Friday, December 30, 2016

Outsound Presents Rings Out the Old Year with (mostly) Electronics

Since the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra is giving its annual Holiday Concert in San Francisco tonight, last night’s Luggage Store Creative Music Series gig was not quite the last musical event of the season. However, Outsound Presents can be credited with offering the last bleeding edge performance of the season, not only in San Francisco but, as far as I can tell, across the Bay Area. The program followed the usual format of two sets of free improvisation, and the emphasis was almost entirely on electronics. Furthermore, the second set brought together three familiar faces (familiar, at least, to those following Outsound productions and others that sail under allied flags).

To “ring out” 2016 Matt Davignon organized a trio, drawing upon two colleagues, Sheila Bosco and Suki O’Kane. While he had played with both of them in the past, this was the first time that all three of them played as a group. Davignon presided over a table filled with potentiometer-controlled boxes configured in a web of connecting cables. Due to my own seniority, I may have been the only member of the audience reminded of similar tables of gear that would occupy the orchestra pit during a performance by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; so, for me at least, Davignon’s contribution was a comforting trip down memory lane, just the sort of thing that the Hallmark Card crowd likes to do as a new year approaches. To Davignon’s right Bosco stood behind a Korg keyboard, which seemed to allow a generous supply of ways to control just what the standard layout of black and white keys would actually do. (One of the later Korg boxes supported tuning systems other than those of the equal-tempered chromatic scale, but I do not know if this was one of them.) Bosco seemed to be controlling at least one other sound source, as well as a mixer. That left O’Kane to take care of a more familiar array of percussion instruments, to which she added an mbira.

Watching this trio at work, I was reminded of having seen Bosco performing with her Alien Planet duo partner Colette McCaslin back in March of 2015. Writing about that gig for, I found myself indulging in my own riff over issues of causality and coordination. As I observed at the time, in much electronic gear and its configurations, any cause-and-effect logic often resides more in the circuitry itself than in the actions of the performer. Thus, in last night’s trio work, O’Kane was the only player that allowed the observing listener to connect physical movement with resulting sonorities. One could watch both Davignon and Bosco as closely as one wished, but any link between what they did and what ear perceived was mediated by an “invisible logic,” much of which involved triggers based on threshold levels. (There were exceptions, of course; and Bosco had more of them, due to the occasions when she seemed to by playing her keyboard as any other keyboardist might.)

Biomusicologists like to talk about how listeners entrain to a steady beat, usually through foot tapping. However, even in the absence of such a well-defined beat, the attentive concert-goer may be just as susceptible to entrainment based on how one or more performers are moving. The source might be a conductor; but it could just as well be the entire reed section of a jazz band (or, for that matter, the swaying of a gospel choir). Last night’s performance scrupulously eschewed any beat-based foundation. Even O’Kane’s percussion work involved adding coloration to the electronic sonorities, rather that providing any sort of rhythmic foundation. Indeed, almost all of her work involved subtle dynamic levels resulting what might be called transparent shades of color, rather than the sort of brilliant splash that might come from a cymbal crash. Of particular interest was her playing the mbira while pressing it against the surface of her bass drum, an act of delicacy that was matched only by the way in which she could blow on a drum’s snares to set them in motion. The result of the trio’s approach to performance, then, amounted to a minimum of entrainment with the listener, if not its elimination altogether.

The absence of such possibilities for entrainment then raises the question of coordination among the performers themselves. On the basis of eye contact, one had the impression that Davignon was serving as “leader;” but the scare quotes should suggest that this was definitely not a “hierarchical” group structure. Ultimately, coordination seemed to be a matter of head nods, perhaps only to suggest that it was time to move on to something else or to accept that the entire gig had come to a point of closure. Beyond that, it was unclear how much more coordination could be brought into play, particularly in light of the amount of autonomy assumed by the circuitry itself. None of this, however, detracted from the listening experience, best taken as a trip into unfamiliar territory from a vantage point safe enough to allow one just to enjoy the auditory equivalent of a wide diversity of sights.

Autonomy also figured significantly in the opening solo work by Todd Elliott, performing as Toaster. Elliott’s configuration of gear included a laptop; and there was a strong sense that most of his own approach to improvisation involved the coordination of a wide variety of sources of sampled sounds. Thus, much of what was visible in his performance tended to amount to monitoring the activities he had initiated, rather than manipulating them at some microlevel. Furthermore, his final selection, which he called a hymn created in memory of his late father, seemed to involved autonomous control. Elliott himself told the audience that he would start it up and then sit down to listen along with the rest of us. His approaches tended to reflect the sorts of ambient qualities that composers like Brian Eno had explored with so much diversity during the second half of the twentieth century. However, whatever his influences may have been, Elliott’s approaches definitely established his own personal stamp on the genre; and there was almost a sense of predictability in his work that established just the right warm-up for the more indeterminate nature of the Davignon-Bosco-O’Kane trio.

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