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17 October 2008

Everything but the kitchen SynC…

Sydney // NSW // 29.09.2008

Michael Atherton & Garth Paine Image: Michael Atherton & Garth Paine  

There is a marked imbalance in the stage setup when experimental duo SynC performs. Michael Atherton's 'ancient and contemporary acoustic instruments,' as the programme calls them, are crammed into space-saving, easy-reaching arrangements, while Garth Paine's electronic equipment – which not so long ago might well have needed a separate room – is sleek and minimalist by comparison. A laptop, a Capybara sound computation engine, a Wacom drawing tablet and a Wii remote draped over a music stand are apparently all that is required these days.

The part composed, part improvised works ('comprovised', as Atherton and Paine called it) tend to focus on space and texture, rather than traditionally dominant elements such as pitch and rhythm. In fact, while the performance highlights the synchronisation of multiple musical eras and includes the synthesis of a number of cultures and styles, melodic and rhythmic elements are never quite 'in sync'. It is in the nature of this type of performance, perhaps, for artists to react in real time rather than meeting up at predetermined points. As a result, the musical lines stream into one another, influencing, overlapping, but never quite intersecting. Amid this (at times disorientating) complexity of sound, Paine's contribution to the overall structure of the works performed was best appreciated when Atherton ceased playing. The lightening of textures allowed the listener to tease apart the individual sound elements and trace them back to their original source in one of Atherton's many instruments.

The ritualistic Water Pour that opened and closed the concert introduced the spatial approach to sound that influenced most of the works. A quasi-theatrical atmosphere took hold, as Atherton slid a marble into a steel drum, rocking the instrument back and forth as he poured water over it. The splashy sweetness of the drum, amplified and modified by Paine, expanded to embrace the audience in a river-wash of sound far beyond the relatively meagre amount of water actually used.

This emphasis on performativity was a key feature of Paine's work in particular. Use of the spatially operated Wii controller obviously lends a degree of theatricality to a work – in Paine's case, this was characterised by a precise, restrained motility that had a more obvious connection to the sounds produced than is necessarily the case with other spatial instruments such as the theremin. As far as visual musicality goes, the Wii has an edge over the incongruent sight of a performer grooving along to the minute scratching motions of a stylus on a drawing tablet.

Issues of authenticity in performance, when cultural objects are taken out of their original context, are hard to gauge at the best of times; this becomes significantly more complex in a concert that deliberately courts anachronism. In the context of SynC's aesthetic, it seems to matter very little whether or not Atherton's performance on the oud, the didjeridu or the hurdy-gurdy is accomplished in the traditional vein. Although these 'ancient' instruments take their place alongside more contemporary ones – from the fortepiano to the electric guitar – there is a decided emphasis on the new rather than the old: the purpose of the interaction is not to reintroduce the past into the present, but to take both outside of the sphere for which they were originally conceived and into a new musical space.

The hurdy-gurdy, featured in the duet Encounter as well as Atherton's solo ExTempore, has a kind of steampunk glory when used in this context: the polished wooden body and sweat-sour augmented intervals evoke the archaic even as Atherton distorts its natural voice. The rasp and clatter of the instrument is enriched by rubbing the strings directly to create a surprisingly synthetic timbre, while Atherton's rattling on the instrument body passes through Paine's Wii-waving hands as pearls scattering through his fingers. Paine's Gagaku-inspired Fue Shõ, for which he swapped electronics for a flute and delay pedal, seemed to bear a greater reminiscence to romanticised chinoiserie than the current shakuhachi renaissance. Perhaps the work to most effectively establish some form of discourse between the old and the new was Electrofusion, described by the performers as a work 'for the curious and the brave.' Its confrontational qualities rested on the mixture of the truly familiar (guitar riffs and previously sampled fortepiano notes) with the curiously clinical contortions of the computer, and the dissection of the crystalline melodiousness of the amplified electric guitar contrasted with its wiry natural state.

Cyberdidj featured the slide-didjeridu (also known as the 'didjeribone'), which in retrospect was an ideal choice of instrument for this concert, given the many possibilities to electronically extend and intensify what is already a densely complex sound. This was indeed the aspect of the instrument accentuated by both Atherton and Paine; the former eschewed the characteristic effects of didjeridu performers in order to draw attention to the fine gradations of the drone itself, while the latter focused on the broader sweeps and sudden swirls of the didjeribone even when Atherton pushed towards something approximating rhythmic drive. This focus on texture was also clear in works such as Al Anbiq Dialogue, where the extension and amplification of the oud's small swoops and pitch bends could have been interesting but was overlooked in favour of the percussive plucking of the strings, lowered by Paine to become deeper finger-thrumming drums or dancing feet.

33 degrees 50 minutes south, named (without any obvious musical reasoning underlining it) for the geographical position of Sydney, was more aggressive; the effect of Atherton's multi-cultural drums and the high fluctuating pitch sustained by Paine's wacom tablet, heightened by a recurring image on the screen, the yellow-tinged clouds giving the impression of a rising storm. The cool change, however, came in the form of the shortest and simplest work, Homage to Waisvisz. Waisvisz's cracklebox is closer to traditional musical instruments where the performer has a tactile, physical influence on the sounds produced; body of the performer becomes part of the instrument as his own fingers connect the circuits. The grating directness of Paine's cracklebox, paired with Atherton's tin whistles, had a charming simplicity that brought to mind the rough polyphony of birds, and that contrasted sharply with the glossy but occasionally amorphous synthesis of the other electronic instruments.

Performance details

Further links

Angharad Davis is currently completing a Master's degree in musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, studying connections between memory and the perception of musical collage. She is associated with a number of musical organisations as a teacher, performer, and a writer of program notes.


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