For Bay Area creative music, the first big happening of the calendar year tends to be the San Francisco Tape Music Festival. “Tape music” refers to an early type of electronic music that wasn’t performed live, but was instead committed to reel-to-reel tape. The pieces today are digital recordings, played to the Tape Music Festival audience across 24 speakers in near-total darkness (minus any legally mandated EXIT signs). It’s an audio adventure.
Sunday’s program (7:00 p.m.) features pieces that combine pre-recorded parts with live musicians (presumably not in total darkness). One example would be “Clarinet Threads,” a 1985 composition by Denis Smalley (below). It’s a format that’s fairly common, but I think it’s a first for the Tape Music Festival.
Smalley’s piece is on the Sunday program, along with new or recent pieces by sfSound members Matt Ingalls and Kyle Bruckmann and the world premiere of local composer Ken Ueno’s “Ghosts of Ancient Hurricanes.” There will also be two 1964 pieces by Mario Davidovsky, who died in August and whose composing advanced the musician + electronics format.
Here’s the complete Sunday program, taken from the sfSound site:
Sunday January 12, 2020 (7:00pm) a special 3-set concert of works for instruments and fixed media featuring sfSoundGroup
The centerpiece was Pierre Boulez’s Domaines (Dominoes), a through-composed work broken into modular pieces that can be rearranged, within some strict rules.
It happened to be the longest piece of the evening, but it was also a highlight for its use of space, which made the piece feel sprawling and epic. And it was a workout for clarinet soloist Ingalls.
Domainespits a solo clarinet against six ensembles, each numbering one through six members. These small ensembles were spread out around the theater space, including the 1-person bass clarinet sitting in the central aisle in the audience.
Boulez’s instructions have the soloist play a segment with each of the ensembles in a prearranged but arbitrary order. Ingalls started with segment number 4: He played his part, alone, followed by the 4-person ensemble playing their part.
The modular part comes not only from the sequencing of the six segments (Boulez called them “cahiers” — notebooks), but in the clarinet solos, which are divided into segments that can be played in two different ways.
4 was a good place for Ingalls to start, because that clarinet solo featured raspy, brash tones — a personality that would turn out to really stand out from the others. To accent this, the 4-person ensemble consisted entirely of trombones, keeping that same raspy sound going.
Here’s the fun part: Ingalls had his own music stand next to each ensemble, so for each segment, he stood in a different place. As the piece progressed, in the order 4-5-2-6-3-1, Ingalls had to walk the room.
As I mentioned, the sequences were predetermined, so as one segment ended, Ingalls or the next ensemble could start the next segment, often overlapping the two by a bit. That was a nice effect, kind of like cross-fading in radio.
But wait, there’s more! That was only half the piece. The second half, subtitled “Miroirs” (“Mirrors”), consisted of each ensemble playing a segment, followed by a clarinet solo — the opposite concept of the “Originales” segments, but with different music. sfSound played the “Miroirs” segments in the order 5-2-3-4-6-1.
And of course the music, while through-composed, is Boulez: spikey, poking phrases, huge leaps, swooping slashes, and the occasional bit of extended playing as indicated in the sheet music. Exciting stuff, augmented by the effect of Ingalls and the ensembles playing from different regions of the room.
I also happen to enjoy geeking out on things like permutations. If I’m using combinatorics correctly, there are 518,400 ways to arrange the six segments. Factor in the two choices for each clarinet solo, and I think it multiplies to more than 2 billion possibilities.
Every concert is unique, even if the music is through-composed, but I really like to geek out about the uniqueness of a permutation. We heard one possibility out of 2 billion that might never arise again, and I found that really appealing.
Graphical Scores and Improv
The rest of the concert featured pieces that allow many more degrees of freedom to the musicians. These ranged from the box notation of Morten Feldman’s “Out of ‘Last Pieces'” (excerpted at right) to the modular segments of Earle Brown’s “Available Forms” to Pauline Oliveros’ Fluxus-like “The Inner/Outer Sound Matrix.” The latter, written for sfSound in 2007, instructs the performer to “listen inwardly for your own sound” and play it — or not — at the right time.
In most cases, the effect was like an episodic large-group improvisation. That is, the basic sound was similar to symphonic improv, but there were definite spikes and surges, as well as group drop-offs. Each piece came across boisterously, like a pot boiling, with clusters of activity coming from different parts of the group.
Oliveros’ “Matrix” was loud and brash, which surprised me. I’d expected something more meditative. But the volume built up quickly, and it seemed at times as if players were forced to out-shout each other to be heard.
The group also performed Oliveros’ a capella “Sound Patterns,” comprised of vocal sounds including vowels, tongue clicks, and various buzzes and barks. It’s a mostly non-improvisational piece, and while it’s not a virtuoso turn, it requires organization and an ensemble that takes the idea seriously.
Hearing groups of people making the same nonsense sounds in unison turned out to be revelatory. Even though there’s an absurdity factor (a couple of segments seem designed to get a chuckle from the audience), and even though the ensemble was clearly having fun, their professionalism made this into a piece to be taken seriously. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.
“Acousmatic” is a word I learned just this week, and it seems to be a more accurate (but less fun) description of “tape music.” Either way, the concept is: sounds that are set down in recorded form and meant to be performed by playing the recording.
But it’s not like playing a record at home. The performance involves 16 or more speakers situated around the room, usually played in the dark to heighten the auditory experience. The sounds scatter about you with remarkable clarity — bells, liquids and thunders dancing about the room. Cinema for the ears, as they say. (See the Bruno Ruvario review, the 2012 Tape Music Festival review, and notes about the festival from 2012 and 2009.)
Here’s what else is happening during the festival:
Recent pieces by Bay Area composers including Pamela Z (a 2008 piece called “Spangled”) and sfSound’s Matt Ingalls
“Classic” works by folks like Luciano Berio (from 1961) and Hugh Le Caine (from 1955)
A new realization of John Cage’s “Williams Mix,” which also got presented last year. The piece instructs the “performer” to record various urban sounds, so it’s a completely different piece every time.
A 1980 piece by Jonathan Harvey, who passed away in December.
Given that last bit, it’s nice to note that Parmegiani is still alive at age 85. His evening of the Festival — Sunday, Jan. 27 — will feature pieces from the ’60s and one from 2004, followed by the 45-minute “De Natura Sonotorum,” created in 1975.
Parmegiani studied under one of the pioneers of this music, Pierre Schaeffer, and he’s considered a huge influence in the acousmatic music world. He was around when these sounds were just being pioneered, and his career has been voluminous. (If you’re curious and have some coin to spare, there’s a 12-CD collection of his work available on eMusic.)
Of course, there are study materials lying around the Web as well, albeit of YouTube audio fidelity.
Here’s a full reading of “De Natura Sonotorum:”
A small piece of “De Natura Sonotorum:”
A neat piece called dance, based on one sound source (voice):
It’s not a 2001 homage. This is the front-stage speaker I stared at between pieces.
The title here might imply I’ll be at Nights 2 and 3, on Saturday and Sunday. I won’t. And Saturday’s concert (Jan. 21, a.k.a. tonight) will include a backwards playing of “Revolution 9” — a “song” I know well enough that it would be really, really cool to hear backwards. Insert sad face.
I keep emphasizing the number of audio speakers that they place around the audience at this event, but there’s a more important fact that occurred to me last night: These are really, really good speakers. I’m not an audiophile, but — they seem really good. Crisp sounds and percussive sounds are so clear, you feel like you could reach out and grab them.
As for Friday’s program itself, here are a few arbitrary highlights. (Note that every night’s program is completely different.)
Maggi Payne‘s “Glassy Metals” was a pleasure to hear on a bigger stage than my small headphones. More immersive, with precision added to the more crystalline sounds. (See “A Taste of Tape Music.”)
This is where all the magic happens.
Two John Cage pieces sounded appropriately chaotic and cut-up. Both consisted of instructions for building a sound collage using sources that are arbitrary but that come from set categories. “Williams Mix” called for six types of sounds (city sounds, country sounds, etc.). That one was fun — sounds blipped at you from all directions — but “Imaginary Landscape No. 5” was a more grand descent into madness. The San Francisco Tape Music folks put that one together themselves, using fragments of Cage’s own performances and lectures . It was a crazy mix of monologue and tiny music snippets, taking advantage of all 16 speakers around the house — and, adhering to the randomness required by the piece, it ended mid-sentence.
Jacob Felix Heule, not taken during the concert. It’s from heule.us.
Bay Area drummer Jacob Felix Heule‘s “Counterpoint” was created by overdubbing one electronics improvisation and three percussion improvs, each performed without listening to the previous takes but with conscious attention to the memory of those takes. Heule did edit the final result a bit, so the disparate pieces did fit together nicely. Each improv included lots of long silences, so you weren’t bombarded, and some of the starts and stops were aligned very nicely, a product of the editing, I’m assuming.
Thom Blum‘s “Couplings” was full of sour, grumpy sounds that I found interesting. These are supposedly paired with something more mellifluous, but I couldn’t find that element. Maybe I was distracted by the rain on the roof (which was usually drowned out but caught my ears during this piece), or maybe I was looking for the wrong thing.
Source: Karamanlis’ Bandcamp page.
“Στέρφος” (“Sterfos”), by Orestis Karamanlis, ended the program. Inspired by the sounds of his home in the Greek isles, the piece opened and closed with splashing water — delicious sounds, altered in places to sound almost like a verbal language. (Or, maybe listening to splashing for that long alters your perception of the sound, like saying a word repeatedly until it sounds funny?) There were also snippets of synthesized symphonic chords, folk music (or am I imagining that after the fact?), marketplace crowds, people talking in Greek… and loud sounds like firecrackers or gunfire. Not sure if that was also tied to life in Greece or if it was just electronics gadgetry added — the piece, composed in 2009, did use lots of modern computer-generated sounds as well. The 21-minute span, longest on the bill, was episodic; it did feel like Karamanlis was telling a story, in an abstract narrative-less sense. This piece won a 2010 Giga Hertz Award for Electronic Music.
You can hear stereo versions of the whole thing on Karamanlis’ web site (linked above) or on Bandcamp.
So, weather be damned, you should set aside time for the festival Saturday or Sunday. The new ODC Theater is cozy and sleek, and the ginger snaps at the mini-cafe are yummy.
One tip: Sit in the center. Meaning, not to the left or right, but as close to the middle as possible. The stereo balance will be much better. As for whether you should sit to the front or the back — I dunno. In many pieces, most of the sound seems to come from the front, making it a pleasant surprise when sounds blip out from the back speakers. It might be a real treat to actually sit back there. I want to try that next time.
The pieces on this CD give you a glimpse of the cinematic possibilities in soundscapes, or “tape music,” or computer electronics — whatever you want to call it. The sounds move from speaker to speaker, and with changes in volume, you can almost feel them surging closer, then farther away. Imagine what could be done with a ring of 16 or 20 speakers surrounding the listener. The last minutes of “Distant Thunder” feel like they up the air pressure, as if you’ve been enveloped. It’s interesting to hear in headphones, but the sound cries out for a more three- (or, really, two-) dimensional representation.
Maggi Payne lives and breathes this kind of stuff. A co-director of the of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, she’s been creating these kinds of pieces for decades.
She’s never been to the Arctic, it turns out — so in that sense, Arctic Winds is unlike the Antarctic-inspired art of Cheryl E. Leonard or the field recordings of Douglas Quin. (Digression: Quin has a new LP on Taiga that I’ve seen at KZSU. Got to check that out.)
But Payne’s artificial world gives us something that really sounds like it should be called “Arctic Winds.” It’s an eerie place, full of dark, agoraphobic moods. “Fluid Dynamics” does sound like surging cold winds, one furious wave after another, with pauses consisting of uneasy rustling. “Apparent Horizon” is a warmer track, full of cricket-like sounds and even some direct samples of astronaut communications, which ironically provide some of the more down-to-earth moments of the album.
“Glassy Metals,” being performed tonight at the Festival, struck me as one of the smaller tracks on here, in terms of force-of -sound. It’s a series of sounds, actually, a chain of episodes: insects in a warm swamp, steam rushing through pipes, a pulsing machine. It’s a showcase of sounds, tickling the ears in different ways. In that sense, it’s a fine choice to showcase in a bigger environment.
On a more down-to-earth level, Payne’s liner notes provide fun descriptions of the sounds and inspirations that went into the album. Most of them are quite simple (ball bearings rolling and clacking against things seems to be a favorite) but are then transformed into something otherworldly. BART makes an appearance on “Glassy Metals,” although you can’t recognize it. Ironically, a very BART-like sound appears on the next track, “Fizz,” which did use fizzing as a sample — one that apparently wasn’t easy to get, either.
It’s John Cage’s centennary year, and of course the annual San Francisco Tape Music Festival is taking notice. Each of the three nights will include two Cage pieces.
Separately, each night includes a taste of the first recordings ever, from 1859. They’re called phonautograms, and while they were originally created as a way to visualize sounds on paper, the folks at the First Sounds organization have come up with a method to play back the sounds.
The bulk of the program will consist of more recent works, many of them by local musicians.
I wrote about the Tape Music Festival back in 2009. The idea is to present pre-recorded sound as an art form… but it’s not so simple as dropping a CD in the player. The pieces are performed in darkness (they do turn up the lights after each one) on speakers that surround the audience; the show I attended used 20 speakers. “Cinema for your ears” is how the organizers at sfSound describe it, and that’s quite accurate.
The “tape music” moniker is outdated, of course; almost all the pieces will be digital files. The term goes back to the 1950s or earlier, when the concept of using prerecorded sounds as part of a classical piece was radical.
You get some amazing sounds in these pieces. They’re what you often hear from laptop electronics: watery sounds, metallic sounds — but realized in big, dramatic fashion. It’s a pretty cool experience.
As always, some interesting surprises and celebrity pieces dot the program, which changes each night. You’ll find The Beatles on the bill, with what I’m guessing is a backwards playback of “Revolution 9.”
The 2012 San Francisco Tape Music Festival takes place Fri. Jan. 20 through Sun. Jan. 22 at ODC Theater (3153 17th St., SF). You can see the whole program and lots more information at the festival site: http://sfsound.org/tape.
If you go to sfSound Radioright now (“now” meaning before April 13), you’ll get to hear part of the five-day performance of Alvin Lucier‘s “Music on a Long Thin Wire.”
It’s being “performed” by Tom Duff, although really, the performer is the wire itself.
Wikipedia has the instructions for the piece. The basic idea is that a taut wire is set to vibrating, and the piece consists of the resulting sounds. What you get is a varying drone. Air currents, temperature changes, footfalls that slightly shift the wire’s endpoints (if the wire is anchored to two tables, as in the description) — all these elements can shift the sound.
Lucier tried the piece with human intervention involved, letting musicians “play” the wire by adjusting the oscillator, but he never liked the results. He decided it worked better if the wire was left alone, a sculpture/installation varying with its surroundings. (Read his thoughts at Perfect Sound Forever.)
So it seems “Music on a Long Thin Wire” is best experienced not as a concert, but as a standing piece allowed to run for a long period of time. A five-day version was performed at an Albuquerque shopping center, broadcast by KUNM, back in 1979 — and now we have Duff’s version, happening through April 12.
The recorded version of the piece, on the label Lovely Music, comes across very sine wavey. Duff’s installation, by contrast, sounds very wirey, with the twang of metal windings. It’s like a didgeridoo player who never runs out of breath, or a bassist bowing an open string endlessly.
Here’s an excerpt of another performance, possibly the Lovely Music one, posted to YouTube:
You can find a lot of performance examples around the Web, but I liked the way this one tells a little of the story, so to speak. It’s a 6-minute excerpt that demonstrates some of the abrupt changes possible in the piece.
If you actually want to own “Music on a Long Thin Wire,” you can download the Lovely version at eMusic. Or, take Lucier’s instructions and build your own.
(The photo up top is a 2008 vertical installation inspired by Lucier, but I don’t think they actually performed on it. It’s a long, thin wire stretched up the center of a spiral staircase. Photo taken from the Disquiet blog.)
Did I just go through my longest stretch yet without a blog post? I hope so, because I’d hate to think there had ever been a longer one in there…
Various factors including work and, yes, the start of baseball season have curtailed my music listening lately. I should have kept being a good blogger, typing one or two sentences a day and hitting PUBLISH just for the sake of keeping up appearances. Instead, I’m gonna do all those missives at once, right here.
* It was great to see Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch play to a packed house at Yoshi’s on Monday, March 28. A packed lower section anyway — fullest I’ve ever seen it. For the first time, I had to be ushered to a seat, sharing a close-quarters table with strangers. Lots of great music, including a new song in the vein of the album Air Lore (by Air, the Threadgill/Hopkins/McCall trio) — meaning, an inside/outy jazz tune derived from old, old-timey jazz. They also played “Evil Bohemian” from Go-Go Fightmaster, a band that has exactly the same people but a different mission.
* Breaks my heart, but tonight, I’m missing an sfSound performance of part of Einstein on the Beach. It’s at Amnesia, a friendly San Francisco bar that houses weekly jazz (hot club style, that is). Would have loved to support the cause.
* My previous blog post mentions The Lost Trio playing at the Ivy Room weekly. Apparently, that’s ending as of right about now. Crud. Keep an eye out for other good (and probably free) creative music there, though.
* Cardiacs music continues to impress. I’m starting to understand how some people could be so viciously opposed to the band. One possibility: Tim Smith’s chord progressions often go intentionally out of tune (a C major to an A major seems to be a favorite leap), creating a sound like a warped record or a warbly circus act. It rocks, but if you’re not buying into the band’s premise, I can see how it might grate. I don’t care. These guys are awesome, and you should attend the May 8 Cardiacs tribute (and Tim Smith benefit) at Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco. It’s a good cause.
* More Cardiacs: There’s a Tim Smith tribute/benefit album, Leader of the Starry Skies, available at thegenepool.co.uk. It’s very cool, if melancholy; most artists seemed to either pick the sadder songs or do sadder versions of the songs. Best-of-set, at first listen, goes to prog band Knifeworld, which includes former Cardiac co-guitarist Kavus Torabi.
* I mainly knew of guitarist Antoine Berthiaume through his times recording with Fred Frith. Then, one year, he surprised me by releasing a fairly straight jazz album. Now he’s doubly surprised me with a fairly straight country/folk instrumental album called Small Tease. Engaging and breezy stuff.
Thanks to those of you who actually keep tuning in here. I’m not gone, or done, just flaky. It’ll pass.
The environment for the arts has turned even more hostile in this country, and creative music is particularly hard-hit. The selloff of college radio frequencies makes it harder and harder to find anything interesting on the airwaves.
The Internet is not an adequate substitute, as I think I’ve said before. At the same time, though, it’s a way to keep an interested audience nourished, whether it’s through podcasts or live presentations.
Enter sfSound Group, the local modern-classical troupe that probably cringes at the term “modern classical.” For some time now, Matt Ingalls and crew (or possibly just Matt) has/have been presenting recorded works through sfSound Radio, an automated shuffle-play Webcast. (Warning: that link automatically launches the audio broadcast).
And now, sfSound Radio is going live on Fridays, presenting a mix of concerts, interviews, and … other things. File this coming Friday, March 4, under “other” or possibly “aleatoric musique concrète,” as they’ll be hanging a microphone out of an Oakland window and broadcasting the results live for 24 hours.
Future broadcasts include interviews with local artists Wobbly and David Slusser … and a March 18 live broadcast of UK saxophonist John Butcher (right) performing with Grosse Abfahrt, the local-plus-Euro-guests improv troupe (see here).
Later on: Tom Duff will be presenting a five-day broadcast of an Alvin Lucier work, and Matthew Goodheart will present an extended interview with Italian saxophonist Gianni Gebbia.
I like this development. It fills a gap that even college and public radio increasingly refuse to acknowledge. Granted, I’ve dropped the ball myself by abandoning my post at KZSU, but the station’s “out-there” quotient is still being kept alive by DJs such as Your Imaginary Friend (Wednesdays, 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. Pacific time!)
This might be a good moment to rejoice in the wealth of independent radio that’s still broadcasting in the Bay Area:
I shouldn’t have characterizedSylvano Bussotti‘s music as being “graphical scores.” After seeing some of the music up-close, and seeing Thursday night’s performance at SF MOMA, I’m pretty sure that his crazed sheet music is really meant to be read at face value.
Mind you, there’s some room for improvising and for unpredictable elements, such as when a player is told to use a forearm to smash all the low piano keys at once. But there are also moments of timed precision, matched melodies, and, especially in last night’s two-piano finale, careful coordination.
The scores are gorgeous, and they drew a lot of attention as they sat in the MOMA’s atrium lobby before the music started, attracting lots of cellphone cameras and, happily enough, generating lots of discussion, from music fans and passers-by alike. Thursday nights, the museum stays open late, so the crowd for the Bussotti concert was well into the hundreds, many of them hipster types on hand for the (unrelated) free food and non-free wine.
Everyone seemed to enjoy the theatrical setup: Music stands and the two pianos, and some of the scores, were left out during the early part of the evening, as the crowd milled around. It turned out that the music, performed by sfSound, was to be staged in sections of the lobby, across a central strip — the opening trio being in the center, then the other small-group pieces off to the left or the right, while the audience lingered around the perimeter of this makeshift stage. People really seemed to enjoy that.
The space got best used late in the performance, for a nonet titled “AUTOTONO” that had two pianos on either end of the performance strip and the rest of the group scattered in between, a setup that was visually arresting, with sound coming at you from different directions.
The rest of the program consisted of smaller sfSound subgroups playing Bussotti pieces from past and present. It started with a choppy, jousting string trio called “Phrase a Trois,” one of the scores the audience had been admiring beforehand. Matt Ingalls later played a solo clarinet piece, “Variazione Berio,” where he took advantage of the fact that a clarinetist can carry his own sheet music. Ingalls wandered the space, turning every so often to change the angle of the sound (it does make a difference), often stopping to let one long, piercing note properly strike the walls and ring.
The crowd was surprisingly respectful, considering how many hadn’t come for the music per se. Yes, there were lots of ancillary noises — doors closing (especially the front doors, as the crowd thinned during the 70 or so minutes of music), dishes being cleaned up, the occasional elevator bing. Very little conversation, though, which was admirable. I was grateful for that.
More than 100 people remained by the end, reverently sitting through the 22-minute “Tableuax Vivants,” a selection from (or a prelude to?) the opera, La Passion Selon Sade.
This one was really interesting. It’s for two pianists who start by playing one piano — but they don’t just play high keys/low keys like you’d expect. They play in the same register, and more important, one player sometimes reaches into the piano to hold down a string while the other one plays, or sometimes to pluck a string. The result is that the two players are continually leaning over one another, carefully poking their arms past one another. It’s like a dance.
And it’s meant to be. “The staves (and thus the pianists) sensually merge and depart — both an essay on proxemic theory and an exquisite way of staging intimacy,” Luciano Chessa wrote in the detailed show notes we were given. (A lot of which can be read in this SFCV article: “A Rare Silent Film from an Experimental Composer.”)
The pianists — Christopher Jones and Ann Yi — eventually separated to the two pianos to complete the piece, which went on to instruct them to pluck the strungs, hit them with soft mallets, and slap them with a whip. The finale of the piece has both pianists putting away the score and playing from memory, fading out when they get stuck. Jones and Yi actually lasted about the same amount of time, which made for a more abrupt and solid ending than you’d expect — but it worked.
Bussotti himself was on hand, performing in two of the pieces. He spoke gruff, stark lines (in French) in “Geographie Francaise” and a more pensive commentary (in Italian) for “In Memoriam Cathy Berberian.”
And as mentioned in an earlier post, this program had started with a screening of Rara, Bussotti’s silent film, with Bussotti himself providing piano accompaniment. Most of the film consists of long close-ups of people, mostly shirtless men adorned with gaudy necklaces, tears on their faces. Bussotti’s music wasn’t as sparse as I’d expected — it jumped and leapt, then halted for long pauses. He slipped into straight tonal music on a few occasions, which was surprising — heavy sentimental chords, or slow, regal harmonies. He also had a couple of tricks up his sleeve. For example: By holding down certain keys with one hand while playing notes with the other, he created some different sounding harmonics. It was like holding down the sustain pedal for only a handful of notes — producing the same shimmering decay, but on a different chord than usual.
The film and the concert were very warmly received, and Bussotti showed a lot of energy for someone approaching 80, walking slowly but striking confidently at the piano. The program of pieces selected by Luciano Chessa created a good rhythm as a whole. Bussotti seemed to enjoy his special evening, and maybe the music got heard by some ears that otherwise wouldn’t have given it a try.