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game image by Al Thumm, from Music for Strings and iThings game image by Al Thumm, from Music for Strings and iThings
It’s inevitable that experimental music embraces the latest technological developments and that the expansion of art forms to provide ever-increasing audience engagement is also a characteristic of contemporary culture. Now 15 years old, Adelaide’s Zephyr Quartet has built its considerable reputation on innovative programming and collaboration with the widest variety of composers and performers. Music for Strings and iThings is a concert of experimental music that radically challenges the way we think about music and performance and about the pervasive and seductive influence of new technologies.

Zephyr Artistic Director Hilary Kleinig’s composition, For those who’ve come across the seas, epitomises the use of technology in this concert and the capacity of musical performance to raise political awareness. Kleinig’s wistfully evocative piece for string quartet and smart-phone choir is a personal response to media reports concerning Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Combining fragments of recordings of Kyrie Eleison settings from the traditional mass, the Morse code signal for SOS and the national anthem, and performed with a video showing the empty, endlessly rolling sea, the work is already conceptually powerful. But rather than passively absorbing the music, each audience member participates not by singing but by downloading and playing out loud on their phone one of three pieces of pre-recorded music, the combined sound of which forms a three-part accompaniment to the quartet’s playing. The audience thus implicitly enjoins Kleinig’s response, and the work demonstrates the potential of the phone for crowd communication and spontaneous action in any setting, musical or otherwise.

Zephyr invited several composers to try out ideas in response to the concert’s technological theme. Brendan Woithe’s Breath involves the quartet playing a notated work out of sight behind a screen, while Woithe sits at a laptop before the audience. The quartet is miked but can only be heard when the audience makes sounds and thereby triggers the necessary amplification. The audience thus unconsciously activates the music, a subtle weave of long, delicate tones. Interaction is also central to Luke Harrald’s Distant Front (2012), written for string quartet and a laptop programmed to respond to the quartet as it plays. Inspired by painter Fred Williams’ landscapes and the dry South Australian countryside, Distant Front was commissioned by the Art Gallery of South Australia to accompany its Williams retrospective. There is some fine writing for strings, evoking the stillness of outback summer heat followed by soothing rain.

Cat Hope’s composition Wall Drawing, inspired by the serial art of US conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, is a graphic score, scrolling across a projection screen, a device visually and conceptually reminiscent of LeWitt’s work and his ideas on narrative. Accompanied by a Theremin, the quartet transforms the visual into the audible while the audience also sees the score projected on a screen as a visual artwork. Composer and graphic designer Al Thumm takes this idea a step further with his Chameleon Wake for string quartet and video game, with Thumm at the laptop. The quartet responds to his collaged, animated illustrations of the Australian landscape and its fauna scrolling across the screen, producing some highly surreal effects. The game is an active graphic score, adding another dimension to the performance.

VoiceROM (Dylan Marshall and Jarrad Payne) concluded the evening with Falconwood Pinblock, a composition again involving the audience reproducing sound over their smart phones while directed from the stage, together with the quartet and a sampler. (The pinblock, that part of a piano frame holding the tuning pins in place, is made of hardwoods such as falconwood—perhaps the title is a metaphor for the foundations of instrumental music.) As with Kleinig’s composition, the audience does not all come in on tempo, resulting in a somewhat chaotic sound. But musical perfection is not the point, rather it is group consciousness and participation through electronic connection, which can indeed be chaotic.

Music for Strings and iThings is highly experimental music. The involvement of the audience through smart phones and the interactive play with a gamer both push notions of composer, performer and musical reception beyond limits. While not always impressive musically, these works are conceptually radical and developmentally significant. Zephyr’s relentless quest for musical and compositional originality and their work with diverse collaborators continues to position them at the forefront of innovation, involving in this concert appropriation, field recording, live processing, pre-processed sound, visual art, aleatoric elements and directed and spontaneous audience participation. The concert is perhaps a wry commentary on the way in which new technologies have invaded our lives and come to dominate communication and thought processes, but it also demonstrates the way in which contemporary culture can condense so many sonic, musical and cultural traditions and ideas into a new paradigm.

Zephyr Quartet and collaborators, Music for Strings and iThings, ABC Studio 520, Adelaide, 15 Nov, 2014

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 42

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

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