Vol. 26 Issue 3 Reviews
New San Francisco Tape Music Center: Transparent Tape Music Festival

Transparent Theater, Berkeley, California, USA, 11-12 January 2002

Reviewed by Jonathan Segel
Oakland, California, USA

On 11-12 January, 2002, the Transparent Theater in Berkeley, California, hosted the Transparent Tape Music Festival, curated by members of the New San Francisco Tape Music Center (NSFTMC) in conjunction with the ACME Observatory Contemporary Music Series. The weekend concerts were very well attended by any standard (the second night the seats sold out and people had to sit in the aisles) and certainly by the standards of new music concerts in particular.

The concept of what "tape music" is has changed a great deal in the interim between the dissolution of the original San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC), first formed in 1961, its subsequent move to permanent housing in the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music in 1966, and last year's formation of the NSFTMC. Most of these changes in definition have come about from technological advances in the fields of electronics and computers, enabling audio to be recorded, manipulated, and mixed with or without the use of actual recording tape. The present definition, as supplied by the program for the festival concerts, has to do with the idea that the music to be presented is in a fixed medium: no arbitration by performer happens in its presentation. In fact, however, many of the pieces were spatially manipulated in real time by the NSFTMC collective members.

The original SFTMC held performances of electronic music of all different varieties, many with live performers and wild visual art, through the 1960s. The SFTMC collective consisted of many luminaries in the field of electronic music such as Pauline Oliveros, Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnik, Terry Riley, etc.

Another major difference between the original organization and the new one is the present version's lack of an actual Center. It exists virtually, centered in San Francisco, as the name implies. The five members of the NSFTMC collective—Matt Ingalls, Thom Blum, Kent Jolly, Cliff Caruthers, and Joseph Anderson—all live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and, even though all of them were represented in the concerts, many pieces came from other parts of the world. Feeling that there were no forums to explore or exploit fixed-medium music, the collective felt it necessary to create one. They cite the original SFTMC's grassroots style of organization and their manifestation of performances as influential in re-establishing the organization.

Prior to this festival, NSFTMC concerts involved breaking apart the members’ own studios for gear to use in the performances, which were staged in warehouses or abandoned office spaces. This festival was the first NSFTMC event to actually be presented in a theater. With the music in fixed form already, the collective was spared the nightmares involved with hiring performers, rehearsing pieces, hosting composers, etc. They did, however, have to think about what to do with a large group of audience members gathered together in a dark room.

Without anything to look at but loudspeakers, a concert of playback music must be incredibly engaging to captivate an audience for an hour or more at a time. The collective sought to shape the sound into the environment of the Transparent Theater, a building that had once housed a church, creating solid, three-dimensional sound imagery by means of 16-channel (8 stereo pairs) diffusion of the predominantly stereo compositions. The theater space itself is housed in a 12 m wide by 12 m high room, about 35 m deep from the rear of the audience to the stage rear wall. Various types of speakers were arranged in pairs throughout the space aligned toward the audience, the rear walls, the ceiling, etc. The source tapes (or CDs) were run through one of two multi-channel mixers, one an actual mixing board and the other a multi-channel digital audio mixer in a Macintosh computer, the latter playing back mix values preprogrammed for the specific pieces. The collective had several days of sound-checks in the theater to make things perfect.

The results were phenomenal. The sound imagery and movement created what the collective referred to as "cinema for the ear," which lent linear narrative to the successions of sounds in the pieces. Many different types of "tape" music were presented over the two day festival, all of which benefited from the very well rehearsed and planned sound diffusion.

Thom Blum stated: "There was a time when people complained about leaving their homes to listen to tape music. Why sit in a large dark room, void of performers, and just listen when you could do the same thing in the comfort of your own living room? The increasing availability of large surround sound networks enables composers of tape music to add spatialization to their creations as a fundamental parameter. Diffusion of sound in space is one compelling reason to bring this music back into the concert hall. One of our goals is to revive the local interest in this music and satisfy an enthusiastic audience, now hungry to 'just listen.' The relatively large turnout at our January concerts showed that this is, indeed, possible."

Each evening's presentation was divided into two halves, with a 20 minute intermission. The programs for each presentation included recent compositions from the NSFTMC composers along with other composers from around the world, interspersed with a few classic pieces of fixed-medium music.

The first evening opened with a short cubist-audio take on Perez Prado. Mambo a la Braque, by Mexican composer Javier Alvarez (presently teaching in London), dating from 1990, is basically a splice-and-edit take on the mambo "Caballo Negro." The piece retains rhythmic elements of the mambo while temporally shifting pieces of its harmony, melody, and instrumental timbral groupings, creating a multi-dimensional look at the song's form and sound.

Kent Jolly's 2001 composition Cymbal followed, a landscape of sound created by manipulation of recorded cymbals. The composer's intention was to offer commentary on travel and its effects on the perception of time. This was illustrated during its 9 minute duration by means of differences in pitch and playback speed of the manipulated sounds. An inadvertent addition to the mix came about when latecomers who had arrived to find the front doors locked and nobody present at the box office began banging on different doors of the theater!

Scottish composer Alistair MacDonald's 1996 composition Kilim was next up. The only context I know the word “kilim” in is the weave of Persian carpets, and indeed this composition is woven like patterns of a rug, juxtapositions of sets of different durations and timbres. The sound sources were apparently saxophone and piano, opening with short, spliced fragments over drones, elements of harmonic content coming through occasionally to give hints at the instrumentation. The overall structure weaves its way through several sections of differing rhythmic qualities, some gestures appearing to be microcosms of the piece as a whole. Many of the rhythmic sections gained an organic element by their basis in the rhythm of the saxophone player's breath, regardless of the distance that the manipulated sounds had traveled from their original sources.

These pieces came to life in the space through the live sound diffusion generated by active mixing on the part of the composer-members of the NSFTMC. The sounds of the pieces enveloped and swam around and through the theater space, creating a sound environment that worked architecturally with the forms of the pieces.

Cliff Caruthers has been working as a sound designer in theaters around the Bay area, and his 2000 piece, Killaloe Moon, presented here in its 17-min entirety for the first time, is a very theatrical soundscape. It consists of recorded environments from London, New York City, Kansas City, San Francisco, and Killaloe, Ontario, with the addition of bits of storytelling and the composer's own hiking footsteps. The composer had pre-programmed the spatialization for the playing of this piece such that it moved around and through the audience. The localization of human elements such as the footsteps gave a solid audio image that any audience member could follow on its journey. Musique concrète proved early on that taking recorded sounds and presenting them out of context allows a vantage point from which we can concentrate on subtleties in the sound not normally understood when taken in as part of the contemporaneous environment. Mr. Caruthers’ piece utilizes this aspect of everyday sound to a psychologically charged and slightly surreal effect, like watching a movie hearing only the Foley sounds.

The second half began with another piece of musical cut-up, this time from Antii Saario of Finland, with a 1998 piece entitled B-Side. The composer's sparse notes state that "with B-Side, I found myself caught between zero and one." This piece seems to be a parody of sounds heard at a rock band recording session, abstracting potential beat-oriented musics heard in that context, juxtaposed with studio banter and setting-up sounds.

From there we heard a couple of the classics. Back in 1930, the filmmaker/sound artist/writer Walter Ruttman created Weekend, his audio portrait of a Berlin weekend for the Berlin Radio Hour, using recordings of people, places, and things that were mixed onto an optical track on film, normally used for movie sound reproduction. His statement in a 1929 manifesto on the use of found sound as compositional material pointed the way for many subsequent composers: "Everything audible in the world becomes material." It seemed natural to include a piece of this nature in the festival, and the minimal spatialization added to the mix was both appropriate and effective. Ruttman was an interesting character in the world of film arts, and the spatial diffusion of his audio portrait merely added to its collage-like filmic quality.

Bye Bye Butterfly, Pauline Oliveros' 1965 piece, was made by the heterodyning of two oscillators through a pair of cascading amplifiers, a turntable playing "Madame Butterfly," and a tape delay setup. It was recorded in real time as a performance. This piece is presented to most first year electronic music students as an exemplary work in the history of electronic music. I have never heard it presented more perfectly than through the diffusion of the sound in the space of the Transparent Theater. The interaction of the heterodyning tones was able to create twisting interactive tones in the ears of the audience, the distance in echo time becoming physical distance. Ms. Oliveros' statement about the piece—"[It] bids farewell not only to the music of the 19th century but also to the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalized oppression of the female sex"—has been a tag line for this piece for years. In this space, however, it was quite evident how this composer is a forward-thinking woman who was aggressively dealing with the nature of sound as an audio metaphor for her dealing with society's place for women, perhaps even playing with the very physical differences between men's and women's high frequency hearing!

As a way of bridging the gap back to the present, Joseph Anderson's 1996 piece ChAnG E S M U S I C utilizes many methods of sound treatment to present a series of audio portraits of John Cage, or, more specifically of John Cage and his Music of Changes. The composer cites his use of the Dellaria modes of sound recording: document, pseudo-document, and abstraction. His source materials are recordings of lectures that Cage had given, using words, sounds, or whole passages illustrated and punctuated by manipulations of a recording of Music of Changes. The piece is divided into 13 contiguous sections, each distinct in its gamut of source material: some use the sounds on the vinyl record, some use the sound of the record itself. The sounds from the source material are isolated for elaboration and use in the construction of new musical sequences. There are many sections where the music acts as theatrical score for the statements that Cage is making. The use of the sound diffusion in this sequence of sections was effective, especially in surprise elements creeping up from behind the audience in critically dramatic moments of Cage's storytelling (such as his describing the fiasco of a lecture he had given in Milan that had been billed as a musical concert, resulting in the confused audience rushing the stage). A long piece altogether, at 26 minutes, but, with the essentially theatrical element of its presentation, thoroughly engaging.

The second night's performance followed the same basic temporal shape as the first night, beginning with Montreal composer Yves Daoust's 3-minute piece Mi Bemol from 1990. The “mi-bemol” of the piece is an Eb major chord from a little music box that serves as the thematic element that ties the series of concrete landscapes together in a concise rondo form, travelling from indoors to outdoors. The spatialization created a modicum of movement within an arch or sky of sound above the audience.

Thom Blum's 12'45" J-Wake from 2001 came next, utilizing the spatial diffusion in waves to bring the listeners under the surface of the granular waves, lulled into the depths by an enharmonically ringing siren song. The fluid effects of the sound, melded with the encompassing sound diffusion, presented an eerie whirlpool in the theater space, resulting in intense dramatic effect. The wake itself could have been either the movement of that sound ocean or a wake for a drowned friend, perhaps the source of his dedication to the memory of a departed friend. The dramatic results were like listening to the sea being torn apart and being enveloped by the tiniest pieces of it.

Korean composer (presently at Princeton) Tae Hong Park's 2001 Aboji, a 9-minute, 8-channel companion to a previous work, Omoni, came next. Aboji is a musique concrète portrait of a father, or fathers in general. Much of the material comes from the voices of many people apparently speaking about their fathers. The piece is a collage that plays with the listener's ability to form a clear picture from the information being given by never being overtly referential, changing the size and processing of the verbal sound bytes, and playing with the referential processed objects, instruments, and environmental sounds used as backdrop.

Breath and the Machine ended the first half, a 13’30” piece from 1999 by Paul Koonce. This is a meditative piece, almost by necessity: it deals specifically with the rhythm of breath. While using an incredible number of instrumental timbres, it cycles through a few pitch centers, starting by alternating pitch areas in major or minor seconds apart, gradually widening and adding occasional other pitches. An extremely wide timbral vocabulary is demonstrated, not only by use of actual recorded instruments but also by subtle and overt processing of them. For the most part, this piece happens in front of the audience, perceptually. His notes for the program indicate that he is experimenting with the dynamic that is present between the performer and his instrument, the breath and the machine.

The second half began with John Oswald's 3-minute Bell Speeds, a literal title that refers to the recording of a "bell the size of a pea, heard in eight octaves." This piece, from 1990, exhibits how simple layering of different speeds of the same sound source can make effective music. A slow horseshoe shape was made by the diffusion through the playback speakers as new sounds entered.

Beginning with another bell sound, the next piece up was the 1958 composition, Poème électronique, by Edgard Varèse. This piece was of course created for sound diffusion in the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 World Fair in Brussels. It was designed to be a work that would "profoundly affect human sensibility by audio-visual means," according to Le Corbusier, the credited architect of the pavilion. The piece, a classic tape collage, again is one of the studies we have all listened to many times in learning the history of electronic music, but finally hearing it "in space" made it that much more prescient.

Hildegard Westerkamp, a Canadian composer originally from Germany, was represented by her 1987 composition, Cricket Voice. This 11-minute work consists of waves of processed sound, all originally recorded in a Mexican desert: the sounds of crickets, old water reservoirs, and also percussion created on desert plants like the spikes of cacti. Ultimately an encompassing landscape piece, it proved beautiful and meditative, with flowing layers of tones falling upon the listeners.

Matt Ingalls brand-new 2002 piece, Fingerling, explores his own journey as a musician from a recording of himself as an 8-year-old clarinet student through spliced collages to his present state as a computer-musician and clarinetist and back again. The piece contains narrative elements based on situations in his life, of personal resonance for him as both composer and listener, and which end up creating an interesting formal structure for the listening audience. A great deal of the middle of the piece is taken up by field recordings of bats as well as the field recording of the field recorders themselves. In fact, many of the live-recorded situations seem to be a very mannerist play on the idea of recording the people who are recording the situation (most of whom are the composer himself!). The latter section contains sounds of a recording session wherein the recorders were dropping marbles or ball bearings onto a surface, spatially presented as if it were really happening on the theater stage. After the piece it was a little spooky to see that the stage was bare! At 10 minutes, the piece is structurally composed to a high degree, creating a large arch of the composer's life, ending up with a final statement from the composer as an 8-year-old student: "well, that wasn't very good, but it's the best I could do." This is a sentiment I disagree with on both counts.

The final piece was the 17-minute suite Névé by New Zealand native Denis Smalley, presently head of the Music Department at City University in London. The composer states that the piece is inspired by walking on the Fox Glacier in New Zealand, and is meant to be suggestive of the environmental images and material. The first movement, "Névé", referring to a mass of hardened snow that feeds the glacier, is an expanse of smooth but menacing long tones representative of the névé itself. The second movement is titled "Corrie," a hollow that is formed by glacial erosion. This movement relates the grinding of environmental elements in the corrie to the grinding of spices and such in a mortar and pestle, which he used as source recordings. The third movement, "Sandar," refers to an open, coastal plain of sand and gravel with streams of melted snow. Representing this, the composer starts with fragmented sound pieces, gradually widening into larger harmonic and enharmonic plains. Of all the pieces presented, this one could have benefited most by having sub-woofers available in the theater. All in all, however, it was a relaxing end to the festival.

The predominant associations that I came away with from the weekend were visual. The spatial presentation of these works made them highly engaging, adding an internal visual element to the listening of sound-pieces played back in a predetermined space. This can be a tricky situation for an audience—it's hard not to lose attention when there is nothing to hold the eyes—but in this theater, the sound itself held our (internal) eyes. The narrative that is created simply by spatializing the sound diffusion over a wide playback system is extremely effective. This was a refreshing and encouraging concert series. I hope that it continues and that it continues with the high standard that the NSFTMC has upheld.

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