Other Cinema: Re-Tracked Animation, Artists’ Television Access

A couple of weeks ago I attended an evening of silent films and live music at Artists’ Television Access called “Re-Tracked Animation.” The program was part of the regular Other Cinema series that occurs at ATA most Saturdays.

As we arrived, there were old film clips (from the 1940s or earlier) playing with various soundtracks. The initial film featured a keyboard player wearing a turban (to look stereotypically “exotic”) set against something that sounded like the Chipmunks. The next short featured a more abstract grainy cartoon with figures made from simple geometry against a more electronic noise-based soundtrack – this one was quite interesting in itself. The final video, a very old Porky Pig cartoon, was played straight.

It was then time for the main features to begin. Jeremy Rourke presented several of his animated video pieces with live accompaniment on guitar, voice and percussion – specifically, singing bowls. His visuals combined found material, often with a “turn-of-the-20th-century” feel to it, with more contemporary video backgrounds and illustrations. You can see one of the videos, eyes hearing stars, in this clip below:

This one in particular featured some moments I referred to as “Monty Python meets Central Park” in that it reminded me a bit of Terry Gilliam’s animations, but the highly processed background of modern-day urban park video and abstract graphical elements give it a unique feel. Musically, the texture was sparse and worked in concert with the video rather than vying for attention away from the imagery, so the overall experience was quite captivating.

For his final piece, Rourke came on stage wearing all white and carrying an all-white guitar. It was clear that he and his instrument were going to be part of the screen for the next video, and that is indeed what happened.

The final video featured more live footage than his earlier animations, and the music was purely guitar-based.

After an intermission, the program resumed with a screening of the Brothers’ Quay In Absentia with music by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Regular readers know that Stockhausen is one of my musical heroes, so I was quite interested to see and hear this piece. The film, although done in 2000, feels like it is much older. The grainy images paint dark and dystopian visuals of ruined machinery against the main scenes of a woman in an asylum and her repetitive existence, writing notes on paper, placing them in envelopes and into a grandfather clock. The music, which is from Stockhausen’s piece “Zwei Paare”, predates the creation of the film, but they nonetheless work together well to create the overall haunting and eerie landscape.

The final set featured members of the ensemble Thomas Carnacki with Greg Scharpen, Jim Kaiser, Jesse Burson, and Gregory Hagan performing live audio tracks to two films. The first was Jan Svankmajer’s The Fall of the House of Usher, based on the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name. The Poe story was read live by Dean Santomieri along with the music. The visuals featured an empty and abandoned looking manner home, perhaps how the House of Usher would look after the fall. It was forlorn and sad, but rich with texture. And Santomieri’s voice is always captivating in live readings.

The final piece of the evening featured the ensemble performing live to Ladislas Starewicz’ strange but delightful stop-animation film The Mascot. The film, which was created in 1933, features a cast of puppet dogs, cats, dolls, skeletons and any number of other creatures.

It is amazing to think what Starewicz was able to do in the 1920s and 1930s with his creations, without the aid of 3D computer animation or even more modern model-making done at special-effects houses. Below is a still from the original film:

The film is available on the Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org) in its entirety, so I will be tempted to try my own hand at an audio accompaniment for it one of these days…

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.

Back Door! and Romanowski at Fabric8

Two concurrent shows at Fabric8 in the Mission District of San Francisco touched upon topics that frequently come up here at CatSynth, highways/transportation and modern geometric design. They also followed two artistic styles that I associate with contemporary urban art: cartoonish humor and street art, and geometric architectural elements.

In Back Door! at Fabric8, artist Andy Stattmiller “visually expounds on the subject that San Franciscans love to hate: the MUNI transportation system”. And it is true, we do have a rather strained relationship with transit system we depend on in the city – there have been numerous times I have opted to walk because I felt is was more reliable. On the other hand, MUNI is a place where the colorful residents of the city cross paths and sometimes get squished together, and where one can observe the contrasts among neighborhoods and streets.

[Andy Stattmiller. 14 Mission.  Image courtesy of Fabric8.]

Stattmiller’s canvases featured individual lines from the MUNI system, mostly busses, which he populated brightly colored cartoon-like figures that simultaneously seem like real denizens of the city and creatures from other planets. The larger heads on the bus drivers were particularly fun. The busses themselves and the surrounding space take on different character of the lines and the neighborhoods that the serve. There is even a triangular canvas representing one of many steep inclines.

[Andy Stattmiller. 67 Bernal Heights.  Image courtesy of Fabric8.]

This was very much an show for locals, who could identify, and identify with, the individual busses and metro lines featured. People did seem to enjoy finding the piece that featured the lines they often use, whether part of their daily routine, or a particularly memorable misadventure. I did find a couple that I have frequented.

In contrast to the chaos and humor of Back Door!, Romanowski’s pieces in the concurrent show Bees and Things and Flowers had a very serious and ordered quality, and was quite calming.

[Romanowski. Le Roy. Image courtesy of Fabric8.]

Although several of the pieces are assemblages of found objects, they give the appearance of abstract sculpture or even painting. Indeed, one can see similarities in the patterns of the found-object pieces and his Installation of stencil on paper.

[Romanowski. Installation (stencil on paper, framed). Image courtesy of Fabric8.]

 

Some of the more intricate pieces, such as Le Roy, remind me a bit of Lousie Nevelson’s sculptures. However, while the abstract geometric designs feel modern, the use of mostly wooden found objects gives them an older feel. And as such, they seem to get in touch with the older architecture in many parts of the city.

Bees and Things and Flowers closed yesterday (September 5). However, Back Door! remains open at Fabric8 until September 12.

room: GLASS NOODLE (Pamela Z and Carl Stone)

On March 16 I attended the latest installment of Pamela Z’s ::ROOM:: series at the Royce Gallery in San Francisco. This concert, entitled room: GLASS NOODLE, featured Pamela Z and Carl Stone in solo performances, and then together as the duo.

The performance opened with a series of solo works by Pamela Z. I had heard several of these before, at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival and earlier ::ROOM:: performances. As in previous performances, she began with a piece that featured live looping of melodic singing turned in harmonies, along with extended vocal techniques, “street textures” against sung lines, and bubble wrap. This was followed by a humorous piece the features the sounds and gestures of a manual typewriter, both key clicks and the carriage return – the narrative at the beginning of the piece is that the performer is writing to her penpal on a typewriter because her MacBook is broken. In the background, the video features transformations on old QWERTY typewriter keys. The round mechanical keys lent themselves to playful rolling animations. Over time, the music shifted to short voice loops and sample glitches, and gradually became darker. One piece that featured the experience of going through airport security (including an operating singing of the familiar “did you pack your own bags” inquiry) seemed familiar from SFEMF, although in that performance I recall a longer section in which people spoke about their contents of their suitcases. Pamela Z concluded her solo performances with sketches from new pieces. There were eerie loops of pure tones, whispers, stop motion video of the artist on a wooded path – bits of sound that resembled prepared piano were followed by several voices talking about memory.

Carl Stone’s performance was an electro-acoustic tour de force. His continuously changing samples and other electronic sounds weaved together a complex structure with both energy and sense of direction. It started off subtly, with a build-up of granular synthesis and complex harmonics that quickly became enveloping. Some of the sonic elements evoked a sense of relaxation, even as they were metallic and machine-like. A section of rhythmic percussive sounds and plucked strings seemed to suggest a rock influence, which gradually morphed into something more South Asian featuring tabla and other drums. As the sounds further transitioned from percussion to vocals with rolling watery lines, it seems we were traveling further east towards Southeast Asia. The music settled into an undulating six-eight rhythm, that every so often would pause abruptly and resume. String instruments provided both the harmonies and the rhythm, the vocals grew more tonally complex. Bell sounds emerged into the mix, at first part of the overall Asian sound but then becoming a more abstract element. It seemed that the bells were growing, with a soundscape of large metallic sounds, and constant harmonies against an ethereal background. The overall sound grew in intensity and sounded “choral”. After a period of time in this pattern, the Asian-influenced percussion and voice fragments re-emerged, although at times the voice seemed to be in a more classical Western style. Towards the end of the continuously evolving piece, there was at least one false ending where the sound disappeared, before returning, until it drew to a true close.


After a brief intermission, Carl Stone and Pamela Z returned to perform as a duo called Glass Noodle. The set started out very quietly with low granular sounds and low pitches that seemed like machinery winding down. Slowly, the sounds became a little higher and faster. Videos of glass noodles were projected on the background as Pamela Z began reciting noodle recipes. (For anyone reading this article who is not familiar with glass noodles, they are quite tasty and I highly recommend trying them.) The short vocal samples, which were looped and granulated, built up and became more complex over time, and were eventually joined by percussion and melodic bell-like sounds. As the voice and electronic sounds again became more subdued, the video became more glitchy, and I heard a recipe for fish source thrown in amongst the noodles, as well as vocal sound effects that evoked “deliciousness”. Minor harmonies emerged against the recipe recitations, along with references to red chili peppers and pickled garlic. If I had not already eaten before this performance, I am sure I would have been quite hungry (glass noodles and the other foods described are all quite tasty). The order and complex counterpoint of the music eventually decayed into a series of asynchronous loops.

The next section began with classical piano and granular sounds, sparse vocals and bird calls. The loops, pitch bends and other effects were quite playful, and evoked the sound experiments of the late 1960s (think “Revolution 9”). The sounds of the birds and voice gave way to strange percussive sound effects, squeaking and rubbing, before the voice returned in the distance. Over time the texture became more complex, with short hits of metal and glass sounds and a glitchy voice loop. The noodles being projected at this point seemed more brittle than the sinuous textures from the earlier part of the set – then all of a sudden they “melted” as the sounds grew more extended. As the sound once again grew glitchier and noisier, the piece drew to a close.

John Butcher, Bill Hsu and Gino Robair at Artist Television Access

live visuals by Bill Hsu

Two Sundays ago, I attended a performance at Artist Television Access featuring electro-acoustic audio-visual improvisations with John Butcher, Bill Hsu and Gino Robair. Bill Hsu provided the visual elements of the performance using the visualization environment Processing. (I have been interested in Processing for a while, and used it in the abstract graphics in my video piece featuring Luna.) Gino Robair had an array of electronic devices, including a Blippo Box and an Alesis effects unit, and acoustic percussion for a variety of sounds. John Butcher provided the low-tech counterpoint on saxophone.

I arrived late to an already pitch-black room as the first piece was concluding. (I was late because I was looking for a parking spot, which in the Mission is usually an ordeal. and I rarely drive there, but I had to on this night because of other obligations.) The next piece began in darkness, with small colored dots and a very sparse musical texture. The sound primarily consisted of electronic drones and long saxophone tones. As the the dots began to expand, so did the music. It became more active and featured more percussive sounds from Robair. As the graphics grew more complex, with swells and streaks, the music veered from discrete sounds to outright skronking with long runs of fast notes from both performers.

The next piece featured graphics that reminded me a bit of finite-element simulations with large numbers of particles forming in and out of patters. At first the particles seemed to form glyphs or characters of a written language, but then dissolved into smoke. This was set against sparse music, featuring bowed metal. (It was too dark to see, but I am pretty sure this was Gino Robair’s signature cracked cymbal.) The graphics shifted gradually over time, sometimes it seemed more like water, sometimes more like sand. Towards the end, the music (both saxophones and percussion) moved towards rather piercing high tones.

After a brief intermission, the performance resumed with the now familiar sound of the Blippo Box. It is interesting how despite having chaotic processes, this instrument has a very distinctive set of timbres and contours that are quickly recognizable. I did find out after the performance that the Blippo Box was being used in conjunction with an Alesis effects unit, which added more dimensions to the sound without changing its inherent character. Butcher attempted to match the sound on his saxophone, coming into unisons on the steady-state pitches, but then moving in chaotic runs of fast notes are growling timbres during the more turbulent output from synthesizer. The graphics during this piece focused on two closed elements, one yellow and one purple. They were mostly round shapes that curved in on themselves, but they occasionally coalesced into representational objects, such as a complex cross shape with sub-bars on the end (a bit like an Eastern Orthodox crucifix), and vague outlines of human figures.

The next piece was a sharp contrast musically, with drum samples and live percussion set against percussive saxophone effects, such as key clicks and tonguing. The graphics featured a red star with a roiling plasma surface that expanded over time.

The graphics in the final piece connected most strongly with my own visual aesthetics. It featured patterns of vertical bars overlaid periodically with large dots. The patterns started out simple, focusing on just a few elements on colors, but got more complex and richly colored over time. The music set against these visuals again featured the Blippo Box and its constantly changing but distinctive sound palette. But rather than attempting to match it, Butcher’s saxophone provided a counterpoint. He wove together active lines and melodies that on occasion were distinctively jazz-like, and then moving back and forth between long runs and series of loud inharmonic tones.