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Totally Huge New Music Festival 2013

 Da Contents H2

October 14 2013
New music: celebration & angst
Matthew Lorenzon: Totally Huge New Music Festival overview

August 22 2013
The sound of reading
Matthew Lorenzon: David Toop with Decibel

August 18 2013
A pyrrhic revolt
Matthew Lorenzon: Latitude: Perspectives, WA Symphony Orchestra

Complexity from simple tools
John Barton: ICMC, Percussion and Live Electronics

August 16 2013
Acoustic space: explicit object
Steve Paraskos: di Scipio, Curran

Pianos wired
John Barton: Works for piano and electronics

August 15 2013
Bridges and deviations
Matthew Lorenzon: di Scipio, Curran, Haco, Burt

August 14 2013
Madness, hell and transcendence
John Barton: Michael Kieran Harvey

Programming a grotesque order
Matthew Lorenzon: Michael Kieran Harvey

August 12 2013
A choreography of oscillation
Matthew Lorenzon: Speak Percussion, Robin Fox, Transducer

Explorers of an alien planet
John Barton: Speak Percussion, Robin Fox, Transducer

August 11 2013
Celestial sweet spots
Steve Paraskos, Haco, Ourobonic Plague, Barn Owl

Churches of sound
John Barton, Haco, Ourobonic Plague, Barn Owl

Eclectic ecstasies
Matthew Lorenzon, Haco, Ourobonic Plague, Barn Owl


In the Ghent altarpiece John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary hold open Bibles, the brilliant pages standing out from their dark robes. You can almost hear the rustling of paper, John the Baptist’s hair shirt and the cloth the Virgin Mary uses to hold the book. At his keynote address at the 2013 International Computer Music Conference, David Toop suggested a performance of Cage’s 4:33 where the audience just looks at these paintings, imagining the sound world they seem to communicate over centuries.

Just as Van Eyck drew on an iconographic tradition of depicting readers lost in beatific contemplation on the Ghent altarpiece, so Toop drew on a shared—though less explicitly understood—sonic vocabulary to depict moments of midnight lucidity in his performances for the ICMC and the Totally Huge New Music Festival. While including iconographic sound symbols (the rustling of pages or a dog snoring), this vocabulary also included more abstract qualities that enabled Toop to include sounds of widely divergent origins in the same musical atmosphere.

Toop’s musical evocation of the atmosphere of nocturnal study draws from both domestic and pastoral sound sources. At Fremantle’s Pakenham Street Art Space, he conjures a palette of short sounds filtered by fuzzy, mid-range distortion. Low pops and clicks sound like the static at the end of an LP or the crackle of a fire. Sounds like croaking frogs and rustling leaves suggest a midnight walk. Enhanced by their punctual, distorted quality, the sounds carve out the silence around them, lulling the audience into a thoughtful repose just as the Bibles of Van Eyck’s readers are framed by relative darkness.

The effectiveness of this technique is evident when Toop suddenly strikes a snare, shocking the audience and attracting intense antipathy toward his person. The effect reminds me of the Rautavaara harp concerto where the devastated yet hopeful harp line is stomped underfoot in one of the worst-ever acts of orchestral sadism. The same device is used in television dramas such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Gone are the days of characters meeting with poetic justice after a long and bitter struggle. Now audiences invest in empathetic characters only to watch them die in the most cursory ways. If you really want to portray violence, you have to betray your audience.

A conceptual frame for Toop’s affecting atmospheres might be found in the artist John Latham’s concept of Flat Time that Toop described in his keynote. Flat Time allows for the comparison of events of different magnitudes and certainties. The concept is immediately attractive to the musician because the “roller-blind” metaphor Latham uses to illustrate the concept resembles a musical score, with the left hand side of the blind representing short events (such as light traversing the field of an electron), the right representing the entire time span of the universe and the roller serving as the unfolding present. Toop’s composition Flat Time Sounding for himself and the Decibel Ensemble requires the players to interpret descriptions of events, like (though not precisely) “a flake of rust falling into a flooded room,” “a difficult book shut suddenly” or “involuntary humming.”

The ensemble’s response was as varied as the images described, with clarinet key taps, bowed cymbals and vibraphone, finger-clicking, plucked piano strings and single nylon-string guitar notes. The fleeting gestures surrounded by rests provided time for the audience to digest the piece and, perhaps counter-intuitively, link the fragments. The piece began and ended with a peep separated from the rest of the events by a minute of silence. In a lovely demonstration of the idea of Flat Time opening up a space for the comparison of divergent events, towards the end of the performance somebody began playing in the sound garden outside Hackett Hall, incorporating their otherwise separate event into the Flat Time ‘score.’

There are some musical precedents for Latham’s Flat Time, such as Schenkerian analysis where the entire piece is broken down into foreground, middleground and background levels of harmonic movement. I wonder how a representation of Flat Time would account for simultaneous events of the same magnitude such as the vanishing note played by all members of the ensemble at the end of Flat Time Sounding (we might need another extra dimension, a Flat Time swiss roll). From the listener’s point of view, would they be one or two events? In any case, Toop’s textures of discrete events show how micro-events can be composed together to create expansive sonic and mental spaces.

Totally Huge New Music Festival, David Toop with Decibel, Western Australian Museum, Perth, 16 August

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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