arbitrarium had invited me to Signal Flow, the annual Music and Sound Arts Festival at Mills College. It was going to be...experimental music. Because these were graduate students.
I made it just in time for the matinee concert, which featured the illustrious Mr. arby! And his identical twin, who had much less hair (Mr. arby was sporting dreads). Their piece was called "Red King Snoring vs. The Octopus Knight." What they had done was repurpose an electronic chessboard to create music out of a chess game. Well, you know, "music." Each piece, each movement, each capture, and purportedly even each strategy would create a different sound. It was really interesting to hear the soundscape change over the course of the game; the music became more and more stressful as the game progressed. The highlight was the sound made when the queen was captured, which was like a horrific, catastrophic explosion, appropriately enough. And the queens bit it one after the other! Sadly, the game ended in a stalemate, so we didn't get to hear what checkmate sounded like. But it was a pretty neat idea, especially because you would never have the same musical experience twice.
The other two pieces were less creative. One was sort of a collage of sounds similar to the songs of The Books, and the other was minimalist electronic music that sounded like bleeps and bloops.
arbitrarium and I wandered the campus a bit afterward, waiting for the Suitcase of Mystery to be set up. While we walked, she informed me that Mills was an all-girl campus. OMG. WHY HAD I NOT COME HERE BEFORE?? Girls! Everywhere! There had been an attractive redhead hosting the matinee concert. Maybe there was a nice Indian girl at Mills just waiting for me.
The Suitcase of Mystery had been very hyped up, but I was not disappointed. It was a suitcase lying in the hallway and chained to the door. But if you moved it around, sound emanated from two of the rooms on either side of it! The sound would change based on the orientation of the suitcase. After a lot of testing, I determined that it had to be transmitting a wireless signal; there couldn't be any kind of real instrument inside the suitcase since we were kicking it and tossing it around so wantonly. Best of all, the artist was right there in the hallway, playing dumb even though we knew who he was. "Huh, it makes a deeper sound when you do this. Yeah, you're right."
We checked to see if the installations in the Student Union were still up, and "The Winds of Thor" was indeed running. It was a game where you had to blow really hard into a tube in order to blow away whatever was up on the video screen. The music, arbitrarium said, was supposed to be the sound of the fans. There was another installation that didn't seem to involve any music but was still pretty cool, even though we were told by the artist later that we weren't getting the full effect since he was supposed to be outside riding an exercise bike that would feed his heart rate into the computer and affect the image on the television. On top of the television was a camera, and the two of us sat on the couch. The TV, however, still showed an empty couch. After a while, however, we saw that it was on a delay, and it was capturing at different frame rates, so it would sometimes show ghostly images of us. Other times, it would blur our motion. Other times, it would show us live. It was fun. And behind us was the artist's final installation, which was a wall of bright lights that would follow your movement and turn on; the music was the sound of the bulbs turning on. Or something.
Then I got to see arbitrarium's apartment, and we messed around for a bit. I read her "Harry Potter and the Eagle of Truthiness" and discovered I do a terrible, terrible Stephen Colbert impersonation. But I do a good Hermione? For dinner, we went to TACO BELL! Which was great because I loved Taco Bell but hadn't gone in forever and she loved Taco Bell but Mr. arby didn't. Unfortunately, they screwed up my order and gave me a beef burrito instead of a chicken burrito, but at least the Crunchwrap was good.
We finished just in time for the evening concert at Lisser Hall. To arbitrarium's delight, "Murmer" was up and running. This installation comprised a bunch of tree branches hanging from the ceiling...but when you touched them, they made sounds! It was way more fun than you'd think because you could imagine yourself running through an enchanted forest that made cool sounds the whole way!
The first piece was already underway, and, holy crap, REAL INSTRUMENTS! Except...being played with no sense of melody or pitch. Oh, experimental music. Two flutes, a clarinet, a xylophone, all sorts of percussion, a trombone, and a cello. And a conductor who, for all I knew, was just making it up as he went along. There were some moments where the piece resembled music; I liked the xylophone bits, and there was a flute-only part that had a nice, spooky, enchanted-forest sound to it. But then they also started chanting "Yo!" for no apparent reason, and it was odd. The xylophonist ran a bow along her instrument at one point, though, which was neat.
arbitrarium and I decided we'd had enough experimental music for one day, especially after we read that the next piece employed feedback as an instrument. We went back to her apartment and talked about spaghetti Westerns. Before I left, she told me she was really glad I'd come, which was sweet. I hadn't intended to stay for six hours, but, hey, it's not like experimental music festivals happen every day.
That night, I wanted to listen to some REAL music, and I wanted to see Amy Adams, so I watched Saturday Night Live. Or, more accurately, I forwarded through a lot of Saturday Night Live because, wow, it's really not that funny, is it. The musical guest was Vampire Weekend, the indie upstarts who are taking the nation by storm. You're not cool if you don't like Vampire Weekend! And, at first, I wasn't cool. But then they grew on me. The first song they played was "A-Punk," the insanely catchy song I've been hearing on the radio. Jangly guitars! String interludes! It's fun! The lead singer looked like one of the Rice Philharmonics. Maybe he was. They all looked so young. The other song they played was the only other song I knew, "M79," and it had a similar sound and a catchy hook.
I always wonder about the people in the live audience who don't give a living flip about the musical guest and are forced to sit through their performances, unable to fast forward. I also wonder how many times this situation creates new fans.
Sunday night, I was off into the City for a concert at the Make-Out Room. Rachel's (harriettheelf) brother's band was performing! I had to tell the girl at the door that I was there to see "Rattail Butler." It doesn't really roll off the tongue.
Rachel's brother, Jake, was scarfing down McDonald's when I arrived. I gave Rachel a hug and told her that, this being the Make-Out Room, I expected to make out at some point. Will, the drummer, said he'd be gentle.
Opening for Rattail Butler was the Grace Woods Trio. Now, Grace Woods had tried to Facebook me earlier in the week (presumably adding people who RSVPed for the event on Facebook), and I had noticed, to my surprise, that she was also Facebook friends with Emily (tigeremme)! Emily told me they had gone to high school together. How crazy!
I introduced myself to Grace, and she was incredibly nice and friendly. I told her I knew Emily, and she was very excited, asking what she was up to and how she was doing. She was very impressed when I told her; she said Emily was a "musician's musician." They also shared a love of opera. When I told her she was in the area, she responded, "Well, she should be hanging out with us!" Grace asked me to sign up for her mailing list so that I wouldn't be just her Facebook friend; if anyone asked, she could say, "He's my friend too!" It was cute. (I do wonder, sometimes, how ingenuous this behavior is. Up-and-coming musicians always want to be everyone's friend so that people spread the word about their music and such.)
The only other person I knew at the show was Rachel's friend Karma (yes, that's her real name), who also had a connection to Grace, through her boyfriend. "So are you connected to everyone here now?" I asked. "I hope so!" she responded.
The first act was Robyn Harris, who was very entertaining. She was a girl with a guitar, but enhanced with drums and two backup singers with star-shaped tambourines. It reminded me of the Lovett Undergrounds; I hadn't seen a female singer-songwriter perform in a while. Her stage banter was incredibly amusing, though, and very self-deprecating. She talked about the plasma TV screen she saw at an ARCO gas station, and, later, she commented that it seemed like we thought she was telling a joke, like we were waiting for a punchline, but she had just wanted to share a story with us, not do a comedy routine. It was cute, and the music was good, too.
Grace Woods Trio was Grace on piano, her best friend on guitar, and her fiancé on drums. The music was jazz pop, and I was afraid I wouldn't like it since I'm not into jazz, but I liked it more than I thought I would, even if it wasn't totally exactly my thing. Grace's voice had a very wide range, and some of the lyrics were amusing. Rachel said they reminded her of a louder Nellie McKay. For some reason, I was reminded of the Dirt Poor Robins.
During the set, a guy unexpectedly sat down next to me and introduced himself as Reagan. I had no idea who he was, but I shook his hand, hoping the situation would explain himself. He asked me who I knew, and I told him, and he...sounded impressed for some reason. I wondered whether he was hitting on me. He asked me what style of music Rattail Butler played, and I told him I actually didn't know; I'd never heard them. Reagan said he hoped his date would let him stay to hear them, so I...guess he wasn't hitting on me?
When Jake passed by, I leaned my head back till it was upside-down and asked him what style of music he played, but at that same moment, he greeted a girl who had just arrived. Reagan commented that he was going to answer my question, but then "Ooh, girl!" And he couldn't blame him! "Priorities," I said. WHO WAS THIS GUY AND WHY WERE WE CHIT-CHATTING?
Finally, he left, leaving me completely bemused.
Later, when Karma had joined me, he tapped us on the shoulder to say it was nice meeting us; it appeared that his date would not let him stay for Rattail Butler. Rachel asked us who that guy was, and neither of us knew! I had seen him motion for Karma to sit next to him earlier in the set, so I'd thought she knew him, but no. I guess this guy really likes making friends? By force if necessary? No...harm in that, I suppose? Better than the alternative.
After the set, I told Grace that I'd liked them even though I'm not into jazz. I said that I tend to like music influenced by things I don't like more than the things themselves. Like I like stuff with '70s and '80s influences but not the actual music from those decades. "Because actual '80s music is that cheesy synth stuff!" she said.
Then it was time for Rattail Butler, and holy crap! I mean, when you describe something as "your friend's brother's band," you don't really have high expectations, per se, but they were really good! Again, not totally exactly my thing, but much closer. Two guitars, a bass, and drums. Rock music with a lot of funk and jam influences. There were some nice lyrics, too; I really liked "I know what you want/I know what you need/These two things are different/And only one is me."
The banter was fun, too, especially from Will on the drums in the back. He started out the show wearing a little kitty hat. In the middle of the show, he requested a Shirley Temple, and, later, he added, "Where's my Shirley Temple? That wasn't a joke." When Steve (the guitarist) told him he had to pay for them, he responded, "No, I don't! The bartender said I was really hot and I could have all the drinks I wanted for free as long as there was no alcohol." He also congratulated Grace and Whitney (the drummer, as mentioned) on their engagement, but not wanting Joe (the guitarist) to feel left out, he added that Joe was a fine, fine human being. He gave several shout-outs (shouts-out?) to the Grace Woods Trio, which made sense when Rachel informed me that he had gone to high school with Grace. Which meant he had also gone to high school with Emily. Hmmm.
The highlight of the set was a cover of "I Wish" by Skee-Lo ("I wish I was a little bit taller," etc.) that was awesome. I had no idea Jake was such a great rapper, and the musical accompaniment really worked. He worked in some other hip-hop songs in addition to some audience participation ("RTB's in the?" "Motherfucking house!") and some original lyrics ("I'll be taking fifty states like Obama"). It was off all sorts of fucking hooks. He later did "Here Comes the Hotstepper," which was also fun though not as bravura a performance. (Before the song, Jake specified that Will's mic needed to be turned on, since he had something important to say. This turned out to be "Na, na na na na, na na na na, na na na, na na na, na na na na.")
Jake, filling an awkward silence between songs: "So did you know they have TVs at gas stations? ...If we can cover other people's songs, we can cover other people's stage banter."
They closed with the only song on their demo. They have a demo! Maybe they'll become big and famous, and I'll be all, "I knew them when."
Before leaving, I said goodbye to Grace, who told me to let her know whether Emily had any "compositions" or performances so she could go. Oh, I also told her I'd tell Emily that she says hi, so: Emily, Grace says hi.
And then, right out the door, there was Will, and I asked him if he knew Emily, and he totally did. Basically, Emily is totally in tune with the Bay Area music scene and she doesn't even know it.