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Sounds About Right, and Then Some

January 8, 2011

San Francisco Tape Music Festival

I rarely feel surprised by programming at a concert. Normally, by looking at the repertoire and the performers, I have a good idea of the type of event I’m in for because I go in ready and prepared. So I was eager to hear some of the three-night San Francisco Tape Music Festival at Fort Mason last weekend, with its surround-sound system supporting 16 loudspeakers.

Few classical composers these days can evade some experience with electronic and/or tape music. Most big-name composers (outside the typical tape-music world) have been involved with it at some point — such as Steve Reich, Pierre Boulez, György Ligeti, and John Adams, to name a few. My exposure is limited, though I have studied it, and was briefly excited and even obsessed by several pieces. It seemed to be a world with which I was not fully engaged; I have always thought of music as a collaboration between composer, performer, and audience — three essential, interrelated parts.

In preparation for the Tape Music Festival, I began listening to all the tape music I had already amassed, through my computer’s dinky, miniature speakers. I hadn't made it through a third of my music (I have a lot) when I began to feel nervous about the concert. Perhaps because I was raised as a performer, I absolutely love what a performer brings to a piece. Yet, the more I listened to taped and electronic music, the more my trepidation.

I could not have been more wrong. The show was vibrant, exciting ... and packed. The presenter even had to sell tickets to sit on the hall’s steps, and ended up letting the overflow crowd stand in the atrium and listen through the curtains. Everyone in the audience was friendly and chatty, and most seemed willing to share their opinions with me.

True, it was a bit bizarre to remove the performer from the composer/ performer/audience triumvirate. The physicality a performer brings to a piece of music, for one, can help a listener engage with the piece on a higher level. Also missing: the physical cues live performers use to indicate when to applaud. Every piece lingered in awkward silence at the end while the audience waited to make sure the piece was really over. Also, the pieces were performed in pitch darkness, and while that was engaging for my ears, our senses are intertwined and what you see also affects your hearing.

A Zesty Potpourri of Sonic Treats

The music itself was a smorgasbord, ranging from good to excellent. I loved the opening act, Donald Sarsfield’s Of Noise Alone, a piece for many types of clapping in a fully realized, spatial world. The clapping moved from right to left, from the back of the stage to the front, even in circles. The composer seemed to have had fun combining the sound of a huge audience clapping with a single person’s claps (but mixed louder).

Cliff Caruthers’ Open Door stayed ajar far too long for my taste. While it produced many intriguingly engaging sounds, it was easy to lose track of the structure quickly, as things seemed to come out of nowhere.

Orgone Accelerator by Kyle Bruckman was my favorite piece. Exciting and rhythmic, it grabbed me from the opening moments and reminded me of the electronic dance music (EDM) a friend has me listening to. While EDM is typically more interesting sonically, this piece was musically engaging, even beautiful.

By contrast, Heather Frasch’s Sonic Postcard Philly-Style didn’t draw me in. She simply recorded sounds from a trip to Philadelphia (people talking, trucks moving, and the like) and sliced and diced them with little manipulation. Luckily, Dixie Treichel then brought something much needed to the festival: a sense of humor. His piece, Interstellar Espionage, was what the title implies, producing excellent sounds that seemed alien until you realized what they were.

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Judging by folks I spoke to, probably the most divisive work was Ilya Y Rostovtsev’s Understatements (I), which recorded every sound possible that a zither could make, and then combined them to basically write a straightforward piece for super-zither. It was exciting and engaging, and musically well structured.

I hated the Boulez Étude, feeling a need for performers to humanize the piece. And one more field recording, this time by Thomas Blum, didn’t grab my interest. It was followed by some more experimental selections by an ’80s band called The Art of Noise, which seemed to say, “Here we are. We can do anything with electronic music and get away with it!" It made for huge fun for the audience.

Matt Ingalls, a curator and director of the festival, had a lovely piece on the program that was not silly or aggressive, nor over the top. We also heard an excerpt from Maryanne Amacher’s aggressive Synaptic Island, a sound installation that in the darkness on the Fort Mason pier seemed to inhabit a building with high ceilings, her music filling the room.

The concert concluded with a Francis Dhomont work that meandered but ended with celestial, electronic bells. Each note rang out clear and pristine.

Now, if only the audience had known when to applaud ...

Matthew Cmiel holds degrees in composition from The Curtis Institute of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He has received numerous commissions, including one from Maestra Marin Alsop for the Cabrillo New Music Festival. Founder of the ensemble Formerly Known as Classical and The Hot Air Music Festival, he is currently the Director of Orchestras at San Francisco's Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, and co-director of the ensemble After Everything.