Tuesday, January 31, 2006

My Ferrari does 185...

This weekend I attended the final night of the San Francisco Tape Music Festival. If it continues, I'll be going back -- it was overwhelming, unique, confrontational -- all the stuff good live music should be, without any of the distractions.

It took place at the ODC theater, down in the Mission. They sit you down, completely darken the room, then play tape music over a spectacularly designed set of 16 speakers. However, the sound in this place was incredible. From my notebook: "Electrical noises skittering across the ceiling. Clouds of static opening overhead. Voices whispering across the hall, feel intimate. Swooping synthetic noise. Groups of sounds stuffed into a corner to my right, grumbling."

The concert was a tribute to Luc Ferrari, who died last year. Before I go on about how great it was, this is probably not something that anyone who reads this blog will actually want to go out and buy. If you have the money, spend it on something that has less of a chance of inducing overpowering nausea and discomfort. If you like electro-acoustic music, or are serious about listening to and enjoying sound, then by all means.

The Program:

Etudes Aux Sons Tendus/Study on Stretched Sounds (1958)
Presque Rien Avec Filles/Almost Nothing with Girls (1989)
Tautologos 1 (1961)
Place des Abbesses (1977)
Les Anecdotiques/Exploitation of Concepts no.6 (2004)

There are a couple ways to look at this kind of music. On one hand, it was basically ~100 people, sitting in the dark, being assaulted by random noises we don't really enjoy or understand. If aliens were watching us, they'd assume we had all been prescribed radical behavior modification therapy, or that we were blind and someone was playing a horrible trick on us.

Of course, no one in the audience seemed at all ruffled. This was an achingly hip event in an already hip district of the hippest town in the country. They weren't going to stand up and shout "Fuck this! I'm going to Arby's." One woman was so into it that she actually whooped after a few of the pieces, as if she'd just caught Tom Jones' sweaty undershirt, instead of listening to what most people would describe as three minutes of R2D2 farting in his sleep.

Here's the play-by-play, as I experienced the evening's program:

Etudes Aux Sons Tendus: Unfortunately, the first piece of the night was the least likeable, and the most terrifying. You have to imagine this theater, with its exposed beams and industrial pipe, lit eerily from below by a laptop screen under a single spotlight. Given the sounds, and the ambiance, I kept expecting a man-bat to drop from the ceiling and drain the guy next to me, leaving only his scarf, Pumas, and bloodsoaked (but still ironic) t-shirt. In the liner notes, Jean-Christophe Thomas described Etudes with the phrase "uncompromised disparity," which is pretty much on the mark, whatever it means. I heard squeals, beeps, abrupt cuts and splices, accompanied by an assemblage of feedback, industrial noise, and carefully shaped squall -- it really was like being in a sonic haunted house. By the end I was mystified and regretting my decision not to stay home and watch Homicide with Camille (by the way, in case you're wondering why I mention her a lot -- our pre-nup contractually obligates me to work her into every post).

I had actually heard Presque Rien Avec Filles in college, but it'd be a serious stretch to say I remembered it even the least little bit. Ferrari composed this piece after he'd gotten a good hold on his technique and sensibility, melding undiluted "field" recordings with electronics, interviews, his own verbal cues, etc. Female voices meander in and out of a general "outdoor" texture, while the sounds gain density and dissipate gently. The highlight for me came when Ferrari dissects the voices and begins to intersperse electronic tones and clicks, echoing and conversing with the filles. I started smiling, cause I there's nothing quite like obliterating language to wake up your ear.

Tautologos 3 could also be accurately titled: 65 Electric Organs Fall Out of a Cargo Plane and Land on Detroit. Not much else to say, except that the structure exists, and the piece has an undeniable emotional effect. To all the folks out there who think these guys just make random, unlistenable stretches of electronic sound -- something actually does separate good composers from not-good ones. At some level, every good composer (and performer, for that matter) understands the connection between sound, emotion, and physiology. They know how to get to you. John Lennon claimed to Rolling Stone in 1971 that he was an artist, and if you gave him a tuba he'd "bring you something out of it." So, even though I didn't particularly like Tautologos 3, my heart was racing at the end, and I felt exhilarated and paranoid and exhausted all at the same time.

Place des Abbesses was the standout of the night. This piece was captivating, and reminded me why I'd been so taken with the few recordings by Ferrari I heard in college. Snatches of flute, clarinet, synth, plucked strings, woven into a modal feel that was very appropriate for these Terry Riley stomping grounds (Warning: before you click Riley's link, be advised that, despite the man's boundless creative talent, it's probably the worst website ever made). I know Ferrari was a fan of Riley's In C, so the circular, wandering tonality makes sense. The winds don't play melodies, they play little gestures and hints of jazz licks, like three seconds of Debussy or a snippet of "Body and Soul." Ferrari makes particular use of the similarities between pure, open clarinet tone and bottle hiss. Drums and rudimentary rhythmic patterns emerge and fade away. Seriously, it was mesmerizing -- and I know so because I had that awkward, intense desire not to interact with anyone as soon as the lights came up for intermission. I didn't want to hear them all dissecting it in the lobby, or talking about Sam Alito or the Super Bowl. That's how I know something's good, when it ends and my first thought is "Whoa," followed immediately by "Wait, do I have to talk to these fuckers now?"

Finally, Les Anecdotiques presented a perfect example of Ferrari's documentary-style composition. He describes the piece as taking place on three different planes: sequences of recorded material from his travels around the world, electronic sounds/detritus, interviews with young women which add "balance to the discourse." The piece visits and revisits locations, musical themes, narratives, situations. Even though my mind wandered over the course of the 55 minutes, it was wandering in the way your mind wanders when you're hiking a mountain or taking a bus tour of an unfamiliar city. You come in and out of engagement with what's around you, but you preserve a constant sense of immersion in another world. The piece begins with a heartstopping whoosh of sound, then a woman asking "Qu'est-ce que je sens?" ("What do I feel?"). It ends with the question only partially resolved. Sound rushes from the back of the hall to the front, seeming to sail through the front speakers and out of the room, to Greenland, or Gibraltar, or another dimension. Everyone breathed a sigh of wonder and relief.

If you want to get a better sense of Ferrari and where he's coming from, Paris Transatlantic published a fascinating interview in 1998. It does a much better job than I have.

The other thing to do is get La Creation Du Monde, by Bernard Parmegiani. I think, of the electro-acoustic music set, his work remains the most accessible. By the way, I searched for about five minutes for a good description/review of this masterpiece, with no luck, until I remembered that I wrote an entire term paper on it -- and the reason I wrote a term paper on it is that as far as I'm aware no substantive analysis of this piece exists in English. With any luck, in the future Creation will be regarded like the B-Minor Mass, or Beethoven 9, or Mahler 8, or OK Computer, or whatever your preferred musical representation of the human experience is. Ferrari probably will not make it into that company, since he's too much of a radical, and "disparity" isn't a good sonic accompaniment to touchy-feely events at the UN. But who knows.

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