San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF): September 9 Concert

The final concert of the 2012 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF) took place on Saturday, September 9 at the Brava Theater. If there a common thread among the different performances on this evening, it was the use (and celebration) of analog electronics.

The concert opened with a solo piece by Chuck Johnson called Passivity and Void. The performance featured analog electronics with steel guitar as a sound source, and explored the tension between retaining and relinquishing control over timbre and musical processes. This is particularly true of feedback and random voltages that Johnson used. The result was beautiful low-frequency drones with complex textures layered on top.

[Chuck Johnson. Photo:]

I also found myself focused on his suitcase-based analog setup, similar at least in appearance to what I have been using of late.

The next set featured James Fei using a large speaker, in particular an Altec 604, as a musical instrument in its own right.

[James Fei and Altec 604. Photo:]

The large speaker, which is a model that has existed since the 1940s, is visually impressive. And the dramatic movements of its driver in response to the low and mixed frequency analog sound sources was a central aspect of the performance. Through his mixture of subtle long tones and more pointed elements, Fei seemed to imbue the speaker with a personality, expressing itself with motion and sound. It was fun to watch. As a purely sonic experience, the elements were simple, though not as minimalist as the piece’s title Sine of Merit would suggest.

The final set of the concert and of the festival featured a collaboration of Peter Conheim of Negativeland and Jon Leidecker (aka Wobbly) appropriately called Negativewobblyland. They were joined for this performance by Don Joyce.

[Negativewobblyland. Photo:]

Their performance, titled Booper Variations No. 18 and featured sounds and techniques based on Boopers, which were “analog feedback instruments created entirely from salvaged radio and amplifier parts.” Although the modern reinterpretation used samples and delays as forms of feedback, the music was based on the principles of the original Boopers. The result of sampling and feedback was a complex and varied array of electronic sounds and felt like a swiftly moving history of electronic music in a single set. The energy of the trio carried the music forward for the entire duration.

Overall, this year’s SFEMF included several strong nights of music, and each of the nights was quite well attended. Additionally, there was a concurrent gallery exhibition, which I will review in the final installment of the series.

San Francisco Tape Music Festival

As promised, here is my post on the San Francisco Tape Music Festival. I had an opportunity to attend last Saturday’s program.

First, a word about “tape music.” Of course, it does not actually have to be on tape. Indeed it is now most often rendered as digital media: DVD or audio files. The San Francisco Tape Music Collective (which runs the festival) defines it as “audioArt diffused through a surround-sound speaker environment.” Essentially the “audio art” is music or other sound rendered onto media, and the performance is the live performance of that media in a hall through a speaker system. The way the media is mixed into the speakers and the live space creates a unique performance. And the fact that the material is recorded on media allows composers to create sounds that could never be performed live, even with modern computers – although the gap between what can be done live and what can only be rendered is narrowing over time. In the early days of electronic music, tape was in fact the only way to realize sounds, and thus the only way to perform the music. Modern tape music carries on that tradition.

The idea of going to concert hall and listening to a recording may seem odd, but like any other performance, it is about matching the content and presentation. There are really good tape-music performances, and really bad ones, and I have been to both. The Saturday performance at the festival was definitely a good one. It included classics of electronic music, such as John R Pierce’s Stochatta, one of early experiments in computer music at Bell Laboratories; and Lubiano Berio’s Thema (Ommagio a Joyce). Both pieces were premiered over 50 years ago. John R Pierce may be familiar to longtime readers of CatSynth as one of the co-discovers of the Bohlen Pierce scale.

Most of the other pieces on the program were far more recent, with the most recent being the premier of Cupido’s Suitcase by Cliff Caruthers. A series of three pieces in the first half, Winter Light (for Ingmar Bergman) by George Cremaschi, Pre-fader: Highly reverberant states by Goran Vejvoda and Chart Tempo & World Retrograde by Jon Liedecker/Wobbly explore three different aesthetics within recorded sound art: simple (but very powerful) sound synthesis with two oscillators, complex collages of sounds, and remixing of popular-music elements, respectively.

One piece that also got attention when the program was first announced was a piece by The Fireman, which is actually a due of Paul McCartney and Martin Glover aka Youth. As a piece on the program, I don’t know that is as memorable as the others I have discribed.

The program closed with a rather “hard” piece buzzz by Geraud Bec, which I leave to the reader’s imagination. Works by Maggi Payne, Zhiye Li and Kent Jolly rounded out the program.

Overall, a very even performance, there was no point at which I didn’t want to be there listening. I also think that this series is fairly accessible for those who are not familiar with contemporary or experimental music, nothing is too harsh or too provocative – then again, I don’t know if I am the best judge of that.