LA5: drum mutations

Greg Hooper

It’s dark, the room lights are off. On stage there’s a semi-circular battery of large speakers. Stolid and flat, each speaker has a tiny green light saying “I’m on, just don’t expect a conversation.” Sounds start to come out, scratchy end-of-record noises, fade-ins and outs, bird hoots and budgie rants. The occasional chord pops in as a reminder of music for hands and fingers all working together. Cymbals run backwards, drainpipes gurgle; the piece finishes with some plinky drip sounds that exploit the spatial array of the speakers more than most of the previous material.

There’s always been a problem with the live presentation of ‘device’ music compared to ‘motor action’ music. Whether it’s a cassette player, reel-to-reel, CD player or a computer up on stage, it’s tricky. Just the machines? Or maybe some visuals as an accompaniment? Tonight, Lloyd Barrett comes in and sits behind the speakers. I can glimpse his legs through the metal of the speaker stands. Every so often his hand reaches down for the plastic water bottle. I’d like to think that he’s had a good night up there on stage, behind those speakers.

After the interval comes Trigger Mortis. COMPOST, the composition team of Damian Barbeler, Julian Day, Luke Jaaniste, Freeman McGrath and Toby Wren have joined up with drummer Grant Collins to write “drumless drum music.” For tonight’s performance Collins plays rubber pads plugged into a computer. The computer is programmed to pump out different sounds according to things like “which of 8 levels of hardness has Grant hit pad A this time”, or “it’s beat 173, time for the little pad on the left to have a completely different function.” This collaboration of performer and composers produces music for the sensibility and skill set that a virtuoso drummer like Collins possesses, as against music that might just as well be played on a keyboard.

Cowboys in Pain, by Julian Day, starts the show. It’s conceptually tight. Corny snaps of sound are structured in a simple rise and fall. Filters open and close, delay times are cramped to distortion, vocals peek out. Damian Barbeler is next up with There’s a snare in there—music for a world run by high functioning autists and obsessive compulsives. Plinky wood blocks and watery rushes make for a candy floss world-music that even gets a bit funky. Collins stops and chats to the audience about having to work against the clock and keep up with the computer changes so that the sounds come out right.

Freeman McGrath (Momentus Torque) then supplies the Collins virtuoso machine with samples from the profiteering worthies and victims of the asylum seeker/border protection hysteria. There’s lots of great rhythm playing—we can hear the drumsticks hitting the rubber pads over the top of the programmed sound, but we don’t hear the rhythms in the music itself. In this piece it’s as if a simple triggering system would have worked just as well as drums, and the compositional goals don’t seem as tightly linked to the means of production.

Toby Wren’s 2 pieces use samples of his own guitar playing as the sound material. The first piece returns us to the classics of compositional technique, guitar sounding like guitar, guitar sounding like zither. Collins then alerts us to the fact that there is tricky playing ahead. He now has to play ratios of 3, 4, 5 and 7 beats into each pulse, requiring a different speed for each leg and arm. He says he has to have “the limbs enter at different rates”, like his head is calling out to a body that hangs down from his neck: “I choose to activate the right lower limb now. Ready, set, go!”, and Collins becomes 4 human tape loops. You could use this guy’s playing to calibrate a physics experiment. Elephant bass, kazoo trumpet: the music sounds like some hideous machine learning how to strangle.

Jaaniste brings up the rear. His first piece comes on like a rapid-fire remix of the William Tell Overture. It’s actually samples of Swan Lake ordered into a martial disco music where snatches of melody thump and grind, inspiring the troops to put on the polyester and dance out to war.

Program ends. Applause is huge. Encore with another Jaaniste piece, this time sounding like a toyshop monkey playing the calliope. Program ends again. Applause is huge again.

COMPOST, Trigger Mortis, Liquid Architecture 5, Brisbane Powerhouse, July 22

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 50

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

1 October 2004