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elision: musical gaming

greg hooper tunes in at qmf


THIS YEAR, FOR THE QUEENSLAND MUSIC FESTIVAL, ELISION BROUGHT TOGETHER SAXOPHONIST/COMPOSERS TIMOTHY O’DWYER AND JOHN BUTCHER TO DIRECT WHAT REMAINS, A FOUR MOVEMENT WORK (TWO EACH) FOR THE ELISION ENSEMBLE LASTING ABOUT AN HOUR. THREE MOVEMENTS ARE IMPROVISED AND ONE (BY O’DWYER) TRADITIONALLY SCORED. THE IMPROVISATIONS WORK AS GAMES, WITH THE PERFORMERS GIVEN SETS OF INSTRUCTIONS THAT INFLUENCE THINGS LIKE LISTENING AND RESPONSE STRATEGIES.

The usual seating is pulled back so that audience and performers are arranged around the perimeter of the very cubic performance hall of the Judith Wright Centre. The performers (Graeme Jennings, Peter Veale, Tristram Williams and Erkki Veltheim with Butcher and O’Dwyer) are split into two groups, O’Dwyer in one, Butcher in the other, and face each other from opposite ends of the floor. The audience takes up the other two sides.

The music starts with punchy noise bites from the brass and reeds snapping from one group to the other. Contest and bravado alternate, synched up to and fro to make a symbolic conflict-like rap without the stereotypes. Percussion hurtles in as a nutty professor continuo—it’s funny, fast, brilliant, all sorts of things are being hit, bowed or rattled. Butcher comes in with a solo that sounds like strangling poultry. Not to be outdone, the violin from O’Dwyer’s side likewise garrottes some poor beast before a hideous ring modulated feedback guitar makes everyone else sound lyrical. There’s plenty of spatial, timbral, and rhythmic interplay, with an underlying feel that the musicians will break into killing each other any second now. Tension relaxes, and Butcher and O’Dwyer start using the sax stops as percussion—sounds great, rich, lively, like kids in the bath. The first movement ends to the enormous roar of saliva circulating through the cavern of Butcher’s saxophone.

The second movement begins with Butcher’s side playing long fast lines like a bunch of religious ecstatics in a casually loony frenzy. Jump to the other side of the space for frantic table percussion, bass clarinet and a bit of all-join-in, sound switching from side to side of the hall. O’Dwyer pulls some out some beautiful sounds before a great bop solo from Butcher, hip and eccentric, Tuvan throat singer does Coltrane with hiccups. Butcher’s face and neck inflate and explode in a bizarre peristalsis. Time for a brief pause before the third movement.

O’Dwyer moves to a podium up front to conduct what is the most scored of the movements. Much quieter, more of an ensemble feel, you can hear the organisation. Supermarket plastic bags get scrunched and amplified, become percussion. Soft sounds, plosive pats on the keys, bowed cymbals, feedback sax, fade out.

Back to improvisation and the final movement starts with O’Dwyer and Butcher using a ping-pong, no-playing style, where everything comes out except the sound of the sax. Butcher starts up the other soloists for some detailed call and response. It’s like a pushy conversation, or hearing tests where the performers have to guess what and when the other is going to play and try and play along. Someone starts playing stuff so that it sounds backwards. Butcher makes sounds like a crow rattling. The hour is up and it’s over.

So good I went the second night for a repeat performance. I wasn’t the only one. O’Dwyer’s solo was the most sustained and confronting aggression I’ve heard. If music could be heat we would have burned.


ELISION, What Remains, composer-performers Timothy O’Dwyer, John Butcher, ELISION ensemble; Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, July 20-21

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 47

© Greg Hooper; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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