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cross-generational experimentation

ben byrne: interplay, melbourne

Ben Byrne is a Melbourne based musician, writer and curator whose work traverses musical performance and improvisation, installation, composition, radiophonics and sound theory.

Tessa Elieff, Philip Samartzis, Interplay Tessa Elieff, Philip Samartzis, Interplay
photo Lenny
INTERPLAY: LIVE SURROUND SOUND PERFORMANCES VIA COLLABORATION BETWEEN ACCLAIMED AND EMERGING ARTISTS WAS ORGANISED BY QUE NGUYEN OF THE ROYAL MELBOURNE INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY STUDENT COLLECTIVE, WITHIN EARSHOT. THE EVENT CONSISTED OF FIVE PERFORMANCES FROM MEMBERS OF THE COLLECTIVE PAIRED WITH MORE ESTABLISHED MUSICIANS. THE STUDENTS WERE INVITED TO CHOOSE THEIR COLLABORATORS, GENERALLY RESULTING IN PAIRINGS WITH ARTISTS WITH WHOM THEIR OWN PRACTICE SHARED A GREAT DEAL.

Due to financial and time constraints (it was that time of year in universities after all) each pairing had limited opportunities to work together. Nevertheless the students and their counterparts undertook an informal mentorship process in preparing for the performances.

Cross-generational collaboration in Australia has been rare among musicians and sound artists. It is also reasonably uncommon to see more established artists in this area work consistently with younger artists. Interplay was an exciting and necessary step in attempting to further develop opportunities for young artists to work with, learn from and perhaps even influence their more established contemporaries.

Natasha Anderson and Que Nguyen opened the night. At the outset Nguyen had an interesting microphone setup with four positioned in a rectangle, each at a distance of a metre and a half. This allowed her to walk between them to effect panning of her vocals across the four speakers, while also processing her own voice with various effects from the now ubiquitous and quickly discernible Ableton Live software on her laptop. While visually fascinating this rendered the panning effect somewhat one dimensional and cumbersome, preventing Nguyen from being able to address all four speakers at once. Anderson meanwhile built on the signature staccato bursts of noise and low tones she coaxes from her contrabass recorder and laptop using a great deal of playback material, which she explained is sourced from the various theatre projects she has worked on in the last few years, lending the set a more dramatic turn than I had expected. Towards the end Nguyen took all four mics in hand and Anderson built an uncustomary crescendo which saw the sounds produced by the two begin to congeal and push toward a satisfying conclusion.

Philip Samartzis and Tessa Elieff performed the second set of the evening, both working with playback of various field recordings as well as various tones and, in the case of Samartzis, output from his EMS Synthi AKS Synthesizer, which the pair used to slowly fill the audible spectrum, starting with recordings of irregular rhythms which were gradually underpinned by bass notes and finally high frequency modulations. It was difficult to tell which sounds were coming from which performer, the palette of each overlapping to such a degree and providing an interesting ambiguity to their displaced concrete sounds. The various elements gradually extricated themselves and as the piece came to rest Samartzis looked up at Elieff with nothing but the recorded beep of a digital clock repeating alone until she hit stop, revealing their individual roles at the last possible moment.

The most successful set of the night was undoubtedly that of Darrin Verhagen and Martin Kay. It felt like a natural collaboration between two performers with a deep rapport and understanding of one another’s work. Strangely the set sounded much like the solo performances I have heard from Verhagen in recent times, gradually building to a violent crescendo from ambient beginnings. But it was in fact largely driven by Kay on laptop with the usually Pro Tools-bound Verhagen playing shakuhachi live with various processes and feedback setups, recalling his previous, more performative work such as Shinjuku Thief.

Robbie Avenaim and Nick van Cuylenburg were first up after the obligatory mid-evening breather and set out with an awkward beginning in which Avenaim waited to let van Cuylenburg set the tone for the set, producing grand granular sweeps from his computer. Eventually the two came together as the set began to build. Avenaim had positioned drums with his motorised drumsticks at either end of the room, seating himself opposite van Cuylenburg with more drums and devices. As the set developed van Cuylenburg produced a broadening range of percussive sounds which underscored the cacophony that developed as Avenaim activated all his various devices.

Closing the evening were Robin Fox and Vijay Thillaimuthu, performing on Max/MSP, oscilloscope and controllers and mixer, pedals and TV respectively with their individual setups linked into a recursive feedback network. Powerful and visceral, fully utilising the spatial potential of the surround setup at their disposal, the set started strongly but perhaps struggled to hold attention for its length. I was fascinated to see Fox’s processing of his collaborator’s output fold back on itself. The set forcefully demonstrated the possibilities for musicians of different generations to push one another in different directions.

It was clear throughout the evening that the younger artists did look to their more experienced collaborators for guidance and that deliberately transparent structures based around a central crescendo of some sort were the order of the night. This is to be expected with most first time collaborations when artists are sizing one another up and attempting to find common terrain. Overall the standard was very high and interestingly the most successful performances were the ones where the collaborations felt natural and the students pushed their mentors into new territories.

Interplay demonstrated the value of cross-generational projects in Australian experimental music and sound arts. It was clear that the opportunity to work with established musicians was invaluable to the students involved. Artists of different generations would clearly benefit from the opportunity to work with one another more regularly and hopefully more projects like this one will offer further opportunities in the future.


Interplay: Live Surround Sound Performances Via Collaboration Between Acclaimed and Emerging Sound Artists, Within Earshot Collective and Guests, supported by RMIT Union Arts, Horticultural Hall, Melbourne, Nov 9, 2008

Ben Byrne is a Melbourne based musician, writer and curator whose work traverses musical performance and improvisation, installation, composition, radiophonics and sound theory.

RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 41

© Ben Byrne; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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