Like most fin-de-si?cle philosophers, Matt Ingalls and Joe Anderson have a fondness for aphorisms. When not proclaiming “the eminent renaissance of audio art,” “the future of art music … if music doesn’t die,” or “art music for now!,” Ingalls and Anderson finish each other’s sentences in moments of shared revelation, interrupted by the next spontaneous burst of “aha!” Self-described dorks who’ve been “splicing tape, hacking up tape recorders, and miking pianos weird” since high school band, the leading curators of the Transparent Tape Music Festival trade their thoughts like tapes, until you can hardly distinguish the originality of one from its source in the other.
The duo, calling itself the New San Francisco Tape Music Center, stole its name from the original SFTMC, which now resides at Mills College. “With their permission,” Ingalls notes, the young composers placed themselves directly in the lineage of the seminal 1960s studio, a composers’ guild that sought to collectivize and popularize experimentation in electronic music. Inspired by the populist collective ethos, Ingalls and Anderson pooled enough of their friends’ home studio equipment to present their first festival at the Art Rattan warehouse in 1999. Every festival since has become less the calling card of a cloister of composers, and more an effort to survey the historical range of their medium. Through theatrical sound designer Cliff Carruthers, the pair secured larger quarters at Berkeley’s Transparent Theatre this year. The result is the most ambitious festival yet, presenting different programs over two nights on a surround-sound system with live diffusion, a theory of arranging speakers in space that turns the projection and direction of sound into as performative an element as its composition and recording.
“Some of these older pieces sound remarkably modern,” Carruthers explains. “These are works that we want to finish in the space. By ‘finish,’ we’re going back to a time when there was nothing but single-channel mono feedback. Now we have the opportunity to create a sound environment for [each] piece.”
The festival packages a full slate of recent work from local and international composers, with classics such as Walter Ruttmann’s “Weekend” (composed in 1930 on optical film sound tracks), Edgard Varèse’s “Poème Electronique,” Pauline Oliveros’ “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and more contemporary work from the pioneer of plunderphonics, John Oswald (a complete program listing is available at www.sfsound.org/tape.html).
Unlike the original SFTMC, next weekend’s fare will be presented without visuals, although the composers often use visual terms to describe their work. “The invention of recorded music is as significant as the invention of canvas is to painters,” Carruthers declares. “You’re looking at shaping a sound environment, which is more sculptural [than] playing live music.” Carruthers calls this process “composing from the outside in,” emphasizing his use of field recordings to distill the representational aspects of sound. But Ingalls and Anderson seem more concerned with the soundtracks we compose internally. Their “cinema for the ear” seeks to strike chords within the mind, whether by creating literal soundscapes or the meditative bliss of abstraction. The point is to generate a “virtual audio environment…not necessarily calling attention to the speakers,” notes Ingalls. “If the speakers [were] the important thing,” Anderson adds, “we should be figuring out how to buy speakers, not play music.”