An organic-synthetic mix

Susanne Kennedy

The launch of Don Bate and Nick Lesek's album Tonewheel in Hobart saw the audience taken on a visual and aural journey where some of the landscape was recognisable and some wonderfully intangible, but always with a mercurial groove. An electronic funk soundscape emerged from the layering of 'organic' live elements with 'synthetic' recordings taken from the pair's ongoing collaboration and live improvisation. Electronic amorphousness moved in and out of more familiar sounds – a snatch of vocal narrative, a radar blip-before dissolving again into the abstraction of stylised beats and bass lines.

Bate and Lesek's creative relationship began around 7 years ago when the 2 realised they had similar approaches to composition, albeit with very different styles. They shared backgrounds in classical trombone and a mutual love of big band and funk. As the project's stylist, Lesek generally manipulates the overall sound effect, while Bate steps in as the traditionalist with melody, songs and improvisation.

The 2 brought together their trademark lay-it-down bass samples and loops (Lesek), and largely jazz inspired tunes and vocal rantings (Bate) to original tracks that Lesek subjected to his dismantling and remixing. In the course of the Tonewheel collaboration, the physical rendezvous took place in Hong Kong, Sydney and Hobart, but the majority of jamming and tinkering took place over the net via broadband. An extended session in January 2004 saw a collaboration with artists from the fluid musical outfit Benjafield Collective, who also appeared at the launch.

The Tonewheel album begins with the quiet tangle and an expectation of an orchestra settling in. Bate's melancholy vocal sweeps over the top, tumescent with longing before opening out into funk which Lesek has manipulated and looped back at various speeds. Elsewhere, cascading piano, brass exclamations and throaty gesticulations weave through a ballooning and reverberating bass. Using Live software at the launch, Lesek recorded, imported and arranged multiple audio clips and loops, altering the pitch and tempo of recorded material in real time and layering recorded audio on top of Benjafield Collective's live jazz/funk improvisations. On-the-spot recordings of the Collective were also woven into the mix.

Lesek drew on creative connections in Tokyo, recruiting one of Japan's leading video jammers, Jeff Klein of Terabyte Station (www.terabytestation.com), for the launch. Klein's bleeding of live performance footage and pre-shot material matches Lesek's live-synthetic approach. Klein projected his footage onto 2 adjacent screens that dropped from the bar's ceiling to bracket the stage. The screens flashed images that, like the music, moved from coherence to abstraction. Footage of Japan's bullet trains, monorails and cityscapes were used with aerial footage of the Tasmanian wilderness to build on the project's organic-inorganic juxtapositions. Klein also converted the Tasmanian footage to NTSC and sped it up to warp the contrast. A particularly nice effect was achieved, via the 'luminance' key, by transporting dynamic Japanese cityscapes to the Tasmanian clouds.

Like the everchanging Benjafield Collective, Tonewheel defies neat labels. Its soundscape segues between chill, disco, funk and death metal country, and Bate is confident that Tonewheel's 'moving feast' will be the first in a long series of similarly inspired, transpacific collaborations.

Tonewheel launch, University of Tasmania, Sandy Bay, Nov 13; www.benjafieldcollective.com

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. W

© Susanne Kennedy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2005