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.)