the sound of bicycles singing

shannon o'neill: jon rose & robin fox, pursuit

Jon Rose, Pursuit

Jon Rose, Pursuit

JON ROSE’S RIGOROUS PURSUIT OF NEW APPROACHES TO THE VIOLIN STRETCHES BACK OVER 30 YEARS, INVOLVING IMPROVISATION, INSTRUMENT BUILDING, GAME PIECES AND UNUSUAL PERFORMANCE CONTEXTS. A MAJOR NEW WORK IS ALWAYS HIGHLY ANTICIPATED. CREDITED TO JON ROSE AND ROBIN FOX, PURSUIT WAS A COLLABORATIVE PROJECT, BUT CLEARLY DRIVEN BY ROSE’S VISION. IT BUILT ON THE RECENT TRANSMISSION PROJECT, FOR WHICH ROSE ASSEMBLED A FORMIDABLE TEAM, INCLUDING INSTRUMENT BUILDERS ROD COOPER AND JIM SOSNIN, AND FOX, IN ORDER TO INVESTIGATE THE MUSICAL APPLICATIONS OF WIRELESS TECHNOLOGY AND ELEMENTAL FORCES. THE TRANSMISSION PROJECT HAD A NUMBER OF OUTCOMES, INCLUDING KITE MUSIC, WHICH WAS PERFORMED AT THIS YEAR’S NOW NOW FESTIVAL.

For Pursuit, the Transmission team was expanded, with the addition of instrument builders Paul Bryant and Harry Vatiliotis and composer and software developer Garth Paine, as well as several prominent members of Sydney’s cycling community, for bicycles were at the heart of this project. Rose first developed a bicycle powered violin in the early 1980s, but with Pursuit this was expanded into a ‘chamber orchestra’ of bicycle instruments, developed during a residency at Performance Space.

A one-off, free performance of Pursuit took place on a Saturday evening in the huge foyer of Carriageworks. I arrived to find the venue already full. It felt like everyone in the experimental music community was there, but the crowd was also diverse, including cycling enthusiasts and children. It was quite a social event, with people clearly enjoying themselves.

Towards the rear of the space stood the crew, including Rose and Fox, beneath a huge projection screen. Tracks were marked around the edges of the space, lit dramatically in places. Prior to the performance some video documentation was played, while Rose pedalled away on a stationary bicycle which I later learned was being used to power some of the equipment.

Rose introduced the performance by requesting that the audience be as quiet as possible, so as to hear the subtleties of the sound generated by the bicycles, but it was a lost cause. While the audience was polite, and the bar was closed during the performance, the informal setting and number of people meant that there was a constant background noise of chatter.

Jon Rose, Pursuit

Jon Rose, Pursuit

The first bicycle emerged with a startling, siren-like sound, as if to warn that what we were experiencing was serious. Adding to the slightly ominous feeling was the projection from a helmet-mounted camera, alternating with surveillance cameras placed at various vantage points. As the lone cyclist made his way around the venue the sound was amplified, modulated via Fox’s laptop and spatialised through a multi-channel speaker setup. Gradually other cyclists appeared, each with a different pedal-powered instrument, including a large hurdy-gurdy-like violin and a bellows-powered pipe instrument. The tone shifted to deadpan humour as the absurdity of some of these contraptions became evident, particularly Rod Cooper’s belt-driven turntable churning out easy listening.

Although the bicycles travelled slowly for the most part, they were still too fast to get a really good look at the instruments, but there was compensation in the inclusion of pre-recorded close-ups on the video screen. As I adjusted to the spectacle I was able to focus on the musical points of interest. The modulation of the instruments’ pitch and tempo by the speed of the pedalling was augmented by large doppler shifts as they went past, and the cavernous reverb of the space which glued it all together.

The scale of the reverb meant that the distinction between the acoustic and electronic sounds became blurred in a way that was unhelpful. I wandered outside of the ring of speakers to experience the acoustic sounds more clearly. Moving around the space added another dimension which was not experienced by most of the audience, who stayed put, oriented towards the screen. I found myself thinking that the best way to enjoy this piece would be to ride one of the bicycles. The sound continued to build towards a climax, like a bicycle race but without the competition, and then finished after approximately an hour.

Pursuit was an ambitious, impressive project, dealing with issues of transport, energy, acoustics, the nature of musical instruments and performance, and there was a lot to enjoy in the performance. In fact, there was too much going on to properly appreciate each of the elements, some of which felt less than fully developed. However the audience was treated to a unique experience, and as we left, most seemed happy with a good night out.

Performance Space: Jon Rose and Robin Fox, Pursuit, with Jim Sosin, Garth Paine, Rod Cooper, Paul Briant, Harry Vatiliotis; CarriageWorks, Feb 14, Sydney; www.jonroseweb.com

RealTime issue #90 April-May 2009 pg. 48

© Shannon O'Neill; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2009
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