Activating the Medium: the Instrument

San Francisco new music organization, 23five, has been around since 1993, and has been activating the medium for eleven (XI) of those years. But I only heard about them this past January, when Asymmetry Music Magazine received an email from them announcing the three events of this year’s Activating the Medium festival, an announcement I dutifully put in the “up-coming events” column of Asymmetry. After all, the likes of Krieger, Karkowski, and Niblock are certainly worth mentioning. But this became more personal with the line in their announcement about Karkowski’s “orchestral scores.” That was intriguing. And it kept intriguing, until I made up some other work to do in the Bay Area, hopped on a plane, and flew from Portland, OR to San Francisco to go to a concert.

And a good thing I did, too. That concert was a stunner and no mistake. In fact, I’d say that if you live in the Bay Area and haven’t been to a 23five conert, you should probably remedy that forthwith—unless you don’t like music. Even if you live outside the Bay Area, I’d still recommend it.

The evening opened, after someone came around to all of us with a large box of ear plugs, with Ulrich Krieger and a baritone sax so massively amplified that one breath was enough to set all the speakers in the room into paroxysms of sonic frenzy. Then came the real music-making, or sculpting, I should say, for once Krieger had set the raw music going, it was by moving the sax around, without blowing into it, that he shaped the sound.

The shaping in the next set—by percussionist Jason Kahn—came from two cymbals, held over an electronically activated tom tom and moved about to push the sound around. Long, loud, smooth sounds—very small changes. Quite mesmerising. This was, as my cousin observed, music to listen to with your eyes closed. Mostly true, as I’d just nudged him to notice that an odd little vibrato/tremolo sound was being produced by Kahn fluttering his open hand against the cymbal, so fun to watch as well as listen to.

Phroq’s harmonica set was fun to watch as well, what with the blowing into the harmonica—single notes, chords—then moving the instrument about to make complicated and various feedback noises. Various and unexpected noises. Delightfully harsh and abrasive noises. The concert could have ended here, and I would have been happy. I was glad it didn’t, of course.

For after a CD-buying intermission—all CDs at reduced prices, too, always welcome—Tim Catlin was on, playing a couple of highly charged electric guitars lying on their backs by just lightly touching the already vibrating strings with various objects (including an electronic bow, naturally), which set off some pretty incredible jangling (as well as some smooth, rich drones). There was also a small electric fan, with its hard plastic or metal blades replaced with cardboard—or so it seemed from where I was sitting—and set to spin against the strings.

Last came the set I’d come all the way from Portland to hear, although by this time it was abundantly clear that the trip was already more than worth it, the Zbigniew Karkowski “orchestral” music, heavily amplified sax, trombone, and flute, as well as a table full of miscellaneous electronic equipment. We’d already heard from Ulrich Krieger’s sax, so could expect a similar energy for his part of Karkowski’s set. But we’d not seen Suzanne Thorpe yet, and her savage, harsh outbursts of feedback from that innocent little flute were as welcome as they were unexpected. I’ve heard some pretty wild noises from amplified flutes before—nothing so elemental or so enjoyable as this. Wow. The trombone, with Andy Strain, seemed quite civilized in comparison—a calm, smooth center around which the hard-edged electronics could twist and swirl. It was stunning—a stunning end to a stunning evening.

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