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Houston Chronicle

Tuesday, Feb 4, 1992

What's the sound of plastic unrolling?
Irreverent explorations give edge to new-music festival

Music Review by CHARLES WARD

SonicWorks: The Art Guys, Pamela Z, Richard Zvonar, Joan La Barbara, David Moss





New-music festivals such as SonicWorks are always catch as catch can affairs. The best performers can be electric, the others challenging, even disappointing. Held over the weekend at Diverse Works, SonicWorks, the first such festival in Houston in 5 1/2 years, was no different, with its mix of nationally known performers and stalwart local bands. Who could resist the Aaart Guize's Wrap Music? Who should be bored by Jerry Hunt's dementedness? New music is a subculture. The performers and fans tend to be drawn from different worlds, for new music deals with aesthetic ideas different from the mainstream norms. Any kind of sound is acceptable in its world.

Indeed, few people from the usual Houston classical music circles attended the main concerts Thursday - Saturday. Moreover, the city's more mainstream composers were conspicuously absent (as they almost always are, no matter where new-music festivals are held) even though the focus of SonicWorks was the composer as performer. The absentees missed some provocative ideas, a couple of great performances, and a lot of fun in the main concerts at DiverseWorks on East Freeway, or at late-night events at the Commerce Street Artists Warehouse. Fun, often in the form of parody or satire, is inevitable in new music. Outsiders always need a defense/offense.

For SonicWorks, the main practitioners were Houston's Aaart Guize ink, or Art Guys, Inc.; take your choice. Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing don't care. They poke fun in their deadpan way. They also have developed fans who seems to know the guys so well they start to laugh before the routines begin. In Wrap Music, the Guys gave in to pop culture, they said. They took two industrial-size rolls of plastic wrap, the kind used in sandwich shops, and began to wrap two stacks of boxes sited several dozen feet away. The fun continued until Galbreth's roll accidentally tore. Laughter is one result of such pieces, but they offer lessons in perceptions as well. The sound of the plastic separating from the roll itself became an objective of perception, even beauty, if the viewer wanted.

That happened graphically in the video Music of the Spheres (1987). In it, the Art Guys took close-up pictures of "spherical objects" rolling down the bass strings of a slightly tilted grand piano. The fun was anticipating the dark, bowling ball-sized object that inevitably came to blast away the tiny translucent ones preceding it. But the beauty was seeing the shimmering glimmer of these small balls rolling in slow motion down the strings and hearing the slowed-down sound. Sight for sight's sake and sound for sound's sake, as it were. Other performers organized sound in a more traditional way, using untraditional techniques.

Pamela Z, a vocalist from San Francisco, was the dynamite act of the three concerts I saw (I missed the Sunday afternoon finale). Using electronic tape loops, she created her own accompaniment from simple sounds, vocal or otherwise. One came from hitting an empty plastic water bottle with a gloved open hand. Over and around these accompaniments, she wove funny, sad, melancholic and otherworldly songs. The songs were polished and her performances electric.

And with Richard Zvonar, she made fun of Tipper Gore, Jesse Helms and the people who found supposed mental manipulations in rock albums. Yes, she had her own subliminal messages: One comprised her and Zvonar's names pronounced backward. The Los Angeles-based Zvonar typified another aspect of new music –the use of computers. He sampled various sorts of sound, such as a CD recording of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and then manipulated the sounds live using his own computer software. He didn't always have luck getting the machinery to work, so awkward gaps stalled his performance. More substantially, the resulting "pieces" sounded mechanistic, as if the use of software still had to be transformed by an aesthetic dimension.

David Weinstein used computer technology in a more limited, and successful, way. His keyboards included a disc drive for reading types of sounds stored on 3 1/2-inch floppy discs. His one brief solo was almost pure noise, but he used it in a highly appealing way. Despite his allegiance to new-music principles, he knew the fundamentally important aesthetic values of how to shape sounds and, just as importantly, when. to stop. (He also worked with Shelley Hirsch, a cabaret singer who went on at length in often nonsensical, non-tonal music.)

So did .David Moss, the other really amusing performer I saw. He has merged his use of complex and varied vocal sounds and electronics with his devastating deadpan humor to create an irresistibly funny style of performing. Once listeners moved beyond the seeming gibberish of his many voices, they could sense that Moss can create complex and yet satisfying piece. So what that he played his drums set under a shiny plastic cover in one of them, and then used the sound of crunching up the cover to create a looped sonic backdrop, just as Pamela Z did? Moss did an extended solo with Joan La Barbara, long an important figure in new music because of her development of extended vocal techniques. Unfortunately, her own solo music was disappointing. It seemed that the style and substance of her music haven't moved with the times. The pieces, dating from 1988 and 1990, seemed far older.

Another stalwart was Dallasite Jerry Hunt. His pieces had titles such as Bitom: fixture (topograph) (1992), and they were accompanied by mind-numbing explanations (the sort outlawed in consumer loan documents). They really were nothing more than justification of his performances, which included jerkily moving around the stage to play with toys in random ways. "Jerry's crazy," said one performer fondly. I'd delete the adverb.

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