The 18th annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival begins tonight, September 8, 2017 at the Brava Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District, and finishes Sunday evening, September 10th.
This year’s festival includes a wide array of artists, some of which are well known—Suzanne Ciani and Aaron Dilloway—while others are up-and-coming—Las Sucias, Waxy Tomb, Kaori Suzuki. (To see the full line-up for the 3-day festival, go to SFEMF.org or scroll down to the bottom of this page.)
When I requested an interview with someone from the SFEMF about this year’s programming, I received a group response: That’s because the organization is democratically run and includes over a dozen curators (depending on the year). As a result, the SFEMF hosts a more stylistically varied program than any other festival of its kind.
As always, the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival mixes well-known musicians with emerging artists. What are the highlights in this year's series of shows?
Since we determine the festival lineup by a committee of disparate backgrounds, age and, most importantly, taste, it's hard to say who the highlight really is. Each of us has found ourselves expecting to be uninterested in some artist or group’s set, only to be convinced otherwise, once they have performed. There are more Bay Area-related acts this year than in years past, perhaps displaying the growing population in the area, but also showing a back-to-basics approach (it is, after all, the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival). So, many of the acts will already be familiar to our Bay Area audiences.
To some, the artists coming from out of town will be considered highlights (such as Aaron Dilloway and JH1.FS3). Yet, both acts have a historical connection to the Bay Area, as well as very strong LP/digital releases in 2017— the latter, dropping this week—which always creates a certain amount of anticipation.
And of course, Suzanne Ciani is important to the history of electronic music and has become more familiar with the general public, thanks in part to the feature length documentary about her, A Life In Waves.
Of course, for the lesser known artists, playing in the festival gives them a chance to work at a higher level, as well as gain a higher profile, right?
Because many of the Bay Area-based artists generally perform in smaller, DIY spaces, it’s exciting for us to see how they utilize things the festival provides, such as a tech crew, proper stage lighting, and a more formal theater setting with an excellent Myer sound system. For example, Kaori Suzuki's penchant for focusing on resonant frequencies should prove interesting in such a large space. And Dax Pierson has expressed excitement about returning to such a space after a long absence, in his post-Subtle years, so we’re excited to hear what he brings as a soloist to the venue.
Is there an aesthetic goal that the festival works toward?
‘Really good and really interesting,” is how we sum up what we look for in an artist or group. Curating a festival with a dozen committee members of disparate backgrounds and tastes is a challenge, of course. But we always ask ourselves Where is the focus? Where is the context? It is important to us that we keep reinventing ourselves and challenge both the expectations of the Steering committee and our audience. As a result, the curatorial team is committed to trying new styles of music and excited by the prospect and results.
Last year we presented Clipping, which is essentially a hip-hop group—a rapper with two former Bay Area electronic musicians—and it was the first time the festival had young, excited fans lining up outside, ready to rush the stage. Yet, the instruments and quality of the electronic-music side of things remained true to our history and mission. It was a wonderful, populist and forward-looking set.
Similarly, we presented Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith a few years ago. Essentially, she creates pop/art songs, but her control over the Buchla synthesizer was, again, true to SFEMF's mission.
Are there any multi-channel, surround-sound works, or pieces with video this year?
Yes. Suzanne Ciani's festival-closing set on Sunday will be in 4.1 surround. And, spatialization and video projection will be part of Waxy Tomb's set the same night.
It looks as if the festival is beginning to embrace a wider range of experimental electronic arts. I'm thinking of Las Sucias, in particular, which incorporates reggaeton influences.
As far back as I know, that's always been a goal of the festival—we try to avoid presenting a program that's mostly noise, drone or academic music, as much as the SFEMF Steering Committee may be tied to and love those broad categories. Experimental electronic music has, perhaps despite its intentions, developed a set of expected strategies and forms, much like any other genre of music.
Las Sucias happen to be two Latinas who have gone through the Mills College School of Music, so there's a lot behind their work, regarding their roots, identity, and influences: It's very rewarding and rich, with timbral qualities reminiscent of David Tudor, as well as ritualistic performance qualities that tie into Goth and Industrial music, as much as Santeria.
I've seen sets at the festival that have had a performance-art element. Will there be any this year?
This definitely ties into how we pick and choose each evening’s line up. The Brava Theater is a medium-to-large venue with a raised stage and traditional seating. Consequently, no matter how wonderful a composer may be, having a single figure sitting alone on stage in front of a laptop or synth creates issues with the public’s expectation of what constitutes a performance.
So you take the visual aspects an artist brings into consideration?
Absolutely. For instance, Las Sucias incorporates theatrics and ritual in their performances, both tongue-in-cheek and close to the heart, whereas Waxy Tomb often utilizes masks, dance, props, spoken word and video in their work.
For more information about the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, visit SFEMF.org.
2017 Schedule: All shows at the Brava Theater Center
Friday, September 8th, 8pm
Saturday, September 9th, 8pm
JH1.FS3 (Puce Mary / Liebestod)
Sunday, September 10th 8pm
Free Special Event—Saturday, September 9, 2017
Join SFEMF Artists and Staff for an AFTERNOON RECEPTION, 4pm @ Adobe Books & Arts Cooperative, with a brief set by Snickers