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San Francisco Classical Voice

The Electronic Avant-Garde, Hearing Anew, Moving Ahead
Pamela Z, Dan Joseph, Steev Hise, Carl Stone, Ed Osborne

By Ken Durling


Perhaps the future will not be so crowded after all. Though most electronic music concerts of the past few decades, and for that matter the rock stage and a lot of post-"Bitches Brew" jazz stages, have been characterized by an indecipherable maze of cables, connectors, monitors, and mikes (it's become almost a form of machismo), the stage at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival's event Saturday night at CellSpace, by contrast, was sparse. A few Mac PowerBooks, surge strips, a couple of rack-mounted effects units, and a sound board, and that was it. Miniaturization is indeed making strides.

Electronic music's beginnings were closely interwoven with the spoken word and a certain fascination with the dissociation -- or at least the reevaluation -- of the connection between the sound of the word and its meaning. By extension, the meaning of any sound came up for experimentation. In the best examples of this kind of work, we are inspired to freshen our way of hearing, to break our habitual symbolic associations, and to hear anew. The danger, as we have seen for many decades now, is that cutting-edge music, or sound art, risks always having a sound with an edge of bewilderment or searching. It takes an artist of strong conviction and large talent to move ahead confidently.

Pamela Z, who opened the concert with sketches and excerpts from a new work entitled Gaijin (Japanese for "foreigner"), is such an artist. She also stands firmly in this "avant-garde" tradition -- one that, paradoxically, requires consistent renewal and groundbreaking. But it is a tradition, and as such is connected to other traditions, something Pamela Z has explored a great deal. This work had the announced purpose of exploring issues of foreignness and alienation, based on the artist's having lived for a time in Japan. It used elements of that unfamiliar language (mostly elemental vowel sounds) as a kind of passacaglia upon which she built looped and delayed vocal variations.

In climactic sections she also worked with sampled phrases and instrumental sounds through the fascinating use of a setup called a "BodySynth." It consists of electrodes taped to various muscular points, which, in response to physical tension, creates a varying voltage. This in turn is used to gate the sampled sound, turning it on and off at structurally critical points. Z activated the BodySynth with characteristically theatrical and graceful hand and arm gestures reminiscent of Geisha dancing. The final variation was an engaging and virtuoso display of digital delay control, all based on the word "other."

Z is an unusual and naturally gifted performer with a ravishing speaking and singing voice and a stage presence that is both engaging and commanding. Her presence was therefore welcome in another real high point of the concert -- the duo with Dan Joseph entitled, daringly, Duo for Voice, BodySynth, and Hammer Dulcimer. Z was working with a bank of sampled dulcimer sounds, and Joseph was on stage playing the instrument itself, through a delay line. It was a delicious and well-coordinated piece that found its full expression in a satisfyingly short amount of time.

Of the other three works on the program, two were Mac PowerBook performances -- a novel visual thing to be sure, making unavoidable associations with the eccentric solo pianist la Glenn Gould. Hunched over their flat screens, manipulating sampled sounds with fierce intensity, Steev Hise and Carl Stone were both astonishingly proficient at layering samples of their source material, although they were coming from very different places musically.

Hise's Syntagma Engine Beta Test almost didn't make it because his Mac had crashed after the preshow sound check. It appears that technology, despite the engineers' best efforts, has a way to go. Watching a performer struggle with a failed computer or a dead mike -- glancing desperately at the sound tech -- is a bit like watching Ashkenazy grope for the piano pedal and fail to find it, looking down and around in puzzlement. It will be a good thing when this ceases to be a part of the stage picture.

The two works of Hise-- Syntagma Engine and Familiar/Signifier #2 -- were much involved with pastiche techniques, drawing referentially on 1950s music, newscasts, and television shows. They sounded derivative to my ear -- I think "retro" is the term. Although well performed, Syntagma left me cold. Familiar takes its name from a witch's companion animal, in this case Hise's amplifier. The work consisted of his pulling it around the stage by a string and stapling various scraps of paper to it. It was not a success. Unrelieved and frantic, it didn't come off.

Stone's work -- Flint's, one of two based on a Scandinavian disco hit entitled "Barbie Girl," was firmly rooted in dance music. It was loud, rhythmic, and a lot of fun. (Some audience members set to dancing.) It was also a set of "sampling variations" performed in real time. Even behind a computer, Stone has a strong stage presence. The blend of technical brilliance, humor, and silly disco music worked.

Introducing the concert was installation artist Ed Osborne, who showed a video of three installations, all involving small machine works and random groupings of events. They were all highly imaginative, but had varying degrees of success. One was installed in CellSpace's gallery: three motion sensors hung over upturned speakers on the ends of long, flexible booms whose motion was reminiscent of oil drills or, in the artist's words, "Goth giraffes." It was visually engaging, musically less so.

The venue itself was marvelous. Run by an educational and artistic collective and located in a large, converted warehouse, CellSpace has many levels of different materials -- wood, concrete, metal, cloth, stone -- and a fascinating irregularity of form, with lots of places to roam around Then there was the very friendly staff, serving popcorn sprinkled with brewer's yeast (actually very good!) and mineral water. I look forward to returning.

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