What did you say?

Jonathan Marshall: What is music? Melbourne

At a LaBasta! gig, someone is deliberately butchering Beckett’s Waiting For Godot with her ultra-dry, self-interrupted delivery. Before the shadow puppets come out, someone else forces a What Is Music? flier into my fist. What Is Music? When is that? Somehow, I get to an under-promoted, but nevertheless packed gig at an old, rock’n’roll pub. Toshimaru Nakamura’s superb No-input mixing board CD is ringing in my ears.

W.I.M? festival co-director Rob Avenaim is first up, making scratchy noises and false-foley work. It reminds me of Pauline Oliveros’ latest CD (In The Arms of Reynolds, Lowlands Distribution, Belgium), but not as good. He drapes his long hair off stage to be replaced by Tetuzi Akiyama, who takes a metal bow with custom microphone pickups on either end to a static acoustic guitar and begins to saw. Zzzz, zzzz. Wow. It all builds to this high-pitched nastiness as he provokes things with his free hand, holding blunt knives and plastic brushes. Almost too many (dis)harmonies. Luv those Japanese minimalists.

Next up is Julian Knowles, having a subdued, fun time behind his laptop—dull to look at, great to listen to. He takes us on a wild ride, from the gritty atmospheres of contemporary digital soundscapes (what would we do without Pro Tools?), then sheets of aggressive, sparkling, scintillating neo-electroacoustics, asymmetrically off-the-beat drum’n’bass, fluttering bass-drones, and more. I haven’t heard such a stylistically expansive palette since Battery Operated toured.

The big deal of the night is up next. I’m not keen. I’m not an Oren Ambarchi fan, his guitar hum is too damn quiet. Same problem with digi-man Phil Samartzis. They’re joined by Günter Müller, who, by rubbing 2 microphones together, or skimming them across cymbals, kicks up quite a din right from the start. Ambarchi and Samartzis respond in kind. Did I just see Ambarchi play an actual note? His guitar sounds particularly dark tonight, ghosting the styles of his peers, while deep, resonant hums emerge from Müller, and Samartzis caps it off with loud, crinkly, micro-exclamations. I remember Pierre Schaeffer’s statement of composing for “the astonished ear.” Well, my ear’s feeling pretty astonished.

After that unexpected delight, Nakamura takes ages to set up. A technical problem? We never know, but an icy draft in the pub is making the audience decidedly restive. When he finally plays, he proves disappointing. Sure, it has a rough aggression lacking in his CDs, a playful expressiveness, but these short phrases seem a bit like pointless noodling. Where are the exquisite, ringing loops captured on CD (No-input mixing board, Tokyo: Zero Gravity, 2000)?

My blood is slowing to ice as the last act, Voicecrack, set up, in the middle of the room, a table covered in cheap electronic doohickies: toys, bike-lights, clapped out scanners, and a heap of photoelectric contraptions. In near darkness they start manipulating the number, intensity and periodicity of light sources flickering onto the light-sensitive devices. A huge wall of industrial noise emerges; the kind of sound that would make Merzbow proud. The Swiss duo’s work fits well into Nietzche’s Germanic ideas about Dionysian chaos uniting life and death. I listen for 20 minutes, but their annihilating sound hasn’t warmed up the pub. I scatter for home before I turn into a pillar of salty ice.

What Is Music?, Corner Hotel, July 16; Waiting for Godot, versioned by LaBasta!, Meyers Place Bar, July 7.

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. web

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

1 October 2002