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.

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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.

2009 Annual Transbay Skronkathon

It is mid-summer, and so once again the annual Transbay Skronkathon and BBQ comes around, with a full day of experimental and weird music at 21 Grand in Oakland. There are always a few from outside the Bay Area, or who are appearing in this setting for the first time, but overall it is a who’s who of local experimental and avant-guard musicians and familiar faces. We spend the whole day performing and listening to music, and dining on a variety of grilled food items in the neighboring alley.

I arrived at 4PM, which was already three hours into the event. I was just in time to catch most of Respectable Citizen, a duo of Bruce Bennett and Michael Zbyszynski performing live improvisation with keyboard/electronics and saxophone, respectively. The set started with ethereal noisy computer sounds in the background, with the noises increasingly insistent and louder over time, culminating in a defined whistle sound and a wave that became something akin to electrical noise. The electronics were complemented by the saxophone improvisation; there was a moment where the sax and electronics together formed a sound like an emergency siren. Then things became quiet again with the noise growing into an ever louder rumble.

Next was electric-guitar looping performance by George Ludwig. It was very similar to the looping guitar performances I hear annually at the Live Looping Festival in Santa Cruz, with drones and long tones; mostly harmonic, though there was some good clean distortion effects as well.

I made sure to be in for the next group, T.D. Skatchit, featuring Tom Nunn and David Michalak on custom instruments called skatch boxes. I had just seen Nunn and his custom instruments at the “Tuesdays at Toms” performance. This performance featured similar instruments, made primarily of cardboard and performed with combs and other implements. The result is a series of scratches, streches, scrapes, squeaks and other noises, all very musical. With two performances and multiple instruments, harmonies start to form. Even when not looking directly at the performers (which is quite interesting to do), the performance had a very “visual” quality. The overall texture reminded me of the sounds of the woods at night. I could hear scampering mechanical creatures. Although the structure of the music was very static, the performance was very expressive.

The next set was a trio of Jacob Felix Heule (drums), Tony Dryer (double bass) and
Jay Korber (tenor sax). This set qualified as actual “skronking”, with very rapid notes (especially on the drums) and the belting of inharmonic and variable pitch tones on the sax. Lots of details to listen to. But above all, skronking tends to be very loud, so I did end up listening to second part of the set from the alley, where I also had a chance to socialize and check out the barbecue.

However, the loudest set of all was yet to come, and it wasn’t even officially on the program. Someone in a ski mask with a table-saw on an old turntable record player claimed to be the next set Sndrft eeoo, though it turned out he wasn’t. Nonetheless, we were treated to ear-threateningly loud high-pitched noises that sent everyone out into the alley to join those of us already there for conversation and sausages (the official food of choice at the Skronkathon). Outside, the sound was somewhat bearable, and vaguely interesting. Sndrft eeoo and Mike Jacobs did get to play an abbreviated set once the impostor left the stage (much to our collective relief).

Hanuman Zhang described his set as found objects, toy piano, circuit-bent toys
noise, mayhem, and roaring silence. He was introduced by Tom Duff as playing “a big pile of junk” – but a nonetheless musical pile of junk. He started with stones and bass drum, making rhythms. He then moved to to bins and metal objects, all the while maintaining a basic rhythm. He bashed in a large plastic bottle really good. There were also some electronic circuit-bent toys, and a toy piano (acoustic toy piano being an instrument I am quite fond of). As the toys came to the forefront, the rhythm began to break down and the texture more sparse.

From loud skronking and found objects, we then had a very contrasting set from Protea, with Serena Toxicat and thereminist Joey D’Kaye performing ambient electronic music. Sporting a Hello Kitty tunic, Serena Toxicat gave an evocative performance with vocals and dancing . The vocals and theremin both consisted of long tones that followed one another without exactly matching. Overall, there were minor harmonies, etherial textures, gradual changes and a bit of tension.

We then switched back from ambient electronic to skronking (but it is really “skronking”?) with a free-improvisation set by z bug with David Leikam, Zachary Morris, Sheila Bosco and Craig Latta. Once again, lots of fast loud notes, with the bass acting as a third drum set (there were two drum sets in this group), and some performance with a Moog synth. Although the set was very loud at times, there was really a good range with sudden drops in volume where one could here bells and chimes sounding. However, I could not at all hear the vocals. I did like the sudden switch during the performance to a steady disco beat.

Tom Nunn and David Michalak returned as part of RTD3. Overall, the performance was similar to their set the previous tuesday, with Nunn and Michalak performing free improvisation together Ron Heglin on trombone and Doug Carrol on electric cello. However, Nunn’s instrument in this set was quite different. It was a much larger board that he played vertically. It looked a bit like a modernist painting with some elements that seemed derivative of Kandinsky, but it had a very clearly marked eye and geometric shapes. The texture of music was more sparsem and there was a good moment with soft trombone. it sounded like “a radio from the past.” There was a section that sounded vaguely ethnic (in the way that a contemporary western audience might label some music as “ethnic”) and then hit a watery pattern on Nunn’s instrument.

John Hanes and Steve Adams performed “dueling laptops” (and an iPhone). Moments in the music reminded me a bit of one of my favorite Stockhausen recordings, but there were also drums and beats, timbrally rich drones and bowed tones and loops. It reminded me a bit of the “Off-ICMC” concerts (often the more interesting performances) I would hear when I used to attend the computer-music conferences.

I did not get to hear as much of PG13 in detail as I would have liked because I was busy setting up for our upcoming set. The trio consisted of Phillip Greenlief on saxophone, John Shiurba on guitar and Thomas Scandura on drums. It seemed during the introduction that there was some question as to whether they should be described as “1970s rock” or not, but musically they did have a strong driving 4/4 beat with heavy drums and loud guitar. Greenlief also played very rhythmic accented lines on the saxophone that fit with the guitar and drums. So with my only partial listening, it did have a lot of “rock-like” elements, which were welcome, and a good lead in to our own set.

This was our first time performing re-named as Reconnaissance Fly and as a trio rather than a quartet, with myself, Polly Moller (flute, voice, heatsink) and Bill Wolter (guitar, custom electro-mechanical “boat”). We are currently looking for a bassist/composer to round things out.

The set consisted of four pieces based on “spoetry” or poetry found in spam emails – most email spam (or blog-comment spam) is completely worthless text, but occasionally there are very poetic passages that can be used for creative work. I did two pieces setting spoetry to graphical scores in which the performers improvised based on interpretations of graphical elements, and Polly and Bill each did more idiomatic pieces. All the practicing and rehearsing paid off, and the set was quite tight and full of energy, with fun and theatrics – and I’m glad I brought the full keyboard for playing more traditional jazz piano at various spots alongside the more esoteric electronic sounds from the Kaos pad. Probably the most memorable moments were repeated riffs on “Ca-a-na-da-a”, and the rolling jazz bass and guitar in “Emir Scamp Budge”. And it seemed like we had a pretty decent audience.

We were followed by the all-acoustic sfSound group. As an acoustic group with winds, strings and percussion, they have a really rich palatte of textures and timbres. One can hear small percussive phrases emerge from a series of long tones. The winds (Kyle Bruckmann,
Matt Ingalls, Christopher Jones, and John Ingle) sometimes match the percussion (Kjell Nordeson) , sometimes the strings (Alexa Beattie, Monica Scott). The performance was very subtle with lots of dynamic range and empty spots, and quite a contrast to our set with its loud electronic improvisations and theatrics.

sfSound was immediately followed by another powerful accoustic set, featuring Karen Stackpole with her impressive array of gongs, Jen Baker and Ron Heglin on trombones, and Tom Djll on trumpet. An unusual instrumentation, “Brass and Bronze” (as introduced by Tom Duff). The set began with the gongs followed by really soft long notes on the three brass instruments. The gongs resonated as Stackpole moved along their perimeters, producing beautiful long stretched out tones. They formed inharmonic chords anchored by drones on the brass. The texture became less sparse over time with bowing of gong and faster swells on trombone and notes on trumpet. This eventually turned to loud hits and gong strikes, and more expresive phrases.

The final set of the Skronkathon featured Gino Robair and Amy X Neuburg on dueling Blippo Boxes. The Blippo Box is a custom analog synthesizer by Rob Hordijk that features chaotic oscillators and a wide range of non-linear modulation options – I wouldn’t mind having one of these myself. The Blippo Boxes produce constantly modulating sounds that are difficult to control in advance, the performer must react to whatever is produced using his or her best musically instincts. As the boxes can occasionally go unstable, being able to react quickly is key. Fortunately, we have two master musicians whose listening and improvisational instincts can be called upon to handle such situations. The result was a very expressive mixture of machine noise and rumbles, gargles, clicks and chirps – the chaotic sound actually becomes familiar after listening for a few minutes (though in fairness I should say years of listening to such music). And there were many moments where the oscillations of the two boxes seemed surprisingly on sync, with the waveforms and modulations slowing down to the level of musically distinct notes.

And once the Blippo Boxes went silent, this marathon event came to a quiet end.

Garden of Memory 2009

We passed another summer solstice a couple of weeks ago, and once again I marked the occasion by attending the Garden of Memory performance at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland.

For more views of the Chapel of the Chimes itself, please visit the review from last year. It is full of light and a mixture of large and intimate spaces, and a really interesting place to wander and hear different sounds.

The size of the event itself can be a bit overwhelming, with so many performers and galleries throughout the complex. One approach is simply to wander and discover the different spaces and music. But I tend more towards trying to go through the entire space systematically and see as much as possible, which I did with some success (I did unfortunately miss several performances).

Just like last year, I was greeted at the entrance by a performance by Jaroba and Byron Blackburn. Jaroba again had a gopichand in his collection of instruments.

In the main chapel, I saw performances by Sarah Cahill and the William Winant Percussion Group. I thought the latter sounded a bit like Philip Glass with its repetitive patterns, pentatonic scales and harmonies, and marimba rhythms. At the end of the performance, I found out it was in fact a piece by Philip Glass.

The more electronic “stage acts” were in the Julia Morgan Chapel at the other end of the building. Amy X Neuburg gave another of her charismatic and very tight performances that we at CatSynth have reviewed in the past. This was followed by Paul Dresher and Joel Davel, whose performance featured a marimba lumina as well as a large and intriguing bowed string instrument:

Musically, the performance began with repeated undulating tones, minor modal harmonies, and syncopated rhythms, with expressive bowing on the large instrument throughout. Gradually the performance become more “electronic” – even though the entire performance involved electronics from what I could tell, the sounds became more characteristic of electronic music – with more effects, noises and hits as the rhythmic pattern faded out. There was a “surprise note” followed by more percussive computer-like tones, bends and glissandi on the stringed instrument, looping and effects. The instrument was also “prepared” with metal objects during this part of the performance. Eventually the rhythmic patterns returned, but they seemed “darker.”

Matthew Goodhart’s installation in the Chapel of Patience (I really like the names of the different chapels and halls there) featured cymbals with transducers, producing long metallic tones and visual effects and they reflected the light:

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Leaving the cymbals, I then followed the sound of Gino Robair’s bowed gongs to find his performance along with Polly Moller and Tom Duff:

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My favorite moment during their performance involved Tom Duff singing God Save the Queen set against cymbal resonances and a perfect fourth by a tone tube (I forget the formal name) and Polly on bass flute.

In the previous two photos for the Goodhart installation and Gino Robair’s ensemble, one can truly get a sense of the setting. Each of the squares in the grids represents the location of cremated remains, someone’s final resting place.

I tend to be drawn to metallic sounds, so a next followed the hall to an installation Loving Kindness by John Bischoff. Although this was a computer-controlled electromechanical piece, with motors affecting the sound-making objects, it reminded me musically of Stockhausen’s Kontakte (a favorite piece of mine).

From metal we then move to strings, with Larnie Fox and the Crank Ensemble. The plethora of plucked string tones fit perfectly with the visuals of the musicians moving around a large square of cable. It was held in place by some of the performers while one moved around:

I did also notice the “live knitting”, which was an integral component of the performance.

Tucked away in a small chamber and easy to miss was an installation by Joel Colley featuring a macabre set of animal skulls atop stones, with ambient sounds in the background.

Over the course of four hours, it is not surprising that some performers will need to take breaks. It did mean I missed a couple of interesting performances which did not publish specific times. Pamela Z did publish performance times, so I did get to see part of her performance with the iPhone Ocarina application.

Michael Zbyszynski performed more traditional wind instruments, flute and saxophone, but with modern extended techniques mixed with jazz idioms, in the Chapel of Resignation.

Nearby, in one corner of the main atrium, Thomas Dimuzio and Wobbly performed on guitar and live electronics, respectively. The music unfolded as long ethereal sounds with strong resonances, and some bowed metal sounds as well.

Maggi Payne presented this cool-looking installation founded that blended quite well into the permanent elements of the room:

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In a nearby room was a performance by the ensemble Vorticella. We previously reviewed Vorticella, which consists of Krystyna Bobrowski on horns, Erin Espeland on cello, Brenda Hutchinson on aluminum tube and vocals, and Karen Stackpole on percussion, as part of the Flower Moon concert. Once again, the four very different performances produce a rich and complex music.

In the next room was a duo of Svetlana Voronina and Joe Straub with glockenspiel and electronics. Before hearing them perform, I wandered over during one of their breaks, and found their setup visually interesting:

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Upstairs, I caught part of a performance by the ensemble Natto, which featured electronics, flutes, strings and a Chinese lute (I believe it was a pipa). The music consisted of heavy strumming, electronic “wipes”, harmonics on the wind instruments and resonances and delays used for pitch effects.

In the upstairs section of the main atrium was a continuous vocal performance by the Cornelius Cardew Choir of Pauline Oliveros’ Heart Chant. The audience was invited to participate.

The upstairs of the atrium is also the place to arrive during the climactic moment of the evening at sundown. As sundown approaches, everyone is invited to ring bells – many people rang keychains. There was an interesting timbral and spatial juxtaposition of the sunset bell-ringing and Dimuzio’s and Wobbly’s drone sounds on the lower level.

The theme of bells and metal sounds continued as I left after sunset, passing a set of large chimes that seemed to mark the end of the event.

Weekend events in San Francisco (Music, Art and Cats)

Another busy weekend, especially with the number of things going on. We only have time for a partial review…

First, there a quick stop at downtown pub to see some friends/colleagues. Then a rush to BART to get across the bay to Berkeley and my old stomping ground, the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT).

I was a few minutes late, but still had plenty of time to hear Joker Neils and Gino Robair performing a improvised duet. Robair has an amazing talent for getting electronic-like sounds out of acoustic percussion instruments, and did so again on this evening. Neils was primarily using custom synthesizers, both professional instruments as well as circuit-bent toys. We have discussed circuit bending previously here at CatSynth. He brought several well-crafted examples, including Suziki Omnichords with contact-resistance interfaces; and he also brought a tremendous enthusiasm to his performance and to his discussion of circuit bending in between sets.

Also presenting was Rob Hordijk, who designs custom synthesizers (or “works of art” as he described them). Among the technologies he employed in the “Blippobox” that he presented were chaotic oscillator pairs, where two oscillators feed back into one another to create non-linear modulation, and a filter that he called the “twin peaks” filter (presumably because it has two resonant peaks).

Amy X Newburg lent her vocal and electronic-music talents during the presentation and in the second half of the show – readers may remember her from a a recent music festival that we reviewed.

I had some interesting conversions with both Amy X Newburg and Joker Neils following the performances, which is always a nice coda to a concert.

It was another exceptionally warm weekend in San Francisco (I wouldn’t mind it becoming less exceptional), so more opportunities for walking events. First off I finally made the trip to the San Francisco SPCA to inquire about volunteer opportunities and see their much touted adoption center. The cat area featured large rooms, “kitty condos” as well as comfy areas to hide – it actually seemed on par with the “cat resorts” where I looked into boarding Luna. The SPCA is actually a short work away from CatSynth HQ (well, it’s at least short from my perspective).

Another short walk in the opposite direction from CatSynth HQ led to the Yerba Buena Gallery Walk. Open studios and gallery events are pretty regular occurrences, even within walking distance. Plus, there’s often free food and drink. I didn’t see too many things that truly interested me, except for some abstract paintings at 111 Minna that I had already seen during the first Thursday earlier this month. But that doesn’t mean the afternoon wasn’t without its attractions. Some of the galleries, such as Varnish, were in very interesting spaces, such as converted industrial buildings from the early 20th century. A view of Varnish is in the photo to the left. Additionally, some of the sights on a gallery tour aren’t the works of art, but the people viewing them – and this is even more true on a warm sunny day. Finally, I did have a delightful conversation with Jesse Allen at Chandler Fine Art – his very psychedelic/natural works aren’t what I am usually drawn to, but some of them did include abstract representations of cats and other animals and one “wild cat” in particular caught my attention.

More art on Sunday, this time photography. This Sunday was “Pinhole Photography Day” (who knew?) and the RayKo Photo center featured an exhibit, demonstrations, and most notably a ride on the Bus Obscura a school bus converted into a large camera obscura.

The bus obscura toured our South-of-Market neighborhood, providing a unique view via the pinhole-camera images. Small dots of blurry light would suddenly come into focus as a sidewalk or car or storefront.

Because the image were so localized, it wasn’t always clear exactly where the bus was, though every so often a familiar landmark would emerge. The ride was accompanied by live acoustic and electronic music, adding to the experience and making it different from the regular “tours” of our neighborhood.