in the U.S. government’s “War on Terror”; Leonard’s because, as she explained, some of her rocks were removed from national parks. She appeared to find this funny; I didn’t (parks are protected from pilfering for obvious reasons), but it didn’t keep me from enjoying her performance. Her set closed with a piece that was as visually beautiful as it was sonically; each member of the trio manipulated a thin film of sand that fell from large bags that resembled pillow cases. The sound of the sand hitting those amplified boards was soothing, no less so than the image of the thin lines of sand falling as if from hourglasses made of rough cotton. One didn’t envy the effort necessary to get all that material out of the gallery space; Leonard’s trio isn’t a rock group, but they deserve some rock roadies.

More info at the websites of Ximm (quietamerican.org) and Leonard (allwaysnorth.com), and of the sponsoring body, the Museum of Virtual Memory (vime.org).

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