Sonic Circuits Festival
Washington DC is not an organic place. At least every two or four years, people are moving due to elections. It’s a city of small windows, opportunity does not last very long there, and so it’s brimming with focused and driven people that are locked to their Blackberries even when at shows and museums. Under that surface and within the confines of non-traditional venues (real estate being another problem in the city), there bubbles Sonic Circuits.
Relatively new, but building up to ridiculously high profile, Sonic Circuits hosted their second annual festival the last full week of September. Starting on Saturday the 19th and going until Sunday the 27th, stretching from different venues all across the city, SC brought a wide variety of all forms of experimental music.
On Friday at the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center in a tiny room, the audience was greeted to some sublime performances. Janel & Anthony are a cello and guitar duo that split time between improvisations and composition. The improvisations tend to get heavier in the loops and much noisier than the apparent compositions. Janel’s cello work is pretty stunning and was one of the strongest performances of the evening. Bicameral Mind is another duo this time focusing on homemade and boutique instruments. From the screeching Theremin and amplified coils the sounds they produced were similar to high-pitched mechanical bees in some apocalyptic film (with cheesy doomed synth sounds included). David Daniell is a guitar player that starts off with a swell and some finger picking we’ve all heard this side of Fahey. Daniell turned out a drone that was both dynamic and narcotic, putting the whole audience on the nod. The premier attraction of the night was the duo work of Evan Parker and Ned Rothenberg. They went through seven sets of short blasts of improv, Parker alternating between tenor and alto sax, while Rothenberg went through tenor sax, clarinet and bass clarinet. All the years of improv between the two men show in their performance. Seamless in their delivery and playing with tons of color, Rothenberg’s bass clarinet work was especially moody, providing some menacing atmosphere for Parkers constant circular breathing work. Rothenberg returned to some solo clarinet work that used a tricky rhythm series of lines to bounce around and under, but showing restraint by not over doing it. Parker’s alto solo set was delivered with a chip on his shoulder as if he wanted to dethrone any sax player who ever thought he had the right to improvise.
Saturday’s show at the Velvet Lounge was a twelve-hour extravaganza. The Velvet Lounge is a neat space that immediately apparent on viewing, is entirely ill equipped to hold a festival of this length. The small stage is on one side while the room for the band (and their equipment) is clear across the other side of the railroad flat shaped room. As the crowd packed more and more towards the stage for the very unheadline performance time of 7pm for Jandek’s show, it became impossible to move your arms, let alone let the group he was performing with enter the stage. Instead of the rail-thin Sterling Smith, we were treated to a chubby man in glasses who introduced himself as the project Soft Pieces. An underwhelming set of mumbling drone was performed, highlighted by an amplified Slinkee, some audience participation and black pantyhose over the head as some performance art aspect. At first, the group that preceded Soft Pieces seemed to be another act other than Jandek and the idea of his sociopath shyness now coming off as diva behavior of the highest degree. But it turns out this was his group for the evening. Two laptop artists, Alexei Borisov and Anton Nikkila, Scott Verrastro on drums and Pekka Airaksinen (of NWW list luminaries The Sperm) on electronics and vocals. It must have been the most progressive set of musicians Jandek has ever performed with. How will the guitar wielding Smith match the possible array of sounds behind him?
Turns out not very well. The drums were quickly out shadowed by the electronics to a point where they might as well have been placed downstairs at the bar. The electricians (as you will) provided a nice variety of some knob twiddling squeaks and bowel rumbling low frequency. And then there was Jandek, doing his Jandek thing, ur-guitar playing, facing away from the audience and letting Airaksinen provide the mumbling vocals. The performance of the group would have been more than solid if not for the fact that it sounded like the band let someone’s 8 year old brother join in on guitar. The very few moments that it clicked, the group sounded like a hell-bent Shadow Ring, especially when Airaksinen brought his vocals out to the front. The set was long and tedious and while no one was ever listened to Jandek for enjoyment, his presence on stage and demeanor of ignoring the band and the crowd just smacked of annoyance.
The following night at the Black Cat would provide to be the last night of the festival. Pekka Airaksinen would provide his first solo US performance and I just missed it to my utter disappointment, as he was the star of the Jandek debacle. I was quickly relieved when I walked in just in time to catch the start of HEALTH’s set. Having never heard the band before that night, I was blown away by the mélange of sounds and energy emitting from The Smell-related group. Never having been overwhelmed by that scene (reams of blogposts with hyperbole and little on delivery led me to believe it was just pure hype). But in watching HEALTH was hit with the thought that if this band ever reached certain popularity, they could be one of the most subversive groups ever. Although some of their beats tend towards the dancier side of the spectrum, there is no underestimating the automatic propulsion one feels while listening to the drum destruction of Benjamin Miller. And while you’re dancing, you’re also scratching your head wondering what great beasts of electronics they are slaying to get those wicked sounds. Fucked up kids will be dry humping to this in clubs in some wretched future. Guaranteed.
Following HEALTH was the ad hoc group of Chris Grier, Rat Bastard (both on guitar) and Ulrich Krieger on saxophone. It was rough going sound wise; I think Health did some serious damage to the PA. Krieger is probably best known as the person who transcribed Metal Machine Music and the group was clearly well versed in feedback laden freak out. It was utter abandon and great to hear that the old guard (so to speak) was still bringing a mighty ruckus.
Called “the most enigmatic” of all Krautrock bands, Faust were giving me the most apprehension. As any close fan can tell you, there are 2 Fausts. There’s the live, jam portion featured on the recent live box set “…In Autumn” providing great shows of a 2004 tour. But almost too good; the songs were played exactly as they were on the albums. Then there’s the Faust of “The Faust Tapes”. The experimental, free flowing hippies that probably didn’t ever know there was a crowd to get too. Which Faust would show up was on my mind all weekend. Although I would never turn down a night to hear “Krautrock” in all it’s glory, I wondered if they still had a desire to push their audience and themselves. Or if we were going to be subject to “Faust IV” being played front to back, just like on the album. What the small crowd got instead was a healthy and exuberant middle road. Original members Jean-Harve Peron and Werner “Zappi” Diermaier were attended with guitar and keyboard player James Johnston (Gallon Drunk, Lydia Lunch, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) and guitarist, singer, and painter Geraldine Swayne. Right off the bat, the band rolls out a righteous, tight-but-loose jam that wasn’t by-the-numbers krautrock, but certainly a reminder as to how awesome the band may be. Then a slight turn into something weirder as Swayne reads from an English translation of Goethe’s “Faust” while Peron turns on a modified cement mixer that is amplified and he throws marbles into it. And I know exactly which Faust I’m going to see. They balance back and forth between solid deliveries of familiar songs and complete out there excursions including a free improv that resulted in Swayne doing a painting while Peron and Johnston go back and forth between hand percussion and a large assemblage of other instruments. With the exceptions of the haircuts in the crowd and the age of the faces on the stage, I imagine it was pretty similar as to what was happening on random stages in Germany. The rest is the blur, Zappi taking a sandblaster to a hanging piece of sheet metal (many props to the Black Cat for letting him get away with it!), Johnston losing control of his guitar jams in the middle of a song, forcing Peron and Swayne to start throwing things at him across the stage to gain back control of the song. A beautiful version of “Jennifer” that stuck in my head for days after and ending with the immediate classic of “Krautrock” although not that well performed (it was clear the fatigue was setting in), but it was a great, challenging ending to an evening. It was also clear that no one was having as much fun in the crowd as the people on the stage.
Sonic Circuits pulled a coup, retaining two much-anticipated acts for their festival and although the trappings of sheer size and space capacity for their show on Saturday was disappointing, there’s no doubt that SC is turning out to be one hell of an organism
-- Andrew Murdock Livingston (7 October, 2009)