Tag Archives: Jenny Barnes

DOMICILE: Alone Together

Review by Charles MacInnes

I set off to Carlton for the first performance of DOMICILE last Friday night, and even though I knew quite a few people amongst the group gathered outside, we remained mostly silent during the event. As we visited the different areas of the house there was a quick whisper on the stairs, a smile from across the room or a small nod of encouragement before something new began.

Straight through the downstairs section of the house, I landed in blacksnowfalls (2014 by Wotjek Blecharz) where Matthias Schack-Arnott had lithely joined himself to a single, slightly battered timpani. Like a teenager on the train I stared at the window and watched the sounds go by. The skin became taut and some sequences of letters formed, along with rhythms of copper under a body that moved and stretched to dampen the sounds.

Matthias Schack-Arnott performs blacksnowfalls by Wotjek Blecharz. Photo by Pier Carthew.

Next door were the honks and squeezes of Dale Gorfinkel’s installation Baby boomer. You pedalled while holding on to an old Zimmer frame and the balloons and hoses and brass relics came to life. The apparatus seemed to have assembled itself from the junk in the shed and it kept going even after we stopped pumping air through. My brass player self began to realise how accidental a lot of life’s noise is. Sound and its complex waves and vibrations already exist, and we players perhaps take a little too much credit for its creation, and are correspondingly also deflated when it from time to time falters.

Vanessa Tomlinson plays on Baby boomer by Dale Gorfinkel. Photo by Pier Carthew.

Ascending the stairs, I overhear the Conversation (2004 by Georges Aperghis) between two women (Jenny Barnes and Niharika Senapati) in the bath. The bubbles obscure their bodies and the voices are a mixture of inwards exhalations and assenting disagreement. When I hear people arguing, I can quickly tell that most of the time they don’t know what they are arguing about. They become so used to their practised roles that a quip or jibe represents years of misunderstanding. The underlying root of the problem is long since forgotten—we’ve lost the ability to analyse—instead acting out our expected frustrations on whoever’s at hand.

Downstairs again, I sat in the chair waiting to be next in a one-to-one Audition (2014 by Angelo Solari) with Carolyn Connors. We were seated opposite each other and the script/score was open. She: Hello


I (reading): hello.

We bounced back and forth following the lines, mimicking each other in normal voices. Often asked to overlap the dialogue, it got a little faster before a Martin was mentioned a few times. She sprung from her chair and left, returning with the electric kettle now full of water. While waiting for it to boil we had to stare at one another. I was strategically pessimistic about my efforts at doing well, but kept my gaze fixed. Blinked a few times. Much later in the garden after the whole performance was finished, she said I was one of the most natural ones because I didn’t try to act.

Now heading to the front room, I copied Aviva Endean’s filmed actions in A face like yours (2015) on the TV screen. This was a warping of space and time perspective because I had done this once already at this year’s Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music. This time I was alone as I put the squishy coloured earplugs in. My fingers, as I copied the screen, started drumming on cheek bones, moving to ears, neck, face, nose, forehead then squeezes and pullings at the the lips and teeth. The sound is magnified and distorted as it comes in through the strange connections of bones, tendons and nerves like a web of old water pipes in an apartment building. We arrived at the Adam’s Apple with a high pitched humming before ending with hands covering nose and mouth.

Tiny wisps of air made it through the clarinet in Lehadlik, also performed and written by Aviva Endean (2015) in the open dining room at the heart of the house. Two candles flickered from the clarinet’s presence and a crackly recording of an old man’s torah incantation came from under a chair by the hearth. The tones were long and suspended but low in the air. My mind wandered out into the garden and I looked again at the window I’d been staring at from inside by the timpani with the live projected image of him still playing. The pieces in the house were repeating over and over as the audience shifted and changed and I think they’re doing it again now as I write.

Aviva Endean performs Lehadlik. Photo by Pier Carthew.

To get to the garage you had to pass through three or four bedsheets hung from the gables. Matthew Horsley was shaved bald and had on a pair of flimsy white cotton pants. ?Corporel (1984 by Vinko Globokar) was disembodied as if from another time and dimension, perhaps some edited-out character of Brecht’s insisting that we feel and understand the false glamour and artificiality of entertainment today? His chest and face and scalp become chafed red from the harsh contact of his hands, and it finished with a dramatic exit through the automatic roller door that would’ve done Bertolt proud. The last piece I heard was a couple (Aviva Endean and Alexander Gellman) in the upstairs bedroom performing Void. Walking slowly toward each other in a routine they’ve enacted many times before, the microphones in their mouths caused a screech and wail of feedback. Was it getting stronger as they neared or changing frequency? Or were our poor ears just getting used to the piercing, painful sound? When they kissed it stopped. But they walked out again to quickly reassume positions for another round.

Aviva Endean and Alexander Gellman perform Void. Photo by Pier Carthew.

As the audience, we narrowed down the distance between each of us as we moved through the different floors and rooms of the house. As I glanced into the makeshift mirror of glass over a black and white photo on the landing, I was reminded just a little more of who I am. Music does this beautifully; we are connected but each engrossed in our own calm thoughts. In DOMICILE we circumnavigated sound and it came together under one roof with the utmost magic and beauty.

A house in Carlton
4/5/6 December 2015
Directed by Aviva Endean
Presented as part of the New Music Network’s emerging artists program

Review by Charles MacInnes
Melbourne-based composer and trombonist Charles MacInnes is currently undertaking a PhD on the role of improvisation in new music. http://www.charlesmacinnes.com

The Voice Alone 3: Vocal Folds at Gertrude Contemporary Art Space

Vocal Folds
Gertrude Contemporary Art Space
22 June–20 July 2013
Performance: Jenny Barnes, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang and Carolyn Connors, 27 June

Rarely do the worlds of contemporary art and music come together in so detailed a discussion within their own media as in Vocal Folds at Gertrude Contemporary Art Space. Each artwork inhabits a corner of the contemporary conceptual map of the voice, at times conflicting with the show’s curatorial rationale and the series of musical performances associated with the exhibition.

Marcus Coates Dawn Chorus (video still) 2007 14/7 screen high definition video installation Commissioned and produced by Picture This, Bristol Funded by Wellcome Trust Courtesy of Kate MacGarry Gallery, London
Marcus Coates, Dawn Chorus (video still) 2007, 14/7 screen high definition video installation, Commissioned and produced by Picture This, Bristol, Funded by Wellcome Trust, Courtesy of Kate MacGarry Gallery, London

In Dawn Chorus by Marcus Coates, a forest of screens depicts individuals caught in the midst of their morning rituals. One is lying in bed, another in a bathtub, yet another paused in a stationary car. Their faces twitch and their mouths open and close rapidly as they emit high-pitched chirps and whistles. The sped-up videos of people imitating slowed-down birdcalls recreates the dawn chorus of birds, reinterpreting our most mundane moments as a social ritual that ties us to the animal life outside our windows. This simple technique also provides a comment on the relationship of music and the voice. The voice is musical not in its everyday mode, but when it strives to be something else, when it is removed from its everyday linguistic register and the fleshly sounds it is usually condemned to make. This is the essence of song, in particular the bel canto tradition of operatic singing, which has been lovingly described as “beautiful screaming.”

Manon de Boer one, two, many (video still) 2012 16mm film transferred to HD video Courtesy of Jan Mot Gallery, Brussels
Manon de Boer, one, two, many (video still) 2012, 16mm film transferred to HD video, Courtesy of Jan Mot Gallery, Brussels

In Manon de Boer’s one, two, many, three video works alternate on two screens, creating a spatial and rhythmic phase in the darkened front gallery. The work’s conceit is the relationship between the voice and the listener and the embodiedness of breath. It may also be read as a duplication of some shaky arguments about music’s coded and uncoded relationships with the human body. In one video, Michael Schmid performs an intensely-focused circular breathing solo on the flute. In another, an ensemble sing Giacinto Scelsi’s Tre Canto Popolari to a mobile audience. In the third, the artist recounts the experience of listening to the voice of Roland Barthes to a ceiling cornice. The artist’s words are an improvisation or a variation on Barthes’ “The Grain of the Voice” from 1977, itself a rhapsody on Julia Kristeva’s theory of the semiotic and the symbolic best expounded in relation to music in Revolution in Poetic Language. So the argument goes, language consists of libidinal urges originating in a pre-symbolic, unreified sphere (the “chora”), which are then given form through the limitations of the physical body and the symbolic forms of language. Kristeva’s distinction between the pre-symbolic “semiotic” and the “symbolic” is sometimes put into critical practice by finding traces of this pre-symbolic energy in the prosody of text or with appeal to seemingly-nonsignifying music. These traces, however, are always-already symbolic, caught up in the media and the symbolic networks we perceive them through. Nowhere is this more evident than in music. To Kristeva, music represents the semiotic to the symbolic of language, while to Barthes music itself is divided into the “pheno-song” of language and musical writing and the “geno-song” of a particular performer’s tone and interpretation of dynamics, tempo and articulation. Playing every classical music enthusiast’s favourite game, Barthes compares the technically perfect German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Charles Panzéra, whose idiosyncratic voice and performance style moves him more profoundly. If only singers hadn’t been discussing precisely these characteristics in a highly technical manner for thousands of years, Barthes might have been on to something. One need look no further than the first Vocal Folds concert by Jenny Barnes, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang and Carolyn Connors to find a group of performers who, apparently inverting the supposed division between the semiotic and the symbolic in music, have developed a unique culture of principally timbral vocal performance.

Jenny Barnes, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang and Carrolyn Connors. Photo by Elizabeth Bell
Jenny Barnes, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang and Carrolyn Connors. Photo by Elizabeth Bell

There is a simplicity and an intimacy to improvised vocal performance that made Gertrude Contemporary Arts Space feel more like a living room than a performance venue. The audience made themselves comfortable as Barnes found a central space in the room. At first a barely-audible twittering filled the gallery. Eyes shut, Barnes slowly raised a hand that convulsed along with a texture of rapid squeaks, fleeting bilabial stops (“m”, “n”) and unvoiced plosives (“p,” “b”). With utmost control, the pointillistic texture slowly opened out into a fuller-voiced ensemble of groans and glottal stops articulated with the back of the mouth and throat. The rapid change between these two families of sounds produces a polyphonic effect, as though there were two or three voices in the room. Then, in an incredible display of vocal stamina Barnes began to channel animal calls. A sound like a small dog’s bark ripped through the controlled vocal tapestry and a series of rapidly articulated high tones built to a chorus of birdsong. Only at the end of the performance did this rapid rhythmic improvisation become a full-bodied roar.

By contrast, Hui-Sheng Chang slowly modified the overtones of long, sustained pitches. Over half a minute or more, Hui-Sheng Cheng moved between humming, open, nasal and rasping timbres. Hui-Sheng Chang moved around the room, kneeling amongst the audience to experiment with the sound of her breathing and wandering off to shout in a distant room.

As a performer, mentor and teacher, Carolyn Connors continues to initiate students into the craft of vocal improvisation. Connors’ Gertrude St set reprised some of the material from her recent performance at James Rushford and Joe Talia’s Manhunter launch, but with a greater emphasis on the augmentation of the voice with found objects. The performance was a study in multitasking, as Connors struggled to keep an accordion bouncing on her knee, strike it with brushes, produce a tone through a book pursed between her lips and wrap her head in aluminium foil.

The literature around Vocal Folds is a good example of what Alain Badiou calls “democratic materialism,” the belief that there are only bodies and languages. Because curator Jacqueline Doughty wants to move away from the voice’s coded, symbolic functions (namely language and music) she appeals to the voice’s physicality in the “lungs, vocal chords, tongue and lips.” But what if music were not subsumed into linguistic function of the voice? Might music fit just as awkwardly with the voice’s embodiedness? Considering the relationship that singers and other musical practitioners maintain with the voice implies a third manner of articulation consisting of technique and musical-conceptual axes like pitch, duration and timbre.