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.