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If six avant-garde musicians get together in an art gallery, does it make a sound? You betcha.

Wednesday, Jan 28 2004
I've heard a lot of complaints these past few months that the San Francisco music scene is dying. Citing factors such as a lack of venues and practice spaces, shrinking audience support, and rampant fragmentation and decentralization where there once was communal focus, the complainers speak of their once-beloved scene as if it were a relative on life-support, as if we, its concerned family members, were all sitting around the hospital waiting room hoping for a miracle yet fearing the worst. I'm not ready to jump on this boat just yet, mainly because I know that there are still pockets of life in this sprawling array of venues, record shops, bands, and labels that ply their trade here in our city.

One such pocket is the experimental rock community, where bands like Deerhoof, Numbers, Total Shutdown, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Monopause, and Saints of Killers, among others, thrive. When I heard that members from each of these bands would be performing solo improvisational sets at New Langton Arts as part of the gallery and performance space's first-ever "Crawling Out From Under Rock" program -- which, to paraphrase curator Eli Crews, aims to force these artists to show different sides of their musical personalities than the ones we encounter in their respective bands -- I got pretty gosh darn excited. After all, you can tell a lot about a city's musical landscape from its avant-garde component, that wellspring of new ideas from which tomorrow's better bands will draw their inspiration. And so off I went.

Star Date: January 23, 2004. Venue: New Langton Arts, downstairs theater. Time: 8 p.m.

The evening kicks off with a performance by Deerhoof's drummer, Greg Saunier. As the restless crowd murmurs in the darkness, Saunier sits down on the floor in front of an old Yamaha keyboard and dons a look of earnest bemusement, a look that says, "I'm really gonna try hard to do this right." Then he begins playing music that is not unlike the jumbled cartoon character on the front of his T-shirt. On a keyboard that farts out dime-store organ sounds, Saunier hammers out random chords, searching for moments of melodiousness that those of us familiar with his band's oeuvre know he'll never find. Throughout his 15-minute set, Saunier's chords are as strained as the expression on his face. It's like watching a 9-year-old with three piano lessons under her belt combining whatever notes she's mastered in a fruitless attempt to render a tune. But because this is a grown man and a member of an internationally acclaimed band, the exercise soon becomes humorous -- Oh, come on now, you can do better than that -- and more than a few chuckles spring out from audience members when Saunier changes keyboard patches from one glurpy sound to a nearly identical one, or when he closes out his set by singing like a choir boy.

Next comes Monopause's Heco Davis, who plays seven vintage turntables simultaneously to create a 20-minute canvas of music and noise. Davis has manipulated his records so that each piece of vinyl produces only short snippets of sound over and over, which he then tweaks on the turntables for speed and volume. With all seven decks in motion, the noises intermingle with one another like the goo inside a lava lamp; one's attention drifts from a fragment of recorded speech here to the creaking of a wheel there, as all these sounds chatter away to create something alternately cacophonous and mellifluous. It's very much like the early tape-loop experiments of avant-garde composer Steve Reich.

Saints of Killer vocalist Jesse Quattro dabbles in a similar kind of sound-layering. Channeling her voice through two effects pedals, she manipulates delays and distortion to turn her singing into wave after wave of eerie, ominous noise, over which she adds still more singing, as well as yelping, screeching, moaning, shrieking, bellowing, and just plain breathing. Quattro is blessed with a healthy set of pipes, which becomes clear as she sends shock waves of vibrato ringing through her phrases (I'm guessing she could hold her own on stage at the Met). But drenching her voice in effects and turning it into a banshee wail seems puerile, like singing into a fan and hearing your voice reflected back to you, all chopped up. The sounds are beautiful at times, but the concept leaves something to be desired.

When we return from an intermission, Total Shutdown's Paul Costuros and his assembled band (two drummers and a trumpeter, with Costuros on reeds and trombone) have rigged a digital projector up to a video-game console and are projecting an image onto the gallery's large, white wall: Pac-Man. As an audience member plays the game, Costuros and company take to soundtracking Pac-Man's munching of dots and ghosts with bursts of drumming and horn playing. When Pac-Man dies, the band stops, and the audience, captivated by the drama of his demise, collectively sighs "Awwww," then anxiously awaits a resumption of the game, which becomes more harrowing with each restart, as the woman at the controls attempts to evade her enemies and complete each level. Through the clamorous music, Costuros -- acting as a kind of antiJohn Williams -- injects an amazing amount of tension into a simple game. The whole exercise is pretty damn funny, too, if not glaringly pointless.

Next up is Numbers' keyboardist Eric Landmark, who starts off playing two songs using his own invention, the Buzzerk, a little box that makes squelchy buzzing noises. The Buzzerk is neither a rhythmic nor a melodic instrument, although Landmark attempts to employ it as both, which makes the tunes -- "Go-Go Girl" and "Hungry for Love," both of which feature Landmark's kitschy vocals and lyrics -- seem like practical jokes. Indeed, they elicit laughs from the audience. When Landmark picks up an acoustic guitar and is joined by his buddy Eric Bower on Echoplex-effected electric guitar, things get a little more conventional, with Landmark singing some country-esque originals as Bower's licks twist and wail in the background. The act is mildly entertaining, but it's nothing that "Weird Al" Yankovic couldn't have come up with if he'd gone to art school.

The night's final performer is Moe! Staiano of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, who, according to the program, specializes in "found-object sound arsenals and the prepared drum set." This translates to Staiano going totally apeshit -- pounding on drums and bike wheels, throwing and breaking plates, positioning cymbals upside down throughout the performance space and then placing various massagers and vibrators on them -- turning the whole room into a happy choir of whirring, shimmering, and banging, all of it almost controlled by Staiano, who clomps around the gallery like, well, a gorilla, at one point sticking his head inside a drum and primal-screaming at the top of his lungs. It was, in a word, awesome.

So what did we learn on this night? As with a lot of this city's experimental rock, I'm at a loss to tell you what we were supposed to get out of it. Rarely could I tell if the artists were being deliberately obtuse, playing music designed to shake any label one could think to stick on it, or if they were moving towards something specific, an affirmation of some concept or belief, however indistinct. To put it another way, are the bands and musicians that make up San Francisco's avant-garde community embracing anything, or is it all about negation, each act of creativity merely another proclamation of rebellion against standards and conventions (and melody)? I often fear it's the latter.

In their at-tempts to categorize such acts, a lot of people describe what bands like Deerhoof, Numbers, and Total Shutdown do as being associated with no wave, a term that seems to emphasize refusal over affirmation. What I heard in Saunier's aimless noodling and Costuros' funny-yet-silly Pac-Man jam and Landmark's toneless Buzzerk was an anti-statement, something that said, "We will not make enjoyable music." Their pieces seemed concerned with destroying traditions, a necessary step in the evolutionary process, but a step I think we've exhausted in these jaded, irony-drenched times.

Davis, Staiano, and Quattro, on the other hand, seemed to be exploring something -- sound as sculpture, maybe? Whatever it was, I got a certain satisfaction from hearing Davis succeed in melting his vinyl together and Staiano transform the entire gallery into an analog for his buzzing brain. Even Quattro's less compelling effort was, at the very least, probing and sincere.

The music scene here is by no means dead. But it is fragmented and cliquey. The packed house at this event confirmed that there's no shortage of enthusiasm for the new ideas brewing in San Francisco's experimental rock community. If the leaders of that community can use this enthusiasm to make fresh discoveries and share them with new audiences, instead of making the same inside jokes for the same group of insiders over and over again, then those of us sitting in that hospital waiting room may just get the miracle we've been hoping for.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps


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