I spent last weekend at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, where I had the honor to perform with longtime friend and musical hero Pauline Oliveros on the closing night. Our piece was a tribute to the great French critic and journalist Daniel Caux, a tremendous supporter of American experimental music, who passed away on July 12. I was grateful that I could come to the Bay Area a few days early to attend other SFEMF events and partake of the concerts, installations, and bonhomie.
SFEMF featured a nice range of styles and aesthetics, ranging from Edmund Campion’s formal and classical ME, for baritone and computer (with text/concept by John Campion, and Thomas Buckner featured in the role of ME), to the stark minimalism of Phill Niblock. The dynamic range of the festival was likewise varied—Agnes Szelag solo performances that never seemed to get much above a mezzo-piano to Ata “Sote” Ebtekar excursions that never seemed to get below triple fortissimo. Most performances fell squarely in the middle, and yet some controversy ensued.
Because of a clause in the contract with the theater where the festival concerts were presented, the upward volume limit was 95 db which, while anyone would agree is quite loud, is very far below the levels that can cause hearing damage in the limited time of a concert set. OSHA worries about exposure to such a level only after four hours without interruption—this is called, in government parlance, the “noise dose”. But even without the risk of hearing loss, a fair number of audience members headed for the exits during the loudest performances. Perhaps they feared ear damage, real or merely perceived, or perhaps they just didn’t like the music or accompanying visuals. In any case, the festival organizers have been fretting that maybe they crossed a line and created bad will with some of the public.
In my view, a festival that strives to be broad and encompass many styles cannot ignore artists who use noise and volume as part of their aesthetic. Think about the Austrian group Granular Synthesis, who “create electronic emotion machines, that surround, immerse their audience, overwhelm the human sensory apparatus by massive use of subsonic…frequencies” Even Iannis Xenakis was criticized for the sound levels of some of his installations, like Persepolis and Polytope de Cluny. Obviously care should be taken not to exceed health standards. Now, 95 db for 4 hours is one thing, as few performances last that long, but I have heard performances that probably were closer to 110 db at their maximum, and only 30 minutes of exposure can cause ear damage at those levels. But let’s assume for the sake of the argument that while a concert’s levels never cross into the realm of physical damage, they might still be loud and unpleasant for some in attendance. What obligations does the organizer have to its listening public? No organizer likes to see any portion of the audience flee. Maybe a sign in the lobby warning that some sound levels might be unpleasant? Dispensing of earplugs? One concert producer has suggested adjusting the stage monitors of loud performers upwards, essentially tricking them into thinking they were playing louder than they actually were. As a performer, I hate this idea. Some electronic festivals, however broad they would like to be, have just cut out people at the higher end of the dynamic “spectrum”. To me this is a pity, because artists like Otomo Yoshihide, Phill Niblock, Merzbow, and Ray Sweeten have things to say—they just say them loudly.