The Phonetic Ensemble
Before the first exhibition was installed, the new Bus Projects space in Collingwood opened its doors to Jon Heilbron’s Phonetic Ensemble. Like many double bassists, Heilbron straddles the worlds of notated and non-notated music, as comfortable in an orchestra as he is improvising with a group of jazz-trained musicians. The Phonetic Ensemble—a sprawling collection of brass players, percussionists, guitarists, double bassists, woodwind players and computer-musicians—collectively questions this divide by experimenting with the conventions of performance and musical notation. In a several-hour musical exorcism of the pristine new gallery, The Phonetic Ensemble performed two sets juxtaposing the idea of “sound on silence” with “silence on sound.” This conceptual arrangement was augmented with a score by Manfred Werder consisting of several blank pages and the words:
( sounds )
The introduction of “place” to the performance through the distribution of players across the gallery’s three main rooms clustered the instrumentalist and added a dynamic inertia to the development of silence and sound throughout the piece. Suddenly this was not an experiment with a single musical surface projected towards the audience from a stage, but several such experiments interacting and affecting one another through individual echoes, flocking and contrasts between individuals and groups.
In the front room (c) guitarists Dave Brown and Brett Thompson set themselves up between Reuben Lewis on trumpet and Dale Gorfinkel, who played a modified trumpet with a clarinet mouthpiece and a long plastic tube running from a valve to a secondary trombone bell. On the other side of a partition the trumpet-players Peter Knight and Callum G’Froerer flanked Jon Smeathers with his laptop running Ableton Live (b). Down a short hallway the gallery’s narrow projection space (a) was inhabited by Matthias Schack-Arnott’s table of percussion instruments, Jon Heilbron on double bass and Aviva Endean on clarinets.
When the concert began I found myself in room a, where Endean played swelling, nasal phrases over the grinding sound of a port glass rubbed against a coarse tile. Heilbron added a ground of low, bowed tones before contrasting with high, short attacks and low trills. Schack-Arnott responded by rattling a chime made of empty bottles. Though group a formed a musical world unto itself, they were soon echoed by muted trumpet trills from room b, where a more timbral game was at play. G’Froerer’s trumpet hissed and spat like a leaky espresso machine and Smeathers triggered harsh explosions of square-wave tones. This sound-world was picked up in room c where wooden-sounding “chucks” and muted flurries from the guitars announced a flock of dry, harsh sounds between rooms b and c.
Standing up and playing low, grumbling sounds at ground-level with his flexible trombone bell, Gorfinkel moved to the gallery’s “sweet spot” where all three groups could be heard equally (d). Raising and lowering the trombone bell from the ground, he was able to mute and unmute a quiet gurgling sound that also projected from the primary trumpet bell. The timbre of the sound was further manipulated by raising the bell into the air and directing the sound toward the three main rooms.
Returning to room a, a man lay down and Endean and Gorfinkel were playing around his head and pressing the trombone bell on his back. This moment had a certain pedigree, with both Schack-Arnott and Endean having recently developed intimate one-audience-member programmes.
Suddenly there was a breath, the first moment of silence in the performance so far. The rest of the performance was more focused, with detailed interaction across the ensemble. The silence was broken by a clatter of high metal percussion and low double bass tones. The clatter and bass subsided, leaving high tones from the clarinet and trumpets in all three rooms. These give way in turn to a low double-trill on the clarinet and the quiet whirr of a coffee stirrer with a paper fin playing a double bass string.
I installed myself at d as shifting shades of brass and low, distorted guitar chords struck up from rooms b and c. The clarinetresponded with low, rising glissandi, which were in turn echoed in the electronics. The electronics built in a garbled fury as the trumpets entered staggered across the space. The trumpet echoes died away, leaving a decorated clarinet line and rattling bells.
Shifting their attention from the sound painted on silence to the importance of silence between sounds, the musicians were much less restrained with the sounds they did make in the second set. The performance was not so much an exploration of silence than an exploration of spatial disconnection. The uncanny atmosphere of the second set was enhanced by a rearrangement of the ensemble. Thompson took up the Endean’s corner, while Lewis took up corner e. Brown stoically held room c, playing a quiet ostinato that could not be heard in any other room. Lewis offered fluttering “sigh motifs” from his lonely corner, while G’Froerer responded with rising interjections. Silence returned, except for Schack-Arnott bowing crackling, popping sounds out of the protective foam of his table. A distorted rumble rose from the electronics. Lewis started throwing rattling, jittering tones between rooms a and c while Thompson plucked out a lazy tune next to Schack-Arnott shaking his percussion table. Wailing trumpets erupted while Schack-Arnott took to worrying a large chain.
It is remarkable how the spatialisation of the ensemble rearranged the priorities of the performance from an interrogation of silence and sound to musical connection and disconnection across the ensemble. This was evinced by the performers, who strived to maintain connection with the rest of the ensemble by inhabiting spaces d and e. It was more interesting as a listener, however, when they didn’t. The interest lay in hearing the connections across the spaces and moving to discover a sound, or even a whole sonic environment, that was inaudible a few steps away, in other words, the relative distribution of silence across the space.