what remains: the sum of differences

henry andersen: residual, peter knight, dung nguyen, thnmf


The pair’s influences are vast, spanning jazz, Vietnamese folk, drone, rock and electronica. In their improvisations at Fremantle’s Kulcha, the final show of Tura’s Totally Huge New Music Festival, each influence is extracted from its original context and given fresh meaning in new surroundings. Residual is what remains.

east and west

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Residual is the integration of classical Vietnamese influence and instrumentation. Nguyen was trained by his grandfather on the dan tranh (a 17-stringed zither) and the dan bau (a single-stringed zither with a flexible bar attached to the string allowing pitch bending) and he improvises on both. One of the key difficulties in integrating such instruments into a Western aesthetic is their indeterminacy in regard to pitch. In Residual, however, there is little need for exact tuning—sounds are used for their timbral and gestural character rather than as part of any definite pitch structure. In their final piece in particular, the free, smooth movement of the dan bau lofted beautifully above skittering electronics of Knight’s laptop.

Another important reference point for the duo is jazz. Both Knight and Nguyen are members of the Melbourne ensemble Way Out West. The jazz influence in the duo is best understood as an attitude or an approach rather than a particular sound: the shared improvisation and the measured pacing of the music seem to stem from the genre. Knight plays trumpet in much of the music and his improvisations on the instrument speak of calm virtuosity. His playing is subtle but often incredibly demanding technically and he appears quite happy to move between such virtuosic playing and simple textural techniques, such as breathing through his trumpet, as the music demands.

The great filter for these influences is the duo’s use of laptop. The tone of the trumpet and of Nguyen’s Vietnamese instruments are fairly diffuse but with the laptop, Knight is able to extract these tones and manipulate them, creating a vital middle ground. The tendency is toward additive composition, taking residual elements of the live performance and channelling them into the laptop with the sound quickly becoming a thick mass of disparate influences.

human and inhuman

Residual blends the very human sounds of breath and fingers with the very digital sounds of Knight’s laptop manipulations. The duo combine the elements effectively, playing each to their strengths. The sound of the live instruments is organic and Knight and Nguyen, as humans, are capable of spontaneity within improvisation. Nguyen in particular seems thoroughly invested in his performance, hunched over his instruments in a kind of rapture. For the laptop sound is simply data—it cannot make aesthetic judgements—but it can transform the data in ways that are novel and often surprising.

There is a sense of the laptop functioning as a kind of hive mind for the improvisation, the software as the central logic to which the other sounds adhere. Delicate string sounds and extended trumpet techniques are subsumed by laptop textures which become ever thicker with sampled and manipulated sounds densely overlaid. This provides a useful way of unifying the composition (always important in collaborative improvisation) but it also creates a sense of disconnect between the two live performers—each communicates with the laptop, less so with the other.

old and new

Residual is steeped in history. The dahn tranh and dan bau belong to a family of Chinese instruments which were brought to Vietnam around the tenth century. The trumpet is considerably more modern but far from a new instrument with the first valve trumpets constructed at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Aside from the obvious new-ness of running these instruments through a laptop the duo employ several other innovative approaches to bringing these instruments into a twenty-first century context.

Nguyen’s dan tranh is prepared—objects placed on and between the strings to alter the sound. The result is incredibly effective, allowing the natural ornate tones of the instrument to sit beside percussive outbursts. Extended techniques are also a clear focus for the duo. Nguyen scrapes his fingers along the dan tranh to create ethereal glissandi and Knight breathes, whistles and sings through his trumpet to unexpectedly entrancing effect.

Residual is a collaboration in a far wider sense than simply being the work of two performers. The pair weaves an interesting counterpoint between East and West, human and inhuman, old and new. The aim is not to hold these elements together but to position them against one another. What is cancelled is the expectation of context and genre, Residual is what remains.

27 September 2011