Last night the Kanbar Forum at the Exploratorium once again hosted the launch of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, this being the institution’s seventeenth annual incarnation. The main attraction of the evening was the visit from New York by Gen Ken Montgomery, giving his own annual celebration of the works and life of Conrad Schnitzler. Younger than Karlheinz Stockhausen by about five years, Schnitzler is less known than his near-contemporary in the domain of experimental music in Germany following the Second World War. He was an early member of Tangerine Dream and, with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, founded the experimental electronic group Kluster (which changed its name to Cluster after Schnitzler left).
Schnitzler was introduced to last night’s audience through “Premier con/tact,” a twelve-minute documentary video made in 2008. (Schnitzler died in 2011.) The film presented him as a garrulous, likable eccentric, whose pleasures seemed to include puttering around in large mazes of analog electronic equipment or organizing field trips to collect sounds on cassette recorders. Both of these interests were presented last night in a performance of “CONcert 27.8.87 The Story in Eight Parts,” performed in its original version thanks to the octophonic projection system in the almost total darkness of the Kanbar Forum.
Listeners were not given any advance sense of how long this experience would take. However, for those interested in listening, this was probably never an issue. Since the entire piece was played without interruption, there was no real need to try to “parse” the time to figure out what those “eight parts” were. (They could just as easily have been the individual “voices” of the eight loudspeakers.) Rather, the experience was one of a continuous flow of sounds, along which different features would be developed by different means. Thus, there were episodes involved with the exploration of rhythmic patterns, periods during which change in dynamic level seemed to be the dominating feature, and many “landscape” moments that invited the mind behind the ear to play with the distinction between figure and ground. This was followed by what was probably a second piece in which those same auditory techniques were paralleled in the video domain through the projection of abstract colored regions that changed at a pace similar to the changes emerging from the loudspeakers.
Montgomery’s presentation of Schnitzler’s work was preceded by “The Flowers Die in the Burning Fire, This is the Notion of Time,” a joint creation of the [IMA] duo of Amma Ateria (the performing name in this setting of Jeanie Aprille Tang) on electronic gear and Nava Dunkelman on percussion. From the very outset this was a full-frontal assault of decibels at their most intense, capturing all of the violence in the first phrase of the work’s title. Indeed, the sounds coming out of Tang’s mixer were so loud as to obscure Dunkelman’s opening percussion gestures. Her cymbal work during the opening minutes could just as easily have been mimed for all one could tell while sitting in the audience area.
This was a bit of a pity, since Dunkelman has a particular gift for the subtleties of soft dynamics in her approach to her selection of percussion instruments. However, [IMA] clearly works from a different aesthetic foundation. As the piece progressed, Dunkelman was able to build up her own decibel resources; and it was not long before the two of them had been taken over by a common rhetoric of violent frenzy. This is the sort of music that defies the possibility of a middle ground where the impressions of the listener are concerned. One is either drawn into the aggressive spirit of it all, or one rejects that spirit from beginning to end. Last night’s audience seemed, for the most part, to be a sympathetic one. Perhaps the others decided that the best thing to do was leave, which would have been a sensible thing to do. Concert experiences should not involve self-induced martyrdom; and those more willing to accept the premises that [IMA] imposed were more than well-satisfied with what resulted.