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Peter Blamey,  Monica Brooks, Laura Altman and Daniel Whiting, Difficult Music Festival Peter Blamey, Monica Brooks, Laura Altman and Daniel Whiting, Difficult Music Festival
photo Nick Dan

Run by the core team of Nick Dan and Nadine Pita with Damian Sawyers and other guest curators, the Difficult Music Festival heroically presented a gig every night in January. The majority of events took place at Sedition, the legendary barbershop in Darlinghurst run by Michael Joyce (who came up with the idea), which has been hosting the weekly Apostasy series amongst other events since 2007. Waking up slowly to the year, I finally made it to some gigs in the festival’s final week.

Monday January 25 saw the small shopfront packed (by about 30 people) to hear Ivan Lisyak, Ben Byrne and Dale Gorfinkel. Lisyak pointed his guitar to a small amp perched on a sink and sculpted the feedback. Well controlled, it was loud but never crossing over to pain, neat and punchy in its timbral and tonal investigations. Ben Byrne, visiting from Melbourne, played an old tape machine and laptop carnivorously patched together, his fingers spasmodically swiping back and forth across a mini Kaoss Pad pad to manipulate random snatches of sound, creating serrated edges to his densely textured wedge of noise. Both sets were satisfyingly succinct, appropriate considering the steamy climate.

Given the tight squish it was fortunate that Dale Gorfinkel didn’t bring his vibraphone but rather played trumpet, employing some of his now customary devices: backyard-invented small motors which introduce chance elements and make styrofoam cups spin and little balls bounce around in jars. Gorfinkel has been developing his ideas around extended technique, instrument building and improvisation over the last few years and he is fascinating to hear and watch. Using circular breathing he guided us through a playful soundscape of squeaks, burbles, blobs and whirs. Gorfinkel has created a unique performance style that is unassuming, yet commandingly showman-like. His makeshift toys sat well amidst the outsider art that adorns the walls of the shop.

Unfortunately after the following evening’s performance the nightly crowds of people swarming around the shop drew the ire of the neighbours and the final gigs for the festival became nomadic. I caught Wednesday January 27 at The Cross-Art + Books in Kings Cross. In the less charged and, let’s admit it, more comfortable atmosphere—a neat, white airy reading room lined with books—the three sets were more extended. Laura Altman (also curator for the evening) played clarinet with Monica Brooks on accordion. Exploring the threshold between sound and no sound, Brooks plays tiny sustained notes with bellow sighs, while Altman breathes through her instrument, eking out minute squeals. It’s the second time I’ve seen the pair play super quietly together, and while the exploration is rigorous and intriguing, I do occasionally long for a contrast to what sometimes can seem either like gentility or timidity.

Peter Blamey and Daniel Whiting are loud and dense in comparison, yet in reality this duo also exercises considered restraint. Blamey tames and shapes the blurp and stutters of his mixing board, which, when plugged in wrongly takes on a life of its own. Whiting deftly walks a fine line between pretty melodic snatches and hard electronic detritus, and together they create a place of broken rhythms and textures in which you can lose yourself.

The final set brought all four artists together: small sustained tones from the women, playing with shifting harmonic spectra, grounded by electronic grit from the men. Extra dynamic was added by some of Whiting’s offerings which occasionally verged on melody and acted as kind of a glue between the players.

The official final night of the Difficult Music Festival (there was yet another gig on Feb 2) was curated by Sumugan Sivanesan and found a home at Locksmith Gallery in Alexandria—probably better placed since the deserted thoroughfare of Regent Street was a far less conspicuous place for the mayhem on offer. Stepping onto the bill at the last moment was WT Norbert, recently relocated to Australia from Berlin, who played a short and humble set on an instrument constructed of 1/4inch jacks and effects pedals. While he admitted that this was his first gig for many years, his curious brand of minimal glitch was appealing.

X-No MSG-X was up next, a totally trashed display of non-sensical screaming and out of control exhibitionism which doesn’t warrant serious comment, though the miniature rave that emerged after much spazzing about did excite the kids. This was followed by the songs of Dominic Talarico which are not so much difficult music as just lo-fi electro-pop. With witty lyrics about meatheads and being a bong slave, he had a certain charm and once again had the kids dancing.

The final set was a face-off between Defektro, with his elaborate noise instruments, and Justice Yeldham (Lucas Abela), returning to his fan-mounted record attacked with a miked up skewer. The eviscerating sound of Abela’s instrument rendered it not the most sensitive tool for collaboration, but once the set evened out some interesting tones and structures emerged, particularly from Defektro. Being fearful of decapitation by vinyl, and even more afraid of Defektro’s gas bottle powered percussive flame thrower, I experienced this performance from the street looking in. All up a fittingly extreme end to an extreme festival.

While this vast array of artists and interpretations of ‘difficult music’ was going on nightly, the Sydney Festival/Modular Circa 1979: Signal to Noise forums were presented at the Seymour Centre, in which the heyday of post-punk was raised to holy status, and there were moans about how different times are now, with kids frittering away their time on Facebook. Well, it is certainly harder to live without the shackles of a real job these days, but the Difficult Music Festival, which was free or entry-by-donation and completely DIY (along with other independent events across the year), puts the kibosh on the assumption that this generation is just waiting around for things to happen. If you add in several extra gigs by the whirlwind duo of Clayton Thomas and Clare Cooper now based in Berlin, as well as Cooper’s inaugural two day audiovisual festival Smack Bang! at the Red Rattler, Sydney this January truly felt alive with the sounds of experimental music.

The Difficult Music Festival, Sedition and other venues;; Jan 1-31

RealTime issue #95 Feb-March 2010 pg. 49

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

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