Sonic Circuits 2014: A Festival of Experimental Music

Pyramid Atlantic Arts Center, Silver Spring, Maryland USA
3-5 October 2014
by Daniel Barbiero
For fifteen years or so, the Sonic Circuits Festival of Experimental Music has brought challenging sound and multimedia performances to the Washington DC area. For this latest edition, curator Jeff Surak brought together a diverse group of experimental musicians, sound artists, filmmakers, and category-defying performers. As in previous years, the range of styles and art forms represented was broad, encompassing electronic noise, acoustic musique concrète, free improvisation, dance, invented sound objects, performance art, experimental film, and more. All of it took place at the Pyramid AtlanticArt Center in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring—a departure from past years, when events were held at various places throughout the DC metropolitan area.
Day 1: Friday
The festival’s first evening featured a number of artists working with multi-media. DC-area experimental filmmaker Chris Lynn started things off with Super 8 films taken during his travels in China, France and Switzerland, accompanied by field recordings.  Lynn’s sea- and skyscapes, street scenes, fields and factories were objects seen as abstract forms in grades of grey, separated by obscure borders. The field recordings sometimes seemed directly related to the scenes shown—sounds of thunder matched by shots of a storm at sea—but more often the pairings were disjunctive, such as indoor sounds matched to outdoor views. The juxtaposition of unrelated audio and visual elements served to frame each in unexpected ways, making the ordinarily unnoticed suddenly noticeable. Baltimore artist Bonnie Jones followed with her work “Good Vibrations,” which combined sometimes abrasive electronic sounds with samples of voice transmissions and manipulated excerpts of different recordings of the Beach Boys’ song. Helsinki’s [ówt krì] skillfully mixed minimal music with an enigmatic, quasi-narrative video that unfolded with a dream logic that was made all the more vivid by the isolated, Satie-like simplicity of chords played on keyboard.
Two DC-area electronics artists showed the variety of ways that sound masses can be stacked and layered. Chester Hawkins generated drones from his modular synthesizer, putting them on top of one another until they evolved into emergent harmonies of gradually increasing complexity. Hawkins accompanied the sound with projections of strobing, geometrical forms and TV test pattern static. Music over Matter Music over Mind (Thomas Stanley and Luke Stewart) took a different approach to sound mass, focusing on the horizontal aspects of rhythm and phrase structure. MOM2’s overlapping of sound samples set up polyrhythmic layers of lines of different lengths and periodicities which created a regular pulse out of irregular punctuations. Stanley’s spoken prologue to the set, gently making the case for the salving power of art in a time of war and disease, was timely and doubtlessly spoke for the festival’s performers, organizers and attendees alike.
After a brief break Lazurite (Brooklyn, NY’s Margaret Moncrief) performed a short set centered around looped samples of bowed metal—provided by a close-at-hand stepladder–and the ukelin, an unusual 36-string laptop instrument popular during the 1930s. Closing the evening was Insect Ark (NYC’s Dana Schecter), who used loops, drum samples, and live electric bass and lapsteel to create heavy instrumental rock.
Day 2: Saturday
Saturday’s program began with beautiful, clear weather—and a good thing too, since the opening set, a site-specific work combining improvised music and movement for my group, The Subtle Body Transmission Orchestra, and three dancers, was scheduled to take place outdoors in the Pyramid Atlantic parking lot. Because Pyramid is an artists’ space the grounds contain sculptures and other visual and tactile oddities. We incorporated all of these into our set, with dancers Ken Manheimer, Amanda Blythe and Sarah Schaffer moving in and out of the sculptures’ metal lattice work or weaving in and around saxophonists Tim Harding and Tom Wall, percussionist Sam Byrd, vibraphonist Rich O’Meara and me. We took the opportunity to use the available open space to create an improvisation exploiting the ambient acoustics and incidental sounds—including at one point a passing police siren. Real-time Dictaphone interventions were provided courtesy of Jeff Surak.
The indoor program began with the Serge modular analogue synthesizer of cebec (DC’s Matthew Carpenter), who during the course of his set built a wall of drone with a throbbing bassline. Saturday in fact was much given over to heavy drone-based electronics, although by no means exclusively so. The Use, the solo project of New Jersey’s Michael Durek, used Korg keyboard and laptop to generate danceable beats and sequences underpinning well-defined song structures. The last piece in his set was graciously dedicated to National Cephalopod Awareness Day–which apparently it was. The duo Limax Maximus(Robert Pepper and Thermos Unigarde, NYC) worked with recorded samples of voice—whispering, singing, speaking—interwoven with electronic textures, which had an unsettling effect, as if they were conversations or soliloquies from an unmade film. The sui generis Lithuanian performance artist Bruzgynai, dressed only in an apron and wig, followed with a cathartic set that was a frenzy of unspooled cassette tapes, colliding, rubbing, dragging and scraping contact-miked objects, and general lo-fi noise. Changing things considerably was Austin, Texas’s Bee vs.Moth, an unorthodox quintet composed of electric guitar and bass, drums, and two trombones. The group crisscrossed genres with originals—often based on ostinatos, and frequently featuring trombone as lead instrument–drawing on or alluding to rock, swing, blues, country and even a hint of tango.
The group Extremophile, based in New York City but whose members are international in origin, followed with a brief but powerful, timbrally-adventurous set in which not only the instruments–guitar, prepared double bass, and enhanced snare drum—but also vocalist Emilie Lesbros’ voice were all pushed to their limits. Lesbros sang and spoke words whose vowels and consonants she dismantled and reassembled, while Pascal Niggenkemper plucked, struck and bowed his instrument, David Grollman slapped his snare with bare hands or scraped the head with a cymbal, and Lucio Menegon pulled unorthodox sounds from electric guitar and prepared banjo. DC area guitarist Anthony Pirogfollowed with a rare solo set that began and ended with thoughtful solos played over evocative, wistful chords that he built up piece by piece through loops. In between, the music segued into abstract, edge-of-noise territory but never lost the logic of the set’s cyclical architecture. Pirog’s jazz and rock influences fused in the complex harmonic progressions and the sometimes incendiary, overdriven solos that overlay them.
Contrasting with Pirog’s lyricism were the harsh, short-phrase-based electronics of xambuca, followed by Swedish duo 100110. The latter’s multimedia set was grounded in a mostly sparse soundscape developing slowly from the sounds thrown off by two electric typewriters run through effects. The austerity of the sound was paralleled by abstract black and white forms projected onto the wall behind them. Finishing the evening were the electroacoustic improvisation of oceans roar 1000 drums (the trio of Todd Capp, percussion; Bryan Eubanks, saxophone and electronics; and Andrew Lafkas, double bass) and Gilles Aubry’s “Amplified Souls,” a work based on field recordings of ritual ceremonies in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Day 3: Sunday
Sunday’s program was largely given over to performance art that went beyond sound to encompass elements of spoken word, theater, dance—and even metaphysics. As with Saturday’s program, Sunday’s began with an outdoor performance, this time by local sound artist/instrument inventor Layne Garrett. Garrett came up with a typically ingenious construction of a series of rectangular metal gongs connected by wires to the Pyramid building’s rooftop. The wires, which ran down across the Pyramid parking lot, were threaded through Styrofoam boxes containing microphones in order to pick up and amplify the complex overtones that ensued when Garrett rubbed, struck and bowed the wires. The installation created a range of humming, buzzing and chiming sounds—a guerilla sound performance for the benefit of unsuspecting passersby on Georgia Avenue.
Back indoors, Dave Vosh, joined by his wife Janis, performed “Calutron Girl” for DVD player, mixer and voice, which combined recordings of Dave’s synth with Janis’ live repetitions of the title, mixed and manipulated against video images of Janis interspersed with archival footage of the original calutron girls—local women just out of high school who were employed by the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee to mind the machines enriching uranium for the first atomic bombs. The DIY wing of the DC area experimental music scene was further represented by Fast against the Wall, a collaboration bringing together Keith Sinzinger and Joe Wall in a satiric piece that involved pedals, pocket trumpet, pot-top cymbals and disco beats. Sinzinger and Wall were followed by DC artist Sarah O’Halloran’s haunting spoken word piece about separation and connection, accompanied by electronics.
Sunday evening also saw the debut of To Satisfy Their Cruel Hunger, a graphic score by artistic director J.S. Adams for The Stylus BLK Arkestra, a mixed ensemble of DC area artists consisting of turntablists (Jeff Bagato, Chester Hawkins, Jeff Jobson, Raquel Leone-Bagato, Anthony Pirog, Gary Rouzer and Keith Sinzinger), guitars (Jeff Barsky and Anthony Pirog); live electronics (Chris Videll); strings (Doug Poplin, cello and myself on double bass); and digital contributions (Guillermo Pizarro, James L. Roth, and PD Sexton). The work was structured as a multipart suite exploring the timbral and dynamic contrasts and similarities of its heterogeneous instrumentation—an essay in the vertical and horizontal integration and separation of sound color.
From New York, Naked RootsConducive—Valerie Kuehne and Natalia Steinbach—took the art song into the twenty-first century with a surreal song cycle that may well embody the founding myth of a new, benign non-religion. Using conventional and extended technique on violin and cello to accompany voice, a pile of plush fish and Mr. Bacon from China–a green, fuzzy, mechanical toy pig–they sang of new deities of birth, rebirth and interconnections through roots real and hallucinatory. And possibly made a number of converts on the spot. From NRC’s mythology it was a short step to science fiction, as Gen Ken Montgomery and Andrea Beeman used electronic sounds, dance and flashing lights to conjure up the shade of science fiction’s golden age of alien exotica.
Closing the night—and the 2014 Sonic Circuits Festival—was Boat Burning, a DC-based guitar orchestra playing new compositions by founder/guitarist Andras Fekete and guitarist/composer Jonathan Matis. Usually a large ensemble numbering in the low double digits, for this set Boat Burning was economically made up of six guitars (Geordie Grindle, Norm Veenstra, Phong Tran and Robin Diamond, in addition to Fekete and Matis) and percussionist Mark Sherman. After a Matis composition built around repeating and overlapped short phrases, the ensemble created a sound mass of ringing fundamentals and shimmering emergent harmonics.
Video excerpts of the 2014 Sonic Circuits Festival of Experimental Music can be found here
Photographs of the festival will appear on the Intangible Arts flickr page.