The First Annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival:
A (biased) Report
by Pamela Z
May 5-7, 2000 CellSpace/Crucible Steel Gallery , San Francisco
The first annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival took place over the course of a quick, and powerful three days. As one of festival organizers and artists, I may not seem like the most unbiased person to offer a review, but I feel so enthusiastic about this momentous event, and so strongly that it deserves reviewing, that I don't particularly feel like waiting around for a proper review from one or more of our illustrious members of the local press. So, as I sit here on an early morning flight to the East Coast on the morning following the festival (I should be sleeping on this plane…) I am jotting down some of my impressions. Let's not call it a review. Let's just call it a "Report".
Some facts that run contrary to most people's expectations of a typical (unpop) electronic music event are these: 1) Three full evenings of live electronic music occurred with only one or two discernable technical problems. 2) Even with the festival's unusually short lead time on publicity, all three nights drew a brimming (and enthusiastic) crowd in the ample warehouse space of the venue. 3) Although the festival had it's share of "knob twiddlers" most of the works presented employed varying degrees of visually compelling theatrical elements, and all the performers ("knob twiddlers" and "gesture makers" alike) possessed a kind of presence on stage that garnered the full attention of their audience.
Let me just get this out of the way: My own participation in the festival (though not entirely unsuccessful) contributed some of the few technologically bumpy moments in an otherwise a very smoothe, well-organized, and an exhilaratingly powerful and diverse weekend of performances. I'll excuse myself by chalking it up to the pitfalls of trying to both organize and participate in a major event. (Although that excuse doesn't hold up very well in light of the fact that all the other festival organizers also appeared and gave what I consider to be strong and often stellar performances.) That aside, I feel that this event was as powerful a new music event as any I've attended in a long time. (And I've attended a number of very powerful new music events in the recent past!).
Each evening featured works performed by four different artists or groups. and a short introductory talk by one of the festival's three installation artists who's works graced the Crucible Steel Gallery (the large "lobby" area of CellSpace) for the duration of the festival. The evenings were full and long, but the hungry audience remained in force throughout.
After Chris Salter of "sponge" said a few words about the installation "Sauna #1", Miya Masaoka began the evening's performances with her "Bee Project #6" for koto, electronics, moving image, and live bees. This work featured a newly edited version of a video made by the composer that opens with footage of the bees in their hive overlaid with a seemingly straightforward text describing the colony culture of bees. Gradually the story is diverted to that of a wayward, dissident bee who rebels against drone life and strikes out on it's own to explore uncharted territory. At some point realize that we are no longer watching bees traversing the wax compartments of honeycomb, but rather a new bee-counterculture traversing the skin of a human body. Ms. Masaoka interacted with these images- first using her PowerBook to do live processing on the live amplified bees, and later by performing extended techniques on koto and laserharp. The result was a richly textured and constantly building barrage of sound that surrounded the audience and filled the room. The first half of night one was rounded out by Dan Joseph's keyboard/sampler performance of his politically charged "Got Guns", a piece that makes use of actual gunshot samples, a plethora of gun-related found text samples, and other sound sources culturally tied to gun culture. The often explosive and frenetic work also had ironically mellifluous yet ominous moments such as a segment that wove together familiar snippets from Ennio Moricone "Spaghetti Western" scores.
The second half of night one consisted "Sripraphai"( of one of Carl Stone's PowerBook masterpieces), and Alvin Curran's "Endangered Species" for Disklavier andsampler. Two completely different approaches to sample-based computer music, both pieces were strong displays of composer/performer virtuosity. Mr. Stone, considered by many to be the icon of PowerBook performance, sat behind his spare set-up (a table supporting a Macintosh PowerBook) and churned out a gradually changing, bright-timbred, rhythmic sound– all the while maintaining his patent cool but focused composure as he manipulated the computer with intermittent flourishes of his constantly working hands. Next, Mr. Curran sat down at the upright Disklavier (an acoustic piano fitted with electronics and mechanics that allow it to send and receive MIDI information) and surprised everyone with a work that began with the bare acoustic sound of the piano. As the audience bathed in warmth of the acoustic instrument being played with skill and finesse the room began to come alive with an amazing chorus of sounds as if Curran was channeling beings from all over the planet. He used the piano's keyboard to control a fresh and unexpected vocabulary of samples which eventually gave way to the strains of a jazz standard spoken once again by the piano's own voice– perfectly rounding out the festival's moving first evening.
Night two boasted an equally diverse line-up. Before the performance, Elisabeth Beaird of The LAB Gallery (one of the festival's co-sponsors) moderated a lively , informal discussion with a panel consisting of Carl Stone, Chris Salter, Steev Hise, myself, and Kenneth Atchley. The discussion started with each composer giving a brief description of their entry into the world of electronic music– with most siting tape recorders as their first electronic instruments. Carl and Kenneth both offered particularly amusing anecdotes about their electronic music beginnings. Then the discussion passed through a somewhat jumbled series of observations about the meaning of electronic music, the cultural implications of new media, questions of the use of the internet as a conveyer of the work, and the relationships between old and new forms of electronic music. Chris posed questions about the cultural and even spiritual implications of the integration of new technologies in our lives. I whined about the current confusion around the connotation of the term "electronic music" with the upsurge of the popularity of DJs, dance music, and "Electronica". Carl pointed out that it's really a good thing that all these young, new artists are being influenced by the pioneers and opening the ears of large numbers of people to the possibilities of new sounds. Questions and comments came from members of the audience, and the conversation wandered this way and that. Then we broke briefly before beginning the concert.
Ed Osborne opened the performance by giving a very detailed and good-natured presentation about his installation work complete with video documentation. He gave some explanation about "Recoil", (the piece being presented in the gallery) as well as two other installation works. He also spoke briefly about Paul DeMarinis' "Still Life with Guitars" (also in the gallery.) The first performer of the evening was myself. I performed four little segments ("Nihongo de Hanashoo", "Ii Desu", "Double Dutch", and "Other") which are rough sketches for a performance work in progress called "Gaijin". I suffered a bit from a combination of mild technical difficulties and lack of preparedness, so I felt that my performance was less focused than I would have liked, and certain parts worked better than others. But I received a very warm and positive reaction from the audience, and it seemed that the overall presentation was successful. Steev Hise performed two works- one of which (Familiar/Signifier #2) involved a very amusing visual element in which he pulled a small sound producing box through the performance space– like a pet on a leash– which played a collage of appropriated sounds from media. He entered through the audience and ended up center stage where he began assembling a collage of appropriated images by stapling clippings from media to the box. An interesting effect resulted from the amplified sound of the staple gun. I had a second appearance that evening, this time in a duo with Dan Joseph. Dan played Hammered Dulcimer with processing while I sang and played hammered dulcimer samples with processing. We had fun with creating a certain amount of confusion as to which of us was the source of which sounds. Carl Stone performed his "Flint's", which uses samples of "Barbie Girl", and was so lively and intense that it finally did have some of the hopeful "electronica" fans in the audience up and dancing.
The third and final evening of the festival opened with a video-taped description of Paul Demarinis' "Still Life with Guitars" (delivered by a talking orange with a face and a voice that suspiciously resembled Paul). Kenneth Atchley then filled the space withthe rich, gradually changing "recast"in the rippling blue light emanating from his two fountains, which he processed and augmented with his powerbook. Donald Swearingen used a keyboard sampler combined with several light controllers to perform his sample-based works which were rich in the melody and poetry of the human speaking voice. The evening continued with Laetitia Sonami performing her new work "Conversation with a Lightbulb", which took place in a ghostly environment of glowing naked, white bulbs surrounding the artist as she shaped the sound with her famous "Lady's Glove" gesture controller. The evening finished with sensorChip, a trio comprised of Swearingen, myself, and Miya Masaoka, all working with gesture controlled instruments of various types. As Murphy's Law would have it, our set had a bumpy start resulting from having moved equipment during the intermission without re-checking the connections. I compensated for having no sound at first by doing my vocal part "unplugged" until Vance Galloway, our trusty sound engineer, got things up and running again. We then had a nice, raucous ending for the festival.