When you live in a city as populous as San Francisco, obnoxious white noise is a given. The 5 a.m. recycling crew talking trash at top volume, the midday taxi horn blare, the midnight drunks caroling on the sidewalk — they're all part of the general metropolitan hum. You get so used to the urban ear assault that silence becomes eerie. I ride the N-Judah every morning to work, and the couple of times my headphones have crapped out I've realized how strangely quiet those trains get during morning rush hour. The commuters hanging on the handrails are immersed in their own private iWorlds, buffered by their playlists. For such a body-dense space, modern technology has made Muni an oddly isolating experience — which, hey, at 9 a.m. on a Monday, doesn't bother me one bit.
But what better place to have a city music festival than on a bus, turning that banal mode of transport into real entertainment? Alan So, artistic director of the experimental music festival Soundwave>Series, decided to have a portion of this year's Move>Sound theme on an AudioBus, a stage that moves to the rhythm of traffic lights and stop signs. For five nights between July 12 and August 9, he organized a cellist, two singer-songwriters, and a pair of sonic manipulators to perform separately on single- and double-decker buses. So, a visual artist, said it was actually a ride on the N that put this idea in motion. "I thought it was interesting how people have headphones on all the time," he says. "And then one time I was on the N and this girl was belting out a tune and everyone was like, 'What the hell is she doing?' I was like, 'Right on. Go for it.' That was the initial spark for the whole thing."
Of course, we live in a city where inventive promoters overtake everything from garbage dumps to Chinatown basements as venues. Even the idea of a band performing in a bus has been done before. Oakland's John Benson has been parking his 40-foot-long, solar-paneled rig around the Bay for punk and noise shows for the past two years. But the AudioBus series has a unique twist. Each bus will be "stationed" in front of a different gallery (starting with New Langton Arts on July 12 and ending at Queen's Nails Annex on August 9). Riders can browse art exhibits before they depart for a half-hour tour of the specific performer's design. The two tours per night take routes mirroring the music, making the concept audiovisual. San Francisco troubadour Goh Nakamura sings tales of local landmarks. (His "Embarcadero Blues," for example, reached the 1 million viewers mark on YouTube.) When he performs on July 19, his passengers will travel along his SOMA memory lane — by the bar 21st Amendment, which inspired a song, and by his old workplace, Gordon Biersch. Odessa Chen, conversely, writes music that's more ethereal. When her bus departs from the de Young Museum on August 8, So says it will go past waterfalls in Golden Gate Park and out to the beach, matching her cinematic ballads with more natural scenery.
The vehicles themselves are part of the fun as well. So hired old-school double-decker buses operated by City Sightseeing (with the exception of avant composer Zoe Keating, who will be in a single-story bus with wide-enough aisles for her cello). For those wanting to feel the breeze on the top floor, though, headphones will be provided at every seat, while those in the main cabin should have little problem hearing the show. (Tickets are $12, but you have to buy them in advance at www.projectsoundwave.com/series, as seating is very limited.)
In general, So's festival (which includes events at stationary venues as well: full listings at the Soundwave Web site) is meant to transform the way we hear our daily travels. Buses don't have to be so silent inside, and the sound of traffic isn't always a blight on the ears. Take, for example, the performance by David Graves and Jorge Bachmann [ruidobello] on July 12. The pair will be recording and processing the surroundings of their AudioBus ride, "creating a new landscape for listening to the sounds around them," So explains. He adds, "You walk down this road thousands of times and you hear sounds in a certain way. [Graves and Bachmann] are changing what we hear, but people can still relate to it." It fits in with So's mantra for the Soundwave>Series, which is about "taking anything that's traditional and turning it into something crazy." Commuting takes on new meaning during these five performances, where the road less traveled leads to a different way of listening to San Francisco.