MAY 17 2000
by Ron Nachmann, Times Music Critic

WHEN I FIRST heard about plans for the recent first annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, two questions ran through my head. One, what's taken so long? And two, who's gonna watch a festival of people sitting at their machines playing what would strike the average listener as noise?

To the first point, a history check reveals that San Francisco's electronic music scene was forged all the way back in 1961, when composers Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, Terry Riley, and Pauline Oliveros pooled their equipment to create the Tape Music Center, which later got moved to Mills College. Almost 40 years later, the idea of celebrating the scene at first seemed to me like scrunching a candle into a Tootsie Roll and offering it up as a birthday cake.

Secondly, it was only when groovers like the Chemical Brothers, the Crystal Method, and ­ at the most austere ­ Kraftwerk revitalized the notion of live knob twiddling that this generation worked up enough patience with watching artists pressing buttons to rev up the dance. Who's gonna be moved when the beat disappears and we go abstract?

Well, my doubts were shot the hell down, and I'm more than glad. Curated by local composer Chris Salter and a collective of some of this city's best-known composers, the first SFEMF proved to be a deftly run grassroots tribute to S.F. electronic music's past and present, bringing out sizable crowds to its three nights at cell space, a funky artist co-op in the Mission. And that Tootsie Roll became a nice, thick slice of devil's food by the first night.

The past, as represented by veteran composers like Kenneth Atchley and Alvin Curran, provided crucial context. Curran's "Endangered Species," a masterful maximalist work for piano and triggered sampler, seemed to vacuum the world of sound into his keyboard. Atchley's "recast" saw him process the tinkling sounds of fountains into cavelike atmospheres, throbbing blankets of low tones, and overwhelming walls of feedback.

Although the festival was largely bereft of artists identified with the city's imploding club and rhythmic electronic music scene, the festival did feature dance music ­ or, actually, music made out of dance. Miya Masaoka played her koto and triggered the manipulation of its sound by gracefully waving her arms across laser sensors; similarly, Donald Sweringen wove orchestral stabs and piano lines together via light sensors as he conducted his phantom ensemble. Later, Pamela Z ­ with her body synth, conjuring her own vocals seemingly out of thin air ­ joined the two onstage to form the trio sensorChip.

Plus, the beat didn't simply disappear. Its influence reared up marvelously in two works by another veteran composer, Carl Stone. He came up aces with two Max software treatments of the hit disco tune "Barbie Girl," by Scandanavian outfit Aqua. In his first improv, "Sripraphal," Stone wrung the tune's opening four-note synth line into a hypnotically pounding noise talisman; on the second, "Flint's," he munched on more of the tune's familiar arrangements. Besides having the honor of playing the only piece in the festival that had a couple of folks dancing in the aisles, Stone's jam spoke for a slightly older generation of electronic composers able to do sonic battle with this year's Funkstörung or Squarepusher.

Sure, I found some holes: Dan Joseph's anti-firearm sample fest "Got Guns" lost a bit of its subtlety in its rhetoric, while Steev Hise's ritualistic performance "Familiar/Signifier #2" just missed the mark. But overall Salter and crew have done quite a decent job of narrowing the global focus of similarly minded annual Bay Area events (like the electroacoustic Other Minds Festival) and for once putting the spotlight on a fraction of the future-music talent that daily walks among us.

-- Ron Nachmann
San Francisco Bay Guardian
May 17 2000