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Freeformance celebration

Jonathan Marshall

Melbourne is home to a music scene which can genuinely be described as underground. Artists and camp-followers gather for erratic, sometimes will-o’-the-wisp events (Sean Baxter’s La Basta! being perhaps the most terroristic of these). The Make It Up Club has proven a durable feature of this scene—an all the more remarkable feat given its focus on improvisation. The fourth year of MIUC was celebrated with 2 nights of what artistic director Tim O’Dwyer calls “freeformance”, unified only by open-structures which defied standard notation. Artists employed materials ranging from prepared acoustic guitars (Ren Walters) to real-time electronic processing (Stevie Wishart). This confronting diversity cheerfully liberated the audience of any firm critical position. Who is to say for example that Tom Fryer’s aggressive, intermittently explosive, extended guitar technique was ‘better’ than Candlesnuffer’s otherworldly, yet somehow orchestral, guitar-activated sounds which seemed like they came from an experimental Theremin? As someone schooled in performance, I was most impressed by more overtly performative musicians. Indeed, the ghosts of Fluxus, Cage, Marinetti and Tzara were present throughout.

Concrete poet Amanda Stewart was a particularly striking performer. Though an established Sydney artist, Stewart is rarely seen in Melbourne. Her visit fortuitously coincided with the tour of Tess de Quincey’s awesome avant-garde movement work Nerve 9 (in the Bodyworks season at Dancehouse), partly scored by Stewart. Stewart regaled MIUC with several pieces, covering some of the same ground as Nerve 9 (see RT44 p35). When I spoke with de Quincey, she reflected that Melbourne audiences were particularly attentive to references in the piece to feminist psychoanalyst Kristeva. Seeing Nerve 9 alongside Stewart herself, this came as no surprise. Stewart acted as a living epitome of the corporeal feminine language championed by Kristeva. She highlighted the extremely physical quality of speech using stuttering rhythms and glottal stops, onomatopoeia and arhythmic, breathy consonants. Stewart’s work was moreover highly political, revealing the absurd babble underlying political and economic discourse, as well as the serious politics underlying our struggles at communication. Stewart herself proved a mesmeric, joyful presence, rising and falling on her toes in unison with the rush of air in and out of her chest and throat. Her gestures were not melodramatic, but every part of her body offered a symphony of sympathetic reactions to the squeezing of air through fleshy passages.

Although Vanessa Tomlinson employed an entirely different sonic palette (mixed percussion and found objects), she had a similar deportment to Stewart. Both exhibited an attentive curiosity, between openness and control. The improvisatory character of MIUC overall was in fact highly varied. While mad guitarist/performer Greg Kingston and saxophonist Tim O’Dwyer gave themselves almost entirely over to the free play of spontaneous noises and actions, Tomlinson and Stewart represented the more structured or definitively scored end of this spectrum. Each played works or fragments they had performed several times before. Although Tomlinson produced quite a din at times, she has a light touch. Her frame remained gently poised over her kit throughout, arcing through the air. When she dropped wind-up toys on her drum-skins it solicited sympathetic laughter. She performed with a sense of mirth and possibility, not belly laughs.

The almost slapstick insanity of Kingston and O’Dwyer was similarly memorable, offering a charging ride of guitar scribbles, fragments of 4/4 rock, literally breath-taking open-mouthed saxophone and sharp, brassily stoppered notes. It concluded in a wonderfully comic moment when, during a lull, the sweating Kingston dropped a towel and the assorted toys with which he had been abusing his guitar, and simply stated: “I’m a bit shagged out after that.” Baxter provided an even more complete break with seriousness in his somewhat limited but extremely funny demonstration of how to use a home stereo badly as DJ Arsecrack, leaping about in mock seriousness like a bogan Moby in between providing harsh, intermittent heavy metal explosions.

The work of electronica artists Anthony Pateras and Robyn Fox was particularly remarkable. They generated an extraordinarily dense range of noises, which could be likened to a hyped version of the Forbidden Planet soundtrack. Deep metalo-plastic crunches and violent screaming sheets buffeted in and out of more discrete noises which had the distinctive, rapid, rising attack and slow, dubby delay pattern found in so-called ‘spacey’ music. Miniature pillow-mikes were chewed, exhaled, slapped and simply enclosed within hands or mouths to help generate the score which Pateras and Fox then shredded with effects. It was a windy, hissy composition, rich in feedback and ‘bad audio’ noise. A mixture of new software and old equipment used at high gain levels meant there were times one could almost hear the springs rattling in the more elderly echo mechanisms. This provided a suitably rocking, hard punk conclusion to an extremely diverse festival.

Make It Up Club Festival, featuring Erik Mitsak, Rex Johnson (aka Tim Pledger), David Tolley & Ren Walters, Amanda Stewart, Greg Kingston & Tim O’Dwyer, Tom Fryer & Will Guthrie, Vanessa Tomlinson, DJ Arse Crack (aka Sean Baxter), Jim Denley & Stevie Wishart, Candlesnuffer (aka David Brown), Anthony Pateras & Robyn Fox, Planet Cafe, 386-388 Brunswick St Fitzroy, Melbourne, Feb 25-26. MIUC continues 8:30pm every Tuesday at Planet Café. [email protected]

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 38

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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