Live performance Feb. 2 at the San Francisco Arts Institute
Tim Catlin's CD Radio Ghosts, released last year, doesn't make for good driving music. Unless the listener is Roman Polanski or David Lynch sizing it up as soundtrack material, this is music best reserved for the live experience. Devoid of any ascertainable melodies, Catlin's work is less what one commonly identifies with as music and ventures instead more into the realm of performance art, expressed in the form of music minimalism.
Opening the second half of the 11th annual "Activating the Medium" festival held in a lecture hall at the San Francisco Arts Institute on Feb. 2, the Australian-based Catlin introduced his set to an audience of hardcore music geeks with a live rendition of "Zumbido" (Spanish for hum, buzz, ringing, tingle), followed by "Hysterisis" and "Black Magnet," all tracks off his Radio Ghosts album.
Two mammoth, 12-foot-high speaker crates to the left and right occupied the space with Catlin. Generating the sound were two guitars laid flat across a table filled with myriad effects processors and pedals strategically positioned, along with an assortment of small percussive devices, including a couple of electric toothbrushes, a handheld electric fan and an Ebow. It was unclear in the beginning of "Zumbido," whether or not the piece had actually begun — the amps were definitely on and turned up high, but watching Catlin dial in his effects came across at first as preparation rather than the actual process of creating something that resembled music. He appeared to be playing strictly off the tone and volume knobs of his guitars and effects processors, carrying one long sustained high octave C note through the entirety of his performance.
Midway through this first composition, I realized the space in the room was slowly building with sound. Some in the audience tried tapping out a rhythm in the absence of one, while others slinked over in the seats, either totally engrossed or heavily sedated. Catlin has been described as an installation artist, meaning that as a musician he is completely aware of how to manipulate the acoustics of a room to suit the mood. If you find yourself fidgeting in your seat, it's probably because Catlin has planned it.
It would come as no surprise to learn that Catlin composes with mathematical precepts in mind. The science of sound surrounds each of the selections he performed off Radio Ghosts, and when "Zumbido" finally fizzled out, a feeling of totality arose, like you'd just taken a ride on a bell curve.
For "Hysterisis," Catlin placed electric toothbrushes on the center of each guitar neck, letting the bristles vibrate the strings in order to achieve an eerily tense effect that drove the music nerds wild. "Black Magnet" was distinguished from its predecessors by an electric handheld fan carefully set alongside the low E string of one guitar, as an improvised electric device tapped upon the higher strings of the other. Overall, it was difficult to listen to Catlin's droning soundscapes live though without secretly harboring a desire to find a melody or rhythm to accompany them. Many claim that the Velvet Underground as well as a plethora of '80s and '90s shoegaze pop bands arose out of the influence of drone music, and if that's true I'm guessing those bands must have been seeking to somehow humanize the genre by filling in the blanks.
With that said, the 11th annual "Activating The Medium" festival continues this weekend at the San Francisco Art Institute, Feb. 22 and 23. Minimalist drone composer Phill Niblock is scheduled to give a lecture on the first night followed by a joint collaborative performance with Niblock and Thomas Ankersmit the next. For further details go to www.23five.org.