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)]

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:

[click to enlarge]

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:

[click to enlarge]

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:

[click to enlarge]

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:

[click to enlarge]

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.