SF Tape Music + sfSound

The San Francisco Tape Music Festival runs January 10-12 at the Victoria Theater (2961 16th Street, San Francisco).

photo-1527332900615-32bb872f6b62 (1)-crop
Source: Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

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

KEN UENO – Ghosts of Ancient Hurricanes (2020)
– interval –
DENIS SMALLEY – Clarinet Threads (1985)
MARIO DAVIDOVSKY – Synchronisms #2 (1964)
MATT INGALLS & SFSOUND – Blue Sedan (2020)
– interval –
JONTY HARRISON – Force Fields (2006)
MARIO DAVIDOVSKY – Synchronisms #3 (1964)
KYLE BRUCKMANN – Clutterfields (2019)

A few other program items that stand out at first glance:

  • Very classic pieces by Pierre Schaeffer (1948!) and and Toru Takemitsu (1956) (Friday 8:30 p.m., Saturday 9:30 p.m.)
  • A 1992 piece by Pauline Oliveros, who was feted at the 2017 festival (Friday)
  • A 2011 piece by Ken Nordine, who died in February (Saturday, 7:00 p.m.)
  • A piece by bran(…)pos, a personal favorite and a Day of Noise veteran (Friday).

The complete four-show program is here.

Celebrating Pauline Oliveros

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Source: wongbear on Pixabay.

The annual San Francisco Tape Music Festival, which begins tonight at the Victoria Theater, cleared out its Sunday night calendar to devote the evening to Pauline Oliveros. That’s pretty cool.

The Festival will present four other full sets of music across three evenings, including an 11:00 p.m. set on Saturday. But Sunday, Jan. 8, will be a retrospective of Oliveros’ tape-music works.

The Tape Music Festival presents what we nowadays call electronic music — experimental and computerized stuff, but pre-recorded rather than performed live. Back in the 1950s, this stuff would be presented by playing reel-to-reel tapes, hence the festival’s name.

What sets the SF festival apart is that the music is played in the dark and the sound setup surrounds the audience with speakers. So it’s better than sitting at home tracking down these pieces on YouTube — and it would also be a nice shared experience as a way to commemorate Oliveros’ life and career.

Here’s the program for Sunday night:

  • Time Perspectives (1961)
  • Bye Bye Butterfly (1965)
  • Rock Symphony (excerpted) (1965)
  • Big Mother Is Watching You (1966)
  • Alien Bog (1967)
  • Lion’s Tale (excerpted) (1989)
  • Sayonara Sirenade 20/21 (2000)

There will be another Oliveros celebration on Friday, Jan. 27, this time at the Uptown Nightclub (1928 Telegraph Ave., Oakland). That could be interesting, because it will pit Oliveros’ quiet aesthetic against a bar atmosphere. The Uptown has hosted creative music for years, so they must have an inkling what they’re getting into. It’s a pleasant surprise to see them give a Friday night to this kind of music.

For the dedicated fan, Important Records packaged 12 CDs’ worth of Oliveros’ early electronic works. It’s available in physical and digital forms.

SF Tape Music Festival: Night 1

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.

But I did catch Night 1 of the San Francisco Tape Music Festival, and it was pretty darned cool.

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.

A Taste of Tape Music

“Glassy Metals,” off this album, is due to be performed at the San Francisco Tape Music Festival on Friday night, Jan. 20.

Maggi PayneArctic Winds (Innova, 2010)

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.

Of course, that kind of setup is exactly what the San Francisco Tape Music Festival is all about — see previous entry.

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.

Tape Music Festival a-Comin’

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.

Tape This! (Or: Namedropping Paul McCartney)

Time once again for the San Francisco Tape Music Festival, a celebration of experimental sounds.

Last year, I finally got to attend, and it was a real treat. What’s performed are prerecorded pieces that resemble today’s experimental laptop music. No, they don’t use tape; the pieces are played digitally — in total darkness with a 20-speaker sound system. A planetarium for the ears.

Pieces vary from metallic rushing noises, to alien waterlike sounds, to musique concrète (a high-def Revolution 9, in a sense). They do bring the lights up between pieces and let you know what’s coming next.

As usual, the three-day event has a different program each day. Depending on the day, you’ll get to hear:

  • New works from local artists like Moe! Staiano and Maggi Payne
  • Old works from classic practitioners of the genre: Varèse, Xenakis, Ligeti, Ussachevsky
  • A “celebrity” piece, this time from The Fireman — which consists of Youth (bassist from Killing Joke) and Paul McCartney. No, I don’t mean some other Paul McCartney. They’ve got a pop album out now but apparently did two electronica/trance albums earlier.

Note that the artists won’t actually be there, except probably the local ones. Most are too far away, too busy, or too dead.

You can see the SF Weekly make fun of the event here. (I think that’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, as if to say, “We’re on your side.” Needed a lighter touch.) More reasonable writeups of past shows are here and here.

The festival runs Jan. 30, Jan. 31, and Feb. 1 at CellSpace in San Francisco.