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THNMF2013


New music: celebration & angst

Matthew Lorenzon: Totally Huge New Music Festival overview


Transducer, Speak Perecussion, THNMF2013 Transducer, Speak Perecussion, THNMF2013
photo Brad Serls
While the title Totally Huge New Music Festival at first sounds like hyperbole, it is in fact classic Australian understatement. The title doesn’t indicate the festival’s ambitious vision for contemporary music in Australia and the exceptional quality of the local and international acts on offer. If that were not enough, this year the festival incorporated the first ever International Computer Music Conference south of the equator.

The result was a staggering range of performances combined with thoughtful reflections on the conference theme “International Developments in ElectroAcoustics” (IDEA) in the heart of the Perth Cultural Centre. The conference’s keynote speakers Agostino di Scipio, Alvin Curran, David Toop, Warren Burt and Haco provided valuable perspectives on their works performed throughout the festival, nuancing the conference theme into reflections on our troubled relationship with music technology.

Alvin Curran

In Way Out Back, commissioned for the festival by Perth’s Decibel Ensemble, Curran draws a map of postwar American art music. Decibel were expert guides through the intertwining paths of minimalist rhythmic phasing, composed heterophony, aleatorism, popular music, timbral collage and live signal processing. After this stylistic pastiche the ensemble explodes into screaming and instrumental noise only to have their protest played back to them, filtered, over the loudspeakers. The piece ends with a funeral chorale, raising the question of whether Curran is signalling the end of art music, the music of his own generation, or could the chorale be saying, “so you don’t want screaming? Fine, have another chorale.” Either way, the piece reflected the existential angst of Curran’s keynote address that narrated, in the finest beat prose, the glorious and disastrous legacy of his generation.

Festival-goers were treated to a taste of this emancipatory legacy when Curran performed Maritime Rites and BEAMS at B-Shed in Fremantle. Though he had to make do with a keyboard reduction of the marching bands and flotillas of foghorns previously used to perform this piece, the cacophony of Maritime Rites filled Fremantle with a bustling and sometimes overpowering sense of abandon. A greater feeling of collective creation was felt in BEAMS, which engaged 50 student musicians from WAAPA and UWA in a series of mass improvisations.

With such commitment in BEAMS and Maritime Rites, why such irony in Way Out Back? As Curran explained in his keynote, every invention of his generation has been commercialised, thus depleting them of any radical potential they may have had. The spirit of ‘happenings’ like Maritime Rites and BEAMS may now be found in flashmob commercials. The hard work of the avant-garde in radiophonic workshops has led to a surplus of bland, overproduced popular music and an immutable (and un-mutable) Western Art Music canon that drowns out the work of living composers. The festival found Curran in a bind that haunts many composers today: too ironic and you might as well not compose at all; too sincere and you remain blind to the social realities of your art.

Agostino di Scipio

Italian composer and installation artist Di Scipio privileges small-scale progress over revolutionary spectacle and dire prognoses. For Di Scipio there is a genuine question to be asked about how we might compose with the dynamic relationships between computers, performers and their acoustic environments. Texture/Residue, performed by Decibel at the THNMF, explores the paradigm Di Scipio calls “Audible Ecosystemics” where sound from the performer or from the performance space itself alters the way a computer modifies live or synthesised sound. The process becomes recursive as the computer’s output is diffused back into the space or modifies what the performer plays. The process is both an instantiation and a criticism of technological determinism, encouraging a practical knowledge of the agencies of the different components of a hybrid performance.

Warren Burt

Standing in stark contrast to the usual Macbook-Pro-and-sound-card electroacoustic setup, Warren Burt’s rigs of old notebooks and first generation tablets can leave one perplexed. But if the possibilities of these machines appear almost saturated to Curran and self-generating to Di Scipio, then they are sources of inspiration to Burt. In Without Glue, Burt tests the improvisatory skills of pianist Stuart Little and saxophonist Sean Little by sending them harmonic and gestural directions via laptops on their music stands. The resulting smooth jazz is fairly conventional, except for the filters, reverberation and glitches introduced by Burt. Improvising on the instrumentalists’ improvisations, Burt demonstrated a different sort of virtuosity, accentuating the saxophone’s changing register with ‘squelching’ delay effects and ornamenting their mellow tones with bursts of sound like science-fiction laser beams.

Haco

An unusual musical use of the ubiquitous Macbook Pro forms the basis of Haco’s keynote performance Stereobugscope. Haco listens to the complex and changing magnetic field of her laptop with a pair of small guitar pickups. The crackling, humming interference varies from task to task, beginning with an explosion of oscillations of different frequencies when the laptop is turned on. The intended effect is a new appreciation of—possibly even sentimental attachment to—the technology around us. In this way Haco reverses her usual creative process, which is to take everyday objects and make them strange to us again.

David Toop

UK-based sound artist, composer and author David Toop poetically explores the relationships between the micro- and macro-levels of his compositions with help from his mentor John Latham’s concept of Flat Time. Flat Time is immediately attractive to the musician because the “roller-blind” metaphor Latham uses to illustrate the concept resembles a musical score, with the left hand side of the blind representing short events (such as light traversing the field of an electron), the right representing the entire time span of the universe and the roller serving as the unfolding present. Toop’s composition FLAT TIME/ Sounding, performed by himself and Decibel, requires the players to interpret descriptions of events, like (though not precisely) “a flake of rust falling into a flooded room,” “a difficult book shut suddenly” or “involuntary humming.” Decibel realised Toop’s composition with poetry and imagination, deftly sculpting each image with clarinet key taps, bowed cymbals and vibraphone, finger-clicking, plucked piano strings and single nylon-string guitar notes.

Michael Kieran Harvey

Tura New Music’s commitment to ambitious programming gave rise to two new large-scale works that deserve to enter into regular performance throughout Australia and the world. Resonating with Toop’s literary style more than the technological theme of the conference, Elliott Gyger’s hour-long INFERNO for solo piano (after Dante) is composed in, as pianist Michael Kieran Harvey puts it, an “unfashionably uncompromising” language. While such music can also express positive affects (including the sparse beauty of INFERNO’s final movement “Stars”), Gyger shows how the techniques of Messiaen, Carter, Ligeti, Birtwistle and other post-war avant-garde composers are particularly well suited to depicting the nine circles of Hell with their tortured bodies and rivers of water, boiling blood and ice.

Transducer by Robin Fox and Eugene Ughetti explores the line between percussionist and microphonist, between the competing agencies of the performer and the instrument. At the beginning of Transducer Ughetti walks onstage and picks up a speaker tied to a cardioid microphone, a device certain to release a squeal of ear-splitting feedback as the sound received from the microphone is played back to the microphone through the speaker. Swinging the device around his head, Ughetti lengthens the cables until the microphone-speaker describes a circle almost as wide as the stage. Four microphones at the corners of the stage are diffused through eight speakers, placing the audience in the centre of a roaring, spinning, pealing vortex.

The piece progresses through the steady addition, transformation and subtraction of sound sources, giving the performance the air of a geometrical demonstration. The rest of Speak Percussion enter and hold up speaker cones to the circle described by Ughetti, modifying a rhythm of feedback by fanning around the perimeter. The ensemble’s geometrical choreography throughout the performance is dictated by the physics of oscillation in sound, electricity and the swinging of the pendulum.

Instruments and electronics

As well as the standalone THNMF concerts and the ICMC keynotes, nightly concerts provided forums for exploring the articulation of electronics with live instruments. While many of the compositions honed a dominant style of “series of extended techniques + digital signal processing + spatial diffusion,” some unexpected effects were produced using alternative speaker systems and non-processing-based electronics. Dan Van Hassel’s Fzzl for solo snare and electronics begins with Louise Devenish playing a simple rhythm on the drum. As the groove continues, the reverberation of the snare seems to expand. One loud strike of the drum releases an impossibly long peal from the snare, at which point the ruse is up: there is a transducer on the bottom of the drum feeding vibrations into the drum skin. From this point on the piece becomes a fast-paced duet between the percussionist striking the top of the drum and the transducer controlled by Van Hassel.

By couching the ICMC within a broader festival, Tura New Music opened the issue of “international developments in electroacoustics” up to a broader range of musical stimuli. Beyond the computer music staples of patches, algorithms and hardware, the conference engaged with art music, popular music and noise. Conversely, having the conference at the heart of the festival allowed for greater reflection upon the works and the festival as a whole. This depth and diversity was represented in the square outside the West Australian Museum after the instrument and electronics concerts. Amid the clubbers on their way to James Street, conference delegates discussed dinner plans in pink lanyards, musicians slung cases over their shoulders, bearded computer music veterans bought ice cream from vans, sound designers with incredible eyewear sipped wine at the PICA bar and noise fans drank from BYOs beneath a giant screen beaming squawking, humming audiovisual works.

RealTime issue #117 Oct-Nov 2013 pg. 42-43

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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