What is music? This is!

Gail Priest

Noriko Tujiko

Noriko Tujiko

After a noticeable absence in 2003, What Is Music? returns to its former time slot, allowing the summer festival frenzy to stretch through February. The 2004 festival driven by Oren Ambarchi, Robbie Avenaim and caleb~k, has benefited from the year of quiet consolidation (which included incorporation and key organisation funding from the Australia Council) to re-emerge as an east coast extravaganza with the addition of a weekend of events at the Brisbane Powerhouse for Live Arts, as well as 5 nights in Sydney and 6 nights in Melbourne showcasing the work of more than 60 Australian and international artists.

The festival began in 1994 when Oren Ambarchi and Robbie Avenaim returned from an international tour. Inspired by the work of John Zorn, they were interested in mounting an Australian version of his musical game Cobra. Glenn Wright from the Harbourside Brasserie encouraged them to present a week’s worth of performances. Ambarchi recalls the first festival as including “really high-brow and low-brow stuff. For example, Machine for Making Sense and then the MuMesons. We just had things we liked. We didn’t really differentiate…we just threw them together. In the beginning there was more of a [pressing] reason because there were so few gigs in Sydney for experimental artists. So it was a way for us to play, try different things out and get different people to play together. We were interested in digging people out of the woodwork… presenting work that was really important but that no one knew about—bedroom musicians and strange people who have been doing stuff for years [like] Daevid Allen from Gong. He’s an Australian artist in his 60s and plays in Europe 3 or 4 times a year and we put on his first Sydney show in his whole career.”

Ten years on, the guiding principle is the same, but over the last 6 years the introduction of key international artists has heightened the festival’s profile. The curatorial directive is to expose Australian audiences to artists who have played revolutionary roles in international music culture. “For example, we’re presenting Merzbow (Japan) and Whitehouse (England) who are probably the top noise practitioners in the world, heavy historical figures in that genre…At the same time there are artists like Annette Krebs and Andrea Neuman (Germany) who are amongst the most interesting improvisers working today.”

The Japanese contingent is particularly strong. Along with Merzbow, the festival will also feature Keiji Haino, a key historical figure in the Japanese avant-garde scene who has been involved in psychedelic free jazz projects since the late 60s. Ambarchi enthuses, “He completely revolutionised avant-pysch music in Japan and around the world…he’s in his own realm, a guitar player and vocalist unlike any other. Unbelievably personal and intense music, quite transcendental. Also quite draining and heavy going but in a beautiful way.” On the lighter side is Noriko Tujiko who performs quirky electronic pop with digital textures.
Merzbow

Merzbow

Merzbow

What Is Music? has had a reputation for wild performative events and it looks as though this tradition will be upheld by Whitehouse. The program tells us to “expect rock noise on the edge of aural damage and extreme adrenalin rush…testing the artistic and aesthetic limits of even the greatest connoisseurs of avant-garde sound.” In the Sydney show at Candy’s Apartment, Whitehouse will be supported by a little known sound artist from Uzbekistan, Fahalim Ooshcasky, feedback artist Mattin from the Basque Country and locals Dead Man Eating and Rizili. In Melbourne they will be joined by Neil Hamburger from the USA, Mark Harwood and the intriguing Von Crapp Family featuring guitarist Gary Butler, his wife and 2 children. Keeping things in the family, there will also be performances by Avenaim and his nephew Michael, and as part of the Brisbane shows, Clocked Out Duo’s Vanessa Tomlinson will perform with her 19 month-old son George Griswold. There are too many local artists to mention, but emphasis is on collaborative improvisations between local and international artists with some fantastic combinations set for the Sydney Conservatorium shows and the Melbourne Iwaki Auditorium nights supported by ABC Classic FM.

What Is Music? 2004 has also expanded to include some free events as part of the Melbourne program. From Monday 16 to Friday 20 at the Kaliede Theatre there’ll be a cinema series co-presented with Transmit Collective and RMIT Union Arts that includes Fassbinder’s Satin’s Brew, Sun City Girls’ Cloaven Theatre and Take Me By The Throat’s Satan Rides the Media. Miles van Dorssen and Nick Wishart’s soundscultpture CELL—a shipping container fitted with MIDI-activated pneumatic devices—will be located in the City Square. And for the first time there will be a festival club for late night revellings in Sydney at the Frequency Lab, and in Melbourne at BUS Gallery which will also feature a photographic and video exhibition curated by Lisa Campbell-Smith and Robbie Avenaim.

So now that the festival has survived for a decade, what’s the future for What Is Music? caleb~k believes that there needs to be period of consolidation. Expanding to a fully national tour is possibly not financially feasible for a festival that offers up to 6 nights in each city (although there are some events this year presented in association with South Australian and Western Australian promoters following the festival). The push now is on developing audiences, particularly in the newest leg of the tour, Brisbane. Other plans include setting up a recording label, a series of presentations across the year outside of festival time and some potential tours internationally. With the increasingly healthy audio culture in Australia, caleb~k would like to see What Is Music? operating as a support and informational hub for the innovative music community. In the meantime, audiences will have to be content with 12 days of some of the newest, wildest, loudest, quietest, messiest and rigorous sonic offerings this summer.

What Is Music?, directors Oren Ambarchi, Robbie Avenaim, caleb~k, Brisbane co-ordinator Lawrence English; Brisbane Powerhouse for the Live Arts, Feb 6-8, Sydney, various venues, Feb 10-14, Melbourne,various venues, Feb 15-20

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 13

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2004