Impro: ethical, musical and now

Shannon O’Neill at the NOW now

The phrase “the NOW now” was coined by English guitarist Derek Bailey, a pioneer of non-idiomatic improvised music. Bailey died in late 2005, and so this year’s festival, the fifth in an annual series, was dedicated to him.
Natasha Anderson & Amanda Stewart

Natasha Anderson & Amanda Stewart

Natasha Anderson & Amanda Stewart

With more than 80 musicians participating, it would be impossible to cover every performance here. Given that I performed on the Friday and Saturday nights, I have chosen to write about the Thursday night, which also happened to be my favourite night of the festival.

The opening act, Robbie Avenaim and Dale Gorfinkel, are a vibraphone duo with a difference. Their instruments are microtonally prepared and activated by machines instead of the usual mallets, resulting in a variety of unusual textures. Their music was like waking up to an alarm clock, only in reverse; the hypnotic quality of the sound pulling the listener into a dream world. Alarm bells gave way to scenes of old children’s toys, followed by distant propellers and, finally, cats purring. By the end, Avenaim and Gorfinkle were literally shaking the sound from their instruments.

The Digits are a young laptop supergroup comprising Ben Byrne, Luke Callaghan, Alex Davies and Ivar Lehtsalu. They only played for 11 minutes but that was enough time to give a demonstration of the sound of systems overloading and crashing, and of faulty networks trying to establish connections. There was plenty of microsonic fetishism to be found here.

Pateras/Baxter/Brown from Melbourne played 3 distinct pieces. Sean Baxter began by dropping various objects on his ‘shit core percussion’, while Anthony Pateras’ busy prepared piano sounded like clattering tin pans in the mid range and collapsing constructions of tiny wooden blocks in the high range. Dave Brown began the next piece by scraping his guitar to produce disturbing moans before moving on to processed high frequencies and occasional boings and twangs like a ruler on a desk. For the final piece Baxter attempted to destroy a plastic plate, then turned his attention to what looked like a hubcap. The band worked itself into a frenzy which eventually broke down into a series of wobbly notes from Brown and a final flourish from Baxter.

Following a short break came an audiovisual performance by Peter Newman, one of the most impressive members of a new generation of media artists currently emerging from Sydney’s tertiary educational institutions. His music is epic, sweeping digital post-rock, like My Bloody Valentine stretched, twisted, filtered and layered into a dreamscape, the crackle of distortion matching the constant flickering of his images, which suggest faces and figures, but which I’m told aren’t actually there. The performance ended with a fade to white video and white noise. Perhaps this is what a near death experience might be like.

Natasha Anderson on electronics and recorders (as in the wind instrument) and vocalist Amanda Stewart allowed silence to be an integral part of their performance. An extroardinary range of sounds sporadically emerged and receded: whistles, breaths, kisses, twittering, chattering. It was often truly startling, with both performers demonstrating extraordinary control over dynamics and timing. They weren’t so much responding to each other as operating as one volatile unit. At times I was reminded of Luciano Berio and Cathy Berberian’s electroacoustic composition Visage, but with the operatics replaced by a 21st century microscopic sensibility.

Following another short break came one of those ad hoc assemblages for which improv festivals are renowned. Xavier Charles from France on clarinet, Jeff Henderson from New Zealand on wind instruments, Cor Fuhler from Holland on piano, Dave Symes on electric bass and Tony Buck on drums. After a long, meandering start, out of nowhere came a driving rock rhythm from Buck and Symes that got people’s heads nodding. This pattern was repeated several times, with ponderous passages punctuated by riffs and grooves, augmented by increasingly intense squeals from the woodwinds. Special mention should go to Henderson who cut an eccentric figure, moving between clarinet and sax, pausing occasionally to play with seemingly random objects on the floor.

Next was the most overtly ‘jazz’ set of the festival. Kris Wanders plays tenor sax loud, with a tone like an overdriven amplifier. The other musicians—Slawek Janicki on (often bowed) double bass, Alister Spence on piano and Toby Hall on drums—couldn’t match him for volume but instead created a dense web of notes. Some much needed space was created when Wanders dropped out, allowing us to hear the intricate interplay between Spence’s piano and Hall’s drums. Spence’s playing was a highlight, a multidimensional sound which changed shape depending on the angle from which one approached it.

The final act of the night was Thembi Soddell on sampler and Anthea Caddy on cello. Soddell has attracted much praise for her visionary and dynamic electroacoustic work. Given that some of her sounds are derived from processed cello, there was much interest in how she and Caddy would sound together. The audience was immediately transported to a haunted cavernous space, like some post-apocalyptic bunker. The scraping, screeching, creaking and crackings emanating from Caddy’s cello had me feeling sorry for the instrument. This was the sound of friction, of machinery long abandoned but still attempting to function. The scenes kept changing, but one was left with a distinctly queasy feeling that something was not quite right—an enigmatic note on which to end the night.

With nightly after-parties featuring some of Australia’s hippest underground DJs, installations, film screenings and even acoustic ecology-style soundwalks, the NOW now has reached maturity. There’s not much more that could be included, except perhaps talks and workshops. The festival and in particular its organisers, Clare Cooper and Clayton Thomas, have had a profound influence on Sydney’s experimental music scene. Overcoming the city’s tendency to cliquey fragmentation, the NOW now has pulled many people from diverse musical backgrounds into its warm embrace. It is a place where improvisation is an ethical as much as a musical approach; the emphasis on finding ways of engaging as equals. Audiences have responded with equal enthusiasm, with more than 300 people attending each of the 4 nights this year. The NOW now plays a vital role in developing local artists and audiences

the NOW now, curators Clayton Thomas, Clare Cooper; @Newtown, Sydney, Jan 18-2,1 http://www.thenownow.net

RealTime issue #72 April-May 2006 pg. 30

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

1 April 2006