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delicacies, brutalities & inbetween

tony osborne: the now now festival 2011


 Joel Stern and Sky Needle Joel Stern and Sky Needle
film stills Joe Glaysher
THE NOW NOW FESTIVAL OF SPONTANEOUS MUSIC IS ALWAYS AN ADVENTURE AND OFTEN MOVES IN UNCHARTED MUSICAL TERRITORY OR, IN THE WORDS OF GUEST MC, SEAN BAXTER, IS “10 YEARS LONG [AND] ALWAYS BRUTAL.” THIS YEAR THE FESTIVAL RETURNED TO THE INNER WEST OF SYDNEY AFTER THREE YEARS IN THE BLUE MOUNTAINS, THE FORMAT CHANGING FROM ONE INTENSE WEEKEND TO SEVEN EVENING CONCERTS OVER EIGHT DAYS (FIVE AT THE RED RATTLER CLUB AND TWO OFF-SITE). THE ENDURANCE REQUIRED FOR THESE PLUS THE MARRICKVILLE AMBIENCE BROUGHT A DIFFERENT EDGE TO THE EVENT AND MARKED THE COMPLETION OF A TWO-TO-THREE YEAR TRANSITION INTO THE SAFE HANDS OF A NEW ORGANISING TEAM.

The festival got off to an excellent start with two very different but fine quartets. First up was Embedded, a new combo with Rishin Singh (trombone), Monica Brooks (accordion), Sam Pettigrew (bass) and Jim Denley (sax/flutes/various extensions) creating an intense concentration of acoustic sound from among the audience. From here the instruments combined to build a remarkable sound mass—frequency ranges coalescing into a group characteristic that provided solid backdrops for the various rebounding staccato effects produced by each player. A vibrating, dense jungle inhabited by Denley’s rubber extensions and Pettigrew’s (strangely loud) application of polystyrene to a resonant bass body combined with high squeaks from Brooks’ accordion and breathy attacks from the trombone to create a mesmeric world of sound.

Simon Ferrenci, Reuben Derrick Simon Ferrenci, Reuben Derrick
film stills Joe Glaysher
Reuben Derrick (NZ), Simon Ferenci, Milica Stefanovic and Evan Dorrian settled into sympathetic communication very quickly with Dorrian and Stefanovich setting a funereal tone with single bass/bass drum strikes before Dorrian’s stickless, free-hand agitations pushed the piece along into more layered textures. At one point the cut-rhythm bass tugged at a funk feel only to be subverted by aquatic textures emerging from the clarinet as Derrick processed it through an amplified bin full of water. The trumpet’s distant calls evolved into a syncopated tussle between the wind instruments only to be replaced by the mournful beauty of a lone clarinet across the rhythm section, all ultimately replaced by Ferenci’s trademark metal-on-metal scraping.

This first night finished with Brisbane’s Sky Needle (Joel Stern, Alex Cuffe, Ross Manning and Sarah Byrne) pressing noise into the service of the song cycle. They misappropriated the form with splendid anarchy and without regard for tradition. All objects played by this group are their own inventions. One instrument was a cross between a bass guitar and a mobile angle grinder and another resembled an African thumb piano/dulcimer combination. Stern’s feet pumped for dear life to produce percussive wind sounds at the end of a couple of tubes and Byrne sounded like an out-of-control Siouxie Sioux. This is surely the future of pop!

On Saturday Peter Blamey was first up, suspending and dropping hair’s breadth copper wire from above onto six or so open circuit boards like some interpretive suicide leap. The circuits screamed and pulsed cataclysmically whilst Blamey sat in Frankensteinian calm extracting music from the incidental noise and discordant pulses occurring deep within the sonic material.

The next night’s highlight was the duet by Tony Buck (percussion) and Magda Mayas (prepared piano). Harmonics seeped from all that they struck, scraped and wrung out producing a luscious ebb and flow of complex layers. Lost in the evocations of this piece, I imagined at one point that I was hearing the everyday sounds of a small town, notated and reproduced in musical form. Eyes closed, I lost track of instrument identity sometimes and had to look back at the stage to understand exactly what was creating these sounds so full of cadence, resonance and melody.

This perception of blurring sonic boundaries between instruments was also a feature of Martin Kirkwood (electronics) and Peter Farrar’s (extended saxophone) set, a couple of nights later. There were sonic ‘illusions’ in this arresting piece wherein goat-calls appeared amid pure machinistic pulses, collapsing the tenor and the electronics into a curious unity. Farrar’s blown sounds, created by various plastic attachments and insertions, brought the integrity of the saxophone into joyful disrepute by creasing bits of drink bottles and other flotsam into vibrating buzzes and moans. Conversely Kirkwood’s pedals and boxes, some looking like a home electronics project, often achieved notes of pure acoustic clarity.

At the louder end of the music discourse was Melbourne drummer Sean Baxter demonstrating what he meant by sonic brutality with his renowned floor tom and feedback work (night five at Serial Space) which utilised various metal scraps bent and tortured by Baxter to both provoke and subdue varying levels of PA feedback. The following night he joined Hermione Johnson (piano), NZ’s Jeff Henderson (sax) and Mike Majkowski (double bass) on the Red Rattler stage with his full kit in a breakneck romp that turned up the temperature further in Marrickville’s summer steam. Following this on Friday we were treated to Scandinavian trio The Thing who are Mats Gustafasson (tenor & baritone sax), Ingebright H Flaten (double bass) and Nilssen-Love (drums). They took off from zero to hit full-speed a split-second later. In both these bands the listening was deceptively intense between the players. Walls of sound came at you with playing that was flat out but which dispersed incongruously until only remnants of the original energy remained. Accelerating unison playing and seamless tempo shifts attest to the level of attention these players exercise.

But for me it was the collaboration on night five, AV, between Norwegian Kym Myhr (guitar, autoharp and various electric devices and extensions), Sam Pettigrew (bass & extensions) and Nick Shimmin (film curation) that produced the most finely tuned and sensitive playing of the festival. Swedish filmmaker Gunvor Nelson’s “personal” work, True To Life contained macro probings of a variety of plant-life and exchanged background/foreground positions with the musicians. The music seemed to move between creating a dramatic and foreboding soundtrack while at other times itself becoming the subject of strange narrative contexts evoked by the abstracted images. Listening by players and audience alike was perceptible and Myhr and Pettigrew’s acute sensitivity within their sound world was intriguing. It created a piece that explored an extraordinary dynamic range and compositional awareness as autoharp arpeggios, a ringing bowl and the strategic placing of small electric motors against a variety of resonant and pitched objects played within and across the assertions of Pettigrew’s fingering and long bowing bass sequences.

Earlier in the night there were some fine AV co-ordinations from Aemon Webb and Jon Watts which were as different from John Blades’ multimedia narratives on Saturday as those narratives were from the spoken mythic inventions of Gerard Crewdson (NZ) on Monday at the Camperdown concert. From the sinewy progressions of the trio Roil on Saturday to the exquisite minimalism of Thursday’s sampling trio Jason Kahn (Canada), Adam Sussman and Matt Earle, the Now Now 2011 was an exciting week of music and the range of noise presented was wide as always and of course, the Splinter Orchestra played a set too!


the NOW now 2011, curators Laura Altman, Mike Majkowski, Sam Pettigrew, various locations, Sydney, Jan 21-28; www.theNOWnow.com

RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 38

© Tony Osborne; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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