It’s Saturday night at the Brava Theater, and a man and a woman stand on stage in front of an old school projector. Black microchips lay against a white backdrop, and the two use an audio jack to manipulate the microchips and wires to make noise.
The noise they make is deafening. The sounds hit the body more than the ears; it’s unpredictable and dissonant. People in the audience cover their ears when the sonic onslaught becomes uncomfortable. The faint outline of smoke arises from the wires.
At one point the music stops. The silence is beautiful, even refreshing. It’s the opposite of empty space between words with a stranger. Appreciating that silence is part of the artistic ethos at play. The man and woman manipulate electrical noises, noises that surround anyone who lives a modern, urban existence. The lack of these sounds is a comment on that noise-polluted reality.
One man in the audience says, “Oh God,” with relief in his voice. But the music steps up again, this time with the familiar boom of a drum. As the music settles down, and the man on stage takes a marker and writes, “Loud Objects at SFEMF” on his projector. The set is over.
Welcome to the 13th Annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival that drew 266 to the theater on Saturday. According the Festival’s website, the event spotlights “independent artists whose innovative aesthetics challenge academic and commercial standards”.
The man and woman on stage are Tristan Perich and Katie Shima, two members of Loud Objects, a New York City based trio. Their work is largely improvisational. Manipulating the wires and microchips produces unpredictable audio output.
In this way, electronic music, unlike more danceable electro-pop, is a lot like jazz. In the case of jazz, however, artists have a sense of what an improvised tune will sound like because they’ve studied music theory and technique as it pertains to their instrument. They have a roadmap.
For Loud Objects, no such roadmap exists. The musicians create on stage their own instrument — noise-making circuits. The musical territory they enter is almost entirely uncharted.
Betsy Biggs, an electronic music composer and friend of Loud Objects, says the group doesn’t “always know what the next sound is going to be when they connect wires.” She adds, “I think a lot of it is live experimenting and improvising.”
Biggs notes that Loud Objects has “strong visual sense,” like a video or conceptual artist. By showing their electrical circuits on a projector, the group clues the audience in on their musical process.
Electronic music is a widely varied genre, but it’s often closer to sound art. Ben Tinker, a member of the festival’s steering committee, says that some of the featured performers are not trained musicians and come from “more of a visual arts background”.
The music seems more cerebral than emotional – more an intellectual exercise than songs that appeal to the heart. The audience on Saturday watches the performers from theater seats, still and calm, aside from a bit of head swaying and foot tapping.
The next performer, Richard Lerman, is introduced as a “luminary.” But the atmosphere is more like a scientific conference than a riotous concert.
Lerman, an artist from Arizona, performs a mixed-media piece called “Border Surroundings”. His work focuses on the US-Mexico border and he uses instruments and video to recreate the inner and physical voyage a migrant takes while crossing an inhospitable desert.
The video, shot from the perspective of someone covertly escaping to a new world, is combined with footage of Border Patrol trucks to bring to life the fear and uncertainty of an illicit crossing. The suspenseful soundtrack includes amplified desert noises.
Most of his instruments are meant to be “sound images,” Lerman says. In an esoteric genre, Lerman could be called a populist. He constructs instruments that look like branches, thorns, and an amplified compass. At one point, he chops an onion on stage and then sweeps up the scraps to mimic immigrant labor. His footage of a desert night sky is scored with wolf howls and electrified insect chirps.
“It’s just playing with these images and trying to get that feeling of being the watcher and the watched,” Lerman says after his set.
The ultimate performance of the evening – and its biggest draw — is Dieter Moebius, whom festival official Tinker calls, “a living legend.” Famed music producer Brian Eno once called Moebius’ band Harmonia “the world’s most important rock group.” One fan in the audience, David West, says simply that he likes the German musician’s “playful” style.
Moebius begins by sampling what sounds like a horror movie soundtrack. Then the music becomes danceable — like an 80’s synth-pop tune – punctuated with weird musical jokes. The sounds coalesce into a rhythm that makes a few people tap their feet. Finally, the music gets softer until the last chirps and beats are barely perceptible.
Moebius gives a slight nod, and again the room fills with noise. This time, it’s applause.