combinatorial challenges

jonathan dale, overground, melbourne jazz festival

 Jerome Noetinger, Overground

Jerome Noetinger, Overground

Jerome Noetinger, Overground

THE SECOND OVERGROUND, THE FESTIVAL-WITHIN-A-FESTIVAL SHOWCASING “CREATIVE AND IMPROVISATIONAL ARTISTS” AT THE 2011 MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL, WAS AS CONTESTED AND CURIOUS A BEAST AS THE INAUGURAL EVENT, WHICH TOOK PLACE AT THE 2010 FESTIVAL.

The focus this year was on international, inter-generational and inter-scene collaboration, which is laudable enough as a buzz-word gambit, until you realize exactly what this kind of unguided, ‘pick-a-name-out-of-the-hat’ cross-wiring often leads to—‘experimentation’ in its most pejorative sense, as if some kind of dumb mathematical equation (ie Tony Conrad + Chris Abrahams) could equate to engrossing performance, simply by resting on brand power. It was not to be.

The highlights came early. Entering the main room in the Town Hall, I caught Charlemagne Palestine and Oren Ambarchi in deep commune, Palestine working the Town Hall organ with rigorous yet sensitive force, Ambarchi further mutating the bottom-end. Both artists have pretty much defined their aesthetic remit by now, such that the combination of Palestine and Ambarchi yields exactly what you’d expect, but in this case the duo was both a no-brainer and perhaps the most genuinely sympatico collaboration of the day’s events. They managed to do one thing, brilliantly, over the course of a simple half hour—a lesson that many of the other performers at Overground would have done well to learn.

Palestine’s next performance was to be a solo set of his electronics, but he backed out, which meant the organisers wisely bumped Jérôme Noetinger’s solo performance across the schedule, into a longer slot. After a charming spoken introduction, Noetinger spent 19 minutes proving why he is still the master of the Revox: few other artists have such a clear, eloquent grasp of their instrument and of the possibilities of live electroacoustics. Part of the pleasure of Noetinger’s performance was its tactility, the sheer sensual pleasure of watching a tape gently looping around reels laid flat, while he toggled switches, manhandled the tape to slow, speed or warp the audio, turned his concrete vocals to rough, abraded signal and generally mapped his mastery of the idiom into a concise, gripping performance. Nothing to fault here—Noetinger is in a class of his own.

Après, le deluge. The remaining hours of Overground, sadly, offered little of merit. Collaborative endeavour within experimental music is a tricky beast, one further complicated by the presence of free improvisation as a sub-set within the meta-genre. But improvisation is not a simple metonym for experiment and Overground repeatedly placed artists together who were fine working within their own dialect, but not (yet) able to speak across boundaries. As one local wag mentioned later, “If it were Derek Bailey playing with another top-flight improviser, things would be different,” but this wasn’t—not to take away from the performers necessarily. However too often this kind of all-in-one love-fest of experimentation offers little to the audience beyond the sum of its parts.

The pairing of Jim Denley and xNOBBQx was a clear example. The set felt like a botched attempt at entente cordiale between xNOBBQx’s wild punk primitivism and Denley’s glossolalic improvisations. There were moments dotted throughout where they almost built up momentum, but mostly this consisted of two ideas running parallel, without the thrills that seemingly random, post-Surrealist juxtaposition can throw at the listener. In the end I simply wished I’d seen both performers do their usual fabulous things. Sky Needle and Snawklor were perhaps more suited, but they faced a similar problem. Both worked well with their own idiom, but the results didn’t gel. Sky Needle also seemed a little lost, the initial charm of their shtick—hand-made instruments turning out brilliantly odd avant-pop miniatures—wearing a bit thin, with little new to offer. Let’s hope this is just a holding gesture, while they figure out their next step.

Will Guthrie and Cured Pink was another abortive mismatch. Since moving to Nantes, France several years ago, Guthrie’s playing has shot through the firmament, but this new articulacy was lost in his duo with Brisbane-based agent provocateur Cured Pink, who spent the set playing at the kind of fifth-rate body/sound art that was practically dead in the water by the mid 80s. Guthrie responded with some of the most physically vicious playing I’ve seen from him in some time, and if anything, this set was worthwhile just to see him behind a full kit again, playing with a desperate edge—I guess that’s called making the best of a tough situation.

Two of the drawcards of the festival were Krautrock pioneers Faust and their one-time collaborator, minimalist Tony Conrad. Tellingly, they were also drawcards for festivals in the Northern Hemisphere, such as the Table of the Elements in the mid to late 1990s. Faust’s set with Noetinger and Sean Baxter was an abject disaster of aimless ‘out-rock’ doodling, despite the brave attempts of both Baxter and Noetinger to get things on track. (It proved beyond doubt that the brilliance of Faust’s sainted 1970s albums was all due to their studio construction.) Closing the night, Conrad’s duo with Chris Abrahams was another botched collaboration, with Conrad treating Abrahams as an accompanist, playing weak-kneed, scraping violin improv stylings with all the style of a remedial Jon Rose, giving Abrahams nothing to actively work with. It speaks volumes of Baxter and Abrahams that they pushed against the odds; and if anything, Overground proves that Australian experimental and improvised music is both thriving and deserving of a far better showcase.

The presence of the festival’s roamers and installation artists was most telling of the contentious relationship between official festival culture and the feverish creativity of the underground, loaded and uncomfortable though that word may be. There’s no denying that they added character to the event – walking past disco auteur Fabio Umberto doing his thing in a stairwell was one of the day’s highlights. But when performers dared to cross an invisible psychic line, such as when vocal scream artist Kusum Normoyle set up and gave an electrifying solo scream performance while ‘official’ festival musicians were playing in an adjacent room, only to be abruptly shut down by a festival co-organiser, the poverty of the set-up was made clear, despite co-curator Joel Stern’s assertion in Mess and Noise that the roamers were “asked…to be mobile, flexible, interventionist and interactive” (personal disclosure: I know Normoyle).

So, just remember, don’t be too interventionist and don’t disrupt the sanctity of official culture. (You can see the performance here: http://vimeo.com/25476198.) While Normoyle’s performance may have momentarily disrupted other artists, such are the risks one must accept when ‘intervention’ is encouraged. The moment was sadly telling of an overall lack of heart and spirit in an event that felt much more about hedging bets than really taking risks.

Overground, Melbourne International Jazz Festival, co-curators Sophia Brous, Lloyd Honeybrook, Joel Stern, Melbourne Town Hall, June 9

RealTime issue #105 Oct-Nov 2011 pg. 40

© Jon Dale; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 October 2011