San Francisco Tape Music Festival unwinds at ODC
The fact that it's raining makes it an unexpectedly perfect night to attend the San Francisco Tape Music Festival.  The water rushing through pipes and sweeping across the rooftop of the ODC Theatre  adds an extra layer of ambience to the cacophonic tones emitting from a modest bank of speakers, squatting on the stage like forbidding monoliths. The here-and-now intrusion of the rainfall ties even the most outré compositions of the evening together in an entirely unanticipated manner, from the oldest (dated 1857) to those created this still-young year by members of the current incarnation of the San Francisco Tape Music Collective and sfSound .
Snugly protected from the bluster of the elements, we sit in patient anticipation as the lights dim to as near a full blackout as can be achieved with glowing EXIT signs and lighted soundboard. The darkness forces focus on the content of the composition, not the conduit, freeing the senses from the unconscious tyranny of vision. And a certain amount of focus does come in handy for an evening spent listening to the trajectories of polyphonic dissonance whizzing through the room at reckless speeds. Field recordings, samples of radio-age music scores, spoken murmurings of French, English, Greek, percussive clatterings, static-y white noise, and a host of sonic curiosities stack up on top of each other like the building blocks of childhood, leaning precariously, threatening to topple. “Purposeless play,” John Cage once described it, though of course such purposelessness contains a purpose all its own.
Composer Maggi Payne
A 16-minute Matthew Barnard composition entitled The Piano Makers sweeps the oddience into the Kemble piano factory, where Barnard made a series of field recordings of piano manufacturing: all clatter of machinery, zing of taut strings and tuning forks, and pounding of keys. John Cage’s Williams Mix kicks off a centennial celebration of Cage’s birth with a frenetic mélange of classic cartoon scores, old jazz standards, church hymns, radio announcements, and a lonesome foghorn. One of the evening’s most distinctive aural pleasures comes courtesy of noted theatrical sound-designer Cliff Caruthers, whose eerie, affecting Underneath would serve perfectly as the ambient score of some great, underwater epic -- Gilgamesh perhaps -- all creaking boards, and groaning depths, punctuated by the primal bellow of some unfathomable creature and a twinkle of silvery fish. Maggi Payne’s Glassy Metals rounds out the first half with a textural layering of metallic sounds manipulated to mimic the wet gurgle of a deep forest brook and rush of dry desert winds.
Performer Ma++ Ingalls. Photo by Lenny Gonzalez
Two of the highlights of the second half include the second John Cage piece of the night, Imaginary Landscape No. 5. Composed on a block graph designating eight tracks and 42 separate sound clips, the realization of this version was created collaboratively by the Tape Music Collective, and performed by Ma++ Ingalls. Sterfos, by Orestis Karamanlis, also performed by Ingalls, transports the listener to a fishing village on the edge of the Aegean Sea. Bucolic village sounds such as the somber clang of church bells, footsteps crunching on gravel, the lapping of waves, dogs barking, children playing, and an elderly man with the oratory tone of a storyteller, all layered over with the urgent textural tones of aggressive modernity. More than any other piece of the evening, Sterfos embodies the cinematic quality of the music, a clearly defined story arc winding through the village entire. Only a minor technical glitch halfway through the piece mars the otherwise seamless meander along the shoreline of a strangely familiar sea.