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Dean Roberts Dean Roberts
photo Christina Tester
Dotmov: Old Melbourne Gaol

The opening event of the Melbourne season of Liquid Architecture 7 takes place on a wintry night in the disused and dusty former City Watch House in the forbidding Old Melbourne Gaol. On entering the high-ceilinged corridor where the performance takes place, we are greeted, through barred windows, by TV monitors showing fuzzy old black and white footage of what looks like a hanging, which certainly establishes a tone for the evening.

In this wing, there are 17 cells and a couple of larger rooms, one perhaps a refectory, where Dotmov helpers now reassuringly serve drinks. Each cell is bare but for a bench and a steel toilet pan. Some cells are now equipped with percussion instruments and some with video equipment. In a padded cell, a CCTV screen displays imagery such as an inverted view of the visitor and a rotating cross relayed from a camera in the opposite cell that, in Nam June Paik-style televisual irony, is itself monitoring a rotating screen bearing the ‘original’ image. Other cells are darkened, though in one, a skull with a light inside adds a sideshow flavour.

An array of loudspeakers through the building broadcast the first of the evening’s 3 long, untitled works. The sounds of steel platters, sticks and drumsticks, bowed metal and electronics, produced collaboratively by several players, echo grimly through the crowded space. The audience files slowly around trying different listening and viewing positions. When heard from a dark, empty cell, a desolately squealing cello is even more disturbing. The many helpers at the performance document it all, audience included, in video and photograph, in a kind of reflexive surveillance.

The second work is for electronic sounds and samples of all kinds, including something reminiscent of chanting Tibetan monks and their instruments. The sound level builds to an overwhelming crescendo that seems to shake the building. Both these works are composites of extended, complex arrangements of pre-recorded and live sound, with the performers invisible to each other in different cells, producing an intricate, evolving and densely layered whole.

The final piece, Robin Fox’s laser light projection and sound work, takes place in the refectory, a space about 10 x 15m, with wooden benches and tables. Broadcast from inside a barred cage that encloses one end of the room, the sound and vision are synchronised to create a synaesthetic experience. (Fox’s concern with synaesthesia is the subject of Mitchell Whitelaw’s review of his Backscatter DVD on RealTime’s Earbash.) Fox’s heavily textured work is alternately driving, pulsating, rhythmic and meditative, shifting between the minimal and the complex: a sonic vibrato parallels a shudderingly staccato light, tubes of light accompany booming bass, and bandwidths narrow and broaden in what seems like an extended improvisation. After the weightiness of the first 2 pieces, Fox’s work has an almost nightclubby feel.

Dotmov, an ensemble of RMIT University students, has blended sound, vision, performance and location to create an innovative and memorable piece of theatre. The presence of the music combined with the large crowd suggests a reoccupation of the gaol. Such a productive collaboration has potential for adaptation to other significant sites.

Arts House, North Melbourne, Town Hall

In contrast to the oppressive immersion of Old Melbourne Gaol, the concerts at the gracious North Melbourne Town Hall place the audience in a conventional auditorium, albeit surrounded by 4 loudspeakers that are brightly lit to emphasise their central role. The July 14 concert, the first of 3 at Arts House, comprises 3 performances (again untitled) that, as LA7’s artistic director Nat Bates suggests in his introduction, are intended to ground the music in particular instrumental forms and then to step away from them.

Donna Hewitt (voice/effects) and Julian Knowles (electric guitar/laptop) open with a crooning, jazz-influenced, darkly romantic work. Hewitt stands at a microphone engineered to produce sound through movement, swaying and swirling it to generate effects, an ironic move given the pop iconicity of the (male) performer with mike stand. Knowles also sways his guitar to create feedback, even scraping the neck across the computer in a post-Townsend gesture. As the sound whines, sings and sighs in complex layers with multiple rhythms, Hewitt’s morphed voice emerges into dreamy awareness. The aesthetic here is in the electronic orchestration of musical and non-musical fragments into a seductive song.

Dean Roberts’s solo work follows. Barely feathering the strings of his guitar, he builds a slow, introspective blues. His whispered, disjointed song becomes even sadder through its attenuated development. The amplifier and guitar sound levels are so high that merely touching the instrument generates an intense polyphonic signal, and a chord tears through the auditorium like a thunderclap. Roberts is a master orchestrator of harmonics, creating a dialogue between guitar and monitor, whose feedback loop produces a haze like that enveloping an oncoming truck in the desert, the work’s drowsy, melancholic slowness belying its erotic power. The music progresses in a series of cadences like telegraph poles in a road movie. Roberts (NZ) and Hewitt & Knowles, probe the moment when a sequence of inchoate sounds resolves into a musical genre and where feeling is triggered into consciousness to envelop the experiencing subject.

Lastly, the Swiss Australian Collectibles, an ensemble of Swiss and Australian performers and mixers—3 on stage and 3 at the desk—play a variety of percussion instruments and flute. Their lyrical, sculpted work is grounded in percussion writing of many genres, suggesting influences from Xenakis to Taiko, which is then electronically mediated and laced with recorded sound to produce a dense overlay. In one piece, a disembodied female voice dances between the loudspeakers at each corner of the room, her breathy lyrics floating teasingly above the percussion. The listener is torn between trying to recognise words, sounds and musical forms and simply experiencing them.

Evident in all 3 performances is the adroit mediation of a sound or musical form whose transformation creates an independent sonic element that is then folded back into the mix. The musicians balance the degree of mediation and mixing within frameworks of popular musical genres to produce unique montages. The aesthetic potential of such work is in the skilled orchestration of effects that appeal both musically and sonically. The listener listens through the music and becomes absorbed in the processes of listening and interpretation and in the nature of sound itself.

Liquid Architecture 7, artistic director Nat Bates; Dotmov, Old Melbourne Gaol, July 13; Arts House, July 1

RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 54

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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