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29 August 2008

Meta-Machine Music

Metalog in Adelaide

Metalog Image: Metalog  

The Wheatsheaf International Hotel is a notable South Australian establishment on the outskirts of Adelaide, showcasing a broad spectrum of music from folk and country to improv jazz and free-form experimentalism, not to mention occasional excursions into noise. The most recurrent sound of any performance at the Wheatsheaf is the rumble of a passenger jet flying within earshot of the humble venue. As a regular patron, I’ve been to enough gigs in the past to regard this otherwise undesirable 'soundmark' as a welcome distraction when things get a bit too much on stage. That said, it can also be a hindrance when the fragile surface tension of a delicate performance is disturbed by the roar of engines cutting across the sky. Sitting in the audience for Metalog’s electro-acoustic improvisation set, I found this periodic sonic disturbance necessary at times to readjust my senses from the sonic cacophony unfolding onstage.

Performing as part of the Australia Council funded Sound Travellers troupe, Metalog is a collective of musicians from Victoria and New South Wales, each with a special affinity for their 'meta-instrument'. The members of Metalog – Natasha Anderson (bass recorder & electronics), Robbie Avenaim (percussion), Ben Byrne (tape & electronics), Jim Denley (winds & electronics), Dale Gorfinkel (vibes, trumpet and electronics) and Amanda Stewart (voice & text) are all highly respected performers in their own right. Playing collectively as Metalog, the result is a formidable proposition.

The meta-instrument itself can be regarded either as an extension of a conventional instrument (such as winds, percussion, voice), as the use of various objects and interfacing (readymades, miscellaneous objects), or as the application of analogue music technology (Revox reel-to-reel tape deck). This relationship between the meta-instrument and its human performer stimulates ideas associated with the concept of cybernetics, where the instrument (or machine) performs as an extension of the human body, responsive to the movement, gesture and the instruction of its operator.

The hour-long improvisation was characterised by the exploration of the harmonies and dynamics of each meta-instrument in an improvised (albeit controlled) manner, creating evolving sonic textures which would be gradually constructed instrument by instrument, established, then stripped away and segued into a new section. As Ben Byrne would set his Revox tape deck into action with feedback loops, Jim Denley would lace the unfolding texture with glacial harmonics from his saxophone. The clattering of Robbie Avenaim’s percussion rig would then stutter into the mix as Amanda Stewart’s voice and spoken text oscillated from speaker to speaker.

I found the most interesting and rewarding aspects of the performance to be the interaction between Dale Gorfinkel and Robbie Avenaim and the mechanical automata of their self-playing instruments. It was very entertaining to watch Dale assemble and set in motion little self-playing devices as he sat cross-legged at the front of the stage. Ping-pong balls rattled inside a milk bottle (presumably driven by an air pump), a tiny Mechano motor spun gears to rub vibraphone plates, whilst plastic cups were scraped over glass surfaces. Equally entertaining was Robbie facing off with the unwieldy motors which drove suspended drumsticks with jittery muscle spasms across his snare drums. It also made for an engaging visual spectacle.

Throughout the hour-long performance, it was evident that the performers had a good understanding of each others’ approach to their instruments and their engagement as an ensemble. A particular highlight was the way Natasha Anderson and Jim Denley participated in regular call and response routines between each other, with a flurry of squeaks and trills.

If there was a criticism to be had with Metalog's performance, the tendency towards repetition with minor embellishments in the second half of the set made thing a little tedious and predictable at times.

Overall though, Metalog made for a highly entertaining spectacle. Like a meta-organism of sorts, the ensemble’s consistently morphing shape and structure was realised and made all the more engaging by the actions and nuance of its individual elements.

Performance details

Wheatsheaf International Hotel, Adelaide
21st July 2008

Tristan Louth-Robins is a South Australian sound artist, visual artist and composer. Since 2006 he has been the curator of the Tyndall Assembly experimental music series which showcases the work of local artists and composers. He is currently completing a Master of Music at the Elder Conservatorium, University of Adelaide, where he also teaches within his department of Music Technology.


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