San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF): Celebrating John Cage

Today we review the opening concert of the Thirteenth Annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF). The concert was a tribute to John Cage on his centennial (one of many) and took place at SFMOMA. It specifically featured four of his conceptual pieces with chance processes or novel instrumentation.

The main included a performance of Cage’s Score Without Parts on SFMOMA’s rooftop terrace, conducted by Gino Robair with texts by Tom Djll. The performance was in conjunction with the opening of the museum’s intriguing minimalist design exhibition Field Conditions. There were even hors d’oeuvres served on tiles from one of the pieces in the exhibit. Unfortunately, because of another commitment I only arrived at the tail end of the performance, so I did not hear enough to reasonably review it.


[sfSoundGroup. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The main concert opened with members of sfSoundGroup performing Cartridge Music. This is the same piece that concluded the Music of Changes: Variation VIII concert a few weeks earlier, and featured the same personnel: Matthew Goodheart, Kyle Bruckmann, Matt Ingalls, and Tom Dambly. However, I felt that this was a stronger performance. Some of this may have been the staging and the sound support, but it also seemed that the cues for various elements were crisper and tighter, and the selection of sounds to use with the contact mics (i.e,, “catridges”) was more focused and suited to the structure of the piece. As in all music, practice and review from earlier performances helps.

This was followed by a performance of Cage’s most famous work, 4’33”. Normally, the piece is for a single pianist, but this particular performance featured a laptop ensemble. After all, it is a festival of electronic music.


[4’33” performed with laptops. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The performers (mostly members of SFEMF’s steering committee) sat in silence, as required by the score of the piece, with a few motions here and there. The audience mostly listened respectfully as well, I only noticed a few deliberate comments at soft volume. Thus, it was a successfully executed performance of the piece. I hope none of the laptops crashed.

The score for Fontana Mix, which is itself a work of art with curving lines and randomly distributed points, is actually a tool for generating other pieces. Aria is one such piece that Cage himself generated. For this performance, Fontana Mix with electronic sounds and Aria for voice were layered on top of one another, with Daniel Steffey and Christina Stanley performing the layers on electronics and voice, respectively.


[Daniel Steffey and Christina Stanley. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

My least favorite performance of a Cage composition was a boring and long version of Fontana Mix, so I had a little bit of trepidation. But this realization by Steffey and Stanley was vibrant and dynamic. Stanley’s vocals moved between numerous styles of singing (e.g., classical, popular, cabaret) and languages, punctuated by percussive strikes on found objects. Steffey’s foundation of electronic timbres was strong as well, with a lot of variation that left room for the vocals. Using these elements, they were able to realize genuine musical phrases and structure with a sense of narrative from the abstract scores.

The final performance of the evening was a realization of Variations II by Guillermo Galindo that featured a mariachi band. A mariachi band performing John Cage is certainly unusual, but in truth no different from any other interpretation of his scores with open instrumentation. For this performance, a four-piece group Mariachi Nueva Generación with traditional costumes and instrumentation, including violin, trumpet, the distinctive large guitarrón mexicano, and guitar.


[Mariachi Nueva GeneraciónPhoto: PeterBKaars.com.a]

Like Fontana Mix, Variations II is based on graphical elements that are combined to form instances of the composition. Specifically in this case, the interpreter combines lines and dots that represent musical elements that can then be notated for the performers. The result in this instance was a very sparse texture. The musicians would often play a single or pair of disjoint notes surrounded by periods of silence. There were only a few moments where multiple members of the ensemble played at the same time. The texture is a familiar one from realizations of Cage’s indeterminate pieces, but the overall experience with the band was a novel one.

The musical performance was preceded by a video with documentation and commentary produced by Jen Cohen. The video had some fun moments, with befuddled Mills professors reacting to the idea of a mariachi band performing Cage, and allusions to the graphical elements of the Variations II score. It didn’t feel like it was necessary to the experience of the performance. Nonetheless, Galindo considered it an “inseparable part of the piece and one doesn’t exist without the other.”

Overall, it was a strong opening concert for the festival, and it was quite well attended.

John Cage, The Music of ChAnGEs: Variation VIII

Today we review The Music of ChAnGEs: Variation VIII, a concert in a yearlong series by sfSound celebrating John Cage’s centennial. This particular concert, which took place at The Lab, featured some of Cage’s more adventurous and experimental compositions, including works involving electronics and noise elements. These more conceptual pieces involved use of simple electronics, household objects, or unexpected musical sources. The scores are mostly based on sequences of instructions with absolute or relative time scales. In addition to 4’33” (which was not on the program), these are among the most celebrated examples of Cage’s music, but also among the more misunderstood and even reviled. I fall unequivocally on the side of celebration of these more radical and pioneering works, and thus I was privileged to be able to participate in this concert myself as well.

The pre-concert and intermission music featured an interpretation of One3 by John Leidecker (aka Wobbly). The piece contains the instruction to “arrange the soundsystem so that the whole hall is on the edge of feedback, without feeding back. The result is an abstract texture that goes from silent to occasionally quite loud at the unstable boundary, but the sound was also blended with the ambience of the conversations and commotion in the hall.

The formal concert opened with Radio Music. In this piece, each performer is given a written part with a sequence of AM radio frequencies to which to tune his or her radio (traditional analog broadcast AM/FM radios are required to perform this piece, no internet or digital-broadcast radios allowed). What, if anything, is audible on those particular frequencies is of course up to chance – sometimes it is just static, while other times one tunes into an actual station. Additionally, the performers were free to walk around the hall and to interpret the flow of time among positions in their part. The result was a spatialized electronic music texture with the radios playing the part of synthesizers with noise generators, distorted sine waves, and the occasional sampled recording. Particular combinations of sportscasts, music and tuning noise could be quite humorous.

This was followed by Music for Amplified Toy Pianos. Cage is often credited with bringing the toy piano into the realm of serious music with his 1948 Suite for Toy Piano. In Music for Amplified Toy Pianos, he pushes the instrument further with the use of contract microphones, amplification, and more percussive interactions with the instrument itself. Like Radio Music, the score involves a series of instructions, indicating the pitches to be played by each performer, when to perform a “sound effect” on the instrument, and when to change the level on the associated amplifier – but in this piece, the times are given in absolute units. This was my station for the performance, with my own toy piano that was rescued from curbside dumping in New York. It has certainly had a better life at CatSynth HQ, and then the opportunity to appear in a concert like this!

Performing this piece accurately requires concentration – one must pay attention to the cues on his or her own part without being distracted by the other sounds. Nonetheless, like all ensemble music one is listening to overall sound. The texture of the piece is quite sparse, with individual disjoint notes punctuated by percussive sounds (hits, scrapes, etc.). The amplification changes add a strange sort of dynamic expression especially as the ear inevitably tries to pull together disparate parts into short phrases. There was not as much empty space in this performance as I heard on earlier recordings of the piece, in part due to our interpretation of the noise elements, which included longer-duration sounds like scraping a comb on the piano and the interaction of the amplifiers with ambient and electrical noises. It was a delight to play and to be able to at least partially listen to. The other performers for the piece included Kyle Bruckmann, Daniel Cullen, Tom Djll, Sivan Eldar, Matt Ingalls, and Hadley McCarroll.

The only piece on the program not written by Cage himself was a tribute by Christopher Burns entitled Unlit Cigarettes (for John Cage). Ostensibly a multi-movement chamber piece with voices, winds, and strings, it followed the theme of other pieces in the concert with unusual patterns and instructions for the performers. Among the most interesting were the instructions for one or more performers to play on another performer’s main instrument. For example, multiple performers attempted to make sounds from Burns’ guitar while he held it. There was also a recitation of a familiar-sounding text by Gertrude Stein in one movement. Her writing often involves repeated words and phrases, which made for very contrapuntal and rhythmic music. Burns was joined in the performance by Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, Tom Dambly on trumpet, Tara Flandreau on violin, Matt Ingalls on clarinet, John Ingle on saxophone, and Hadley McCarroll on voice. You can hear a bit of the performance in this video:

This was followed by one of Cage’s most conceptual pieces, 0’00”. The score of the piece consists of the single statement “In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.” It is often subtitled 4’33” no. 2, and although it has very little in common with the original 4’33”, it does represent another extreme of what can be considered music. The “deliberate action” in this particular performance involved Matt Ingalls’ sitting at a desk and writing checks to pay the musicians. A contact microphone picked up the sound of the writing and it was amplified into the hall. It wasn’t the most pleasant sound even when judged in comparison to the other extreme sounds of the evening, but it was a faithful rendition and the action was a humorous and appropriate choice for this concert. (And it’s nice to get paid for playing experimental music.)

[Photo by Tom Djll.]

The final piece before the intermission was Living Room Music. Dating back to 1940, this was one of Cage’s earlier pieces and explores the use of household objects as percussion instruments. Ingalls was again seated behind the desk from 0’00” with the other performers (Matthew Goodheart, Tom Dambly, and Hadley McCarroll) arranged to either side. Despite what was radical instrumentation for a concert setting at the time, the rhythmic work seemed rather conventional, with repeated polyrhythms and other patterns from idiomatic music. It was the combination of the staging, to look more like a room in a house with the desk and books, and the timbres of the “instruments” that allowed the concept of the piece to enter the listening experience. Once one accepted the setting, then focus shifts to the rhythms.


The concert resumed with Music for Six, a performance of Cage’s modular piece Music for _____ by six musicians, essentially the same ensemble that played Christopher Burns’ piece minus Burns. This is one the most flexible and reconfigurable pieces, even more of a “composition generating kit” than the others. Although the instrumentation for this performance was traditional chamber instruments, the piece calls for extensive use of microtones that push the instruments into different sonic territory.

The most unusual instrumentation of the evening was in Inlets (Improvisation III). The piece called for three amplified water-filled conch shells, one conch shell played like a trumpet, and pre-recorded sounds of fire. The honor of playing the conch shells fell to Matt Ingalls, Tom Dambly and Tom Djll.

There was much of the expected splashing and gurgling sounds that one would expect from the conch shells, but also surprising details such as short percussive sequences from the action of the water. These instruments were quite difficult for the performers to control, which makes the resulting music more unpredictable. At times it was also difficult to tell what was generated by the water in the shells and the fire in the recording, adding an aspect of “elemental ambiguity” to one’s enjoyment of the piece.

The concert concluded with a performance of Cartridge Music. The piece has a similar structure to Music for Amplified Toy Pianos and Inlets, but distills the concept further to just modified phonograph cartridges – realized for this performance using contact microphones – and found objects. The piece unfolded with each performer rubbing his or her respective found objects against the microphones according to the timed instructions in the score. The resulting music was once again quite sparse, but with a wide dynamic and timbral range from the array of objects used, including Matthew Goodheart’s cymbals (a miniature version of the system he presented a few weeks earlier at the Outsound Music Summit), metal objects in a bowl played by Kyle Bruckmann, and many others. By following the changes in texture, density and volume, one can start to hear phrasing and form in the music.

In listening to (and in some cases performing) the works in this concert with their emphasis on generative techniques, “compositional tools” and indeterminacy, I could not help but think of Fluxus, for which Cage was an important influence (though not technically a member). The connection to Fluxus provides a strong conceptual context as well as connection to visuals of the time and place where Cage created these works. Nonetheless, they all still stand out as excellent on a purely musical level in the concert setting, with sounds and textures that were quite enjoyable to listen to despite Cage’s undeserved reputation of writing impenetrable music. The concert was also well attended, with a full house packed into The Lab. A very successful night all around.

Metal Machine Manifesto – Music for 16 Intonarumori

Last Friday, I attended Metal Machine Manifesto—Music for 16 Intonarumori at the Yerba Buenca Center for Arts here in San Francisco.   This concert, a joint performance of SFMOMA and Performa, was part of a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the launch of futurism, or more specifically the Italian Futurist movement launched in 1909. A century ago, the futurists were producing art, music, architecture and performance that still feels very modern, even more so than some of the more conservative post-modern art of recent decades.

In the area of music, one of the most influential composers and writers was Luigi Russolo, who wrote the Art of Noises, and developerd the intonarumori or noise makers.  The work of Russolo and others in futurist music paved the way for experimental and technologically-focused music from George Antheil to the electronic experimental and noise music of today that we at CatSynth perform and celebrate.  Indeed, RoseLee Goldberg in her introductory remarks to the program refers to the music of the futurists as the “original DNA of noise music.”

The intonarumori were hand-cranked instruments designed to produce “noises”.  Their sounds included whirrs and buzzes, clangs, scrapes, and also sirens and mechanically plucked strings.

For this performance, Luciano Chessa, a “foremost Russolo scholar” oversaw the recreation of 16 intonarumori, which were used to perform both pieces by the original futurist composers, and contemporary pieces for these instruments.

The recreated intonarumori looked much like the old pictures, with simple wooden boxes and large cones for sound projection.  You can see and hear some of the futurist noise makers in this video from Chessa and composer/performer Mike Patton:

After the concert I a chance to see the intonarumori up close and even try a couple of them out.  This medium-sized instrument produced repeated plucked-string sounds.

This one was purely mechanical, though another that I tried which produced automobile noises appeared to have an electric motor.

The concert itself featured Luciano Chessa as conductor for most of the pieces, and members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra under the direction of Minna Choi.

It opened with Paolo Buzzi’s 1916 piece Pioggia nel pineto antidannunziana.  This was a rather theatrical piece, with dramatic conducting by Chessa and various words in Italian shouted through a megaphone.  The noise intoners here were used to literally reflect the urban noises of the time such as sirens and the whirring of machinery.

In the the more contemporary pieces, the noise intoners were used in other contexts rather than as simulation and expression of the modern noisy environment, but as instruments that could be played subtly and expressively. Such was the case with Theresa Wong’s Meet me at the Future Garden.  Hits and clangs and mechanically plucked strings were set against Wong’s percussive vocals and Dohee Lee’s more dramatic low voice with loud vowel intonations.  From Wong’s program notes: “2 a.m. sharp, in a primordial cooperation of pulsating forest, I will sing you a song tactitle tick tocking of residual harmonies, caution manifest launching the dominance of mutual respoect and hypersensitivitiy this message sent from my iphone [sp].”

let us return to the old masters, a collaborative composition by members of sfSoundGroup, took its inspiration directly from a quote of Francesco Balilla Pratella ‘s Manifesto of Futurist Musicians to “destroy the produce for ‘well-made’ music”.  The piece itself was composed during the rehearsals for the concert.  The sfSoundGroup members have excelled at extended technique and performance of complex compositions with their traditional instruments, and brought that skill to the intonarumori.

The first half of the concert ended with one of the most disinctive pieces of the evening, Donno Casina by Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi.  The performance featured two the larger “bass” intonarumori, along with Kihlstedt on vocals and violin, Bossi on accordian, and Moe! Staiano playing a large drum and collection of colorful metal objects.  The distinctly futurist sound of the intonarumori was blended with Kihlstedt’s more contemporary extended vocal and violin techniques, and Moe!’s intense and theatrical percussion performance.

In addition to having the best title of any piece in the concert, James Fei’s New Acoustical Pleasures (A Furious Meow) was the most subtle.    It was made of “quiet noises” with lots of empty space between sounds and relatively little movement, and reminded me of some of John Cage’s more static pieces.  The short, soft tones from the intonarumori were quite a contrast to the loud blaring representations of modern life of the original futurist pieces.

While listening to John Butcher’s penny wands and the native string, I came up with the word “scrapier” to describe the piece.   And I am pretty sure that is not a real word.  Nonetheless, the piece was “scrapier” than the others.  The performance, which featured Gino Robair, included lots of scrapes and grinding sounds building up to a crescendo and then coming to an abrupt stop.  After a brief silence, the scrapes and grinding sounds resumed.  This pattern repeated a couple of times, with variations in each repeitition.

After Fei’s and Butcher’s pieces, the full ensemble returned for Mike Patton’s << KOSTNICE  >>.  All sixteen intonarumori were played together to produce a thick “orchestral” sound along with drums.

Luciano Chessa’s L’acoustic ivresse (Les buits de la Paix) also featured the full ensemble plus bass vocalist Richard Mix.   There were similar thick clusters as in << KOSTNICE >>, but this time framing Mix’s vocals.  There were moments when the vocals and ensemble played off on another, with Mix’s strong bass voice and traditional singing style simultaneously blending and contrasting with intonarumori.  This performance received one of the longer and more spirited rounds of applause of the concert.

Elliott Sharp’s Then Go, which featured Dohee Lee, received a similar reaction.  This was another full-ensemble piece, where the noise tones were very well synchronized to Lee’s dramatic singing.  She also tapped (or stomped) her feet in time with percussive sounds from the ensemble in a strong rhythmic pattern.  Through the rhythm, piece seemed to connect both the futurist sounds (as archetypically modern sounds) with something much more traditional, even primal.

The concert concluded with a realization of a fragment from Luigi Russolo’s 1913 Risveglio di una città.  Like the other original futurist work in the program, this piece directly referenced “sounds of the modern world” like cars and sirens.  This very short fragment of a piece abruptly ended with Chessa dropping his baton.

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.

Luxe at Hotel Biron, SF Electronic Music Festival, and “The Company”

I have been remiss in writing about the many art and music events from this past month. And especially in regards to the first week. I found myself attending events every night between September 4 and September 7, each of which had at least some personal connection. This was a coincidence, but it was also a great antidote to the just-concluded McCain-fest and the parade of speeches proclaiming “Small Town Good, City Bad.” What better response than to step outside for an evening walk in search of friends, art, music, food and drink.

The night of the 4th was the opening of a photo exibition by Luxe at Hotel Biron. It is not in fact a hotel, but a wine bar in the Hayes Valley neighborhood that features monthly art exhibits. It is a small, darkly lit and intimate space, with dark wines in huge glasses, and brick walls that provided quite a contrast to the photographs on display.

The exhibition was titled “Her Being and Nothingness” and featured a series of self portraits. In each image, the focus is on “the body.” The face is either absent or obscured, and the poses and attire vary in each. We of course know they are self portraits (itself an interesting concept in photography), but without the usual cues for identity. In this case, we draw the conclusion directly from the bodies.

Of course, the recognition is easier if the artist happens to also be a personal friend. Multiple of Luxe’s prints are on display at CatSynth HQ, so I can definitely be considered a “fan.” A more in-depth review can be found SFGallery143.com.


On Friday, I attended the second night of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival at the Project Artaud Theatre.

The performance opened with two works by Richard Teitelbaum, professor of composition and electronic music at Bard College. His first piece, Serenissima, featured two wind performers and a laptop computer running Max/MSP. The computer was performing spectral processing on samples and the live instruments, which could themselves control the sound. The wind instruments included several clarinets, including a contra-bass clarinet (which one does not see every day), performed by Matt Ingalls. The second piece was Piano Tree, for piano and computer, and was in part a tribute to Teitelbaum’s father, David and to “some musical forbears whose work has influenced me greatly.” The piano part, which included many extended and “prepared piano” techniques (a nod to John Cage), was performed by Hiroko Sakurazawa.

The next set was from Myrmyr, the local duo of Agnes Szelag and Marielle Jakobson. The combine experimental recording and live computer-based processing with a variety of acoustic instruments, including cello, violin and voice. The result is still very much “electronic music,” but it has a more traditional sound as well, especially in the parts that feature voice and songs. Myrmyr was accompanied by members of the sfSound ensemble during part of their performance, primarily with undulating long notes and “drones”. Again, the effect was both experimental and more “familiar” at the same time.

The final was from Ata “Sote” Ebtekar. He calls his music “a new form of Persian Art Music,” which I was very interested in hearing. However, the performance was so overpoweringly loud that I really was not able to appreciate it. I wish more electronic musicians would take care not to do that. Certainly, some music will be quite loud, I have come to expect that, but it should not remain so an extended period of time.


The following night was my performance with Polly Moller and Company at El Mundo Bueno Studios in Oakland. Polly Moller and Company in Oakland. We had a great set that combined elements from different past performances. And, as Polly relates, it was a “good crowd of nice people most of whom had not heard us before.” And it was interesting contrast to the other performances, which included folk music, traditional Celtic singing, and belly dancing.


On Sunday, it was back the SFEMF for the final night. This performance featured a collaboration of ]Pauline Oliveros and Carl Stone. Oliveros is of course on the giants in modern American music, the founder of the music practice Deep Listening and one of the founders of the original San Francisco Tape Music Center. History aside, this performance was quite contemporary, laptop-based, and very much in keeping with the other performances of the festival.

The second performance, Barpieces was a duo of Charles Engstrom and Christopher Fleeger. However, to those of us in the audience it appeared as a solo performance event though it was actually a “remote duo.” This was a bit of logistical improvisation in the wake of Hurricane Gustav.

The final performance of the festival was by Hans Fjellestad, a Los Angeles-based musician and filmaker, whom some readers of CatSynth may know from his documentary Moog. His performance featured analog electronics and custom instruments that were a contrast to the previous performances of evening, both sonically and visually:

In addition custom electronics in the transparent boxes with blue lights, he also had a Moogerfooger and one of the infamous tube-effects boxes from Metasonix. The performance consisted long evolving analog sounds, noise bursts and other effects. And it provided a conclusion to the festival by adding another variety of “electronic music” to the mix.