Sonic experience a light in the dark 

Cliff Caruthers, co-curator of the San Francisco Tape Music Festival, will be the first to admit that unless there’s a seizure-inducing light show going on, electronic music rarely lends itself to a visually compelling experience for a concert-goer.

"A lot of live electronic performances involve someone sitting in front of a laptop, and that’s not a terribly interesting experience. It doesn’t add anything to the music," he says.

So, why not just eliminate the keyboard-punching middleman?

Well, that’s basically the idea behind the Tape Music Festival. Beginning Friday and extending through Sunday, the eighth annual experimental music festival delivers an ear-tickling sonic experience via a 16-speaker surround-sound system in darkness.

"For us, the elimination of the performer allows the audience to focus on the sound which is a performance in itself — that’s why we keep the place dark," says Caruthers, 37, of Oakland.

Tape music (also known as fixed media music), Caruthers says, is no different than film, in that both perform via a recording.

"I like to explain it like this: film is to a stage production as tape music is to live music," he says.

Tape music, which runs the gamut from field recordings to narrative soundscapes, has had a long history in the Bay Area and dates back to 1962 when the San Francisco Tape Music Center was founded to promote education about the medium. Today, the San Francisco Tape Music Collective keeps the spirit of the legendary 1960s center alive.

Caruthers, who not only is a force behind the festival but also a contributor, says that this year’s festival boasts some pretty big names.

"Brian Eno is probably the biggest, most recognizable name. He’s premiering a brand new piece. We’ve also got the original, four-channel work from Stockhausen on Sunday, which is huge," he says.

"Hymnen," the epic multi-channel work from renowned German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, is highly anticipated by tape music enthusiasts because the composition is strictly prohibited from being played in a concert setting unless using the master tapes, whose rights are difficult to acquire.

As for his own piece, "House on the Hill," a dream soundscape from the play "Mr. Fujiyama’s Electric Beach," Caruthers hopes his work and other festival compositions open audiences to a new experience.

"For me, I’d like for everyone’s ears to open a little bit and experience the sounds in their environment as music," he says. "I’d like them to listen to sounds in a new way and just enjoy the sonic experience."

San Francisco Tape Music Festival

Where: ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday

Tickets: $12 to $24

Contact: (415) 863-9834 or

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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