The room isn’t quite at capacity, but there’s a sizable audience. The band is mid-song, a young female vocalist on bass plus two men on keyboards facing each other. I remove my headphones for a moment. We’re all wearing headphones, the audience and the band, because this is a “headphone concert.” Without my headphones, the band appears to be in partial pantomime: the bass is heard only as occasionally thrummed strings, and what little singing there is sounds soft and naked, free of any effects. And as for the keyboardists, the only sounds they’re emitting are percussive: fingers hard against mute keys and feet tapping a beat against the gallery floor. So I pop my headphones back on and listen. The band, called Pistols Will Air, reveals itself to be a dreamy shoegazer trio.
This was yesterday, Saturday, October 13, the first day of San Francisco’s Third Annual Global Headphone Festival. The lineup on Saturday included two dozen performances, one every half hour from 1pm to 1am. When I arrived, shortly after 1:30pm, Patrice Scanlon was performing blistery little beats with gently plucked tones and occasional jittery vocal samples. Then came Pistols Will Air, who included in their set some sampled dialog from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Later acts would include Forms of Things Unknown and Conrad Lewbel.
The Lab is an art gallery, so there was plenty to look at besides the performers, some of it unintentionally suitable to the two-day concert. The current Lab exhibit, titled Look Forward to Seeing It: The Discipline of Anticipation, includes Donna Anderson Kam‘s large-scale pastel “From Below” (2006), which shows a woman crouching over a manhole cover (likely a visual pun), wearing nothing but a pair of headphones, the cable winding off the canvas like an umbilical cord. (Other works in Kam’s crouching-woman series are viewable at donnaandersonkam.30art.com.) And Bradley Hyppa‘s “Seen from a Window: Haight/Ashbury” (2007) is an audio-visual piece, the audio playing through a pair of available headphones (field recordings of street noise) while the small, wall-mounted screen shows what looks like an early computer paint program filling in random quadrants to form a rudimentary cityscape. (The video is also available for viewing at bradleyhyppa.com.)
Now as I type this it’s a little after 2pm on Sunday, October 14, so the second and final day of the two-day festival is getting underway. Down in the Mission District at the Lab, on 16th Street between Valencia and Mission, dozens of people will have plugged their headphones into about 40 available sockets. Right now, on Sunday, according to the schedule, Troy Byker is plying his trade. LX Rudis opened the day’s proceedings, and later Transponderfish, Matt Davignon, Cypod, and others will perform. I’m listening from home, thanks to a stream atthelab.org), this third annual event here in San Francisco marks the International Headphone Festival’s 10th anniversary, the series having been launched in 1998 by Parisian musician Erik Minkkinen, who maintains the festival’s website at leplacard.org.