For almost two decades, artistic director Charles Amirkhanian has imported the cream of international composers for his contemporary music festival, the oldest continuous celebration of its kind in the Bay Area. This year, though, he scoured the neighbourhood for festival fare, so that, for three days, northern California musicians were heard and hailed.
It was a stimulating affair. The region has been a centre for electronically created and enhanced music since the San Francisco Tape Music Center some 50 years ago, generating the instrument-makers as well as their specialised repertoire, and Friday evening’s concert honoured some of the plugged-in pioneers. Foremost among the participants was Donald Buchla, whose work with developing synthesisers dazzled and inspired a host of young musicians. Seated at a console that flashed like a Christmas tree, with wife Nannick Buchla at the piano, he introduced the country to his enchanting Drop by Drop, an audiovisual essay that delivered the sight and sound of running taps, huge waterfalls and flocks of waterfowl. The playfulness was endearing.
As was the delicate mix of acoustical and electronic sonorities propounded by that founding generation. Joseph Byrd offered two of his stirring creations from the 1960s. In Water Music, percussionist Alan Zimmerman caressed a battery of gongs, high marimbas and tuned cowbells , while taped rumblings suggested meteorological and emotional disturbances. Almost equally allusive was Byrd’s Animals. In this essay, pianist (Sarah Cahill), members of a string quartet (the Del Sol) and percussionists (Zimmerman and Robert Lopez) repeatedly strike a single pitch, all at a modest dynamic. The eventual slipping in and out of phase and the complex patterning suggests the early minimalism of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, while the prepared piano serves as a homage to John Cage.
In the recent Audio Combine, John Bischoff performed at the laptop and amplified the sound of ordinary objects, conjuring a web of sounds that resembled the public perception of “electronic music.” What once sounded alien now seems a part of the common sonic landscape. Mark Applebaum earned his self-description as “marginal wacko” with Aphasia, during which the composer synchronised florid hand gestures with a tape of vocalised samples. A neat parlour trick, if nothing else.