Switch Contents Review of SoundCulture'96

YT: What did you think of it overall?

EO: Oh, I thought it was quite successful. I was amazed that most of the events were sold out and that there were huge audiences. I don't know where they all came from, I have no idea.

YT: I think some people found out about it from the web, but I found out about this through a friend, then I checked out the web site which was very helpful during the festival.

EO: Our web site was informative, but it was not like one of these really snazzy web pages or anything like that. There was an article in the S.F. Bay Guardian that came out that helped to draw a lot of people in, but I think it was also good word of mouth more than anything. A lot of people kept telling me that they only kept hearing good things about it, that it is a fun festival to be at, with a lot of interesting people and a lot of different kinds of work going on. So that sort of kept people interested.

YT: Do you think SoundCulture changed you somehow?

EO: It is hard to say, because it is still fairly soon after the festival has finished up. I am a lot more organized now than I was before I did this, but that just comes out of necessity. The thing I really value about it is that an event like this gathers all these interesting people who are working in sound. For me that is even more valuable than having the exhibitions or concerts - although that is certainly important part of the discourse that goes on as well. But it's pretty huge amount of work to get it all to happen.

YT: How big was the event?

EO: When all was said and done we included the work of 228 participants in 17 exhibitions, 10 panels, and 55 performances and other events. These occurred at 33 sites throughout the Bay Area and involved 32 presenting organizations. It's really huge. I didn't realize that it was so big until I sat down and added it up.

YT: Didn't you expect things to get this big?

EO: Oh, no. I knew it's going to be big but I thought there were probably going to be maybe 40 artists or something. I've never bothered to add anything up until a couple of months before it started and then it turned out to be a lot more than I had expected.

YT: Do you have any disappointments, regrets, or something you wish that could have happened?

EO: It's hard to say, because a lot of stuff got included. Fairly early on when we were planning everything we made a list of different kinds of work that we want to have happened and I think they are all included. We wanted to have noise bands, something on acoustic ecology, panels, computer network stuff, high tech work, instrument building, installations, radio pieces, activities for kids, and so on, and there was something from all these categories on the festival. I think the only shortcoming is that one of the things we tried to do is to find some innovative indigenous sound practices from non-Western cultures among the Pacific Islands, Native American groups here, or cultures from Central and South America, and our efforts didn't yield very much. We had the call for entries translated into Spanish and distributed here, in Mexico, and in South America, but nothing came back from it. It probably would have been better to have more actively curated that area rather than just seeing what showed up in the mail, but that certainly would have required more time and resources than we had available to us. Even with a few of the SoundCulture organizers having good contacts in those areas, we weren't able to find anything that fit the bill.

For example, we had heard about a particular storytelling practice among the Chinese Hmong people that involves playing a wind instrument by singing into it and dancing at the same time. There is a Hmong community in Bakersfield, but of the people there none had maintained this practice enough to feel comfortable presenting it to an outside audience. So in that case it meant if we wanted to include it in the festival then we would have to find someone in China and bring them over here. And there wasn't the money to do that. There is also a really interesting artist in Indonesia, Heri Dono, who we wanted to bring over, but again there wasn't the money to do that and the Indonesian government doesn't pay to send their artists abroad, so we were stuck. I think that that was the only thing that was something of a disappointment in that it didn't happen. But that was mainly due to lack of money, and lack of money is no surprise nowadays. But other than that we had a representations of all the different kinds of work that we had planned, and I was happy with that.

YT: During SoundCulture'96, were there any surprises or any successful stories that you want to talk about?

EO: There were a lot of nice surprises. Projects that looked like they might be hard to realize under particular circumstances ended up turning out very well. Kathy Kennedy's piece which was held at the Town Center Mall in Corte Madera took on a lot of different transformations during the course of the planning. Originally it was going to be with a choir and it was going to be a slightly different piece in a different location, then a choir couldn't be found. So then Public Art Works (the organization producing that event) found a site in the mall where something could happen. When they told me I thought, "A shopping mall? Well okay, whatever." Shopping malls are usually pretty deadly places, but I thought the piece worked really well in the site. So that was a really good surprise. Also I thought that the panel presentations on "Acoustic Ecology" at Headlands Center for the Arts were pretty good because there were whole range of work that was represented there. We also got Negativland to perform at the Trocadero Transfer, which I was happy about. That performance looked kind of dicey for a while because of logistical requirements, but it got pulled together really well. Since Negativland has been doing their wonderful show on KPFA for years, they are at the forefront of appropriation practices, and they have had a large influence on contemporary sound practice, I wanted to make sure that they be included in the festival. If SoundCulture had happened here without them, it would have been a really serious omission.

YT: Are you going to get involved in the next SoundCulture event? Can you tell us anything about it?

EO: Since I am on the International Committee, I help keep things running from this end (the US) as much as I can. But because this is a festival that moves around from place to place, I am not really going to be doing whole a lot for the next one so far as I know. It will be probably be New Zealand in '98 or '99, but it's not certain yet because the people there haven't committed to organizing it yet. I know there are some people that are meeting there about it sometime later this month. They are going to be talking about it to see how it looks, and they will probably be looking at all the same issues that we did when we started two years ago.

One of the things that I imagine that they'll try to do is to find one organization to take on the project in-house. When were first talking about doing the festival, we wanted to have an existing organization to do exactly that. But while the organizations we approached about this were all interested in participating in the festival, none of them wanted to take on the responsibility for organizing a big project like this. Because the funding has gotten so peculiar lately, taking on something big like this is, quite understandably, just asking for trouble. Ultimately, not having the event centered at one site worked very well in terms of the overall contour of the event, but it did make it very hard to keep everything organized properly.

YT: Is there anything that you particularly want to mention about SoundCulture?

EO: Well, there was hardly any budget for the event. For the amount of money we had raised, we were planning far too many events. In that situation it would have been eminently sensible to have just given up, given the money back, and just forgotten about it. But it's a credit to everyone involved that they stuck with it, put in a lot of time and energy, and made it happen. It's really a miracle that something this large could happen given what the funding situation for the arts is right now. There is also a reluctance among arts organizations and funding agencies around here regarding involvement with large festivals. This is a result of what happened with Festival 2000 in 1990. Festival 2000 was designed to be San Francisco's equivalent to the LA Festival: a big, cutting-edge, multi-cultural arts festival. It was supposed to designate San Francisco as the art place to be for the 21st Century, and there were a large number of arts organizations and funders involved. But it was badly managed and they didn't have as much money as they really needed, so after one week of a three-week festival they closed it down. And this left a lot of performers unpaid and a number of funders and organizations that had done a great deal of work for the event with nothing to show for it. So after that there exists an understandable reluctance for any of these organizations to get involved with large events. So although SoundCulture wasn't planned to be as large as it turned out, it grew big because there was a lot of interest among the organizations in making it happen and it seemed feasible to do with their help. On the other hand, I don't recommend this as a model for making a festival occur. Trying to stretch a tiny amount of money into covering lots of things basically means that a lot of people have to work very hard and end up getting burned out. But overall it's a good thing that happened and good to know that a lot of people were willing to work hard to make it go.