This past Friday night, as the setting sun illuminated the towering stained-glass windows inside Nob Hill's Grace Cathedral, a nimble composition by the Meerenai Shim Quartet fluttered throughout the cavernous building. The four musicians stood equidistant around the perimeter of the cathedral's iconic labyrinthine floor design, as if marking the cardinal points on a compass, while the audience surrounded them, forming concentric rings. The cathedral's mazelike marble inlay is intended as a map for walking meditation, but last week it also inspired the quartet, guiding the group's playing as the musicians slithered up and down octaves.
This performance, the four-act "Invisible Fortress," was one of ten events that constitute the seventh annual Soundwave Biennial — a summer-long, multivenue, "experiential event series." The festival, which is now halfway through it's current season, primarily showcases "sound art," but also explores related disciplines such as music, dance, and installation.
"I feel like, when a lot of people come to art galleries or museums, they expect two-dimensional or three-dimensional work," Ribeaux said. "I think sound adds a fourth dimension that is a bit unexpected and in that way gives audiences something new."
This year, the festival's theme is "architecture." This means every performance employs sound to investigate our relationship to built environments, while highlighting the extent to which the experience of a performance is contingent on the architecture of its venue. The theme also is a loose nod to the Bay Area's housing crisis and "rapidly transforming landscape," as the festival description put it. The Meerenai Shim Quartet embraced this theme by playing off graphic scores (in which traditional musical notes are replaced with drawings or symbols) that resembled architectural blueprints.
Earlier in the summer, Kevin Corcoran and Jen Boyd explored the festival's theme with "Sonic Portraits of a Shifting City," an experience that took audiences on a tour of the Tenderloin district of San Francisco via AudioBus — an open-air, double-decker bus outfitted with headsets. Riders listened to a sound collage, composed in part of field recordings in open public spaces and of stories from longtime Tenderloin residents (contributed by the Tenderloin Museum), while riding through the neighborhood.
"Soundwave kind of takes you outside of normal performance and even the purist sound-art realm," Ribeaux explained. Rather than catering to a niche crowd of people who appreciate avant-garde compositions — which has its own merits — Soundwave curators opt for multidisciplinary performances that inspire awe and are accessible to anyone who is open to novel art experimentation.
"Because it is a citywide biennial, it has to represent the diversity of the city and the culture that it's in," said festival artistic director Tiare Ribeaux.
Ribeaux is no stranger to art programming that's difficult to categorize or fit into one genre. She took over curating Soundwave last year from its founder, Alan So, who had been curating the festival since its inception. But she's better known as the founder and curator of B4bel4b Gallery in Oakland, a space that champions art practice that celebrate cultural intersections, most prominently that of queer-identity politics and internet culture. Shows at B4bel4b frequently combine immersive installation, digital art, and music and dance performance.
There remain four more official events this Soundwave season, including "Auricular Arrangements" on August 12. This night at the de Young Museum will feature both a field-recording sound performance by Yann Novak, inside of the 360-degree observatory, and also an interactive, GPS-driven "sound walk" by Matthew Howell.
And on September 1 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum's special acoustic venue, Yud Gallery, electronic musician and artist Suzy Poling will debut "Human Glass Rotation," a performance featuring an illuminated mirrored geometric installation, projections, and live music. (This night will also feature a performance by Shane Myrbeck and Emily Shisko.) And the festival's closing party will showcase legendary Bay Area innovator Pamela Z, with her custom-made, gesture-controlled electronic instrument.
In addition to the festival's official schedule, there's also complimentary programming. Deepwhitesound, an online platform dedicated to experimental audio, has released seven tours of Buena Vista Park in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in which artists describe underground buildings they've imagined for the listener. The tours can be downloaded for free via the Deepwhitesound podcast Composite on iTunes. And there will be a free reception and introduction of the collection by Portland-based Deepwhitesound founder DB Amorin on August 21, from 1–4 p.m.
As we wrapped up our interview, Ribeaux remarked that the café she was calling from felt like and echo-chamber, laughing at how curating the festival has given her a hypersensitivity to architectural acoustics — or, rather, helped her recognize their understated influence.
"[Sound] is really a huge part of our lives that we're sort of unaware of but affects us quite deeply," she said.
"As much as we're visual animals, we're also very sonic creatures."