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new music machine up & running

chris reid encounters method & madness


The inaugural New Music Machine festival showcased several Melbourne-based ensembles over three evenings, premiering many new works and giving some better-known works a timely airing.

Each of the first two nights comprised three one-hour concerts. Speak Percussion opened with performances of pieces by US composers James Tenney and Frank Zappa, a joint composition by John Cage and Lou Harrison, a haunting work by local Warren Burt, and a new composition by Erik Griswold. Vanessa Tomlinson, who performs with the Twitch ensemble as well as Speak Percussion, gave a memorable account of Burt’s Beat Generation in the Californian Coastal Ranges, for solo vibraphone and electronics. In this work, a haunting, whining drone underpins a studied, meditative overlay of chords, set to a strict, dramatically slow rhythm. In Erik Griswold’s new Strings Attached, four of Speak’s six performers play snare drums with drumsticks connected by white nylon ropes to a maypole centre-stage, while the other two play snare and tom toms, at opposite ends of the stage, using sticks roped to each other’s sticks. The ropes oscillate in waves as the drums are played, with dramatic and visually stunning results.

Twitch then premiered their 6x6, a huge work for which each of the six members wrote one movement. This turbulent, chaotic piece—for prepared piano, violin, viola, ukelele, percussion, trombone, recorders, electronics and assorted objects and devices—recalls Dada and Fluxus events, but there is method in the madness, as the performers work from scores including graphic ones. Twitch has developed an individual and coherent musical form out of musical references pushed to the limit—a rubbery-sounding prepared piano, morphed voices speaking—shrieking nonsense syllables drafted on the spot and comic elements including a balloon being rubbed, a large book being slapped shut and another being repeatedly thrown to the floor. Some elements are recorded and replayed during the work. The performers, in stocking masks with whitened eyes and reddened mouths, create a cathartic piece of theatre.

The first evening concluded with David Young’s enchanting Scale, scored for toy piano, guitar, a speaker and six of the delightful instrumental boxes made by Rosemary Joy (similar to those used in Schallmachine, p32), the whole accompanied by projected imagery. We hear soft taps, squeaks and scrapes as if we are eavesdropping on a microcosmic world. Scale is a gesamkunstwerk in miniature, and is directed through graphic scores and detailed written instructions to the performers. The CD version includes a new text, The Uninhabitable of LB, by Cynthia Troup, and you can become absorbed in the entire work—sound, images, text and performance notes—in the confined universe of your own computer.

The program for the second evening, broadcast live by ABC Classic FM, was for three established groups, the David Chesworth Ensemble, Dead Horse Band and Jouissance. The Chesworth ensemble performed its award-winning Panopticon as well as Floating World and a newly commissioned work, Sport, that includes energetic shouts and umpires’ whistles and whose arrhythmic progression mimics the stop start action of sporting competition. The Dead Horse Band performed Kate Neal’s energetic fusion piece Dead Horse 1 (2005), for string quartet, electric guitar, bass, piano and drums, and her new String Trio, a quietly introspective and heavily textured work that is actually for a quartet of violin, viola, cello and double bass. The acclaimed vocal and instrumental setting of Byzantine hymns, Akathistos Fragments, by the ensemble Jouissance and directed by double bass player Nick Tsiavos, completed the program.

On the final night, the Australian National Academy of Music presented a performance of John Cage’s legendary Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946-1948) and a series of improvised works by Anthony Pateras and other ANAM musicians, all involving prepared instruments. Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes was rendered by a team of four pianists, including Nigel Butterley, who has championed the work in Australia, and three ANAM musicians, with Butterley reading excerpts from Cage’s Silence between changes of pianist. This was a magical rendition, though there were some interesting differences in approach to pianism and interpretation by the four performers. The program note thoughtfully included a copy of a 1973 letter from Cage to Butterley in which the composer discussed preparation, suggesting, “You will often be able to tell whether your preparation is good, by whether or not the cadences ‘work’.” In preparing a piano, the pianist re-invents the instrument and its music. Neither synthesiser nor computer could produce the same effect (or convey the still important flavour of iconoclasm).

Pateras’ intense, carefully sculpted and minimalist Continuums and Chasms (2005-6) for prepared piano followed. Compared with Butterley’s mild augmentations that produce chiming, bell-like sounds, Pateras’ modifications generate rather claustrophobic sonorities—the whole top octave of strings is heavily gaffer-taped to make a sound like closely miked marbles cascading onto a concrete slab. In the lower registers, Pateras employs the usual bolts and screws and also cardboard wedges and other soft material to damp the strings, producing overall the sound of a percussion orchestra. The evening concluded with some very effective improvised works for solo viola by Mary Oliver, for the trio of piano, guitar and drums by Pateras, David Brown and Sean Baxter, and for a quartet of those three plus Oliver on violin.

New Music Machine’s programming suggests that contemporary music is highly diverse, ranging from the sublimely spiritual to the noisily secular and from the virtuosic to the manic. Minimalism, the exploration of sound and instrumentation, especially percussion, and the possibilities of group improvisation remain fertile areas of development. This was a well-organised and memorable festival, competing successfully with the musical elements of the Melbourne International Arts Festival that preceded it. The festival lacked only detailed program notes for some performances, important especially for new audience development. Too few people attended this wonderful series, despite the low ticket prices, but ABC Classic FM radio gave strong support by broadcasting Friday night live and recording Thursday’s performances for later broadcast.

New Music Machine, Australian National Academy of Music, South Melbourne Town Hall, Nov 2-4

RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 49

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

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