Rather raging demons than hollow angels

Jonathan Marshall

There are 2 fundamental directions in sound: an increase in sonic or musical density through rising volume or an increase in layering of materials; or a decrease in density through the minimisation of volume or a greater spaciousness between materials. As I revisit those Punk era recordings that introduced me to experimental music, such as Suicide, The Velvet Underground, The Birthday Party, The Fall and Cabaret Voltaire, I find I have little patience for those who build on John Cage’s 4’33” by exploring ever more dispersed or quiet musics. For me the harsher, fuller soundscapes command attention more effectively than low level acoustics. At the 2 performances of the Melbourne leg of i.audio, it was the former which, to paraphrase Iggy Pop, brought raw power runnin’ to me.

The first night featured several artists whose approach epitomised, in different ways, the drive towards low sonic densities. Natasha Anderson (contrabass recorder) and Jim Denley (various flutes and parts thereof), both Make It Up Club regulars, represent a trend in the crossover between free jazz and new music improvisation. Their performance was all incomplete noises and ‘improperly’ produced woodwind and brass sounds, off-centre gasps across the mouthpiece, or un-tongued, barely sustained whispers through hollow tubes. This was a world of isolated fragments, of numerous gestures that led to surprises or sudden drop-outs of enunciation. While this approach has its adherents, it constitutes a musical cul-de-sac. Once you’re familiar with Denley’s extraordinary sonic range, there is little more to appreciate, while Anderson’s material holds marginally more interest largely because of her relatively exotic instruments.

Regular collaborators Oren Ambarchi and Philip Samartzis—here joined by Joel Stern—exhibited a considerably less gestural quality due to their instrumentation (processed guitar; prepared CDs and electronics; and laptop and electronics, respectively). There was nevertheless a similar sense of dancing about the edges of silences and spaciousness due to the extreme subtlety of Samartzis’ dispersed sinewave intrusions and crackles, or Ambarchi’s elusive, gritty materials. Once again, the lack of consistent, overt energy or something more arresting to hang on to left me indifferent. The unintended earth hum that persisted throughout all of the first evening’s performances was extremely irritating given the quiet nature of this piece.

The hum presented an insurmountable problem for Taku Sugimoto, the first night’s closing act. The Japanese artist’s long piece—frankly shocking in its radical minimalism—consisted simply of his crouching beside his guitar and amplifier, essentially willing a gentle, cottony, fluttering hum from these devices. With another hum already in the system though, identifying Sugimoto’s barely audible evocations required an act of monumentally close listening. I found myself wishing Sugimoto might spontaneously transform into extreme noise artists Merzbow or Voicecrack. If you are going to summon the beasts that dwell within electronic equipment, I’d rather raging demons than hollow angels.

Unlike the first night, the second was characterised by works of considerable sonic density and the earth buzz was absent. The first 2 performances by Will Guthrie and Arek Gulbenkoglu, then Scott Horscroft with his mini guitar orchestra, were both readily coherent because of their foundational use of layered, sustained notes and chords. Guthrie built his own base by lightly flicking a large, amplified gong with a carefully positioned hand fan, while Horscroft forged an even denser weft of chords by mixing and manipulating 4 continuously agitated, amplified guitars.

Guthrie sat at a desk of percussion items and electronic processors, while the similarly electronically endowed Gulbenkoglu tweaked and mashed materials over the pick-up of his prone guitar. Their improvisations had a visibly gestural quality, yet it was the bedrock of Guthrie’s gong and the equally evocative, underlying sound of fan-blades through the guitar’s bridge that made this performance more than a collection of intriguing discontinuities. The sustained, continuous materials established a context for Guthrie’s measured twangs and scrapes of pliable metal rods, or the shaking of a large spring, whose sound was reshaped through the amplifying medium of the small drum on which it sat. Gulbenkoglu meanwhile pressed metal brushes and steel wool over the guitar’s lightly harmonising strings and through its popping, crackling pick-up. When the sustained sounds dropped out, these smaller, secondary gestures were suddenly foregrounded, taking on a dramatic intensity.

Horscroft’s performance was simultaneously both more and less complex. Where Guthrie and Gulbenkoglu used a heavy, bassy substratum to provide a contrast to discrete musical flourishes of a different sonic character, Horscroft produced a thicker layering of essentially like materials, deepening and increasing their musico-dramatic charge through the accumulation of first guitar hums and taps, then single notes and chords, and finally inserting within these a simple, 3-note sequence. Although Horscroft’s extended gathering and cycling of polyrhythms recalled Steve Reich, the sound was closer to Terry Riley’s messier, more ecstatic minimalism, married with such classics of sheets of guitar and feedback as Television’s Marquee Moon (Elektra, NY: 1977).

Although jazz-noise artists David Brown (abused guitar) and Sean Baxter (drums and junk) had much in common with fellow improvisers Anderson and Denley, the proximity of Brown and Baxter to rock and its in-your-face manifestations gave their performance a greater depth and volume. The 2 shifted between tiny crinkles and passages that literally slid from one to the other as Baxter let his scratching, bowing stick travel in a single arc from one bent cymbal to another before the artists counterpointed each other with more aggressive, chaotic explosions. Brown and Baxter presented a typically solid work at i.audio, adopting a late Modernist, jangly quality through the addition of Anthony Pateras’ impressive prepared piano crashes, waves and fine miniaturas.

Japanese vocalist Ami Yoshida concluded the evening with an enthralling curio; a horrified, acoustic counterpart to the electronically produced “Little Voice” of Laurie Anderson. Yoshida both externally and internally squeezed her vocal chords and larynx, amplifying these sounds within her head alone, rather than in her chest. This created a highly restricted, squeaking, piercing, choked note; a kind of aural scraping of the open-mouthed, sound “e.” Yoshida’s performance constituted a distillation of the erotic scream of horror film, an absolute reduction and purification of the acoustics of terror and sex to its merest hints, yet no less sonicly powerful for this. The physical challenges involved in forcefully producing such a cry did mean however that Yoshida’s vocalisations functioned more as a demonstration than performance.

The highlight of both evenings was Robin Fox, who overcame the poor PA set-up of the first night to offer a forcefully ripping, laptop performance. Fox’s piece had a commanding rise and fall of squelched electro noises, cut with brittle, musique-concrete—like masses, all characterised by a sense of sonic cut-off and a leaping between materials which evoked a particularly aggressive, electronic version of hip-hop turntablism. Laurie Anderson once joked that her jangling, amplified violin work reflected the beat of a dance that we all unconsciously know: one that’s produced when you stick your finger into a power point. Fox’s compelling beats similarly summoned tunes that were too chaotic to consciously decipher, but which subliminally extended deep within the body and the psyche. Only sonic dynamism of this power can approach the “raw power” that Iggy Pop and the Stooges tore from their Marshall stacks.

i.audio, curator caleb k., Performance Space, Sydney, Sept 12-20; Footscray Community Arts Centre, Melbourne, Sept 17-18

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 45

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003