San Francisco Classical Voice: Electronic Music, A Blast, A Vision

by Thomas Gross
May 5, 2000

Give some people an amp, and they can’t wait to see just how loud it can go. Leather-jacketed juvenile delinquents who preen at heavy metal concerts have no idea of the true limits of auditory toughness. When they walk into a rock concert, the blast from the immense speakers immediately shuts down half their aural capacity, leaving at most the distant sensation of thudding and screeching. It would have been interesting to gauge their reaction to the opening night of the first annual Electronic Music Festival, in Cellspace, a modified warehouse space on Bryant St. in the Mission. That was a true taste of patience and endurance. Endless cascades of high frequencies reflected off of metallic walls were just slightly too loud, not enough to shut ears down but adequate to pry them open to the point where intellectual processing became an unending challenge.

The composer/performers who graced the stage did incorporate a progressive vision of culture and new sounds in their individual aesthetics. It showed the course of electronic music holding steady with other contemporary art, also constantly innovating and rediscovering itself.

Miya Masaoka in particular stood out. Her Bee Project #6 was prefaced by a short film about bees. No school science film this. Rather, the focus was on the sinister side of hive culture while exalting (slightly tongue-in-cheek) the solitary bee in tones of individualist-anarchist idealism. Meanwhile, the images behind the terse onscreen captions did everything to disturb and provoke. Bees crawled over the naked flesh of a woman’s belly, the hairs of her vagina, even the tip of her tongue. Masaoka manipulated bee sounds from her console, rushing clusters of buzzes, brief snaps and drones, fuzzy conjunctions of individual humming, huge walls of growl.

Then she played the music. For those, like myself, whose experience with Masaoka has been her electronic explorations of pure noise or her long tone poems of every possible thing to do with a koto but play notes in sequence, it was a beautiful surprise. The diminutive kotoist unleashed wondrous strands of progressive gagaku melody, punctuated by odd notes grabbed out of midair from her proximity sensors. Offhand scrapes and buzzes infiltrated, then dominated. But so carefully and artfully were they developed that it was clear a strong sense of compositional intuition was present. Bowed scrapes dissolved into a return of the drones of the film soundtrack. It was a powerful statement that came directly from the soul of the player and made for one of her most compelling performance works to date.

Dan Joseph’s GOT GUNS is a well-crafted tone poem merging politics, humor, and structured improvisation. It started innocently enough, with the few plunks and blips of its composer hitting the keys of a synthesizer. But the strokes triggered sound samples, bites and salvos in the ongoing war over gun control. Inanities spouted by gun lovers tangled with hapless, impotent objections, leading to the transfer of sonic energy into a collage of unlistening arguers. Then the debate was interrupted with a cannonade of gunfire samples, from locking and loading the weapons to the harsh chatter of a tommy gun, played back at terrifying volume.

The voices returned, so slow that they droned without meaning in an endless ostinato. A clockwork of ricochet seemed to melt into the distance, as preface to a repeated slice of a cowboy film, ominous spaghetti-western chords over boot steps in gravel. Cowboy clichés built, in a nightmare texture, slow dragging guitars and whistles cresting in a giant wave of sound, hiccuping on graveled boot steps. Then Joseph suddenly introduced a snippet of Baroque music, played at first so high as to sound like a calliope, then endlessly chasing its tail in overlapping loops before fading away as a fitting epitaph of sinister, empty jollity.

The last two numbers represented the greatest challenge to the ear, at least in terms of physical injury. Possibly the fault may have been with the sound engineers controlling the seismic experience rather than the performers. Carl Stone’s Sripraphai brought the program back to a more traditional direction in electronic music. No samples or doohickeyed acoustic instruments here, just composer Stone sitting at a little table, making adjustments on a laptop computer as a series of descending doodles climbed over and over microtonally. This was composition by gradual modulation.

Stone’s alterations to this simple pattern introduced an ever more savage tone until the notes resembled the clunking of an out-of-balance clothes washer. The development of the long middle section of hip-hoppus-interruptus was interminable at the volume presented, making the perception of any intricacies exaggerated beyond any pretense of subtlety.

Endangered Species, Alvin Curran’s long one-man duet between jazz piano and samples from nature and its antagonists fared little better when blasted. The lovely, ripping riffs over a simple chord pattern based on “As Time Goes By”; the fluttering of insects sweetening looped wolf howls, the huge, all-out chorus of as many samples played at once, all lost any inherent beauty when played so loud they lost their meaning. But Curran had style, flair, and a powerful sense of structure underneath all the loudness. It would have made for twice the effect at half the volume.

(Thomas Goss is resident composer for Moving Arts Dance Collective, and is a member of New Release Alliance Composers, the Cabaret Composers Consortium, and sits on the steering committee of the Bay Area Chapter of the American Composers Forum.) ©2000 Thomas Goss, all rights reserved