Meridian Gallery ready for the twoduos
Meridian Gallery ready for the two duos

The day I arrived in San Francisco after spending the previous three weeks bicycling there from Seattle, there turned out to be an interesting show at a gallery just a few blocks from my hotel. The Meridian Gallery was a very nice downtown gallery with several floors, nice hardwood floors and what was probably very nice lighting (it being dark when I arrived).  The show consisted of two duos Trevor Healey/Aram Shelton whom I’d never heard, nor even heard of and James Fei/Kyle Bruckmann of whom I was fairly familiar but had not heard as a duo. I’d gotten to see Bruckmann perform a number times as part of the 2006 Seattle Improvised Music Festival and had greatly enjoyed both the performances as well as chatting with him a bit. Fei I knew only from recordings and none too recent either, so I was looking forward to this duo quite a bit.

Trevor Healey/Aram Shelton at meridian Gallery
Trevor Healey and Aram Shelton at Meridian Gallery

First up was the duo of Trevor Healey and Aram Shelton performing on Clarinet/laptop and guitar/pedals respectively. They began by basically building up to a wash of sound via loops of highly repetitive melodic fragments from the clarinet and guitar.  This was direct looping via pedals or software and it once again reinforced my belief that looping is pretty much the death of creativity. It basically is lazy and obvious and the list of successful pieces involving loop, especially in abstract musics is very short.  Anyway once they’d built up a suitably dense (though not aggressively loud) wash of sound they’d drop in more sound oriented stuff on top of that. These sounds were often interesting – processed breathy bits on the clarinet, pull offs on the guitar, or manipulating the strings or pickups with various objects and so on. Then at some point they’d cut the loops and it’d just be these sparser and more interesting sounds. These were by far the most interesting parts of the set and I felt clearly could have been how they played the set. I always wonder when I see things like this if it is fear on the part of the musicians that if they just played sparse abstract sounds that the audience wouldn’t buy it, that they feel some sort of sustaining foundation gives them permission to be more abstract. From these short more spacious sections they would then build the next wash of sound and the process repeats itself. I think they did this four times and I have to say I was bored by the second time.  I think these guys have the potential for interesting music, but they need to break free of their own restraints.

Kyle Bruckmann and James Fei at the Meridian Gallery
Kyle Bruckmann and James Fei at the Meridian Gallery
After a short break and a realignment of the gear James Fei and Kyle Bruckmann took to the stage to perform with oboe/electronics & Sax/electronics, irrespectively. The first piece they played was structured as oboe/electronics, electronics/electronics, electronics/sax concluding with oboe/sax. The first two parts were fantastic with Fei’s electronics evoking sparse David Tudor type sounds of feedback, electrics and amplification.  This was riveting to me, I’ve been extremely interested in the last 3-4 years in applying some of the sounds and techniques that Tudor innovative into more contemporary notions of structure and texture.  This is the first electronics performance I have witnessed that came anywhere near that ideal, and it was really well done. Fei had this suitcase full of electronics, some custom, some homemade and some Buchla and other production modules in it. He controlled this this in a very organic way with what looked like a homemade, or boutique controller with optical sensors. He was able to generate bursts of static, feedback or open circuit type of sounds, but with a level of control that evoked Tudor as well. Bruckmann in this initial segment added in sparse, tastefully placed breathy oboe that fit right in with Fei’s scattered electronics. The next segment though was the highlight of the performance and the whole evening as Bruckmann turned to his little case of electronics and analog synth modules for an extended dual electronics movement. Bruckmann’s electronics work was like cut up tones a expansive room feedback which slipped below and contrasted intriguingly with Fei’s fragmented Toneburst-ish sounds. Hard to say how long this segment lasted, perhaps ten minutes or so and then Fei cut out his electronics and picked up his soprano  Sax as Bruckmann continued on electronics. His saxophonics started out breathy and choppy which worked well with the more sustained low tones from Bruckmann but as this segment progress it became overly active to which Kyle responded in kind. I wasn’t feeling this nearly as much and it wasn’t too long before Bruckmann picked up his oboe for the final dual winds section. The dual winds continued in this active and energetic vein to what I felt was rather mixed success.  The first two-thirds of the set was really great, like I said some of the best electronics I’ve seen in a long time and different from what a lot that I see.  While the later third wasn’t so much to my tastes I was overall really into this piece.
Kyle Bruckmann and James Fei at the Meridian Gallery
Kyle Bruckmann and James Fei at the Meridian Gallery
I’d figured they were done but after a short pause they played a second shorter piece of oboe/electronics then electronics/electronics that wasn’t at all as interesting as the previous piece but did end very nicely. It began with pops and clicks from Fei on the sax that Kyle emulated and then went to busier oboe. This all felt to me like rather outdated vocabulary and I wasn’t into it at all. When they both switched to electronics, this time in a bit more droney vein,  but layered in a choppy way with nearly subharmonic tones that subverted the soporific nature of much drone music.
I talked to Bruckman and Fei after the show and a pair of nicer guys is hard to imagine.  Kyle was doing a couple more shows the following day, but I was really just too burned out to make them.  James and I talked about Tudor mainly, which he was also a massive fan. I ended up picking up his Studies on the ANS (Krabbesholm) a solo disc of music made on this odd Russian optical synthesizer.  All in all I was really glad I made it to this show, though of course I was exhausted and not necessarily in the best mental space for this kind of music. I’d almost thought I’d made a mistake in coming during the first set, but the second made my quite glad I’d made the effort.
A few more (grainy cameraphone) photos from this show can be seen here.

2 thoughts on “Meridian Gallery Concert in San Francisco

  1. Hello and thank you for the post about the concert at Meridien Gallery in San Francisco. It is good to find mention of this concert written in a respectful way, and I appreciate the photos. However, I wanted to comment on your words about our performance.

    I’d like to start off by saying that this kind of music is only a part of what I do, so I would not consider myself an expert, but I have used electronics for many years to make music.

    I feel that one of the defining qualities of electronics (from microphones to mixing boards to tape machines to laptops) is actually a very simple one: recording sounds for the purpose of subsequent playback of the material. Therefore, the use of electronics to capture live sounds and play them back in real time is not utilized due to what you perceive as laziness; rather I see it as one of the hallmarks of electronic music, going back to found sound and “taped” or rather fixed-format pieces. (Which for some reason is often given more respect than the dreaded looping despite the fact that the actual technical and musical skill required is more akin to an editor at a magazine creating an article than a musician playing a live set where they are actually making choices in the moment.)

    One of the ways Trevor and I used electronics in this performance was to capture our sounds and play them back in order to duplicate our acoustic sounds and make a texture that we can not on the two acoustic instruments that we played. A clarinet, aside from multiphonics, is a monophonic instrument. As a player and listener I prefer drones or repetition of static material to overdubbing of complex lines or “riffs”. I am more concerned with taking the tone and texture of the instrument I am playing and duplicating it, so that I, as a monophonic instrument, can produce chords and other multilayered textures.

    Once this structure is made, we then have some choices – we can continue to build to it, we could add new sounds on top, or take the “bed” away and move onto new material. This was the basic premise of our set. There is no “fear” involved in this process, and we don’t use it as a way to give ourselves “permission to be more abstract”. It is simply a technique used to explore material and to improvise.

    There is no fear in using recorded sounds to act as a “sustaining foundation”, as you say. Electronic music is many times very static. There is a huge catalogue of celebrated and respected artists who have used electronics to create drones and multi-layered textures, from Pauline Oliveros to Tony Conrad, La Monte Young, Brian Eno, Eliane Radique, Phil Niblock , Sunn 0))) so on and so forth.

    This is improvised music. Sometimes the music isn’t as strong as other times. Sometimes it’s just plain boring. But, because a listener is not pleased with the performance does not mean that what musicians are doing is lazy or out of fear.

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  2. Hey Aram,

    Thanks for your comments. I can only present my opinions, impressions and feelings here anything beyond that is more or less outside of the scope of this blog. These of course will differ between all listeners based on their tastes, experiences and the like. That being said a large part of my program is to understand why I respond to things in certain ways. I have though much listening, research and making music myself, learned much about what I think brings about more interesting music. My writings here take all of this into account and long time readers will be familiar with a lot of my thinking. Of course much of it is up for debate and I’m always interested in such debate.

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