SFEMF Night 3: Arcane Device, Thea Farhadian, Alessandro Bosetti

Today we look at the third night of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF), which took place on September 10 at the Brava Theater in San Francisco.

The evening opened with a set by Alessandro Bosetti, who performs with spoken-word vocals and electronics.

Alessandro Bosetti
[Photo by Pamela Z]

His texts are not traditionally lyrical, indeed they can be awkward or even absurd at times, or parts of imperfect translations. But he challenges himself and the audience to find the musicality within them. Most of what the audience hears are that result from the live electronic processing. The language remains audible, but it is transformed in a complex mixture of inharmonicity, noise and other types of musical sound. The performance was intense – and must have been physically exhausting for Bosetti, who is known for his work on radio.

While Bosetti’s set was intense and frenetic, Thea Farhadian’s performance was something altogether different. She performed a set featuring violin and live electronics.

Thea Farhadian
[Photo by Pamela Z]

Without straying into too-conventional territory, Farhadian’s sounds were lyrical and haunting. The harmonic qualities of violin were of course featured, but also the percussive sounds, which when combined with the electronic processing created rhythm and motion to the piece. Although there was no visual element other than the performer herself, the music had a visual quality, with long curving lines like brush strokes with thick paint punctuated by dots.

The final performance featured Arcane Device (aka David Lee Myers) on modular synthesizer with live generated visuals.

Arcane Device

He is known his creation of music from feedback and other noise sources, and so we were expecting a noise-centered performance. And we weren’t disappointed. But it was really the visuals that made this experience unique. The output of the synthesizer was fed into a special two-dimensional oscilloscope that was projected behind the performer. At first it was small, squished round elements as the sound started simply, but quickly grew complex creating chaotic textures that matched the sound. This was indeed a fun set to both watch and hear.

Overall it was a good night for this year’s SFEMF. And it was well attended. Other obligations kept we away from nights 2 and 4 this year, but I am looking forward to the festival’s return next year.

San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF), Part 2

Last week, I presented the opening night show of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival at SFMOMA. Today we look back at the September 10 installment of SFEMF, which took place at the Brava Theater.

It was a busy Saturday evening of art and music, but after a trip through three neighborhoods on our illustrious public transportation system and chatting with several friends on the way in, I was still able to get a perfect seat in the center of the theater for the full immersive experience. As I often do these days, I was live-tweeting between sets with hashtag #SFEMF to share with a wider community both in the theater and beyond.

The concert opened with a tribute to Max Mathews presented by Marielle Jakobsons. Mathews is considered to be the “father of computer music” and his career spanned over five decades and continued up until the last days before he passed away earlier this year. The tribute brought together the technologies that Mathews pioneered and his love of classical music. It began with a recording of his 1971 piece Improvisations for Olympiad, set against images of Mathews’ long career and time with family and friends. In the piece, one can hear how far computer-music technology had advanced since the 1950s, in large part do to his own work (though it still hard to fathom that the piece was done using punch cards). The photos demonstrated how much he was loved by the community around him – many featured familiar faces from CCRMA at Stanford, where he had most recently worked.


[Diane Douglass and Marielle Jakobsons. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Jakobsons then presented a personal tribute in the form of a new piece, Theme and Variations on Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4 For Violin and Phaser Filters. Jakobsons had worked with Mathews on his Phaser Filters, a technology for live performance based on tuned resonances. With Diane Douglass on computer, Jakobsons performed on violin, with the familiar classical sounds blending seamlessly with the rich sounds from the filter technology.

Next up was Area C, a project of Erik J. Carlson. Carlson’s performance featured live looping of electric guitar and a variety of analog and digital effects, which were output via two guitar amps.

[Area C. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Although the piece unfolded as a series of loops of small melodic and rhythmic figures on the guitar that were processed and re-looped, the overall texture of the music gave the impression of an ever evolving drone, not unlike something we might do at the Droneshift but with less strict rules and more opportunity for bits of texture to emerge.

After an intermission, the concert resumed with 0th, a “collective of four female artists, Jacqueline Gordon, Amanda Warner, Canner Mefe, and Caryl Kientz” presenting a live-performance piece Deep Blue Space: Factories and Forests. The performers were scattered at the edges of the stage, with a large lit hemisphere in the center, and an array of base drums in front. Behind them, a large video was projected. Additional unnamed performers beyond the quartet contributed to the dance elements. Costuming was also an important part of the piece, with interesting outfits and one performer sporting a pyramid-shaped hat.


[Setting up for 0th. Big bubble in the middle stage. And bass drums in front. #sfemf ]

Their performance was based on a fictional story that followed the exploits of the chess-playing supercomputer Deep Blue on a satellite that leaves Earth orbit and heads to the asteroid belt. The performance unfolded with a series of very punctuated sounds set against very deliberate motions with frequent pauses. The overall effect was mechanized and robotic, enhanced by the industrial imagery in the video. This was of course appropriate given the theme of machines in the underlying story.


[0th. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Towards the end of the piece, several of the performers moved into place at the front of the stage, each behind one of the base drums and they began to strike the pedals in unison, a loud stream of slow rhythmic thumps against the electronic sounds spread in the background.

The final performance featured a collaboration by Yoshi Wada and Tashi Wada on a piece entitled Frequency Responses: 2011. The piece explored the interactions of the timbres of a variety of instruments and devices that can sustain long tones, such as a bagpipe, sirens, and old analog oscillators. It begin with jarring sound of an alarm bell but quickly settled into a steady state with an ever changing combination of sounds and instruments. Yoshi Wada, a veteran of Fluxus, frequently played the bagpipe during the piece. Tashi Wada remained behind the main table focused on a variety of electronic elements.


[Yoshi Wada and Tashi Wada. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The equipment and overall texture of the piece evoked the early experiments in electronic music, and brought the concert full circle from its starting point with the tribute to Max Mathews. Although the interaction of the timbres could sometimes be rather intense, the focus on this element and listening for beating patterns on other details was quite meditative.

I think my live tweet “An exploration of very long tones ends in a major harmony #sfemf” is a fitting end for this review. Overall another strong concert.

2010 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival

A few weeks ago I attended two performances at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival. I did live tweets at the time, and now present a more detailed and reflective account.

The performances took place at the Brava Theater in the Mission District. There was also a satellite event at the de Young Museum which unfortunately I was not able to attend.

The festival opened with a piece by Benjamin Bracken. The stage was set with a series of guitars each facing its own amplifier. The guitars were excited (i.e., made to resonate) by “a process of using feedback of specific sets of harmonic partials.”

[Benjamin Bracken. Piece for Unplayed Guitars.]

The piece began with a low rumble and drones. The sound grew denser, sometimes forming a minor harmony, and other times distinct beating patterns were audible between the long tones. Later on, the drones became higher in pitch and more “anxious” sounding and were mixed with other sounds, including something that sounded like metal objects being rubbed against one another, or bowed strings. The sound gradually became louder and more all encompassing, sometimes resolving back into a single harmony or pitch, and sometimes into a series of perfect intervals, along with some more more metallic and bowed sounds.

[John Chowning.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  (Click to enlarge)]

Bracken was immediately followed by John Chowning, who came out to talk to the audience before his set began. Many readers are undoubtedly familiar with Chowning as a pioneer in sound synthesis,and his invention of modern FM synthesis. But Chowning is also an accomplished composer and his pieces are quite beautiful. Turenas made extensive use of both FM synthesis and his early work moving sound sources in 360-degree sound space. Indeed the piece seemed to be composed of tiny particles of sound that seemed both natural and synthetic at the same time, and which were moving very strongly around in space.

[John Chowning’s stria.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  (Click to enlarge)]

Chowning’s second piece stria was originally composed and presented in 1977 at IRCAM in Paris. It is based on the golden ratio, which plays a strong role in mathematics, visual art and also how we perceive narrative in music as well as storytelling. Chowning took this a step further by basing the ratios of frequencies in the sounds themselves on the golden ratio, and using a 13-note scale to express the resulting timbres. While this results in sounds that seem inharmonic (or “clangorous” as the program notes describe it), it also provides a certain order to the piece. The music was accompanied by a visual that should the spectral composition of the piece, as well as the golden section in the temporal development (bringing it back to its traditional application in narrative.)

[Maureen Chowning in Voices v.2. Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click to enlarge)]

The third piece was a more recent composition Voices v.2, and featured soprano Maureen Chowning on voice. Pitches from her voice were tracked by a program written in Max/MSP and used to control FM synthesized sounds that are then remixer the voice and spatialized into the auditorium.

As Maureen Chowning was singing the piece, the Max/MSP program plus the score were projected onto the screen behind her, where the audience could see the efforts of John Chowning cajoling the program into behaving itself in real time.

The final set featured another pioneer in synthesis, Don Buchla, who continues to mahis Buchla analog synthesizers to this day. He was joined by Alessandro Cortini (aka “blindoldfreak”), who may be familiar to readers for his sonoio project.

[Don Buchla and Alessandro Cortini.  Photos by Michael Zelner.  (Click to enlarge)]

They began the set with a piece for “dueling Buchlas” by Cortini entitled Everything Ends Here. It opened with low notes and filtered analog drones, followed by sounds that were more windy and wispy before becoming more defined. There was a pattern with suspending major harmonies, then loud noises, moments of massive distortion, and then very low “sub bass” tones.

The next piece, Buchla’s En Plein Vol began as a standard piece for percussionist (Joel Davel) with a marimba, cymbals, temple blocks, gongs and other conventional instruments. At some point during the performance, Cortini wandered onto the stage. He lingered nearby, and then very conspicuously walked off with one of the temple blocks. He and Nannick Bonnel continued to come by and remove instruments. However, as each item was pilfered, Davel continued to play the same sound in the empty space, as if it was still there. This trick was likely accomplished by using synthesized sounds controlled by a Buchla Lightning. The piece continued in comical fashion until all the instruments and eventually the performer himself were removed from the stage.

Buchla and Cortini returned to the stage in full Carnaval attire. Buchla set in motion a pattern with a frantic jumping rhythm and an out-of-tune sequence of soft analog waves. Gradually, the music became more percussive and rhythmic, and on the screen were scenes of Carnaval percussionists. A parade of masked performers began to descend into the theater from the back, often stopping to “play” with the audience (I’m pretty certain it was Gino Robair who had a little fun with me as I attempted to “live tweet” what was unfolding). The music became a combination of synthetic drumming sounds, whistles and noisemakers. After a few rounds that did truly resemble a mini Carnaval parade, the performers ascended to the stage and formed a large semi-circle for the final piece Parabolic Trajectories.

The performers all donned large comical sunglasses – which did elicit a bit of laughter from the audience. Buchla then started up the main instrument for this piece, an old fashioned popcorn maker. As the performance drew to a close, randomized percussive sound (and mildly burnt odor) of the popcorn filled the theater.


I also attended the Saturday performance, this time as a volunteer usher. In between my ushering duties (which mostly consisted of holding a really cool flashlight and occasionally asking someone not to bring their food or drink into the theater), I was able to see and hear the full show.

Joseph Hammer opened the program with Road Less Traveled, An improvisation-based composition featuring sound loops and other found sonic material. The intention was to build in a senepse motion and narrative with the changing sound palette, a “journey with uncertainty as thr goal.” Musically, the loops at the beginning were more folk-rock samples (which in a tweet I suggested required the medical gloves that Hammer was wearing.) Over time, the source material incorporated more funk and classic R&B, which worked better for me.

Stephan Mathieu performed an extended version of Alvin Lucier’s Music with Magnetic Strings, in which the strings of an Ottavino Virginal, a small Renaissance clavier, were set into vibration by five electromagnets. The result was a sound image that was at once very Tarkington and simple, but also full of complex details such as beating patterns between sustained tones. There were also plucked strong sounds (at least as far I was able to discern) and also an ebow placed on top of the strings at one point in the piece. The very minimal structure and sound of this set may have been a challenge for some listeners. For me, I think I was in just the right mood to be receptive to something like this where I could completely defocus.

The final performance of the evening and of the festival was by Caroliner Rainbow.  The group describes itself as “an Industrial Bluegrass/Experimental/Noise conceptual art Costume Rock band.”  I am still not entirely sure what “industral bluegrass” is, but the aural and visual experience is certainly unique.  The first thing one notices is the large and elaborate stage set.

[Caroliner Rainbow]

The colors, shapes and textures seemed to be somewhere between psychedelic and urban graffiti, with bright fluorescent hues. For some of the performers, it was challenging to tell where the set ended and the costumes began, until one saw the performers’ motions, which ranged from standard performance gestures (e.g., guitars, drums) to odd back-and-forth rocking. The performers and stage did seem to function as a single entity.

Musically, the performance was something between noise and experimental punk rock, with big flourishes of piano, organ, drums, guitar and electronic noises. These seemed to come in bursts rather than as a single long phrase. Some friends of mine had seen them perform years ago, with one of the more memorable moments between a squeaking fiddle – this was present in this performance in between some of the other sounds and gestures.

After the festival concluded, there was still the challenge of dismantling such a large set. We close with a few of the staff and volunteers getting started:

[Post SFEMF.  (Click image to enlarge)]