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Tess de Quincey, Jon Rose, The Museum Goes Live, Liveworks 2016 Tess de Quincey, Jon Rose, The Museum Goes Live, Liveworks 2016
photo Alex Davies

An ominous thumping emerges from a coffin standing upright in a corner. The black box emits a roar, the door crashes open and the room reverberates with amplified thunder, the wooden casing employed as a full-bodied resonating chamber. The coffin-turned-instrument is just one of the many exhibits on display in The Rosenberg Museum, the private collection of experimental violinist Jon Rose—a bizarre stockpile of violins, violin-like instruments and violin-related paraphernalia collected, invented or built over the course of the artist’s career.

Violin-shaped liquor bottles cover shelves, coloured violins with inset clocks hang in a row on the wall. A 1970s issue of Life magazine with a young, violin-wielding Richard Nixon on the cover, is on display next to the “Sex & Music Issue” of Playboy from 1998 featuring Linda Brava posing seductively with a white violin. A pedal powered violin is displayed next to a kind of musical surveyor’s wheel.

It is among these exhibits—the first time the collection has been displayed in Australia—that the second instalment of Music for a Time of Dysfunction takes place. On one side of the room is a player piano delivering a transcription of the sound of the busy gaming floor at the Sahara Casino in Las Vegas—“The sound of extremely poor people losing the rest of their money,” quips Rose. He introduces us to the seemingly random notes dribbling out of the piano. The pokies, Rose explains, are tuned to C major and while the notes sound haphazard, over the course of the performance the key area provides a point of stability.

In the centre of the room is the robotic Data Violin, which turns trading activity on Wall Street into music. Mechanical hooks line the side of the instrument, each ‘finger’ representing a company; the longer the tones are sustained, the more money is changing hands. The performance begins with these two instruments: music generated by the sound of money. Sparkling flourishes from the piano—poker machine payouts—adorn the huskier, drilling sounds of the Data Violin, “billions of dollars going down the plughole.” As Rose points out, “They talk to each other.”

The lights dim and the performance shifts gears, Rose shoots out a single violin note, illuminated by a standing lamp that clicks on and off in synch. Robotic instruments—the SARPS (Semi Automated Robotic Percussion System) string quartet controlled by Robbie Avenaim—add a rattling voice to the mix. A junkyard organ warbles softly. Rose spins bright flourishes from his violin while Clayton Thomas imitates the hammering robot string quartet on his bass. The Data Violin seems, impossibly, to respond—as if the players are influencing the trade on Wall Street with their music.

The piano and Data Violin are switched off and the players ride their own momentum, Rose’s frenzied fiddling a sinister hoe-down while static hisses through speakers and the robot quartet jackhammers away. Thomas produces soft harmonics while Rose’s violin emits a far-off screaming that becomes a guttural roar.

Jon Rose in the Rosenberg Museum, 2015 Jon Rose in the Rosenberg Museum, 2015
photo courtesy the artist

The lid of the coffin [Jon Rose tells the editors that violin cases were commonly called coffins in the 19th century] bangs open and shut, an onslaught of percussion while the amplified string inside growls. With a shout, the lid swings open to reveal an ashen white figure. Dancer and choreographer Tess de Quincey, ghostly white, completely naked, wails and screams, slamming the lid and convulsing as if electrocuted. She fills the room with wild ululations—Rose’s violin screaming in sympathy—as an arm and a leg emerge, cabaret style, from the coffin, lights strobing. A number plate wedged into the double bass’s strings sends splintering white-noise through the speakers and De Quincey screams at the audience before she leaves the coffin to walk out through a green-lit Exit, the coffin generating a residual hum of feedback that bathes the audience before Rose cuts it off.

Music for a Time of Dysfunction—Part 2 emerges from and recedes back into the Rosenberg Museum exhibition as if the strange, experimental instruments have all come to life on their own. The result is a chaotic experience of a performance that embraces experimental sounds infused with a critique of contemporary life and capitalism, alongside kitsch, Halloween playfulness.

Rose has indicated that this may be the last time the collection is displayed and the exhibition definitely has the feel of a retrospective. A room off the main space displays footage from Rose’s bicycle and fence projects and the museum’s guide-book is full of reminiscences. An anecdote about being stopped by the border guards between East and West Berlin and made to explain his 19-string cello—the unusual number of strings disqualifying the instrument as a cello in the eyes of the suspicious guards—is a kind of comic microcosm of Rose’s practice as a whole. But while The Museum Goes Live might draw a line under one part of Rose’s career it is by no means an ending. With the violinist having recently been awarded the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Residency for 2017 there is no doubt we will be hearing more of Jon Rose.


Performance Space, Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art: Jon Rose, The Museum Goes Live, Music for a Time of Dysfunction, Part 2; Carriageworks, Sydney, 2-5 Nov

RealTime issue #135 Oct-Nov 2016 pg.

© Angus McPherson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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