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REV festival - online exclusive

Making instruments, ears, audiences

Gail Priest surveys the issues and events of the REV Festival

Graeme Leak & Linsey Pollak, The Lab, Diversi B Graeme Leak & Linsey Pollak, The Lab, Diversi B
On the plane heading to the inaugural REV festival at the Brisbane Powerhouse, I read about Frank Zappa's appearance on the Steve Allen show in 1963 (The Wire 218). Pre-moustached, a young and serious Zappa was scheduled for the 'kook' spot to teach Allen how to play a bicycle—how to make a flute of the seat support and thrum its structure. Perhaps the only thing that could have made Australia's newest music festival for 'new sounds and new sources' even better would have been a bit of Zappa wafting around the cacophonous halls of the Powerhouse.

The REV festival (Real Electronic Virtual) is the result of a partnership between Brisbane Powerhouse and QUT Creative Industries Music @ QUT, executively produced by Andy Arthurs and Zane Trow under the artistic directorship of long time instrument innovator and performer Linsey Pollak. Focussing on experimental musical instrument making, it featured over 40 artists making a diverse range of works in both acoustic and digital domains, not only offering the opportunity to see the works of prominent international and Australian artists but also serving as a public outcome for the masters students of the course of the same name offered by Music @ QUT. Over 3 days, every nook, crevice, (even bannister rail) of the Powerhouse was alive with talks, workshops, installations, whooshes, doings, tweets and bleeps.

The molecules of music

The international drawcards for the event were David Toop (UK), scanner (UK), Bart Hopkins (USA) and Phil Dadson (NZ). All made presentations about their history as sound makers. Hopkins and Dadson are primarily acoustic instrument makers, scanner primarily digital. Having played just about everything over the last 40 years, it was Toop's role to act as a kind of conceptual glue between the two methodologies. It was a very strategic move on behalf of the organisers to allow 2 methodologies so often thrown into schism to exist side by side, encouraging audiences and participants to make rhizomic connections.

David Toop provided a laid-back wander through his work over the past 40 years with audio samples from Bo Diddley, his own wild improvisatory work with Bob Cobbing and Paul Burwell, Whirled Music (made up of all things spun and whizzed through the air), up to work he has just recently finished using organic samples and computer manipulations. He posed the question that forever floats in the air at these events—is there a crisis in the live performance of sound and music due to technology? (See Keith Armstrong, and Joni Taylor on Analogue2Digital, RealTime 48.) Interestingly the debate never got off the ground in a formal sense, even in the scanner and Toop 'odd couple' forum 2 days later, but became an ongoing discussion among artists and audiences at the fabrique evenings where computer technology came to the fore. (For more on Toop see Greg Hooper, for more on fabrique see Richard Wilding and Keith Armstrong.)

Bart Hopkins is an instrument maker and founder of the experimental music musical instrument (ExMI) magazine and website. In his first session, he conducted a weird and wonderful journey through the work of some international instrument makers. Of breathtaking sonic and visual beauty was the Bambuso Sonaro made by Hans Van Koolnij-a huge bamboo flute-cum-pipe organ with the most haunting sound. Kraig Grady from LA has invented a whole new world and culture, Anaphoria, to provide a context for his new tuning, music and instruments . The long string instruments were also particularly fascinating. Played by vibrating the string longitudinally, requiring extraordinary lengths of wire, the action is full bodied, creating a kind of choreography. The most beautiful audio and visual example was Ela Lamblin's suspended singing stones, producing a stunning, sustained, almost pining sound. I would have loved to have seen video footage of the bodies in action. Hopkins also took us through mouth musics, using ceramic multi chambered pipes (that talk an underwordly language), metal musics, glass musics, even water musics. He completed the journey with Jacques Dudon's light music-a kind of light version of the pianola roll. Using a photosonic disc, photocell and synthesiser, the light shining through the patterns on the disc switch the photocell on and off activating the synthesiser. The patterns on the disc alone are very beautiful, the sound created a highly detailed electronic esoterica. It was a glorious journey through magic sounds and imaginations.

Hopkins also chaired a "brainstorming session" along with Phil Dadson and Craig Fischer (an Australian instrument-maker) for the discussion of burgeoning ideas. Although there was not a flood of new instrument concepts, the discussion was a hotbed of excited technical speculation, with the seed of one person's idea catapulting across the room to cross-pollinate with the work and ideas of another. As someone grappling with the physics of sound production I found it fascinating.

It is inevitable that at every gathering of artists there will be the discussion of marginalisation of certain sectors of the arts and the dearth of funding for these areas, and it found its home in this session. The flipside of this argument, tentatively raised, is "what's wrong with being on the margins, that's where all the good stuff happens". However the discussion was artfully refocussed by Linsey Pollak suggesting that REV was a positive example of how to show critical mass to funding bodies, and a way of gathering new audiences. It was also in this session that the acoustic/digital argument came closest to erupting, as the suggestion that large companies had stopped developing new instruments—primarily traditional orchestral instruments—was countered with examples like Yamaha's heavy investment in computer-based R&D.

Peter Biffin Peter Biffin

One of the artists whose opinion was frequently sought during the brainstorming session was Peter Biffin, who has long been developing coned stringed instruments in an attempt to minimise the size and maximise the vibrations of the sound board. These instruments were on display for the duration of the festival, and each evening, assisted by percussionist Tony Lewis, Biffin performed a mini-concert. Talking us through various developments, from his encounter with the Chinese erhu through to his own cone based tarhus (of all shapes and sizes), he played detailed pieces on each to exemplify the rich variations of sound. Due to the east meets west (and I mean country &) nature of the instruments, the music often had a gentle, haunting quality reminiscent of the beautiful collaboration between Eddie Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in Dead Man Walking. Biffin's approach was informal and educational, simple and satisfying.

Phil Dadson presented an all too brief retrospective of his work with From Scratch, the New Zealand ensemble that has been making exhilarating, rhythm-based performance on original instruments since 1974. Much of the work shown (on video) incorporated huge instruments made out of pvc pipes struck with rubber mallets (or thongs, hence the colloquial 'thong-a-phone'). The sound is bold and bassy, full of wallops of air. Dadson describes his interest in new instruments as a search for "sounds with a bit of magic." Based on political concerns in the Pacific and incorporating spatial and sculptural elements, the work enters intermedia areas, often site-specific, and more recently incorporating interactive video elements. Some of Dadson's solo installation work includes huge playable sculptures in a coastal sculpture garden in New Zealand where he is also planning a playable fence and a gorgeous gallery installation involving 5 tonnes of landscaping material to form a massive foley tray. In her introduction, producer Fiona Allan informed us that she had not been able to bring all of From Scratch to the festival due to the usual budgetary restraints, but from this glimpse of their work it was a great shame. There is a new audience that would appreciate this dynamic and ever evolving performance group.

Even the Kitchen Sink

The main showcases of the festival were the Diversi Concerts A & B. Presenting the work of the established instrument makers, the concerts were well planned to combine the more conceptually difficult work with more populist models, allowing audiences to get a taste of something new. Diversi B was a user-friendly all-star experience including a Graeme Leak retrospective, Greg Sheehan, Bart Hopkins, Hubbub and cameos from Linsey Pollak. Leak is a virtuoso. His work is very performative, sometimes leading it dangerously close to cute, but forever surprisingly innovative. Playing the contents of his briefcase he DJ'd with a zipper, scr-scr-scratched with a business card across his facial stubble, and beatboxed with a pencil against his cheek. With the assistance of percussionist Greg Sheehan, he even played the kitchen sink, and made a tuned percussive instrument of a fishbowl of water on which floated wooden bowls. This instrument reappeared in the masterful piece by Leak and Pollak called The Lab. Posing as scientists they constructed the instruments before us-blowing air under the wooden bowls to tune them, and accurately filling testubes to create a well tuned glass panpipe. Rather than loosing its mystery, seeing the process of tuning and tweaking these ad hoc instruments enhanced the magic and appreciation of the Leak & Pollak artistry.

Bart Hopkin presented his instruments in an appealingly simple and humble way. His creations are variations and manipulations of those already known, like bizarre cousins: a derivation of the clarinet made of open piping with a piece of sprung bent wood, to block air, created haunting slides and nuances; the cat face, a kind of thumb piano with different lengths of metal poking from it and big whiskers for ultra-boing bass; the multi-chambered wind instrument producing harmonies with itself; and the rocking horse zither called Polly, tinkling like an alien music box, accompanied by Pollak on his reed based saxillo. Hopkin's creatures are almost familiar yet produce mesmerising otherworldy timbres.

Less otherworldly was Greg Sheehan playing a variety of early childhood toys. I was reminded of Hopkins earlier in the day stating that his new instruments can never be truly tamed. These toys certainly had a mind of their own. There are moments of rhythmic interest and ingenuity, but it seemed generally haphazard. However Sheehan is a beguiling performer who worked the crowd well. I would be interested to see Sheehan and Toy Death—the Sydney group who use all manner of battery operated toys-have a play-off. That would get the analogue/digital dialogue going.

The final act were the festival favourites, Junkstas, playing the airbells-coke bottles inflated with a bike pump. When struck and shaken they produce clear ringing tones. The team of Hubbub music perform an energising body percussive choreography that literally sings, awe inspiring in its simplicity.

The Diversi A concert was a little more varied, and for me a little less satisfying, starting with Totally Gourdgeous, a folk band that play instruments made of Gourds—guitar, bass, drum, violin and more. They joked that they were the Britney Spears of the festival, amazed at the fact that, in the pumpkin-coloured clothing and silly hats, they for once were the most conservative thing on the bill. The folk tunes were well performed, and the instruments beautifully made (on sale in the foyer), however I found their abundance of joyful cheesy personality (yes, I'm a Sydney cynic), a little overwhelming. They are difficult to place among the experimental work of Phil Dasdon and Jon Rose but the concert series was called Diversi after all.

Dadson's work was pared back compared with that seen earlier in the day on the From Scratch video. His primary instruments were singing stones-flat stones that change tone, and almost chatter according to how they are cupped-and a long stringed instrument (relying on sympathetic resonances?) with various playing modes. In order to accompany himself he used a small fan with a an attachment on the blade hitting the string at semi regular intervals, creating a drone. The considered pace and space within this performance drew it close to a meditation.

Diversi A also included more performance-based work such as Amber Hansen, who belly dances while triggering samples from her chain and metal adornments-a shimmer of the hips sonically translated into a cavernous rattle. A well integrated performative concept, it will be interesting to see how far she can push it. Unaccompanied Baggage involved an elaborate setup of taking sound samples from the audience and activating them with triggers on the floor. Two dancers create movement phrases and build the work into a collaborative improvisation. Structured like a masterclass or workshop showing, the work was interesting, and while I'm often one to beg "show me the score", I almost had too much of it in this performance. For some in the audience it was certainly an education, for others, just a little bit too much information.

The taste of walls

When I was 4 I announced to my parents that I didn't like my piece of toast—that it tasted like walls. It became a family expression for something that was bland. Biospheres: Secrets of the City, tasted kind of like the monolithic walls of the Powerhouse on which 3 artists' large scale images were projected. I appreciate the ambient aesthetic—catching things out of the corner of the eye, the edge of the ear. I appreciate finding things in banality (hell-try having a conversation with me). I simply found the work under-developed. The soundtrack, a collaboration between scanner and I/O (aka Lawrence English, also curator of the fabrique events—see Wilding and Armstrong) had interesting
text-u-real moments—samples of what I assume to be taxi drivers around Brisbane, the bleeps and bustle of a hospital ward, and a very nice moment of an old man telling his family history that had been effected to delete fragments of words, leaving you grasping for what was lost. But it was the relation of sound to projection that felt unformed, whether that be sympathetic or antagonistic.

One wall involved video that was partially obscured by the pyrophone (fire organ), creating texture washes. The centre wall had a series of slides of the minutiae of street signs, and projections of graffiti. I like the concept of walls projected onto walls, but wanted more substance to them—more like the scrawled message 'free' on one of the images—and more of them. It seemed like a limited palette. The Flash animation by rinzen was more rewarding, with a kind of screen saver mesmeric effect imposed over grey silhouettes of buildings made of chunky shadows and hollows, with bright flashes of street sign symbols. I feel like an opportunity was lost to let the walls of the Powerhouse seep out through the projections, really drawing our attention to 'familiar and mundane yet unrecognisable' referred to in the publicity hype.

The gesture of sound

A particular success of REV was the installation component, including the Roving Concerts, where an audience was guided through the space to different pockets of performance. The highlight for me was David Murphy's Circular Harp, a large semi spherical instrument strung according to geometric patterns. Looking a little like a masonic ritual (speculation only), it was played by three people (Murphy, Leak and Sheehan). The motion of hands crossed over and bodies circling created a beautiful synthesis of sound and physicality. The sound was appropriately light and ethereal, the trio constantly improving on the composition over the 3 days. But even more impressive was the integration of sound and video. A ball of mercury and 2 bowls (one with suspended aluminium dust, one with bronze dust) were placed over speakers, so that they responded to the vibrations creating wonderful textures and patterns. All perfectly circular these visual representations were layered and x-faded over a birds-eye view of the played harp. A video artist suggested that the interface was too simple, that so much more could have been done with the image, but for me it was the simplicity and connectedness of sound and sight that made the work so exquisite.

As Hopkins had suggested in his presentation, the beauty of innovative instruments is the gestural choreography required to play them. This was particularly evident in Stuart Favilla's Light Harp. Tracing virtual strings with lights and lasers, the instrument acted as a controller to produce samples. Favilla has developed a deft action of caressing invisible strings to produce both finely controlled and chaotic moments of improvisation, accompanied by Joanne Cannon on her leather Serpentine Bassoon wired up with and light, touch and movement sensors. (See also Greg Hooper on the Roving Concert)

The issue of gesture also arose in the demonstration performance [de]CODE me—a work in progress by Lindsay Vickery. Wearing a motion sensitive suit, the dancer has control over some basic parameters involving midi samples and video manipulation. Vickery admitted that it was still very much in development, and limited by software foibles. It was interesting to see the movement limitations it placed upon the dancer Katherine Duhigg (scheduled performer Melissa Madden Gray being unable to attend). It has potential and raises many questions as to new media integration with live performance and issues of the mediated body.

The Devil went up to New Farm

The concluding concert for REV was Hyperstring by Jon Rose. Having never experienced Rose's improvisations for midi activating violin and bow, I was filled with an almost manic joy—much like Rose himself. He prefaced the concert with words to the effect, "if you don't like what I'm doing at one time, hang in there because I'll soon be doing something different." Like a hot whirlwind from hell he ploughed through his bag of tricks—similar to a car radio being tuned—creating fast and furious chaos punctuated by occasional moments of simplicity: a rumination on the place of the banjo; a glacial sample storm with minimalist melodic line. Rose is all fingers and toes, wiggling and jiggling and tickling every possible sound out of his instrument from rubbing the back of the violin with a wet finger to blaring speaker feedback like a vintage rockstar. He must have felt like one when the flock rushed him afterwards to talk. It was a glorious sounding out for the festival. (That's if you don't include the unofficial jam session on the Hubbub's Sprocket percussion machine that was still going when I left at 1.30am Monday morning.)

Hubbub Music's Sprocket Hubbub Music's Sprocket
A joyful noise

Making noise brings out the child in us all. There is a certain naivety that even my cynicism is insufficient to quash when it comes to the production of beautiful noises from unlikely things. The real success of REV was not only the bringing together of diverse music and sound makers, focussing on new instruments and offering a level playing field for experimentation, but also, as most of the events were free and interactive, introducing audiences to new sonic experiences. Given the ongoing challenge to get audiences for new work in Australia, the positive effect of REV, with the Powerhouse bursting with clunks, clangs, whirls and whispers, and the showcasing of a myriad of innovative sound generating methodologies, cannot be underestimated.

Epilogue: Changing the metabolic rate

In the final moments of the scanner/Toop discussion, "Wave form style versus liquid breath technique", attempting to grapple with the ongoing argument of performance in sound, an older woman began to describe her own work. She spoke of making installations in 4 dimensions, engaging the body within the sound by changing it's metabolic rate, forcing it to slow down and attend to detail, by using gravel or painting images on the floor. Zane Trow then introduced us to Joan Brassil, a significant Australian artist with a long commitment to performance as part of visual and sound art. In one brief description she managed to distil the arguments about the performative in sound down to the simple principle of involving and effecting the body in space, slowing it down to listen.

Early on the Saturday morning, my hotel began to play itself—becoming a musique concrète creation—water rushing through stereo pipes, handrails thrumming, bedsprings creaking. In my semi-conscious state I started to review the soundscape. I felt at that moment that I had made John Cage a proud old sound pioneer. Maybe even Zappa too.

REV festival April 5-7: Sound Body, David Toop, April 5 ; Who's doing What?, Bart Hopkins April 5; Brainstorming, April 5; Made from Scratch , Phil Dadson, April 6; Wave form versus liquid breath technique, April 7; [de]CODE me, April 6; Peter Biffin and Tony Lewis, April 5 - 7; BioSpheres: Secrets of the City, April 5; Hyperstring, April 7; Roving Concert April 5-7; Diversi A & B April 5 & 6, fabrique, April 5& 6, Brisbane Powerhouse Centre for the Live Arts.

RealTime issue #49 June-July 2002 pg. web

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

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