Before and after electricity

Greg Hooper

Beneath the noise and the corporate slurry, a self styled boy-band from Brisbane hunkers down amongst the vertical-linkages and value-propositions to bring us AMPidextrous Hearing at the Brisbane Powerhouse. The band, COMPOST, is a project-based collaboration (formed in 1997) between 5 composers from the Queensland Conservatorium: Damian Barbeler, Julian Day, Luke Jaaniste, Freeman McGrath and Toby Wren. Now dispersed across Australia, they get together once or twice a year to commission a new set of performers and put on a show.

In AMPidextrous Hearing Jaaniste has his turn as creative director. Underlying the project is the thesis that instrument design influences the practice of composing. COMPOST explore this idea over 2 nights by setting up duelling concerts: before and after electricity. On Night 1 it’s early instruments: recorder, oboe, lute/theorbo, viola da gamba and harpsichord. On Night 2 it’s the all-electric jazz rock combo: sax, guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. The scores are similar on both nights so the audible difference throughout the 2 concerts is mainly the instrumentation and playing styles, not the ‘music as text.’

The first night, preAmp, begins with Whisky by Wren. It starts with a simple 2 note recorder figure, goes to variations and the occasional let’s-all-join-in, until everyone is synched up. Generator by McGrath is next: flashes of humour and love’s mellow groove. I think of a happy Addams Family, Lurch at the keyboard.

The third piece of the night, by Jaaniste, is strictly from the recent isms; texture and what-listening-is rather than line and structure. A sound mass of trills from the harpsichord becomes overlayed with a quiet drone from the other instruments. Then silence. But somehow Jaaniste conducts across this silence to keep it active and expectant. This process is repeated 3 more times with slight variation (more so in the last section) to produce a sense of profound, desperately restrained fury. This is the highlight of the first night, on which the early instruments and the compositional intent seem perfectly suited.

Next comes Day’s Apology for Letter to Dead Girl. Martyn-Ellis impressively plays the fiendish-to-tune and beautiful to look at theorbo (think giraffe and lute). Low, 3-4 note chromatic figures sound like the plucking of deep piano strings. The last piece of the night is from Barbeler. Harpsichord clusters and interlocking lines (something across most of the pieces that evening).

Night 2, and plug in for postAMP. Warning signs plaster the theatre doors “This is going to be loud.” Now I’m a big fan of ethics in performance and don’t see why tissue damage should be a part of the audience experience, but it’s not all that loud after all and suits me fine. The stage is slightly different, darker, and with the performers set out in the traditional rock band format (sans singer).

Couldn’t start better than with Barbeler’s reworking of Generous music from the Night 1. Chords fade in and out, clicks and glitches, file readouts, samples from the previous night. Then it’s Freeman’s excellent Generation (a carbon-copy of Generator from the night before). If only progressive rock and jazz had gone legit so well.

Jaaniste’s Static was the treat of the previous night, now it’s the electro version. Subtle texture is lost as the harpsichord is replaced by a keyboard randomly cycling through the General Midi (GM) sounds that come bundled with every soundcard and keyboard on the market. Good, but not the standout of Night 1.

Day resurrects Dead Girl. Smarmy bossa nova on the guitar. Funny, and much like its previous incarnation, but this time the electrics carry the rolling rhythms in a way that the unamplified instruments could not.

Last is Wren, with Iceberg. Very slow build up. Gentle consistent drums punctuate the slab guitar, cold samples rummage about the space, meandering call and response across the instruments. Ice breaks and cymbals bow.

On the retro Night 1 the pieces by Barbeler, McGrath, Day and Wren don’t work for me in a big way. The musical language doesn’t really suit the instruments, maybe the lack of sustain in those old instruments can’t hold the larger structures together. Come the second night, though, and the complex writing of Barbeler, McGrath, Day and Wren exploits the amplification and sustain to the max. Great playing, great music. Jaaniste’s Static is quite different: perfectly suited to the harpsichord, with the early instruments rich and balanced in the drone. But the arid keyboard sounds of Jaaniste’s amplified version prove no match for the texture of the harpsichord.

So the boy-band from Brisbane is right. Before and after, pre and post. The physical counts with great ideas like these.

AMPidextrous Hearing, COMPOST, Damian Barbeler, Julian Day, Luke Jaaniste, Freeman McGrath, Toby Wren; Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, Sept 13, 14.

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 38

© Greg Hooper; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002