info I contact
editorial schedule
join the realtime email list
become a friend of realtime on facebook
follow realtime on twitter

magazine  archive  features  rt profiler  realtimedance  mediaartarchive



adelaide festival 2013

enlarging the musical universe

chris reid: music program, adelaide festival 2013

Robin Fox, Unsound Robin Fox, Unsound
photo Tony Lewis, courtesy Adelaide Festival 2013

Much of the music was composed or arranged for a blend of acoustic and electronic instrumentation and some solely for electronics, showing how the use of electronics has permeated contemporary composition and how genres cross-fertilise.

kronos quartet and jg thirlwell

The festival introduced Adelaide to the extraordinary and absorbing music of Australian expat JG Thirlwell and his Manorexia septet, whose fluid membership featured Adelaide’s Zephyr string quartet, a percussionist and a pianist together with Thirlwell at the laptop. His Canaries in the Mineshaft opens with vibraphone and piano, the strings entering quietly, and moments of dissonance enrich the flavour. Ice on the Equator is built around a trance-inducing repeated vibraphone figure, the strings floating eerily around it, with a sudden shift into dramatic intensity. Multiple time signatures create a phasing effect that heightens the eeriness of Thirlwell’s music, and he quietly intrudes pre-recorded sounds, for example a distant siren, referencing other auditory realities. This is fine writing, highly musical, with complex rhythms and shifts in mood, that suggests film scores, jazz, musique concrete, contemporary classical and electronic music, and demands quality ensemble playing.

The highlight was Thirwell’s Armadillo Stance, which sounded like an armadillo might dance—slow and seductive with a deliciously enigmatic violin line running through, punctuated by a tiny bell. The CD version uses electronic keyboards for the melodic lines but string harmonics are more complex and engaging even when mediated by a PA. His music is essentially tonal but clever use of dissonance adds complexity, and its power comes from shifts in tempi and intensity, textural contrasts, multiple rhythms and instrumental voicing. Thirlwell’s music suggests a melange of influences, though it’s distinctively original.

The legendary Kronos Quartet, renowned for its innovative use of electronics, pioneering new musical territory and championing composers across all genres, headlined the festival. Following Manorexia, their enthralling set included Bryce Dessner’s Aheym (Yiddish for “homeward”), written for Steve Reich’s 75th birthday, with Dessner joining them on electric guitar; music from Clint Mansell’s soundtrack to the Darren Aranofsky movie The Fountain (2006); electronic music composer and performer Amon Tobin’s Bloodstone, rearranged for string quartet; and Thirlwell’s edgy Eremikophobia (fear of sand). Not exclusively electronic, Kronos also gave us Aleksandra Vrebalov’s arrangement of Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan and Isolde and, for an encore, a delightful arrangement of Swedish Folk Ensemble Triakel’s melancholy love song “Tusen Tankar” (A Thousand Thoughts). Kronos’ set ranged across contemporary classical, movie music, electronic hybrids and high romanticism. Their seamless integration of electronics extends their instrumentation well beyond stringed instruments, opening up all kinds of compositional and performance possibilities.

severed heads

Severed Heads Severed Heads
photo Tony Lewis, courtesy Adelaide Festival 2013
“Everyone is Beautiful in a Free World (Terms and Conditions apply)”—so goes the title of legendary post-punk/techno/industrial (what do these terms mean?) Australian band Severed Heads’ opening number in the breathtaking concert for which they re-formed—for what they declare is one last time. Their satirical but danceable music portrays a dystopian world of machine-like, futile human life, ruled by unseen (commercial) forces. Their set included the hits “Hot with Fleas,” “Profit,” “Petrol,” “Pilots Hate You (Obama mix)” and “Dead Eyes Opened.” Severed Heads’ 30-year career spans significant technological as well as musical development, and their songs are now remixed using updated technology, resulting in a cleaner, more refined sound, but sometimes recreating the characteristic sounds of old technologies such as slurred tapes. The stunning videos screened with the music are an essential component, and the Queen’s Theatre, recreated as a club-like venue, was the perfect location.

The performance was complemented by a downloadable computer game, core band-member Tom Ellard’s Hauntology House, hosted by the ABC website, which enables you to generate musical and visual material using simulacra of typical compositional devices such as laptops, radios, turntables and tape recorders. Users at home can mimic, in a game setting, what Severed Heads themselves do to create their work. This is a significant development in audience interactivity, but proficiency demands effort.


Solaris, Unsound Solaris, Unsound
photo Tony Lewis, courtesy Adelaide Festival 2013
The Adelaide Festival brought to Australia the Krakow-based Unsound Festival, whose festival-within-a-festival included performances at the Queen’s Theatre and, as its central element, the staging of Ben Frost and Daníel Bjarnason’s co-composition Solaris at Adelaide Town Hall. Unsound commissioned Bjarnason and Frost’s version of Solaris to celebrate in 2011 the 50th anniversary of Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris (see Gail Priest’s discussion of this work, RT103). Scored for strings, percussion, prepared piano, guitars and electronics, it is performed with Brian Eno and Nick Robertson’s video that uses still images of characters from the 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky film based on Lem’s book and also Pieter Brueghel’s painting, The Hunters in the Snow (1565), which Tarkovsky featured in the film.

The music is slow and hypnotic, opening with an ethereal whisper of strings and with a flavour of ambient electronic music but greater textural complexity. The video is correspondingly dreamy, with imagery materialising out of a haze of pixels. The pixilation seems to metaphorise the sub-atomic structure of matter and the possible neuronal structure of the planet Solaris’ intelligent ocean that induces hallucinations, the music seeming to characterise such neurological processes. Frost and Bjarnason’s Solaris is not a remake of the film or its score but an attempt to capture the psychological essence of Lem’s book. While the central musical work in Tarkovsky’s film is a Bach chorale prelude for organ, theirs is more secular and leaves the listener unsettled, the dissonance suggestive of psychological disturbance or unresolved tension.

Unsound also included three nights of world-class music in the categories of experimental, dub, ambient, drone and their derivatives, with international acts including Demdike Stare (performing with a string ensemble including Zephyr Quartet), Tim Hecker, Actress, Hype Williams, Lustmord, Robin Fox, Pole and again Ben Frost, an unparalleled showcase that demonstrated the depth of musical development in this broad field and its influence on mainstream music.

This use of different rhythmic structures, performance techniques independent of human playing and the greatly expanded sound palette that typifies this kind of music has permeated contemporary composition. Melodic and harmonic structures and linear, thematic development with variations are much less emphasised. Composers draw on the widest range of devices, blending samples, field recordings and pre-recorded sounds with live performance, with both programmed and improvised elements, using looping and phasing, and producing scores for acoustic instrumentation as well as electronics. Frost and Bjarnason, for example, used computer software in developing the Solaris score. The musical product retains its distinctive character even when transcribed, say, for strings or a chamber ensemble. It’s eclectic, mixing tonality with atonality, foregrounding process, using quotation and irony and sometimes making social commentary, and it potentially appeals to a wider audience. And video is commonly part of the composition—the concert is an audio-visual experience that extends the tradition of pop-rock video for TV.

Unfortunately, many of the Adelaide Festival’s musical events lacked a printed program, so you couldn’t always know what was being played or even who was playing unless you were already familiar with the material.


Stereopublic (Crowdsourcing the Quiet), Jason Sweeney Stereopublic (Crowdsourcing the Quiet), Jason Sweeney
photo Martin Potter
Contrasting with the rest of the Adelaide Festival’s music, Jason Sweeney’s Stereopublic was an absolute delight for its gentleness and its ability to make you think about sound and listen for it. Sweeney guides participants on a walking tour of city sites with particular sonic characteristics—a fountain, an elevator, a park, an office tower foyer, an underground car-park and so on. On commencement, he hands you a business card reading “please be quiet.”

Stereopublic is like a perambulatory version of John Cage’s 4’ 33”—you listen to ambient sound and meditate on the idea of silence—but it takes you beyond Cage’s concept in that you map the city’s quieter locations where you might escape the traffic and other noise, and you learn to listen to buildings and spaces, rediscovering the city sonically.

The Stereopublic interactive webpage invites you to identify quiet places and offers an iPhone app. This is relational art, from which a small community with a new awareness is born, each walking-tour group forming a bond in Trappist monk-like silence. Stereopublic offers a different and welcome kind of musical awareness.

The ABC recorded the Severed Heads concert in full and is hosting Hauntology House. Stereopublic will be in Perth in May and in Sydney in June 2013.

Adelaide Festival, 2013: Kronos Quartet and JG Thirlwell’s Manorexia, Thebarton Theatre, March 4; Severed Heads, Queen’s Theatre, March 13; Unsound Festival, Queen’s Theatre, March 14-16; Solaris, Ben Frost and Daniel Bjarnason with members of Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Adelaide Town Hall, March 15, Stereopublic, Adelaide, Feb 27-March 17 and at

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 8

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

Back to top