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a lot can happen in a minute

ben byrne: what is music?, melbourne


50/50, What is Music? 50/50, What is Music?
photo Catherine Brice
AFTER 15 YEARS, WHAT IS MUSIC? HAS BECOME AN INSTITUTION IN THE AUSTRALIAN MUSICAL LANDSCAPE, AT THE SAME TIME CONTINUING TO CHALLENGE AUDIENCES, REFUSING TO COMPROMISE IN ITS PROGRAMMING AND REMAINING STEADFASTLY DEDICATED TO THOSE INTERESTED IN THE EDGES OF MUSIC IN THIS COUNTRY.

Although there were concerts in Sydney and Perth, this year the focus of the festival was on Melbourne and here the festival started with the John Wiese Ensemble from Los Angeles at the East Brunswick Club. A 15-piece ensemble of local musicians performed two half-hour versions of a piece that Wiese devised specifically for the occasion. Each musician played from a visual score based on a graphic deconstruction of their own name underlined with a measure divided into durations of one minute.

After a brief introduction from festival MC Sean Baxter, the musicians launched into the performance and it became clear that the music was not recognisable as John Wiese’s but belonging to the individual performers themselves. It was as if I was listening to solo performances from all of the artists at once with someone playfully hitting ‘mute’ and ‘solo’ from time to time. Yet that process produced a genuinely gripping and dynamic music that seemed to constantly mutate, pushing out in different directions before springing back with contorted vocals, slices of guitars and strings, the feedback of overblown horns, scattered percussion and noise punctures. Gradually the structure became obvious and I realised that, along with the meeting of the individual voices on stage, the piece was principally about duration, with the sound of minutes ticking clearly discernable.

The second night at the East Brunswick Club started in punishing style with a tag team set from noisemakers Lloyd Honeybrook, Marco Fusinato and Lucas Abela that in 15 short minutes contorted our collective cochlear until the close with ‘Justice Yeldham’ smashing a pane of glass over his head to cheers from the crowd. It was followed immediately with the cry ‘Bruuutal’ from Sean Baxter, which would bookend every set of the festival from here on in, and provided the perfect summation.

Next up Oren Ambarchi and Matt Skitz launched into a relentless set of thickly abstracted guitar heroics and fast paced, powerful and precise drumming underpinned with a driving double kick that was like hearing a tape of the history of rock music on rewind. Although too macho for my taste, the tension between the virtuosic drumming of Skitz, who drove the set, and the abstracted tones of Ambarchi’s setup was compelling.

Robert Piotrowicz followed on laptop and Doepfer modular synth. He gave an impressive performance that, after the previous set, seemed to simultaneously synthesise and deconstruct a digital take on doom laden rock aesthetics, allowing shards of heavy chords to occasionally escape before breaking them into fragments interspersed with bursts of noise and the rhythms of manipulation.

John Wiese closed the night, sitting before a modest looking setup of laptop, mixer and cassette player, and immediately let forth a sharp but detailed mélange of noise. Everything remained just beyond comprehension as a frenetic but focused mix with hints of voices, electronics and other incidental noises flew past with gradually more discernable tape interruptions. It was certainly difficult listening, but Weise’s creativity and attention to detail was exceptional.

Last event for the festival, but certainly not least, came the 50/50 performance at the ABC Iwaki Auditorium in Southbank. The night featured 50 acts, each performing for a minute back to back. There was a buzz in the air and the sheer size of the undertaking was evident upon entering the venue and seeing almost the entire floor covered with instruments and performers, leaving only the fringes and gallery for the audience. After a brief explanation of how it would all work, the night started with a count down from 50 to one on the giant screen behind the performers that would serve as timekeeper for the event.

Quickly it became clear that explosions of noise, thrash and yells were the order of the day but the consensus afterwards seemed to be that it was the exceptions to this rule that were most interesting. The performers focused on what they do and avoiding getting caught up in the excitement were most memorable: personal highlights included Clare Cooper, Breathing Shrine, Frances Plagne, Pig & Machine, Golden Fur, Kim Myhr and a trio from Clayton Thomas, Dale Gorfinkel and Darren Moore. Absoluten Calfeutrail submitted perhaps the only example of a gripping and intense noise performance while Bum Creek succeeded where others failed with an hilarious set in which they ‘electrocuted’ each other, emitting stabs of ground hum punctuated with their own screams. Ivens led the most engaging of the ensemble sets, in which different groupings of artists from the various acts performed together, fronting an intimidating assault of drums and vocals.

I was surprised at the extent to which the event seemed to form into a single cohesive piece despite the at times disparate nature of the individual performances. Perhaps because so many sets were presented in the time it would usually take to hear just one, I found myself listening to the event as a whole. This was certainly due to the dominance of noise, grind and shit rock throughout the program; however, the inclusion of numerous ensemble sets broke down the notion that we were listening to completely separate acts and the finale, in which all the performers exploded in a minute of celebration, made it clear that there was an involvement from each of them in the organiser’s larger vision for 50/50.

Despite a clear imbalance between the resources the festival poured into solo performances from featured and touring artists and those involved in 50/50, What is Music? took a great number of artists from the local community and presented them and us with a wonderful opportunity to celebrate that community as a whole as well as the individuals who comprise it.

What is Music? in Melbourne featured two other nights, staged at the Old Bar and Horse Bazaar and curated with the help of organisers from Sabbatical and Stutter. This is a move that I commend and think further demonstrates a focus on Australian artists across the festival. Special mention must be made of sound engineer Byron Scullin, whose work was impeccable.

Before the festival I wondered about the issues inherent in the huge numbers of local artists being given only a role in John Wiese’s Ensemble or one minute in 50/50, while a small number of international artists was each afforded a solo performance. However, it became clear while listening to the performances that rather than limiting the locals each benefited from being placed among the others. The performance from the John Wiese Ensemble was much more interesting than the solo performances, which it must be said seem to feature a rotating but similar roster of artists each year, and 50/50, while not flawless, gave audiences a unique snapshot of contemporary music in Melbourne at the moment.


What is Music? East Brunswick Club, Old Bar, Horse Bazaar and Iwaki Auditorium, Melbourne, Dec 13-19, www.whatismusic.com

See Gail Priest’s review ofWhat is Music? Sydney; and the selection of RealTime articles about What is Music? from the archive

RealTime issue #95 Feb-March 2010 pg. 48

© Ben Byrne; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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