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melbourne international arts festival


joyous music, modest means

chris reid experiences percussion magic


Fritz Hauser, Schallmachine 06 Fritz Hauser, Schallmachine 06
photo Phil Chung
LEGENDARY SOLO PERCUSSIONIST FRITZ HAUSER’S MODEST INSTRUMENTATION COMPRISED SOME SMALL CYMBALS, A SNARE DRUM, two SMALL GONGS, AN ORCHESTRAL BASS DRUM AND A FEW HAND-HELD THINGS TO SHAKE AND RATTLE. THIS SET UP IS SIMILAR TO THE ROCK OR JAZZ DRUMMER’S KIT, THOUGH FOR HAUSER IT IS AN EXTENDED ARRAY—HE HAS BEEN KNOWN TO PERFORM ON A SINGLE DRUM.

Hauser was a central figure in the music program for this year’s Melbourne International Arts Festival, and he gave an additional concert in response to popular demand.

The performance begins with the nearly inaudible but sensuous touching of a seed pod. As he shakes the pod with one hand, he begins to touch a cymbal with the other, developing a quietly droning harmonic second voice. He then exchanges the pod for a tiny tambourine that speaks over the cymbal, developing a more complex voicing. He taps his fingers on the snare and a cymbal, moves to another cymbal and bass drum and then progresses to drumsticks. A rhythm emerges, sustained like a ritualistic chant, building to a crescendo before a clash of cymbals and a sudden pause. Gongs, cymbals and drums then alternate in a series of dramatic gestures.

Hauser clatters a set of wood blocks, moves again to finger the cymbals and then builds a drone in the bass drum; its resonant groaning speech is mournfully articulate. Declamatory rhythmic thuds overlay this voice, as he explores the perimeter of the drum skin, building a conversation. Abruptly, he strikes with small towels, creating a duller thud and introducing a light-hearted feel. He even blends in the whooshing of drumsticks through thin air, before extending the comedy by rubbing his own body with bunches of rubber tubes that make bird-like chirping sounds. He concludes the hour-long work at the snare, building harmonics in a crescendo before fading out.

Fritz Hauser is a veteran in the field of percussion music. His hands are as finely tuned as a surgeon’s, the precision and control in his playing producing a purity of sound. His movements and gestures recall some of the great jazz drummers, suggesting his tutelage, but he has pared back percussion to its essentials. Hauser’s work is really about making sound from simple objects, and emphasising the uniqueness of these through contrasting textures and resonances. He develops an extraordinary variety of sounds, immersing us in kaleidoscopic tones, colours and patterns. It seems so easy, yet it’s enthralling.

In response to overwhelming applause, Hauser offers a short encore, meditatively bowing a cymbal and then clattering it on the snare’s skin, a delightful vignette that neatly epitomises his oeuvre.

schallmachine

Hauser was also part of the team, with Boa Baumann and Aphids’ David Young and Rosemary Joy, which produced the intriguing Schallmachine performances in the normally hidden interstices of the Federation Square buildings. Audience members arrive at 40-minute intervals and are divided into groups of three. My group is guided by torchlight through a darkened, narrow, winding corridor with corrugated concrete walls to a dimly-lit section with three raked seats in single file. In front of us, a man sits at a small table with a wooden box like a large shoebox, perhaps 60 centimetres long. He begins to touch and tap the box with his fingertips. He lifts the box a little, causing it to emit chiming and rattling sounds. In this silent space, it is all we can hear (apart from the occasional distant rumble of a train below the square).

The performer (John Arcaro of Speak Percussion) now opens a creaking lid—the top of the box divides into three lids hinged at the side—to reveal small, beautifully crafted brass chimes that he strikes with sticks, and small ceramic tiles that he touches or taps. He opens drawers at the side of the box, inside which are more brass plates, ceramics and tiny ball bearings that slide around. He uses a variety of sticks and his fingers on these objects to generate sounds, and slowly pours the ball bearings onto a resonant surface. The box seems to have an endless variety of magical cavities and each object inside produces its own enchanting sound—a cabinet of curiosities. For 20 minutes Arcaro plays the box and its contents, teasing our ears with an unfolding symphony of taps, scrapes, chimes and rhythms. Both the ritual and the sound of manipulating the lids and drawers are essential elements. The work possesses a Cageian charm in its lightness and simplicity, enlivening our perception and renewing our appreciation of the complex and heavily saturated world of sound in which we live.

The word ‘schallmachine’, a composite of the German schall (‘sonic’ OR ‘sound’) and English machine, suggests a machine for making sounds. Beautifully constructed by Rosemary Joy, these are unique instruments, sound-making kits with which anyone could create improvised or scored works. They recall Marcel Duchamp’s Boîtes en Valise (Boxes in a Suitcase) that contained samples of his artworks. Aphids have been using Joy’s instruments since 2004 in more extended performances, such as David Young’s Scale (see p49).

sonic essences

The Hauser and Aphids performances address the essence of sounds. At one end of the sonic spectrum, an infinite variety of sounds can be orchestrated into a coherent passage of music; at the other, a single sound can live on its own. The musician plays with time, memory, weight and texture and synaesthetic response. Terms such as ‘drummer’ and ‘percussionist’ locate this music within particular musical traditions but don’t fully acknowledge the dramatic, compositional and improvisational elements of these performances. Rosemary Joy’s instruments make magical sounds but test the idea of the musical instrument, and a concert for an audience of three in an air duct shifts the paradigm further. It is delightful to encounter these ideas in this way.


Fritz Hauser, Solodrumming, BMW Edge, Federation Square, Oct 20; Aphids, Schallmachine, Federation Square, Oct 22-23 & 25-28

RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 32

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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