The SF Electronic Music Festival kicked off its ninth season last Wednesday at Project Artaud’s Florida Street theater. Partnered with the ODC dance collective, the festival this year marks a new collaboration with SFSound, a group of high caliber musicians who specialize in extemporaneous extended technique electronically amplified contemporary music. That is to say, they blow softly and carry a big woofer.
Staffed entirely by volunteers, the festival showed off 15 very different takes on electronic music over five days, concluding with Sunday’s lecture and final performance.
Wednesday evening’s opening explored this diversity. Sharkiface, the nom de guerre of artist Angela Edwards, used layering techniques à la Pamela Z, who introduced the evening and was a festival founding member. But unlike Pamela, she replaced vocal looping with amplified scraping of branches and rush of waves.
Just as an expanded photographic image changes character from flowing curves and soft colorations to squared-off shapes and pixelated palette, so also amplified nature revealed quantum guts, waves truncated like a bad phone connection. The ratcheting slip and grip of bow scraping string or branch contrasted with broader hissing, a wave in air or water.
A slow, rhythmic base lent a meditative structure to rough sounds of tearing and garbage truck clangor. Wookiee moans and the chink of change overlaid the splash and hiss of waves, as odd textures built and seeped away. One striking image projected in back, a player piano with keys madly playing sans sound or performer, was metaphor for the attenuation between instrument, player and sound.
Five SFSound members played a composition by clarinetist Matt Ingalls. Their amplified breathing wind-sculpted nature, a concerto of proto-sounds bracketed by unison sustained notes.
Piano and percussion joined them for David Bethel’s sly piece, The Eye Unblinking, where lighting added visual puns and click-tracks kept each performer marching to a different meter. The instruments overlapped and converged, then staggered apart. Marimba sharpened its bright sound into a sunny anger, dueling with piano in thirds.
Minimalist Phil Niblock had a very different offering. Three exquisite videos of people mending nets, seine fishing, and weaving were backdropped by a monolithic wall of sound, as impersonal as the first half was felt. Slowly shifting pitches and massive bass lent an air of despair to the busy workers, whose frenetic actions became ludicrous against the electronic sound. In a sense, they were crushed, and we with them, in Niblock’s estranged visions.
The following day’s concert
The Friday, concert opened with Richard Teitelbaum’s Serenissima, joining amplified electronic “thresholds” with interactive clarinet and sax, featuring SFSound’s Matt Ingalls and John Ingle. The programming used the latest in fast Fourier transforms, separating out complex waves of sound and enabling each of the three performers to affect the whole. An example of this transform is shouting into a piano, then hearing the odd ghostly echo as each string vibrates to one frequency of your shout. Whalelike slides and thick breaths framed the purer electronics, which opened and closed the piece with windlike whispers.
They were followed by Myrmyr, a Mills-trained cello and piano duo, for an enjoyable but more predictable offering of layered instrumentals and voice.
The night was joyously capped with the big sound of Persian composer Ata Ebtekar, who employs a Persian scale (radif) for an illuminating combination of ancient culture and modern synthetic. His delicate tones were blown larger-than-life, a tinkling of broken glass exploded into sound shards that rent the night.
The ancient scale bunches up notes in half-steps, with stretches between for lift and lilt. One easily imagines the thrust and roll of a belly dancer in this music. Ebtekar translates these cultural referents into subsonic explosions and polyploid wind chimes for a bizarrely beautiful experience.
Two days of this festival certainly whetted my appetite for next year. More information is available at www.sfemf.org.
This article originally appeared in the Piedmont Post