Cornfield Electronics, Dec. 23
It wasn't the biggest venue for Chaos Butterfly. The laptop/improv duo of Dina Emerson and Jonathan Segel need space for the requisite computers and cables, as well as Segel's guitar, Emerson's wine glasses, and a couple of microphones. For their holiday show in a second-floor Castro space, they had to pile everything onto a long table in a back bedroom.
They'd played in tight spots in the past, but small stages don't do the band justice. During the year and a half they've been performing, Emerson and Segel have taken to spreading out onstage, sometimes standing, and often inviting a third member into the mix, such as local players Myles Boisen and Philip Greenlief. And like Sagan, the Blevin Blectum project that was also on the bill, they've begun working real-time video manipulation into their act, inspired by San Jose artist Peter Nyboer.
On this Friday before Christmas, they'd been invited to the mostly unfurnished home of Cornfield Electronics, a small business in the throes of shutting down. Steven Tobin of Fire Museum Records handpicked the bands for this last-minute gathering and benefit for his cat. Yeah, his cat. Poor Tomato has undergone treatments for kidney failure and probably isn't long for this world, so Tobin got some of his fave laptop artists together for a sort of goodbye party.
A bit hokey, maybe, but cut Tobin some slack. His label exists mainly to sell a two-CD compilation benefiting the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a group committed to women's education and empowerment in one of the more repressive parts of the world. And with the show happening on the last workday before Christmas, Tobin accomplished something by getting about 40 friends and music fans to wander in for some warm well-wishing. The evening got started with solo acts Rroland and Kwisp, after which nearly 20 people settled in for Chaos Butterfly's set.
You've probably heard Chaos Butterfly before, in pieces. Emerson, who focuses on new-classical vocal music, landed a gig in 2000 with Cirque du Soleil, spending two years performing in Las Vegas. Segel is the violinist for Camper Van Beethoven, but he says he was interested in electronic music long before he joined the band.
Anyone who's taken an uninitiated friend to a laptop show has heard an earful about the medium's inherent handicap the look of "guys checking e-mail." Chaos Butterfly at least makes the stage more visual, with the wine glasses and guitar (and sometimes Segel's violin) providing organic input to be mutilated and tugged at over the usual futuristic-sounding computer drones.
The band's name refers to that overused chaos-theory saying about a butterfly's wings in China affecting the weather in the States, exemplifying a system in which little changes have enormous consequences. That's how the band's music builds, with atmospheric washes of sound building up from smaller elements, as Emerson's sung monologues cut through the mist.
The duo played one 25-minute improvisation. Segel started off with some slide guitar, tapping the strings with a metal bar for a robot-country sound that sounded like Fred Frith on a twangy day. Emerson gently tapped a water-filled wine glass with a mallet, tilting the vessel to bend the tone.
Adding laptop patches some based on samples of live sounds the pair moved from a tentative start into a rolling, swirling flow of sound that would provide the basis for the rest of the piece. Emerson's voice came in subtly, adding wordless burbles or stream-of-consciousness lyrics for a ghostly overtone. Spoken phrases like "Who decided it would be the empty time?" emerged slowly, in repeated fragments drifting through the miasma of metallic, synthesized tones.
At one point a collection of vocals and wine-glass chimes got mixed into a high, squeaky gale as Segel and Emerson worked feverishly at their Macs. The obligatory quiet section followed, colored by Emerson rubbing the edges of the wine glasses (you were waiting for that, admit it) to create long tones. Segel added gentle arpeggios on guitar, a sprinkle of notes like raindrops.
After a gloomy segment of ominous, stringlike waves of music, the duo settled into a beatless groove in Middle Eastern tones and scales, Segel anchoring the sound on guitar with Emerson adding soaring vocal lines "My fingers wrapped around your heart/ My fingers wrapped around my eyes."
They went easy on the spoken samples, saving them for an abrupt ending that included a snippet of the "Your call cannot be completed" lady, getting a chuckle out of the crowd. A cute ending to an otherwise serious set. (Craig Matsumoto)