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IN THE NOVEMBER EDITION OF ART MONTHLY, ZITA JOYCE SUGGESTS IT MAY BE DIFFICULT TO ACCESS THE NEW ZEALAND SOUND COMMUNITY, BUT THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF ARTISTS AND SUPPORTERS. TOGETHER WITH THE DUNEDIN PUBLIC ART GALLERY, THE AUDIO FOUNDATION’S ALT.MUSIC ORGANISATION RECENTLY AUSPICED VISITS BY JAPANESE PERCUSSIONIST HANO SHOJI AND UK FIELD RECORDING LEGEND CHRIS WATSON, IN ASSOCIATION WITH NZ ARTISTS PSN ELECTRONIC AND OTHERS IN AUDIOFEST.

Hano’s solo technique exhibited a fascinating combination of formalism with chaotic free improvisation. Confining himself to the traditional kit, and despite the density of percussive combinations and variety of tones made by hitting the skins at different sites, he always employed the full strike of the drum stick. Hano’s method recalled in this sense mid 20th century ballet or pre-Fusion African-American jazz, where the instrument is used correctly even as one strives to extend its range. Hano’s work therefore possessed relatively little colour or chromaticism, depending largely on temporal variation to construct a series of flows and counterpoints.

Hano also performed with local Dunedin artists, duelling with Rory Macmurdo’s hard-rock drumming. Alex Mackinnon provided destroyed guitar noise, using a near unplayable instrument and a flapping, behemoth amplifier to generate a rich set of dirty textures. Hano was a commanding orchestrator, following a somewhat classical model of free jazz in which each artist has at least one solo, the players working largely in unison or parallel, rather than antagonistically.

Lee Noyes’ contribution dramatised the limitations of Hano’s approach. Noyes has more in common with Australian percussionists Sean Baxter and Will Guthrie, being as content playing the sides of the drums and found instruments as the kit. He ran a metal string over a movable violin bridge placed on one drum, producing a wonderful array of unexpected, changing, resonating notes. His approach suffered from insufficient amplification, but he helped release the gig from Hano’s implicit suggestion that drums must be played as they were designed to be.

The second Dunedin gig featured soundscapes from Sean Kerr and Simon Cuming (Auckland). The electronic palette was appealing without being distinctive, the duo’s work lacking the compositional logic of say Bernard Parmegiani or Janet Cardiff, producing a set of materials which, while interesting, did not cohere. Things livened up when Michael Morley (Dunedin) stepped up, looking like a renegade from Warhol’s Factory (complete with black shades), voicing a harsh wall of guitar feedback. Morley’s indifference to his audience however echoed his music, and while there were great textures, the temporal structure was so opaque as to make the improvisation essentially static.

By contrast, locals PSN Electronic offered a more composed approach to live electronic performance. Susan Ballard, Nathan Thompson and Peter Stapleton used a range of CD players as well as other radiophonic gear to provide a soundscape largely derived from the sound of CDs skipping (1000 faulty copies of their own release). While the palette was familiar to anyone who’s followed glitch, Oval and the Mille Plateau label, the trio maintained interest by allowing their presentation to waver in and out, while nevertheless holding things together with the slippery clicks and cuts characteristic of this style, and a tendency to anchor materials in actual or quasi-subliminal beats. PSN Electronic’s few releases meld buzz and drone well with these models; hopefully they’ll have more to offer.

Chris Watson was the star of the three-night program. He founded Cabaret Voltaire before moving to natural soundscapes in the 1980s and worked on David Attenborough’s blockbuster nature shows. Watson is reluctant to publicly denounce his earlier interest in so-called ‘industrial’, machinic and mediated sounds. His current oeuvre however represents the complete inversion of his previous aesthetic.

Watson is a realist, and while he stresses that recording and re-listening enables him to become aware of creatures and events he is unable to visually perceive—notably the wealth of insect activity that occurs even within an extremely small section of the barren Saharan grasslands and giber deserts—he nevertheless insists that he has not “changed” the sounds which he so skilfully presents. This is an allegedly pure, pre-existing sound world, and not one—as Francisco López, Karlheinz Stockhausen or others would insist—actually created by the microphone.

While the crackling, inarticulate and bizarre rumblings of a Saharan lion provides a highly abstract experience for the average Western listener, Watson’s pieces do not (and are not designed to) grab the listener’s attention. I prefer more overtly manipulated sound, but it is rewarding to hear a fine craftsman present his deliberately seamless edit of over 30 recordings into simple narratives such as day to night to morning (a sequential pastiche of different organisms and hunting noises), or oceanic surface to extreme depths and back up again. Like film critic Andre Bazin, Watson strives to recreate the quasi-spiritual beauty of the world through technological transcription, and this is much to be admired.


Audiofest, artists Hano Shoji, Lee Noyes, Rory Macmurdo, Alex Mackinnon, Peter Porteous, Sean Kerr and Simon Cumming, Michael Morley, Chris Watson, PSN Electronic (Susan Ballard, Nathan Thompson and Peter Stapleton; Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Oct 1, 3, 8

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 pg. 46

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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