Decibel Festival 2012: Robert Henke, Biosphere, The Sight Below Live Show Review (Optical Series)

Now in its tenth year, Seattle’s Decibel Festival has grown from a tiny electronic celebration to a world-renowned music festival without sacrificing attention to detail along the way. From fabric wristbands to the notable lack of corporate sponsors — save for ones that directly affect the electronic music scene in some way — Decibel has retained a number of the charming qualities which usually become lost to larger festivals. Its continued stress on the audio-visual merging of music and motion art continue to push the festival forward as well, as Seattle’s best venues were sometimes upgraded with video equipment and makeshift spaces were sometimes transformed into festival-worthy ones.

Decibel’s continued Optical series is the festival’s low-key element, which focuses on mixed media programming that combines ambient, modern classical and experimental sound art with live video, films and installations.

This review highlights some of Optical 2012’s best moments, in our eyes, with reviews of performances by Robert Henke, Biosphere, and The Sight Below.


Robert Henke

Optical 1: Ghosts In The Shadows — September 26th, 2012 @ The Triple Door, Seattle, WA
Written by VIVIAN HUA

With the pounding of chaotic weather against manmade walls, Robert Henke introduced the crowd at The Triple Door to six channels of surround sound. The stage itself stood dark and empty, with the maestro nowhere to be seen.

Rain in one ear morphed into train tracks rattling by; howling winds in the other transformed into vehicles and airplanes soaring past. Henke’s sounds were so convincing of reality and so unseeming that the audience at The Triple Door carried on with conversation well into the opening minutes of the performance. But as the light rain increased into a torrential downpour, it gave way to machine-like sputtering and alien crackling, and those who hadn’t been paying attention finally began to do so.



Robert Henke (cont’d)

Two days prior to this performance at Decibel Festival, I had the privilege of seeing Henke perform a similar six-channel set at the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) in Portland. Five other artists performed, and each knew how to use the audio set-up to varying degrees — but none knew how to use it like Henke. The PNCA space was like that of any modern art gallery: quite antiseptic with its minimal design, cleanliness, and white walls. This evening, The Triple Door, with its lights turned down, its high ceilings, and its candlelight luminescence, set a particularly dramatic tone for Henke’s performance.

Sustained notes overtook fragile ones to create an uncomfortable sense of imbalance and tension, and the interplay between a strained flute and a fuller one felt like a duet between the trained and untrained, strained and unstrained. Yet even in such moments when nothing was harmonious, the sound environment was so rich and so full as it enveloped you from all sides, that any amount of dissonance elicited a tickle of appreciation.

Optical showcases at Decibel are generally about the merging of audiovisual technologies and presentations, hence its name. Undoubtedly, there must’ve been those in the crowd that wondered where, and why, and how, was the artist, was the artist not present, was the artist making sound — but seeing the artist didn’t really seem to be important when it came to what was actually happening: a multi-channel audio treat at one of the best venues in Seattle. In fact, a man sitting on stage with a laptop and the tiniest of midi controllers, though traditional, would’ve hardly held little interest at all.

With nothing else to focus one’s eyes on, one’s imagination was free to roam. Sounds of dripping water visualized as drips of water flowing down cavernous bedrock into deep labryinths. Such sounds were sublime even though it seemed paradoxical that anything so subterranean could sound so heavenly. And at the very moment of this sublimation, in came church bells, as if even further clarifying the point with their singular sharpness.

Henke eventually ended his set the same way he began it — with torrents of water that seemed to dilute the city of Seattle to its native rainy stereotype. For those with an open mind and a ear for good sonics, the visually-evocative music didn’t need a creator at center stage to be successful.

Biosphere, The Sight Below

Optical 3: Touch.30 — September 28th, 2012 @ Broadway Performance Hall, Seattle, WA
Written by Peter Woodburn

In the Broadway Performance Hall on Seattle Central Community College’s campus, a packed house sat down in the dark and hunkered in for the long haul of the Touch.30 Optical showcase. Touch is a label that has been churning out experimental music in Britain for the past thirty years, and Biosphere brought his drone-heavy style of ambient noise to Seattle this evening. He was joined by Seattle artist Rafael Anton Irisarri aka The Sight Below, who has collaborated with Biosphere on prior releases.

Irisarri got things going, with delayed guitars and a more relaxed take on ambient music, all done before a constant visual backdrop of mundane scenes from Seattle life. Videos of Interstate 5 traffic, occasional glimpses of the Space Needle, and people walking in neighborhoods as if the camera wasn’t there populated the screen while Irisarri filled the soundtrack for our lives. The tone was non-descript and the performance borderline underwhelming — but then again, that is sometimes the name of the game with an ambient showcase. The Sight Below’s set seemed like a collective page out of everyone’s Friday.

Watching Biosphere is like watching the tensest cinematic score unfold before your eyes, and he is a master of monitoring the tension in his music. The Norwegian artist used the same rhythm for the first fifteen or twenty minutes of his set as cymbals and drums softly pushed the music along. Everything advanced slowly like the receding ice block of the North Pole. When the music did the shift in tone, it was borderline monumental, though still maintaining all the aural elements Biosphere had slowly but surely introduced. The penultimate finish of his ambient soundscape peaked with a frightening synth line that left you on the edge of your seat, wishing for more while wondering if you truly wanted it.


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