Tag Archives: Australian Art Orchestra

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

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

Brett Thompson and the Australian Art Orchestra: Atlas, Herbal, Ritual

The Australian Art Orchestra with Brett Thompson
Atlas, Herbal, Ritual
The Melbourne Recital Centre
14 July, 2014

Atlas, Herbal, Ritual is a tripartite, durational work that coerces and betrays the audience into different modes of listening. the first part consists of subtly-constructed sounds held together by intense silences. The Australian Art Orchestra provided Thompson with an accomplished ensemble, including several composers in their own rights, who sat and stood motionless around Thompson’s laptop and monitors. Once the audience focused in on the stillness of the ensemble, one became aware of the way silence framed the occasional shuffles from the players. A barely perceptible patch of static momentarily fills the void before disappearing. Gradually, scraping and blowing on trumpets and percussion instruments provide a new layer of sonic activity. Thompson plays on the audibility of gestures. Peter Knight’s use of a CD as a trumpet mute produced a breathy, rattling effect, while James Rushford’s bowing of the side of his viola was more of a visual treat. I like to think of this opening sequence as a sort of overture or frame for what is to come, a sensitisation of the audience to the level of activity at which the first half (though, for all the audience knows, the entire concert) operates. Eventually, the disparate sounds are combined to form new colours, then taken apart one-by-one to reveal their constituent parts. The most effective of these moments seemed to be when the hard, rattling sound of a bowed cymbal gave way to reveal a high trumpet tone, which was then removed to reveal a pure electronic tone.

A performative (or ritualistic) interlude provided some pathos and comic relief. Each member of the ensemble approached a microphone in the center of the stage, told an autobiographical story, usually an uncomfortable one, and proceeded to squeeze and drink the juice of a lemon. I quite liked the one about someone telling their friends at school they found a character on The Nanny hot. But which one was it?

In a wonderful betrayal of the close-listening trust built with the audience, the second half of the concert was loud and messy. One audience member, much distressed by this turn of events, ran out of the Salon. A slide used on the electric guitar lent a gritty, post-rock feel to the proceedings as the ensemble blared and crashed away. Thompson is one of the few composers in Australia drawing on German minimalism to develop daringly sparse and durational works. That said, more development is possible. Whether loud or soft, the regularity with which each idea passed over into the next produced a sense of predictability and monotony. I, for one, would liked to have heard the remarkable colour-building and deconstruction of the first half explored more fully and over different durations.