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San Francisco Alt Fest's Cultural Quake


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Index: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5

The San Francisco Alternative Music Festival 2004 pulled off its third year organizing performances by world renowned improvising musicians with growing attendance, intriguing one time match ups, and spontaneity. Hosted by festival directors John Lee and Rent Romus, the event culminated a year's collaboration between artists, venues, and supporters of the New Music community. Each of the four venues regularly presents programs featuring the best of the Bay Area's growing improvised music scene, as well as luminaries from around the globe. From Oakland to SOMA, any tremors you felt that week came from the seismic activity actively encouraged by the Alt Fest.

Day One

Phil Gelb/Shoko Hikage/Alex Cline
The LA trio broke the seal on the series with their performance at the 21 Grand, a medium sized store front gallery in Oakland. The musicians invoked ancient traditional sounds using shakuhachis, koto, bells and gongs, while keeping their execution 21st Century. Cline's much noted taste and versatility served the music well, as did Hikage's obvious expertise and experimentalism on koto. Gelb blew differently pitched shakuhachis, easily moving from unusual voicings to the familiar lonesome cry of that bamboo flute.

Gelb opened with whispering overtones, as Cline tickled gongs, chimes, and long vibrating bells. Hikage dragged her plectrum down a string. Abrupt percussive punctuation from Cline gave the piece a Noh play sound. With sustained gong and bell tones hanging in the air, the performance slowly unfolded. As it progressed, each quickly jumped on the other's changes. Hikage bowed the koto for a dry sound. Cline rattled chains and shakers on gongs and drums. The three navigated through tempest and calm, exhibiting great delicacy and great power, comfortable with space and comfortable with filling it.

Gino Robair/Jon Butcher
Celebrating a seven year collaboration, Robair and Butcher sure-footedly traveled the outlands. Robair's use of electronic devices and other unorthodox percussive implements created unique sonic textures to blend with Butcher's very personal take on reeds. A compendium of unusual sax sounds, Butchers opened with multiphonic long tones, while Robair ground his stick on a drumhead. He manipulated feedback by striking keys with a mic in the bell of his sax. Robair bowed cymbals, coaxing whines and shrieks. Butcher found those sounds on tenor and sang a duet.

After a delightful birdsong segment, Butcher's soprano swallowed a mic to create electric wind. Robair stroked his skins with gongs and woodblocks. Together they went from out to ambient, and even in the latter sharp objects glistened. In an art form that exalts the beauty of the fresh, these two excelled.

Adam Lane/Vinny Golia/Vijay Anderson
Closing a compelling first night, came a festival highlight, Lane/Golia/Anderson. All three so closely aligned in speed and imagination created an aural E-ticket thrill ride. Anchored by Lane's time master bass lines, Anderson and Golia told a lot of the stories they know. Like a greyhound at the gun, Golia leapt in, worked off some written notes, then it's Vinny time. The prolific improviser and the beat happy rhythm section created scenery for a runaway train trip. Golia demonstrated startling mastery of a genre he's not as closely associated with, straight up jazz. All Lane's compositions proved to be loose enough for open exploration, and solid enough to maintain unshakable grooves.

The second piece kept Golia on tenor, and Lane's strong portentous bass recalled early Impulse Coltrane. Again, the busy focused rhythm section provided the right fuel for Golia's aeronautics. The incendiary group performance parted for a flexible solo from Lane. The trio returned on a low down bluesy run that straightened out into pure energy music.

They followed with Lane and Anderson boiling over, as Anderson maintained a breakneck pace. Golia entered slow and deliberate, the calm at the center of the storm. He built his way into the rhythm frenzy, the trio virtuosity unchained in a long dramatic exit. Lane uses a meditative solo to open the last piece. But Anderson stirred the ballad, Lane laid out a memorable bass line, and Golia flew and wove like a benzedrine butterfly.

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Day Two

Ned Rothenberg
The festival moved to windy Market St., up the heavily gratfiteed stairs, to the slyly named Luggage Store Gallery, home to Rent Romus' regular Thursday night New Music series. With the squeaky rumble of streetcars and sirens for added ambiance, Thursday night's show got underway with a breathtaking solo set from Ned Rothenberg. Using circular breathing, he played a rainbow of multiphonic tones on bass clarinet. He created continuous patterns with slight variations, ala Steve Reich and Lamont Young, but as a spontaneous composition. Tones ranging from high extended to deep natural rapidly orbited to mimic throbbing.

The second piece roamed as freely as the first stayed confined. Still on bass clarinet, he played a sprawling melody punctuated by rhythmic mouthpiece pops. He maintained two melody lines, one high one low, occasionally merging the two. As a palette cleanser, he played a composed piece for shakuhachi, capturing its classic world weary minor.

Switching to alto, he continued the lonesome cry of the bamboo, but shifted to the strength of brass, continuing the minor mood with occasional multiphonics. Moving into circular breathing, the performance gained complexity, returning to the shamanic trance music with which he began. Finally, the melodies of different ranges split into a chorus of saxophones. A rewarding visit with a New York artist infrequently on this coast.

Normal (Fred Frith and Sudhu Tawari)
Homemade instruments found their way into several sets, and both Fred Frith and Sudhu Tawari appeared to have spent time in the workshop. Frith emerged with nails and wires on raw wood, while Tawari made a metal box with springs. Both musicians manipulated the instruments through floor pedals. Tawari's device delivered more thudding percussives, Frith's possessing a greater range of tones. Feedback, recycled noise, and drones dominated, as they improvised sound. At one point, Tawari played what looked and sounded like a glowing electric kalimba. Tapping the wires strung across his board, Frith produced tones like a hammered dulcimer. Different techniques on the strings brought out timbres similar to koto and harp. The duo's demonstration of creative sound science included joining a passing siren, and simpatico sound engineering.

Trummerflora Collective
The esteemed San Diego quintet hit the stage ready to play. Marcos Fernandez shuffled a table of pots and pans, to contribute galloping beats. Nathan Hubbard expanded the pulse on drums, while expressionless Robert Montoya dealt electronics and samples, eerily lit by his computer screen. Guitarist Al Scholl hummed, then joined the intense Hubbard for a sizzling duet, splayed guitar meets cymbal brush slash snare. Dr. Ellen Weller effectively played headless flute with a trumpeter's embouchure. Each member created fluently in the dynamic group improvisation, each a focused, listening whirlwind. Hubbard continued his assault with whisks, Fernandez brushed a large tambourine, and Weller got amplified tones from a clarinet bell on a drumhead. Montoya offered ambient noise sliced by Scholl's loud chords. Weller blew impressively on clarinet and soprano, a memorable voice in that busy conversation. Their collective imagination and enthusiasm fashioned a memorable performance.

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Day Three

Uncle (Myles Boisen and John Shiruba)
With the sign of the old Giraffe still out front, the Hemlock Tavern on Polk hosted the third night of the SF Alt Fest. Their dark back room boasts a small stage and the new venue books experimental rock acts, as well as presenting a New Music series. Although jukebox bleed from the next room included MC5 and Gun Club, the festival's hump night brought enough volume to drown out Kong.

Guitarists Myles Boisen from Splatter Trio and John Shiruba performed as Uncle, the former on hollow body electric, the latter solid body. Shiruba laid out his implements (brushes, kitchen tools, slides, clips, etc.) on a white towel like surgeon's tools. Boisen's system showed no obvious arrangement. All about sound and manipulation of sound, the duo played feedback duets, worked pedals, twisted machine heads, scraped with files, wove implements through strings and sustained feedback. Through buzz skronk they emerge to play detuned lines off each other. So concentrated on the music, at first they don't realize three reed players and a drummer began setting up to join them. A private debate over improvised vs composed was about to go public with Matt Ingals and Dan Plowsey on clarinets, and Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, setting up music stands behind the preoccupied fretsmen. Drummer Gino Robair adopted a kit onstage, and the trio played an arrangement that could have been a Zappa/Uncle Meat outtake. Someone in the crowd yelled something about the Renaissance Faire, and Boisen packed up the hollow body for a solid. Both he and Shiruba cranked the volume, effectively ending the debate for the night.

William Hooker/Moe! Staiano
Even within the context of some high energy virtuoso performances spread throughout the festival, Hooker and Staiano's improvised soundtrack to an experimental film stood apart. With Hooker between projector and screen, his shadow rightly marked the images. Watching the film, Hooker ran like a panther for the next hour, playing with an awesome fierceness. While Hooker worked a traditional drum kit, Staiano played some drums, but also tuned lengths of pipe and several found objects. He began scraping whines out of cymbals, but caught Hooker's fever and the two burned together.

The constant motion of the film inspired percussion pandemonium as both musicians locked into pyrotechnic endurance. The frenzied Staiano exploded on drums and pipes, as Hooker's hands and sticks blurred in silhouette. Hooker continued to invoke the thunder gods and Staiano moved on to suspended bicycle wheel. In the midst of his conflagration, Hooker bellowed shouts that resembled the cries of martial artists. Miracle enough they could unflinchingly release such a well synched prolonged firestorm. Despite all evidence to the contrary, neither musician had met before their luminous performance.

Randy Yau
Sound designer Randy Yau followed Hooker and Staiano with three amps connected to a fully cabled sound board. An extended vocal shriek then circulated as raw abrasive noise, manipulated with occasional shorts by a hand held device that altered the waves depending on where he held it in relation to the amps.

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Day Four

Back to Oakland and 21 Grand Gallery for Pepito, an SF based electro pop music duo. Members Jose Marquez and Ana Machado play accessible and appealing songs with a message, the tempos mostly easy going, the tones candy coated. Slides, animations, and video loops played through songs, some with the Spanish/English lyrics displayed.

They started with a simple beat and added rhythm layers and slides of colorful sofas. Machado rapped the lyrics and Marquez added bass guitar to the two keyboards set on "pulsate." Machado took an expressive vocal turn with her bright soprano, and with a long shot of an old Pan Am jet in flight they played a smooth cool instrumental. Even their footage of labs and their Cuban aerospace program song came off as happy synth pop.

Positive Knowledge w/Kitundu
The joining of philosophically kindred Kitundu and Positive Knowledge seemed a gleam of inspiration. Oluyemi Thomas' gave a grand performance on reeds and flutes, and occasional dance. Ijeoma Thomas' striking words and exhilarating vocalese flowed like a second horn sailing with Oluyemi. Spirit, avant veteran and their West Coast drummer, kept heat under the pot supporting his colleagues. Oakland's Kitundu contributed cuts and samples from his Phonoharp, a turntable with a well made stringed instrument flaring out like a corona. Oluyemi played extended high notes answered by Ijeoma, and Spirit hit a muted drum kit. Ijeoma immediately established her musical presence, impressively composing with Oluyemi. Her dramatic delivery helped create an atmosphere of ritual. Kitundu rumbled low on the Phonoharp. Oluyemi blew solo, then they evolved into a percussion ensemble. Oluyemi, Ijeoma, and Kitundu played kalimbas with Spirit on a small hand drum. On a small wood flute, Oluyemi had Ijeoma supporting him on sleigh bells, then he danced with shakers. Refreshed, he blew a devastating duet with Spirit, soaring on soprano. As the other three percussed, Oluyemi danced. A multiphonic alto solo played softly and reflective, turned into another enduro run with Spirit. Kitundu's sample of an operatic soprano seemed to have spurred the sudden change.

After some electro burbling from Kitundu, Oluyemi picked up bass clarinet. Kitundu then sampled Dolphy on bass clarinet. Oluyemi softly supported Ijeomi's recitation, leading to another stratospheric improvisation. While occasionally audible, Kitundu appeared to be under amplified through much of the performance.

An electronically oriented Oakland sextet manned by musicians associated with other groups (Dose One, Jel), they opened with canned applause. Dax Pierson played a melodica in duet with Alex Cort on cello. Adam Drucker's vocals barely surfaced through the mix, but Marty Dowers' horn blowing through the densening sound recalled recent Springheel Jack releases. Jordan Dalrymple activated programmed drumming, as well as adding live beats throughout. After a pleasant slow groove, they picked up the pace hitched to Pierson's rhythmically exquisite bass. Later, Pierson picked up the melodica for an impassioned exchange with Dower's tenor.

Day Five

Jack Wright/Sabine Vogel/Michael Griener
Compared to the colorful sites of previous Alt Fest shows, the Musician's Union Hall seemed beige. Now the home of a New Music series every other Sunday, the room soon became lively enough. The Wright-Vogel-Griener trio christened their American tour with their Alt Fest performance. Playing at the quiet, subdued end of the spectrum, the trio began with Wright muting his alto with his leg. Vogel breathed through a bass flute as Griener rubbed his hands and cymbals on drum skin. Vogel went from bass to piccolo, blowing and sucking. Wright blew overtones and flutters. Vogel suggested c-flute tones, while Griener worked with textures. Switching to soprano, Wright kept it low with occasional pops. Vogel's use of quiet extended techniques helped establish an implied tension. Wright held extended high notes with Griener matching his shriek with stick scraped cymbal. Vogel's breathed bass flute closed it. Wright continued on alto with a low growl. Vegel held tones then used breathing strategies for variations. Wright used circular breathing, and with everything kept down the sound imitated distant trains. Afterwards, Wright spoke of the strain playing music so subtle and inferred.

Brassiosaurus w/Dina Emerson
Resplendent in Hawaiian shirts, the Brassiosaurus trio made room for vocalist Dina Emerson, and she returned the courtesy by premiering her interest in tuba. The first improvisation, called "Footsteps," had Ron Heglin and Toyoji Tomita on trombones, Tom Djll on trumpet, and Emerson on improvised wordless vocals. "Setting the Conditions" began as staccato F's circulating through the quartet, then the quartet moving to four corners of the room. After they resumed sitting, Emerson sang low tones to the low 'bones sweeping the bottom. For "Bloody Mary Magdeline," Djll and Tomita played off eachother while Heglin and Emerson recited and sang improvised language. They moved into extended vocalese while the brass improvised spiritedly.

The trombones played in various states of assembly on "Evaporations." Djll ran plastic tubing out his trumpet, and swirled it around his head. Emerson joined the trio on tuba for "toO 2baz 4te." With Heglin also on tuba, the two sounded like didjereedoos.

Zen Widow
Closing out the festivities, a trio with Gianni Gebbia, Matthew Goodheart, and SF Alt board member Garth Powell kept it free and interesting. Gebbia began with air alto, everything soft until Powell blasted his air horn. Goodheart ran his fingers through the strings of his prepared piano, muting and tapping. Using small mallets, Powell kept it light on drums. Gebbia use circular breathing to fuel extended techniques, and Powell whirled whistling tubes around his head. Gebbia blew with no mouthpiece, while Powell hit his drums with small bicycle horns. Goodheart used rhythm sticks on his piano strings, and Powell hit his drums with them. Goodheart nursed keys and strummed strings. Powell dusted with brushes then experimented with bullhorn feedback on his drum head.

For the next piece, Goodheart worked an active piano line with Powell simmering underneath. Gebbia saunters through on sax, then walks to an upended table and hides with a rubber hand in the bell of his sax. Powell heats up and Gebbia plays solid runs, Goodheart thundering on the bass keys. He underscores his partner's intensity maintaining deep dense chording.

As they begin planning their fourth year's shows, the San Francisco Alt Fest stands poised and ready to become an institution. With a growing audience and savvy networking, John Lee & Co. ably serve the art form and the community that supports it.

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