San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF) – September 8 Concert

We continue our review of the recent 2012 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF) with a look at the third concert. It took place on Saturday, September 8 at the Brava Theater in San Francisco, and for the most part focused on music from unusual sources, such as natural materials, found objects and electrical circuits built in real time.

The concert opened with a solo performance by Cheryl Leonard with video by Genevieve Swifte. Leonard’s instruments are created from items she has collected from the Arctic and Antarctic, including shells, stones, kelp flute, and bones, as well as prepared viola and field recordings of wind and water. The music she produces from these sources is richly textured moving between long notes and short sequences of percussive hits, with minimal treatment of the amplified acoustic elements. Each of the two pieces, Sila and Polarnatt featured different elements in the instrumentation to reflect their respective themes.

[Cheryl Leonard. Photo:]

The video, which featured the formation of ice crystals on the surface of the ocean. It was quite subtle with little movement, except for an occasional bird flying through field of vision – as such, it served as support for the music and for Leonard’s live performance on stage, and a contrast to the more dynamic movement in the percussive sections.

This was followed by Loud Objects, a New York based group that creates noise by building circuits from minimal components live on stage. The performers Tristan Perich and Lesley Flanagan stood alongside an overhead projector with a clear piece of plexiglass as the performance began. It continued in silence as a few wires and integrated circuits were soldered into place on top of the surface until the first tentative and unstable sounds emerged.

[Live circuit building from Loud Objects. Photo:]

Once the sound generation elements were live, the group lived up to its name. It was quite loud and intense, with various modulations of simple synthesized sounds. Much of the fun of this set was watching the construction of the circuit alongside the sounds being generated, and I found myself captivated and curious about what the shadowy integrated circuits were doing while I was listening. I would be curious to see how other performances by this group are similar or different to what they created this night.

After the intermission, renowned electronic musician and interdisciplinary artist Richard Lerman performed a version of his project Border Soundings. Lerm, an has been making audio and video recordings from the fences at the U.S.-Mexico border for many years. This version combined video taken at several locations with live performance on amplified musical instruments created from objects found near the border. Among these were a branch with things, a brush and dustpan and a tomatillo husk with onions.

[Richard Lerman. Photo:]

In this piece, the visuals were front and center, primarily the video scenes but also the live performance with the found objects. The amplified sounds from the objects were very literal, with the metal, wood, paper and other materials readily apparent. The electronic processing did not detract from the acoustic expectations. The border scenes in the videos ranged from serene, as along the linear form of the fence near Naco AZ, to forlorn in some locations, to the surreal emptiness of the Border Field State Park, with the border fence flowing into the ocean and the beach devoid of any activity (access to the beach on the US side is now restricted) – by contrast, looking through the fence to the beach on Mexican side reveals vibrant activity and daily life. The music through all of the scenes remains percussive and abstract.

The final set featured a solo performance by Dieter Moebius. Moebius is best known for his early with with the duo Cluster and the band Harmonia, but now performs solo work as well as collaborations with other noted musicians. His performance was different from the others on the concert that evening in that he focused on more conventional electronic sources, such as pre-made rhythmic loops and noise hits.

[Dieter Moebius. Photo:]

Although Moebius’ performance did not use the same novel instrumentation or techniques of the other artists in the concert, it was nonetheless quite virtuosic – I particularly liked his third piece which employed more noise-based timbres and complex rhythms. His set did continue on for quite a while, however, far longer than I expected – and I suspect longer than the organizers or other members of the audience expected, as people started to file out of the auditorium as he launched into his fifth piece approaching a full hour. He even seemed poised to continue with another piece after the audience gave a warm and enthusiastic applause.

Despite the way the last set panned out, it was still a strong concert with much innovative music and technology. I am glad I had the opportunity to hear it.