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Haunting 'Guelaguetza' Pits Sounds, Images

Music Review

November 19, 1999|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Born in Los Angeles and a product of CalArts, Carl Stone was once a fixture in the local new music scene. Several years ago he moved to San Francisco, where he has since become a fixture in the Bay Area new music scene. All told, Stone, a pioneering composer with a unique and powerful style of sampling, is now one of the West Coast's better-known composers. But you probably have the best chance of actually hearing him perform or getting your hands on one of his recent CDs if you happen to be in Japan, where Stone has a large following and where he appears and records regularly.

Wednesday night, however, Stone returned to his alma mater to present a recent 70-minute work, "Guelaguetza." Macintosh PowerBook in lap, sound-generating equipment at his side, he enveloped the Roy O. Disney Music Hall in four-channel sound while video imagery was projected on a screen above. It is a curious, haunting piece.

Stone's performances are strangely surreal even without the strangely surreal video he added this time. He sits facing the audience, his attention focused intently on his computer screen. He taps the keyboard or clicks the mouse, and a few seconds later we are surrounded by great surges of very rich sonic layers. On the computer is a program that Stone has composed that controls the basic shape of the piece; the details, however, are manipulated live with the help of a small sampler.

"Guelaguetza," which was first performed in a crematorium in Oakland, begins slowly with what sounds like different kinds of electric organ drones, ever-changing in character. Stone is the master of the transition, and what makes a piece like "Guelaguetza" interesting is that we are constantly aware of the process of evolution, but we never know exactly what it is that is evolving. One minute you think maybe those are layers of guitars, but maybe not. Before you can think any further, they have already become something different. Stone is always one step ahead of the listener.

The video didn't begin right away, and it ended before the music. First we saw a woman standing motionless in gauzy light for several minutes. Eventually the screen came to zombie-ish life with banal clips of what appeared to be commercials from Asian television, mostly romantic pictures of blank young women. The clips repeated over and over, turning romance into a trance.

This kind of imagery is hardly uncommon in visual arts. No one would think twice about seeing a cutout of a corny magazine advertisement cemented onto a canvas as part of an artwork. And one can wander the halls of CalArts and see like-minded video installations. But in classical music this is absolutely startling. Even new music that is not stuffy about embracing popular culture tends to fall back on sophisticated abstraction in the actual realization of its materials.

Eventually "Guelaguetza" becomes disturbing. The music grows sonically more monumental, ever-transforming, and yet over and over those same blank women never change. The video ends with the music still expanding until it is suddenly cut off in the midst of a massive climax. The piece ends with a brief, doodling denouement.

Asia has had a profound influence on Stone's sensibility, but it has not been a predictable one. He picks up cultures and puts them together without explanation. The fit jars and fascinates. Everything is familiar, yet in the end we recognize little in this ever-fluid environment. The night sky above CalArts on Wednesday was star-studded and black, and there was said to be a meteor shower taking place around the time the concert ended. I couldn't find it, but it was easy to imagine. Stone's music makes the world seem a bit vaster.

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