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Minimalists in The Apothecary

Stephen Whittington

Composer, pianist and writer Stephen Whittington teaches composition and music technology at the Elder School of Music, University of Adelaide. At one time or another he has taught or supervised most of the people involved in Project 2.

The 19th century interior of The Apothecary 1878 wine bar–dark red walls, chandeliers, mirrors, innumerable drawers with arcane inscriptions–contrasted sharply with the resolutely minimalist work presented in Project 2. Composer and concert promoter Michael Yuen assembled performances and installations by Adelaide artists whose work is little known outside the city. To these he added works by Lawrence English and venerable members of the avant garde, Gyorgy Ligeti and Steve Reich.

Entering the cellar of The Apothecary required an adjustment from the bright lights and noise of Hindley Street to near darkness and low level sound. Michael Yuen’s sound and light projects a cone of light that also functions as a movement detector. Once inside the cone, the viewer can influence the sounds that emerge from piezo speakers on a glass table top. This is a continuation of work with specially mounted piezo speakers that Yuen has been doing for several years. As is often the case with works of this kind, one must question the purpose or significance of the interactive elements. It is not an act of communication, unless with an alien, machine intelligence, but it is unlikely that even the most ardent proponents of artificial intelligence would push the boundaries of metaphor so far at the present level of technological development. The most successful interactive installations involve an element of play, with a concomitant possibility of gain (however broadly defined) once the rules are understood.

It is precisely the playing of a game that lies at the heart of CONflict, a collaboration between composer Luke Harrald and artist Hugh McLean. Eight software agents adopt various strategies of cooperation, defection and betrayal within the context of the Prisoners’ Dilemma, one of the text book cases of game theory. Realised in real time using a program created in Max by Harrald, the agents control sound and visual output. The visuals (created by McLean) have a blurred, lo-fi quality that makes them akin to peripheral or hypnagogic vision (Stan Brakhage said the best movie show in town can be seen when you shut your eyes). The images were projected onto ornate mirrors covered with material, precisely filling them and illuminating the intricate frames. The slowly evolving, richly coloured, abstract visuals were accompanied by monochrome sound developing through unpredictable harmonic fields. Although both were controlled by the same process there was no mickey-mousing of sound and image. The Prisoners’ Dilemma can be used to explore social dynamics in highly volatile situations, but the result here was meditative, a glass bead game rather than Aussie Rules. CONflict was presented as a performance (the agents being the performers), but it hovers on the boundary between performance and installation.

In the darkest corner of The Apothecary’s cellar was projections, an installation by Tom Szucs. Lights glow between bottles of vintage wine, a plastic tube hovers in mid-air while sounds emerge from an unseen source. The result is enigmatic but engaging. Upstairs in a room with tea chests was Ghost Towns, an audio-visual environment by Lawrence English. Iconic images of the outback–flat, parched landscapes, abandoned farm buildings, windmills–are accompanied by sounds that originate within the pictured environment. The common enough outback sight of a ruined piano, explored extensively by Western Australian composer Ross Bolleter, appears in the video and provides some of the most interesting sonic material. Once providing a tenuous link between the pioneers and European culture, ruined pianos have become symbols of rural decay, not quite mute witnesses to the transience of culture and its technology.

Gyorgy Ligeti’s Poeme Symphonique was created for 100 clockwork metronomes, mechanical rhythmic devices that have tortured generations of music students. The choice of this useful but reviled mechanism is evidence of Ligeti’s musical wit. Closely related to Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music and other classics of early minimalism, the elegance of the concept lies in its easily grasped illustration of a fundamental technique of musical minimalism: phase relationships. The very unpredictability of the metronome (some of which are completely crazy, according to Erik Satie) leads to chaotic polyrhythms of great complexity. For this performance 10 actual metronomes were used, the rest being realised through software modelling.

Ligeti led naturally into Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint, played by clarinettist Stephanie Wake-Dyster. The multi-track accompaniment was realised by Wake-Dyster and Tom Szucs, and for once actually sounded like an ensemble of clarinets, from baritone upwards. The live clarinet part was played with complete assurance and the performance had an infectious jazziness.


Project 2, The Apothecary 1878, Adelaide, Feb 28-March 3

Composer, pianist and writer Stephen Whittington teaches composition and music technology at the Elder School of Music, University of Adelaide. At one time or another he has taught or supervised most of the people involved in Project 2.

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 50

© Stephen Whittington; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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