San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, Part 1

Today we look back at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival that took place earlier this month. Specifically, we review the opening concert which took place for the first time at SFMOMA. Appropriately for a collaboration with an institution focused on the visual arts, many of the pieces combined electronic music with graphics, video, or dance.

SFEMF is often a coming-together of people from the Bay Area electronic-music and new-music communities, and the audience was filled with familiar faces. Some even joined me in live tweeting with hashtag #sfemf during the concerts.

The concert opened with a solo performance by Sarah Howe entitled Peephole live electronic music and video.


[Sarah Howe. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Howe describes her video work as “beautifully messy textures of low fidelity source material”. The result was quite mesmerizing, with ever-changing pixelated patterns on the large screen that pulsated and radiated, sometimes converging on seemingly recognizable images, sometimes completely abstract. The music featured highly processed electronic sounds taken from acoustic sources.

Next was Interminacy, a performance by Tom Djll and Tim Perkis based on “lost” John Cage stories, as “rescued from a Bay Area public-radio vault” (they did not say which public radio station). We hear Cage’s distinctive voice and speaking style, as recognized from his recorded interviews – see our post on John Cage’s 99th birthday for an example – with Djll and Perkis providing music in between the words supposedly derived from I-Ching. The music did cover a variety of synthesized electronic sounds, recording samples, and other elements, leaving plenty of silence as well.


[Tom Djll and Tim Perkis channel John Cage. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

It started out straightforward enough, but the narrations took a bit of a darker turn, which audience members may or may not have reacted to in amusement or horror. I personally fell into the former category, and considered this one of the more brilliant and well-crafted tributes I have heard in a long time. You can hear an excerpt from an earlier performance below (or here).

<a href=”http://djll.bandcamp.com/track/interminacy-excerpt” _mce_href=”http://djll.bandcamp.com/track/interminacy-excerpt”>Interminacy (excerpt) by Tom Djll/Tim Perkis</a>

The following performance featured Kadet Kuhne performing live with a video by Barcelona-based artist Alba G. Corral in a piece entitled STORA BJÖRN. Corral created visuals using the programming environment Processing that generated complex graphical patterns based on the constellation The Great Bear.


[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Kuenhe’s music weaved in and out with the visuals in undulating but ever changing textures and timbres. The result of the combined music and visuals was quite meditative – at the same time, the visuals retained a certain analytical quality perhaps because of all elements based on connected lines. Glitchy elements in the music fed back into the lines and spaces.

Plane, a collaboration Les Stuck and Sonsherée Giles featured dance, visuals together with music. Stuck’s musical performance began against a video of Giles’ dancing that was created using a special camera technique and a limited palette of colors and effects to produce a low-resolution image with no sense of perspective. It did look a bit like a heat image of a moving body.


[Les Stuck. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

At some point during the performance, Giles herself appeared on the stage and the performance transitioned to live dance. Her movement was slow and organic, and she often stayed close to the ground, as if to make herself two-dimension like the images on the screen.  Stuck’s music combined with the dance had a greater intensity than the previous music-and-visual performances on the concert, particularly in contrast to the far more delicate STORA BJÖRN that preceded it.

The concert concluded with a performance of Milton Babbit’s Philomel, performed by Dina Emerson. We lost both Milton Babbit and Max Mathews this year, and both were recognized with tribute performances during the festival. Philomel is perhaps the best known of Babbit’s famously complex compositions. You can hear an early recording of the piece in a tribute post here at CatSynth, as sung by soprano Bethany Beardslee. Emerson certainly had her work cut out for her in taking on this piece, but she came through with a beautiful and energetic performance.


[Dina Emerson performs Milton Babbit’s Philomel. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The piece combines electronic sounds, live voice and processed recorded vocals weaved together in a fast-moving texture that preserves a narrative structure. One can alternately listen to the words as disjoint musical events or as part of the larger story. At some point, even while focused directly on Emerson’s presence, the live and recorded sounds began to merge together. The electronics often seem to match the timbre and pitch register of the voice, which aided in the illusion of a single musical source.

Overall, I thought it was a strong concert with a particularly strong finish. It also was somewhat shorter and faster paced, with no intermission or long pauses between sets, which I thought was quite effective.

I also attended the Saturday concert and will review that in an upcoming article.

John Cage’s 99th Birthday

Today marks the 99th birthday of one of our musical heroes, John Cage.

In this video, we see Cage discussing sound and silence in his apartment on 18th Street in New York. There is a romantic quality to hearing his words, imagining music, and listening to the sounds of the city in the background, all in concert.

Although he is perhaps best known for his experiments in silence, sound and chance elements in music, I am most fond of his work for prepared piano and toy piano. Despite what was adventurous instrumentation at the time, the music itself comes across as traditional piano compositions. They were for a long time part of my rotation of morning music.

This is a good moment to simply stop at listen to the ubiquitous sounds of the urban environment here, including the ever present trains and traffic on I-280.

Object as Multiple: 1960-2000, Stephen Wirtz Gallery

Today we look at a particularly fun exhibition Object as Multiple: 1960-2000 at the Wirtz Gallery here in San Francisco. It presented examples of multiples, pieces other than traditional prints or casts that could theoretically be repeated ad infinitum – though in reality they are limited editions – by many of the well-known artists of the mid 20th century.

[Sol Lewitt. Cube Without a Cube, 1996.  Edition of 42.  All images courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery.]

One of the things that made this exhibition fun was identifying the pieces by these artists without labels, and then seeing if one’s guesses were in fact correct. Some were quite easily recognizable. For example, Donald Judd’s Untitled (1971) was essentially a single box from his minimalist stacked-box pieces that appear in SFMOMA and elsewhere. Similarly, I could easily pick out Sol Lewitt’s Flat Topped Pyramid and Cube without a Cube with their geometric construction, again very minimalist. I may not have been able to pick out Man Ray’s L’ Indicateur without some hints.

[Donald Judd. Untitled, 1970.  Edition of 50.]

[Sol LeWitt. Flat Topped Pyramid, 2005. Edition of 6.]

[Man Ray, L’ Indicateur, 1969.  Edition 1 of 25.]

These relatively small pieces, along with John Cage’s Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel provided a chance to commune with some my modernist heroes from both visual art and music in a relatively intimate setting.

[John Cage. Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, 1969.  Edition of 125.]

With Cage’s piece in particular, there is an integration of music, text and visuals in a compact object, along with his dry sense of humor. Sol Lewitt’s pieces have that simple comforting geometry (you can see larger examples in , but there is again a bit of humor and play in the title “Cube without a Cube.”  Larry Bell’s Untitled (ca 1970) has a similar geometric quality, but projected onto two-dimensions.

[Larry Bell. Untitled (ca 1970).  Edition of 150.]

Another piece that referenced music was Claes Oldenburg’s Miniature Soft Drum Set. Think of it as a “deflated drum set,” one part surreal, one part rather cute:

[Claes Oldenburg. Miniature Soft Drum Set, 1969. Edition of 200.]

It’s rare that I would describe a drum set as “huggable.” (Though of course there is no hugging of the artwork allowed at the gallery.)  It is also a strong contrast, with its soft edges, to the geometric and minimal works in the exhibition.

A few pieces pushed the idea of the multiple into everyday objects. Jim Hodges’ Everything and Nothing is a series of clocks representing the planets of the solar system. On one level, this is simply a set of themed clocks that one could imagine buying at a store (I like how Jupiter is a digital clock). But it is not truly mass-produced, as there are only 12 sets.

[Jim Hodges. Everything and Nothing, 1999.  Edition of 12.]

Vito Acconci’s Park Up a Building is a puzzle of an architectural photograph. Roy Lichtenstein’s Shirt is, well, a shirt (though I could see it being nice to wear for a music performance.)

The exhibition will remain on display through March 12.


Coincident with this exhibition, the gallery was displaying photography from past exhibitions. I particularly liked Catherine Wagner’s Ode to Yves with its array of deep blue lightbulbs – it was part of a 2007 exhibition entitled A Narrative History of the Lighbulb.

[Catherine Wagner. Ode to Yves, 2006.]

Another piece that got my attention was Alec Soth’s Grand Twin Cinema, Paris, Texas, 2006 from an exhibition entitled The Last Days of W.

[Alec Soth.  Grand Twin Cinema, Paris, Texas, 2006.]

The photograph of a classic downtown street seems rather empty (though the business seem open), a little worn out, perhaps illustrative of the state of the country during the last year of George W Bush’s presidency. But the stark quality is also what makes it attractive as an image.

[All images in this article courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery.]

resonant world: John Cage and Morris Graves

This past Sunday I attended resonant world: an afternoon of music by John Cage for the exibit The Visionary Art of Morris Graves at the Meridian Gallery here in San Francisco.

Morris Graves was an influential artist in the 20th century, based primarily in the Pacific Northwest. The exhibition features about 50 works spread over several decades of his career and two floors of the gallery. Many of his works, which were mostly on paper, had a very simple quality, but often with some recognizable object or concept at its core. I was particularly drawn to a few of his works, including Minnow, Irish Animal, Waning Moon and Roadside Plants and Machine Age Noise. Graves’ work is often described as having Asian and mystical influences, which were apparent in Minnow and many others, but in works like Irish Animal a noticed a humorous quality, something approaching graphic art.

John Cage became a longtime friend and admirer of Graves after the two met in 1935. He described Graves’ work as “Invitations”, or invitationals to attend to the ordinary details that are “ordinarily ignored”. Although the pieces in the program were not directly a response to Graves’ art, they do fit the spare nature of some of his works, and the focus on simple details, as well as the space of the gallery in which those works were presented.

[Raskin, Greenlief and Adams.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click to enlarge.]

The first piece, Atlas Eclipticalis featured the saxophone trio of Philip Greenlief, Jon Raskin and Steve Adams. The title refers to the path of the Sun through the constellations of the zodiac, which Cage used as a source for the score of the piece, using tracing paper to determine the placement of dots and then adding a five-line music staff. The trio’s performance was derived entirely from this score. The result was a very sparse musical texture, with large areas of silence punctuated by individual isolated notes from each of the saxophones. There were also moments where the performers played together, forming interesting beating patterns as the simultaneous tones interacted with the room as well as perfect octaves and minor chords that were a bit startling (but quite effective) within the context of the whole piece.

Atlas Eclipaticalis was followed by a performance of Three for “three players having a variety of recorders.” Conveniently, we happened to have three players who each had a variety of recorders, the Three Trapped Tigers (David Barnett and Tom Bickley with special guest Judy Linsenberg). The recorders ranged in size from the familiar C soprano recorders and alto and tenor sizes seen in renaissance ensembles, to very “modernist” F contra-bass recorders composed of wooden rectangular sections with black buttons and levers – I am guessing these were Paetzold recorders.

[Three Trapped Tigers (Bickley, Lindsenberg, Barnett). Click image to enlarge.]

The piece unfolded as a series of chords – the timing of individual notes was left up to the performers – with frequent pauses and changes of instruments. The large number of recorders and frequent changes suggested a solo pipe organ performance as much as a wind ensemble.

[David Cowen reading.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click to enlarge.]

Throughout the afternoon, simultaneous to an in between the musical performances, there was a reading of Series RE: Morris Graves, a “long poem derived by John Cage from his own recollections, conversations with Graves and friends” and other sources as described in the program notes. The poem was read by Dave Cowen. I did follow the recommendation to explore the space during the musical performances, including viewing the artwork with the music resonating down the stairs from the floor above, and pausing at partitioned area where the reading occurred. (Note: in the above photo featuring Cowen’s reading, one can also see Graves’ Roadside Plants and Machine Age Noise.)

[Fischer and Binkley enjoying tea and snacks. Click to enlarge.]

The final performance featured selections from Cage’s Song Books (Solos for Voice 3-92) interpreted by members of the Cornelius Cardew Choir. The songs derive from a variety of written sources, with some using graphical-score notation (a current favorite technique of mine) or text-based instructions. From these scores, performs are free to interpret and improvise their actual performances. Some of the songs were purely vocal and melodic, others were more theatrical, while others combined electronics with other elements. Among the moments that stood out were Tom Bickley and Brad Fischer enjoying tea, Sarah Rose Stiles pouring a cognac into a glass with contact microphones, projection of slides “relevant to Thoreau” behind a theatrical performance, a graphical score directing the pressing of keys on an amplified manual typewriter (performed by Eric Theise), and the use of the text from that typewriter in another song. There was also a large orange stuffed fish on a table.

[Sarah Rose Stiles.  Photo by Michael Zelner.]

[Sandra Yolles, Marianne McDonald, Brad Fischer and Tom Bickley.  Projection of “drawings related to Thoreau”. Click to enlarge.]

Art and music notes from the past week

During one of my long walks this weekend, I stopped in at Crown Point Press and found in the hallway several prints from Changes and Disappearances by the composer John Cage, a hero of ours here at CatSynth. My first impression was that these were graphical scores (i.e., scores where the performers interpret visual images), but they are in fact intended as independent works of visual art. However, many of the same compositional techniques can be found in both Cage’s music and visual art, as described in this essay by Ray Kass:

It occurred to me that his etchings had an extraordinary correspondence to the methods he utilized in composing his music – and that they were visual counterparts of sorts, related in a manner that one might not have expected…But the connection between Cage’s use of “chance” methodology in his various kinds of work (composing, writing, installation & performance art, & now printmaking) made sense in a way that awakened me to the great scope of his work.

I don’t think this was a special exhibition per se, as Cage had a longstanding relationship with Crown Point Press and they have displayed his work on several occasions. The main exhibition was a series of works by Tom Marioni.


Both Marioni and Cage were featured in The Art of Participation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Among the works in the exhibition were Marioni’s Free Beer (sadly, no free beer was being dispensed at the time, even though it was “Superbowl Sunday”), and John Cage’s most famous piece 4′ 33″. The full score was posted on a wall, and it was also displayed on a grand piano in its original form. I can’t say this was presented as a “participatory work”, however. Simply looking at the piano and listening to the museum commotion for the alloted time does not constitute a proper performance of the piece.

There were, however, plenty of other interactive pieces in the exhibition to explore, such as Lygia Clark’s Diálogo: Óculos (Dialogue, Goggles):


Last week, I attended an evening of electronic-music performances at the Climate Theatre, part of the regular Music Box Series. This series usually does not feature electronic music, but this time they darkened the room and presented “electronic soundspaces.”

Christopher Fleeger opened the evening with lively performance featuring a touch screen, percussion controller and laptop. The music mixed synthesized and other familiar electronic sounds with some odd and amusing recordings, such as a rap extolling the virtues of Tallahassee, Florida as a center for faiths of all kinds, and a very memorable piece of “stand-up tragedy” about one man’s experience with “the store” – in the poem, every line ended with “the store” and often included other references.

The second performance was by James Goode and featured a mixture of acoustic sources (percussion, toys, etc.) with sampling and looping, and reminded me a bit of my own performances at the Santa Cruz Looping Festival and other venues (it reminds me that I haven’t written about that). It can sometimes be a challenge to sustain full energy for an entire solo set of this nature, but Goode made this seem easy.

Goode and Fleeger closed with an extended duet improvisation. At least one balloon went flying into the audience.


I also attended the Saturday performance of the 2009 San Francisco Tape Music Festival, which I will discuss in a separate article.

MoMA, Miró, Modernism and Theremins

In addition to my adventures on the F train, I did have a small amount of time to enjoy art and music while was in New York for the Thanksgiving holiday.


One of the featured exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927–1937. Miró often appears in my artistic travels – I have been to multiple retrospectives and visited the Miró Museum in Barcelona. This exhibition was more specific, focusing on a single decade of his career, during which he challenged the definition of “painting.” It opens with his declaration in 1927 “I want to assassinate painting” and features several examples of “non-painting”, including collages (such as Composition with Wire, shown to the right) and wooden sculptures. At the same time, however, many of the works are things we would consider paintings. Some of the canvases are unprimed, and several use new media such as masonite. But there are still primarily two-dimensional works involving paint on a surface. And most of the paintings and non-paintings include Miró’s signature elements in his more famous works such as bulbous abstract figures, curing shapes, stars, and scarabs. In addition to the theme of “anti-painting”, the exhibition follows the events in Europe, and particularly in Spain, in the late 1920s and 1930s, with the impending civil war and rise of Fascism. It ends with the Fascists coming to dominance in 1937 and the painting Still Life with Old Shoe that marks the end of Miró’s period of anti-painting.

The MoMA’s website includes a detailed online exhibition.

A few of the smaller exhibits also caught my attention. Dreamland: Architectural Experiments since the 1970s featured experiments in architecture, primarily centered around New York, or the modernist urban ideal of New York, as seen be architects. Some of the ideas, such as those in Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, can be quite fantastic, such as an island oasis in a glass bubble atop a highway. Others were not only more realistic, but also realized, including some impressive homes in the country surrounding New York. It’s always great to see a celebration of modernism as it once was, before contemporary design and architecture took a turn away towards more mundane ideas.

Keeping with the idea of the 1960s and 1970s as particularly modern decades, the exhibit Looking at Music features visualizations of music from the era. This includes direction visualizations, such as the scores of John Cage, as well as early media works by Nam June Paik, Laurie Anderson, Steven Reich and others.


I did have a chance to hear some music as well. The weekend after Thanksgiving is often low on opportunities for new music (which is probably why I was able to book an NYC show without much difficulty after Thanksgiving in 2005). But the reliable Issue Project Room in Brooklyn hosted a show sponsored by the New York Theremin Society. The first set featured rather graphic stereo photos from World War I – still a horrific war when viewed a century later – with theremin accompaniment, presented by Robert Munn and Sara Cook. By Munn’s own admittance, this was not a performance for the faint of heart. The second set featured “Master Thereminist” Kip Rosser, who treated us to a series of jazz and pop standards that would be very much at home at a wedding or bar-mitzvah. It is interesting to think about a hybrid program featuring Rosser’s light jazz on theremin against Munn and Cook’s disturbing images from the Great War. But perhaps that would be a bit too ironic.

Cat and Toy Piano photo

This one was submitted by both elba (who enjoys one of my favorite activites: not shopping at WalMart) as well as brrer:

A bengal with the “very analog” instrument: a classic Jaymar toy piano. My parents found one of these on someone's curbside several years ago – it's amazing what people throw out. When I tried it out, I immediately recognized it as the instrument used in recordings of John Cage's Suite for Toy Piano.

Thanks to everyone who has been submitting photos in the past week or so. I'm a little backlogged at the moment, but I will get to posting them all, among all the other articles I want to write for this forum.