San Francisco Electronic Music Festival
Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012
Better than: Front 242.
The last night of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival featured two openers sourced from the Mills College electronic music department, Chuck Johnson and James Fei, before main attraction Negativwobblyland (that's a portmanteau of local electronics tweaker Wobbly and tape music legends Negativland). The academic association was an appropriate one, as Sunday's sets were an unlikely but welcome admixture of the educational and the entertaining: Educational for the completely unique sound generation and tools employed, and entertaining for the happily organic and humane way it was all presented.
Chuck Johnson's set began with unassuming drones generated by a bank of modular synthesizers hooked up to a lap steel guitar. By the time he reached a crescendo of cascading tones all over the sonic spectrum -- sounds that seemed ricochet throughout the gorgeous interior of the Brava Theater -- it was hard to remember how he got there. The lush forest of audio bloom subsided back into the simplicity with which it began, and somehow even more elegantly than how it expanded. It was a beautiful swell of a set, with a deceptively coherent arc that set the bar very high for the evening.
Despite wheeling out a massive speaker cabinet, James Fei somehow managed to start his performance off even more unassumingly than Johnson. Spare crackles and bumps emanated from the visibly vibrating cabinet as Fei took the more eccentric tack of bursting these abstract quanta of sound at unexpected and shocking intervals. It made for a thrilling effect amplified further by the eventually throbbing speaker that dominated the center of the stage. The performance was a tad overlong, having stated its thesis of alien sound signatures around the two-thirds mark, but it was nonetheless a deeply innovative and inscrutable piece.
Following a short intermission, Negativwobbyland's set of improvised live electronics was an oppressively psychedelic miasma of sound. The three gentlemen stood in front of a table overflowing with synths, wires, mixers, and other unspeakable implements and offered the most performative and energetic set of the evening. Though the proceedings occasionally dithered, the anarchic array of squawks and bleeps reconciled into vistas of concordant synth melodies and beats that provided a welcome coherence and a launching pad into some truly inspired wailing. It was fun and weird without overstating its case, and at its peak, giddily arcane.
This is a wonderful, volunteer-run festival whose programming seems to get more dialed-in every year. It's no small compliment to say that this night of avant-garde electronic composition was consistently satisfying, rarely confounding, and never infuriating.
Overheard1: "My job is a dumb thing I do from home."
Overheard 2: "Do you like music?" "No."
Overheard 3: "They usually do women things in here."