Feeding Back

If six avant-garde musicians get together in an art gallery, does it make a sound? You betcha.

I've heard a lot of complaints these past few months that the San Francisco music scene is dying. Citing factors such as a lack of venues and practice spaces, shrinking audience support, and rampant fragmentation and decentralization where there once was communal focus, the complainers speak of their once-beloved scene as if it were a relative on life-support, as if we, its concerned family members, were all sitting around the hospital waiting room hoping for a miracle yet fearing the worst. I'm not ready to jump on this boat just yet, mainly because I know that there are still pockets of life in this sprawling array of venues, record shops, bands, and labels that ply their trade here in our city.

One such pocket is the experimental rock community, where bands like Deerhoof, Numbers, Total Shutdown, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Monopause, and Saints of Killers, among others, thrive. When I heard that members from each of these bands would be performing solo improvisational sets at New Langton Arts as part of the gallery and performance space's first-ever "Crawling Out From Under Rock" program -- which, to paraphrase curator Eli Crews, aims to force these artists to show different sides of their musical personalities than the ones we encounter in their respective bands -- I got pretty gosh darn excited. After all, you can tell a lot about a city's musical landscape from its avant-garde component, that wellspring of new ideas from which tomorrow's better bands will draw their inspiration. And so off I went.

Star Date: January 23, 2004. Venue: New Langton Arts, downstairs theater. Time: 8 p.m.

Heavy Rotation: Heco Davis 
working one of 
seven turntables during his 
Nancy Ericsson
Heavy Rotation: Heco Davis working one of seven turntables during his brain-bending set.
Moe! Staiano.
Nancy Ericsson
Moe! Staiano.

The evening kicks off with a performance by Deerhoof's drummer, Greg Saunier. As the restless crowd murmurs in the darkness, Saunier sits down on the floor in front of an old Yamaha keyboard and dons a look of earnest bemusement, a look that says, "I'm really gonna try hard to do this right." Then he begins playing music that is not unlike the jumbled cartoon character on the front of his T-shirt. On a keyboard that farts out dime-store organ sounds, Saunier hammers out random chords, searching for moments of melodiousness that those of us familiar with his band's oeuvre know he'll never find. Throughout his 15-minute set, Saunier's chords are as strained as the expression on his face. It's like watching a 9-year-old with three piano lessons under her belt combining whatever notes she's mastered in a fruitless attempt to render a tune. But because this is a grown man and a member of an internationally acclaimed band, the exercise soon becomes humorous -- Oh, come on now, you can do better than that -- and more than a few chuckles spring out from audience members when Saunier changes keyboard patches from one glurpy sound to a nearly identical one, or when he closes out his set by singing like a choir boy.

Next comes Monopause's Heco Davis, who plays seven vintage turntables simultaneously to create a 20-minute canvas of music and noise. Davis has manipulated his records so that each piece of vinyl produces only short snippets of sound over and over, which he then tweaks on the turntables for speed and volume. With all seven decks in motion, the noises intermingle with one another like the goo inside a lava lamp; one's attention drifts from a fragment of recorded speech here to the creaking of a wheel there, as all these sounds chatter away to create something alternately cacophonous and mellifluous. It's very much like the early tape-loop experiments of avant-garde composer Steve Reich.

Saints of Killer vocalist Jesse Quattro dabbles in a similar kind of sound-layering. Channeling her voice through two effects pedals, she manipulates delays and distortion to turn her singing into wave after wave of eerie, ominous noise, over which she adds still more singing, as well as yelping, screeching, moaning, shrieking, bellowing, and just plain breathing. Quattro is blessed with a healthy set of pipes, which becomes clear as she sends shock waves of vibrato ringing through her phrases (I'm guessing she could hold her own on stage at the Met). But drenching her voice in effects and turning it into a banshee wail seems puerile, like singing into a fan and hearing your voice reflected back to you, all chopped up. The sounds are beautiful at times, but the concept leaves something to be desired.

When we return from an intermission, Total Shutdown's Paul Costuros and his assembled band (two drummers and a trumpeter, with Costuros on reeds and trombone) have rigged a digital projector up to a video-game console and are projecting an image onto the gallery's large, white wall: Pac-Man. As an audience member plays the game, Costuros and company take to soundtracking Pac-Man's munching of dots and ghosts with bursts of drumming and horn playing. When Pac-Man dies, the band stops, and the audience, captivated by the drama of his demise, collectively sighs "Awwww," then anxiously awaits a resumption of the game, which becomes more harrowing with each restart, as the woman at the controls attempts to evade her enemies and complete each level. Through the clamorous music, Costuros -- acting as a kind of antiJohn Williams -- injects an amazing amount of tension into a simple game. The whole exercise is pretty damn funny, too, if not glaringly pointless.

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