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The S.F. Electronic Music Festival Launches With Bold Improvisations

September 14, 2015

San Francisco Electronic Music Festival

Thomas Dimuzio performing at opening night of the S.F. Electronic Music Festival (Photo by SFEMF)California and the Bay Area have been a hotbed for electronic music since the earliest days of the genre — from John Cage’s experiments with radios and turntables to the short-but-prolific tenure of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the mid-1960s. Half a century later, electronic music still maintains a strong experimental draw, in addition to having effectively permeated the production and performance means of much mainstream commercial music.

The San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, which ran Sept. 10-13, just finished its 16th edition and catered explicitly to the former group. The audience filling the Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum on Sept. 10 for opening night seemed for the most part to know what to expect; few members, if any, were waiting for the bass to drop (spoiler alert: it didn’t).

The evening had a bit of an unfortunate start; Italian musician Alessandro Cortini, one of the festival’s leading attractions, had to cancel his appearance due to a family emergency. Local favorite Wobbly (Jon Liedecker) teamed with Philadelphia-based Charles Cohen (who also performed on Sunday), improvising as a duo for the first time to fill the spot.

Wobbly and Cohen are electronic musicians of different generations, technological proclivities, and styles: Cohen is a dedicated performer of the Buchla Easel, a rather obscure creation by the Bay Area instrument designer Don Buchla responsible for much sonic mayhem, whereas (at least from my vantage point) Wobbly appeared to rely on a combination of contemporary touchscreens and older-style circuit bending. Whatever their differences, their onstage rapport was masterful, producing a remarkably coherent, yet ever-changing aural experience. Eerily attuned to one another, the two musicians seemed equally comfortable settling into a momentary laid-back groove, slashing the air with searing strands of feedback, or agreeing onto a polyphonic drone of utterly cosmic proportions.

Sparse timbral explorations gradually coalesced into more rhythmic, ostinato-driven sections, materials seemingly grabbed out of thin air to be twisted and reshaped into something new. Eerily attuned to one another, the two musicians seemed equally comfortable settling into a momentary laid-back groove, slashing the air with searing strands of feedback, or agreeing onto a polyphonic drone of utterly cosmic proportions. A nod and a smile and the improvisation was over, its last strains quietly fading away. The ensuing enthusiastic applause indicated the audience had actually been left wanting more.

The second half promised to put the Kanbar’s 100+ speakers to good use, given composer/performer Thomas Dimuzio’s penchant for spatialization and soundstaging. The results were pleasing, as Dimuzio avoided obvious effects (such as extreme panning, surround movement, and the kind of thing you’d expect to hear in a Dolby demonstration) in favor of a more subtle approach, one that added almost tangible thickness and depth to the already massive soundscapes he concocted.

Lopsided, elliptical loops anchored the evolving sound, which grew towards pitch and dynamic extremes not touched by the previous set. After approaching maximum saturation, the music would eventually recede into lighter textures, further revealing the heft and scale of the sound that preceded. As in the previous improvisation, Dimuzio also approached his processes with care, making sure the preservation and gradual change of looped and sampled material could serve as a unifying thread for the whole. A multi-camera setup provided the exhilarating experience of looking over Dimuzio’s shoulder as he navigated the myriad knobs and faders of his imposing setup.

Despite the emergency caused by the cancellation, the 2015 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival debuted with authority. The festival offers something for everyone, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it made a few converts to the “darker” side of the vast field of electronic music.

Giacomo Fiore is an Italian-born guitarist and musicologist specializing in U.S. Experimentalism and intonation. He teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory, USF, and UCSC.

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