Tag Archives: Metropolis New Music Festival

Metropolis: Speak Percussion, City Jungle

City Jungle € The Reginald € Seymour-31
Matthias Schack-Arnott and Eugene Ughetti, image courtesy of the Melbourne Recital Centre

Speak Percussion
City Jungle
Metropolis New Music Festival
19 April

Between its origin in mid-1990s rave culture and its contemporary chain-ganging into the long, wobbly march of dubstep, drum and bass was a hotbed of virtuosity and experimentation at the heart of electronic dance music. In Australia, pioneers like Terminal Sound System have continued to develop the unique style of breakneck drum beats and earth-moving bass with an ear towards contemporary art music and the forever-plastic world of electroacoustic composition. At the same time, classical musicians like Speak Percussion founder Eugene Ughetti have drawn from drum and bass and jungle to inspire their own virtuosic playing. City Jungle is more than a collaboration between Terminal Sound System and Speak Percussion, it explores and summarises possible lines of influence between two musical worlds.

An array of cymbals, drums and vibraphones gleam under purple and red lights at the far end of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Salon. The audience is ranged through the room on chairs, lounges and at standing tables. The intimate-sounding room is arranged not so much for dancing as for an intense, though laid-back listening experience. Terminal Sound System himself is not present, but Matthias Schack-Arnott and Ughetti provide ample visual interest with their focused, breathtakingly-coordinated attack on the battery of instruments.

At times Ughetti and Schack-Arnott provide backbeats on toms and cymbals to expansive electronic atmospherics and smooth-jazz melodies, while at other times they provide spitting, hissing, syncopated breakbeats on snares and Chinese cymbals over melodic bass lines. Moving to the vibraphone, the musicians contribute melodic hooks and ostinati of bewildering complexity to the mix. In these ways Speak Percussion complement Terminal Sound System’s electronics, filling in a part of the whole musical picture.

Of greater interest, perhaps, is Ughetti and Schack-Arnott’s ability to reproduce electronic-sounding effects in a live setting. One effect is stereo panning and phasing. Facing each other at the front of the stage, the percussionists play tremoli on two triangles, gradually muting and unmuting them to create waves of timbre that pass back and forth across the room. A similar technique is used with rolls on snare drums, except this time the players send waves of both volume and speed back and forth. As the speed of the rolls decreases their volume increases, giving the sound spatial depth, as though it were moving towards you and getting larger. Other atmospheric effects included Schack-Arnott’s playing untuned radio static and conjuring unearthly sounds from a China ride cymbal.

Sometimes complementing Terminal Sound System’s sounds and sometimes expanding on them, Speak Percussion show the permeability between contemporary percussive and drum and bass sound worlds. Already in its third outing, City Jungle is becoming a remarkably popular and effective piece of contemporary Australian repertoire.

Metropolis: Mira Calix, Fables and Other Works

Mira Calix, photo by Jana Chiellino
Mira Calix, photo by Jana Chiellino

At E21’s recent concert at St. Mary Star of the Sea in West Melbourne the choir had just begun their third thrilling medieval processional chant when, as the sun set and the church cooled, several voices of polyphony were introduced by a group of stray crickets. Insects are usually unwelcome performers in Australia, but composer and sound artist Mira Calix brings them centre-stage in her entomology-inspired composition, “nunu.”

Like a parenthesis to the crowd taking their seats, a quiet chirping can be heard to stage left of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. The marginal sound reminds the audience of the omnipresence of insect life (as though they need reminding). Calix enters and removes a cloth covering the sound-source, an aquarium of crickets, whereupon the bass-clarinet quintet begins imitating insect noises on the backs of their violins, through flortando trills and squeaky-high tones.

Projections of insects confined to shadowy jars fill the back wall of the stage. In the colour-saturated images an apple covered in cockroaches becomes a blood-red heart and leaves glow fluorescent green. As the camera pans across the jars the beetles, crickets and slaters are enlarged to enormous proportions. Their movements take on an almost human weight and gravity. The struggling of a cockroach on its back becomes that of an old man getting out of bed, the searching mouth of a grasshopper the very picture of hunger.

With sounds captured from the ensemble and the calls of other animals including frogs and cicadas, the sonic menagerie builds to a crescendo and fades, revealing the layered, irregular instrumental ostinati so characteristic of Calix’s music. In its spacious arrangement of diatonic triads, fourths and ninths Calix’s music resembles the “sacred minimalism” of Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. The chromaticism-tinged solo lines emerging from the ensemble recall the Brodsky Quartet’s collaborations with Björk in 1999 and 2000. The playful naturalism of her works conjures Meredith Monk’s compositions of the 1990s. Within such a minimalist stylistic frame the musique concrète of insect calls provides welcome timbral complexity and stereophonic interest.

The more complex electroacoustic element of Calix’s music was further developed in her Made of Music commission. I previously wrote about the Made of Music Project and Matthew Herbert’s Made of Music commission One Room. The Melbourne Recital Centre gives composers data extracted from the width, colour and texture of a piece of the hoop pine from which the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall is made. The composers may then sonify this data as they see fit. In Calix’s piece “he fell among roses” the hoop pine was interpreted as MIDI data that determined an electronic track. The piece opens with a rising gong sound like an enormous bubble rising out of water, with gibbering vocal fragments running off on all sides. Resembling recent work by British composer Natasha Barrett in its timbre and movement, the track would have benefited from some sort of ambisonic diffusion, perhaps even performance in the Salon rather than in the Hall. The electronics rode above an ensemble of string quartet, clarinet and piano that drove through a series of rhythmically charged scenes until the track faded to a pulsing bass, as though we were standing outside the hall while the concert continued within.

The “ento-” in “entomology,” like the word “insect,” refers to something cut into pieces or segmented. In this sense we might consider music a sort of insect and talking about music a sort of entomology. A single piece of music is also made of smaller pieces separated either in time, as in the verse and chorus of a song, or in “vertical” musical space, such as the simultaneous human and insect voices in E21’s concert. Like the thorax, abdomen and legs of an insect, the different parts of a musical composition have to work together to form a whole that “works” for the listener (or a non-working fragment, if you like). Unlike many contemporary compositions, Calix’s music is about “working.” Most pieces contrast episodes of layered irregular rhythms—like the simultaneous movement of the irregular segments of an insect’s legs—and satisfying chords in rhythmic unison. Most pieces build to a strong finish, complementing their more ambient beginnings.

Mira Calix performs her second and last concert at the Metropolis New Music Festival tonight, Saturday 20 April, at 6pm.

Metropolis: Syzygy Ensemble, Trapped in Darkness

Judith Dodson as Miss Donnithorne. Photo by Latoyah Forsyth.
Judith Dodsworth as Miss Donnithorne. Photo by Latoyah Forsyth.

Syzygy Ensemble
Trapped in Darkness (Peter Maxwell-Davies, Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot; Barry Conyngham, The Apology of Bony Anderson)
Metropolis New Music Festival
16 April

Syzygy Ensemble’s double bill at the Metropolis New Music Festival features two one-person chamber operas with sparse instrumentation and disturbing sprechgesang in the tradition of Pierrot Lunaire and Eight Songs for a Mad King. With Syzygy’s playful humour and energy you almost forget the themes of death, decay and madness passing over the stage, onto a platform, into the seat next to you and out the door.

The affective amnesia is not all Syzygy’s fault; the themes are tressed up in thoroughly-enjoyable atonal silliness and replete with moments of tonal relief. In Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot (a “maggot” being a kind of dance, thank you very much), Peter Maxwell-Davies questionably imagines the inner workings of a deranged spinster left at the altar and still in her wedding dress ten years later. The putrefying metre-tall cake in the middle of the stage (actually, the marzipan looked in pretty good nick but for the cobwebs) does not so much represent the protagonist’s sexual organs as stand in for them. The awe, the panic, the hatred Miss Donnithorne (Judith Dodsworth) feels towards her own body is expressed towards her cake-body in such evocative lines as “for the gatehouse of my cake, all one wound of roses, is the open crimson endless petal throat of a rat. That closes.” In case you didn’t get it the first time she also makes a “v”-gesture towards her groin and shrieks “cake, cake, cake.”

Some audience members may recognise Miss Havisham from Dickens’ Great Expectations in the character of Miss Donnithorne and ask “why did Maxwell-Davies transplant Miss Havisham to Sydney?” In fact, Miss Eliza Emily Donnithorne was a real Sydney-sider who, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, was allegedly left at the altar by her husband-to-be in 1856 and lived as a recluse beside her rotting wedding feast until her death in 1886. Matt Murphy has since dug around in some archives and found that there is no evidence to suggest that news of Miss Donnithorne reached Dickens in time for the writing of Great Expectations (1860–61), especially considering that Miss Donnithorne’s story doesn’t appear in the media until 1890 and there is no record of Miss Donnithorne’s intended marriage, struck out or not, in the banns of her church or the civil marriage register.

The salon at the Melbourne Recital Centre is an ideal venue for chamber opera. The clear acoustic communicates the minutest vocal articulation, while the intimate space allows performers to get right up in the faces of the audience. Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot could have further exploited this opportunity. Dodsworth expressed a “bored child” sort of absurdity rather than the character’s desperation and discomfort. Anything less raises the question of why such a character would be made to writhe around on stage. I suspect this is a question more for Maxwell-Davies than Dodsworth, as there is no doubt that humour is a central requirement of the score.

The Apology of Bony Anderson is a far more sympathetic, earnest piece by Barry Conyngham based on the life of convict Charles Anderson, who was chained to a rock on Goat Island in Sydney Harbour around 1835. Bony (Christopher Richardson) enters complete with raised scars from over 1200 lashes that he received before finally being transported to Norfolk Island under the relatively benevolent watch of prison reformer Alexander Maconochie. Feeding animals better cared-for than himself he retells the story of his transportation to Australia and brutal punishment in a strong, lucid voice full of stoic acceptance and pity.

Syzygy asked that the musicians be integrated into the performance. In response director John Paul Fischbach asked “how far the musicians were willing to go.” The ensemble was placed in a position of authority over the actors, whether as servant-carers in Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot or as soldiers in The Apology of Bony Anderson. The usual nods for musical cues were transformed into wary glances and shared disgust. More direct interaction led to Leigh Harrold’s priceless forbearance of Miss Donnithorne’s sexual advances, flautist Laila Engle’s coaxing Miss Donnithorne off of the ground with a fluttering flute solo and Jenny Khafagi’s scaring the advancing woman away with a spiky, flortando ostinato. Having seen such a performance in the salon, a room in which every twitch of a musician’s face is clearly visible to the audience, I cannot imagine a chamber opera any other way.

Metropolis: Matthew Herbert, One Pig

Matthew Herbert, courtesy of Melbourne Recital Centre
Matthew Herbert, courtesy of Melbourne Recital Centre

One Pig is an album made entirely from sounds recorded during the 20-week life of a pig destined for the table. Remarkable in concept and powerfully brought to the stage by Matthew Herbert, Sam Beste, Tom Skinner, Yann Seznec and Hugh Jones, the concert proved disconcertingly enjoyable in its remixing of one pig’s life and death.

The centrepiece of the concert is a two-metre-square “sty-harp” made from four rows of cords tied to four microphone stands. An electronic drum pad, a keyboard and two laptops are stationed around the sty-harp. A musician enters and takes a handful of straw from a hay bale downstage. He rustles it into a microphone, sending plumes of dust billowing up into the spotlight. Looped and layered, the hall is set alight with warm prickling sounds. Another musician enters, adds a few loud breaths to the loop, then pulls off half the hay bale and begins spreading it around the sty. As Herbert enters the stage he contributes a snort to the ambient loop. The whole band put on white lab-coats before Yann Seznec ducks under the fence of the sty-harp and puts on a lab-coat with “SEP” emblazoned across the back, indicating the month from which the recordings we are listening to were made. He is to be “the pig,” at least for so long as it is alive in the performance.

Triggering samples by pulling, pushing and striking the wires around him, Seznec is part raver, part boxer engaged in a hopeless fight for survival. As Seznec explains on his blog, the mechanism behind the sty-harp is the obsolete GameTrak controller for the XBox and PC. The device, which resembles a retractable clothes line, uses a piece of wire on a sprung spool to track the direction and distance of a joystick from a base station. Though clever and simple, the technology became obsolete with the advent of computer vision systems like the XBox Kinect and infra-red game controllers. With two wires per GameTrak, Seznec hacked six GameTraks to provide the four wires needed for each side of the sty-harp. He connects the potentiometers of the GameTraks directly to an Arduino, enabling access to constant MIDI data from each wire. This data is then used to gesturally control different parameters of a sample, be they volume, speed, pitch, or an effect envelope.

A fascinating instrument to watch in action, the theatrical power of the sty-harp was demonstrated when all five members of the band entered the sty to slaughter the Seznec-pig. With a tight spot light on the sty, the band climbed one by one under the fence and stretched wires into the air, producing a high tremolo of static. They then lowered their wires in unison, causing the tremolo to fade out, leaving only a raw recording of the pig snuffling and oinking. At once they stripped Seznec of his white lab-coat, revealing a red coat underneath. The lights came back on the rest of the stage, revealing chef Jesse Gerner of Anada, The Aylesbury and St Ali North sharpening a knife behind a hotplate and plates of pork.

I have to confess that I am uniquely unqualified to write about meat; apart from a recent foray into seafood I have never eaten it. Jesse Gerner would do a better job reviewing a concert than I would reviewing a steak. Despite wrangling with the ethics of leather (I recently had my old tabla sent to me and such an agglomeration of twisted, cured leather can scarcely be imagined), I have never consciously excluded, or abjectified, meat from my identity. It was just a habit I never bothered getting into. It is perhaps for this reason that I was so moved by the sound of an organ animated by a mixture of pig’s blood and air that played as the thick smell of cooking pork wafted over the audience. By contrast, I was horrified at Herbert’s transformation of the roar of a falling bomb into a flute-like tone in The End of Silence.

Why would I allow the sound of the organ to resonate with me emotionally on the one hand and set up a wall to the flute-tone on the other? It could be because of a discrepancy in the value I attribute to human and non-human life, a discrepancy I would not reject outright, but would be surprised by the size of. It could also be because of the scarcity of “tone” in the concert, the sounds of pig-life consisting mainly of almost-pitchless noises. Or could it be because of the difference between a body and a weapon? The sound of a weapon implies an action that could be taken or stopped, demanding a response from the listener. The sound of a body implies a deed already done, the passive evidence of violence. This is exactly what was missing from One Pig: The sound of the weapon. Either that, or the sound was unrecognisable to me, hidden in the pitchless clangs, rumblings and rustlings of the pig’s life.

Metropolis: Matthew Herbert, The End of Silence

Matthew Herbert
The End of Silence
Metropolis New Music Festival
12 April

The Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre is full of smoke. A pole in the centre of the stage radiates wires to a semicircle of microphone stands by the musicians’ stations including an electronic drum pad, a keyboard and two laptops. Matthew Herbert, Sam Beste, Tom Skinner and Yann Seznec walk on stage in black shirts. Herbert informs us that every sound we are about to hear is made from one six-second recording made by photojournalist Sebastian Meyer of a pro-Gaddafi plane bombing a town (Ras Lanuf) in Libya in 2011. Herbert and his band take their seats and trigger Meyer’s recording.

You can find Meyer’s original recording on his blog. There you can also find a photo of the bomb exploding, which was projected at the end of the concert. As a photojournalist, Meyer tries to communicate the experience of conflict, its noise and movement, to those who were not there. As he says on his blog, the silent stillness of a photograph is an imperfect medium for this task, whereas a sound recording captures the inarticulate suddenness of war, its chaos and sheer, brutal volume.

The last echoes of the raw sample die in the smoky hall. In fact, Herbert loops the few seconds of the bomb falling and exploding several times before fading it out. The task of journalistic communication done (assuming, following Meyer, that the task of photojournalism is to provide as unmediated an account of an experience as possible), what could Herbert’s intentions be in continuing? As I have written earlier, Herbert’s “One” series consists of sounds with ethical implications and ethically “neutral” music united by the technological medium of the sampler. Just as we cannot ignore the origin of the Ras Lanuf sample, nor can we ignore that Herbert’s music is fundamentally dance music to be enjoyed.

The crackle of the distorting tail end of the sample fades, leaving a desolate hum ringing in the hall. Cicada-like chirps punctuate the space. Seznec pulls on the wire running from his station to the central pole to pitch-shift samples from the roar of the bomb, creating layers of swelling white noise.

One becomes aware of a high-pitched tone in the recording. Is it somebody whistling? Does it come from the bomb itself? At a lower pitch it sounds like a scream, that of a woman or a child. It is repeated higher, lower, like a stain on each stretch of white noise triggered by Seznec. From this abstract plane the raw sound of the bomb comes back, threatening the safe enclosure of processed sound.

Skinner plays a pulse like a heart-beat on the electronic drum pad. Then, at once, as if by reflex, the band starts a little head-rock. Beste flicks his head back as waves course through his body. The others gently swing their heads from side to side. More smoke billows into the blue spotlights as Herbert sends two shockingly loud samples of the bomb crashing through the auditorium. The pulse breaks down and a series of gut-moving rumbles assail the audience, rattling the doors of the hall, before breaking up into glitchy static.

The next episodes reference Herbert’s micro-house roots with a menacing industrial flavour. The sample is transformed into metallic squeals, crashes and gong-like tones. A percussive sound like a 44-gallon drum is teased out of the sample  (Ras Lanuf is based around an oil refinery). At times the screaming whistle returns. “Cracks” are lit up in the walls of the hall as the set builds to a thrilling, rhythmic climax. The sounds break apart and all that is left is a low hum. Herbert coughs once and pushes his chair back. A couple of short bows and the photograph of Ras Lanuf fades up on the back wall.

Herbert leaves it up to the audience to determine the relationship between the Ras Lanuf sample and the music. As the program reads, “[o]n first hearing the recording is terrifying, but at the end of the program once Herbert has finished mixing, layering and manipulating the sounds will you still feel the same way?”

There is no doubt that Herbert intends to be critical of the former Gaddafi regime because he says that the Ras Lanuf sample “punctures the safe veneer of distance” between us and the “atrocities committed by dictators in the Arab world during the Arab Spring.” Nevertheless, there is nothing in The End of Silence, neither its militaristic dance beats nor its eerie ambience, to suggest that it is not a paean to the war plane, a song of thanksgiving to pro-Gaddafi forces. We could very well say that it follows in the futurist tradition of praising the power and majesty of the noise of war.

For my own part I reacted differently to the different instruments on stage. Herbert’s exploration of the sonic properties of the original sound seemed to me like an entirely appropriate exercise. He works through the sound like a traumatic event, though purely sonically. I cannot pretend that the force of the sound relates at all to the physical and psychological impact of the original bomb on somebody in Ras Lanuf. Seznec’s tactile manipulation of the sound using the wires strung about the space was similarly interesting as it explored the gestures appropriate to that particular, abstract sound. The visceral pleasure Seznec took in stretching and bending the wires, however, seemed grotesque. A percussive sound may be made from any sample whatsoever and so Skinner’s rhythms seemed completely superfluous. There were moments of unmistakable beauty where a breathy, bass-flute-like tone was played by keyboardist Beste. Those I liked the least.

Metropolis: The Wild, Pornography

The Wild: Eric Griswold, Ritchie Daniell and Sam Pankhurst. Image courtesy of Melbourne Recital Centre
The Wild: Eric Griswold, Ritchie Daniell and Sam Pankhurst. Image courtesy of the Melbourne Recital Centre

Eric Griswold is not alone when he says that the tribal drums, flanged guitars and beyond-the-grave reverb of The Cure’s 1982 album Pornography “hit a power-spot” in his suburban-adolescent psyche. Even if The Cure’s output was usually boiled down to a few de rigeur tracks on scratched mix-CDs by the time of my own suburban-adolescent encounter with the band, it was—and judging by the audience at last night’s concert, is probably still—an obligatory rite of passage for every disaffected youth. It is then entirely appropriate that Eric Griswold teams up with two younger Brisbane musicians, Ritchie Daniell (drums) and Sam Pankhurst (bass), as The Wild to reimagine the album in an extended piano trio.

To recreate the guitar’s distortion and flanging, Griswold prepared his Yamaha (presumably the Recital Centre didn’t let him near the Steinway!) baby grand with paper and card, holding down the sustain pedal to imitate the echo of Robert Smith’s voice. A range of techniques gives the songs a density not found on the original, relatively transparent recording. In One Hundred Years Griswold plays on a cluster of notes within the range of a fourth (about the width of a hand with the fingers held loosely) , occasionally punctuating the tight, writhing group of notes with higher or lower tones. At other times he uses forearms and palms on the black keys of the piano, creating a broad shimmering surface channeling Debussy more than Smith.

Griswold produces a remarkable polyphonic effect in Siamese Twins by playing on the keys while also plucking strings inside the piano. Pankhurst takes over the chords at this point, which are given a seismic inevitability by the deep tones of the double bass.

The Figurehead is the most conventionally-reproduced of all of the songs, except for a period of knuckle-bashing on the piano. The seeming lack of invention in The Figurehead is more than compensated for in A Strange Day by Daniell’s exciting extended drum kit solos. Bells, cloths, prayer drums, soft mallets, brushes and elbows all come out to create a sputtering, thudding, polymetrical feast, settling into a 120bpm backbeat for only four bars to allow a fragment of the chorus to appear before being swallowed again by the glorious cacophony.

As well as taking the audience on a nostalgic journey, The Wild’s Pornography traces a social path from alternative rock to New Music that has provided contemporary classical music with some of its most active and innovative players. It shows that experimentation with sound sources and musical structures is a common passion from alternative rock to art music, from the suburbs to the city.

Metropolis: Thomas Adès, Life Story

Pablo Picasso, Musiciens aux masques, MoMA. Photo by Rolf Müller. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Picasso_three_musicians_moma_2006.jpg

Thomas Adès
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Life Story
Metropolis New Music Festival
11 April

All manner of contrabass woodwind came out for the first of Thomas Adès’ three Melbourne concerts. The comical, murky instruments ensured a night of dramatic vocal accompaniment and idiosyncratic instrumental writing. Almost entitled “Some of my Favourite Things,” the concert highlighted Adès’ lifelong interest in light-hearted and miniature forms.

To open the concert, Adès took the opportunity to conduct a piece he has admired since childhood, Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto, originally composed for Woody Herman’s band The Herd. Members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra provided a fine substitute-Herd from the racing, ephemeral time signatures of the opening movement, through the trudging, sorrowful second movement to finale’s pealing sunrise.

From the twentieth-century canon to a contemporary Australian work, Jeanette Little’s Acid Dream had its second charmed outing, this time under Adès’ baton. Inspired by the shifting realities of Philip K. Dick’s novels, the cinematic piece ranges eerie instrumental effects around the fundamental contrast of subterranean contrabassoon with seraphic celesta. The harp contributes a meandering flurry of notes in its highest register like a searching tentacle, over-blown flute notes punctuate the air and I don’t even know where the deflating balloon sound came from.

Two vocal works sung by soprano Hila Plitmann provided the audience with serves of nostalgia and humour. Oliver Knussen’s Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh is a retreat into the composer’s memories of childhood, with a series of vignettes from A. A. Milne’s famous children’s stories. Words turn to hums and disappear into clouds of instrumental colour, as though into a dream. At times the transformation is explicit, as when Plitmann sings “Climbing and climbing he climbed and climbed,” singing higher and (remarkably) higher herself, until she strikes a small triangle and the flute takes over the last, impossibly high note. Adès’ Life Story is not nearly so innocent, setting Tennessee Williams’ very different bed-time story of what happens after two people have been “to bed together for the first time, without the advantage or disadvantage of any prior acquaintance.”

Nancarrow’s Studies no. 6 and 7, played masterfully by Adès and Zubin Kanga,  were accompanied by Tal Rosner’s and Sophie Clements’ geometric visuals. Nancarrow’s uncharacteristically dreamy Study no. 6 inspired bands of cathode-ray pastel colour that slowly revealed landscapes of hills and telegraph wires from a journey to Mexico, where Nancarrow lived in political exile (and then, after a time, just for fun) from the 1930s.

Study no. 6 by Nancarrow. Video by Sophie Clements and Tal Rosner. Music by Conlon Nancarrow, performed by Thomas Adès. www.sophieclements.com

Study no.7 was accompanied by a delightful design of lines, squares, triangles and circles inspired by Nancarrow’s piano rolls.

Study no. 7 by Nancarrow. Video by Sophie Clements and Tal Rosner. Music by Conlon Nancarrow, performed by player piano. www.sophieclements.com

Adès’ Concerto Conciso is, despite its name, a sort of concerto grosso contrasting a jazz band ripieno with a string quartet concertino. Adès played on this ensemble’s ability to shift between the sound worlds of jazz and late romantic symphonic writing, contrasting grooving percussion and instrumental declamation with icy string tremoli and glacial rising brass lines. The piece made me think of Picasso’s Musiciens aux masques, with Adès as the guitar-playing harlequin sandwiched between the singing monk and the clarinet-playing pierrot.

Matthew Herbert and the Empty Instrument

Image courtesy of Melbourne Recital Centre
Matthew Herbert. Image courtesy of Melbourne Recital Centre

An interview with the DJ, composer and Creative Director of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Matthew Herbert is always interesting to read. He may question the role of factory settings in a sampler, describe the musical potential of a pencil, criticise the volume and redundancy of music on iTunes or define the bpm of his plumbing. He has also formulated some of these attitudes into a loosely prescriptive “Personal Contract for the Composition of Music (Incorporating the Manifesto of Mistakes),” found on his website and in his concert programs.

Alongside these technological and musical pronouncements are ideas about the political or ethical engagement of his music. The album One Pig (to be performed live at the Metropolis New Music Festival on 13 April) is sampled from the 20-week life cycle of a pig destined for the table. The soon-to-be-released End of Silence (Metropolis, 12 April) is based on a recording from the war in Libya in 2011. What is the relationship of these two bodies of statements and how do they come together in his musical works? In Herbert’s albums, music and ethics function like the two independent hemispheres of the brain, with the technology of the sampler acting as the corpus callosum making them appear as one walking, talking, contradictory being.

Herbert’s statements on technology show how the sampler clarified his relationship to music on the one hand and found sounds on the other. In a recent interview, Herbert described his Damascean encounter with the Casio FZ-1, a sampler with a microphone input. Instead of using the prefabricated sounds of the sampler, he recorded himself biting an apple:

“I pitched it down three octaves or so and, for the first time, I heard the world slowed down. I heard a noise that was way more engaging on a philosophical level than anything I’d ever heard before. […] I suddenly realised the sampler was an empty instrument. If you write music on a piano or a French horn, it will always sound a certain way – like a piano or a French horn. But the sound of the apple wasn’t like anything else I’d heard. I realised the sampler was just a tool. All it says to you is, ‘What do you want to do with me? What sounds do you want to make?’ With the sampler, I could make music with the world.”

A musician could just as easily have fetishised sound and said that the sampler was purely a tool for its exploration. On the other hand, they could have ignored the sampler’s microphone all together and focus on its musical properties. Herbert’s realisation that the sampler was an “empty instrument” both opened the way to his ethical engagement with pigs and jet fighters and allowed for his exploration of electronic music in night clubs and on the radio. As his biography states, Herbert’s ethical relation to sound is about bringing the sounds of the darker, problematic corners of the world into visceral contact with the listener:

“When everything I read politically and watch and hear has been absorbed, there comes a point where you must feel it viscerally. Otherwise you are closed to the horrors of it and thus closed to the possibility of action, closed to the idea that you could make a difference or could have prevented the outcome. This internalising of the struggle, the friction, the melancholy I feel should be at the emotional core of the work. After all, I am making music and not writing a newspaper article. But with the invention of the sampler, I can now explicitly root my work in the literal, critical present. I can describe the real in the frame of the imaginary.”

However, one rarely experiences horror when listening to Herbert’s music. One feels uneasy listening to a drum made from a pig you just heard being born. However, this unease requires the knowledge of what you are listening to in order to be effective. Divorced from its context Herbert’s music is eminently listenable. Instead of bringing horror to our speakers, Herbert’s music is gently thought-provoking propaganda.

You might say that the musical side of Herbert’s work does not follow the full consequences of its ethical side. Then again, would you want it to? Would we like another Survivor from Warsaw (or in this case,  A Survivor from Woolworths, or A Survivor from Ras Lanuf) where music strives to be the equal of its subject?

Metropolis: Matthew Herbert, One Room

One Room
Matthew Herbert
Metropolis New Music Festival
8 April

The Melbourne Recital Centre’s Made of Music commission asks musicians to engage with the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall and the hoop pine from which it is made. Using technology developed by the Vienna-based artist Bartholomäus Traubeck, data about the ring width, colour and texture of a slice of hoop pine is given to the composer for sonification. Inspired by the ephemeral nature of live performance, Matthew Herbert’s response to this brief was to sample previous recordings made in the hall and combine them with harmonic material derived from the hoop pine data.

Dressed in white dress shirts and bow ties, Herbert and his four musical helpers triggered fragments of piano, strings and winds with an electronic drum kit, hacked game controller and a contraption using a sprung cord for pitch modulation. The origins of most sounds were obscured by the short sample time and processing, though faint echoes of choirs, traditional Chinese instruments, bells and an infamous cougher from a Ravel concert came through the mix. The ensemble grooved and glitched through a series of percussive and ambient atmospheres before driving to a booming finish with the help of what sounded like a mighty double bass sample. The harmonic material played on a piano melded smoothly into the sometimes late-romantic, sometimes ambient-jazzy soundscape.

One Room is the first and least political of Herbert’s three concerts at the Melbourne Recital Centre. The remaining two, The End of Silence (12 April) and One Pig (13 April) will see similar operations performed upon very different sound sources: Sebastien Meyer’s sound recording of being bombed by a pro-Gaddafi plane in Libya in 2011 and the twenty-week life cycle of a pig. Over the next two days I will be exploring Matthew Herbert’s musical rationale in these pieces and taking a look at his self-restraining “Personal Contract for the Composition of Music (Incorporating the Manifesto of Mistakes).”