Tag Archives: James Hullick

BIFEM: James Hullick, Rotation Post-Sapien


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

BIFEM: The Amplified Elephants, Select Naturalis

Founding Amplified Elephants member Kathryn Sutherland demonstrates the RESONANCE table for the audience after the concert.
Founding Amplified Elephants member Kathryn Sutherland demonstrates the RESONANCE table for the audience after the concert.

Review by Simon Eales

The lights are dimmed already, giving this small but regal room in Bendigo’s Capital Theatre a warm, apricot hue. The dull glow offsets two veiled television-sized monitors placed on a ledge above the five black-clad performers. We sit around what looks like an overhead projector: a large horizontal screen with an optical lens perched on a stem above it.

These performers are the Amplified Elephants, a sound art group based in Footscray whose members live with intellectual disability. Formed in 2006 as an offshoot of the sonic art collective The Click Clack Project, they have created a diverse range of projects using experimental techniques to evoke soundscapes and make performance art from new technologies, prepared traditional instruments and found objects.

This debut of their latest work, Select Naturalis, showcases a remarkable new piece of technology developed by Jonathan Duckworth in the CiART program at RMIT. The room’s central piece of equipment is in fact a large digital touchscreen tablet: images appearing on its surface are captured by the camera lodged above, and displayed in real time on the room’s two monitors. In developing the performance, the Elephants programmed a range of acoustic and digital sounds into the tablet’s software. They trigger these sounds in performance through tactile engagement with the interface.

Guided by Artistic Director James Hullick’s gentle prompts, performers improvise short solo sets. The piece builds in the first movement with Jay Euesden’s concentrated, space-activating pokes and Teagan Connors’ broad, multi-fingered glides. In the second movement, following an extended drone, Kathryn Sutherland masterfully drives the piece to peak intensity. We hear squelching, screechy and swampy sounds; an array of tropical bird-calls; excited human hollering; and a medley of straw-sucking and blowing. With one or two measured looks, Robin McGrath invites the audience to engage on a more personal level with this act of the creation.

The ensemble place and adjust hand-sized coloured blocks on the screen, which triggers trippy tie-die swirls and graphics evoking a cell nucleus and its spinning electrons. Upon tapping, the electrons shoot along lines extending mandala-like from the base of each block to synapse with the lines generated by others.

The cellular representation here, in the tablet’s graphics, thematically coheres with the piece’s other key symbols: the title, referencing Charles Darwin’s notion of natural selection; the male voiceover which challenges those readings of Darwin which promote the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ over other less reductive understandings of how humans have evolved; and the prerecorded backing track, which forms a foundation for the semi-improvised performances. A striking example of this backing track’s effect occurs in the piece’s opening moments. Before there’s any action, we’re enveloped by a loud and low, dubbed hum from the surround sound system. It holds a tightly looped rhythm, as if an old computer program scrolling through endless options. Or, more ominously, is stuck on one option. Either way, no selection is made.

This symbolic system suggests that while genealogical science might be undeniable, we should not let it limit the infinite ways we can practice art. Perhaps more importantly, it suggests that our continued evolution, including our ability to adapt to conditions like climate change, depends on acknowledging biological capacities we may already have developed, but ignored. It’s a perspective which links this performance text closely to the raison d’etre of the group performing it. If the Elephants, as bearers of intellectual disability, are the ‘elephants in the room,’ their amplification of that position represents their way forward, which is actually a way in. As the voiceover says, ‘meta-listening,’ a biological feature perhaps developed by our distant ancestors, involves just such a process of shining awareness on the functional, and the willingly unseen or unheard. Select Naturalis seeks to metaphorise that awareness and, it seems, achieve real social affect: community, inclusion, technological progress and ever-better names for things.

Select Naturalis
The Amplified Elephants
The Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Bendigo Bank Theatre
Simon Eales
5 September 2015