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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

San Diego's NWEAMO Fest celebrates 20th anni in style


San Diego’s 20th annual NWEAMO Festival takes place this weekend (April 27-29) with four events bringing together eclectic composers, musicians and sound artists relating to the NWEAMO acronym (New West Evolving Arts and Music Organization).

Two concerts—Friday night featuring works that combine acoustic instruments with electronic sounds and textures, and Sunday afternoon presenting the latest incarnation of the acclaimed electronic music ensemble Swarmius, drag performer D. Wrex (a.k.a. Darrell Wood) and Korean composer Young-Shin Choi—are slated at San Diego State University’s Smith Recital Hall.

Four sound invention/installations will be set up at SDSU Downtown Art Gallery, with an audience participation concert taking place Saturday.

Finally, a one-of-a-kind roving music van outfitted with the world’s most advanced mobile sound system, dubbed “The Magic Bus” and hailed by The Absolute Sound pro audio magazine editor-in-chief Robert Harley for containing “the world’s best car stereo,” will be on campus before and after the concert events on Friday and Sunday and will feature electronic musical works curated for NWEAMO by composers from around the world.

Founded in 1998 by composer Joseph Martin Waters--also SDSU professor of music composition and computer music, and founder of Swarmius--NWEAMO’s stated 20-year mission has been to dissolve barriers, foster discovery, celebrate diversity and promote cross-pollination among today’s multi-faceted music communities. In attendance at this year’s NWEAMO will be composers, sound artist inventors and musicians from Korea, Japan, Canada and the U.S.

“Although every year the festival is about trying out new ideas--trying to figure out what’s out there that’s new and letting it find a place to happen--there are two very unusual things about this year’s NWEAMO,“ says Waters.

“This year, in addition to composers and performers coming from around the Pacific rim, we are going to present a concert of sound-producing installations in which the audience produces the sounds: The audience will be invited on Saturday to partake in a meta-composition, composed by composer/philosopher/mathematician Marcus Anomalous, at the SDSU Downtown Gallery, for which four sound artist/composer/inventors are putting up their installations in the gallery on Friday--and the audience will be encouraged to explore them in a hands-on way.”

The installations, adds Waters, are indeed unique.

“Matthew Blessing, currently from Louisiana, is renting a truck and driving here with a load of living room furniture that he has hand-built and which are also musical instruments that you play with your hands--and even your posterior! These will be put together in the form of a living room in the gallery that is part of the group of installations.

“Marco Nardelli, from Italy but currently on the faculty of University of North Texas, will be putting together his electronic matrix, that looks like a giant tic-tac-toe layout of electronic light-sensitive sensors--upon which the audience gently tosses tiny bean bags to evoke a wide range of sounds from musical notes to whole recordings of natural sounds and orchestras. So collectively, audience members create compositions by tossing beanbags on to the matrix!”

In the midst of all this, continues Waters, dancer/electronic music composer David Pearl will add his movements and music “to the swirl.“

He attempts to sum up: “For an hour audience members will become part of a meta-composition in which a brave new world-type scenario has been created that gives them directives on how they interact with each other, or they can rebel and go rogue with the various installations while listening to the sounds that they are creating while going through the matrix of installations in multiple ways--and be interrupted mid-term by the dancing David Pearl!“

“It is,“ he concludes “a unique way to invite an audience to be at a concert: It’s completely experimental and totally changes the idea of what a concert is, and we are hoping that the audience will have a fun time exploring it.”

The second novel aspect of this year’s NWEAMO, notes Waters, is “the incorporation of the world’s most advanced mobile sound system,” i.e., the Magic Bus.

“The world’s best mobile sound system is a huge boast--but it’s not an idle boast,” he says. “It is the work of audio file inventor Jon Whitledge and features custom-made amplifiers and 4,000-plus watts of sonically pure audio capability, with sample rates up to 342 kHz and bit depth up to 32!”

Waters explains that by comparison, a compact disc is 44.1 kHz and a bit depth of 16.

“It’s hard to explain in a sentence what this means technically, but 16 bits provides over 85,000 amplitude level possibilities, whereas 32 bits provides over 4 billion,“ he says. “That translates to a very accurate depiction of nature. At that point the whole analog versus digital debate becomes moot.”

But most special for Waters about this year’s NWEAMO is the fact that the festival has survived for 20 years.

“It’s a testament to the need for artists to find an audience so they can have somebody to say something to,” he says, “and it’s also about remaining obscure--the art of the obscure: None Western Endgame Alchemists Magic Obscura.”

As for Waters’ NWEAMO-closing Swarmius show, it will include the world premiere of “Cloud Formations On Sepia,” the latest in his ongoing series of meditations on the ocean via the extraordinary camouflage and color-changing abilities of the highly intelligent sepia cuttlefish. The piece was composed for founding Swarmius member/violinist Felix Olschofka (now professor of violin studies at the University of North Texas) and current Swarmius pianist Geoffrey Burleson (head of piano Studies at both Princeton and New York City’s Hunter College).

Waters will also showcase “Gratitude,” his over-the-top take on the Mexican narcocorrido drug ballad genre that is sung by New York countertenor--and new Swarmius vocalist--Rudy Alexander Giron.

Other members of the current SWARMIUS ensemble include New York City-based percussionist Daniel Pate, who works at the Juilliard School, and virtuoso San Diego saxophonist Todd Rewoldt.

Swarmius performs at last year's NWEAMO



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