Bob Sheff presented a 12-hour event at the Kitchen on May 22. From noon until midnight he showed videotapes, played audiotapes, played piano, and generally presided over the affair, which might be better described as a musical open house than as a concert. Much of the work presented was actually created by, or in collaboration with, other musicians whom he has encountered around the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, where he works.
When I arrived that afternoon, Sheff was showing his color video-portrait of a young man named Sam Ashley. On the screen, Ashley was walking around, sleeping in the grass, and just being himself. On the soundtrack he was ad-libbing a monologue of rather perceptive teenage observations, while the singing voice of Joan La Barbara lingered in the background. About 10 or 20 people were viewing the tape, conversing, helping themselves to refreshments, or just hanging out. It was the casual sort of mood that only California musicians seem to be able to create or to find meaningful as an artistic statement.
When I dropped by again in the evening, Sheff was playing audiotapes extracted from new music concerts at Mills. The atmosphere was similar to that of the afternoon and did not lend itself to serious listening, but my ears pricked up with John Bishoff’s ‘Silhouettes.’ This was simply a recording of passing cars, but electronic tones had been mixed in, subtly following the rise and fall of the engine noises, and creating an arresting sound image. A while later I was also drawn to some unique sensual percussion music, which turned out to be Jim Hobart playing a homemade instrument made out of empty jars filled with hard beans. Later Sheff sat down at the piano and improvised with saxophonist Peter Gordon. They occasionally interrupted the music to tell anecdotes.
The curious thing about events of this sort is that they seem to have arisen as a reaction to the elitism of formal concerts, and yet they end up being elite themselves. The few people who showed up without knowing Sheff or any of his friends seemed to have trouble relating to what was going on. The approach is almost the opposite of the cerebral concerts one finds in so many university music departments, but it results in a similar sort of clubby insularity.