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Electrotherapy 

Bay Area electronic musicians have finally decided to hold a festival for their work. Forget the dancing shoes.

Wednesday, May 3 2000
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Before "electronica" there was "electronic," and the Bay Area has been a hotbed of experimental electronic music for decades. There's arguably the greatest concentration of electronic sound innovators on the planet here, yet curiously, there's been no annual event devoted solely to the electro-audio set. To rectify this, several local electronic musicians organized last November, and the result is the first annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF) this weekend at Cell Space.

When avant-garde koto player Miya Masaoka -- who will be performing Friday with an acrylic box filled with 3,000 live bees -- started putting out feelers to fellow electronic musicians about organizing such a festival, it quickly became clear there was a focused desire among the individuals involved to work communally. Not unlike, say, bees. "As artists we often work individually and in isolation," Masaoka says, "and I think it's extraordinary that so many artists of this caliber are working collectively very hard to put this festival on." Most of the SFEMF artists often see each other at New York venues and European festivals, she adds, "and it's ironic that at home we don't have any festivals like that. I don't think that there's any other ongoing electronic music festival in the United States, actually."

Sound artist Ed Osborn, whose "Recoil" installation will be one of three at the SFEMF, was the director of a similar festival, soundculture 96. He says the SFEMF shares some elements with soundculture (a periodic trans-Pacific new music festival), but is much smaller, localized, and focused in scope. "What we wanted to do with this event is showcase a particular kind of sound work that is special to the Bay Area, has its roots in the history of California experimental sound and music, comes out of a natural comfort with electronic music technologies, and is sometimes underrecognized," Osborn explains. "Also, with the term 'electronic music' having come to be popularly associated with dance and club musics, we thought it important to present work reflecting the history and practice of electronic music that developed separate from its association with the dance floor."

Festival special guest Alvin Curran, who co-founded the Italian radical collective Musica Elettronica Viva in 1965 and is presently the Milhaud Professor of Music Composition at Mills College, agrees the nebulous term "electronic music" covers an enormous cultural span, from hip-hoppers to academic computer nerds. In any case, electronics are here to stay, he says, noting that the Bay Area community is one of the liveliest in the world, in part due to its history: the San Francisco Tape Center, which launched the careers of groundbreaking innovators such as Morton Subotnik, Pauline Oliveros, and Don Buchla, and other adventurous institutions such as Mills College's Center for Contemporary Music, "new music" centers at Stanford and UC Berkeley, and KPFA. Hosts of younger artists now active in the Bay Area also play a role, Curran adds, with Silicon Valley providing an air of contemporary excitement and immediately accessible technologies to play with.

Pamela Z, who has been part of the San Francisco electro-acoustic community since 1984, says the Bay Area has long been a great place for "new music" festivals and events, and it's important to give the more experimental, noncommercial electronic artists an outlet for greater local exposure. "These days, when I say I do 'electronic music,' I get looks of immediate recognition, and I wind up explaining to people that 'No, I am not a DJ, and I don't do dance music,'" she says. "Although I'm really happy to see the tradition of avant-garde electronic music starting to seep into, influence, and meld with pop music and dance music through this new 'electronica' trend, I am also sometimes disappointed that so few people are really aware of what a long tradition this kind of work has, and how much truly powerful work is still being made by artists who don't confine themselves to danceable rhythms, who experiment with inventing their own personal approaches to the composition and performance of electronic work."

The SFEMF showcases several unusual and adventurous approaches toward sound control and manipulation. Laetitia Sonami's Bay Area premiere of "Conversation With a Light Bulb" features the interaction between light bulbs and an instrument of her own invention called the "lady's glove," which contains different types of sensors including velocity sensors (like an airbag) and proximity sensors (like a burglar alarm). In "recast," special guest Kenneth Atchley uses fountains as a sound source. And then there's sensorChip, a trio comprised of Donald Swearingen, Miya Masaoka, and Pamela Z, with all three using various sensor instruments. Explains Pamela Z: "Donald uses light sensors, and a jacket he developed that contains sensors that are activated by bending. Miya uses ultrasound sensors with her koto as well as a laser harp Donald developed, and I use the BodySynth." In all of her SFEMF performances, Pamela Z will be using voice, live processing, and her BodySynth controller, which employs electrode sensors like those used in hospitals to translate muscle electricity into MIDI information for controlling sound.

"The sophistication of the technologies people are using might appeal to a nonmusician, certainly in this high-tech community we live in," says festival co-founder and organizer Dan Joseph. "There are a lot of electronics and very sophisticated programs, as well as unusual, custom-oriented, often homemade or artist-designed electronic instruments." He also hopes the installations will appeal to people interested in the visual arts: Osborn's "Recoil" consists of several free-standing structures with sensors attached, creating a kinetic, auditory experience suggestive of artificial life; Paul DeMarinis' mildly shocking "Still Life With Guitars" uses electric current to create "a world in which touch and hearing are for a moment unified"; and an artist collective called sponge will provide "Sauna #1," a media-toxin sweatbox of sorts.

Unabashed computer geeks should find something of interest also, with people like Carl Stone and Steev Hise playing entire pieces on computers; Hise's "Syntagm Engine Beta Test" is being billed as an "open-source software experiment." Computer musician Stone, who was this year's guest artistic director of the Other Minds festival, is another initial organizer of the SFEMF. Performing two Power Book-facilitated obliterations of Aqua's "Barbie Girl" this weekend, Stone agrees there is no festival-style format that supports electronic music as an art form in the Bay Area, despite the wealth of activity here. And he doesn't see any potential for future competition between Other Minds and the SFEMF: "Other Minds is much more eclectic, and usually electronic music is just one component among many each year, if it is represented at all. Also, as Other Minds tends to focus more on artists from outside the Bay Area, the SFEMF serves as a showcase for local talent."

There are threads of cultural commentary running through the SFEMF as well, such as Joseph's politically charged sampler piece "Got Guns," which draws from the audio effluvia of American gun culture. "My piece is certainly trying to stimulate some kind of discourse," he says. "I've always tried to tie in political or social ideas in my work, so for this piece, I try to make a range of feelings come out of these gun clichés. Hopefully it's say- ing something positive, a way of disarming the gun."

Another provocative piece, Curran's solo Diskklavier piece "Endangered Species," will feature music and sounds of the world played extemporaneously like "some kind of sonic recombinant gene splicing." Curran notes that while creative outlets such as the SFEMF are always necessary -- otherwise "the musics of the world would have all been stillborn" -- he sees adventurous electronicism as the indefatigable "wild herbs" of the music scene. "We thrive anywhere, from empty lots to landscaped gardens. This music, as fundamentally unpopular, unmarketable, elitist, and misunderstood as it is, is as stubborn and necessary as any of the 'fine arts' that humans delve in. We do it whether anyone likes it or not; it's like an evolutionary mandate or a neurological tick, whichever you prefer."

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Mike Rowell

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