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LA5: instrumental explorations

Danni Zuvela

Among the hotly anticipated acts at this year’s Liquid Architecture annual feast of sound art was France’s Pierre Bastien, whose unique mechanical metier has guaranteed him a special place in the canon of experimental music makers. Nearly 20 years ago, he constructed his ‘Meccanium’ orchestra, musical automatons constructed from Meccano parts, activated by electro-motors, and designed to play a range of acoustic instruments.

At Liquid Architecture 5 (LA5) Bastien showcased a number of inventions honed over his years as a prominent sound artist. One of these self-playing instruments was a home jukebox set-up with an arm modified to drop at regular intervals to produce short, tactile loops. Another resembled a pianola: a rotating cylinder with specially moulded fingers which, on each revolution, struck the keyboard to melodic effect. Video cameras and projectors relayed the actions of the instruments to the audience, a necessary intervention to explain and mediate the performance.

Bastien’s mech-orchestra produced some beautiful sounds—scratchy, light-industrial Meccano clicks, melodic tinkling from the tiny piano and tactile wheezes from the record player. When coupled with his nonchalantly played pocket trumpet, the proceedings took on a distinctly acid-jazz tone. However, despite the imaginative construction of the orchestra and the beauty of the individual sounds, when listened to with closed eyes the end result resembled the unremarkable fare dished up in cool cafés around the world: polished, smooth and studiously inoffensive. There is also the critical question of length. The works seemed overlong; the execution reminding, again and again, of Stravinsky’s famous comment: “Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.”

More substantial, theoretically exploratory music making occurred at the hands of the German duo Reinhold Friedl and Michael Vorfeld. In a haptic collision of improvisation and composition, the duo exploited body mechanics to create a series of soundscapes challenging conventional notions of rhythm and performance. The usual listing of Vorfeld on drums and Friedl on piano occludes one of the most significant aspects of their art: their practice of playing instruments in unconventional ways. Vorfeld’s highly sensual stroking motions are delivered in an extremely physical performance that involves leaping, crouching and generally spasmodic movements. In the world of sound art, where anti-spectacular effacement is usually the order of the day, Vorfeld’s agonised facial expressions, physical contortions and dapper appearance in a red satin shirt are especially memorable. Friedl’s interest in playing instruments in unconventional ways was manifested in his use of the inside of the grand piano where he played the strings with a long violin bow. Unexpectedly beautiful sounds emerged from this recontextualisation of a familiar instrument that doesn’t feature significantly in the work of current Australian experimental music. For Friedl, “the invention of new technics is a normal thing for an instrumentalist.”

The duo’s performance opened with quiet, precise introspection, moving through a variety of sounds to a very dense, highly intense noise palette. Vorfeld’s hyper-kinetic movements were counterbalanced by the image of the intensely concentrating Friedl, whose every move was reflected in the brilliant veneer of the piano lid. Both rigorously formal and utterly sensual, the performance built up tremendous power. After Bastien’s mechanised complexity, their radical reductionism resulted in a minimalistic sound experience that was, at times, still overwhelming.

As fascinating as the Germans’ project was, the real thrill of the night was in the first performance by Tim Catlin and Rod Cooper. Catlin played a guitar laid flat on a table with a series of vibrating objects, producing a range of unusual clanging and twanging sounds. Melbourne sculptor Cooper has been building instruments for the past few years and showcased the ‘Frogmouth’ at LA5, an intriguing instrument named after the birds around his home and designed for portability. A reworked hurdy-gurdy design with a metal body, this eye-catching concoction bristled with springs, rods and adapted household items. Pieces of metal doweling cut to tuned lengths produced an extraordinarily hypnotic sound when plucked, as did the bowing effect created by turning the fishing wheel. Cooper’s fondness for found objects shows up in the use of scrap items sourced at the performance location, and in the captivatingly aleatory nature of the sounds created. On the darkened stage, minimally lit with reds, and complemented by Catlin’s sensitive playing, these unearthly, exquisite sounds acquired a devotional edge. Cooper’s intelligent, inventive inquiry into acoustic music served as a necessary reminder that the auratic greatness of celebrities shouldn’t be allowed to overpower the true sui generis when it emerges.

Liquid Architecture 5, Tim Catlin and Rod Cooper; Reinhold Friedel and Michael Vorfeld; Pierre Bastien; Brisbane Powerhouse, July 23

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 48

© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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