I might have been more excited for the Optical Showcases at Benaroya Hall than I was for any other part of Decibel Fest, not because I knew any of the artists (I’d never heard of any of them), but because the idea of hearing artistically rendered soundscapes in a setting like Benaroya sounded fascinating to me. These composers aren’t concerned with getting people dancing, they’re masters of sonic manipulation, and probably know more about sound, how to create it, and how to get it to illicit a response that doesn’t involve sweating better than anyone else at dB Fest.
OPTICAL 1 – BETWEEN SPACE
“Optical 1,” which took place Friday, was entitled “Between Space” and focused on ambient composers. The performances took place in the Benaroya Recital Hall, not the Concert Hall like I expected, but it didn’t really matter, as the acoustics were top notch anyway. Festival creator Sean Horton came out to give a brief introduction and was greeted with a huge ovation. He reminded the audience that he wasn’t actually performing before handing the stage over to veteran German soundsmith Robert Henke. Henke wasn’t even on stage for his “performance,” but a huge projector screen was in place which displayed the visual aspect of his set. The lights dimmed and Henke’s impactful, droning soundscape commenced. As black and white images of industrial objects, fields, and other inanimate quotidian objects or landscapes slowly dissolved into one another, Henke’s subterranean sound reverberated off the walls of the Recital Hall. It sounded like Henke was keyed into some frequency of sound that isn’t meant to be heard, like something out of a David Lynch film. There were faint traces of sounds that resembled things from real life, like a hive of bees, or a newswire, but something was off, like everything was distorted through some extra-dimensional sonic lens. It didn’t surprise me to learn after the fact that the performance was derived from field recordings he had taken in Vietnam this spring.
After Henke was Mexican composer Murcof. Unlike Henke, Murcof was actually on stage, as was Seattleite Scott Sunn, who provided the visuals. While Henke’s set was composed of one continuous and malleable frequency, Murcof’s was more jittery, as he accentuated specific sounds and moved around sonically. Among these were what sounded like violent pounding of metallic piano keys, equally violent playing of a cello-like stringed instrument, an Inception-style foghorn, and operatic vocal parts. Sunn’s visuals were unlike anything I had ever seen and revolved around a silhouetted chimney and an ever-changing swarm of bats that would fly in, out, and around it… it’s hard to explain. Like I said, the visuals were great, but, and I feel like I am in the minority on this, I would rather have just been able to sit and listen to and think about the music. Light shows and projectors are great for dance electronica, but when the performance is so purely dependent on sound, all of its intricacies, and the delicate way the composers are manipulating it, I feel like the visual aspect just distracted me from immersing myself in the artists’ soundscapes and letting the associations fly, which is what I was there to do.
London’s Mark Von Hoen came on close to 8:30, and several patrons cleared out so they could have time to go home and get ready for the night. Like Murcof, Von Hoen was on stage. He played multiple overlapping tracks of different songs, with their corresponding images also overlapping on the projector screen. After a while, he apologized because something wasn’t working and said he was going to just play his own music with their own accompanying visuals. I felt like if he just didn’t say anything the crowd wouldn’t have even have noticed. The combination of his music and the sampled images he had choreographed were oftentimes powerful and oftentimes funny. One song’s visual accompaniment was nothing but the bouncing and distorted face of a woman who was clearly being pleasured. This as well, as other moments drew some chuckles from the crowd, but I got the impression that Von Hoen didn’t mean for anything to be funny. He was locked in the whole time.
OPTICAL II – TACTILE IMMERSION
Same time, same place, one day later was Optical II, which was led off by New York musician and filmmaker Sarah Lipstate, aka Noveller. The last thing I was expecting from “Optical II – Tactile Immersion” was to fall in love, but about 2.7 seconds after Noveller plucked her first note I felt she might have supplanted Zooey Deschanel as my future wife. She was set up behind a massive array of effects pedals and wore black jeans, a black and white striped shirt, and an electric guitar. For most of the set her head was down as she concentrated on which pedal to hit next, but every once in a while she would tilt her head up, close here eyes, and look absolutely divine as she played some airy, angelic notes before turning right back to the pedals to loop them. And she was a looping master, recording layer after layer of riffs or pluckings, sometimes recording the exact same guitar line over itself four or five times, eventually creating amazing compositions that were hard to believe came from just one person on stage. She also used a violin bow to play certain parts, and even broke out a crumpled plastic bag, which she ran over the guitar strings to produce a deep, ethereal whirring effect. Very cool. It wasn’t hard at all to believe that she was a member of Glenn Branca’s 100 guitar ensemble.
After Noveller came Austrian guitarist Fennesz, who was joined on stage by Lillevan, who handled the brunt of the computer work. Fennesz played an odyssey of a set, and was extremely focused the entire time. This is another occasion where I wished there weren’t any visuals to distract my attention from the sound, but alas, people have to look at something I guess. His compositions were lush, complex, and it was hard to tell where the guitar ended and the computer began, and vice versa. Fennesz is truly a master and received probably the biggest ovation of any of the Optical Showcase performers. After acknowledging the crowd, hugging Lillevan, and playing a (relatively) quick encore, he left the stage for Oneohtrix Point Never.
Several of the Optical performers wanted the Recital Hall to be as dark as possible, but the lights never got lower than they did for Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never. In fact, it was so dark in Benaroya that Lopatin came on stage wearing a head lamp so that he could see his gear. He played another interesting and sonically marvelous set to close out the Benaroya shows, and after unsuccessfully scanning the lobby for Noveller so I could ask her to marry me, I bid Benaroya adieu and rushed home to get ready for the night.