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freedom within reach

dan bigna: soundout 2012, canberra

Dan Bigna is a Canberra-based music writer with a particular interest in political history and alternative perspectives.

 (l-r) - Michael Norris, Eric Normand, Ryan Kernoa (l-r) - Michael Norris, Eric Normand, Ryan Kernoa
photo James Brown
SOMETIME IN THE 1950S PIANIST CECIL TAYLOR WROTE THE DECEPTIVELY SIMPLE PHRASE, “FORM IS POSSIBILITY,” WHICH ON REFLECTION MEANT THAT ARTISTS WITH ENQUIRING MINDS AND SENSIBILITIES SHOULD USE THEIR ARTISTRY TO DISCOVER NEW MUSICAL FORMS.

To break from convention and the comfortably familiar is never easy but the rewards often justify the effort. The quest to discover new forms was enthusiastically undertaken by the 16 local and international artists who performed at SoundOut 2012, a festival of improvised music that took place on the last weekend of January within the leafy, low-key environs of Theatre 3 nestled behind the School of Art on the Australian National University campus. Organiser Richard Johnson overcame what can only be described as baffling funding difficulties from those who should know better to program a world class line-up of performers from Canada, France and Japan, playing with like-minded home grown artists who mostly operate in the realm of electro-acoustic improvisation.

Featured instruments at the festival included saxophones, guitars, prepared piano, flute and percussion augmented by seemingly haphazard assemblages of electronics that littered a stage, at times looking like the aftermath of a computer technology fair. The electronics were mostly made up of exposed components used to explore tonality and pitch with barely a melody to be heard. The aim was to engender new ways of listening and engaging with music particularly when electronics and acoustic instruments melded and overlapped. On occasion the electronics became part of the physicality of the performance: Canadian guitarist Eric Normand coaxed feedback from an electric bass while hammering on an assortment of small electronic devices with an increasing intensity to match the fierce overtones in the music.

In contrast, a festival-goer wandering into Theatre 3 early on Saturday afternoon would have been greeted by trance-inducing ambient drones coming from Julian Day’s uncomplicated keyboard with which he created a dreamy minimalism that sent the listener on an introspective and altogether pleasant journey that might otherwise have been brought on by the likes of Steve Reich or Brian Eno (see RT106, p39). Then there was the Zen-like discipline with which Japanese artist Toshimaru Nakamura conjured micro-tonal sound shapes from a no-input mixing board that alternatively blended with Sabine Vogel’s (Germany) flute and Jim Denley’s hissing and chattering wind instruments to create a serene solemnity.

Richard Johnson, Andrew Fedorovitch, Rishin Singh, Laura Altman, Sam Pettigrew Richard Johnson, Andrew Fedorovitch, Rishin Singh, Laura Altman, Sam Pettigrew
photo James Brown
Until Saturday evening all performances had taken place in the theatre but, in the democratic tradition that defines improvised music, a last minute collective decision was made that Richard Johnson and Andrew Fedorovitch on saxophone with Rishin Singh on trombone, Sam Pettigrew on bass and Laura Altman on clarinet would play in the theatre courtyard. As dusk came on, the audience, fellow performers and assembled instrumentalists eagerly gathered outside. The ensuing 50-minute performance, which involved gentle breathing in its creation of insect-like harmonies, transformed a pleasant natural environment into a harmonious space of free creativity where at one point trombonist Singh spontaneously rustled some leaves in response to the tactile call and response entreaties from Richard Johnson’s impressive looking and sounding baritone saxophone. In this way the music melded with the environment and the organic surround sound was a joy to behold.

This was a shining example of spontaneous field performance, but let’s contrast it with the superb Saturday afternoon theatre set from electric guitarist Ryan Kernoa (France) in combination with bassist Eric Normand (Canada) and Canberra musician Michael Norris on electronics. Normand does a lot more than merely strum his instrument in time, which one has often come to expect from a bass player. If I can be so bold as to make the comparison, Normand does for improvised music what Joy Division bassist Peter Hook did for post-punk—redefining the role of the bass so that it becomes a lead instrument allowing for harmonic interplay beyond simply laying foundations. Normand attached all sorts of devices to his instrument. He banged and stroked it in equal measure to set a scene that involved controlled feedback, theatre in the form of physical contortions in response to the sound, and a highly disciplined approach to noise-making. This was enhanced to the nth degree by the mouth-watering atonality of guitarist Ryan Kernoa who altogether dispensed with melody to explore bristling electrified string configurations which at times reminded me of Thurston Moore at his finest. When Michael Norris’ flailing tonal pitches on electronics were added to the mix the ensuing sound from the three performers was a welcome reminder that improvised music hasn’t forgotten noise.

Of the 18 performances in the festival the latter two stood out for me amidst so much activity involving all sorts of instrumental blends.

SoundOut 2012 was a special event. The mechanics of each performance, including the nightly collective improvisations, produced a beautiful harmony of artistic intent and sense-stimulating sound-making. This highlighted a dedication to the open and democratic craft of improvised music from the performers who invited audience members to experience the joys of supple creativity. Improvised music is about fulfilling the potential of uninhibited self-expression within a setting that encourages genuine engagement and there was plenty of this on offer at SoundOut 2012. It seemed that true freedom was within reach.


SoundOut 2012, artistic director Richard Johnson, Theatre 3, Australian National University, Canberra, Jan 27-28; http://soundout2012.blogspot.com.au/

Dan Bigna is a Canberra-based music writer with a particular interest in political history and alternative perspectives.

RealTime issue #108 April-May 2012 pg. 31

© Dan Bigna; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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