New frequencies

caleb k.

A lot of experimental sound happening in Sydney at present is appearing in somewhat unexpected locations. Sonic Alchemy, a series of afternoon performances, was held at the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills, set in front of Whiteley’s painting, Alchemy.

Experimental sound and music has long been associated with gallery spaces. The art world has often been more accepting of new and difficult sounds than the music world, especially in the name of art. However, in this case, the surreal imagery and explicit actions of Whiteley’s monstrous work, to my mind, are not at all in keeping with the improvised, minimal, experimental audio presented here.

The series of improvised trios has been curated by local musician Jim Denley, and includes a number of improvisers currently active in the Sydney new music and audio scene. For this afternoon’s performance the 3 musicians are set up without PA, each with his own amplification via guitar amps and a shabby home stereo.

Oren Ambarchi is the best known of new musicians to emerge from Sydney. He is a sought-after performer on the international scene, and is also very active locally. Using a heavily modified guitar and an array of guitar pedals, he pulls audio that has little causal connection to his instrument and actions. Less well known are Peter Blamey and Brendan Walls. Like Ambarchi, they use a series of feedback techniques to draw sounds from their analogue technologies. In both cases, this is centred simply around a mixing desk which has been ‘improperly’ patched and so draws different types of feedback. These sounds are often high pitched, extremely stripped back and minimal: sinewaves, squarewaves and the odd standingwave for good luck. Though not loud, these frequencies can be disturbing to the uninitiated. Casual visitors to the gallery quickly press fingers firmly into their ears.

The performance began quietly and minimally, the tones and frequencies in the high range making use of the reverberant space of the gallery, and ranged into a more fully textured and disjunctive style as the musicians let their individual voices play out. The key moment came near the end when a slow burning drone was initiated, the sound gradually building in volume and density. With no PA or sound engineer, the performers were free to take this to the limits—a wild card in this environment. Just as the volume reached the limit for many in the audience, Ambarchi created an extremely rich and dense audio. A slow fade to the end seemed inevitable but this was dramatically subverted by Blamey who continued playing after Ambarchi and Walls had clearly finished. Improv is usually about the group.

As with much new audio, the space plays an extremely important role in determining the outcomes. The variation this space creates is well worth experimenting with, and what better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than in an unfamiliar environment with new and improvised music.

Sonic Alchemy, curated by Jim Denley, artists Peter Blamey, Brendan Walls, Oren Ambarchi, AGNSW’s Brett Whiteley Studio, Surry Hills, Sydney, April 21

RealTime issue #49 June-July 2002 pg. 35

© Caleb K; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2002