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The NOW now: time slices

Gail Priest

Jim Denley, the NOW now 2003 Jim Denley, the NOW now 2003
photo Joe Glaysher
Wenn ich jetz sage, ist es schon vorbei?
(When I say now, is it already over?)

In a very brief skip through Berlin a couple of years ago I picked up a postcard for a dance work with this title. The phrase has haunted me ever since. And I’ve been thinking about the temporal a lot lately in the otherworldly post-Christmas zone where time seems to expand with the heat. So the 2nd NOW now festival of spontaneous music was like a sonic manifestation of my present state of mind.

For 6 nights the gloriously dilapidated oversized loungeroom of Space 3 was home to myriad explorations of music composed in the moment, produced by all manner of sources from your more conventional woodwind, piano, double bass and harp to penis gourd, computer, sampler, amplified pane of glass and dead chicken. The results of these explorations ranged from youthful indulgence to mind-expanding brilliance.

The festival opened with an undisputed master of Australian improvisation, Jim Denley. Starting with his bass flute in pieces, he gently ground the bits together, sometimes blowing into the mouth piece. He moved through woodwind instruments filling the transitions with mouthmusic, creating an imitation of digital decimation so faithful that I looked for the hidden computer. Even the squeaky floorboard was integrated. Denley is at the point where he barely needs his tools: alone he is a finely tuned instrument, a kind of sonic chameleon. Drawing all the pieces together (both compositionally and of his bass flute), he concludes with a haunting suite of dual tones and whispers that are so engaging even the traffic racing up Cleveland Street stops to listen.

The second act of the evening introduced some of the New Zealand contingent with Anthony Donaldson on percussion, Darren Hannah on double bass, Maree Thom on accordion and locals Daniel the wizard on violin and Neill Duncan on sax and little instruments. This had more of the sound I expected, a kind of consensual chaos. Waves of impulses flowing through each musician, were interpreted, sent out and reinterpreted, a growing feedback loop. These musicians employed a whole bodied listening, every cell alert to the next possibility, every gesture integral to the sourcing of the sound. This summoning was also evident in the exploration by Melbourne’s David Tolley on double bass and Dur-e Dara on percussion. They seemed to be working in 2 different sonic territories, Tolley utilising sustain and space, Dara filling all the gaps with a seemingly endless collection of percussion, bells, buckets, chains and glockenspiel—looking like she was whipping up a culinary storm (she is in fact a restaurateur). My initial desire was for her to pare back, provide more space and explore things for longer, but her methods were cumulative, so by the time the cymbals tied to a stand crashed to the floor, the 2 approaches had achieved an agitated union.

My desire for space was sated by the combo of Reuben Derrick on woodwind, Richard Johnson (ACT) on gourdophone (more specifically penis gourd) played like a reed instrument, Johnny Marks on a fantastically ancient analogue synth that lit up and Peter Blamey on feedback loop and mixing desk. Beautifully subdued, the sustained electronic ping and crackle and the warmth of the quiet reeds was surprisingly symbiotic. Blamey and Marks provided background texture, underpinning the analogue mobility of reed players. They never managed to move the piece to the next level, but for one sublime moment they all came together in a swathe of sustained tones, where the sense of time was manifest, each molecule of the moment felt fully. That made the evening for me.

This trance like atmosphere was maintained by the final ensemble. Having just met each other when they walked on stage, Belinda Woods (Melbourne) on flute, Chris Burke on tenor sax, Matt Earl on emptied sampler, April Fonti on cello and Amanda Stewart on vocals created a ‘right moody’ piece. With a beautifully layered textural palette it seemed that everyone was making each other’s sounds—the cello breathy like a sax, the sampler scratchy like the cello, guttural barks and hacks providing a baseline. Stewart’s vocal summonings and Fonti’s sparse and sensitive playing wove around each other, thankfully emerging from the sometimes overly fussy flute and sax to float like sonic incantations.

The second evening began with the incredible Chris Abrahams on piano. With phantom fingers he called forth torrents of notes, overtones outringing the fundamentals—was he hammering, plucking, how many hands does he have? An anomaly in the pattern emerges, is integrated and the pattern mutates. Then he stopped dead and it felt like your soul had been ripped out through your ears. Just for a second, and then the cascade continued. It was amazing and frightening in its complexity and beauty.

The evening also featured the masters of electronic improvisation with a set by Torben Tilly, Robbie Avenaim and Oren Ambarchi on multiple electronics. Spacious and subtle, with infinitesimal shifts they created a kind of sonic wormhole: I try to grasp it, but it slides in and around me like air, I can’t pin it down. Ambarchi appeared again in Scott Horscroft’s all-star version of Chug-R-Chug, along with Chris Abrahams, Clayton Thomas, David Aston and Scott Barr. The musicians play one note which Horscroft processes, conducting and moulding the tones into a mesmeric symphony that was almost weepingly gorgeous. Thanks to a computer crash, it ended with a wrench instead of the more predictable denouement.

An earthy contrast was provided by the ensemble of Will Guthrie (Melb) on percussion, Jeff Henderson (NZ) on sax, Tim O’Dwyer (Melb) on clarinet, Clayton Thomas on double bass and Adam Sussman on electronics. No subtle background texture for Sussman (of Stasis Duo), he ripped the time-space continuum with blasts of fuzz and static, mostly pushing the energy for the better, allowing Thomas to go hell-for-leather in praying mantis fashion on bass, all rhythm and percussion. Guthrie’s contribution suffered for the timbral similarity of his miked percussion and Sussman’s electronics, not to mention the sheer volume that actually had the PA speakers glowing with overload. Though loud and chaotic, the players all seemed to be in the same territory, interpreting the same moment, aware of the piece as a whole.

Unfortunately not something that could be said for the earlier ensemble of Matt and Aron Ottignon, Cameron Deyell, Tom Callwood and Felix Bloxsom, relying on more of a jazz sensibility and suffering from a kind of youthful enthusiasm that railroaded awareness. (Just because you have 3 instruments doesn’t mean you have to play them all.)

The only other appearance of exuberance over-riding subtlety was the trio of Matt Clare and Martin Kay on alto sax and Josh Green (Tas) on percussion on Friday 17. The sax players wound themselves so tightly around each other that there was no place for the percussionist, who eventually (though, it seemed, cheerfully) sat down and just watched the boys blow.

Also on the slightly dominant side was Greg Kingston (Tasmania) on guitar with Tim O’Dwyer on woodwinds and Will Guthrie on percussion. Kingston seemed to channel some inner demon, all twitches and agitation. The ultimate showman, he rummaged through his bag of tricks to produce a transistor radio or a Barbie doll which he placed on the pick-ups of the guitar; even towelling himself off became part of the piece. He provided an excellent introduction to the final act of the Friday night, a strictly noise affair including Lucas Abela on his amped and effected pane of glass, and Nylstoch, a mysterious man in a very ugly mask playing a tapeloop through a crucified chicken. The sound, well it was loud enough to make a window leap out of its frame. Not that all of Friday night was show and bluster. There was also a gentle and extensive exploration by Stasis Duo boys gone analogue on well-worn guitar and percussion, Jim Denley and Jeff Henderson on woodwinds and reeds, and festival co-curator Clare Cooper on harp. This was completely absorbing in its thoroughness.

When I interviewed Clayton Thomas about the NOW now (RT51), I was a little sceptical of his almost religious fervour. But immersed in 3 nights of the festival I realise it is hard to avoid. Each night I dreamt the event afterwards—the atmospheres, the processes and tactics. Improvising is a valiant and foolish attempt to capture each moment, feel each slice of time as it passes over and through you. To do it right you have to surrender completely to the whims and vengeance of the temporal as many of the ensembles in the NOW now festival succeeded in doing for, well, fleeting moments, once registered, already gone. So the chase and the mantra goes on—jetz ist jetz ist jetz...

the NOW now festival , curators Clare Cooper, Clayton Thomas, Space 3 Redfern, Jan 13-18

Fortnightly spontaneous music nights continue at Space 3 from Feb 3.

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 45

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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