At the 2020 San Francisco Tape Music Festival
I spent two hours in the dark on Friday night listening to records with a hundred or so strangers. It was the first night of the 2020 installment of the San Francisco Tape Music Festival, held in the Victoria Theater in the Mission District. These weren’t records in the traditional sense of the word. They were multi-channel works (“fixed media,” in the curatorial parlance) taking advantage of the 24-speaker sound system installed for the series’ three evenings. And while the recordings were fixed, they weren’t entirely predetermined. For each, either its composer or a festival staff member handled the mixing board, and some of the installments involved more manipulation than others.
Highlights included Maggi Payne’s “Heat Shield” (white noise pushed to the breaking point in the pursuit of interstellar sounds), which she had performed live at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival at the end of last year, as well as Matthew Barnard’s “Wache,” built from field recordings made around London.
Not all the works were contemporary. Reaching back to the origins of the consideration of the recording studio as an instrument unto itself, we heard Pierre Schaeffer’s “Étude aux casseroles [Pathétique],” composed on turntables back in 1948, and “Poem of Change” (1992) by Pauline Oliveros. Oliveros, active in the city’s experimental music scene starting in the late 1950s, co-founded the original San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1962. She died a little over three years ago, and it was quite moving to hear her voice, always larger than life, and all the more so after death, fill the hall.
From his 2014 book, Bumping into a Chair While Humming
Finished reading the book Bumping into a Chair While Humming: Sounds of the Everyday, Listening, and the Potential of the Personal, a slim yet rangy 2014 collection of thoughts by the musician Ezekiel Honig. Honig is based in New York City. I bought the book from someone in Boston, only to find that a friend here in San Francisco printed the letterpress cover. It’s a small world.
It’s also a world filled with sonic potential. The way that everyday sounds can become raw material for music is the subject of Honig’s book. The title uses the experience of knocking into something physical, such as a chair, for the happy accident of being struck by sound in a way that registers with you personally. The book is written with musicians in mind, but the concepts are more broadly applicable and accessible. Four things stuck with me on an initial read:
How Honig characterizes an emphasis on the value of listening: “We become so concerned with what is in front of us that we forget about what is around us.” He’s referencing “the degree to which our hearing communicates the contours of our world.” That framing of listening’s geographic, spacial, and temporal qualities is a helpful reminder.
My favorite chapter is the third, “Hidden Expressions of Objects.” In it Honig uses a specific example (sampling paper related to his father, a former professor) to show how the source material that provides audio brings with it contextual information, including personal feelings, anecdotal experience, and history, which is infused into the work, even if at a level of detail that isn’t conscious on the part of the musician or self-evident on the part of the listener.
“It isn’t mimicking a space. It is one.” Tools such as reverb and delay can provide a sense of space, and yet have become so ubiquitous that the space is more conceptual than physical. Honig asserts that using the echoes and other qualities of actual physical spaces, such as hallways and rooms and the outdoors, shouldn’t be neglected.
“To finish is to essentially abandon a relationship that you’ve built up with the work.” There’s a whole section toward the close of the book about, naturally, the difficulty in finishing something. This is a subject I don’t think about a lot in the context of music, in large part because my own music-making is purely exploratory, with no particular intention on my part to perform or record, and because the Disquiet Junto music community is expressly focused on starting things, and on finishing them only in the context of having a deadline, not in the context of the work in any way feeling completed.
Side note: I occasionally misplaced the book while reading it because it has no print on the spine. I realized I have several books with blank spines. I rounded up a few and I’ll start keeping them in one spot on my shelf. Right now this includes, along with Honig’s book, two exhibit catalogs: Bill Beckley: An Accidental Poet (1968) and Sound: An Exhibition of Sound Sculpture, Instrument Building, and Acoustically Tuned Space.
More on the book at ezekielhonig.com. The physical edition was limited to 300 (I got number 101), but helpfully there’s an ebook version, too.
Reading a location
Riddle me this: When is up down and down up? One answer that I hadn’t previously considered: When someone didn’t take the time to properly sort out the wiring of a pair of doorbells on a small multi-unit residence.
Judging by the relative wear on the metal and the paint overlay seen here, it’s likely that the lower button is the original and that the top button was added during a subdivision at some point. Swapping the natural correlative locations of the buttons certainly wasn’t anyone’s purposeful intention, so the handwritten corrections must have been an afterthought, like the subdivision itself.
It’s interesting that street addresses aren’t provided, just “down” and “up,” not A and B, or two consecutive numbers. Whoever visits this building is expected to know, in advance, who lives on the top floor, and who lives below. Visitors for whom Chinese is their primary language are provided a helpful translation in simplified characters. The simplification keeps the characters singular, but as a non-speaker I am left to wonder if they contain additional meaning. If nothing else, they fit the limited space better than less-simple Chinese would have, and clearly better than does the English, which here has been bent to fit the confines. What I also don’t know is if the Chinese lettering exhibits the limits of constraints that are evident in the English.
Then comes the question of which came first, the Chinese or the English. I like to think the Chinese was there first, and the new inhabitants deciphered the text, realized the benefit of the labels, and added an English translation thereof. Having moved to a predominantly Chinese neighborhood, the new tenants immediately had to learn some of the language. Alternately, perhaps the Chinese inhabitants came later, and were led to imagine that labeling apartments “down” and “up” was just what people here did, and they added their translation so as to follow the perceived local norms.
Looking for signs in 2020
Located my spirit tagger.
Someone is taking plant-based music production to the next logical extrapolation.