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Jon Rose


CD review
ReR (ReRJR60)

Jon Rose has done much with and to the violin, and upon hearing this CD a great deal more than you might have ever imagined. For listeners unfamiliar with his music, Rose’s new CD opens a door to his unique engagement with the instrument and with sound and its place in our world. For those who love his work it is a collector’s item.

Rosin (the CD is named after the stuff you rub on the bow to change its texture and enrich the sound of the violin strings) comprises CDs, a disc of videos and a booklet discussing the selected works with testimonies by David Harrington, Richard Barrett and others on the nature and immensity of Rose’s contribution to music. Subtitled “A 60th Anniversary Collection,” it was released shortly after this milestone birthday and with three hours 45 minutes of music and an hour and 25 minutes of visual material, it’s an excellent introduction to his recent work. Presumably it’s a personal retrospective, emphasising favourite developments. Though less comprehensive than his webpage, it focuses on specific projects: his Pannikin series of recordings of people making all kinds of sound (a subset of the ABC’s Australia Ad Lib series), his fence-playing, his electronic interventions into the violin and his ball-games and bicycle series.

Rose’s work questions our assumptions not only about music, sound and performance but about the world in which we live. His Garage Fence project, in which he set up four fences like a boxing ring, to be played on stage by Kronos Quartet, is about more than just making fencing-wire vibrate interestingly (though he is always looking for objects that make interesting sounds). Miking a fence for sound interrogates its resonant properties and reveals its metaphorical harmonics. For example when he plays the Dingo Fence he draws our attention to its environmental significance and to the concepts of containment and border. Turning a fence into a musical instrument disrupts its emblematic power. He has performed at the USA-Mexico border and the Separation Fence in the Israeli Occupied Territories, challenging their authority. He engages with the outback—Oodnadatta, the Strzelecki Desert, Wogarno Station—as a mystical, alien, forbidding, even sacred world. Rose is a philosopher and social commentator and his philosophical investigations often start as musical or sonic ones.

Rose encourages people to make sound and one of his most important endeavours, collecting home-made sounds, is given due attention on the CD. There are samples from the Pannikin Project, in which Rose invited do-it-yourself musicians to demonstrate their work and remixed it with his own accompaniment—for example recordings of a shopkeeper repeatedly singing “Thank you very much,” gum-leaf players mimicking bird calls, a whip-cracker, an auctioneer in full cry, a chainsaw orchestra (protesting against logging) and the only department store pianist still working. The Pannikin Project redefines musical performance and acknowledges under-recognised aspects of our culture. Rose’s attitude to sound is highly democratic—anyone can (and should) participate; there’s no distinction between high and low art, and it’s fun!

Rosin includes an excerpt from his radio documentary Syd and George about a lyrebird, with string accompaniment suggesting the kinds of sounds naturally made by the bird, highlighting the concepts of mimicry and sonic representation. We anthropomorphise the lyrebird as a musician, but ironically it is itself a recorder that reproduces samples of sounds it has heard.

There are selections from Rose’s musical performances involving combinations of improvised and notated sound for various ensembles. The high-powered concerto Internal Combustion is scored for improvised violin (dazzlingly played, including fragmentary quotes from Tchaikovsky) and an ensemble playing from a detailed, conventionally notated score, challenging the conventions of concerto composition and performance. There is an excerpt from Charlie’s Whiskers, commissioned from Rose by Slovakian composer Daniel Matej, in which Rose creates competing musical palindromes to pay homage to Charles Ives’ approach to composition. (See RT112 for other Rose/Matej collaborations)

Digger Music is scored for an excavator whose movements are electronically mapped to generate signals that are blended with other sounds including improvised violin. Talking Back to Media, a variant on talk-back radio, employs musicians, a poet and a sound artist and includes samples of horse-race commentary. Multiple competing sound sources represent inner and outer reality—this piece is sonically complex, musical and fascinating.

RRose experiments endlessly with the violin: Violin 3D Model uses a ‘K bow,’ electronically engineered to enable control of sonic output through angle, stroke length and other parameters. In Palimpolin (the title condenses ‘palimpsest’ and ‘violin’), he again uses a modified bow to control sampling, pitch shifting and mediation of the final sound. Such an instrument offers a single performer a sound palette of orchestral proportions. Then there is his Viocycle, a bicycle rigged so that, when moving, it drives a mechanism that engages the strings of a violin mounted to the frame, like a mobile hurdy-gurdy—the player controls the sound by riding at different speeds. Imagine a peloton orchestra!

The CD is well produced and, strangely, CD2 and 3 conclude with an extra track not cited in the booklet, provoking intense curiosity. The secret track on CD2 sounds like a modified cello wonderfully played. The CD3 mystery track is an absorbing melange of amplified, mediated instruments and objects.

On the disc of QuickTime videos is a sample of Rose’s Ball Project which introduces his experiments with volleyballs, rugby-balls and the like to generate sound, thus engaging with society’s obsession with ball-sports and extending his audience for sonic experimentation. Rose fits the balls with sensors that, when in play, send signals to computers that produce audio-visual material, linking the resulting sounds with the player’s actions and shifting the emphasis from winning to music-making. The video on this CD is of a concert audience tossing around a giant beach-ball and enjoying the noises they generate, the ball-game inducing collective activity and awareness.

Most significantly, there is a video of Jon Rose burning to ash a closely-miked violin, an apparently iconoclastic act, perhaps even a strange ritual of renewal. This unique sight and sound of a violin’s cremation is romantically set in the outback at dusk. In fact, there can be no more committed, inventive or insightful experimental composer, sound artist, musician and philosopher of music than Jon Rose, and his impact is worldwide. He continually challenges us and draws us into a world of sound that turns out not only to be accessible but fun and a stimulus to our own creative exploration. While his work betrays the highest level of musicianship, it tells us to listen more attentively to the world and to think more deeply about what sound and music are and what they mean to us.

Chris Reid

Many of Jon Rose's projects are documented here
See Jon Rose in conversation with Jim Denley in our RealTime TV interview

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 46

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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