Live at the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco, CA on September 11, 2015
Featuring Horaflora, Surabhi Saraf, & Lawrence English
Written & Photographed by Custom
The gate to the Mission District of San Francisco on the evening of Friday, September 11th, 2015, was guarded by a man in soiled clothes. On the corner of Market and Polk street, he was singing – his voice rang out in a throaty growl resembling that of someone who had been wailing for hours. With hands wavering between a mouth-cup and compulsive jab into his pockets, the revenant aimed his head toward the upper floors of a building whose windows were boarded up. As I passed by him, I entered into a dimension removed from the clean-cut culture of SoMa. The further I went down Valencia, past video stores and $5-a-cup coffee shops, greasy taquerias and fragrant used book retailers, galleries and yuppie bars, the deeper I was immersed in the unique culture that the Mission (and San Francisco) fosters. It is here that the Brava Theater is housed, and on this night, the 16th Annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival held its Day 2 acts under the Brava’s iridescent, skyward signage. In this setting, the host of these events claimed that San Francisco’s electronic music is “unusually weird”, which is now pretty credible.
Before I entered the theater, I made sure to dampen the effects of a day of coffee consumption with a Mission-style burrito. I hastily devoured this monstrosity (which must have taken several years from my life expectancy) as I poured over the event program. The evening’s performers were diverse – Oakland electro-acoustic explorer, Horaflora, alongside vocalist Surabhi Saraf and her penchant for the industrial, and renowned drone artist, Lawrence English each took their turn at enthralling the audience.
At 20:00, I took my seat (to the side wing and the middle, of course) and glanced around. It was certainly quite some time since I had attended a musical performance in a seated setting. The stage was set with electronic arrays and speakers. Gaudy state boxes lined the walls, but the seats had the strange aesthetic of a lecture hall. Thus, I had a fear that this would be something much more droll and academic than the visceral basement noise shows I am more familiar with. Yet, once the hosts of the event took the stage, my fears were obliterated. The two went into a beautifully unrehearsed introduction of the festival’s origins, and a dedication to alumni Don Joyce, Dieter Moebius, and Mark Trayle. The hosts did not just introduce the acts. They introduced a community. The feeling of the night engaged me to author this writeup. Unfortunately, I had only brought my Smartphone to record the festival. Thus, a couple of scribbled notes in the dark serves as a log of my experience.
The first artist to take the stage was Oakland’s Horaflora, the musical alias of Raub Roy, who is also the current operator of Weird Ear Records and member of Oakland’s Life Changing Ministry collective. Horaflora has been active since 2007 when Roy moved to the Bay Area. His appearance at the Brava Theatre this night was a first for this particular project. Being an electro-acoustic act, Horaflora typically does not require more amplification than is naturally produced, but with a venue of this size, Roy needed to get creative. Sporting a red flannel and walking with a demeanor that could have denoted a stagehand, Roy paced around the theater plugging a set of tape decks into amps at audience-surrounding positions. Each tape played a unique, organic set of sounds: scrapes, bubbling squeaks, and brushes. The noises came together, swarming, converging, and diverging at nodes Brava’s seating. After enchanting the audience with his audio life forms, Roy returned to the stage and the lights began to dim. He took hold of several balloons and a balloon-powered PVC-pipe-didgeridoo, the sound of these pieces deflating rang out as siren tones. Horaflora built loops of screaming honks and feedback, constructing a sort of rhythm from the free improvisation that marked the rest of the set. Roy ended his set by releasing a balloon to corkscrew overhead, breaking any remaining academic seriousness at the venue.
After the set ended, I pushed aside some of Roy’s colleagues so I could get a few words with him. In the course of our conversation, he mentioned several influences, two in particular were Skinny Puppy and Angst Hase Pfeffer Nase. When asked about how he made his way into this style of performance, I received the following response:
“It was a series of happy accidents… right before I was about to perform my first show in the Bay Area my laptop broke. I had to use the implements I usually recorded but now I had to play them live.”
Thus, his work now focuses generally on live improvisation and found sounds. His label, Weird Ear has been around since 2012 and has been focused on releasing an extremely diverse catalog of music which doesn’t really fit into a particular genre.
As Horaflora’s equipment was being torn down, the hosts retook the stage, and the classic “You know you’ve really got something when you receive the mp3s of an album and you have to ask if the files are corrupted” was quipped. The hosts also spurned about the surprising number of people who had come to hear such strange sounds. Eventually, they introduced the next performer, Surabhi Saraf. Saraf is another San Francisco-based artist who focuses on new media and draws inspiration from Indian classical music and the materials which make up daily life. She integrates patterns and themes of psychedelia and mass production into her audio and video projects. Since her first exhibitions in the mid-2000s, Saraf has made appearances in a number of festivals, museums and galleries with paintings, video installations and sculpture. However, the project presented on this night at the Brava was “Tablets” – a piece from her “Remedies” video installation series. Through this medium, Saraf presented a recollection of time spent in an Indian pharmaceutical factory.
As she took the stage, the curtains opened to reveal a blank wall for projection. She approached a podium that held only a MacBook. Unlike the rather mobile Horaflora, Saraf remained in this rather stationary position as the rhythmic chorus of engines grew in volume. For much of the beginning of the set, the screen remained pitch black (or with the Quicktime control bar displaying a paused video) so the audience was left to guess what these mechanical field recordings were from. Even as the video turned on, that which was first projected remained as an unanswered question to the untrained eye. The projection was at first a still image of circles, in sets of ten. (2×5) Only as the circles began to move, followed by a gloved hand which moved into the picture to spread the circles, did the audience comprehend that this was a conveyor belt in a pharmaceutical factory. Throughout this hypnotic episode, the ambient layers echoing in the theater grew to match the intensity of the industrial cycles. Saraf began to sing in a way that at first I couldn’t even really discern. Her voice was distant and ethereal: vocal ambient layers mixed thickly with the rhythmic noise of the machines. The video underwent psychedelic reversals with ghost images and color changes. Yet the projection never departed from the sets of ten tablets. As compelling as the video was, the treat of the performance was watching her rocking back on her heels, effervescent, as she sang. Hardly noticeable at first, her presence grew increasingly powerful with the intensity of the industrial melody. Saraf took the piece into a climactic roar before ending with a screeching crash and silence. Throughout the performance, I couldn’t help but think of Ryoji Ikeda’s glitch installations. In a similar way which Ikeda uses digital data for both audio and video, Saraf utilizes the sounds and surreal sights of an industrial production with a melodic penchant.
By the time intermission arrived, the overpriced caffeine I had placed in my body was maxing out to the point that I was practically pacing around the theater and out onto 24th Street. However, Lawrence English was about to put an end to that. Instead of being introduced by our lovely hosts, the sharply dressed Australian took hold of the microphone and said a few words about his piece from the album, Wilderness of Mirrors. He invited the members of the audience to lay supine on the stage as he performed. Although it may have been a strange request, a couple dozen attendees took up the offer and those who chose not to go on stage got comfortable in their seats. I personally moved close enough to the stage that I could feel every note in my spine. English was supposed to be the coauthor of this set with John Chantler, the Australian/Swedish organist and electronics artist, who along with Tujiko Noriko created the gem U in 2008. Unfortunately, Chantler was unable to make the show. I don’t know how Chantler’s contribution would have changed the atmosphere of English’s set, although I would feel a bit disappointed since U and Chantler’s most recent Still Light, Outside are such gorgeous albums.
Yet the night went on, and as I sank into my seat, English let out the introductory sound samples of his set. The sound of the crashing tide gave me the temporary fear that English would begin talking in a smooth monotone about meditation. Instead, a darker tone emanated from the array of electronics and two huge cabs on both sides of the musician. He blew into the mic and projected sounds which reminded me of an automatic car wash. Certainly, an automatic car wash is not the most transcendental experience, but in keeping with the ‘memory’ theme of his performance I was transported back to my childhood. I recalled the initially fearful sounds and perceptual blackout from the soap and spinning brushes. As I became more familiar with this surreal experience, it transitioned into a more soothing and hypnotic experience. Thus, I re-emerged from my thoughts into this immersive soundscape with the feeling of both nostalgia and comfort. Yet, at times this music became abrasive – echoed screaming and thundercracks rung out against the old theater walls. At its peak, English’s composition sat at the convergence of powerful and peaceful.
By the middle of Lawrence English’s set, the caffeine had begun to waver and the curves of droning melody were fluttering over my walk-weary body like a slowly descending down comforter. My typically rude legs-over-chair-back position was damn comfortable and if it wasn’t for the pair of bare feet next to my head, I probably would have knocked out right there. But I toughed through the languishing effect of the ambiance. English played a bit of a trick as he darkened the tone further, producing sounds which gripped at all the relaxed bodies in the audience. The lights behind him increased in luminosity, casting a bright red aura around his setup. At this point, some of those on stage lifted themselves up on their elbows to catch a glimpse of the performance or perhaps escape the nightmare that the music must have been inducing.
English’s show was phenomenal and rife with both uplifting emotion and exploration of the terrifying subconscious. When the bass finally stopped searing through the theater, English exited with a wide-rimmed black hat and overcoat in what must have been an imitation of the Witchfinder General. People petered out onto the streets slowly, stopping in the lobby briefly to admire records and share each others’ company. I hung around a bit to people-watch, but eventually decided I should go home and type this report up and sleep. I hoofed myself over Potrero Hill and into a train car, jammed with intoxicated San Francisco Giants fans sitting like refugees, embracing the night.
Other Bay Area Weird Electronic Music Venues:
Bay Area 51
Community Music Center
Life Changing Ministry
Shoutout to the Exploratorium and Circuit Network for running the SF EMF!