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vertiginous pleasures of disconnection

jonathan marshall at the totally huge new music festival


 Michel van der Aa introducing one of his pieces<br /> performed by the WASO New Music Ensemble, Sonic Sights Concert Michel van der Aa introducing one of his pieces
performed by the WASO New Music Ensemble, Sonic Sights Concert
photo Peter Illari
TURA NEW MUSIC DIRECTOR TOS MAHONEY QUIPPED THAT IT SHOULD BE RENAMED THE RIDICULOUSLY LONG NEW MUSIC FESTIVAL. CERTAINLY THE 2007 TOTALLY HUGE NEW MUSIC FESTIVAL WAS BIG—AND VARIED, WITH WORKS BY ESTABLISHED COMPOSERS LIKE ANDREW FORD, AS WELL AS ABSTRACT BASSY TEXTURES FROM LAPTOP SUPREMO ROBIN FOX. SAMPLING THESE EVENTS WAS LIABLE TO GIVE ONE THE BENDS, AS ONE MOVED FROM EXTRAORDINARY, HARD INSTRUMENTALISM BY THE LIKES OF DUO STUMP-LINSHALM, TO FORD’S PASTORAL PIECE INSPIRED BY BRUEGHEL.

For lovers of the weird, the tough, the bizarre or the sonically abstract, the festival occasionally seemed conventional. The Song Company’s selection of works by John Cage was titled Cage Uncaged, but in minimalising the chance elements within these compositions, the company effectively classicised the composer—Cage locked behind formalistic (if musically attractive) bars. Nevertheless, diverse programming produced dizzying heights and surprises in a selection that had something for everyone.

Austrian clarinet duo Petra Stump and Heinz-Peter Linshalm was one such highlight. Seeing the work of the Libra Ensemble in Melbourne shortly afterwards, I was struck by the similar stylistic positioning of the groups in repertoire and approach, both emphasising what I call ‘limit modernism’ in their formal rigour, atonalism and rejection of American minimalism. Often one is left with a series of disconnected, spiky gestures, as well as tiny, timbrel motifs, squeals and small, isolated clusters, that reveal the best of both the conventional use of instruments as well as startling extended technique. Long sections of loud circular breathing punctuated Stump-Linshalm’s playing, while a particular joy was composer Vinko Globokar’s solo for bass clarinet without mouthpiece—a dazzling array of clatters, growls, tubular gasping sounds and tongued stutters, made all the more extraordinary by computer processing and reverb; almost a clarinet version of Kurt Schwitters’ famous concrete poetry work, The Ur-Sonata.

Generally this program was dense and busy, a collection of virtuoso moments and exchanges which, as in Beat Furrer’s piece, created an almost soundscape-like set of textures and a near phasing of elements, while the fracturing and fragmentation of each enunciation was rigorously maintained and counterpointed. From Magnus Lindberg’s overtly performative work (which opened with the ka-whomp of the bass drum before the duo chased each other around the space, mouthing phrases and finally taking up their clarinets) to Claudio Ambrosini’s (vaguely jazzy inflections crushed or held at bay, like a Gershwin piece that never coalesced into true rhythm), this was an invigorating concert which suggested how much noise and texture is still to be discovered within the clarinet.

As part of the festival conference on Sound and Image, Stump-Linshalm offered Christoph Herndler’s fabulous black and white film Streifund, der Blick (Gliding, a Glance) to which the duo played a see-sawing set of off-key tones and gaps with electronics, accompanied by close-up footage of a hand endlessly, painfully and lovingly rubbing every surface of an old, abandoned house—cobwebs, dust and paint falling from the fingers.

Bruce Mowson’s installation Melting Moments was another satisfying surprise. Two screens each showed three shapes nestled within each other (three rectangles on one screen, and two circles in a rectangle on the other) cycling through fluorescent blocks of colour, while a series of sustained tones, mostly in the upper bass register and mids, suffused the space, complemented by hissy sonic materials which built up and receded. Visually, this was Op-Art rendered as mobile, video candyfloss. Mowson explained in his presentation at the conference that Melting Moments aimed at a disconnect between sound and image. Although both the sonics and the visuals gradually evolved and changed, both were random and did not trigger each other. Audiences were invited to construct whatever relationship they wished between these arbitrarily conjoined materials. The very superficiality of the sound and image relationship created an unbounded space for affect, pleasure and interpretation.

WAAPA’s Cat Hope reminded us how early experimentation in ultra-low frequency film scores occurred in cheesy disaster movies like Earthquake. Darren Jorgensen described the scrambled sampling found on Nurse With Wound’s Sylvie and Babs as Surrealist—one can listen to and interpret it forever precisely because it has no structure. I attempted to enunciate a new rhetorical strategy for discussing sound art, not in the usual terms of immersion, depth or an infinite series of layers, but rather as what Siegfried Kracauer called the “mass ornament”—a machinic structure which fundamentally refers back to its own superficial elements, rather than generating Romantic depth.

Robin Fox offered a brief history of combined sound and image instruments, including 19th century organs attached to racks of bottles of different coloured water illuminated by candlelight. He then charted how he is exploring the ever more precise synchronisation of sound and image by linking his laptop bass textures to a single-point laser, projected through smoke as a series of violently cut-off changes in shape and form. Fox’s live performance literally shook the building and riddled it with green, pinprick shafts.

Conference keynote presenter, the Dutch composer Michel Van der Aa (RT 78, p41) showed recordings of his work, while live performances were offered by WAAPA’s Resonator new music ensemble and the WA Symphony Orchestra. Dramaturgically, Van der Aa’s compositions tend to represent the individual, or his or her instrumental representative, in a conflicted dialogue with technology, replayed recordings of these performers in the works, or with computer processing of the live materials. In Auburn for example, the dulcet tones and hispanic lilt of the solo classical guitar became alienated, assaulted and lost as they were embedded within an increasingly pressing, electronic wasteland of textures and clicks.

Van der Aa’s film works (as in Passage, his portrait of an isolated old man, or One, his work for a soprano and her audiovisual double) consistently use the fracturing of tempi, voice or instrumental line to depict madness and neurosis. His work is, in this sense, modernist in ambience, and is thus most effective when furthest removed from such relatively familiar readings and scenarios, focusing rather on relations within the ensemble itself. Quadrivial for example offered such rich sound worlds as the frenetic up/down repetition which recurs in much of the composer’s work, but here placed amidst small, angular, dissonant scenes which (the performers deliberately enacting a number of false starts) grew into longer sequences and then a series of unison clashes and attacks. Also interesting is the way this use of live recording and playback could be read as suggesting that the orchestra itself is a kind of massive, dysfunctional music box.

In the Here trilogy, this lumbering symphonic machine was carried from hissy, clunky analogue accompaniment to glitchy, slippery digital sounds, the electroacoustic elements recapitulating their own formal history. Against this, the orchestra repeated and reworked grabs of material, breaking them and sharing them amongst clusters of instruments, before the whole thing collapsed and emptied out, ending with the players frozen, bows raised, waiting for that last note that will never come. Beyond the commonplace tragedy implied here, there were many arrested sounds and motifs that evoked much more than the 1950s cultural world otherwise suggested, making Van der Aa’s admixture of baroque instrumentation and atonality, his clustering and texturing and performative execution highly intriguing.

After these orchestral complications and Stump-Linshalm’s unalloyed formalism, it was a relief to take refuge in Philip Brophy’s kraut-rock road-movie score to the 1960s film Le Révélateur (RT 72, p21). Brophy may not today be doing quite such complex work as his 1999 Cavern of Deep Tones, but his ‘glint’ drum-pad sounds for the Beautiful Cyborg project and the use of Dave Brown’s solid guitar lines for Révélateur provided just the right amount of popular sonic languages within the aesthetic rollercoaster that was Totally Huge 2007.


Totally Huge New Music Festival and Conference, Perth, April 20-May 6, www.tura.com.au/events/totallyhuge

RealTime issue #79 June-July 2007 pg. 40

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