Guided By Sound: Crissy Broadcast Debuts in San Francisco
Described as a “spatial symphony” composed and directed by Lisa Bielawa, Crissy Broadcast involved hundreds of musicians drawn from a dozen or so local ensembles, including middle school and high school bands and orchestras, adult amateur musicians, two choruses, a traditional Chinese instrument orchestra, and a gaggle of electric guitarists with portable battery-powered speakers slung over their shoulders.
This is my town. You’re just living in it.
— Karl the Fog (@KarlTheFog) November 2, 2013
In San Francisco, even our fog posts regularly on Twitter. In real life, you never know for certain when Karl the Fog is going to roll into town, but once he does his presence can’t be ignored. A posse of foghorns mounted on the Golden Gate Bridge announces his entry into the city and the bay, each pitched and positioned differently to help guide vessels under the bridge.
Karl the Fog was out in full strength on the morning of October 26 at the start of the first of three performances of Crissy Broadcast, described as a “spatial symphony” composed and directed by Lisa Bielawa. Gathered in the mist at the center of Crissy Field, right next to the Golden Gate Bridge, were hundreds of musicians drawn from a dozen or so local ensembles, including middle school and high school bands and orchestras, adult amateur musicians, two choruses, a traditional Chinese instrument orchestra, and a gaggle of electric guitarists with portable battery-powered speakers slung over their shoulders. They assembled in discrete groups in the center of the expansive, dew-laden grass field, surrounded by audience members and the fog.
At 10 a.m., the regularly sounding foghorns were joined by an instrument playing one of the foghorn pitches in a similar timbre, but the sound was both quieter and closer. Listeners began moving across the grass toward the new sound, trying to discern where it had come from and what was making it. That call of what was ultimately identified as a Tibetan longhorn (played by Karma Moffett) launched the hour-long event during which the act of listening became a physical activity involving more than just the ears.
Bordering the San Francisco Bay, Crissy Field is a decommissioned airfield that has been converted into a park as part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area (administered by the National Park Service). Due to its iconic views of the bridge and the extraordinarily successful restoration a dozen years ago of the field’s natural saltmarsh environment, Crissy Field is one of San Francisco’s most beloved and frequently used public spaces. While developing Templehof Broadcast, a performance event in Berlin involving hundreds of community musicians performing on another former airfield-turned-park, Bielawa was out for a run on Crissy Field, heard the foghorns, noted the pitches, and began to envision a similar work unfolding in the town where she was raised.
Nearly three years later, Bielawa was walking in the wet grass among the listeners and musicians as each of the 14 groups announced its presence with short fanfares, initially on a single pitch and gradually expanding into compact motives that constantly drew the ear to different locations, coming from all directions. At the beginning of the work the sound was concentrated in the center of field, where it was possible to wander to each group in turn and hear individual group sounds in the context of the gathered masses.
A few minutes into the work, listeners who had gotten oriented to the placement of the groups of musicians became aware of movement as the texture began to thin out and groups broke away from the center, starting their journey to the edge of the field. With a professional musician from the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players acting as a Pied Piper, each group had its own trajectory, which in many cases used one of the eight monumental steel sculptures by Mark di Suvero, temporarily installed on the field by SFMOMA, as a landmark. As the sound spread, listeners were obligated to make choices regarding whom they would follow, how close to get, whether they wanted to hear one group clearly or a multiplicity of voices less distinctly. There was no optimal seat in the house; every position created a different listening experience, and that experience changed continuously throughout the event.
A constant through most of the first performance of Crissy Broadcast was the foghorns, engaging in dialogue with the performers wherever they were on the field. Though the mist on land burned off as the event progressed, it lingered by the bridge for most of the hour, which allowed for listeners to become increasingly aware of the integration of the foghorn pitch set with Bielawa’s musical material. With so much distance between groups of musicians—walking from one end of the field to the other might take ten minutes—it was impossible to hear all of the music Bielawa composed. Instead fragments of melody, individual pitches, textures like a mass of glissandi would be transported across the field from one direction, be met by a coincidental antiphonal echo or congruous counterpoint, and be overtaken by a foghorn. Or the sounds would dissipate into Cageian “silence,” drawing one’s perception to wind, laughter, traffic, conversations and questions from passersby.
As a large-scale public arts event, Crissy Broadcast was something of a marvel. Given the impact of the government shutdown on the National Park Service, the organizers weren’t sure if they even had a venue ten days before the performance. (During the shutdown, around a hundred events on Crissy Field had been canceled.) An integral member of the project’s production team was Marc Kasky, designated as the director for civic engagement, who has been charged with gaining the support of public stakeholders for seeing this public space as a gathering place for artistic activity. On the artistic side, Bielawa and her team, partnering with the San Francisco Symphony’s Community for Music Makers program, had to register and rehearse hundreds of school-age and amateur adult musicians, who had to play music in an unfamiliar format and a challenging environment. The number of musicians signed up to participate numbered over 800 (actual numbers on the field were likely somewhat less), and though musicians only played once they had stopped moving, music stands were not feasible, leading to many innovative solutions.
Crissy Broadcast took place three times—at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, October 26, and at noon on Sunday, October 27. Since there are so many variables to how one might experience the piece, I went to the first and last performances, choosing to follow different groups of musicians and changing my own listening trajectory. The Sunday performance was much colder, windier, and much less foggy, and consequently the clear interactions between the performers and their environment took a different shape as the wind took the place of the foghorns, and carried more of the musical material away from the listeners’ ears.
This wind blows.
— Karl the Fog (@KarlTheFog) January 7, 2012
About 15 minutes before the end of piece, a mass movement started to be perceptible at the edges of the field, where all the musicians had been broadly cast. Up to this point, the groups had remained individual entities, nomadic tribes calling across space to fellow travelers. The groups coalesced into three larger communities headed in different directions—out to the beach, toward the bridge, onto the road—each playing celebratory music to exit, leaving the audience on their own to listen to the quiet field.
For more background information about Crissy Broadcast, the Airfield Broadcasts project has a particularly robust Tumblr which has video, photography, press, and background info about the lead-up to the event.