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online e-dition june 26: aurora 2012


the comfort of noise

gail priest: merzbow, merzbow & oren ambarchi, aurora festival

Gail Priest is a sound artist, curator and writer. In 2009 she edited and contributed to the book Experimental Music: audio explorations in Australia (UNSW Press) and is the Associate Editor/Online Producer for RealTime.

Merzbow, Riverside Theatres Merzbow, Riverside Theatres
photo Hospital Hill
MY RIGHT EAR HEARS MERZBOW IN FULL BLASTING GLORY (SUSTAINING TEMPORARY DAMAGE). MY LEFT, PROTECTED BY A BLOB OF YELLOW FOAM, RECEIVES UNDIFFERENTIATED RUMBLES. NOISE REQUIRES CHOICES: MY HEARING, OR THE MUSIC—ONE MUST BE COMPROMISED.

Japanese noise artist Merzbow (Masami Akita) is in the centre of the Riverside Theatre main stage. Long-haired and clad in black he is a lone, lean crow behind a table of electronic noisemaking gadgets, pedals and laptop. His main instrument is a cyber-guitar/banjo with wires strung across a rotating metallic disc. Whether it is the source of all the sound is unclear, but it certainly augments the shifting dynamics as Merzbow scrapes at it with something like a pasta spoon, or bangs and plucks it to create swathes of highly differentiated static. He fills the whole sonic spectrum, his shearing sheets using a range of static grain sizes and frequencies from sub-bass under-rumble to blasts of mid-tone texture, to piercing high-pitched screeches.

Merzbow starts big, and doesn’t perceptibly get any bigger. This is not a music of crests and troughs but of one mountainous plateau of sound. Merzbow digs around within it, his forces of compression and combustion changing the molecular structure of the seams of static, burr and hum to produce new geological layers within the same chunk of rock. This creates a stasis, there’s no real forward momentum yet a tension is maintained. It takes a lot of calm and meticulous attention to tend this mass of brutal sound.

This music is physical. Sounds target different parts of the body: undertones rumble through bums via the seats; thwumping bass notes create flutters in the thorax; shearing screams flay the scalp as if with metal filings; and a particular hum seems to target the thyroid. At times it feels as if we are penetrated by pure electrical energy. Is this somehow therapeutic, our hormonal balance shifted, toxic blockages blasted?

This music is spiritual. Its force is immediate; contemplation beyond the sonic tempest in which we are the centre is impossible. It’s a total envelopment in the now and we are powerless to do anything but capitulate to the music’s force. We are listening to the abyss—the sound of everything and nothing—and it’s curiously comforting.

Merzbow, Oren Ambarchi, Noise Duo, Cambelltown Arts Centre Merzbow, Oren Ambarchi, Noise Duo, Cambelltown Arts Centre
photo John Humphreys
For the closing night of the festival, Merzbow teamed with Australian guitarist Oren Ambarchi. Thinking of the vastness of Merzbow’s sound, it was hard to imagine how a duo might work. Does Merzbow hold back, only distributing half his layers of grit? It seems that anything but full-bore would not work, but is there room in that mountain of sound? However Merzbow and Ambarchi are consummate noisemakers and they find a subtle (in strategy rather than sound quality) approach to collaborating.

There seems to be a commitment to maintain the overall force and power of the sound—Ambarchi provides more bass, with comparatively less grit, more pure hum and oscillating tones, while Merzbow tops things with squalls of shredding feedback. There is a feeling of searching around each other to find the cracks, seeking out the frequencies yet to be filled or removing a contribution that is muddying the scape. While in demeanor they appear to be forging their own paths, there is an ever so subtle sense of turn-taking, one adding more ‘specialty’ layers to the mix then dropping back to let the other add a sheet. This creates a higher rate of change within the core of the sound and more of a sense of urgency than the tensile stasis of Merzbow’s solo show.


Merzbow, Oren Ambarchi, Noise Duo, Cambelltown Arts Centre Merzbow, Oren Ambarchi, Noise Duo, Cambelltown Arts Centre
photo John Humphreys
Like the Riverside concert, the effect was unarguably visceral, perhaps more so as we sat on cushions on the floor of the Campbelltown Arts Centre performance space, soaking in the sub-bass frequencies. Another interesting aspect to the Campbelltown performance was that it was part of the closing night festival party, so the audience, though smaller than the black-jeaned noise aficionados at Parramatta Riverside, was more diverse, with many people perhaps hearing this kind of music for the first time.

Though it may have been too much for some, the inclusion of significant international noise artists within a festival that, until now, has pursued a largely contemporary classical agenda, was a bold and welcome move. It opened the event up to wider audiences and has contributed to the erosion of perceived barriers between exploratory music scenes in Sydney. If future Aurora festivals can continue this inclusiveness, the event will become a significant force not only in NSW but also within the national and international music landscape.


Aurora Festival of Living Music: Merzbow, Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, May 11; Noise duo: Merzbow & Oren Ambarchi, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, May 13; www.auroranewmusic.com.au/

Gail Priest is a sound artist, curator and writer. In 2009 she edited and contributed to the book Experimental Music: audio explorations in Australia (UNSW Press) and is the Associate Editor/Online Producer for RealTime.

RealTime issue #109 June-July 2012 pg. web

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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