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(Multi) Media Frenzy 

Musical experiments in media and film have led to a local growth in new ideas in composition

Wednesday, Mar 3 1999
Peter Freund's Real Virtuality ensemble is playing to two audiences at Venue 9 on this night -- one in front and one behind. As the members take their places onstage, film of the second audience is projected onto screens around them. They exchange candid banter and tune their instruments, until a virtual conductor appears on screen and prompts them to play.

The music itself is sparse, sporadic, and wildly experimental. The percussionist plays a styrofoam burger container with a violin bow. Meanwhile, the "real" audience starts looking around and almost on cue, the virtual audience begins to comment. It's a typical night merging video, film, and music, an increasing occurrence around the Bay Area.

"What starts to happen is you get these amazing coincidences, amazing juxtapositions that provide new material," says Dan Plonsey of Berkeley-based Beanbenders. "So rather than making an art out of cliches, you're making an art out of coincidence."

Use of multimedia at concerts isn't a new thing (see sidebar), but it has grown in popularity with local audiences of late. The Club Foot Orchestra has sold out a majority of the countless times they've played the Castro Theater since 1989. A 10-member ensemble of composers and performers, the group writes and plays new interpretive music for silent films such as The Hands of Orlac, Robert Wiene's 1925 horror-suspense classic.

However, the musical experiments aren't limited to classic full-length films. The five members of Sprocket Ensemble perform live jazz with new animations providing a backdrop. Composer Nik Phelps got the idea while working on a CBS cartoon -- The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat -- with the Club Foot Orchestra. "After it ended, I wanted to continue doing animations," says Phelps. "I decided to do this monthly screening of shorts because it would be something that I could get the material for pretty easily." Typically, Phelps recruits animation from around the Bay Area, although one recent piece came from Boston.

Sprocket Ensemble performances -- at the 111 Minna Street Gallery on the last Monday of every month, but also at local movie theaters -- are rife with guest appearances, including sound-poetess Pamela Z and, most recently, the Chronicle's Leah Garchik. "We kind of think of ourselves as vaudeville for the '90s," says producer Nancy Denney-Phelps. "Every month we kind of want people to wonder what we're going to do next." During the shows, abstract and free-flowing stop-frame animations, accompanied by avant-jazz, segue into familiar Saturday morning cartoons.

SOMA's Venue 9 caught the technology bug 2 1/2 years ago in its search for cooperative collaboration among artists. More recently, multimedia elements have crept into the space's Wednesday night music events. "We started to see early on that anytime we made it a video event with music, we would sell out, just hands down," says Artistic Director Mary Alice Fry.

The showcases demonstrate a collision of the two mediums: The music questions traditional sonic boundaries through a variety of experimental musicians, while experimental film and video explores that medium with a sense of the avant-garde. "You can chalk it up to the TV generation or whatever," says Fry. "My hit on it is that it's part of a left brain/right brain thing. The minute you engage the visual, the mind tends to relax and open up a bit more."

Recently, Venue 9 screened video artist Peter Freund's Real Virtuality: A Step Towards Holographic Theater. In it, three projector screens surround live musicians. The total interaction is designed to expose underlying social habits, how much we really listen to each other, how we take each other for granted, and technology's role in masking emotions. By the end of the piece, the visual experience has become abstract, leaving audiences wondering where they fit into this semivirtual visual reality. "This is really brand-new stuff and we want to go towards a sense of holographic theater," says Fry.

Berkeley's Beanbenders has long been similarly enthusiastic about melding both experimental music and film. And while the venue's recent eviction from its home in Berkeley Store Annex has resulted in fewer shows, it's also provided a new opportunity to further explore those combinations. On April 25, Beanbenders begins a series of concerts on the last Sunday of each month at Berkeley's Fine Arts Cinema.

"What we visualize doing primarily is utilizing space, which involves this huge movie screen," says Dan Plonsey, one of the venue's managers. "In some ways I hope it'll be more like we'd originally imagined." Plonsey says he's interested in possibly using films that people commonly know, but replacing the original soundtrack with a Beanbenders-style improvisation on the music and dialogue. "We want to make an art that's not totally rehearsed and is [as] much a surprise to the performers as it is to the audience," says Plonsey.

In San Francisco, Artists' Television Access in the Mission acts as a forum for creative people interested in multimedia. The space's regular events on Thursdays and Fridays involve independent film screenings, multimedia shows, and slide shows that can be, but are not always, combined with music.

"You never know what to expect," says Gerado Perez, ATA's board chair. One evening, an artist wrapped herself in clear plastic and tried to climb a ladder, attempting to portray the confines of the female image. Another evening, local band Solarcane played amid the light images cast from dangling sculptures and projected light. "Usually almost always, when there's music playing, there's some kind of accompanying video or film, whether they're film loops or video pieces," says Perez.

For Wet Gate, a local all-projector ensemble, performing with film isn't very different from a standard music performance. A trio of former fourth-grade AV geeks -- Peter Conheim, Steven Dye, and Owen O'Toole -- they play their 16mm sound projectors like any rocker uses his guitar. By manipulating the projectors' optical tracks, a series of unusual and repetitive sounds are created. Simultaneously, fragmented images are looped and projected onto screens and out over the audience. The performance becomes an audiovisual frenzy, with all three members feeding off each other. "We jam like any other band," says Conheim.

Since 1995, Wet Gate has been performing intermittently, experimenting with various methods of projection. But creating an interesting sound is equally important for the group.

"It's challenging music," says O'Toole. "For people coming expecting to hear a band, they're going to get something that just might flip their lids.

About The Author

Katie Zarling


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