loud, clear and cantankerous

gail priest experiences cranky robotics

Jay Eusden, James Hullick, Cranky Robotics

Jay Eusden, James Hullick, Cranky Robotics

Jay Eusden, James Hullick, Cranky Robotics

THERE ARE STRANGE NOISES EMANATING FROM THE STONE WALLED BASEMENT THEATRE OF THE FOOTSCRAY COMMUNITY ARTS CENTRE, PRODUCED BY AN ENIGMATIC ORDER SEATED IN HIGH-BACKED THRONES, GARBED IN HOODED BLACK JERSEY AND WIELDING MYSTIC POWERS OVER PRETERNATURAL CONTRAPTIONS. ENTER THE REALM OF JAMES HULLICK AND THE AMPLIFIED ELEPHANTS.

The Amplified Elephants have grown out of sound art classes run by Hullick for the ArtLife program which provides opportunities for people with perceived disabilities to experience a variety of artistic practices. Along with the Elephants, Hullick has invited instrument engineer Richie Allen and percussionist Eugene Ughetti to help bring the Cranky Robots to life.

The sound welcoming us into the space is a low machinic drone, like an insistent generator, shifting subtly through tones. Hullick and Liz Hofbauer approach the hitherto unattended mixing desk and start to tune the noise, releasing it to run wild, then catching and taming it, a tug-of-war between human and feedback revealing hypnotic drifting microtonal layers.

Hard on the heels of the sculpted onslaught, Enza Practico enters the space with wind chimes—the simplicity of action and sound working as an aural palate cleanser preparing us for the subtlety of Hullick, Ughetti and Jay Eusden’s study for microphones. Using feedback and effects, whistling, tapping and rubbing, the artists explore texture, surface and the tactility of the microphone, re-inventing it as a responsive poetic instrument, rather than a blunt tool.

These early pieces serve well as preludes to the Cranky Robots, defining an exploratory space where the behaviour of instruments is under serious scrutiny. The next piece, Secret Joy in the Wish Fulfilment of Love uses Whirling Dervishes—instruments made from a spinning metal bowl with a marble inside, activated by an adapted power drill mechanism. The sustained metallic resonance provides the bed for percussive exploration led by Ughetti. The piece, while subject to chance elements—like the marble flying out of the bowl and across the floor—is tightly structured, with Hullick conducting the action, teasing out pleasing layers from metallic drones and vibrations.
Cranky Robotics, prepared piano

Cranky Robotics, prepared piano

Cranky Robotics, prepared piano

Particularly intriguing is the Pranky-Ano. Designed to annoy the ‘prima donna’ piano, this pyramidal structure is placed over the strings of the piano with a series of percussive objects strung from levers. Activated from a midi-keyboard, the levers—reminiscent of a giant old typewriter—lift and drop objects onto the strings. At the same time Hullick plays the piano creating delicate gamelan tones, rudely interrupted by percussive agitations. Together the artists and machines become the ultimate prepared piano, a kind of Cagean-cyborg.

The Pranky-Ano developed from the Crank-A-Maphone which, strung like a monster mobile with wind-chimes, wooden boxes, bowls and other resonant junk, has a percussive focus. It too is midi-activated for this concert, which allows each of the Amplified Elephants to play a section in the final work. The piece is tightly structured around sections of Cranka-A-Maphone semi-random cacophony, and the quieter explorations of Ughetti on percussion, the clarity of sounds creating a kind of acoustic pixelation.

Along with the ingenuity and engineering of the machines, Cranky Robotics was impressive in the attention to structure within each piece, utilising every artist’s ability and expression to its optimum and finding a fine balance between control and chaos. The imperfection and unpredictability of the machines offered challenges but also freedoms within compositional process as did the various abilities of the artists defining an intriguing space for exploration—a space for serious play and gentle provocation in which every action is guided by a genuine desire to engage, express and work together to create a little bit of magic.

Cranky Robotics (Jolt Concert 1), director, sound designer James Hullick, percussionist Eugene Ughetti, instrument engineer Richie Allen, Amplified Elephants June Bentley, Jay Eusden, Liz Hofbauer, Robyn McGrath, Enza Practico, lighting Geordie Barker; Footscray Community Arts Centre, Melbourne, May 6

The Jolt concert series continues June 24 with Ernie Althoff, Robin Fox and James Hullick and July 22 with Hullick, Fox, Philip Samartzis and Myles Mumford; bookings Span Community House 9480 1364

RealTime issue #79 June-July 2007 pg.

1 June 2007