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Cardboard & Fire: Zimoun & Jim Haynes Live

by Marc Weidenbaum, January 2011

    In the city's Financial District, there is an institution called swissnex San Francisco, which bills itself as a science/education/art/innovation platform. Last Wednesday, January 19, it welcomed Zimoun to town for a performance, just prior to the opening of his solo show at Gray Area Foundation for the Arts on Saturday, the 22nd. He was paired with local innovator Jim Haynes, each playing solo. Haynes played with fire, Zimoun with cardboard. And ping pong balls. Zimoun, who hails from Bern, has gained deserved renown for his precise, mechanically implemented installations, in which myriad tiny devices combine to suggest a robotic mix of sound and motion that verges on the life-like -- not necessarily sentient, but resembling simple and vibrant animals or natural environments: insects, blades of grass, amoebas. They are vibrant to the point of chaos, chaotic to the point of ecstatic. This concert was my first opportunity to see his work in person. Particularly of interest was how the setting blurred the line between installation and instrument. The swissnex San Francisco show took place in the rear room of its ground-floor space, a large white rectangle with a few support columns, the walls lined with acoustic tile. The head of swissnex San Francisco's Interdisciplinary Programs, Luc Meier, introduced the evening with one of the most polite admonitions ever directed at a concert audience: "Please turn off or at least down your phone." He spoke briefly of a scientific component of Zimoun's work, and thanked Haynes and his 23Five collaborator, Randy Yau, for helping set up the evening.
    Zimoun played for 20 minutes straight, his instrument being a set of five apparently identical devices of his own design. This notion of hermetic, parallel procedures is quite characteristic of his work overall, which takes a systems-oriented approach. To witness a Zimoun work generally involves watching and listening to a batch of similar automatons. The appearance of machine-produced similarity initially masks and eventually reveals a machine-produced cacophony. And then the work takes another turn, as from the cacophony emerges something that a sympathetic ear will liken to a musical experience. Each of the devices was a plain, brown-cardboard banker-box cover, on top of which a long, stiff, thin wire was attached on one end to a motor and the other to what seemed to be a ping-pong ball. He started up one initially, the vibration of the ball echoing in the box below, resounding off the hard surface of the table and summoning up a low level frenetic effect. (I confirmed with Zimoun after the concert that no audio processing was employed, other than equalization.) The percussive sound was like that of some distant drum corps, like a Brazilian Carnival parade right through Dr. Seuss' Who-town. In time, a second and then a third box was added to the mix, eventually all five thrumming at once. Zimoun achieved this combination by maximizing the chaos yet somehow minimizing the sense of accrual. The noise was increased so slowly that only when, toward the end of the performance, he began to turn off individual boxes did it become apparent just how energetic the work had grown since he had initiated it.
    Jim Haynes could not have provided more of a contrast, his table looking more like something from a laboratory, packed with various devices, including a matrix of speakers in a piece of dark wood, and a crusty suitcase that wouldn't be out of place in a production of Death of a Salesman. After an unfortunate bit of unintended ear-rattling, arm-hair-raising feedback, he moved into a sinuous haze whose fluidity and ether-like quality contrasted with the rough collection of materials from which it was made. Key among those tools was flame, an item under-utilized by electronic musicians. As the smell of candle smoke and spent matches filtered into the room, flames flickered coyly from behind some beaker stands (which would later, it appeared, pour sand near a contact microphone for what must be the most literal interpretation ever of the phrase "granular synthesis"). The sound of these flames then emerged from the swissnex speakers as that peculiar noise that seems, contradictorily, at once like water and fire, and crumbled paper. There were sounds of irregular radio signals, and raw and filtered field recordings. In time the source material became less recognizable, subsumed as it was in Haynes' real-time production of a lingering near-hush that complemented, in a kind of theater, the way the smoke had made its way through the room. (A look at the mad-professor table after the show revealed a tape recorder, a Dr. Sample machine, an MP3 player, an effects pedal, and more.) The flames notwithstanding, the strongest impression came from an ambient torque, the sense of a sound being contorted in real time like a piece of bent metal.