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Wednesday, January 16 , 2019, 5:00 pm | Overcast 60º


Jeff Moehlis: Experimental Music, Tattoos Optional

David Wessel anchors concert at UCSB, which has sonic parallels with Throbbing Gristle's recent Hollywood show

The Primavera Festival of Contemporary Arts and Digital Media continued at UCSB on Thursday with a concert that featured composer David Wessel improvising on an instrument called SLABS, which uses pressure sensitive touch pads to control 96 channels of audio ranging from atmospheric synthesized washes to triggered drum patterns. This is a unique instrument that can produce unique music. Click here to see a demonstration from Wessel.

Wessel’s performance anchored a stellar program that displayed a great richness and diversity of electro-acoustic music — stellar, that is, if you can appreciate music that lacks obvious melodic, harmonic or even rhythmic structure. Here it was all about the timbre, dynamics and a great sound system, plus the element of surprise as the pieces evolved without the listener knowing quite what to expect.

The first piece, “Hajime” by UCSB media arts and technology graduate student Anil Camci, heavily processed a recording of the spoken phrase “My name is Anil” into a mostly unrecognizable form, at times clicky, at times whooshing, only once crystalizing into a deep voice saying “My name is ...” To my ear, this processing was distinctly digital in nature, which led to interesting effects such as clipping of the waveforms that was celebrated rather than avoided.

Next was the main attraction, an masterful improvised two piece set by Wessel from the Center for New Music & Audio Technologies and the Department of Music at UC Berkeley. Wessel’s spirited performance included intriguing overlaid complex drum patterns that he summoned from his instrument. Wessel’s performance was the only one in which the performer or composer was onstage, fitting his philosophy that the audience will have a better experience if they can see the intention of the performer as they play. I must say that I agree — the other pieces just emerged like ghosts from the speakers.

Next up was “Critical Mass” by UCSB music composition graduate student Luke Thomas Taylor, which started as single punctuated horn-like notes, then rapidly built up with the introduction of more instruments into a wall of noise, subsequently overcome by static that was boldly interrupted by single piano notes and finally a few piano chords, all before an abrupt cut to silence.

Electronic music pioneer Iannis Xenakis’ rich 1957-8 piece, “Diamorphosis,” was then played. This piece, an archetype of musique concrete, mixed up various found sounds from jet engines, trains and an earthquake with electronic chirps.

Next on the program was a piece called “Touche pas” by UCSB media arts and technology professor Curtis Roads, which was dedicated to his former teacher, Morton Subotnick. This was another piece that, to my ears, effectively used digital sound manipulation, here to give a compelling series of digital droplets, clicks and buzzes.

The final piece, “Agon” by Horacio Vaggione, was the only to spontaneously evoke imagery in my mind, namely an alien landscape in which digital crickets droned on, while mud bubbled and occasional plumes of hot gas shot up. There was sonic similarity with the piece by Roads, although the droning gave it a distinct flavor.

I can’t resist comparing the UCSB concert to Throbbing Gristle’s super-sonorous performance Tuesday night in Hollywood. In case you don’t know, Throbbing Gristle is a seminal British industrial music group that was associated with such extreme performance art that in 1976 they were referred to by a member of British parliament as “the wreckers of civilization.” They were first active from 1976 until 1981, and have reunited and are currently on a limited U.S. tour.

In contrast to the composers featured at UCSB, Throbbing Gristle is not made up of academics, at least not in the classic sense. Nor, in my judgment, was the audience at their Hollywood show, the members of which appeared more likely to have a tattoo (or, more precisely, many tattoos) than a Ph.D.

(For the record, I have a Ph.D. but not a tattoo. You could say I made the less painful choice. And, before you inundate me with nasty comments, I do realize that one could have a Ph.D. and tattoos, and I have nothing against someone having tattoos, as long as it’s not one of my daughters. OK, enough digressing ...)

Throbbing Gristle played a rich live, improvised soundtrack to Derek Jarman’s avant garde film In the Shadow of the Sun. I would describe this as an experimental — and at times bone-shaking — collage of pulsing and bubbling electronics, processed sounds and scraps of noise. Sound familiar? Well, at least if you ignore the bone-shaking part?

I can’t authoritatively compare, in any academic sense at least, the artistic merits of the music from these two shows, but as a layperson and experimental music fan who immensely enjoyed both shows, I would say that there seems to be a surprising amount of common ground. Maybe the appropriate academic, with or without tattoos, can sort that out.

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB.

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