Jonty Harrison at 2011 San Francisco Tape Music Fesitval

On Sunday night I attended the final performance of the San Francisco Tape Music Festival. This performance featured a retrospective of works by composer and “sound diffusion guru” Jonty Harrison. He was visting from Birmingham, England, and on site to present his pieces and personally mix and diffuse the sound in the hall.

“Tape music” of course need not be on audio tape – indeed, all the pieces in the performance were rendered from digital media on a laptop. Indeed, it would better be described as “sound diffusion performance”, in which pre-recorded media is mixed and rendered via a large speaker system into a concert hall. The immersion in the sound coming from the speakers and the fact that this experience is shared with other audience members, makes this a true performance rather than simply listening to a CD on a home stereo system. Additionally, the active shaping of the sound via live mixing and diffusion makes each performance unique – the speakers are the instrument. The environment at the theater at Fort Mason was relatively comfortable for listening, and the concert featured a state-of-the-art 18+ speaker sound system. I was fortunately able to get a seat towards the center of the hall in order to get the full experience. One of the other motivations for performances with pre-recorded media was that many electronic sounds could not be rendered in real time on available technology, although that limitation has diminished. It was probably the only way for Harrison to realize his 1982 piece Klang, but my sense is that portions of his 2004 piece Rock’n’Roll could have potentially been done in real time, albeit without the precision of pre-recorded media.

Klang opened the concert. It began with a sound that suggested a metal or ceramic kitchen dish – the program notes say that it was in fact a casserole. At first, the connection to the recordings was quite transparent, as if listening to an ensemble of invisible casserole performers. But over time it diverged from the original, with more time stretching, harmonization and other effects and layering into larger structures. This builds up to a climax of pitch-shifting sounds that seem more water-like than casserole-like before returning to the original sound alone for the conclusion of the piece, I liked the way Harrison built up the piece from a single simple sonic idea – a compositional technique that he employed for all the pieces presented this evening. ainsi de suite… was described as a “French Suite rather in the manner of the musique concrete tradition.” It is based on a series of acoustic recordings of rough wine glasses that were transformed through a variety of signal processing techniques to form a series of movements. Like Klang, it featured an exposition and recapitulation of the original sounds, but I did not get an overall narrative of the other movements, which featured more signal processing. Instead, I found myself getting lost in the sounds, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

The next piece, Rock’n’Roll, was the most recent of the pieces in the concert, composed in 2004. It is based on the sounds of a “garden roller with a concrete wheel” and the ensuing sonic mischief when trying to roll it around the composer’s garden pathways. I had to do a Google image search after the performance to find concrete garden roller. It seems that these are more commonly found in the UK. Nonetheless, the sound of rolling concrete against stone does provide for a rich source of material as does the sound of falling and breaking rock. This piece kept close to original timbres, though Harrison did explore time and especially space with advanced mixing and diffusion into the 8-channel array. By mixing the sounds spatially, sublet timbral effects can be achieved, and the listener is not watching a garden roller but instead listening from within a pile of falling rocks.

It seemed that each of the pieces followed the pattern of exploring a particular physical material: ceramic, glass, concrete/stone. The next piece Stream was all about water. However, while it was initially quite recognizable as water, the sound quickly took an otherworldly quality – the listener was immersed in an environment that was unmistakably liquid, with bubbles and burgled and undulating waves, but unlike any natural aquatic environment on Earth. Once again, I got lost within the sonic environment and lost track of the details and progression of the piece – although it did quite loud at times.

The final piece Hot Air was a bit of a departure, and felt like it had a more dynamic sound pallets and musical structure. It was nominally based on another element, air, but the sonic source material seemed more varied than inth previous pieces. There were direct references to air, such as stretching balloons, whistling sounds, and things being hurled through the air. But the timbres also had a very machine-like and industrial quality at times, and these were things that I visualized while listening to the piece. Large industrial machinery, neon electrical signs, etc. But every so often a clear reference to air came through, and some of the moments with balloons or other objects were quite comical. I even heard some of my neighbors in the audience laugh.

During the intermission, I viewed several works of visual art by Aaron Finnis based the concept of tape. Basically, he used magnetic tape on paper to create minimalist textures of vertical stripes.

[Aaron Finnis, Modulation 2000 (2MB R-T-T-Y).]

The simple texture and geometry and connection to the festival theme was itself interesting, but there was an added dimension when one matched the titles to the works. The titles, included information about the tape used, such as capacity in megabytes for data tapes, or duration in minutes and seconds for audio tapes. For example, FIELD 9000 (9MB, ASCII Colors) described the data size and content of the media, although the media was now a visual art material and perceiving the content was not a possibility. Additionally, three of the cassette audio tapes seemed to be drawn from recordings of pure tones, with labels such as SPACE 440 (4.00 mins, A400).