SFEMF 2016: IMA and Gen Ken Montgomery

Today we look back at the 2016 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, which concluded two weeks ago. The opening night took place at the Kanbar Forum of Exploratorium here in San Francisco. The large rounded space featured an immersive multichannel speaker system designed by Meyer Sound, and both acts that day took full advantage of this.

The evening opened with a set by IMA, the electro-­percussion duo of Nava Dunkelman and Jeanie Aprille Tang (aka Amma Ateria). They performed with an array of percussion instruments and live interactive electronics.

IMA at SFEMF 2016

Their sounds range from quite sparse to large clouds, often mixing in bits of vocals with the heavily metallic percussion. For this set, they played with space as well, spinning sounds around the room using the speaker array. There were moments when the individual sounds could be heard as a single point in space, others that were on the edge of a noise wall. I also appreciate that their sets are quite embodied, not simply standing on stage behind their gear but moving around as the sound and space suggest.

The second set featured Conrad Schnitzler’s Cassette CONcert, performed by New York musician Gen Ken Montgomery. Cassette CONcerts are boxed sets of cassettes that Schnitzler composed with the intent that others could perform and listen without his presence. Montgomery has become a primary interpreter of these pieces, “conducting” the eight-channel work on a variety of speaker systems. It fit quite well in the space, which was darkened except for projections on the main screen.

Gen Ken Montgomery

In many ways is the opposite of IMA’s set, completely disembodied, with long stretches of sound, and made from pre-recorded materials. One could even call it sculptural or a sonic painting. But it fit quite well in the context of the SFEMF concert and was a fitting second act to this first night.

Overall, it was a good start to this year’s festival, and a more casual setting ahead of the next three concerts to come. We will have more to share on those in an upcoming article.

R.I.P. Don Buchla (1937-2016)

2016 has not been a good year for our musical heroes. And we have just lost one more, Don Buchla.

Don Buchla at SFEMF 2010
[Photo by Michael Zelner]

Don Buchla was producing his first synthesizers about the same time that Robert Moog released his earliest models. But he took a very different approach, eschewing keyboards and other traditional interfaces to make a truly radical instrument. This led to some describing “East Coast” and “West Coast” schools of synthesizers – something that we at CatSynth largely reject. But there are nonetheless characteristics that set apart Bucvla’s instruments, such as the use of metal plates as controls; the ubiquitous use of low pass gates (LPGs) as sound units; the crispier/crunchier sound compared to Moog-inspired synths; and the visual beauty and oddness of the instruments. Indeed, they have appeared on CatSynth many times – follow this link to see a few.

In addition to his synthesizers, Buchla also created numerous controllers, such as the Thunder, Lightning, and Marimba Lumina. Indeed, I was introduced to Buchla’s instruments and the man himself through David Wessel at CNMAT, who used the Thunder extensively in his performances. My personal memories of the two of them together mostly revolve around the wine-and-beer-fueled gatherings after formal events at CNMAT, ICMC conferences or elsewhere. They would talk endlessly but anyone else could chime in, and occasionally Don and I would have a sidebar, less often of a technical nature than lamenting strictures in one institution or another, or non-musical scientific concepts. Overall, however, he was often a laconic presence, off in a corner or just off frame, but then fully engaged when the moment arrived.

Buchla and Roger Linn
[Buchla sighting at Roger Linn’s NAMM booth in 2015]

It was rare to see him perform. I did get a chance to do so at the