That damned bear. He keeps watching. His paws are raised to greet us. Or eat us. Whatever. Close the drapes.
Nothing personal. 2007 marks the lucky 40th anniversary of L.A. signing on as Berlin’s sister city, for reasons that’re hard to figure except both burgs’ seals feature bears: the strolling California one for us, a rampant black one (etymology: bär-lin) for them. So it must have been about 1967, at the height of the Cold War, that “the people of free Berlin” presented Fern Dell Park, across the street from my bunker, with the bronze bear. The spy. At least he’s not as brazen as Leif Erikson, 50 yards west, who just stares (no arms to wave). Thank you, Norway.
The Goethe-Institut Los Angeles has its own way of celebrating sisterhood: the new “Partikel” music series, whose first installment Saturday presented artists indebted to German electro pioneers. In the words of Susan Mainzer’s press release, “Black turtlenecks are optional.”
The Institut is a place to be or become German. Set back from Wilshire Boulevard in a newish mall across from LACMA, the modern little space has the feel of a Christian Science Reading Room. It’s a library, in fact, with Deutsch-themed books, CDs and DVDs lendable. (A disc of early Oskar Fischinger abstract films made me consider getting a card.) Past the library, the severe white auditorium holds something over 100 people, displays some German woodcut prints on the walls, and had a very good surround-sound system on this occasion. There were things to drink. An efficient setup; you can rent it.
Onstage stood a long table littered with laptops, synthesizers and patch cords. A rather large flat-panel screen above showed abstract images throughout; more on that later.
The black-shirted opening duo, Zeitpunkt, hewed closest to the tribute concept but came off kinda flat. Drew Anderson and Jim Cowgill had exhumed a couple of long red-and-black vintage analog synths, which, after a long stretch of washy ambience, permitted their operators to generate boinky sequencer melodies and brainy rhythm loops redolent of Kraftwerk but without the dance factor. The laptops played a slave role of accenting and processing; the overall aesthetic was spare and ephemeral. If Zeitpunkt had milked the parody possibilities, they might have been more fun.
Head shaved to look the part of an electronic modernist, Reed Rothchild churned up Zen melodies, sophisticated rhythms and deep textures with his laptop. His bassier sound spectrum went for the gut and the feet as well as the mind, but his use of recorded music (somebody or other doing “Ruby Tuesday” and Newley-Bricusse’s “Feeling Good”) seemed like an incongruously cheap way to hook an audience that wasn’t looking for pop anyway, and it served no artistic purpose that I could divine. Still, Rothchild laid out a satisfying set all by himself.
Henry Strange, a bearishly cheerful dude with geek glasses and straight, shoulder-length hair, brought the noise -- chirps, wozzes, urps, symbiotic echoes, turntably effects with a theremin, even what amounted to a synthesized percussion solo. His beatwork ripped along with bouncy dynamism, and he made great use of the surround-sound speakers, aggressively flashing effects around the space like a handball. Best of all, Strange was improvising, not entirely in control; it gave the whole thing a sense of tightwire suspense.
Last up, overlapping with the end of Strange’s set, was the trio of John von Seggern (laptop), Steve Tavaglione (electronic wind instrument and laptop) and Peter Maunu (electric guitar). Maunu got a windy drone going, Tavaglione trailed out some eerie tones, and von Seggern scared up a gently knocking beat; vaporous textures began to pile up in beautiful, lulling combinations. And then I had to leave. Too bad, it was promising.
The motion visuals, courtesy of Optical Light Pipe, acted sometimes as an apt complement, sometimes a welcome distraction, sometimes a puzzlement. Mostly abstract, they appeared to be assembled from various sources -- some older, some newer; some color, some not; some computer-generated, some filmed. The best included breathing shroomy objects, thorny branches constantly repositioned, Xmasy kaleidoscopes, an expanding mass of bean sprouts, and a vivid growing red worm thing.
Even though the images’ relationship to the music had a semirandom quality, they added a lot; the field of abstract audio-visual interaction is growing, and I’d love to see more artists specializing in it. I’m old enough to remember when every acid-rock concert was augmented by kids projecting images of colored oils manipulated on the spot, and I wonder why that went away in favor of preprogrammed light stagings. It may not seem like it, but we’re still organisms.