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the improvising animal

gail priest: the now now festival


Mike Majkowski, the NOW now Mike Majkowski, the NOW now
photo Vivian Spadaro
IN HOLLIS TAYLOR’S “THE MUSIC OF NATURE AND THE NATURE OF MUSIC”, A SATURDAY AFTERNOON LECTURE AT THE 2009 NOW NOW FESTIVAL, WE ARE INTRODUCED TO ZOÖMUSICOLOGY. USING EXAMPLES SUCH AS THE THEME AND VARIATION OF THE LYREBIRD, THE CUT AND PASTE OF THE PIED BUTCHER BIRD, OR THE SHIFTING PHRASING OF DINKY THE DINGO, TAYLOR QUESTIONS WHETHER ANIMALS ARE MAKING AESTHETIC CHOICES WHEN THEY SING. EDUCATIONAL AND ENTERTAINING, THE TALK FORMED THE PERFECT PREFACE TO THE NEXT 24 HOURS OF CURIOUS PERFORMANCES BY THAT STRANGE ANIMAL, THE IMPROVISING MUSICIAN.

The Saturday evening concert at Wentworth Falls School of Arts commenced with festival founders Clare Cooper and Clayton Thomas, on a brief return visit from Berlin, playing with Robin Fox and Martin Ng. Thomas leaps straight in, using his repetitive bowing technique to create a drone of harmonics, nicely matched by tumbling, crumbling static from Fox on laptop, while Ng manipulates his turntable producing pops, cracks and quick vinyl swipes. Cooper on guzheng provides a subtle, yet suturing layer, the timbre of her instrument intermingling with the bass but also mimicking electronic textures. The piece winds itself into a climax pushed on by high-pitched feedback coming from Ng holding his headphones to the stylus; and then it’s over. Thomas seems surprised…perhaps the improvisation might have gone somewhere else, but as it was, it was tidy and concise.

The next set featured Joe Derrick and Simon Ferenci on trumpets—a challenging combination for players and listeners. The musicians explore the possibilities of the instrument while trying to avoid playing too many notes: sustained breathy half rasps, the sound of clacking valves, various mutes and materials over the bell to vibrate and mutate, watery spittle sounds, scraping the brass. While both players are very thorough, the set never moves beyond a series of elements.

The extreme vocals grouping lived up to its title. Kusum Normoyle, Aaron Clarke, Rivka Schembri and Bonnie Hart all have their moments of screaming, the female banshee wails nicely tempered by the death metal bawls of Clarke. Normoyle alternates between screams and purrs, Schembri rocks on the floor out of sightline so it’s hard to attribute noises to her, but I suspect she is adding the more textural, animal sounds. Hart has a set of guitar effects pedals to augment her throaty utterances with feedback. The piece is interesting as a series of overlapping proclamations, but have they been trapped by being labelled as extreme? As with the trumpeters, I had a sense these artists in combination with other instruments might have produced more complex explorations.

Helmet Head is the audiovisual pairing of Anthony Magen and Rod Cooper. Cooper stands mid-stage wearing a white welding mask with a metallic frame attached—like a set of antlers—supporting a screen. Magen, in front of audience, uses an Elmo (a souped-up overhead projector) to create visuals displayed over Cooper’s head. The sound is played from tape, chopped up by manual fastforwards and reverses, with crunchy noises of curious origin. Magen places objects he has found around the area onto the Elmo—bubble wrap, a cauliflower, toys with lights—the extreme close-up and lighting shifts rendering all things alien. For many in the audience the directness of live visuals along with Cooper’s battle against gravity was enough, however I found the performance rushed and lacking trust in the materials—sonic and visual resonances were hinted at, but not quite achieved...though I’d like to see Helmet Head again.

Sandwiched between two hyperactive visual acts was the contemplative trio of Magda Mayas, Monika Brooks and Laura Altman. It’s very, very quiet, the overlapping of soughing and sighing from Brooks’ accordion and Altman’s clarinet creating a sustaining environment for the rattles and moans coaxed from the piano by Mayas, who without ego leads this concentrated exploration. This trio exemplifies what I find most interesting about improvised music: each musician equally in the moment, equally open to discovery, listening at the very deepest level and choosing their techniques in relation to each other, to create an absorbing, cohesive whole.

Originally from Brisbane, BOTBORG has been touring across Europe for a few years so it was great to finally see them in New South Wales. However the BORG has undergone a kind of mitosis, with one half—Scott Sinclair—remaining in Linz, while Joe Musgrove plays around Australia. Their early explorations were mesmerising as their cannibalistic process of audio feeding video feeding audio and round again created an aggressive cyberpsychedelia. The process has now been refined, Musgrove presenting a slick sculpting of synaethesic images and sounds: ever shifting horizontals and verticals eating each other to become voluptuous swirling patterns. The projections were on a side wall, both speakers on our left, and eventually the intensity of the process confounded the projector (or someone was sitting on the lead), but what we shared proved that BOTBORG have developed an enthralling audiovisual experience.

Then there was the late night gig at the artist run space Akemi a bit further into the mountains, where we all squashed into a big living room to watch an informative film about the Scratch Orchestra and experienced the wild country music of Eugene Chadbourne—quirky songs, weird instruments and playful extended improvisations by his supporting team of Monica Brooks, Clayton Thomas, Reuben Derrick and Neill Duncan (whose skiffle work on the washboard was amazing).

Sunday afternoon and no NOW now is complete without a performance by the Splinter Orchestra. With at least 20 players, individual elements rise and submerge again into the morass which is not so much murky as like a thick undergrowth of overlapping drones textured with scraping, grinding and jittering. There are no noticeable transitions yet somehow things change; the intensity waxes and wanes as subgroups slide in and out of consensus. There is an almost ending that a few extend into a coda illustrating that The Splinter Orchestra is a complex entity—it pursues a hive mind while allowing for individual provocation.

The Loop Orchestra (John Blades, Richard Fielding, Manny Gasparinatos, Hamish Mackenzie, Juke Wyatt) also played a rare gig. Using tape and video loops sampled from Blades’ electric wheelchair, the piece, titled Wheel to Wheel, is challenging in its relentless repetition, yet like good minimalism rewards the listener with subtle shifts that constantly recreate rhythmic structure.

Anthony Pateras, the NOW now Anthony Pateras, the NOW now
photo Vivian Spadaro
However the real highlights of the Sunday afternoon, and perhaps the festival, came from the solo performances of Anthony Pateras and Mike Majkoswki. Pateras is always good, but in this performance he was extraordinary. Closing his eyes, he adjusts the seat and jumps in, playing LOTS of notes. Emphatic and fearless, he starts at such a level of intensity we wonder where he can go from here. His fingers fly, he syncopates with his fist—energy not aggression—plays cascades of notes with his forearms that envelop the room until it is saturated with bouncing frequencies. Pateras knows his instrument and his own abilities and can shift pace, volume and tone, without losing any vibrancy or tension. It was literally awesome. He had to take two bows—unheard of in experimental music gigs!

When I first saw Mike Majkoswki play double bass in the early NOW now festivals I thought he was a shy young thing, however I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Majkowski is perhaps one of the most performative improvisers I’ve seen. A true showman, he sings along to the notes he is eeking out, whips the air with his bow, stamps his feet, dangerously thwacks the cap of a guy in the front row. It’s an angular approach of sudden shifts, sharp shocks and elegant sustains, constantly working the gesture. A bold, playful yet utterly serious exploration, Majkowski brought the concerts at the Wentworth Falls School of Arts to a perfect close.

The move to the Blue Mountains, initiated last year, suits the NOW now, giving it a slightly more casual and open atmosphere without any loss of rigour, and allowing for a greater engagement with environment and site, with activities like the early morning performances in Kings Cave and the interactive kites of Jon Rose. There is a truly festive feeling and audience numbers illustrated that there is also considerable local curiosity. Watching artists like Mike Majkowski develop through this scene indicate that the NOW now festival is providing a vital environment for these improvising creatures to grow and run free.


The NOW now festival, curators Jim Denley, Alex Masso, Mike Majkowski, Monica Brooks, Peter Farrar; Wentworth Falls School of Arts & Akemi, Jan 16-18

RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 39

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

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