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A Festival of Experimental Music (review)
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Since 2001, Washington, DC, has hosted the annual Sonic Circuits festival of experimental music, a festival that is devoted to cutting-edge, contemporary music that often defies simple categorization. Over the course of three jam-packed days, this year's offerings, expertly directed and curated by Jeff Surak and his volunteer staff, ran the gamut from improvised electronic noise to highly refined computer music. In addition to the many concerts and sound installations there were film screenings as well as a lecture-presentation by Arthur Harrison about the unique theremins his company manufactures.

The Atlas Performing Arts Center is a venue known for programming adventurous concerts of jazz, new music, and world music. It has several halls that are able to accommodate different media. Additionally, there were plenty of options for non-traditional spaces, such as the hallways and bathrooms, which were used for sound sculptures and sound and video installations.

Sonic Circuits 2012 began with the screening of the film Romantic Warriors II, an historical documentary about the Rock in Opposition (RIO) movement. Directed by Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder, the film tells the story of a short-lived, but highly influential, avant-garde rock movement that defined itself through grass-roots programming directly opposed to commercialism and the recording industry. The RIO movement, born in the late 1960s, was characterized through the work of bands such as Henry Cow, Univers Zero, Present, Magma, Samla Mammas Manna, Thinking Plague, and Etron Fou Leloublan, some of which are still touring and concertizing today. Beginning a festival of contemporary, experimental music with an historical documentary was an effective way to ground, and put into perspective, the work found in many of the following concerts. After the film screening there was a question and answer session led by the film directors and composer-percussionist Chris Cutler of Henry Cow. Cutler described the challenges of controlling the means of distribution, organizing concerts, and composing for a heterogeneous collection of individuals who virtually defined what has now become known as the DIY (for "do it yourself") movement.

Following the screening of Romantic Warriors II there were two programs, ably curated by Sylvia Schedelbauer, of experimental films and videos in which sound featured prominently. Most of the films were abstract, shot without the assistance of a tripod, and assiduously avoided any reference to narrative structure. They were clearly indebted to artists and filmmakers such as Marcel Duchamp, Maya Deren, Robert Smithson, Stan Brakhage, and Kenneth Anger. Musically, there were three pieces that stood out. Jefre Cantu-Ledesma's ambient, electroacoustic score for Paul Clipson's film Sphinx on the Seine effectively contrasted the fast moving time-lapse visuals with slowly moving chords, dyads, and difference tones. Takashi Makino's film Generator, created in response to the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, "visualizes Tokyo as an eroding metropolis" (Sonic Circuits' program book). Jim O'Rourke created a drone-based, electroacoustic score that analogously matched Makino's use of extremely slow panning effects and changes of color, visual "snow," and other types of fuzzy distortion. Using raw waveforms, O'Rourke slowly modified his drones with filter sweeps that drew one's attention to various harmonics, juxtaposing them with a variety of consonant and dissonant intervals. Curator Sylvia Schedelbauer's film Sounding Glass employed a strobe effect (the visual equivalent of simple amplitude modulation) that lasted throughout the film and made for a challenging perceptual experience, bordering at times on becoming hallucinatory. Thomas Carnacki's score for this film used the sounds of breaking glass, flowing water, and string timbres processed in such a way as to suggest the erhu, or Chinese two-stringed fiddle.

Friday evening's concert featured three acts that engaged with technology in very different ways. The European quartet Diktat combined discarded, low-fidelity, analog technologies such as Dictaphones (tape-based dictation machines) and homemade electronic contraptions to create densely layered sound collages. The Dictaphones were used to tape and replay sounds created live, as well as to play back a variety of tapes (used as found objects) that occasionally added some humor. As if to foreground the obsolete nature of the Dictaphone, Diktat amplified the sound of the on/off switch being...

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