Electrotherapy

Bay Area electronic musicians have finally decided to hold a festival for their work. Forget the dancing shoes.

Before "electronica" there was "electronic," and the Bay Area has been a hotbed of experimental electronic music for decades. There's arguably the greatest concentration of electronic sound innovators on the planet here, yet curiously, there's been no annual event devoted solely to the electro-audio set. To rectify this, several local electronic musicians organized last November, and the result is the first annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF) this weekend at Cell Space.

When avant-garde koto player Miya Masaoka -- who will be performing Friday with an acrylic box filled with 3,000 live bees -- started putting out feelers to fellow electronic musicians about organizing such a festival, it quickly became clear there was a focused desire among the individuals involved to work communally. Not unlike, say, bees. "As artists we often work individually and in isolation," Masaoka says, "and I think it's extraordinary that so many artists of this caliber are working collectively very hard to put this festival on." Most of the SFEMF artists often see each other at New York venues and European festivals, she adds, "and it's ironic that at home we don't have any festivals like that. I don't think that there's any other ongoing electronic music festival in the United States, actually."

Sound artist Ed Osborn, whose "Recoil" installation will be one of three at the SFEMF, was the director of a similar festival, soundculture 96. He says the SFEMF shares some elements with soundculture (a periodic trans-Pacific new music festival), but is much smaller, localized, and focused in scope. "What we wanted to do with this event is showcase a particular kind of sound work that is special to the Bay Area, has its roots in the history of California experimental sound and music, comes out of a natural comfort with electronic music technologies, and is sometimes underrecognized," Osborn explains. "Also, with the term 'electronic music' having come to be popularly associated with dance and club musics, we thought it important to present work reflecting the history and practice of electronic music that developed separate from its association with the dance floor."

Pamela Z: "I wind up explaining to people, No, I am not a DJ.'"
Lori Eanes
Pamela Z: "I wind up explaining to people, No, I am not a DJ.'"

Details

The first annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival runs Friday through Sunday, May 5-7, at Cell Space, 2050 Bryant (between 18th and 19th streets). Tickets are $10-12; festival pass $25. Call 648-7562 or visit www.sfemf.org for more information.

Friday May 5, 9 p.m.
Chris Salter discusses sponge's installation "Sauna #1"
Miya Masaoka, "Bee Project #6"
Dan Joseph, "Got Guns"
Carl Stone, "Sripraphai"
Alvin Curran, "Endangered Species"

Saturday May 6, 9 p.m.
Panel discussion at 7:30, moderated by Elisabeth Beaird of the Lab
Ed Osborn discusses his installation "Recoil"
Pamela Z, excerpts from "Gaijin"
Steev Hise, "Familiar/Signifier #2" and "Syntagm Engine Beta Test"
Pamela Z and Dan Joseph, "Duo for BodySynth, Voice, and Hammer Dulcimer"
Carl Stone, "Flint's"

Sunday May 7, 8 p.m.
Paul DeMarinis discusses "Still Life With Guitars"
Kenneth Atchley, "recast"
Donald Swearingen, "The Elements" and "Living Off the List"
Laetitia Sonami, "Conversation With a Light Bulb"
sensorChip, "Trio"

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Festival special guest Alvin Curran, who co-founded the Italian radical collective Musica Elettronica Viva in 1965 and is presently the Milhaud Professor of Music Composition at Mills College, agrees the nebulous term "electronic music" covers an enormous cultural span, from hip-hoppers to academic computer nerds. In any case, electronics are here to stay, he says, noting that the Bay Area community is one of the liveliest in the world, in part due to its history: the San Francisco Tape Center, which launched the careers of groundbreaking innovators such as Morton Subotnik, Pauline Oliveros, and Don Buchla, and other adventurous institutions such as Mills College's Center for Contemporary Music, "new music" centers at Stanford and UC Berkeley, and KPFA. Hosts of younger artists now active in the Bay Area also play a role, Curran adds, with Silicon Valley providing an air of contemporary excitement and immediately accessible technologies to play with.

Pamela Z, who has been part of the San Francisco electro-acoustic community since 1984, says the Bay Area has long been a great place for "new music" festivals and events, and it's important to give the more experimental, noncommercial electronic artists an outlet for greater local exposure. "These days, when I say I do 'electronic music,' I get looks of immediate recognition, and I wind up explaining to people that 'No, I am not a DJ, and I don't do dance music,'" she says. "Although I'm really happy to see the tradition of avant-garde electronic music starting to seep into, influence, and meld with pop music and dance music through this new 'electronica' trend, I am also sometimes disappointed that so few people are really aware of what a long tradition this kind of work has, and how much truly powerful work is still being made by artists who don't confine themselves to danceable rhythms, who experiment with inventing their own personal approaches to the composition and performance of electronic work."

The SFEMF showcases several unusual and adventurous approaches toward sound control and manipulation. Laetitia Sonami's Bay Area premiere of "Conversation With a Light Bulb" features the interaction between light bulbs and an instrument of her own invention called the "lady's glove," which contains different types of sensors including velocity sensors (like an airbag) and proximity sensors (like a burglar alarm). In "recast," special guest Kenneth Atchley uses fountains as a sound source. And then there's sensorChip, a trio comprised of Donald Swearingen, Miya Masaoka, and Pamela Z, with all three using various sensor instruments. Explains Pamela Z: "Donald uses light sensors, and a jacket he developed that contains sensors that are activated by bending. Miya uses ultrasound sensors with her koto as well as a laser harp Donald developed, and I use the BodySynth." In all of her SFEMF performances, Pamela Z will be using voice, live processing, and her BodySynth controller, which employs electrode sensors like those used in hospitals to translate muscle electricity into MIDI information for controlling sound.

"The sophistication of the technologies people are using might appeal to a nonmusician, certainly in this high-tech community we live in," says festival co-founder and organizer Dan Joseph. "There are a lot of electronics and very sophisticated programs, as well as unusual, custom-oriented, often homemade or artist-designed electronic instruments." He also hopes the installations will appeal to people interested in the visual arts: Osborn's "Recoil" consists of several free-standing structures with sensors attached, creating a kinetic, auditory experience suggestive of artificial life; Paul DeMarinis' mildly shocking "Still Life With Guitars" uses electric current to create "a world in which touch and hearing are for a moment unified"; and an artist collective called sponge will provide "Sauna #1," a media-toxin sweatbox of sorts.

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