Instead, although some of the concepts and approaches appear to hold a great deal of possibility, it was difficult to find anything in either the staging of this event, or in much of its sonic content, that advanced notions of the aesthetic deployment of sound beyond the realm of music, or explored “sonic perception as the subject matter of the work” as outlined in the program notes.
Beginning life as an installation, Bruce Mowson’s Melting Moments seems to have suffered in its transplantation from gallery space to concert hall. Where Mowson’s work usually explores his themes of absorption, immersion and repetition with confidence, the sliding sine tones accompanied by a video projection of concentric rectangles and circles slowly shifting through a palette of ice cream colours failed to engage in such a large space. Several technical issues, such as pixilation of the image and the audibility of the air conditioning during the quieter sections, also served to inhibit the drift into the specific sensory registers of the piece that Mowson’s work is capable of inducing in a more favourable setting.
Following an apology for the absence of the previously advertised performance of Cat Hope (delivered as a species of chant, and about which the less said the better), the duo of Catherine Schieve and Warren Burt performed on the Electric Eye Tone Tool—one of Percy Grainger’s famous Free Music machines—which uses a bank of photocells to transduce light into electrical voltage. However, where Grainger’s machine used scores prepared on rolls of plastic, which were then pulled across the photocells mechanically (much in the manner of a player piano), Schieve and Burt pursued a more performative, and at times literally ‘hands on’ approach, with the resulting sound now produced by digital oscillators and samples instead of the analogue electronics of the original. Their three short works saw Schieve and Burt elicit a stream of electronic yibbles and blurts with their hands, delicately manipulating the timbre of a choral structure with strips of shaped cardboard, and together wielding a four-metre long graphic score painted on clear plastic sheeting to induce an alternately serene and garrulous babble, all of which explored the potential of Grainger’s design.
With its spidery metallic framework housing four mechanically operated violins, James Hullick’s Gotholin machines also seemed to contain plenty of both musical and performative potential. Yet despite Hullick’s claims for his machine as being a form of automata or robot, on this occasion it seemed to serve simply as a computer-controlled prosthesis rather than displaying any kind of autonomy. Apart from brief moments of four-mechanical armed action, the performance consisted largely of a limited range of bow scrapings drawn from just one or two violins, with the mechanical arms appearing to mimic the gestures of the performer at his laptop. The intrusion of Hullick’s own violin bow into the scheme of things part way through the performance served only to destroy any remaining expectations that the machine might be given a chance to ‘do its own thing’ (whatever that might be). Perhaps technical issues intervened to make this a rather lacklustre performance, but the meagre sonic offerings of scratches, tinks and occasional tones, however they were produced, were unremarkable.
Closing the night was Speak Percussion member Jeremy Barnett’s performance of American experimental composer James Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion (1971). Barnett’s performance of this deceptively simple piece—an extended crescendo and decrescendo played on a gong—was exemplary. However, the staging of the work in darkness, except for a red spotlight on the gong that ‘mickey moused’ the rise and fall in volume by fading from dim to bright and back again, seemed to circumvent Tenney’s intention for the work, trading perception for didacticism. Given how simple and deliberately obvious the form of the work is, this visual analogue to the change in volume was not just superfluous but detrimental. Perhaps worse still was that Barnett was left to labour away in darkness, which not only obscured his involvement but also left a number of people I spoke with confused as to how such a straightforward work was actually produced, undoubtedly placing a further impediment to the perception of the sounds at hand.
Unfortunately, as a whole the night seemed to suffer from a kind of curatorial or promotional overstatement, ultimately working against its theme of perception. Only the first and last items could be said to have had an attentiveness to sensory perception as a specific concern, in so far as they could—or in fact needed to—live up to those claims. Perhaps it was only that these attempts at framing the evening came across as so much ‘preaching to the choir’ (on several occasions a vocally critical one at that), but even this could not turn these disparate components—all interesting in themselves—into a cohesive program.
JOLT, Sono Perception: a sonic arts concert, Bruce Mowson, Catherine Schieve, Warren Burt, James Hullick, Speak Percussion, presented by JOLT & CarriageWorks, CarriageWorks, Sydney, June 20
Peter Blamey is a Sydney-based artst who both makes and writes about experimental music.
RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 pg. 41
© Peter Blamey; for permission to reproduce apply to email@example.com