Tag Archives: James Rushford

Liquid Architecture/Inland: Nothing but disaster follows from applause

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Okkyung Lee performs in the audience. Photo by Keelan O’Hehir

As tiny festivals of sonic exploration, interdisciplinarity, and improvisation, the Liquid Architecture and Inland concert series are natural partners. For one of the year’s first concerts they teamed up to bring the world’s foremost experimental cellist Okkyung Lee, to Melbourne. The concert’s title suited the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration. “Nothing but disaster follows from applause” is a quotation from the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard, who consistently criticised nationalism and religious hypocrisy in post-war Austria. While there is some uncertainty as to whether populism will develop into fascism under Trump, the election of a climate change denier to the White House all but seals the fate of our natural environment. Far from relaxing or soul-cleansing, the ecological theme that ran through “Nothing but disaster” was a “dark ecology” tinged with the melancholy knowledge of our contribution to the destruction of our own ecosystem.

Alexander Garsden and Ida Duelund-Hansen are better known to Partial Durations readers as a post-spectralist composer and a Scandinavian avant-garde chanteuse. These musical personalities find a magical synthesis in the folk-revival duo True Strength. Switching between Danish and English, Duelund-Hansen’s light and pure voice sings of waves, tussocks of grass, and terraced hillsides over Garsden’s floating acoustic guitar harmonies. Duelund-Hansen’s double bass part journeys along in melodic counterpoint. The overall sound is reminiscent of Alela Diane and Ryan Francesconi’s album Cold Moon, albeit denser and with a greater rate of textural change. True Strength’s songs are series of reflective tableaux, but they never let you linger too long. You can and should hear True Strength on Spotify (though don’t mistake them with the christian metal band), or live in Hobart and Melbourne over the next week.

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Crys Cole and Oren Ambarchi play the mysterious tin box game. Photo by Keelan O’Hehir

Having last heard Oren Ambarchi perform a richly-textured noise set through a hulking battery of amplifiers at the Aurora Festival in 2011,  I brought my earplugs to the Abbotsford Convent. These turned out to be completely unnecessary, as Crys Cole and Ambarchi’s principal source of amplification were networked smartphones. Cole used an iPad to send nocturnal field recordings to the phones spaced around the hall. Croaking frogs and chirping insects wafted through the room while Ambarchi repeated a single note on an acoustic guitar. Throughout the set, Cole’s sound design shifted into man-made analogues, including what sounded like rustling paper and vocal whispers. I found this set no less affecting than a full-body immersion in noise. Who can innocently listen to the sounds of nature any more? Every environmental sound is now an indictment of our custodianship of it. Once the purview of dollar-bin relaxation tape manufacturers, recording a cicada is now a radical act.

The synthesiser and tape collaborations of James Rushford and Joe Talia have long stretched the limits of the audible, but their whisper-soft set for “Nothing but disaster” gained a new poignancy from the ecological preludes of True Strength and Cole and Ambarchi. Among the Lynchesque synth drones I heard distant wolf-howls and crickets, all suffused in an electromagnetic, static glow.

Okkyung Lee’s set heralded from the other side of the world and the opposite end of the dynamic range. Playing behind the audience and in complete darkness, Lee let us know what an efficient noise machine the cello is. Growling, grinding, and never still, Lee savaged her instrument in new and remarkably dexterous ways, though this was only evident to me when I craned my neck to catch the shadow of her bow arm. We’ve all heard a cello getting murdered, but it would have been good to see how Lee does it. For the most part her technique was lost on the audience.

Liquid Architecture and Inland are the products of an adventurous and discerning experimental music community with the ability—more or less unique in the contemporary music community—to attract audiences from other art forms. Such curatorial vision has the power to develop powerful artistic responses to the social and environmental disasters of our age (take your pick).

Liquid Architecture and Inland
Nothing but disaster follows from applause
The Abbotsford Convent
20 January 2017
True Strength, Crys Cole and Oren Ambarchi, James Rushford and Joe Talia, Okkyung Lee


BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Matinée

Argonaut Ensemble
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
The Bendigo Bank Theatre
4:00pm, 15 September

In their second concert, BIFEM’s house band turn their attention to two local heroes, Elliott Gyger and James Rushford. They are joined by Clara Maïda, one of the festival’s international guests, in a musical exploration of form and the formless, of ambivalence and flux.

In Crystallise, Gyger seeks to compose a polyphony of four percussion voices. Percussionists are usually treated as so many arms activating so many instruments. Gyger characterises each of the four percussion batteries with a particular family of instruments, namely cymbals, wood percussion, metal percussion and tuned percussion. Unable to resist his combinatory urges, each battery also has something in common with another battery, such as the appearance of keyboard percussion in several sets of instruments. Gyger chose the formal structure of a primordial soup coalescing into distinct forms. This is a favourite programmatic conceit of Gyger’s generation, raised as it was on science fiction and pop-cosmology. It would be interesting to study the different mechanisms by which figures emerge from these compositional soups. Do figures articulate, sublimate or emerge out of the morass? I think that this form, by now a terrible cliché, belies a deeper ideology of the compositional process (not that there is anything inherently wrong with having an ideology of composition—we are all shouldered with a few regardless). This is the ideology that there are more or less structured elements of a composition, an ideology that stretches back at least as far as Nietzsche accusing Wagner of “agitating the swamp.” I prefer to think that a composition, be it aleatoric, serial or tonal, is always-already structured, if not by the composer then by the listener or at a “neutral” level. One might say that the structure of a piece (or a once-off performance) is “overdetermined” by so many forms of timbral, pitch and rhythmic listening that a primordial soup is technically impossible to compose.

That said, how does Gyger’s soup work programmatically? The piece sounds the same density throughout, giving the impression that Gyger’s is a petri-dish culture where nothing enters and nothing escapes. Elements move about until the four percussive voices take form. This presents a challenge for the performers, who are tasked with differentiating a homogenous texture.

Rushford’s Espalier is what I like to call one of his Twin Peaks pieces. This epithet comes from the quality of the synthesizer forming the background of the piece as well as its unsettling atmosphere. In a humorous exchange with ABC Classic FM’s Julian Day, Rushford associated the piece, perhaps more appropriately, with Brian Eno. The piece is inspired by espaliering fruit trees, a process replicated in the exchange of musical material between the clarinet, glass bottles, bass flute, violin and cello, as well as in the physical movement of the performers around the space.

Rushford’s second piece in the programme could hardly have contrasted more with the first. Viper Gloss is a concentrated, brilliant explosion of tone colour. It takes as its inspiration the space around a viper: its sheen, the movement of air and the movement of its prey. Impossibly agile and fluid cello and flute lines intertwine above cascades of shimmering piano and glockenspiel notes. With a hiss of aluminium foil in cello strings, the viper strikes and a moment of stunned, muted tones ensues. The peace does not last long, though, as terrifying screaming noises erupt from the piccolo.

Clara Maïda’s triptych Psyche cité/transversales returns to the theme of flux and crystallisation with a philosophical and psychoanalytic lens. As Maïda’s notes for the piece tell us, the first movement takes Spinoza’s “fluctuatio animi” as a starting point. Spinoza used the term to denote the ambivalent feelings that arise when one is confronted with an object that has both positive and negative connotations. Musicians will be familiar with this experience from the moment they lay eyes on their instrument each morning; the rest of us have our parents. Maïda’s “fluctuatio (in)animi” is thus the moment preceding this affective oscillation. Both states are presented simultaneously, overlapping and intertwining in an arborescent structure that is yet to be actualised. Maïda faces the same problem as Gyger: that of the presentation of the prestructured. Maïda’s complex of forces once again places the audience in the presence of an already-actualised, “programmatic” flux. The episodic alternation of electronic and instrumental parts also presents the audience with a very clear sense of ambivalent contrast that threatens to override the contrasting processes erring through the textures. For a truly sustained flux of simultaneous forces the audience had to wait a few more hours for the interminable polyphony of Stockhausen’s Sirius.

The second movement, “Ipso facto” [“by the fact itself”] does quite the opposite. Whereas “fluctuatio (in)animi” pitts various forces against one another, “Ipso facto” seeks to produce an electronic atmosphere completely devoid of automatism. The electronics of Psyche cité/transversales are a breath of fresh air in a country where the dominant electroacoustic aesthetic vacillates between the concentrated, material exploration of one particular instrument and noise. Rarely do we hear the Ircam house style of glittering, awesome atmospheres generated out of field recordings (though, as prodigious travelers, many Australians get rather sick of them overseas!).

The third movement, “Via rupta,” is named after the Roman practice of building straight highways by breaking through obstacles. The obstacles here are psychological, physiological and urban. Field recordings from subways are combined with instrumental parts where the performers play through their strings with plectrums. Moments of fluidity are released as the strings break into loose glissandi. The clarinet sounds like a jackhammer (though I usually associate that sound with dinosaurs, a spot of semantic fluctuatio).

You can listen back to the concert at ABC Classic FM.

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.

BIFEM: Recital, Judith Hamann

Judith Hamann
Solo recital
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Old Fire Station
11:30pm, 5 September

In Saturday’s Argonaut Ensemble matinée, the composer James Rushford used the term “penumbra” in describing his work. A penumbra is an area of diffuse light around a shadow. It describes something half-concealed and the peculiar lucidity of half-sleep. It is also an excellent term with which to describe Judith Hamann’s solo recital on Friday night, and not just because it began around midnight and was the last of some six hours of contemporary music the audience had experienced that day.

Hamann has long been recognised as one of Australia’s foremost contemporary-music cellists, though her artistic interests extend far beyond the instrument to the presentation and performance of contemporary music more generally. Her solo recital for BIFEM consisted of five pieces that incorporated projection, lighting and the most non-trad uses of a cello imaginable. In the first piece a thread was drawn through the strings of a carbon fiber cello. The simple but arresting procedure was lit by only a small torch light and one could just make out the thread as Rushford drew it to the other side of the stage. The moving thread lightly activated the strings, which Hamann stopped into various chords. Towards the end of the piece the fibrous thread disintegrated into spider-web strands, making a coarser, louder sound.

Hamann then moved over to a seat lit by a spotlight for Rushford’s The Mourning Panthers, which included a notable effect produced by muting the strings close to the bridge and playing in the small length of string between the fingers and the bridge. One finger is on each string, so that by lifting a finger from a string the resonance of that string was momentarily released. This was one of my favourite sounds of the performance, after perhaps the muting of the bow in Helmut Lachenmann’s Pression.

Wojtek Belcharz’s The Map of Tenderness plays on the eternal theme of the likeness of the cello to the human body. The cello is held upright, with the spike retracted, between the legs of the performer, who peers out from between the pegs. The instrument is thus a mask as well as another being, lending weight to the performer’s whispered words “I was not myself last night.” The piece would be a hit with connoisseurs of the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (look it up on YouTube), which can be triggered by tactile rustling sounds and whispering. The cello is equipped with a sensitive piezo pickup and the instrument is tapped and frotted all over, from the pegs to the tailpiece. The bridge makes a particularly bodily, scratchy sound.

A visual cognate of tactile sound is analogue film artefact, which features in Hamann and Sabina Maselli’s collaboration Melting Point. Hamann and Maselli sit behind scrims on which are projected a video of a woman tossing and turning as she tries to get to sleep. Armed with microphones, Hamann and Maselli produce a sleepy soundscape by emptying packets of Pop Rocks into their mouths. Evoking a warm fire, the sound had the same somnambulent effect on me as David Toop’s work at the Totally Huge New Music Festival last year. Eventually the video transforms into a video of a photograph of the sleeping woman, which then catches fire (you should never leave your electric blanket on at night). The use of tactile and visual artefacts is a wonderfully evocative alternative to that other brain-massaging technique of contemporary composers: binaural beats. Where the grain of film artefacts or the saturation of VHS tape is nostalgically evocative to us today, binaural beats will always remain devoid of poetry.

The concert ended, perhaps one piece too long after that excellent nightcap, with Liza Lim’s Invisibility. In this piece the cellist uses two bows, one haired in the usual style and the other with the hair wound round and round the bow shaft. At the end of the piece both bows are used at the same time, creating a timbral polyphony that you can’t believe is coming from one instrument.