This particular evening was the first in a proposed series of experimental music nights at the Foundry, and I dearly hope that this becomes a regular thing. The show was arranged and overseen by local musician Sheila Bosco, and I must say I’m glad that she’s an overachiever. This is the third time in the last month or two that I’ve been to an event that involved her in some way.
I hadn’t been to the Foundry before, but didn’t have much trouble arriving in the right place, despite it being tucked away down a side street in west Berkeley. I got there early, of course, and there wasn’t yet any indication where to enter, so I followed the voices and went up a narrow staircase and into this room:
Soundchecks were still happening. My brother, who is the driving force behind Thomas Carnacki, was there. Sheila was there, and she was nice enough to hand me a sandwich and something to drink. I wandered around and took a few photos while cursing my inability to ever arrive right as things are getting started. That said, the venue is damn interesting, with evidence of its actual foundry days still in place. The Foundry website describes it as, “3000 square feet, semi-exposed former industrial space with wood frame century-old construction.” Due to it being “semi-exposed”, as it grew dark, it got cold enough for me to descend the stairs and get a jacket.
To cut down on changeover time, two “stages” (in quotes because the first one looked more like the corner of a loft, and the second one was a square platform) had been set up, giving the evening a festival-like vibe. This meant that the audience took part in a series of mini-exoduses from stage to stage during the evening, but on the plus side, there wasn’t any wait while musicians lugged things on and off stage. The first stage had some seats, arranged movie theater style, and the second stage had a wooden platform for seating, identical to the one the performers used.
I've included phone-quality (read: crappy) video exerpts from each of the performances. Here's the first one:
The first act was a duo called Oa. The two members, writer Hugh Behm-Steinberg and experimental musician Matt Davignon, sat facing each other, each with a bank of electronics – mixers, effects, and the like. The first portion of their performance featured an electronically fractured narrative about an antiques-buying expedition to China, which really drew my attention. The narrative, warped, echoey, and garbled as it was, reminded me of trying to listen to a radio station from somewhere at the edge of its broadcast range. The harder something is to make sense of, the more attention I pay to it, so Oa had my full attention. There was a surreal soundscape underpinning the story, and it wasn’t notably different from the multitudes of similar performances I’ve seen, but in conjunction with the story, it did its job of beckoning me forward into its little world. In short, Oa’s set was enjoyable, but not jaw-droppingly so.
Shortly, on the other stage, we were treated to a set by Gradient Fade, the solo project of one Geoffrey Clark Morris. As if usually the case with so-called experimental music, he had a console set up on a table. He also had a saxophone and a guitar though, and he made good use of both, using them to produce music that he then treated and layered into pleasing, drony atmospheres. On the screen behind him was projected a rather schizophrenic film, half in color (scenes of what appeared to be life in the Middle East, or perhaps somewhere in northern Africa) and half in black and white (footage that seemed to always involve water). I later overheard him telling someone that he had taken the black and white footage himself, and that the color scenes were from a documentary made by a friend. The documentary footage, while interesting, seemed to clash a bit with the sounds he was producing, but it did provide us with a visual focus. By the end of it all, I think I liked Gradient Fade best out of the artists I hadn’t previously heard. I even bought a cassette from him.
Next up was Pink Gaze, performing for the final time. Pink Gaze is (was?) a trio of Sharmi Basu, Tara Sreekrisnan, and Benjamin Tinker, and like the previous two acts, their performance was a soundscape. Basu and Sreekrisnan produced drones using keyboards, and Tinker spent most of his time twiddling knobs on some sort of mixer (I had meant to get a closer look at it, but didn’t’). It was set up vertically, and for some reason it reminded me of a mad scientist scribbling formulas on a blackboard. At one point, he made use of a nearby piano, which looked like it was a fixture of the room and not something that they’d brought with them (I can’t imagine that it could have fit up the tiny stairway). I couldn’t really hear the piano though. In short, they delivered a pleasant enough soundscape, but it wasn’t transcendent.
Pale Reverse, on the other hand, was transcendent. I’ve seen Pale Reverse (Gregory Hagan, who also spends time with Thomas Carnacki and Common Eider, King Eider) a number of times now, but this ended up being my favorite performance yet. It was like something one would discover in a Tibetan monastery, landlocked from the ocean of time. Hagan started out with a shaker and his voice, throat singing into the microphone and fleshing things out with the subtle use of effects. He looked and sounded like a bedraggled guru alone on an inaccessible mountaintop, channeling spirits from the beyond. Toward the end, he brought forth a small, wooden, recorder-like instrument which embellished the atmosphere he’d already created. Beautiful and haunting. The busy, abstract visual accompaniment by Lorin Murphy, on the other hand, seemed at odds with the atmosphere created by Hagan.
Cloud Shepherd, a quartet featuring Andrew Joron (theremin), Brian Lucas (bass, electronics), Joseph Noble (flute, saxes, keyboards), and Mark Pino (percussion), was up next. They played a set of improvised music that, while pleasant enough, didn’t really paint a particular mood for me. It was an interesting combination of instruments though, and there were definitely moments of brilliance. Overall, it wasn’t too far off from sounding like an improv jazz band, which is a style that doesn’t do much for me.
The Thomas Carnacki line-up for the evening was an unusual one. My brother was in his usual place behind a table of sound-producing detritus, and Cheryl Leonard had her usual assortment of natural objects, including, I think, a kelp horn. Moe! Staiano put in an appearance, among other things percussively playing a treated guitar and generally providing an element of manic Moe-ness, and Sarah Elena Palmer provided vocals, both spoken and sung. The sonic component was aided and abetted by dancer Margaret Cromwell and film by Lorin Murphy, which worked better for this set than they did for the Pale Reverse one. The film was projected onto Cromwell as she danced, which I think was a brilliant move. Cromwell’s dancing combined the intensity and stillness of Butoh with occasional frenzied movement, all the while illuminated by the light paintings of Murphy. The audio component was the usual Carnacki sonic subtleness, although unlike any of the other Carnacki performances thanks to the imput of Staiano and Palmer. Palmer’s voice, especially in conjunction with Leonard’s kelp horn, was a very welcome addition to the Carnacki sonic palette.
The rumbling, surreal uneasiness of the music, combined with the intensity of Cromwell’s dancing and Murphy’s projections, made this a performance to remember. The performance space itself, with its century-old timber and rusting iron, definitely figured into all of the performances. Timber and timbre…
The Pale Reverse and Thomas Carnacki sets were my favorite, although readers might cry “conflict of interest” at this pronouncement. Friends and relations aside though, these performances were best at setting the kind of mood I enjoy. Words like “haunting”, “transcendent”, and “profound” definitely apply. It was good to see the other performers as well, and the diversity of the local music scene, not to mention the nearly endless supply of musicians and bands that I haven’t previously heard, never ceases to amaze me. I feel lucky to live where I do.
After the set was over, there was a final “surprise” performance announced, but I was getting up early the following day to head up to Lava Beds National Monument, so I headed for the stairs. I could hear the performance starting as I left, and it seemed to consist of people caterwauling and clanking chains. Odd.
I dearly hope that the turnout for this evening justifies future experimental music performances at this space. Each of the artists no doubt brought their own audiences along, so the combined audience for the evening was larger than one usually sees for this type of (admittedly, niche) music. Sheila Bosco is to be commended for making it happen. Here’s to the future!
Facebook event page here.