Matt Davignon

Experimental music impresario Matt Davignon is known all over the San Francisco Bay Area for organizing unusual music performances.  In addition to being responsible for such events as the San Francisco Found Objects Festival, he’s a member of the Outsound Presents Board of Directors and the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival Steering Committee.  This Thursday evening, November 19, at 8:00 PM, Matt will present one of his DroneShift concerts at the Luggage Store Gallery, where he curates regularly.  The gallery is located at 1007 Market Street near 6th Street in San Francisco, near Powell Street and Civic Center BART. Admission is $6.00 – $10.00 sliding scale, with no one turned away for lack of funds.

I lured Matt into conversation with the assurance that there would be no artichoke hearts involved.

S21:  So how did your geographical wanderings bring you to San Francisco?

MD:  I was raised in Western Massachusetts, and moved to Santa Rosa, California with my family as a teenager. I moved down to San Francisco as a college student because I wanted to encounter the experimental music scene.

S21:  And how about your musical wanderings?

MD:  I started as a teenage bass player, who aspired (but lacked the motor skills) to be in a prog rock band. After moving to California in the early 90s, I was increasingly influenced by industrial music and ambient music (both of the 1990s variety and the Brian Eno variety).

By 1994 I was improvising, but using many different sound sources such as turntables, tape collage, household objects and drum machine. In the early 2000s I most frequently performed with just a turntable and CD player, improvising music by layering irregular loops of pre-recorded music. In 2004, I decided I wanted to put all the things I learned from my previous musical wanderings into one instrument. I was surprised to find that drum machine was the best choice.  It not only comes with a wide variety of sounds, but it also has the potential to be used melodically. Most importantly, since the drum machine can be played with one hand, the other hand is free to operate devices that process the sound.

S21:  What got you on the concert curating path?

MD:  I was impressed the focus on improvisation in the Bay Area experimental music scene, and the different approaches the different artists took to assemble sounds into music. In the first events I put together, the the musicians had to follow a similar set of rules, with the intent of highlighting their compositional styles.

The most successful of these was the San Francisco Found Objects Festival, in which the artists could only get their sounds from a pile of household objects submitted by the audience members. The artists were allowed to bring equipment to evoke, organize and modify the sounds (including drumsticks, bows, samplers and computers).

S21:  I played in the SoundShift you organized at the Big Sur Experimental Music Festival.  Was that your first “shift” concert? Can you tell our readers what that format is all about?
MD:  The Sound/Shift concept originated with Baltimore composer John Berndt in 2002. The original concept was to invite improvisers from around the country, arrange them into ad-hoc groups, then schedule the ad-hoc groups so that each group overlaps with others at the beginning and end of their set. In that format, you get a continuous tapestry of music for as long as you want.

San Francisco composer Ernesto Diaz-Infante returned from this event with enthusiasm for the idea, so I organized the first West Coast Sound/Shift concert at 21 Grand in January 2003. Ernesto and I worked together on the Big Sur Experimental Music Festival in 2003 and 2004, organizing both years into a SoundShift format. The 2004 event featured just over 100 musicians over the course of 2 days.

As these concerts progressed, I started noticing how the format affects the dynamics of the music. Each time a significant number musicians joined or left, the musicians still on the stage would play very tentatively until they felt a group tone was agreed upon. So, for the Big Sur concerts, I scheduled musicians on an individual basis, rather than in groups. Each musician would play a slot of 40 minutes, but the slots started and ended every 10 minutes. As a result, the instrumental and aesthetic makeup of the band you joined at the beginning of your set would gradually evolve into 2 or 3 different entities by the end of your set.

S21:  When did you start putting together DroneShifts?

MD:  After 3 Sound/Shifts, I was beginning to see some holes in the concept of having large numbers of diverse musicians playing together. If you schedule similar musicians to play together, the result are often more predictable. Surprisingly, there was also a certain sameness that frequently came up when very different musicians were pooled together – rather than sticking to their unique sonic identities, many performers tried to find a mutual middle ground with the other folks on stage. (For example, a jazz sax player paired with a harsh noise musician would play noisy skronks.)

Around that time, I saw a lovely concert put on by Loren Chasse and several associates of his, where they did a nice 1 hour drone with 10 or so musicians playing fairly straightforward instrumentation. (Accordion instead of motion-activated midi controllers, for example.) Inspired by this, I worked the sound/shift format into a concert in which the musicians were all playing the same style of music – drones. This became the first DroneShift concert, at Oakland’s 21 Grand in 2005.

S21:  How have the DroneShifts evolved over the years?MD:  The first DroneShift was a 4 hour event with about 35 musicians, in which I worked out a meticulous schedule of shifts, largely based on what instruments I wanted to hear together. It was overly micro-managed, with shifts starting or ending every 5 minutes. It was exhausting, both to organize and to listen to. There were several moments in which the sound pool got too dense for long periods of time, but I couldn’t pull anyone off the stage without them wondering if it was a personal issue.

After a few years’ break from the “large group improvisation” concept, I scheduled the second DroneShift in 2008. This time, it was only a 2 hour event with 18 musicians. This was the first event with the new self-regulating concept. Each musician had a limit of 30 minutes they could participate in the event. It was up to them to decide how to split that time up.

I feel this arrangement works very well, so I’m sticking with it. It allows for a greater amount of dynamic variety than I would have scheduled. If things got too dense, a few musicians would decide on their own to stop playing. There were times where as many as 14 or as few as 2 musicians were playing, and it all sounded great.

S21:  What instruments are best suited to play in a DroneShift?

Accordions, bowed strings, synthesizers and guitars with ebows are probably the most obvious candidates. Some folks are apprehensive about using instruments that require the player to inhale (such as a clarinet, if the player doesn’t use circular breathing techniques). I feel that with many instruments on stage, having that required dynamic ebb and flow contributes to the character of the music.

Many of the participants see this event as an opportunity to use an instrument that they are not known for. Edward Schocker will be playing a Japanese sho. Suki O’Kane has only told me that she’ll be playing a kitchen appliance. This time around, I’ll primarily be playing a bowed glockenspiel. I’ve also found I can create some pleasant (not painful) standing waves by carefully holding vases and other containers in front of an open microphone.

S21:  How did you choose the musicians in the Thursday night lineup?

MD:  I usually personally invite about 10 musicians who I feel entirely understand the concept, especially those who play instruments in a frequency range that’s likely to be under-represented (such as double-basses).

Then I send an open invite to local “new music” email forums that I’m on. I find it rewarding to make these events as inclusive as possible – a gateway for new musicians in the community to interact with the folks who already know each other.

I currently have enough musicians for DroneShift this time around, but if any readers like to be involved in this or a similar event, please tell me a bit about yourself and your instrument and I’ll add you to my “collaborative opportunities announcement list”.

S21:  What’s the standard for success in a two-hour drone?

MD:  Acoustic synthesis is usually what I strive for with this event – I like to hear musicians contribute elements to a complex group sound, rather than play sounds that are simply happening at the same time. As musicians come and go, and make individual/group decisions, the sound’s character will change direction, dissipate and evolve, like watching a cloud of starlings in slow motion.

S21:  What best practices can you share with aspiring curators among our readers?

MD:  It’s necessary to build events like these around an expected amount of uncertainty. For example, if I had a list of 20 local musicians I wanted to include in this event, it’s likely only about 60% of them would be available. I find it much more rewarding to set up a basic set of rules, see who comes to the table and what they bring, then make adjustments based on that.

By Polly Moller

Polly Moller is a composer, performer, improviser, performance artist, and curator based in Oakland, California, USA. She practices a lot, writes many grant proposals, drinks a lot of mochas, and serves on the Board of Directors of Outsound Presents.