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The intricacies of low level listening

Tim Catlin

Tim Catlin is a Melbourne based guitarist and sound artist. His album of prepared guitar soundscapes, Slow Twitch, was recently released on Dr Jim’s records. opened as an experimental music venue in Sydney in 2000 and lately releases material by local electronic artists. The label’s output seems largely informed by the Japanese Onkyo scene (the no-input sampler/mixer work of Sachiko M and Toshimaru Nakamura for example) and lower case sounds of practitioners like Bernard Günter, Francisco Lopez and Steve Roden. Contemporary sound art practices are reflected through a focus on sound’s inner workings. The sonic minutiae of texture, frequency and rhythm are highlighted, performance is shifted from physicality, instrumentality and theatricality and reduced to austere, small gestures and low-volume sounds.

Live performances of various combinations of the impermanent roster were held recently in Melbourne. The Make it up Club hosted the first night and the Stasis Duo (Matthew Earl and Adam Sussmann on no-input samplers and guitar) began the tour proper with locals Will Guthrie and Arek Gulbenkoglu. Their set started gently with a simple oscillating tone at a barely perceptible volume. Intricacies in the fabric of the sound, which might normally be overwhelmed by volume or density, were allowed space and time to develop and dissipate. The interplay between the duo samplers, with Guthrie’s percussive and textural embellishments and Gulbenkoglu’s prepared guitar, was restrained and quiet, slowly and gently unfolding in a languid, linear arc.

Peter Blamey and Daniel Whiting followed, using mixer feedback, delay and rhythm devices. Their set built incrementally from pulsing feedback, sibilant hiss and simple permutations of delay, to sheets of white noise and wave-like surging drones. Just when they seemed to reach critical mass, the set abruptly ended. A pity, as this rhythmic and textural density had many levels of complexity that could have been pursued further.

Feedback is an inherently unstable system and to use it in live performance is to flirt with chaos. Tiny adjustments and parameter tweaks can have totally disproportionate results, causing cascading, systemic effects, which can end in extreme noise or total loss of signal. Performing this way is as risky as more traditional musical improvisation, perhaps more so. Peter Blamey’s performance at RMIT’s Kaleide Theatre was a good example of this. His set of no-input mixer feedback started with an insistent rhythmic pattern building in density and then ending suddenly when he lost the feedback loop. In silence, Blamey worked the desk to restore the signal, slowly gathering momentum and volume as he continued his performance. Although the audience couldn’t see much action on stage, it was a volatile and engaging set.

Stasis Duo and Philip Samartzis’ performance in the same venue was so quiet that the tapping of keys and buttons was often audible over the music. Samartzis played prepared CDs and an ancient Moog synthesiser, while the duo relied again on emptied samplers and tone generator. Many of the same sonic signatures were present: delicate sine tones, insectile chirruping and muted bass teased at the edges of audibility. Although they hadn’t played together before, the trio’s considered use of silence, space and timbre was well-matched.

Joel Stern ended the RMIT session with a solo laptop performance using contact-miked cowbell and other objects. Combining these sounds with gestures, Stern offered a physicality and interaction often absent from laptop performances. Using a palette of harsh metallic sounds, crunchy scrapings and busily panning cross-rhythms, he segued into a droning gentle ambience to finish the night.

A final evening at the Westspace Gallery featured further pairings of impermanent. audio performers. The improvisational approach of all 3 nights focused on tiny gesture, subtle dynamics and contemplative performance. Whether this was a reaction against more traditional modes of improvisation or our everyday sonic overload, this self-effacement left little for the audience to observe as “performance.” Attention was diverted from watching to zeroing in on the inner workings of sounds, their placement and relationship: plenty of worthwhile opportunities for focused listening.

Make it Impermanent, Make it up Club, May 20; Impermanent Records and ((tRansMIT)), Kaleide Theatre, RMIT, May 23;, Westspace Gallery, Melbourne, May 24’s caleb~k will be presenting the festival featuring reknowned vocalist Ami Yoshida, (winner of the Golden Nica at Ars Electronica 2003), and Taku Sugimoto guitarist and improvisor along with Australian artists. The Sydney end of the festival will also include, a selection of soundworks by artists for headphones and Variable Resistance: 10 Hours of Sound from Australia curated by Phillip Samartzis, Sept 12 & 13, exhibition Sept 12-20 Performance Space, Sydney; concerts Sept 17-18, Footscray community Arts Centre, Melbourne.

Tim Catlin is a Melbourne based guitarist and sound artist. His album of prepared guitar soundscapes, Slow Twitch, was recently released on Dr Jim’s records.

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 46

© Tim Catlin; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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