Tag Archives: Defunensemble

BIFEM: Defunensemble, O Book of Returns

The audience arrives for Defunensemble's O Book of Returns. Photo by Marty Williams
The audience arrives for Defunensemble’s O Book of Returns. Photo by Marty Williams

Review by Simon Eales

Helsinki-based Defunensemble presents a uniquely immersive experience in their debut Australian show. The audience for their Saturday night performance of Peter Ablinger’s Book of Returns (1985-2015) and Kimmi Kuokkala’s O (2011) join the performers onstage. Our backs to the house curtain, we sit beneath hanging cans, profiles and fly-bars; between legs, fly-rope and wings; lit by the low-voltage blue glow usually reserved for the stage-crew’s safe passage. It’s a remarkable atmosphere. With the Ulumbarra Theatre’s glistening newness, we’re lodged in the cockpit of some auricular sputnik.

Nowhere is this feeling clearer than in the distortional insistency of Kuokkala’s work. Before it begins, guitarist Sami Klemola—who shines in the group’s second program, All Finnish, the following afternoon—tells us that Kuokkala is known as the ‘shaman of Jyväskylä.’ Located in the lake district of central Finland, and identified as the country’s version of Athens for its cultural and educational distinction, Jyväskylä has its own mood which seems manifest in O. Klemola adds that Kuokkala’s work uses minimalism to create an atmosphere ‘of a certain kind.’ Such indeterminacy seems part of the seductive effect.

Lily-Marlene Puusepp works the top end of her harp in restrained but mesmerising rotations, accompanying Emil Holmström’s structural piano work. She rocks the instrument gently, hypnotically back and forth, letting grace notes drift into the realms of other instruments. Hanna Kinnunen switches between flute and bass flute, triggering a shift from tantalising revelation to calm. Her easy voyage through lower registers alongside clarinetist Mikko Raasakka’s stint on bass saxophone lends the piece its emotional resonance: affirmation and mystery carefully bundled together.

Markus Hohti’s performance on the cello, however, furnishes the piece with its dynamism. He takes frenetic escapades below the bridge, tearing hair off his bow. Arms in agitation, his over-bowing fills the piece with crunchy texture. It’s as if he’s plugged into a loop pedal, such are the driving waves of energy. One lasting image is of Hohti leaning into extended and aggressive spiccatto sections while Raasakka, sitting opposite, offers long and sonorous—almost doleful—counterpoint.

 Although there is no visual projection involved, O seems filmic. My mind conjures images of a scarily alien, but actually innocuous, leviathan floating and rolling through the air above. I imagine that we view it from strange angles and that the electronically generated, muffled public announcement-style sounds we hear are the inhabitants of this being speaking to us. This conjured vision is not the product of pure delusion; digital effects are a strong presence throughout. They distort the analogue instrumentation and add visceral chimes, gongs and the sound of a sword being swiftly drawn from a scabbard.

Peter Ablinger’s Book of Returns is presented first and primes us for this shamanic journey through its overtly metrical composition. It’s billed as a long-form work entirely constituted of 40-second cells of sound. The players arrange themselves in a line before us, and watch a small electronic timer behind us like hawks. In the first movement, they play individually until, when 40 seconds is up, they abruptly stop. Another player begins and does the same. When the musical baton is returned, the player picks up exactly where they left off. One of these modules involves Puusepp, not touching her harp, reciting very large numbers in hushed Polish. Another is Kinnunen reading a German philosophical tract. The effect is of a deconstructed soundscape in which multiple layers of sonic sense are created and seem to persist in unison, despite their sequential arrangement in time.

This is only the start of the fascinating formal games. Another module consists of silence. We all simply wait for the nominated duration to finish. We then get an extended section—it seems like longer than the other units—of the sounds of a city street scene. We learn afterwards that the group had placed microphones outside the theatre doors and were beaming the sounds of Bendigo into the theatre for us, live. Other elements drawing attention to the performance’s own theatricality expand the text into physical space and appeal to other senses: Hohti’s slaptick engagement with a retro tape deck, a pretend curtain call, Holmström’s strained vocal scale, and a geometrical animation projected on the scrim. Not for the first time at BIFEM, compositional experiments become fertile soil for an intensely arresting audience experience.

One senses that Book of Returns could continue developing and distorting for another twenty years and only benefit. In fact, the immediacy of its resistance to its own form almost demands that such an evolution take place. Putting these two works together seems destined, too. Ablinger’s work suggests that when form breaks, another form will always take its place. Kuokkala’s takes those breaks and provides a more sensual second option: a deeply connective shamanic journey, to which we all have access.

O Book of Returns
BIFEM 2015
Ulumbarra Theatre
5 September 2015
Simon Eales

BIFEM: Defunensemble, All Finnish

Defunensemble perform at the Ulumbarra Theatre. Photo by Jason Tavener
Defunensemble perform at the Ulumbarra Theatre. Photo by Jason Tavener

Review by Charles MacInnes

A thread running through the festival weekend was the artistic and philosophical challenges facing composers and listeners when images and sound cohabit a performance. A panel at a Composer Colloquium had discussed this earlier in the day and it was a recurring theme in those quick and energised exchanges you have right after a concert, whispered between pieces, walking to the next venue or waiting for your coffee or wine.

Tonight, I had no idea what would unfold, had never heard Finland’s Defunensemble before and knew none of the composers or works. In contrast to many other performances over the weekend, this All Finnish concert made no use of projected images. But, like the single letters, words and sentences of a novel that unfurl and re-form to become lives and your own experiences, the performance was one of the most rich and visually potent I’ve attended. This was international exploratory music, and tonight Defunensemble nailed it.

Juhani Nuorvala’s Ruoikkohuhuilu (2014) begins with Hanna Kinnunen (alto flute) appearing in aquamarine colours out of a dark and gentle crest of pre-recorded sound designed by Anders Pohjola and Timo Kurkikangas (electronics). The flute outlines the open building blocks of chords as if glimpsed through cloud, before descending as a sallow Nordic counterpart. The crescents become glassy and shafts of whole tones are harvested, before drifting away again into the light. It stings a little as you get close, but like the tide Kinnunen returns from whence she came. This was a breathtaking and gentle prologue that kept itself just far enough away from becoming ambience.

In Ville Raasakka’s Erinnerung (2010), the harp (Lily-Marlene Puusepp), clarinet/bass clarinet (Mikko Raasakka), cello (Markus Hohti) and piano (Emil Holmström) join the flute and electro-acousticians. The players wore headphones for audio synchronisation which allowed them to take part in an extravagant internalised reminiscence. An entire lifetime is recalled in a quick succession of darting textures and contradictions. Beginning with a cubist burst of repeated tones, relationships begin to form only to disintegrate. Harp sides with reinforced piano, but then piano switches to join flute, so harp teams up with cello, while the breath of the bass clarinet intermingles with high piano and cello grinds to a stop. More solid structures build now, but these teeter and need recalibrating. Characters become more mature and the conversation less pushy; three is no longer a crowd. But the tensions of earlier times are not forgotten altogether with the clarinet’s air and cello’s scratch silenced by close-voiced piano repetitions. Hang on, was that an entire life or just one weekend?

The relativity and ambiguity of time are further explored in Perttu Haapanen’s Doll Garden (2013) for the same instrumentalists as in the previous work. The acoustic musicians at first represent the thoughts and gaps between the spelling out of the track, which is triggered via the flautist’s foot pedal. The individual keystrokes of a typewriter start off well, but hesitations and corrections increase as the paper gets wound backwards and ackspacebackspacebar and spa ace bar, leeeetterskeyyyyyyyyystart arts___ _xxxxxx xxxrepeating. With paper tearing loose and the platen cogs giving way, we enter a slow dance as the bell at each carriage end carries us round the room. When we open our eyes again, life’s become a high-speed connection and it’s oftentimes turbulent and too fast for our thoughts to keep up. We try to recall and recapture a time when sounds lived on vinyl and the words of a book carried a particular smell. But despite using a QWERTY keyboard to talk to a computer, it’s not the same machine. The bass clarinet and flute hang in the air and I’m wondering what the pact is between artificial intelligence and vintage technology.

For Niilo Tarnanen’s Kään (2014) the group pares back to harp, bass clarinet and piano, though with a new microphone position to pick up subtle piano transmissions. The ambient track begins with static prior to both harp and the low register of the inside of the piano producing pings of sound along the copper wire wrappings of the low strings. I’m deep inside circuits and I feel currents flowing hither and thither; the bass clarinet emits a few sinewy charges and there is a strange order to the random spreadings and impulses. Being so close to the components makes it hard to navigate, but I feel we are approaching a nerve centre of sorts. The switches and plucks and battery stings to the tongue are synapses to other worlds. Towards the end we sense a twisting of some giant undersea cable and catch a fleeting glimpse of the meniscus above.

The full ensemble returns for the final work in the program—Feed (2013) by Sami Klemola, who joins the group on guitar. He checks his signal through a massive Marshall amplifier; this cheeky response lets the audience know straightaway that we are in for a feast. Of everything I heard over the weekend, this piece was one of the few that showed how freedom and spontaneity can lend a work a burst of creative expression. An organised structure and well controlled timings allowed the players a permissiveness that sent shivers through the audience. The guitarist as ringleader teases and incites the others to join him. The rapid and chaotic improvisation of the opening gives way to a shock unison that morphs into a cluster and snaps off again. Squelching downbeats from the band accompany an extraordinary trade-off between guitar amp buzz and flute air. After five shots, the anarchistic figures begin again but even thicker and darker than before. After this subsides we arrive at the highlight of the work. On cue, the players launch into rhythmic unison three-note figures over and over with pauses between each set. To my ear these are not fixed notes but “any pitches”. In the gaps, guitar fills are the pin pricks of sound produced behind the pickup. As the three-note figures continue—together but always shifting in frequency and pitch—they turn into background to the guitar which now evolves into a full blown exploration of phased hisses, buzzes and scratchings.

As the final “free” section of Feed restarts, I ‘see’ it through a different lens. Like traffic from afar it seems an impenetrable wall of noise, but up close it is hundreds and thousands of tiny and equally valid movements and transactions. Even when sirens wail, each goes about its own business, all but trying to hold onto a delicate and fleeting farewell. So drew the 2015 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music to a close. Defunensemble’s All Finnish was a textbook example of what makes a spellbinding concert. This team gave us discernible structural signposts, pieces with cogent emotional intent, huge spectrums of sonic variation, lively and committed playing and a flawless sound design.

All Finnish
6 September 2015
Ulumbarra Theatre
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Charles MacInnes