Myrmyr and Tiny Owl, Luggage Store Gallery

June began with a particularly strong electroacoustic and noise performance at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco with Myrmyr and Tiny Owl.

Myrmyr is the electroacoustic duo of Agnes Szelag and Marielle Jakobsons, and their performance was in anticipation of the release of their new album Fire Star. Their work incorporates strings (in this case, electric violin and cello along with other instruments) and advanced electronics. I have heard and reviewed Myrmyr before, but this set was perhaps the most beautiful I have heard from them. Set amongst a dizzying array of electronics and wires, it opened with a series of struck string sounds that invoked the sounds of strings in South Asian or East Asian music. Szelag’s voice emerged over a series of rich arpeggios and became part of the texture via live looping. The complex harmony resolved to a long major-seventh chord, after which the strings became harsher and more percussive. Amidst pitch and delay effects, a plucked cello entered in counterpoint to the voice and other instruments. The overall effect was quite tonal and dream-like, and gave me the impression of glass objects.

[Myrmyr. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The next piece started with strings, both plucked and tapped and used as a live-looping source. A rhythmic pattern formed from the loops, which built up in complexity and volume with lots of distortion. Over time, the distorted sounds became clearer and more ethereal as the strings cut out and left only the bells and electronic effects. These were in turn displaced by more liquidy sounds and the return of cello and violin, this time bowed. The piece featured interesting harmonies and vocals.

The final piece was from the soon-to-be released album. It became with a drone, with harmonium sounds and voice building up into a rich texture. As they fade out, a plucked string instrument (possibly guzheng after reviewing Myrmyr’s website) enters on a minor pattern. The sound was accompanied by bells and distortion effects. The music built up to a big recognizable chord that was unresolved. Another build-up followed, this time with voice that turned into a rich harmony with a particularly plaintive violin line.

[Tiny Owl. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

Myrmyr was followed by Tiny Owl, a band consisting of Matt Davignon (drum machines and synthesizers), Lance Grabmiller (computer and synthesizers), Suki O’Kane (percussion), and Sebastian Krawczuk (double bass and objects). Their performance consisted of one long constantly evolving piece. It opened with an impromptu round of “Happy Birthday” for Matt Davignon (it was indeed his birthday) that appropriately elided to a series of glitchy noise sounds. Soon the bass drum and cymbals and string bass entered. The overall undulating timbre seemed very insect-like, but there also bits of melody that came and went in opposition to the overall swells and dips in the sound. One gesture that I particularly liked involved drum machine “gurgling” set against bass. The gurgling sounds, which formed a complex timbre, were gradually slowed down to the point where it became a series of rhythmic elements – moments like this always make me think of Stockhausen’s Kontakte II. Eventually, they merged back into the overall ambient sound. Over time, the overall texture became busier, but also more drone like, with high pitches and even some screeches eventually emerging. Pitched noises moving up and down like factory machinery were set against a drum rhythm reminiscent of “Wipe Out” (that very insistent sixteenth-note rhythm that every young percussionist attempts to play). As the percussion (drums and objects) grew more rich, so the electronics became more intense with bursts of machine noise and longer notes with strange harmonics. The section of louder sound and more complex rhythm grew to a climactic point and suddenly faded out with just a low rumble and a sparse texture of percussive sounds. This part of the performance was drier, with more punctuated elements and scratching sounds. During a gentle rise in pitch and volume near the end of the performance, the sound seemed to merge with a passing siren on Market Street. (It wouldn’t be a Luggage Store Gallery performance without at least one siren incorporated into the music.)

The show concluded with both groups uniting for short jam. It was fun to hear the combined sounds: noise drones punctuated by strings, and at least one more siren from the street.

Matthew Sperry Festival: Tag Team Trio Shift

Last Thursday I attended and performed in the Tag Team Trio Shift at the Luggage Store Gallery. This event was part of the Eighth Annual Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival, a festival held every year in honor of local composer and bassist Matthew Sperry since his tragic death in 2003.

The event featured a large cast of characters from the Bay Area new music scene, improvising three at a time, with John Shiurba acting as referee.

[John Shiurba as referee, with Gino Robair entering a trio.]

Each of us was given a name card. At any given moment, three musicians would be performing. Anyone could hand in their card at any time and replace one of the three current musicians. Thus, there was an ever changing set of trios. For the most part, musicians entered and exited individually, but in the second half of the program we could submit three cards at once as a planned trio. The music ranged from trios of synthesizers and electronic noise, to purely vocal trios, to free-jazz improvisation (saxophones and bass), and all combinations in between.

[Tom Nunn on skatch box and Tom Duff with Bleep Labs Thingamagoop.]

[Vocal trio of Agnes Szelag, Aurora Josephson, and Myles Boisen.]

There were many strategies one could use for deciding when to hand in his or her card and replace someone. For me, I timed my card to coincide with others with whom I wanted to play, or moments where I thought my sounds would work well with the texture.

One could also be competitive and “cut” someone else’s improvisation (as one might do in a traditional jazz-improvisation setting). I can’t say that anyone did that, but there were certainly some playful back-and-forths with people replacing each other.

I brought the trusty Kaos Pad as well as my iPhone, with the BeBot app and a looping/playing app that I used for the Pmocatat ensemble. The latter (which featured variable-speed sounds of Luna and my Indian instruments) got some attention from the other musicians. Scott Looney, who was sitting next to me, and an interesting new instrument that used Reactable icons on a surface with a keyboard, to create a sort of “electronic prepared piano”:

[Scott Looney’s new control surface (photo by catsynth).]

There were some fun moments. One of Philip Greenlief’s improvisations involved his attempting to balance his saxophone in the palm of his hand, constantly moving and shifting in order to keep it from falling. He was clearly hoping for someone to replace him quickly, but we actually let him keep going for quite a while.

[Philip Greenlief’s balancing act.]

The sounds from busy Market Street outside contributed to the music at various times – indeed, the street should have gotten its own card.

Among the attendees were Matthew Sperry’s wife and daughter, who appropriately closed out the second set with the sound of shaking keys fading out.

The full roster of participating musicians included: Myles Boisen, Amar Chaudhary, Matt Davignon, Tom Duff, Tom Djll, Phil Gelb, Lance Grabmiller, Philip Greenlief, Ron Heglin, Jacob Felix Heule, Ma++ Ingalls, Travis Johns, Aurora Josephson, Scott Looney, Bob Marsh, Lisa Mezzacappa, David Michalak, Polly Moller, Kjell Nordeson, Tom Nunn, Dan Plonsey, Garth Powell, Jon Raskin, Gino Robair, Tom Scandura, Damon Smith, Moe! Staiano, Agnes Szelag.

[Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs in this article are from Michael Zelner. You can see a full set of photos from the performance at his flickr page.]

2009 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival

This September was the 10th anniversary of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, and I had the opportunity to attend two of the performances. To mark the occasion, many of the original participants in the first festival ten years ago came back to perform.

The festival began with a piece by Miya Masaoka (whom Pamela Z jokingly referred to as the “mother of SFEMF” in her introduction). The LED Kimono project not surprisingly featured a kimono with LEDs, worn by dancer Mariko Masaoka-Drew. The dress itself was very pretty and simple, with a large LED array on the right-hand sleeve. Throughout the performance, different patterns were featured on the LEDa, sometimes very subtle with only a few active, and at other times large oscillating rectangular patterns.

The music began with a very traditional koto performance. There some delay, sampling and pitch-shift effects in the background. The koto was mostly struck or plucked, and occasionally bowed. During the section of the performance, there was almost no dance movement. Over time, more electronics came in, initially low, dronaning, and with overtones that sounded vaguely FM or inharmonic, almost like electrical noise.

As more electronic sounds came in, the dancer began to move, very slowly and subtly. Indeed, most of the movement throughout the piece was very subtle and slow, and did not clearly map to the musical material. On the other hand, the LEDs on the dress did match the rhythms and timbral changes. The first came on during and electronic arpeggio that sounded like classic FM synthesis. There were some dramatic swells with the higher FM-like sounds. The music primarily moved between the elements described, with the long drones and then the fast arpeggiation. But the physical movement of the dancer remained slow. As a result, I found myself mostly focused on the LEDs and the dress.

And the end, I stayed to watch the process of Masaoka-Drew being “unplugged” from the dress, and to fully observe the amount of electronics (and wiring) that were required for it to function.

The second set featured Lukas Ligeti performing his own compositions on the marimba lumina. He began slowly, with very low tones, one so low that the amplitude modulation itself became and audible rhythm. He then layered other sounds over these tones, including some vocal samples that sounded like chatters or whispers. Overall , I would describe his music as a cross between classic minimalism, world music, and electronic music. He described what we was doing as using the marimba lumina to play “samples and funny synths” on his laptop, with a focus on samples were collected from his world travels. One could definitely hear some of the instruments and voices from various places around the world, particularly Africa, in his performance.

The final performance of the evening was by Amy X Neuberg. Her performance was a combination of her “electronic cabaret”, which we have heard several times before and reviewed here at CatSynth; and a new work entitled “The Dude Trilogy”, a series of abstract poems for voice and the Blippo Box. The Blippo Box employs chaotic oscillators and modulation, and can be very difficult to control in a predictable way. However, Neuberg manages to perform it in a very poetic way, and more remarkably is able to match her voice to the sounds of the synthesizer. Rapidly changing vowel sounds matched a fast chaotic filter modulation, the rhythms of spoken word material matching the sequences. At other times her high sung tones followed the unstable high electronic pitches. During the piece, a video camera recorded and projected close-ups of her hands manipulating the instrument, including its theremin-like antenna.

Several of her electronic cabaret pieces were familiar from previous programs. They always are very tight and solid, combining voice, electronics and theatre. She did close with one song I had not heard before. It began with her striking the electronic drum pad repeatedly to produce a “banging piano-chord” pattern, which was matched by her vocals. It ended with a solo and fade-out on the Blippo Box, which almost seemed like a spontaneous moment.

The location of the festival, the restored Brava Theater in the Mission District of San Francisco, was itself an attraction. Besides the large theater space and lobby, the deliberately weathered foyer housed the installation The Exchange by Dukoro, the duo of Agnes Szelag and The Normal Conquest. This installation with subtly placed speakers and sounds generated interactively by visitors, complemented the architecture.

[click to enlarge.]

The Saturday performance opened with [ruidobello], aka Jorge Bachmann performing his piece Coleoptera_0909 for electronics and video. The piece centered around beetles, or scarabs, who are members of the biological order Coleoptera. Videos of scarabs were projected onto the screen. Some were crawling on skin, some were in dishes, a couple were on a corrugated cadrboard surface that resembled a Q-bert board. Initially the beetles were solitary, but then they started to appear in groups. One particular scene involved one poor scarab being madly chased and grabbed at by another (one can only speculate what was going on here). The sounds were based on recordings of natural sounds from scarabs. In the early part of the piece, the relation to the insect noises was quite transparent (i.e., it “sounded like insects”). Later on, the connection between the performed sounds and the original material became more abstract, and sounded like thick pads with delays, time-stretching and pitch-shifting effects. The piece ended with a scarab taking off in flight, and the sound following suit with an ascending glissando.

[ruidobello] was followed by an electronic performance of Gino Robair’s opera I ,Norton. It is an improvisational piece based on the writings of Norton I, “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico”, and a famous character from San Francisco history. In 1859, Joshua Abraham Norton declared himself Emperor Norton I of the United States, and began to issue a series of decrees, including the dissolution of the United States Congress. The opera is based on the text from these decrees, but in an “open-ended structure [that] allows it to be assembled differently for each performance.”

In this version, Tom Duff played Norton I and read from his various edicts, while the spoken words are processed by three electronic performers Chris Brown, Kristin Miltner and Wobbly. Indeed. all the electronic sounds were based on Tom Duff’s voice. At first, the electronic manipulations kept the words intact through various delay, pitch and time effects; but over time the electronics became more complex, with delay lines or samples short enough for the snippets from the original voice to form completely different timbres, and as such became more detached from the stage performance. I found myself focusing heavily on the video work of Tim Thompson along with the theatrical performance, and the electronic sounds became part of the background. One particularly strong visual moment was when Tom Duff/Norton I built a small “city” out of colored translucent cubes and shining flashlights through them. This illuminated construction was then picked up by the video and projected onto the screen. There was a middle section in which our protagonist appeared to go to sleep (perhaps dreaming) and the electronic music became the focus, with the video playing against the sounds (which were still entirely based on previously sampled vocal material). There was an overall calm pace to the entire opera performance, punctuated by the dramatic proclamations and occasional abrupt shifts in timbre or visuals; and one simply became immersed in the whole experience.

Pamela Z concluded the festival with what she described as an “old-new sandwich” with several short pieces. The first “older” pieces included looped rhythms layered with rich vocal textures and harmonies, with one featuring a dramatic simulation of a manual typewriter complete with carriage return. There was a performance of a piece I had originally seen her perform at room: PIPES back in May. The next piece was the “new” part, a work in progress entitled Baggage Allowance. It opened with a video of a baggage carousel, with various people reciting the contents of their luggage (clothing, toiletries, books, etc.). The contents became a little more unusual over time, as people described confiscated items and even an attempt to hide a knife at LAX. A simulated x-ray of a bag included strange objects like a frog and a gun (actually, I suppose I gun isn’t all that strange). This was set against live electronic processing of vocals as well as other sounds such as the popping of bubble wrap. The final piece was another older work involving delays and dramatic harmonic vocals (it was originally done years ago with hardware effects boxes before being ported to modern laptop computers); as a representation of classic electronic music being redone with modern technology, it was a fitting conclusion to the festival.

Blessing Moon – July 9, 2009

The past Thursday was the latest in the Full Moon Concert Series at the Luggage Store Gallery, curated by Polly Moller. This month’s theme was Blessing Moon.

The first set was by a new all-improv trio Free Rein. The group focuses on “Earth music for space people” and includes reeds/flutes, Danelectro 6 string bass, percussion,voice, cymbal, keyboard and theremin.

[Photograph by Jennifer Chu. Click to enlarge.]

Musically, the set began with microtones and synchronicity among the flute, theremin and another wind instrument. Melodic elements were sometimes present, performed on one of the flutes or the theremin. Other elements that stood out included the bowed cymbal, which blended with the other instruments in drones, a bird-like slide whistle against a saxophone, and undulating tones and the formation of harmonies between the percussion and low-frequency modulation. This fit with their statement of “spontaneously collaborating with the Moon, sculpting a sound that reflects back to Earth, playing tones that wax and wane through vibration, harmonic bodies phase shifting.”

The second set was performed by Valka, featuring Agnes Szelag and Marielle Jakobson (who have also collaborated as myrmyr) with guest Noah Phillips on guitar. Szelag was performing with an electric cello, Jakobson on violin, and all three performers together had an impressive array of pedals arranged centrally between the string instruments:

[click to enlarge]

From the program notes, “Valka’s Blessing Moon rituals are inspired by ripe dreams and the balance between dark and light.” This includes drones, effects, lots of long tones and big masses of sound, with a mixture of harmonicity and noise. I did focus on slow bends and other gradual changes of tone through the performance. The first piece did end on a dramatic note, with a rather loud insect-like sound that seemed to have taken the musicians by surprise.

Luxe at Hotel Biron, SF Electronic Music Festival, and “The Company”

I have been remiss in writing about the many art and music events from this past month. And especially in regards to the first week. I found myself attending events every night between September 4 and September 7, each of which had at least some personal connection. This was a coincidence, but it was also a great antidote to the just-concluded McCain-fest and the parade of speeches proclaiming “Small Town Good, City Bad.” What better response than to step outside for an evening walk in search of friends, art, music, food and drink.

The night of the 4th was the opening of a photo exibition by Luxe at Hotel Biron. It is not in fact a hotel, but a wine bar in the Hayes Valley neighborhood that features monthly art exhibits. It is a small, darkly lit and intimate space, with dark wines in huge glasses, and brick walls that provided quite a contrast to the photographs on display.

The exhibition was titled “Her Being and Nothingness” and featured a series of self portraits. In each image, the focus is on “the body.” The face is either absent or obscured, and the poses and attire vary in each. We of course know they are self portraits (itself an interesting concept in photography), but without the usual cues for identity. In this case, we draw the conclusion directly from the bodies.

Of course, the recognition is easier if the artist happens to also be a personal friend. Multiple of Luxe’s prints are on display at CatSynth HQ, so I can definitely be considered a “fan.” A more in-depth review can be found

On Friday, I attended the second night of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival at the Project Artaud Theatre.

The performance opened with two works by Richard Teitelbaum, professor of composition and electronic music at Bard College. His first piece, Serenissima, featured two wind performers and a laptop computer running Max/MSP. The computer was performing spectral processing on samples and the live instruments, which could themselves control the sound. The wind instruments included several clarinets, including a contra-bass clarinet (which one does not see every day), performed by Matt Ingalls. The second piece was Piano Tree, for piano and computer, and was in part a tribute to Teitelbaum’s father, David and to “some musical forbears whose work has influenced me greatly.” The piano part, which included many extended and “prepared piano” techniques (a nod to John Cage), was performed by Hiroko Sakurazawa.

The next set was from Myrmyr, the local duo of Agnes Szelag and Marielle Jakobson. The combine experimental recording and live computer-based processing with a variety of acoustic instruments, including cello, violin and voice. The result is still very much “electronic music,” but it has a more traditional sound as well, especially in the parts that feature voice and songs. Myrmyr was accompanied by members of the sfSound ensemble during part of their performance, primarily with undulating long notes and “drones”. Again, the effect was both experimental and more “familiar” at the same time.

The final was from Ata “Sote” Ebtekar. He calls his music “a new form of Persian Art Music,” which I was very interested in hearing. However, the performance was so overpoweringly loud that I really was not able to appreciate it. I wish more electronic musicians would take care not to do that. Certainly, some music will be quite loud, I have come to expect that, but it should not remain so an extended period of time.

The following night was my performance with Polly Moller and Company at El Mundo Bueno Studios in Oakland. Polly Moller and Company in Oakland. We had a great set that combined elements from different past performances. And, as Polly relates, it was a “good crowd of nice people most of whom had not heard us before.” And it was interesting contrast to the other performances, which included folk music, traditional Celtic singing, and belly dancing.

On Sunday, it was back the SFEMF for the final night. This performance featured a collaboration of ]Pauline Oliveros and Carl Stone. Oliveros is of course on the giants in modern American music, the founder of the music practice Deep Listening and one of the founders of the original San Francisco Tape Music Center. History aside, this performance was quite contemporary, laptop-based, and very much in keeping with the other performances of the festival.

The second performance, Barpieces was a duo of Charles Engstrom and Christopher Fleeger. However, to those of us in the audience it appeared as a solo performance event though it was actually a “remote duo.” This was a bit of logistical improvisation in the wake of Hurricane Gustav.

The final performance of the festival was by Hans Fjellestad, a Los Angeles-based musician and filmaker, whom some readers of CatSynth may know from his documentary Moog. His performance featured analog electronics and custom instruments that were a contrast to the previous performances of evening, both sonically and visually:

In addition custom electronics in the transparent boxes with blue lights, he also had a Moogerfooger and one of the infamous tube-effects boxes from Metasonix. The performance consisted long evolving analog sounds, noise bursts and other effects. And it provided a conclusion to the festival by adding another variety of “electronic music” to the mix.