Tag Archives: Austin Buckett

Australian Art Orchestra and Ensemble Offspring: Exit Ceremonies

Ensemble Offspring and the Australian Art Orchestra perform Alvin Lucier’s Swings. Photo by Mia Forrest

The grand organ is a true feat of engineering. Most concertgoers won’t realise that behind the organs gracing our town halls and churches are chambers containing forests of pipes of different shapes and sizes. Some bass flues are so large you have to climb inside to clean them, while each pipe needs to be meticulously maintained and tuned. The organists who harness this incredible machinery have to contend with baffling lag times and instrumental idiosyncrasies, but the outcome is an astonishing timbral palette. Given the awesome presence of these instruments, their history, and the considerable expense involved in maintaining them, it is surprising that so little contemporary music has been written for them. One thinks of Messiaen, Ligeti, and Xenakis, but there most people’s knowledge of contemporary organ repertoire stops. The Australian Art Orchestra and Ensemble Offspring’s recent commissioning program for new organ works is therefore of international importance. The AAO and Ensemble Offspring’s performance at the Melbourne Town Hall was the first complete showing of the program, including the world premiere of a work by the “phenomenological music” pioneer Alvin Lucier.

Austin Buckett’s Aisles begins with a stunning, brassy explosion involving the whole ensemble of strings, percussion, trumpet, turntables, voice, and organ. The sound echoes off the back of the hall (or was that the live sound processing?), giving it a wave-like, viscous force. The instruments’ differing levels of decay give the wave a shimmering, multicoloured tail. The piece progresses by looping such gestures and then juxtaposing blocks of loops. The interstellar explosions are replaced by Sonya Holowell’s solo voice singing intimately into a microphone. A cavernous, spacious racket returns for a while before we finally hear the common, pitched sound of the organ. It is a high wail above the ecstatic chatter of ride cymbals played by Claire Edwardes and Joe Talia on either side of the stage. So the dynamic atmospheres of Aisles continue, a ritualistic procession as varied as it is enchanting.

Simon James Phillips’ Flaw begins with Martin Ng performing some of the quietest turntabling that you have ever heard. Breathy hums (from the organ perhaps?) are slowed down to subsonic frequencies then back into a somnambulent mid-range. Edwardes plays a shell chime and the sound is captured and transformed to sound like rain. Among this artificial pastoral scene a prerecorded bird can be heard. This meditation on technology and the natural world continues for half an hour, with swelling, arpeggiating strings and crackling speakers slowly rising and falling in the hazy texture.

Flaw and Lucier’s Swings make for an interesting juxtaposition. Simple ideas and static textures can be either numbingly boring or deeply fascinating. There is a thin line between one and the other, a line that no doubt shifts from individual to individual. Swings is based on one idea: shifting the pitch and timbre of an organ pipe by covering the open end with one’s hand. For the performance at the Melbourne Town Hall, six pipes were extracted from the bowels of the grand organ and mounted on stage, connected to the mothership through snaking black umbilical cords. The overall effect begged comparison with an H.R. Giger illustration. Four performers stood around the pipes, their hands clad in white gloves like surgeons or museum curators (scaaaary museum curators!). The strings and organ provided a steady drone as one by one the performers slowly bent the pitch of each pipe. Subtle beating filled the air. I was mesmerised as each new pipe modulated the sound of the others and the instrumental ensemble. So used to listening for pitch and rhythm, new dimensions of sound unfolded for the listener as the overall timbre became more complex with the introduction of each new pipe. At the central climax of the piece the air becomes alive with what seem aural hallucinations. Mobile, distorting, ringing ghosts of tones fill the hall. Then the sound is disassembled tone by tone. It was fascinating as an audience member to witness the construction of this sound that turned out to be so much more than the sum of its parts.

Exit Ceremonies
The Australian Art Orchestra
Ensemble Offspring
Melbourne Town Hall
6 February 2016
Austin Buckett, Aisles; Simon James Phillips, Flaw; Alvin Lucier, Swings

Austin Buckett: Grain Loops

Cover of Grain Loops by Austin Buckett. Image courtesy of artist.
Cover of Grain Loops by Austin Buckett. Image courtesy of artist.

Austin Buckett
Grain Loops
Album review by Henry Andersen

Anything repeated enough times comes to seem different. When a scratch on a vinyl record creates a locked groove, the resultant loop of sound pulls itself away from the normal tension and release of the music around it. The natural choreography of the stylus is disrupted. (Imagine the stylus as Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill, only to have it fall back down each day. In this moment, Camus will tell us, “[o]ne must imagine Sisyphus happy.”) If you’ve ever left a locked groove playing for some time, or fallen asleep to the clicks and pops of a stylus on the cardboard centre of an LP, then you’ll know that there is joy to be found in stripping away the narrative function of music and letting it go nowhere for a little while.

Grain Loops is the latest LP from Sydney based composer and sound artist Austin Buckett. Though the album is released on vinyl, the loops from which it is constructed are digital, not analogue. That is, they have been made by cutting and repeating digital waveforms recorded by Buckett during a residency in Banf, Canada.  All of the recordings are made by passing sandpaper over the surface of four snare drums. This techniques is a favourite of Bucket’s, for the rich variation in noise colour that it can create. In most circumstances, the detail of this coloration would pass unnoticed but on Grain Loops with each snippet of sound bracketed by repetitions of itself, the finer details of the sound (call them grains if you like) suddenly become magnified. Hear that filter-like effect in the left channel? no? listen again. and again. and again.

The album’s drive to repetition is carried by its macro-structure as well. There are a total of 30 tracks – each track lasts for exactly one minute and is made of one loop (of around 1-5 seconds) repeated to fill its allotted, one-minute bracket. The decision to have each track last one minute seems quite arbitrary (for me it could have been longer) but the decision to keep each track at equal proportions to its neighbours is vital. Even as the sonic qualities and groove of each track change, the essential concept is repeated – like 30 manifestations of a single idea or 30 photographs of a single object. You could think of the form of the whole album as something like a ‘theme and variations’ – only without the theme. The album doesn’t have an ‘original theme’ in any traditional sense (proven by the fact that the album’s tracks could easily be shuffled without upsetting the form). If there is an ‘original theme’ it is the concept and it isn’t heard so much as it is hinted at by the common factors that span each variation.

If there is a chance to escape modernism’s morbid obsession with progress, it is through repetition. Anything that loops back on itself can’t be moving foreward. We can forget that grand narrative for a little while and just enjoy the feeling of going nowhere (what could be more comforting, and more endless, than the sound of windscreen wipers in a  storm?). As each track of Grain Loops plays, even as we know it will only last a minute, it feels like it could play forever – has played forever. It seems to stretch past the horizon in every direction. And then, all of a sudden, we are back where we started – with Sisyphus, the stylus and the locked groove. Anything repeated enough times takes comes to seem different…

By Henry Andersen

Partial Durations is a RealTime/Matthew Lorenzon joint project.