Vol. 37 Issue 1 Reviews

Sonic Circuits 2012: A Festival of Experimental Music

Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street Northeast, Washington, D.C., USA,
28-30 September 2012. Full documentation of the event is archived at

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

Sonic Circuits pictureSince 2001, Washington, D.C. has hosted the annual Sonic Circuits festival of experimental music, a festival that is devoted to cutting-edge, contemporary music that often defies simple categorization. Over the course of three jam-packed days, this year’s offerings, expertly directed and curated by Jeff Surak and his volunteer staff, ran the gamut from improvised electronic noise to highly refined computer music. In addition to the many concerts and sound installations there were film screenings as well as a lecture-presentation by Arthur Harrison about the unique theremins his company manufactures.
The Atlas Performing Arts Center is a venue known for programming adventurous concerts of jazz, new music, and world music. It has several halls that are able to accommodate different media. Additionally, there were plenty of options for non-traditional spaces, such as the hallways and bathrooms, which were used for sound sculptures, and sound and video installations.

Sonic Circuits 2012 began with the screening of the film Romantic Warriors II, an historical documentary about the Rock in Opposition (RIO) movement. Directed by Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder, the film tells the story of a short-lived, but highly influential, avant-garde rock movement that defined itself through grass-roots programming directly opposed to commercialism and the recording industry. The RIO movement, born in the late 1960s, was characterized through the work of bands such as Henry Cow, Univers Zero, Present, Magma, Samla Mammas Manna, Thinking Plague, and Etron Fou Leloublan, some of which are still touring and concertizing today. Beginning a festival of contemporary, experimental music with an historical documentary was an effective way to ground, and put into perspective, the work found in many of the following concerts. After the film screening there was a question and answer session led by the film directors and composer-percussionist Chris Cutler of Henry Cow. Cutler described the challenges of controlling the means of distribution, organizing concerts, and composing for a heterogeneous collection of individuals who virtually defined what has now become known as the DIY (for “do it yourself”) movement.

Following the screening of Romantic Warriors II there were two programs, ably curated by Sylvia Schedelbauer, of experimental films and videos in which sound featured prominently. Most of the films were abstract, shot without the assistance of a tripod, and assiduously avoided any reference to narrative structure. They were clearly indebted to artists and filmmakers such as Marcel Duchamp, Maya Deren, Robert Smithson, Stan Brakhage, and Kenneth Anger. Musically, there were three pieces that stood out. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma’s ambient, electroacoustic score for Paul Clipson’s film Sphinx on the Seine effectively contrasted the fast moving time-lapse visuals with slowly moving chords, dyads, and difference tones. Takashi Makino’s film Generator, created in response to the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, “visualizes Tokyo as an eroding metropolis” (Sonic Circuits’ program book). Jim O’Rourke created a drone-based, electroacoustic score that analogously matched Makino’s use of extremely slow panning effects and changes of color, visual “snow,” and other types of fuzzy distortion. Using raw waveforms, O’Rourke slowly modified his drones with filter sweeps that drew one’s attention to various harmonics, juxtaposing them with a variety of consonant and dissonant intervals. Curator Sylvia Schedelbauer’s film Sounding Glass employed a strobe effect (the visual equivalent of simple amplitude modulation) that lasted throughout the film and made for a challenging perceptual experience, bordering at times on becoming hallucinatory. Thomas Carnacki’s score for this film used the sounds of breaking glass, water flowing, and string timbres processed in such a way as to suggest the erhu, or Chinese two-stringed fiddle.

Friday evening’s concert featured three acts that engaged with technology in very different ways. The European quartet Diktat combined discarded, low-fidelity, analog technologies such as Dictaphones (tape-based dictation machines) and homemade electronic contraptions to create densely layered sound collages. The Dictaphones were used to tape and replay sounds created live, as well as to play back a variety of tapes (used as found objects) that occasionally added some humor. As if to foreground the obsolete nature of the Dictaphone, Diktat amplified the sound of the on/off switch being engaged and disengaged, as well as result of holding down the rewind and fast-forward buttons as the tape heads were engaged. Toward the end of their lengthy performance one of Diktat’s members, in order to filter and funnel his Dictaphone’s sound, placed a long steel tube on its speaker and loudly amplified the output.

Austrian sound artist Mia Zabelka created richly nuanced textures with an electric violin, laptop, and several outboard pedals used for processing and distortion. The work of Laurie Anderson came to mind, but Zabelka’s depth of expression and use of technology goes much deeper than Anderson’s. Zabelka demonstrated how a single performer might achieve a convincing ensemble density in real time. For this performance she collaborated with video artist Elise Passavant, who supplied dark, brooding visuals and nihilist texts that would make Diamanda Galas blush. Passavant and Zabelka “twist the idea of the Orwellian nightmare of a super surveillance state peopled with techno addicts, whose peripheral vision has been reduced to the size of a cellphone screen” (Sonic Circuits program). Scary stuff, indeed.
The last performance on Friday evening, one of the highlights of the festival, featured the David Behrman Ensemble, performing Behrman’s autobiographical and epic seven-movement composition, My Dear Siegfried. The performers included Thomas Buckner and Eric Barsness, vocalists, Ralph Samuelson, shakuhachi, Peter Zummo, trombone, Theodore Mook, cello, David Behrman, violin and electronics, and Jesse Stiles, engineering and sound design. All of the instruments were amplified and fed into Behrman’s laptop, which was running Max/MSP, used for processing, looping, and other types of sonic modification. Behrman is a well-known pioneer in electroacoustic music and computer music, who along with Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, and Alvin Lucier founded the Ann Arbor-based Sonic Arts Union in 1966. For My Dear Siegfried Behrman utilized texts from a treasure trove of letters sent between Siegfried Sassoon and the composer’s father, Sam Behrman, as well as poems written by each man.

The texts proceed linearly, beginning with Sassoon’s 1917 poem “Does it Matter,” which uses irony to capture the sense of “mindless patriotism of the British public and its indifference to the sufferings of the soldiers fighting at the front” (Sonic Circuits program). As if to underscore this sense the ensemble performs unison, lock-step rhythms punctuated by sudden starts and stops. The second and third movements (switched in performance) employ texts that describe the differing childhoods of S. Behrman and Sassoon: one grew up in a tenement in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Worcester, Massachusetts, while the other grew up well off in a country house in Kent, England. The second and third movements featured, respectively, a shakuhachi solo, processed to emphasize its upper harmonic content, and a cello solo modified with delay lines, looped playback, and frequency modulation techniques. Given the tonal palette of the cello solo, the result sounded like a space-age blues that would not be out of place in a televised opera by Behrman’s old friend Robert Ashley. The fourth movement poignantly presents Sassoon’s “Statement Against the Continuation of the War,” which he wrote while serving as an officer in the British army. It is a powerful statement by a conscientious objector from World War I that still has contemporary relevance. Interestingly, Sassoon’s statement so threatened the British Parliament that they had him committed to a mental hospital in an effort to marginalize him. The music for this movement built into thicker textures as Behrman’s laptop took on a larger role in modifying the entire ensemble, while Zummo moved around the audience playing a conch shell, an instrument used to mark the death of a leader in certain countries from the South Pacific. The fifth and sixth movements featured letters written between Sassoon and S. Behrman in 1939, in which they express their apprehension about the inevitability of the upcoming war. With his laptop, the composer creates chaotic, bubbling rhythms, filtered overtones, and microtonal drones to foreground an eerie sense of destabilization. Overall, Behrman’s composition successfully integrated advanced technologies, thought-provoking texts, and live instrumentalists.

Saturday morning began with a 10 A.M. presentation by Arthur Harrison, president and CEO of Harrison Instruments, Inc., a Maryland-based company that designs and manufactures electronic instruments such as the theremin. Harrison showed his unique theremin designs and showcased his virtuoso performance skills. Unlike the standard version of the theremin, Harrison’s theremins are made with flat plates, with the right hand used to control pitch, while the left hand controls volume. Additionally, the closer the left hand gets to the plate, the louder the sound becomes, which is the opposite of how Leon Theremin designed his instrument. The result of Harrison’s innovations is a more intuitive, performer-friendly design, which the inventor himself abundantly demonstrated.

Following Harrison’s presentation, two electroacoustic performances took place in the Great Hall, a small, raised stage set up in the main hallway. Mercury Fools the Alchemist, the name of the duet in the first performance, created their music with an electric guitar and a homemade instrument that they called a “Springamajig Synthesizer,” essentially a Kinetix toy box with stretched springs amplified with contact microphones and activated by mallets made of various materials. This one-of-a-kind instrument was indicative of the DIY attitude that was prevalent in this festival. The second hallway performance featured Pat Gillis playing an analog synthesizer module to produce what he calls “harmony-avoidant electronic sound.” Gillis slowly built up his textures as he demonstrated his virtuosic ability to turn knobs in real-time.

At noon on Saturday three additional performances took place in the Lang Theater, the largest concert hall at the Atlas. All three of these performances used technology in innovative and evocative ways. First, Jeff Surak presented his collaboration with Berlin-based filmmaker Sylvia Schedelbauer. With the minimum amount of equipment (a few pedals and a mixer) he created loud, dense textures that were well matched with Schedelbauer’s strobe-animated, pulsating landscapes. Liudas Mockunas and Arturas Bumsteinas, a Lithuanian sax and laptop duo, followed Surak and Schedelbauer with an explosive plethora of electroacoustic sounds and textures. Bumsteinas paid particular attention to spatialization techniques and used his laptop to surround the audience with intimate sounds such as: breathing, belching, slurping, and lip smacking, although he only used two speakers. In the overall structure of the piece acoustic and modified acoustic sounds were presented and developed into discrete layers, piled into a frenzy, and abruptly cut off to create dramatic textural shifts. The third noon performance was an ambitious piece by Jimmy Ghaphery for 21 electroacoustic improvisors entitled Boris Bobby, a work that musically mapped out the endgames from 21 chess games that Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer played during the 1972 World Chess Championship. The composer cued players with section numbers written on pages from a large notebook. Each section featured a different combination of instruments and textures, and appeared to be precisely timed. This piece was orchestral in scope and often used variegated, sound mass effects. The variety of acoustic and electronic instruments, hacked toys, and homemade gadgets was quite extensive, from Wii remotes and surface controllers to steel hubcaps and a maraca made of chess pieces inside a chess box. The result was a truly convincing work that successfully interspersed coherent stylistic scraps with pure chaos. It was Ivesian but with barely recognized materials, another highlight of this festival.

At 2:30 P.M.on Saturday another concert took place in Lab II, the Atlas’s black box theater. Jeff Carey, the first performer, combined strobe lights and loud industrial noise pulsations to great effect, producing what he calls “hardcore digital instrumental music.” His music might be at home in a nightclub if it weren’t for the fact that it minimizes melodic and harmonic aspects. Many of the sonic shifts in Carey’s piece were created, on the spot, with a combination of subtle and overt gestures. The second performance, by the Apocalypso Trio, carried forth the torch of loud and distorted electroacoustic sound, produced by instruments performed live and processed with a variety of pedals. But unlike similar acts, the Apocalypso Trio included a male dancer who influenced, and was influenced by, the improvised sounds. He walked, jumped, rolled, and slithered on the ground as he interacted with both the audience and the instrumentalists. Following this, percussionist Gino Robair performed several short, amusing pieces that utilized a large variety of sound making devices. He activated drum heads with vibrating frothers, carved and misshapen cymbals, an EBow, and battery operated centipedes, all of which were amplified with contact microphones. From barely audible kinetic sounds to loud standing waves that circled the room, his performance was sonically varied, amusing, and entertaining; it could be adequately described as virtuosic electroacoustic mayhem.

The Saturday afternoon concert featured an intriguing performance by Ian Fraser and Reed Rosenberg. They wrote a program called Keroaan, which generates material by utilizing the dynamic stochastic synthesis methods of Iannis Xenakis. They attempted to produce “non-determinist music on a fixed-state machine,” along with lasers, strobes, and fog synched to audible and program-generated cues, and they were largely successful in this endeavor.
Of the five acts on Saturday evening’s concert, two significantly used electroacoustic or computer technologies. Swedish performance artist Anne Pajunen, used a live video feed, gramophone, theremin, and a variety of sound effects for an amusing and highly entertaining performance in which Pajunen played the part of a neurotic person obsessed with nostalgia. At various points she attempted to perform well-known virtuosic, vocal pieces by John Cage and Georges Aperghis. Pajunen combined old and new technologies, acoustic and electroacoustic sounds, and coherent and rambling texts. The result was clever and very funny. A band named Ergo also significantly engaged with electroacoustic and computer technologies. During their performance Brett Sroka, the trombonist-leader of the group, used a laptop to modify his and his bandmates’ sound by filtering out low frequency content, leaving the upper frequencies to commingle with the unaltered, amplified sound. On occasion his attempts at real-time sampling sounded a bit choppy, especially because this material was often juxtaposed with steady, pulse patterns performed by drummer Shawn Baltazor and pianist Sam Harris. More successful was Sroka’s transformation of sampled pitches into microtonal, chordal drones that served as backdrops for improvised soloing within a jazz idiom. Ergo uniquely combined live modifications of sound with chordal materials that were deeply rooted in traditional jazz harmonic practice. The hybrid cross-genre sound focused on the lengthy, developed rhythmic and melodic lines that referred to minimalism while avoiding any obvious clichés. A local favorite, Ergo has recordings carried by Cuneiform Records, the well-known Maryland-based record label founded in 1984 by Steve Feigenbaum, who was in attendance.
In addition to the many fine concerts there were two installations worth noting. Up a flight of stairs and immediately next to the Lang Theater, there were three video screens, a small sound system, and a centrally located joystick. These items comprised the Turbulent Spaces Installation, a work by Jeff Carey and Cory O’Brien. Kneeling participants could control and modify both the sounds and images by moving the joystick. Because the gestural correlations involved in transforming the sounds and images were not obvious, one could spend a lot of time with this installation without it giving up its secrets. As one entered the Atlas there appeared to be a sculpture made out of various shaped pieces of wood and metal. Upon closer examination one discovered that it was a sound installation entitled Gong Chair, constructed and conceived by Layne Garrett. Gongs, cymbals, and pieces of metal were hung on tree branches twisted together to form an encasement for a chair upon which participants were instructed to sit. A second person could then activate the resonant pieces of metal, which were mostly at ear level, with the homemade mallets supplied by Garrett. The person in the chair received an aural massage that was both relaxing and energizing.

The Sonic Circuits Festival would probably not exist if it weren’t for the diligent, hardworking director Jeff Surak, and his equally hardworking staff of volunteers. He was inspired to take on this worthy endeavor, some years ago, at a New Music America festival, which took place in Washington, D.C. His programming philosophy involves building a strong community for experimental music and offering the audience a plethora of concerts and sound installations. This was certainly the case with Sonic Circuits 2012. Surak begins planning each festival more than a year in advance. Since the festival has yet to find a permanent home he must first find a suitable venue. In this respect the Atlas seems like a perfect match. Surak produces the festival on a budget largely supplied by European arts organizations, without which the festival would cease to draw international composers and performers.

Most of the performances in the Sonic Circuits Festival utilized laptops for real-time manipulations, as well as live electronics and homemade electroacoustic gadgets. There was an emphasis on creative uses of obsolete technologies, situated alongside current technologies. Apart from the first day of the festival, which featured experimental films, fixed-media works were generally not found. Many of the performances featured improvising creator-performers using electroacoustic instruments and sounds. Although I was unable to attend the third day of the festival, the program promised plenty more of the same. Sonic Circuits is a home for experimental music, both acoustic and electroacoustic, that seeks to expand present-day boundaries and categories through creative experimentation. Long live Sonic Circuits.