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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Gongs, Boopers, and Disintegrating Loops: The S.F. Electronic Music Festival Will Challenge Your Assumptions About "Electronic Music"

Posted By on Wed, Sep 5, 2012 at 3:30 AM

Negativwobbyland with their Boopers.
  • Negativwobbyland with their Boopers.

Just what is electronic music, anyway? That phrase typically connotes electronic dance music, your techno/electro/electronica, untz-untz-untz and all that. The mostly annual LovEvolution festival calls itself a celebration of "electronic music culture," and we here at All Shook Down described the not-actually-in-the-city I Love This City Festival as featuring "electronic artists." That's all completely valid, and we love it, but that's not all there is to the fire of electronic music, either.

Ever since 2000, the annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival has offered a different kind of electronic music experience, one which is simultaneously more straightforward and more abstract than the other events, with a primary focus on "independent artists whose innovative aesthetics challenge academic and commercial standards." This isn't the electronic music of DJ Tiesto at Shoreline, but instead harkens back to a more basic form, to John Cale testing the sonic limits of the Vox Continental organ in a chilly New York apartment in the 1960s.

So, where the other festivals are electronic dance music, the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival is electronic experimental music, what the founders call "sound art." As an added bonus, you get to sit down, and the restrooms are clean and easily accessible.

The Festival also challenges another modern assumption about electronic music: That it is, by definition, digital. Gotta have computers to make electronic music, right? No: Electronic music pioneers such as Wendy Carlos and Jean-Jacques Perrey did the majority of their most computery-sounding work well before even the earliest personal computers like the TRS-80 hit the shelves, and that analog spirit is alive and kicking in this year's lineup. Indeed, the word "analog" is prominent in the descriptions of the three of the acts we're most excited about.

Negativwobbyland is, as the name might suggest, a mashup of members of Negativland and Wobbly (aka Jon Leidecker). Both Negativland and Wobbly are known for remixing and repurposing found sound -- often sound that the original owners would rather they hadn't found, hence Negativland nearly getting sued out of existence by U2's record company in 1991 -- but Negativwobbyland is all about the Super Booper Electronic Oscillator, or the Booper for short.

Boopers are analog feedback devices, built by Negativland founding member The Weatherman out of bits scavenged amplifiers and radios. If you've ever listened to Negativland's weekly KPFA program Over the Edge, you've heard the Booper (they rehearse for this performance on the most recent episode, in fact.) Here, the Weatherman -- who sadly will not be appearing with Negativwobbyland at SFEMF this Sunday, Sept. 9 -- explains how his creation works:

While Boopers are constructed out of things that still actually get used -- you'll find amplifiers at LovEvolution, and probably even a radio if you look hard enough -- much of William Basinski's work is based out of an even more obsolete analog technology: Magnetic tape. (Kids, ask your parents or Google it.)

His best-known work, the four-volume set The Disintegration Loops, is a series of recordings of old tape loops playing themselves to death, the iron oxide on the tapes turning to dust, until the tape was just reduced to a strip of plastic. Adding to the mythology is the association of the piece with Sept. 11, as Basinski says that he and his neighbors in Brooklyn were listening to those disintegrating loops they watched the towers burning away on the Manhattan skyline. This is heady, deeply contemplative stuff, and it can give unearned gravitas to totally silly things, like this public access show about cats that used "d|p 2.2" from The Disintegration Loops II as the soundtrack for its final episode (You can catch Basinski this Friday, Sept. 7):

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Sherilyn Connelly


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