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Radical thought as sound

Roslyn Helper, The NOW now festival 2015

Roslyn Helper is an artist, curator and writer interested in the effects of emerging technologies on culture and politics. She is Co-founder and Co-director of art partnership zin and the current Artistic Director of Electrofringe.

Marcus Whale, Ivan Lisyak, NOW now festival, 2015 Marcus Whale, Ivan Lisyak, NOW now festival, 2015
photo Ben Westover Photography
This year’s NOW now festival presented radical thought as sound, moreso than radical sound as thought, many artists taking the opportunity to question processes of meaning-making, communication, interpretation and slippage. I focus here on performances with intriguing conceptual underpinning, alongside those that delivered pure, sonic brilliance.

Sprawled across five days at Marrickville’s Red Rattler and SNO gallery spaces, this festival of experimental, exploratory music and sound offered a line-up programmed by Jon Hunter, Emily Morandini, Clayton Thomas, Aemon Webb and Ivan Cheng. I was there for the Thursday, Friday and Saturday night performances.

In their debut performance as a trio, Gail Priest and Joel Stern presented a live laptop-based improvisation with dancer Lizzie Thomson moving through a series of repetitive movements in different combinations, partly in response to the music but also as a discrete non-representational element. From sparse beginnings, myriad electronic and archival sounds intertwined to create a deep cavernous mesh. Presented in three distinct sonic movements, the piece was punctuated with a series of vocal interruptions by Stern periodically taking the microphone to explain, in an overtly discursive way, exactly what was happening in the music. For example, his audio samples were of a Black Throat Finch mating call taken from a cassette tape he found in Java. “Tapes like this are used by humans to draw in and capture the birds to sell at market, so your pleasure in listening to it is misguided,” he explained. It was unusual to be told what’s going on in the middle of a performance, as improvisation is traditionally against explanation in favour of interpretation. The performers’ strategy was to flip the focus from the “production of sounds” onto “the politics of listening,” to confront the audience with what is at stake politically, ethically and philosophically.

Sabine Vogel employed a complex language of extended techniques with amplified flutes, bending thin air into a sometimes percussive, sometimes sub-tonal arrangement of sounds, casting a spell over the audience.

Astrid Lorange and Andrew Brooks provided a stack of A2 paper placed on a stool in the centre of the room, printed with a poetic script titled RATSTEAK. The audience could follow while a recording of the artists reading the poem played loudly overhead. The poem was constantly disrupted, the voices edited to fall in and out of unison, and cut up to create a stuttering effect. The stuttering shifted language from being a tool for coherence and flow into disorder and otherness. Now and then, My Body Is Your Party by the early 2000s USA ‘princess of Crunk&B’ Ciara interrupted the poem, her lyrics alluding to ideas about the body as something at once present and unavailable. The idea was also evident in the physical absence of the poets, separating language and voice from their source of power. Lorange and Brooks put into motion a set of indefinite bodies doing indefinite things, subverting the listenability and meaning of sound within the overtly listening-oriented NOW now context.

Shane Fajey (synth), Pete Jones (guitar) and Aemon Webb (drums) of the Axis Trio created the sort of improvised music experience that didn’t feel right until you closed your eyes. Then it revealed a new, transportive logic and became epic, expansive, soaring, chaotic, vital: like things endlessly falling over and continuously rolling into something else.

Using glass pieces and laser beams, Klaus Filip presented a spectrum of single electronic notes, their pitch represented by green laser dots, like an X-ray on a black screen. He gradually refracted the laser light into tessellating triangle patterns, also fracturing the monophonic beeps into blips and captivating glassy textures.

Marcus Whale and Ivan Lisyak each pre-prepared 20 one-minute audio pieces, put them into iTunes playlists, pressed “Shuffle” and sat staring across a table at each other. What ensued was a barrage of competing sound, texturally rich, sometimes harmonic, sometimes dissonant, with combinations of audio ripped from YouTube and original compositions. It changed like clockwork, each minute entering a new dimension at the will of iTunes shuffle. The artists had appeared to be engaged in an epic staring competition. On reflection, their static presence amid an evolving, erratic soundscape appeared like a tongue-in-cheek comment on the perfunctory role of the electronic music performer at a time when pushing ‘Play’ can generate an entire, unpredictable performance. This was a practical exercise, experimentation in form, and a work that spoke volumes in action (or inaction) as much as sound.

Agatha Gothe-Snape’s lo-fi performance consisted of a succession of seemingly random words displayed in a PowerPoint presentation on a large projector screen, with generic accompanying PowerPoint sound effects. On stage in front of the screen, Gothe-Snape, Ivan Cheng, Brian Fuata and Anna John acted as a collective framing device for the presentation, taking up various positions to create vignettes, moving or changing poses occasionally in accordance with cues from the slides. Towards the end, Daddy Cool’s “Come Back Again” blared out as the performers exited. This work functioned as a sort of humorous intervention amid more serious exploratory pursuits. PowerPoint was Gothe-Snape’s ‘instrument,’ a type of score for bodies to be present on stage. A corporate driver of productivity in the workplace has been recontextualised here as a poetic tool, the artist treating the task of performance like labour, partly automated, partly embodied. This purposefully self-conscious performance was a memorable placeholder in the program: a good-humoured poke at the loftiness of the NOW now audience, but also a complex semantic intervention in its own right.

Amanda Stewart performed a work titled Postiche, showing off her impressive, manic, glitchy voice poetry, with words and sentence fragments occasionally emerging from rapid-fire babble and descending again into incoherence: “…empires crumble… everything’s relevant in the doctrine of commodities… integrated verticals of capitalised fate…” These sounded like a collage of generic sentences from academic journals, history books and corporate instruction manuals, a pastiche of technical languages mashed together to muddle and undermine political and ideological systems. Stewart was accompanied by Rosalind Hall who improvised sympathetically with saxophone neck, mouthpiece and foot pedals.

The artists expressing thought as sound in the 2015 NOW now festival challenged modes of meaning creation with new performance formats. Approaches varied, from didactic, explanatory techniques that brought new consciousness to processes with which we are familiar, to the breaking and fragmenting of these processes using glitch and stutter. This variety and the intellectual rigour are testament to the thriving, creative community the NOW now has helped foster.


The NOW now festival, Red Rattler, Sydney, 14-16 Jan

Roslyn Helper is an artist, curator and writer interested in the effects of emerging technologies on culture and politics. She is Co-founder and Co-director of art partnership zin and the current Artistic Director of Electrofringe.

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 39

© Roslyn Helper; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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