Sonic Boom Festival Goes Back to the Front

Back to the Front, as this year's edition of the Sonic Boom music festival is called, is based on the notion that the 14-year-old event is returning to the venue where it started: B.C.'s oldest artist-run centre. From tonight through Sunday (March 11 to 14), the Western Front hosts an array of workshops and concerts that, heard in their entirety, will offer an exhaustive survey of contemporary composition in the Vancouver region. From veterans such as Rodney Sharman, Paul Plimley, and Mark Armanini to student composers from UBC and SFU, the Vancouver Pro Musicaí‚ ­sponsored series is nothing if not eclectic.

For most Sonic Boom participants, the event is an opportunity to show off new work, and in that, electronic composer Martin Gotfrit is no different. But for the 51-year-old head of SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts, Back to the Front is also an opportunity to go back to the future: his Lima Alpha India Kilo Alpha is a tribute to the first dog in space, and to his own early excursions into electronic music.

"I've always been fascinated by both the drama and the courage of the early days of the space program," Gotfrit says, on the line from his Mount Pleasant home. "It fascinates me that the technology was really so simple and so primitive, and that, on the basis of science and courage, they just went up there."

Lima Alpha India Kilo Alpha is radiospeak for Laika, the former Moscow stray who was sent aloft in Sputnik II in 1957, and another source of fascination for Gotfrit. "If you do a Google search on Laika, it's amazing how many Web sites are devoted to her and how much information there is on her," he says. "I've always just been taken by the story of this mammal that is sent out to explore space for us--and they had not a thought about how she'd come back.

"In fact," he continues, "one of the things that's been let out recently is that a lot more people died in space, or while trying to land, than was ever let on. If a Russian space launch didn't turn out to be successful, they just didn't announce it. The Americans, of course, made such a big brouhaha about everything that they couldn't get away with that, but the Soviets did. And it's also been revealed that Laika didn't live in space for a very long time at all. They miscalculated what the heat would be like in the capsule, and she barely lasted a day."

As a dog owner, Gotfrit presumably feels some remorse for the way his fellow humans treated Laika and all the other animals that perished during the early days of space exploration. But as an audio artist, he finds the story too rich not to exploit.

"I have Yuri Gagarin's speech that he made from the cockpit [on the first manned space flight]; there's recordings of Laika's heartbeat and her barking from space; there's all the original telemetry, which is very interesting; and all the transmissions," he says. "I'm also using a lot of real, acoustic-instrument samples, and then I built a very simple kind of pointillistic synthesis system, using simple sine tones, which is what we think of when we think of those space movies from the '50s."

Add a four-channel sound system and you've got a recipe for an intriguing audio narrative, but when Gotfrit premieres Lima Alpha India Kilo Alpha on Friday (March 12), he plans to add a theatrical element to the mix. "For me, moving a mouse around or playing on the keyboard is not very interesting visually," he explains. "So over the summer I built my own simple version of a space-capsule control panel. I'm controlling the computer with a console of knobs and sliders and buttons, and the computer is also buried into the console--it's sort of mocked up to look like control panels rather than a computer screen. Another interesting thing is that in some ways my computer systems are kind of like those old capsules: they don't always work predictably, and they don't respond immediately. So the idea is that I'm kind of struggling to complete the journey as well."

Unlike Laika, however, Gotfrit will probably survive his outer-space excursion with all his faculties intact.

"Well, originally my idea was that I could crash and burn just like those early astronauts did," he says, laughing. "But in fact all that can go wrong is that the computer might crash. If that happens, I'll look chagrined and embarrassed and everybody will shuffle their feet. But I don't face any real danger."