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Transported by Sounds

February 3, 2009

San Francisco Tape Music Festival

Tape music, and the technology behind it, has come a long way since composers first began using and manipulating recorded sounds in the 1940s. This year's annual San Francisco Tape Music Festival made clear just how far it has come, by juxtaposing classic tape pieces from 50 years ago with brand-new works. The festival ran for three nights, Friday through Sunday, at CELLspace in San Francisco. I was only able to attend the final concert, which provided an enjoyable, intriguingly wide spectrum of approaches to electronic composition, showing both the continued relevance and vitality of the early works and the dramatic strides that have been taken since.

While the art form has been given numerous names, with different shades of meaning — sound art, audio art, electroacoustic music, electronic music, musique concrète, digital audio media, to name a few — calling it "tape music" seems a fitting tribute to the older works presented on these programs. Although all the contemporary works were presumably created digitally, the early works would have been created using magnetic tape. The often arduous task of cutting and splicing from reels of tape is what gave birth to this art form, and as much as the technology has advanced, it is still rooted in the sounds and techniques that this way of working made possible.

The Tape Music Festival presented a rare opportunity to hear these works in full surround sound. Over 20 speakers arranged in a circle around the audience allowed the music, with its rich spatial qualities, to have its full impact. Being completely enveloped by sound in this way is quite an experience, and I highly recommend trying it, even if the avant-garde or experimental is not your thing. Familiar sounds acquire both a strangeness and a surprisingly emotional power when heard in such a setting. The older pieces on the concert were represented by Iannis Xenakis' Concret PH (1958), Edgard Varèse's Poème Électronique (1958), and Olivier Messiaen's Timbres-Durées (1952). Xenakis' work was a dense barrage of crackling noise, consisting entirely of loud, shrill, snapping, intense sounds, based on the sound made by burning charcoal. Varèse's work contained sudden shifts and violent juxtapositions of a wide variety of sounds, from bells to sirens to voices to drums, arranged in an endlessly intriguing, unpredictable fashion.

New Mix for a Reduced SpaceBoth these works were originally created to be played on no fewer than 450 speakers arranged throughout the huge Philips Pavilion, a structure designed by the architect Le Corbusier for the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels. The Festival organizers here attempted, with some success, to create a new mix for these works that would re-create the sound diffusion that existed in that vast space. Messiaen's work had a similarly wide range of sounds — woodblocks, gongs, choked cymbals, and rumbles of varying pitch and volume — but cycled these sounds repeatedly through various permutations and rhythmic variations, creating a sense of repetition and circularity that was unique to this work.

Each of these works was effective on its own terms, though Messiaen's endless cycling eventually verged on the pedantic. But while it was clear that the sounds in these works were older and less shiny than those in the newer pieces, the final products did not suffer artistically as a result. The scent of something new, bold, and exciting lingers on these works, even 50 years and generations of technology later.

Among the new works were pieces by the Bay Area's Moe! Staiano and Matt Ingalls, Texan Jon Nelson, and the UK's Lisa Whistlecroft. Staiano's work, Tape Piece No. 2: Extraordinary Path of Being, started the concert with intensely piercing drones, and displayed the same brilliant sense of pacing that I have heard in his solo percussion improvisations, with sounds changing and evolving at precisely the right moment. Nelson's objet sonore/objet cinétique was highly dramatic, almost cinematic, with sounds that strongly evoked imagery and place — crickets chirping, train whistles, shuffling feet — all artfully combined to create a strong sense of narrative, like an abstract movie soundtrack but with no images. Ingalls' Sonatina featured rhythmic grooves that kept almost materializing but never quite settled in, while Whistlecroft's Walking With Ghosts was meditative and trancelike, with the same sound material continuing for minutes on end, ebbing and flowing, varying its volume and spatial arrangement. At several points, incredibly deep low rumbles shook the room and seemed to rearrange the atoms in my body. Its 23 minutes flew by, as it transported me to a place beyond time.

It was a valuable experience to hear the old innovative masterworks alongside contemporary pieces. The new works displayed great subtlety, clarity, and variety of sonority, making it clear that it is now possible to create and manipulate virtually any sound imaginable. The older works clearly had a more limited vocabulary of sounds and techniques, yet the lineage was nonetheless clear, and it was fascinating to get a sense of how the art form has evolved in a mere five decades. What it will be like and what will be possible in another 50 years is hard to imagine, and I hope the Tape Music Festival will still be around then to let us know.

Jonathan Russell is a professor of musicianship at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and music director at First Congregational Church in San Francisco. He is active in the Bay Area as a clarinetist, bass clarinetist, and composer.