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.
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.
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.
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.