SFEMF 2022

Going into 2022, I had never seen Carl Stone perform. And I still haven’t. Sorry, Carl, but yours was the one night of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival that I couldn’t attend.

This was back in September, when SFEMF revived after a pandemic hiatus. Hosted in the spacious room of The Lab, the festival featured all local musicians this time, as it was put together in a relative hurry and without the budget of previous years. (Stone was an exception, as he was already scheduled to be in town.) Call it a ramp-up back to normal. Word certainly got out. The audience filled the room — well more than 100 people on the two nights I attended. Probably closer to 200.

I want to talk about the ROVA Electric 6 first, which means to the end. In reverse order, here’s who I saw across Sunday and Friday nights:

ROVA Electric 6, meaning the ROVA Saxophone Quartet performing with Tom Djll and Gino Robair on electronics. This was exciting not just for the music, but also for the use of The Lab’s luxurous space. Djll and Robair were in the back corners, so that their sounds came from opposite angles behind us, and ROVA’s four members wandered the generous perimeter and eventually weaved through the audience as well. It was an organic surroundsound experience. The electronics included both analog and digital effects as well as ROVA samples, including live samples from this performance, blurring the reality of the sound sources.

They performed a long, spirited set. It had its share of quieter spans, of course, but the stretches of full-group chatter and motion were particularly fun. Video excerpts here and here.

For the other performers, The Lab was mostly dark, cloaking us in the mesmerizing aspects of the music. That means no photos from me, but the ambience was an easy tradeoff to accept.

Only Now, aka Kush Arora, normally works in the realm of dancehall beats. This project has a more experimental bent but is still beat-focused. I remember his piece as a tunneling of motion and pulse. (Video.)

Anne Hege’s tape machine

Anne Hege performs with tape loops — good old-fashioned cassette tape running on a homemade workstation built from three hacked cassette players. Her own voice was the primary sound source, singing crystal-pure tones — but the tapes also picked up the ambience of the room, eventually creating an Alvin Lucier effect. Hege was performing pieces that she had composed for this instrument, so there was an element of structure. She would reduce the layers of sound down to a single voice, for example, creating a dramatic pause. She’ll be releasing an album of these compositions on the Innova label in 2023. Hege’s website includes some performance samples, and you can read more about her work on I Care If You Listen.

Moving backwards to Friday night …

Luciano Chessa‘s piece began as a stark, playful visual installation. He had placed a piano in the middle of the audience, with strands of red twine reaching up to a ring in the ceiling. You couldn’t miss it. Once Chessa’s performance began, the purpose became evident: Each strand controlled a different electro-acoustic device mounted high in a different corner of The Lab: rattles, bells, a tube that made the resonant sound of a thick metal spring. Chessa could pull strings to trigger these sounds, which played through the speakers installed in the corners. It all felt very steampunk.

This was a newly created piece titled Real Virtuality: Cori Battenti per Mario Bertoncini, dedicated to the Italian composer who used spatialization in his compositions. Chessa’s arsenal also included synthesized sounds, and an electronic surround system. The corner-mounted sounds often came into play during piano segments — composed melodies that Chessa would accent with (and contrast against) these primitive sounds. Hissing electronic static was also a frequent backdrop to the piano segments — some of them blocks of stark chords, others harmonized trails of melody. Visually and spatially intriguing, it was an ambitious, memorable finale to the Friday performance. (Video.)

shipwreck detective [Dev Bhat] is a solo ambient performer working with analog synthesizers and a barrage of digital effects. His set was lit in blues and greens, an oceanic feel for his washes of sound and abstract tonality, broken by occasional arctic howls of Moog synth.

Michelle Moeller’s setup

Michelle Moeller kicked off the festival with “Observatory,” a piece featuring magnetic objects manipulated in a porcelain bowl. A projector let us watch the motions as the metal scraped against the porcelain — such a satisfying sound, especially the ball bearings — and kept us informed as she progressed up to entire fistfuls of small objects. The piece had a sense of curiosity about it, like a creature emerging from hibernation to explore the new spring. A computer algorithm kicked off various sounds in response to the movement. Here’s a performance of “Observatory” from 2019.