The title of last night’s sfSoundSalonSeries concert at the Center for New Music (C4NM), curated by Kyle Bruckmann and hosted by Matt Ingalls, was Ectoplasmic Variations. On the Oxford Dictionaries Web site, the second definition of the noun “ectoplasm” is: “A supernatural viscous substance that is supposed to exude from the body of a medium during a spiritualistic trance and form the material for the manifestation of spirits.” The noun was a relatively obscure one until Ghostbusters vigorously propelled it into the collective consciousness of American culture.
Two of the performers, Sam Ashley and John Krausbauer, each have a particularly, and characteristically distinct, interest in the nature of trance and its impact on the more general denotations and connotations of performance. However, they were preceded by Luciano Chessa, whose performance had almost nothing to do with trance but could well be taken as a summoning of some very hostile spirits. While the advance material for this evening stated that Chessa would be performing on a musical saw, he played instead the đàn bầu, the traditional Vietnamese monochord, which he used in his duo improvisation with Ellen Fullman at The Lab this past Saturday evening.
Last night’s performance was the polar opposite of Saturday’s. While Chessa explored quiet sonorities at The Lab, using amplification to highlight the results of almost miniscule physical gestures, all of which perfectly complemented the hauntingly soft sounds of Fullman’s Long String Instrument, he opened his C4NM set with the sort of violent wild energy that had less to do with Ghostbusters and more to do with releasing the Kraken. This began with his placing the loudspeaker of his amplifier close to the đàn bầu and raising the volume knob to trigger a fierce burst of feedback the first time the instrument sounded.
Chessa then attacked that instrument with punk-rock ferocity, hovering over the instrument’s single string and eliciting sound through both banging and plucking. It was as if he were seeking the antithesis of all the traditional techniques and sounds associated with the đàn bầu; and, if that was his goal, he succeeded most admirably, at least if admiration can be applied to the threshold of pain. Fortunately, this intense explosion of violent energy did not last very long; and Chessa then settled back into a quieter exploration of his instrument, more in line with his duo work with Fullman.
This second portion again devoted considerable attention to resonance and the capacity for one source of vibration to induce vibration in another source. He again seemed to be working with resonators as sources for vibration, engaging them through both contact and induction. Also, while his introduction amounted to a tornado of whirling sonorities, his second improvisation tended to dwell heavily on single sounds in isolation. While this did not necessarily encourage a trance state, it certainly allowed for sharp focus on the part of the attentive listener.
Chessa was followed by Ashley, whose primary focus for much of his career has been on trance-based experiences. The work he performed, “Tales from I’D RATHER BE LUCKY THAN GOOD” consisted primarily of narration, preceded and followed by a series of quiet physical gestures that may have been intended to focus his mind but also served to establish engagement with the audience. The advance material for “Tales from I’D RATHER BE LUCKY THAN GOOD” described it as a “true story of Manifest Destiny, cannibalism and luck;” and that was certainly “truth in advertising.”
The narration began with a riff on the pioneer spirit of the early nineteenth century and the collective mood to move westward. That general concept then homed in on the story of the ill-fated Donner Party and the second phase of Ashley’s agenda. However, this was followed by a litany of events, each of which should have resulted in a violent death but did not, the only reason for the avoidance of tragedy being just plain dumb luck. The examples Ashley recited became progressively more violent, making the resulting survival more outlandishly absurd. The punch line of it all seemed to be that the universe is capable of arbitrariness at its most weird; and, in dealing with such an unpredictable universe, luck is all that really matters.
The final set was a performance of “Beats,” composed by Krausbauer for three accordions. Krausbauer himself was one of the three performers, along with Aaron Openheim and Kate Short. The title referred to low frequencies that are induced by the superposition of higher frequencies. When these are the result of sounding two sine tones, they are called “beat frequencies” or “difference tones.”
An accordion, on the other hand, does not produce a pure sine tone. The performance of “Beats” involves all three accordions playing exactly the same fingering for a sustained period of time. Only through varying the control of the bellows can the frequencies of the pitches be altered. However, it is because those alterations are so slight that one hears the result of each alteration through the resulting beat phenomena.
This was definitely an ingeniously inventive approach to focus the attentive listener on an extremely fine level of detail in the creation of sound, and there was definitely rich variation in the beat phenomena that unfolded. Nevertheless, the piece felt like it went on forever. Even if it amounted to a parade of intriguingly subtle changes, once the high-level concept had been established, it became wearying to maintain focus on all of that low-level detail, particularly at the conclusion of such a content-intense evening of performances.