BIFEM: James Hullick, Rotation Post-Sapien

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Review by Jaslyn Robertson

In the centre of the stage, a bazaar of trinkets covers the piano. Our attention is first diverted, though, to a humbler setup on the floor where James Hullick begins Rotation Post-Sapien, his exploration of the sound world he’s brought with him to BIFEM. The sounds he begins with are child-like and ritualistic: the gentle tapping of a drum, rolling sticks over each other, a cymbal reverberating. Quiet groans escape his mouth. A large screen to the side of the stage gives us a simultaneous close-up of Hullick’s sound-making.

Soft moans accompany the artist’s move to the piano, inside which he places his camera so we have an intimate view of the arrangement of his materials. The inventory of objects in and on the instrument range from typical prepared piano settings, giving it a percussive sound, to hanging bells, bags of rocks and other objects outside the piano for Hullick to manipulate. While prepared piano is well established, Hullick creates a unique sound world, using it not so much as a melodic instrument but to create a natural soundscape. A golden elephant suspended above the piano strings swings gently in front of the camera. A tablet lies inside, placed so that electronic sounds can be triggered as Hullick plays.

The written score Hullick occasionally glances at suggests a pre-composed structure to the improvisation. As the work progresses, this becomes more evident as a cycling through emotions as well as an exploration and destruction of his carefully constructed environment. When he first sits at the piano, his movements are deliberately tentative, feeling out the sounds. The piano playing is initially percussive, but with a resonance that seems amplified. Now Hullick’s vocal tones transform into hissing and accentuated breathing, echoing through electronics while his use of piano and percussive objects becomes more frantic. The elephant’s circular movements are interrupted by increasing vibrations sending it swinging in all directions.

While many modern composers use pre-recorded music or soundscape to add to the texture of a solo or small ensemble performance, Hullick performs all his noises in the moment. Using only short samples and sound effects, he doesn’t impose on the highly responsive, emotional nature of his improvisation. He cleverly builds the texture with acoustic sounds as well, rolling a marble across the front of the piano into a drum, a sustained sound over which he can continue to play. The way Hullick plays the electronic sounds, and even the positioning of devices inside and next to the piano, prompt the audience to question as to the need for a strict distinction between electronic and acoustic instruments. Repeating rhythmic and melodic figures develop in the piano part while Hullick creates an electronic soundscape over the top. It doesn’t matter that he occasionally breaks his rhythm handling the two parts at once; it adds to the natural motion of the performance, something which wouldn’t be the same if he had a second performer playing the electronic component. Hullick makes a point of keeping the piece as human as possible by having complete control of all sounds–including electronic ones–at all times.

Sci-fi sound effects gradually make their alien intrusion into the environment, setting off a turbulent juxtaposition between the natural and the synthetic. Bleeps, squelches and futuristic laser noises push their way between prepared piano and bells. An indiscernible robotic voice makes the occasional foreign statement and a spacey synth melody is heard. Everything is now amplified, and the music makes its anxious descent into destruction. The mechanical mood of this section contrasts with the opening, as the introduction of a new category of sounds to music before it is understood enough to harness emotive possibilities. Technology appears to overpower the humanity of the prepared piano.

Hullick returns his attention to the piano with a changed attitude. His once careful, calculated movements seem to have been transformed by a fit of rage as he throws around objects inside the instrument. A spidery metallic device is violently tossed across the strings, dislodging screws and bells. The elephant almost swings off its chain in the entropy. Piano strings hit forcefully with mallets set off a cymbal, producing a crashing wave that dominates the space. Red lights flare across the stage as Hullick cries out, his voice piercing through the chaos of both piano and electronics.

Then, a cathartic restoration. Wailing turns into pained sighs. The stage turns blue. The computer-like female voice, once too distorted to identify, echoes ‘Time’. Hullick carefully returns to the initial soft exploration of the beginning, sussing out the altered positions of his objects as well as the changed emotional atmosphere of the room. ‘You’, chants the voice. The work ends with Hullick seated cross-legged on the floor again, turning over sticks and rocks in his hand.

Both prepared piano, electronic synths and samples are concepts that were once new but have now become commonplace, almost historical. Hullick places them in what feels like a post-apocalyptic landscape along with his raw vocals. Stripped of shock value, prepared piano and electronics–as well as sound art–gain the capacity to become more emotive, completing their rotation from something alien to overwhelmingly human. With ‘Rotation Post-Sapien’, Hullick combines and re-invents musical relics from different periods in a ritualistic exploration of human emotion.

James Hullick
Rotation Post-Sapien
BIFEM 2015
The Old Fire Station
6 September 2015
Jaslyn Robertson

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