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Sonic reinvigorations

Jonathan Marshall

The rise of Melbourne bar culture has enabled new music, sound art and anarcho-jazz to establish a foothold in the city—notably in the northern side streets behind the Windsor Hotel (Meyer’s Place Bar, the Loop Bar etc). The Loop is a way-cool, lounge-style bar with impressive AV capacities, making it ideal for relative newcomers Transparent Means, an ensemble led by keyboard player Alex Carpenter and electronics and percussion manipulator Russell Goodwin. The duo is particularly influenced by 1950s/1960s musique concrete ideas about texture, minimalism, repetition and “microsonics” (ie very small, slow shifts of texture, timbre, tempo or quality). Their most recent performance featured electronica classics by key composers of Fluxus, John Cage (Fontana Mix) and La Monte Young (The Melodic Version of the Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer).

Wearing their historical influences on their sleeves, Transparent Means’ music appears somewhat dated and yet the microtextural investigation of well-worn motifs allows for extremely subtle and expansive ways of interpreting the technology through which such musical ideas may now be realised.

In their most recent performance Transparent Means included striking imagery by Michael Carmody, including a particularly beautiful sequence featuring spreading, abstract blots of light and colour on a black background for Young’s The Melodic Version. Like many aspects of this ensemble’s work, though, this needs further development. Carmody’s video materials consist of a series of fully-prepared tapes which are simply set going at the beginning of each composition, radically reducing the possible interactions between sound and vision in a live environment.

Perhaps more importantly, in all 6 pieces they performed, Carmody’s accompanying imagery was drawn from relatively circumscribed sources (footage of an old woman at the hairdresser, a bike in a park, urban landscape through train windows or from the streets). Several of these were the same, unprocessed source materials that he has manipulated, flared and distorted for other Melbourne commissions—notably his projection for director Bagryana Popov’s excellent community theatre piece Stories From the Hidden City (Melbourne Museum, 2002). Carmody therefore needs to record some new raw footage and to mix his video materials live if his work is to fully support the structured, minimalist, Fluxus-style improvisations currently championed by Transparent Means.

Carpenter provides the most visibly interesting contribution to the events as a performer and composer. His principal technique involves using his keyboard as a triggering device for slow, predominantly chordal changes characterised by extreme overdrive processing, which makes the organ notes sound similar to electric guitar feedback. These materials are allowed to accumulate and decay, or are given a wave-like throb through the use of delay, reverb and similar methods. Goodwin on the other hand works predominantly from behind a small mixing desk connected to other pieces of electronic equipment. His various theremin-like electronic punctuations and his mixing of layered audio static provide both a satisfying depth and various temporal markers within Carpenter’s more clearly enunciated contributions.

Apart from the as yet unresolved relationship to history embodied within the work of Transparent Means, the group needs to address pragmatics and staging. It is a sad indictment of the electronica sound art world along the Australian south-eastern seaboard that so few shows start on time and most are characterised by frankly embarrassing intervals during which musicians and roadies battle to make their equipment function properly. The 2003 iaudio concerts showed it’s possible to smoothly swap from one ungainly mechanism to another, yet most other sound art performances like What Is Music? and independents such as Transparent Means seem incapable of planning a sound check prior to the performance.

Despite shortcomings, Transparent Means makes an important contribution to Melbourne sound culture by reinjecting Fluxus influences through what might be considered the sonic, electronica equivalent of “rough theatre.”

Music of Transparent Means, performers Alex Carpenter, Russell Goodwin, projection Michael Carmody; Loop Bar, Melbourne, Nov 25, 2003

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 45

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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