San Francisco: The Importance of Being Earnest

Roddy Schrock
Roddy Schrock
Photo by Hideki Kubota

It seems as though every music organization needs its edge. For every festival produced, a sub-festival is necessitated as a forum for outsider music that is not included as part of the main program but still poses the potential for wider acceptance at some point in the future. These are the smaller and more timidly funded series with titles that tend to imply uncertainty, instability, and possibly even mild psychoses. The Other Minds new music organization of San Francisco is no exception—it now has a dangerous stepchild of a music series called Brink. With a title like this, one is forced to question what kind of brink is being faced. A new frontier? Or are we at the brink of a nervous breakdown?

Analyses of the motivations behind the marketing of art is a slippery slope. So let’s stick to the music. In the case of the second event in the newly christened Brink series, it was an evening of intense contrast between self-knowing irony and beautifully earnest clarity, the former represented by Blevin Blectum, the latter by Christopher Willits. From the early heady days of the irreverent duo Blectum from Blechdom, Blevin and her partner in crime Kevin were making electronic music that dared the listener to take it seriously. Digital signal processing virtuosity was the tool to explore cartoon-electro-cut-up themes creating a fragrant and flagrant potpourri of sound that was full of catchy hooks while still being completely unpredictable. Their music was sneeringly ironic and quite often blatantly hilarious. It’s interesting to note that when listening to either the solo music of Blevin or Kevin, Blectum or Blechdom, they still seem to retain exactly the identity they brought to their duo. One gets the sense that if they were to start the duo all over again today, it would be exactly as it was, each contributing a perfect 50 percent to the final music.

Blectum’s performance was comprised of a pastiche of sounds, each giving no indication of what was to come. She excels at taunting the listener, teasing us with earworms which suddenly disappear never to be heard again. It’s a game that the listener is sure to lose, a postmodern romp through unhinged sounds that retain a vague familiarity, the sources never quite revealed nor completely hidden. In a way her music is maddening, but in the best sense. One is left with the feeling of having taken a great adventure through the terrain of a foreign world which has its own consistency and logic obvious to those in the know. But in a style that draws comparison to a Borges novel, the logic will never be completely revealed to we mere tourists. I hope she keeps it that way.

Willits, on the other hand, wants us to understand. For the record, I don’t think music is a universal language, but if there is anything out there with the potential to function in such a way, I would say Willits comes closest, working in a kind of musical-emotional Esperanto. Where Blectum excelled in information overload Willits drew on sparsity. Where Blectum maked us uncomfortable in just not quite getting the joke, Willits soothed us into a communal sense of melancholic comfort. His music is characterized by fascinating polyrhythms built from digital pops combined with tonal electric guitar material to create intricate and warm architectures of sound. At this concert he seemed to be pushing those boundaries a bit, taking chances with improvisation that paid off in creating a music that seemed terribly abstract while still being touchingly intimate.

Both Willits and Blectum share a conviction that electronic music is a personal form of expression and need not be distant nor machine-like. Neither appears interested in perpetuating the tired glorified myth of man/machine but instead showing how computer music has evolved into being less computer and more music. Programming them both in one evening was a stroke of curatorial genius, as it gave two very clear points on a spectrum of current potential in the medium, both personal and idiosyncratic but still diametrically opposed to one another. One giving us a wink and a nod, the other a warm embrace.

  • Brink is held the last Wednesday of every month at the Hemlock Tavern, San Francisco. Tonight’s performance features Celeste Hutchins and Nami Sagara.

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    Roddy Schrock is a sound artist who digitally mines everyday sound for the profound and canvasses the glitzy, rough edges of pop for its articulate immediacy. He has lived and worked in Tokyo, The Hague, New York, and San Francisco, with performances in the Czech Republic, Holland, Japan, and North America. He is also an educator, currently teaching at De Anza College (California) and will be giving a summer workshop on Supercollider software at STEIM (Netherlands).