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Early Warning System, Give us this Day—Five Sonic Adventures Early Warning System, Give us this Day—Five Sonic Adventures
photo Greg Harm
Increased exposure to Indian, African and Asian music has made the last 100 years or so pretty good for Euro-Western percussion lovers. Enter Early Warning System with a beautifully programmed selection of recent works—by Erik Griswold, Vanessa Tomlinson, Kate Neal, Anthony Pateras and Michael Askill—that reflect the influence of that exposure on the Western classical tradition.

First up is the premiere of Erik Griswold’s Give us this day. The piece begins stately and processional (more Java than Bali) then moves through sections of quite different sonorities as is common with Griswold’s work. Not all percussive, at one stage Griswold’s much loved melodicas are introduced along with bowed cymbals to develop a beautiful tonespace of slowly overlapping chords. With the percussion the playing is sometimes soft and gentle, allowing the sound of touching skins with hand or beater to dominate the resonant boom of the drum, giving a percussion that is as much about touching and manipulating a surface as it is about dividing time into predictable chunks. Give us this day is very much a work that refines earlier concerns and demonstrates the continuing maturation of Griswold’s distinctive voice.

Vanessa Tomlinson continues exploring the theatre and physicality of sound production in her conceptual soundscape Static. The performers line up along the front of the stage each with a small table of bits and pieces and a bass drum at their feet. Electric static is soft in the air, the performers make soundless gestures—silent playing. Later these same gestures will be harder and faster, whipping sticks in the air, scraping shoe soles on the floor, scribbling with stones on steel bowls to bend and modulate pitch into speechless, gliding voice. Static is a fascinating work that draws attention to the link between gesture and the production of sound using commonplace actions.

Early Warning System, Give us this Day—Five Sonic Adventures Early Warning System, Give us this Day—Five Sonic Adventures
photo Greg Harm
Similarly performative is Kate Neal’s What Hath II, a Kraftwerk-does-Beckett piece of music theatre that presents the performers as slaves to the rhythm—moving their heads in rapid and unnatural gesture to the beat of the music or flashing small projectors in an inscrutable machinic code. The body driven by an external mechanism—in this case the tempo—echoes the long history of representing people as dehumanised functional components (Metropolis, The Matrix). Watching the dehumanised performers is unsettling, even a little embarrassing. Why? Drumming is expressed through ballistic control and group synchrony of that control creates solidarity, a sense of group membership arising through shared motor action. And where there is a group there is a leader. People identify leadership with the person who most predicts the behaviour of the group, and in this case the leader is a metronome, a machine.

The performers rigidly moving their heads to the metronomic tempo have no other purpose than to comply with a machine. But there is no coercion, the performers are compliant in their own subjugation. Watching people willingly give up their autonomy like this is embarrassing, upsetting, disturbing. Both here and elsewhere.

Early Warning System: Give us this Day—Five Sonic Adventures, performers Vanessa Tomlinson, Michael Askill, Nozomi Omote, Rebecca-Lloyd Jones, Cameron Kennedy; Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, 9 July

RealTime issue #123 Oct-Nov 2014 pg. 42

© Greg Hooper; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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