Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Decibels Rage and Reign at the Center for New Music

Last night Kyle Bruckmann curated the first of three sfSoundSalonSeries concerts to be held at the Center for New Music (C4NM) this month. The program had no title; but it was a three-set evening oriented around a common theme. That theme was intense amplification on (if not over) the brink of the excessive. It was an evening for which earplugs were available and were most welcome.

The first set was taken by John Krausbauer exploring trance-style drones on both electric guitar and amplified violin. He was joined by Scott Siler at a drum kit for the guitar piece and providing a drone from a lap-held harmonium for the violin. Further explorations of the violin were provided in the second set by C. Spencer Yeh, while Bill Orcutt wrapped up the evening with solo guitar work reflecting strong influences of Delta blues.

There is no questioning that pushing the amplitude to extremes makes a difference. If one can get beyond the shock of it all, there are micro-features in the sonorities that often involve characteristics distinct from those observed when the dynamics are softer. However, those interested in such subtleties would do better to take a recording of one of these outbursts, find a very quiet room, and play that recording at a more tolerable volume level. When the decibels are coming straight at you, particularly in a space as intimate as the one at C4NM, mind is too occupied with trying to protect itself from the onslaught to pay much attention to subtleties.

Orcutt’s was the only one of the three sets to allow for some variation in dynamic level. However, this basically involved an arc of starting soft, getting very loud, and then falling back to soft. His personal take of traditional blues practices involved some interesting twists, but it also reminded one that Delta blues originated in communities that did not have amplification for their instruments. Those communities did not even have the electricity to run the amplifiers! As a result, while Orcutt’s riffs could have an engaging back-porch rhetoric, that porch was clearly a considerable distance from the Mississippi Delta!

Yeh’s set was all about different ways to get sound from a violin. His second piece involved holding one bow in each hand and using both on the neck of the instrument. One way to approach his music was to view it as ritual, where the ritual had more to do with the physical activities of making the music than with the music that was actually made.

Krausbauer’s set, on the other hand, was all about density. Using a multiphonic drone the way one begins with a wash for a watercolor, Krausbauer’s fingering could summon up intense activity involving innumerable individual notes. It was music that would benefit from detailed examination had the decibel level not been there to hold off such examination at arm’s length.

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