Thea Farhadian and Dean Santomieri (Photo by Donald Swearingen)

A New Sense of Place: Santomieri-Farhadian Sound Installation Enriches Public Space


BERKELEY, Calif. — Critics have compared the San Francisco-based Santomieri-Farhadian Duo’s experimental musical compositions to everyone from modernist Anton Webern to rock icon Frank Zappa. This exciting pair — Thea Farhadian on (electronic) violin and Dean Santomieri on guitar/ electronics — have been collaborating for close to a decade now, creating some of the most compelling work on the music scene. Their latest work, “A New Sense of Place,” is a series of multichannel duets forming a remarkable 50 minute-long nine-track sound installation at the new BART Plaza in downtown Berkeley.

The two were among the 10 artists selected for a first round of programming commissioned by the Berkeley Civic Arts Commission. Their new collaboration will play continuously from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily until February 15. In this particular piece, their two instruments are spatially isolated on a busy street, in an eight-channel overhead array on twenty-foot-high state-of-the-art Meyer speakers that are permanently installed for ongoing sound artist projects.

The speaker outside the BART station (photo by Thea Farhadian)

What can passers-by and BART riders expect? “Colorful textures, catchy rhythms, and iridescent micro tonalities,” according to the duo. Their amazing sound is achieved through an almost entirely improvisational process which they term a “musical conversation,” in which the two respond to each other intuitively based upon the pitch, energy, and artistic direction.

“We play without chord charts or notated music,” she continues, “but we devise structures that combine our individual styles in myriad ways.

“The first piece of the installation begins with solo guitar altered with digital effects; the acoustic violin enters in a Middle Eastern mode, and the music transforms from there. Together we create our music on the spot, in the moment.” This inherent playfulness has hints of Dada and free-form modernist experimentation.

Thea Farhadian (photo by Dean Santomieri)

Installations in general form a particularly interesting genre, as they place three-dimensional objects or creations into spaces hitherto empty — creating alternate realities and aesthetics. This may be doubly interesting in the case of sound installations like “A New Sense of Place” whose title alludes to the changes in perception that music can create in listeners. We are so used to daily sounds that come at us from personal devices, speakers, outside sources, ambient sound that the concept of a sound installation which purposefully tries to guide us through a curated listening experience is even richer than the standard art installation that we are more used to.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

“Like an art installation, a sound installation is three-dimensional and intended to work with the space at hand,” Farhadian explains. “The tracks here are spatialized, so the music moves around the eight speakers, sometimes in all eight, sometimes in groups of four and slowly shifts to another group of four, producing a three-dimensional sense.”

Public sound installations, Farhadian notes, are generally produced on a grander scale and far more often in Europe but the BART installation is one of the few in the US. It definitely is a welcome cultural venue for the Bay Area.

The duo’s unique electronic sound contains a prototypically modernist combination of consonance and dissonance, found sounds and wonderful distortions that one might hear in, say, a John Cage composition or at a Merce Cunningham dance performance.

They are able to fuse these difficult elements into wonderfully organic and challenging pieces, such as their 2015 debut collaboration “RedBlue.”

The BART station in Berkeley (photo by Thea Farhadian)

Santomieri’s amazing guitar riffs and Farhadian’s playful command of her violin combine to form a self-described “amalgam of modern avant-garde classical, rock, Middle Eastern, and Asian influences. As a duo, we contribute equally to the music and decision-making.”

A classically trained violinist and former member of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, Farhadian has scored sound for video and performed internationally. As a solo artist, she focuses on violin and interactive electronics, as heard in her 2016 CD, “Tectonics Shifts.”

Farhadian also incorporates her Armenian roots and much of the present installation is influenced by eastern music. She notes that “Some of the first music I heard as a child was Armenian liturgical music at St. Vartan’s Church in Oakland where I grew up. To this day I adore this music and it is deeply meaningful for me. We also listened to Armenian folk music in our home, as well as western classical music. I was drawn to Arabic classical music by the taqusim/improvisation which has similarities to Armenian liturgical music. The non-metered phrases, ornamentation, and microtonality speak to some of these stylistic overlaps that enter our music.”

Apart from using Armenian Middle Eastern rhythms and influences in her own music, Thea’s bio includes co-founding the Armenian Film Festival in New York City with Anahid Kassabian (2002) and co- producing the San Francisco Armenian Film Festival in 2004 and 2006 with Kassabian and Hrayr Eulmessekian. She has presented at the Center for Contemporary Experimental Art in Yerevan, as well as other important international venues such as the Alternative Museum in New York City, Galleria Mazzoli in Berlin, and the Center for New Music in San Francisco.

Santomieri is equally polyvalent: apart from his work as a guitarist and a member of several well-regarded groups, he performs regularly as a spoken word artist who finds inspiration in everything from music and dreams, to word games and misheard/misread items from radio and newspapers.

In 2013 he premiered his composition “Facebook, the Opera” in San Francisco.

Prior to their present commission the Santomieri-Farhadian Duo has performed together throughout the Bay Area at venues such as the Meridian Gallery, the Garden of Memory Solstice Concert at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, and the Berkeley Arts Festival.

“A New Sense of Place” highlights many of the duo’s musical strengths in a particularly fluid manner. It would be hard to describe the wealth of sounds and tonalities — and the corresponding emotions that the listener undergoes listening to the piece’s nine tracks for the first time. These include classical violin excerpts with plangent, romantic strings juxtaposed with modernist atonalities, and guitar plucks; Middle Eastern and Armenian folk elements come through as well, but I also found myself thinking of experimental modernists such as John Cage and Nam June Paik; and in some places even Franz Schubert! The two composers got together and improvised certain tracks. They developed their ideas together in rehearsal and recorded in the studio, and then integrated the selected recordings into the final 9 pieces.

Mixing engineer David Kwan then helped worked with the duo to spatialize the sound in his studio on speakers that mimicked the 8 speakers that the duo eventually used. Introspective at times, explosive at others, there is even a eulogy included in memory of composer Hardy Fox who co-founded the San Francisco Music group, The Residents. The work’s different rhythms and genres should be a pleasant musical adventure for passers-by, who have perhaps grown accustomed to the sound of cars or metros rushing by when they cross the downtown BART Plaza.

And the duo are especially pleased to see their work exhibited during the COVID 19 pandemic: “It’s exciting to have this piece open during this time. While museums and theaters elsewhere are shuttered, the arts in Berkeley remain active…it’s our hope that people moving through the plaza will be pleasantly roused from their thoughts, conversations, or devices, by the unexpected gift of music.”

And a beautiful gift it is, indeed.

Listen to an excerpt from “A New Sense of Place” on Soundcloud.

Visit the Sound Installation at: Downtown Berkeley BART, 2160 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, CA 94704.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: