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Christian Pruvost, MIBEM Christian Pruvost, MIBEM
photo Andrew McDougall
THE MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL BIENNALE OF EXPLORATORY MUSIC IS A SIGNIFICANT ACHIEVEMENT IN CONTEMPORARY MUSIC PROGRAMMING, BRINGING TOGETHER AN EXTENSIVE RANGE OF COMPOSERS AND PERFORMERS WITHIN THE OVERALL REQUIREMENT THAT THE MUSIC SHOULD BE EXPLORATORY. COMPRISING 35 PERFORMANCES IN SEVEN CONCERTS OVER FIVE DAYS, AND INCLUDING PERFORMERS FROM ALL OVER AUSTRALIA, EUROPE, THE US AND NEW ZEALAND, MIBEM IS ABOUT A PARTICULAR ATTITUDE TO MUSIC, ABOUT PUSHING BOUNDARIES.

Co-artistic directors Robin Fox and Anthony Pateras invited participation from musicians and composers they had seen or with whom they had worked, particularly in Europe. Fox stated that MIBEM is not intended to be specific to any genre, and the program was almost encyclopaedically diverse, a collection of samples from each composer/ performer’s oeuvre.

I attended two concerts. Saturday evening commenced with Brisbane’s Clocked Out Duo: Vanessa Tomlinson, percussion, and Erik Griswold, prepared piano. Their performance used a variant of a technique seen in their earlier compositions, where drumsticks are attached to long ropes fastened at the other end to a fixed object. As Tomlinson performs, the movement of the ropes simulates the movement of a sine wave and, in this work, the moving ropes strike an array of plates, bowls and other objects on the floor, creating tapping and ringing sounds. Accompanied by Griswold’s piano, the result is an absorbing and satisfying composition—a detailed orchestration of percussive and resonant sounds, using musical and non-musical objects, within an overall musical structure, but which has aleatoric and improvisatory aspects as well as a visual quality.

The second work, by a trumpet quartet of Peter Knight, Tristram Williams, Scott Tinkler, all from Melbourne, and renowned Lille-based trumpeter Christian Pruvost, was all the more evocative for being performed in an eerie darkness—in acknowledgement of Earth Hour, the auditorium was illuminated only by the Exit lights. One trumpet was miked and prepared, looking as though a rubber tube was attached to the mouthpiece, which the performer would bend and pluck and blow through, creating some extraordinary sounds. This group improvisation emphasised technique and, as the performers moved about the space, their breathy sounds coalesced into a strikingly intense and unpredictable whole. Chris Abrahams’ enchanting solo piano performance followed, a work that explored dynamics, tonality/chromaticism and sonority, and was perhaps more cerebral and introspective in flavour than is typical of his ensemble, the Necks.

Berlin sound artist Kirsten Reese’s contribution was a short piece in which she sat at a table gently touching a variety of very closely miked glasses, bowls and other everyday objects. These sounds were processed via a laptop using morphing and delay to layer the sound. The work makes the most of a brilliant PA that can convey every nuance of even the lightest fingering of an object, creating a haunting intimacy that negates the physical distance between listener and performer and makes music out of the ordinary. The final work for the evening was a performance by Amsterdam-based composer Cor Fuhler, who has pushed the prepared piano to new levels, using electro-mechanical devices that sit on the piano strings and create endlessly sustainable resonances and harmonics. Both pianist and mixer, Fuhler stands at the piano, sometimes playing the keys, sometimes touching the strings directly and simultaneously manipulating the devices inside it. The result is a unique sonic language that Fuhler arranges into a delightfully melismatic composition.

Sunday afternoon saw three highly contrasting performances—the Reindeer and Parchment ensemble’s theatre, Jim Denley’s heavily mediated saxophone and an entrancing rendition of Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories by Adelaide pianist Stephen Whittington. Reindeer and Parchment’s stunning work was a short play in which the main protagonist appears to be ill and is to go to hospital. Her inner agony and her conflict with her partner are portrayed using pre-recorded sound and an array of typical sound-art devices: objects with contact mikes are rattled and scraped and the resulting sounds are processed—by a performer dressed as a surgeon, at a laptop—establishing a series of wry metaphors for the human condition. In parts, sound substitutes for dialogue and the work is a fascinating exploration of how sound art and theatre can be melded to produce a unique synthesis with great potential for further development.

Denley’s solo sax & laptop improvisation conveyed a feeling of deep introspection, as if he was ruminating over the idea of sound as breath, inhalation and exhalation. Moments of sound would emerge and then be abruptly cut off, like confused thoughts trying to emerge into conscious awareness. But as the soliloquy progressed, the sounds developed into more extended musical figures, finding voice, power and release.

But the focal point of MIBEM was Morton Feldman’s epic solo piano work Triadic Memories. Now 27 years old, the work is hardly new, and lacks the technological innovations of much of the MIBEM program. But it places immense demands on the performer, who must use a very different playing technique to realise the minutely detailed score. As a mature work of Feldman’s, it represents the culmination of his own compositional exploration, and is so highly resolved and so musical that technical considerations are subsumed. In just these two concerts, we saw many approaches to the piano and to piano writing: Abrahams’ studied improvisation, Feldman’s extraordinarily refined and subtle composition, and Fuhler’s and Clocked Out’s approaches to preparation, testing the limits of the instrument. As Whittington commented privately, there are many ways to play a piano.

The printed program rarely cited the titles of works performed and, apart from Whittington’s excellent essay on Feldman, lacked contextualising literature, so that MIBEM sometimes had the feel of a workshop. But this biennale is a significant and very welcome achievement. The event wonderfully showcased the possibilities of experimental music and sound art, revealing multiple trajectories and new aesthetics and poetics, encouraging artistic innovation and development and energising audiences. While some musical directions are well established, others are at a developmental stage. But the variety of approaches and often the quality of the works and the performances were breathtaking, variously addressing instrumentation and musical form, modern and postmodern musical traditions, the boundary between sound and music, the nature of performance, the idea of improvisation, the types and uses of notation, the use of recording and synthesising, and the potential of the ubiquitous laptop.


Melbourne International Biennale of Exploratory Music, performers Cor Fuhler, Kirsten Reese, Chris Abrahams, Christian Pruvost/Peter Knight/Tristram Williams/Scott Tinkler, Clocked Out Duo, March 29; Reindeer & Parchment, Stephen Whittington, Jim Denley, March 30; ABC Iwaki Auditorium; MIBEM, various venues March 28 – 2 April 2; www.mibem.net

RealTime issue #85 June-July 2008 pg. 45

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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