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Geology's musical avatars

Jonathan Marshall


While physical performers like Company In Space, Louise Taube and Stelarc explore the idea of a live body interacting with its virtual Other or avatar, such exercises are relatively uncommon in the context of music itself. Saxophonist Tim O’Dwyer and electronic-manipulator Newton Armstrong’s latest work Geology evokes some of these concerns. The performance begins with an absolute minimisation of acoustics, with O’Dwyer producing sounds simply by fingering the stops. Gradually this is added to with the first transition of bodily essence into music by breath. Wind and glottal stops gently reverberate through the brassy coils. Single notes then poke out, peak, and explode into a fireworks of elements running up and down the scale.

It is at this point that the composition suddenly reifies outwards. A great torrent of electronic noises is unleashed through the 6-way sound system. Although Armstrong’s tones are largely composed through a single integrated system, his palette seems to trace a mini-history of electro-acoustics. We begin predominantly with relatively unprocessed pre-recorded saxophone sounds, multiplying the ensemble through virtual sonic space. As we progress however, more overtly electronic elements increase and begin to subvert the virtual, simulated saxophone. Tones reminiscent of early Stockhausen and Schaffer sit alongside both saxophones at an ever higher level. More recognisable processing also begins to intrude, the virtual saxophone becoming a Hendrix-esque device, moving into sounds akin to even more introspective guitar processing approaches like Tangerine Dream. The warmth of the old valve-transformer devices (fuzz boxes, wah-wah pedals) comes more and more to replace the spiky, stretched, unimaginable sounds of earlier electro-acoustic traditions. Finally the digital sounds of contemporary glitch–crystal matter clouds of diffuse sound–appear.

This introduces the full sonic palette in under 10 minutes. From here relationships become more complicated and difficult to describe. It is far from pure impulse-driven indulgence, but it nevertheless defies conventional musicological descriptions of how the sounds modulate, rip up and then seem to evaporate into gritty near-silence. Beyond even be-bop, the largely improvised progression charts an ever greater increase in subliminal energies. Sheer noise, volume or tempo, however, does not follow this pattern–rather, being radically fractured, leaping from one position to another. My rather musicologically hardcore companion saw insufficient change here and it is certainly true that O’Dwyer and Armstrong push a negative envelope in terms of finding infinite variation within relatively self-contained musical motifs and ideas. Nevertheless simply by realising the score in 3-dimensional space, gently revolving about the room or aggressively coalescing or dislocating throughout it, Geology offers if anything too much to listen to and think about.

The only unsatisfying aspect was that the doubling of the instruments (saxophone and live-manipulated electronics) with their virtual, electronically simulated sonic doppelgangers occurred predominantly in virtual not real time. It would be interesting to hear what would happen if the live saxophone sounds were electronically processed and multiplied in real time, rather than this occurring largely at a spatial level. Perhaps this is currently unfeasible though–an idea worthy of further research.


Geology, saxophone Timothy O'Dwyer, electronics Newton Armstrong, mixer Steve Adam, Trades Hall, Melbourne, August 15-17

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. web

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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