Metropolis New Music Festival 2016: Hymns to Pareidolia

The 2016 Metropolis New Music Festival got off to a meditative start with duration-based and minimalist performances by Atticus Bastow, Nick Tsiavos (et al.), and the Australian Art Orchestra, nut before long we were racing through the dystopian 8-bit streets of imaginary cities.

Throughout the festival, free after-work performances in the foyer are set to attract passers-by and patrons of the bar next door. On the festival’s opening night the sound artist Atticus Bastow—resembling a sound-monk in his black robes and shaved head—welcomed the audience with a buzzing, humming soundscape. The carefully-arranged speaker system diffused the sleepy, insect-like drones into unique sonic nooks provided by the architecture.

Wandering into the candle-lit Salon I spotted a row of beanbags and immediately claimed one. I had heard of Nick Tsiavos’ fifteen-hour Immersion performance at Dark Mofo last year and was determined to make the most of the hour before the next performance began. Though Immersion is a long program, it has the feel of a series of perfectly crafted miniatures. Each piece explores a particular idea or texture with warmth and humour. Tsiavos called them “gently unfolding musical events” and as I began to doze in my beanbag I was most certainly inclined to agree. Percussionists Peter Neville and Matthias Schack-Arnott played two sets of ride cymbals. Neville threw splashes of sound into the air as he struck his overlapped set, letting them jangle against each other. Schack-Arnott brushed a lazy rhythm on his, barely a groove. At another point Neville and Schack-Arnott face off around a bass drum with wood blocks on top. They traded rhythmic motifs faster and faster until Neville’s mallet broke, but he persevered with the stick and severed mallet head. Given the intimate context, it seemed only appropriate, if not fortuitous, that something like that should happen. Anthony Schulz plays a pitch-bending accordion solo. Adam Simmons bleats a sad, breaking soprano saxophone tune accompanied by Tsiavos, who cuts each phrase off short, letting the pathos linger. A series of poems sung by Deborah Kayser punctuate these instrumental adventures. Kayser’s velvet croon melds into the sound of an accordion or a saxophone, creating microtonal beats against the other instruments. I could have stayed another 14 hours.

The Australian Art Orchestra spread lavishly across the stage of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. The stage bristles with brass, strings, percussion batteries, keyboards, and electronics, each of which toots, rattles, and growls mechanically through the program’s gigantic and complex piano rolls of minimalist music. The Australian Art Orchestra are the country’s masters in flat, pointillistic textures, as the pulsating atmospheres of Peter Knight’s Diomira and the looped vignettes of Austin Buckett’s Virtuoso Pause made clear.

The concert’s featured composer and turntablist Nicole Lizée wields this style to great effect in Hymns to Pareidolia. Pareidolia is the condition of seeing patterns where none exist. Each instrument seems to follow its own loping pace over a walking bass played on the piano. Like a Pollock painting, rhythms of colour and texture jumble together in nonchalant harmony. Then, as though Pollock’s canvas is being stretched and bent, the entire ensemble dramatically slows and increases its tempo like a tectonic tempo rubato. The technique must require remarkable ensemble coordination. Either that, or a great conductor such as Tristram Williams, who led the ensemble through two of Lizée’s pieces with video.

At this point the relaxed, meditative festival was given a shot of red cordial and a smartphone with unlimited Youtube data. Karappo Okesutura is a mashup of edited and spliced karaoke videos (which derives from the full title, which means “empty orchestra”). In her program notes Lizée imagines a scenario where “a karaoke singer takes to the stage to perform an 80’s chart-topper only to find that the karaoke machine is behaving erratically. It begins jumping to different sections of the track, rewinding and stopping without warning. The karaoke tape itself is damaged and warped, yet the singer is still able to keep their composure; they keep up with the machine and finish the song like a professional.” Except it is so much more than that. Each song is masterfully arranged for the ensemble, which accompanies and augments the skipping, warping tape. Lizée loops and lingers on moments of audiovisual oddity, such as the way colour sweeping across a line of karaoke text curves around a “b”, or the strange meatiness of kisses in old black and white movies.

8-bit Urbex was commissioned especially for the concert as an “excavation of the hidden, lost, abandoned, forgotten and destroyed ruins of cities.” In this case the cities are to be excavated from 1980s and ’90s video games and their bleeping soundtracks are combined with other musics of the city, including jazz and ’70s-’80s era turntabling. For me it was a trip down memory lane (and the “trip” is explicitly figured in the work, with someone placing tabs on their tongue with scenes from the computer games printed on them). There is something truly psychedelic about those early computer games, where programmers had to find rough and ready design solutions and create images with the bare minimum of pixels. At one point Lizée repeats two frames in a computer game where the only movement is a sprite opening and closing their pixellated mouth. Elsewhere Lizée adds depth to the orchestral sound, accompanying the skipping soundtrack of a noir-style platform shooter with rich orchestral timbres. My favourite scene, though, was Lizée’s setting of the original Sim City, playing on the satisfying crunch of laying roads in strange, commuter-hellish designs.

From 0 to 100 in three hours, we have entered the cities of Metropolis 2016.

Metropolis New Music Festival
Atticus Bastow, Nick Tsiavos, Australian Art Orchestra
Melbourne Recital Centre
9 May 2016

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