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:]

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:]

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=”” _mce_href=””>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.


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:]

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:]

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.

Henri Cartier-Bresson at SFMOMA

Today we review the major retrospective of photography by Henri Cartier-Bresson at the San Francisco Museum of Modern of Art (SFMOMA). It will be closing in two weeks on January 30.

The exhibition focuses primarily on the period between 1932 and 1973, a rather dramatic sweep of the middle of the 20th century. It was interesting to see the world change in his images, from scenes that were already nostalgic in the 1930s to the beginnings of a familiar world in the 1960s and 1970s. Overall, the exhibition can be seen in two ways, as an artistic study of a master photographer or as a historical document of a photojournalist. The arrangement of the exhibition, into several chronological and geographical periods, followed by sections on beauty, portraiture and confrontation with the modern world, emphasize these two aspects of his work.

In some ways, the latter speaks more strongly to me, even though it is not the aspect most emphasized by the curators or most reviews. For example, among his many images depicting scenes from France is this one stark image with a spiral staircase and a blur of bicyclist in the background. One can focus on the shapes and textures and the motion.

[Henri Cartier-Bresson, Hyères, France, 1932; gelatin silver print; 7 11/16 x 11 7/16 in. (19.6 x 29.1 cm); Collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York; ©2010 Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris.]

In another depicting an alleyway Paris, the human element is left out altogether in favor of vegetation and architectural elements. I found myself quite captivated by an image of a highway in New York City in 1947, that I am pretty sure was the Henry Hudson Parkway. He presents several abstracted images of the human body as object of beauty, which seem to have more in common with architectural images and quite separate from his portraiture or more documentary photos.

But it is the latter that makes up the majority of the exhibition, with several segments featuring his early travels as a photographer and then his experiences as a photojournalist. He often made multiple trips to the same places and captured the changes. For example, he had been Shanghai in 1948 during the war the led to establishment of the Peoples Republic of China, and took this photograph of a surging crowd.

[Henri Cartier-Bresson, Shanghai, China, 1948, printed 1971; gelatin silver print; 13 x 19 1/2 in. (33 x 49.5 cm); Collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Robert B. Menschel; © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris.]

He later returned to China in 1958 on assignment to document scenes from the Great Leap Forward. His photographs from this series depict worker rituals and banners with Communist slogans. My favorite was translated as “Work like the devil to change the face of China in most of the regions.” I like that the Chinese leaders took the time to be realistic by suggesting only most of the regions.

One series where the documentary crossed over into art photography for me was his 1960s depiction of employees at Banker’s Trust in New York. The photographs are very crisp and high contrast, they radiate a sense of modernism. One can also get a sense of wry humor in the faces of some of the workers. Perhaps I am just channeling Mad Men through the images. It’s also an interesting contrast to some of his other photographs from the United States, which through his lens seems a foreign country just as China would be. This scene outside a polling place in Indiana certainly seems very remote:

[Henri Cartier-Bresson, Greenfield, Indiana, 1960; gelatin silver print; 10 7/16 x 15 3/8 in. (26.5 x 39.1cm); Collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the photographer ; ©2010 Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris.]

Another photograph depicting the Daughters of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, is downright creepy.

There is a tension between old and new that seems to be run through his work. He seems most fond of scenes of traditional life at a slower pace, whether in his native France or elsewhere. But he doesn’t shy away from modern scenes and modern notions of beauty, as described and the final section of the exhibition does focus on the changing landscape of Europe and Asia, with industrial and urban scenes that contrast sharply with the slower-pace traditional settings in some of his more well-known images. In addition to images from factories, there was a photograph of a billboard in Tokyo, for example, that were taken decades before my visit but seem at once familiar representations of the modern world.

One that seems to transcend the different aspects of his work and career is the image of a woman peering out a door in Calle Cuahametoczin, Mexico City. Indeed, this photograph is the title image for the exhibition.

Cartier-Bresson’s long career and fame also gave him access to make more formal portraits of noted figures from the middle of the 20th Century.

[Henri Cartier-Bresson, Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Paris, 1945; gelatin silver print; 13 9/16 x 9 1/8 in. (34.4 x 23.2 cm); Collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the photographer; © 2010 Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.]

The portrait of Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie (Irène Joliot-Curie is the daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie) is very serious and composed. On one hand, one sees the expressions of a great dynasty of scientists, but at the same time, their difficult story during World War II – Cartier-Bresson had his own dark experience as a prisoner during the war. Each of his portraits were unique – the 1965 photograph Jean-Marie Le Clezio with his wife has the modern streamlined look of the time that I particularly like from French films of the era. The warm and joyous portrait of artist Saul Steinberg with his cat was probably my favorite in this series.

The exhibition will remain at SFMOMA through January 30. It will then travel to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (February 16, to May 15, 2011).

Sylvano Bussotti and sfSoundGroup at SFMOMA

At the beginning of month, I attended a retrospective concert of music by the composer Sylvano Bussotti, performed by members of sfSoundGroup at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Bussotti is an Italian avant-garde composer whose body of work transcends into visual media and film as well. His music itself is very visual, and his graphical scores are works of art that combine standard music notation with graphical symbols, spatial positioning on the page and text instructions that inform the musicians on how to interpret and perform the piece. They are also known for being difficult to play, but sfSoundGroup is up to the challenge.

The performance took place in the museum’s expansive atrium, which was bathed in red light, with the musicians in the center and the audience orbiting around them. The space was bounded by two pianos, mysteriously set apart.

In the few minutes before the concert began, I was able to check out a couple of the scores up close.

[Score for “Phrase a trois” by Sylvano Bussotti.]

This score is for the piece Phrase a trois for string trio (violin, viola and cello). I also was able to view the score for Geographie Francaise alongside the percussion setup:

[Score for “Geographie Francaise”, by Sylvano Bussotti, with percussion instruments. (Click image to enlarge.)]

Unlike many graphical scores, which often allow for wide interpretation of visual elements and improvisation, these seemed more designed to describe precise instructions to the performer.

Bussotti himself performed in two of the pieces. For Geographie Francaise, he played piano and incanted stark vocal lines in French, alongside featured soloist Laura Bohn and percussionist Kjell Nordeson. I quite liked this piece for its starkness, conceptual simplicity (i.e., centering around the title itself) and the disparate texture of the instrumentation: voice, piano and percussion. One does not really hear traditional rhythms or melodies, even of the early-twentieth century “atonal” sense, but rather directly on the various sound, musical and narrative concepts, more like an abstract theater piece.

[Laura Bohn and Kjell Nordeson performing “Geographie Francaise” by Sylvano Bussotti. (Click images to enlarge.)]

Bussotti also performed in In Memoriam Cathy Berberian. Here, his voice was more central to the piece, and he spoke in Italian in more expressive tones. This is not surprising, given the subject of the piece was Cathy Berberian, his longtime “friend and muse”.

[Sylvano Bussotti performance with members of sfSoundGroup. Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click image to see original.)]

Different personel from sfSoundGroup were featured in different pieces, ranging from the full nine-member cohort in Autotono to a solo performance by Matt Ingalls on clarinet in one of Bussotti’s more recent pieces, Variazione Berio composed in honor of Luciano Berio who died in 2007. In the performance, Ingalls takes advantage of the portability of his instrument to move freely about the space. In doing so, he was able to employ spatial effects on the timbre of the clarinet within the music, which was filled with lots of empty space punctuated with occasional loud tones.

[Matt Ingalls performs “Variazione Berio” by Sylvano Bussotti. Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click image to see original.)]

The sparseness of the music and performer’s motion did in fact remind me a bit of Berio’s Sequenzas, and also made me think of the parallels between the theatricality of Berio’s music as compared to Bussotti’s. They were contemporaries in Italian avant-garde music – and as another link, Cathy Berberian was Berio’s wife in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The concert concluded with a performance of Tableaux vivants avant La Passion selon Sade (1964) for two prepared pianos. This was probably my favorite of the evening (along with Geographie Francaise). The pianos that were separated up to now were joined together in the center of the space. The two pianists (Christopher Jones and Ann Yi) playing cooperatively on a single piano, operating both the keyboard and elements within the instrument’s body. Their bodies often crossed paths and intertwined as they attempted to perform their respective parts – the motion seemed both chaotic and intimate at the same time. As the piece progressed, they spread out to both pianos – and in the final movement, they close their scores and attempt to play from memory. Throughout, the music was filled with intense, and sometimes violent energy especially when playing the interior of the piano. I contrast this to they very calm and contemplative nature of John Cage’s better known prepared-piano pieces. It fun to watch, and provided for a dramatic finish to the concert.

The concert was preceded by a screening of Bussotti’s 1967 silent Rara that included live piano accompaniment by Bussotti himself. The music, which was based on live interpretation of a graphical score in which he moved about at will, did not strictly follow the events and actions on the screen, but rather provided more of a backdrop and a counterpoint to images that would have otherwise been rather jarring to watch to watch in silence. [However, the music as performed did have a narrative structure of it’s own, moving between very abstract discrete tones and more idiomatic and even tonal sections.] The film itself consisted mostly of “film portraits” of figures from the Italian avant-garde – mostly images of men (though Cathy Berberian is also featured) in a variety of sexual and emotionally uncomfortable poses, including countless shots of tear-streaked male faces. As such, the film did not really hold my attention, although I did like the abstract imagery and close-ups of the musical score, as well as the play on the letters of the title R-A-R-A itself, that were used alongside the more homoerotic portraits. And certainly it was was interesting to see the composer and filmmaker respond musically to his own work after so many years.

Additional credit goes to Luciano Chessa, who organized the evening’s events. We had previously encountered him last year when he organized the event Metal Machine Manifesto, Music for 16 Intonarumori.

New Topographics, SFMOMA

If one were to construct a photography exhibition for me to attend, it might look something like New Topographics at SFMOMA. Indeed, “construction” is an apt term, as most of the photos explore the human alterations to the natural landscape, particularly in the western United States but in other locations as well. Yet, the natural landscape does continue to play a central role in the environments and in the images. It shapes how the human-made structures are constructed and arranged, and how they decay. The exhibition was originally presented in at the Eastman House in Rochester, New York in 1975.

“A turning point in the history of photography, the 1975 exhibition New Topographics signaled a radical shift away from traditional depictions of landscape. Pictures of transcendent natural vistas gave way to unromanticized views of stark industrial landscapes, suburban sprawl, and everyday scenes not usually given a second glance. This restaging of the exhibition includes the work of all 10 photographers from the original show: Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel.”

It is hard to imagine that such a portrayal of landscape was new to art photography at the time. The ideas and subjects in much of the contemporary photography that commands my attention, as well as my own photographs that often appear on this site for Wordless Wednesday. But it was certainly a sharp contrast to the traditional views of landscape in photographs, especially view of the American West, which tended to be not just natural but a romanticized form of nature. One only need step beyond the exhibition to SFMOMA’s main photography collection to see the changing views of landscape and romantic imagery.

The desert tends to be my favorite natural landscape (along with the coast), and is prominently featured in many of photographs. It has a stark beauty, but it also acts as a vessel for human artifacts. Set in the desert landscape, one can linger on the contrasts and similarities between artificial and natural. The straight lines and simple textures don’t get lost in the landscape, and are in fact amplified by it. In Joe Deal’s Untitled View (Boulder City), the roads, buildings and the trailer are partially obscured by natural elements. In a sense, they are distilled down to the lines , which are emphasized by the wires and shadows that traverse the image. At the same time, the natural landscape also seems to follow the straight lines, and in turn the soft undulations of the terrain and reflected in shallow peaks of the partially hidden houses.

[Joe Deal (American, b. 1947), Untitled View (Boulder City), 1974, George Eastman House collections. © Joe Deal.]

The lines (no pun intended) between the natural and artificial aspects of the landscape are further blurred in Frank Gohlke’s Irrigation Canal, Abuquerque, New Mexico. Here we see a completely artificial environment, the concrete-sided canal with vegetation establishing itself at the edges of the water.

[Frank Gohlke (American, b. 1942), Irrigation Canal, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1974, George Eastman House collections. © Frank Gohlke.]

At first glance, the mud and vegetation seem to mar the otherwise smooth and clean surface of the canal. But in reality, they are part of the environment, and thus part of the image as well. One could say the same thing about the reverse situation in Deal’s photograph, where the human-made elements have become part of the natural landscape.

Lewis Baltz takes the theme of straight lines to its aesthetic extreme in both the artificial and natural aspects of the environment. His images feature perfectly rectangular buildings set against the flat landscape in Orange County, California.

[Lewis Baltz (American, b. 1945), Jamboree Road Between Beckman and Richter Avenues, Looking Northwest, George Eastman House collections. © Lewis Baltz.]

Some of Baltz’s other photographs feature facades of rectangular commercial buildings either straight on or at angles. Close-up and with less context from the landscape, they begin to feel more abstract. This is particularly true of East Wall, McGraw Laboratories with its extremely high contrast black and white rectangles. In South Wall, Mazda Motors, 2121 East Main Street, Irvine, the landscape is seen only in the reflection of a window, once again a rectangle inside another.

The sharp contrast and combination of architecture, landscape and abstraction made Baltz’s pieces among my favorite in the exhibition. Similarly, my attention was also drawn to the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Their photographs featured industrial and mining buildings in Pennsylvania. Some of the buildings were in states of disrepair, such as Loomis coal Breaker/Wiles Barre, Pennsylvania (1974), or even seemed on the verge of collapse as in the image below:

[Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, 1931-2007 and b. 1934), Pit Head, Bear Valley, Pennsylvania, 1974
© Hilla Becher, 2009.]

The structure seems to melt back into the natural environment, and at the same time provides a series of straight (albeit somewhat distorted) lines and geometric shapes. Once again, the high contrast of the image allows one to focus on the abstract elements without completely losing the context that it is a building on a hillside. It would be easy to dismiss these photographs (and indeed many in the exhibition) as social commentary or socially-inspired art, but they have detached quality and the emphasis is on the visuals details – in particular those details that I look for in when viewing and evaluating modern art. The Bechers’ images in particular have a sculptural quality, something that comes out even more directly in their book Anonyme Sculpturen.

Nicholas Nixon (American, b. 1947), Buildings on Tremont Street, Boston, 1975; George Eastman House collections; © Nicholas Nixon

Nicholas Nixon’s work stands apart from the others in the exhibition in that depicts urban landscapes from Boston and Cambridge. His Buildings on Tremont Street, Boston depicts a classic 20th century vertical city image of tall and densely packed but quite detailed buildings. Nixon’s image Boston City Hall, Covernment Center Square and Faneuil Hall provides another type of contrast in the landscape that is particular to cities, a tension between modern and traditional architecture. Set against a backdrop of larger buildings, one see a popular older landmark contrasted with the modernist and rather controversial Boston City Hall. It’s a building I actually quite like visually, and it brings us back the rectangular shapes in Baltz’s southern California images.

I conclude with this quote from the exhibition catalog – a rather extensive volume that includes not only the images but a detailed discussion as well as a reproduction of the original catalog – that I find illuminating in thinking about the work of these artists as well as my own photographic interests:

Photography based on attraction to, even love of, the subject while neither revealing that motivation nor imposing it on viewers – it may confuse viewers accustomed to being seduced or sermonized. Adding another degree of complexity is the likelihood that the attraction and love were likely not pure, but instead joined to anxiety and repulsion. Reconciling these opposing forces was an exercise undertaken by each of the New Topographics photographers in different ways.

[New Topographics, copublished by Steidl Publishers and Center for Creative Photography in cooperation with George Eastman House, page 18.]

The exhibition will be on display at SFMOMA through October 3.

[All images used in this article were provided courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Individual copyrights displayed in captions.]

On Kawara, MAR. 16, 1993

Today, we consider a work from the Today series by conceptual artist On Kawara. Since 1966, he has created many paintings in this long series, each consisting of the date the painting was created in simple white lettering set against a black background.

By coincidence, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has in their collection MAR. 16, 1993 from On Kawara’s series:

[On Kawara, MAR. 16, 1993 from the Today series.  San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,]

I have seen it several times in the past, but when I wandered though the museum’s 75th anniversary exhibition a couple of weekends ago, there it was again. And there is no way I would pass up mentioning it today.

Art notes: SFMOMA, Kentridge, Shettar, First Thursday

This was a rather art-intensive weekend, even by our recent standards at CatSynth., spanning Thursday through Sunday. This article will only touch on a few items.

At an unplanned visit to SFMOMA, I encountered for the first time work of William Kentridge. Kentridge is a South African artist working with stop-motion films, multimedia, dance and theatre. His work spans from whimsical to overtly political, often dealing with themes from both South Africa and the region. My initial impression of Kentridge’s work from the exhibition ads and the first passing glance at the gallery were mixed. The figures in his earlier animations, such as Soho and Felix are caricatures, with squat bodies and exaggerated features, are usually not that inviting to me. But one can quickly see the immense time and skill that went into these works, which are made from a sequence of charcoal drawings. And having seen the craft, I started to notice the art, and able to step away from the figures themselves to see the mixture of film, animation and music at a more abstract level. His later works, such as 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, Journey to the Moon, and Day for Night, allow for a more abstract viewing, and also introduce his self portraits and self-deprecating sense of humor. Set on six screens, I moved between abstract animations of star and insect movements, and the artist spilling coffee onto his blank paper.

Probably the most interesting was his newest piece, I am not me, the horse is not mine, 2008, loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose. There was of course a partly live-acted, partly animated nose as the “star”, but also other elements depicting the demise of the Russian avant-garde under Soviet rule, and elements mixing abstraction and Soviet-style realism, with muted color fields, geometry and text. There was also an interlude of South African choral music for good measure. I wish I had been in town for the performance and lecture last month.

The final works, based on Mozart’s The Magic Flute, were the most elaborate, with video projects based on archival film, animations and stills projected into wooden stages with live mechanized shadow puppets. It was clear that the audience was transfixed in a way I usually don’t see for multimedia and video presentations in an art gallery.

This is probably worth going back to see in more detail. I simply did not have the time to stay and watch every video and animation.

Also at SFMOMA were some exhibitions I had seen but not written about previously, including the portrait photography exhibit Face of Our Time. I usually don’t go for straight-out portrait work, but these mostly large images worked in the context of the other exhibits at the museum.

I did take note of the abstract and whimsical sculpture of Ranjani Shettar. Her work combines modern technologies and traditional Indian craft techniques, but with none of the nostalgia or adherence to cultural stereotypes that often dominates Indian art, at least as it is presented in this country. Her sculptures do have a very naturalistic quality, reminiscent of much contemporary work in the western U.S.

Last Thursday was also the First Thursday open galleries in downtown San Francisco for April (this year is going by so fast, isn’t it?). I should first recognize Trevor Paglen, who was showing both at SFMOMA as a SECA Art Award recipient, and at the Altman Siegel Gallery. It is quite a coincidence to see the same artist at two venues in a single week.

Perhaps my favorite show was Ema H Sintamarian at the Jack Fischer Gallery. Her drawings/paintings consisted of surreal, curving architectural elements, with an almost cartoonish quality. Bright colors and shapes against a white background.

The show by South African artist Lyndi Sales was intricate and very meticulous, work digital cuttings of found and printed objects – it was also a poignant tribute to her father’s death in the Hederberg crash.

Portraits seem to sneak their way into many of my experiences this week, with Gao Yuan’s “12 Moons”, a series of photographs with a Chinese take on the “Madonna and Child” theme. She was featured at MOCA Shanghai last year in 2008 (MOCA was of course closed the main weekend I was there).

Susan Grossman presented chalk and pastel drawings of photographs, that quickly revealed themselves to be familiar scenes of San Francisco. The black-and-white coloring and soft edges also serve as a fitting close to an article that begin with the soft charcoal drawings of William Kentridge, even if the subject matter could not be more different.

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.

Basilico and Eliasson at SFMOMA

It has been an incredibly warm summer-like weekend here in San Francisco, and I took advantage to explore both my neighborhood and the surrounding areas on foot. Today those wanderings included another visit to the SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).

The featured photography exhibit of Gabriele Basilico was incredibly in turn with my own recent experience in San Francisco, and my interest in highways and industrial landscapes as expressed here on CatSynth. Indeed, it was the perfect exhibition to complement this weekend – it was been incredibly warm and summer-like, and I have been exploring my neighborhood and the surrounding areas on foot. And the title image of the I-80 and US 101 split, shown to the right, is very similar to a photo from Wikipedia that I cut from my recent Super Tuesday article:

The exhibition includes several other photos of San Francisco highways as well as other familiar images from my SOMA neighborhood, and from the towns in Silicon Valley. From the museum’s statement:

This exhibition presents a series of nearly 50 black-and-white and color photographs taken by Basilico at the invitation of SFMOMA during a monthlong residency in the Bay Area last summer…This exhibition will be the first of an ongoing project focused on Silicon Valley, in which artists will document the area on film. Basilico?s objective style and affinity for observing marginalized urban settings in a classical mode promises a compelling counterpoint to future installments in the project.

This of course inspires me to do more of my own work along these lines. I could probably fill Worldess Wednesday for the rest of the year just with photos of the city.

The next exhibition takes us from the amazingly timely to something “out of time.” Indeed, the title of Olafur Eliasson’s “Take Your Time” exhorts us to suspend our sense of time and enter a world purely of color, light and geometry. The tunnel (on SFMOMA’s fifth-floor catwalk) sets the tone for the exhibit, with color planes, plays on light, and complex but analytical geometric figures.

Challenging the passive nature of traditional art-viewing, he engages the observer as an active participant, using tangible elements such as temperature, moisture, aroma, and light to generate physical sensations.

Eliasson’s pieces also include a room entirely of yellow lamps reminiscent of the sodium street lamps used in places like San Jose, a screen of rippling light that responds to viewers’ movements on the floorboards, and a walk-in geometric figure of mirrors. To really get the most out of these works, one has to “suspend time” and explore them in detail, even though they are devoid of what we usually think of as “detail” (and what I usually try to avoid in art and design). Of course, that can be challenging on a crowded Sunday afternoon. But not impossible, if you take your time.

This article is included in the February 13 Carnival of Cities.

San Francisco May 13 Part 1: Highways, Mothers Day, Music and Art

I definitely needed to get out of town today. A change of scenery and activity was in order, plus Santa Cruz becomes a complete tourist trap on sunny weekends like this. So north to the city we rode…Of course, before leaving, I called my mom in New York, and got the change to wish both her and my grandmother a Happy Mothers Day. I hope you all had an opportunity to do the same.

Our main routes into San Francisco are highways 1 and 280, which together form the Junipero Serra Freeway upon entry into the city. This is an amazingly scenic freeway, traversing the largely undeveloped valleys along the San Andreas fault south of San Francisco. 280 splits off to the right to become the Southern Freeway, as illustrated in the map below (pay no attention to the “official” names that no one actually uses).

Usually we take the 280/Southern Freeway route, which crosses highway 101 and empties out in downtown. This time, we stuck with highway 1, which continues north as the Junipero Serra for a few meters before becoming 19th Avenue in the Sunset distrcit. Big mistake. We got stuck in traffic all the way to Golden Gate park. Interestingly, the highway 1 freeway was originally supposed to continue all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. The stub of the highway 1 freeway and US 101 / Golden Gate Freeway (Doyle Drive) does in fact exist, but is disconnected from the highways in the south of the city:

But they have nothing to do with today’s story. Instead we left highway 1 at Golden Gate Park and headed to the Haight district, home of the Haight/Ashbury neighborhood of 1960s fame, and more recently of Amoeba Music, San Francisco. Amoeba is one of the best brick-and-mortar music retailers left, at least here in California, and they do carry and extensive experimental-music selection. I was there to make sure that my CD Aquatic was part of it. Such is the life of the independent recording musician, I have to physically bring my CD to the stores and get them to take a copy or two. Amboeba did accept it, though there terms are, well, the are what they are.

We also paid a visit to Streetlight Records in the Castro district. I have sold a few CDs at Streetlight Records in Santa Cruz, so why not in San Francisco as well? They took a couple of CDs on the same consignment terms as the Santa Cruz store, which unfortunately reminds me I need to check in with the local shop and see how things are going. While in general these things work out OK, it is the sort of chore that makes me think about signing up with a small indie a label (or a small indie label bigger than my own). Of course, that has its drawbacks as well, not the least of which is being able to do things like the current CD benefit for TeaCup’s family.

In addition to trying to peddle my own music, I always take the opportunity in SF to see other people’s art. Galleries are mostly closed on Sunday, but I did have a few exhibitions I wanted to see at the SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art[/url]. The two main exhibitions were a juxtaposition of works by Pablo Picasso with those of American artists inspired by his work – I had actually seen this exhibition in New York last year – and a retrospective of American artist Brice Marden (who is still very much alive). My critiques the exhibitions there deserve a separate article, which I will probably post tomorrow. The other galleries will probably have to wait until June for another visit…

Again, we usually exit the city at the Sixth Street terminus of 280, but because we were coming from Streetlight in the Castro, we ended up using the 101 / Central Freeway ramp at Market Street and Octavia Blvd. This stub of a freeway used to continue north of Market as the Central Freeway until Oak and Fell Streets heading towards Golden Gate Park. Indeed, all the freeways, except for I-80 to the Bay Bridge all seem to empty out onto city streets.

The tiny bit that remains of the Central Freeway (the section north of Market was recently demolished and converted into Octavia Blvd, see this article at SFGate) was originally designed to connect up to the Golden Gate Freeway (also highway 101) shown in a previous illustration. This, along with the highway 1 freeway (Juniperro Serra extension / Park Presidio Freeway) and the now defunct highway 480 (Embarcadero Freeway) were all supposed to connect to the Golden Gate bridge, but all were cancelled in the 1950s/1960s due to opposition. You can see some of the early plans for San Francisco’s freeway system at California Highways and kurumi. At least one connection between the south, the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate would have been good, but there really isn’t any way to do that without a nasty tearing apart of neighborhoods along the lines of the Cross Bronx Expressway in New York (one of the freeways in the previously blogged Bruckner Interchange, it just keeps coming back). To bring things back to Mothers Day, my mother grew up in one of the neighborhoods in the central Bronx that was rent asunder by the construction of the Cross Bronx.