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vigorous exercise & a well-balanced diet

gail priest: the now now festival 2010


Zeit Kunst  6 Zeit Kunst 6
photo Sam James
OVER THE LAST NINE YEARS THE NOW NOW FESTIVAL HAS CONTINUED TO IMPRESS WITH THE DIVERSITY OF MUSICAL ACTIVITIES THAT IT BOLDLY PROGRAMS UNDER A UNIFYING PREOCCUPATION WITH SPONTANEITY. NOW BASED IN WENTWORTH FALLS IN THE BLUE MOUNTAINS, ATTENDING THE FESTIVAL REQUIRES A LITTLE MORE DEDICATION, THUS I ONLY MADE IT TO THE FINAL AFTERNOON OF ACTIVITIES. THAT SAID THE FIVE PERFORMANCES I EXPERIENCED EACH EXPLORED VASTLY DIFFERENT STYLES, ACTING AS THE PERFECT TASTER FOR THE RANGE OF APPROACHES TO MUSIC MAKING FOR WHICH THE FESTIVAL HAS BECOME RENOWNED.

Opening the afternoon was Neill Duncan (sax), Alex Masso (percussion, drums), Sam Pettigrew (double bass), Sam Dobson (double bass) and Alister Spence (piano), producing the now well-recognised improv style in which individuals explore extended instrumental techniques and slowly work themselves into a cohesive composition. The background of this group, however, offers a few more free jazz and blues stylings than is often found in this scene. Starting with quiet scratchings, melodic fragments emerge and submerge. Spence has prepared his piano so it alternately sounds like bells and banjos. While Pettigrew provides the occasional swampy walking bass line to ground them, he also explores extra-musical sounds, inserting a zither behind the strings for extra jingle. Similarly Dobson, applies his keys (almost an improv cliché, but nonetheless interesting) to his strings for a bit of jangle. The others seem in their own reveries, but Masso watches them all hungrily, providing shake-up bass drum thwamps, cymbal clash and other angular provocations. Neill Duncan is always a pleasure to watch as he explores the subtler sounds of his traditional washboard vest, as well as providing some of the smokier blues figures on saxophone.

Around 20 minutes in, during a denouement, a little girl’s voice is heard in the audience: “Is it finished?” Her intuition is spot on: it is time, and there is an ending presenting itself, but the group doesn’t take it. Initially annoyed by this tendency of improv musicians, over the years I’ve come to enjoy the results of the missed moment—the hard soul searching involved in justifying continuance and maintaining the energy. This ensemble does well crafting a satisfying epilogue and finding the ‘real’ ending perfectly together.

Zeit Kunst 6 was set up in the smaller side room which is more projection friendly in the afternoon light. The line-up for the ensemble changed slightly during its Goethe Institut sponsored tour around Australia, but for this performance featured Michel Doneda (sax), Kim Myhr (guitar, objects) Matthias Muche (trombone), Clayton Thomas (double bass), Sven Hahne (computer), Clare Cooper (guzheng). It begins with an extended silence, until Thomas sets his bass rattling with his signature SA number plate inserted in the strings, then Cooper bows her guzheng and the wind players’ breath burbles through their instruments. A sudden stab of sound activates the audio responsive video and an array of lines and angles flash across the back wall and the performers. Maintaining a sense of the collectively unknown outcome, each of the performers is incredibly controlled, almost monk-like. At one point, around three-quarters of the way through, they all stop—the light from the video ceases—and they hold…. hold…. hold… hold…only to wind up again for the final intense movement.

In this ensemble it seems that the strings create the under-layer of drone and scumble while the wind players shape the piece into breath-driven phrases. While it might be thought that a lot of improv downplays melody and harmonics in favour of texture and timbre, here you get the sense each musician is deliberately making uneasy harmonic choices though clearly in relationship to each other. Michel Doneda seems the most playful, swooping his sax through the air to create both energetic sonic and physical gestures. Cooper seems the most interested in the cause-and-effect of the sounds on the stark yet dynamic video—actively playing with the it. The samples offered by Hahne on computer, with their squared off digital edges, sit uneasily in the mix, but somehow this makes the combination all the more interesting. The piece concludes with another sustained silence, painful and beautiful in its intensity.

nHOMEaS comprising Josh Isaac (drums), David Sullivan (bass, fx loop), Jack Dibben (guitar), George Nagal (synthesiser) and Aemon Webb (vox, electro gadgets) offers the noise/rock end of the spectrum but is no less considered. This is a dense exploration driven by the emphatic energy of rock drums. Each player is seeking his own epiphany, with elements occasionally joining forces, like Sullivan and Issac creating cohesive rhythm sections, or Nagal on warped synth and Webb on electronic whinnies and vocal wails flinging us into reverby outerspace. Collectively they forge mountains of sound, then let them decay and the result is dark and cathartic.

Billed as Joey and the Calypsoes (mystery band), a nice little interlude was provided by Splinter Orchestra members who teamed up with audience members and called their mobile phones. By moving the speakers of the answered phones close to each other the feedback zings and chirps created a peaceful, contemplative chorus of digital insects. A lovely lo-fi interactive moment and a nice irony given mobile phones are often the bane of music concerts.

The performance that wrapped up the festival was Team Music!—interactive netball, facilitated by Jon Rose, with the local under 16s netball teams. In a tiny makeshift court the width of the hall, the two eager teams fight it out using Rose’s modified soccer ball (he couldn’t get the workings into a netball) which activates a vast range of sound phrases. Rose’s ongoing explorations into interactive music, including riding bicycles and flying kites, continue to impress in their democratising of electronic music making. However, the bleepy alogorithmic computer burbles triggered by the ball are less engaging than the lightning fast adaptability of the live duos—of Clayton Thomas (double bass) and Mattias Muche (trombone) on the side of the white team, and Eivind Lonning (trumpet) and Mike Majkowski (double bass) on the side of the blue team—who are only allowed to play when their team is in possession of the ball. The teams played a full 45-minute game which certainly offered reasonable time to explore possibilities, accompanied by playful mayhem including signs that encouraged audience responses: Stomp, Boo, Cheer etc. It was a fittingly energetic and playful way to end the NOW now festival which continues to explore spontaneous music with a nourishing balance of deep seriousness and childlike joy.


The NOW Now festival, Wentworth Falls School of Arts, Blue Mountains, Jan 22-24; http://thenownow.net

RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 pg. 39

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

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