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13 March 2012

MONA FOMA 2012: Hobart embraces Australian new music

MONA FOMA 2012: Hobart embraces Australian new music

[Update 12 April 2012 - links section added to.]
The MONA FOMA (Museum of Old and New Art Festival of Music and Art) festival celebrated its fourth incarnation in Hobart, Tasmania in 2012 as MOFO2012. Bringing together experimental music, improvisation, jazz, contemporary classical through to pop, rock and everything in between, the festival spanned over 10 days and nearly 60 events.

Facebook censored their promotional photos and Apple refused to let them use the acronym 'MOFO' for their iPhone application. Cynics may consider these sensationalist marketing ploys, but there is no denying that the people behind MONA FOMA do things differently.

Since its inception the festival has been curated by Brian Ritchie, former bassist in iconic '80s rock outfit the Violent Femmes (and now a resident of Hobart and shakuhachi enthusiast), who stated in an earlier festival program that he doesn't '…believe in old-fashioned concepts such as genres and "headliners" because it's all perception, and malleable'. This attitude is apparent in the diverse program that is highly supportive of Australian music and musicians. More than half of the 60 events were by Australian artists, most of who are working in the fields of creation - composition, improvisation, sound art and installation. 2012 artist in residence was Melbourne's David Chesworth, whose genre-crossing work is quite representative of the festival ethos. He lauded Ritchie and MONA FOMA for their support of the Australian acts and the ease with which home-grown talent participated in the festival.

Audiences here are different as well. Aided by either free or very reasonably priced tickets to events, audiences are willing to try new music - transitioning easily from improvised Byzantine chant, to the more tonal ranges of the David Chesworth Ensemble, before moving on to a live stream of a world premiere by Pierre Henry in his Paris home, mixed by Robin Fox to 21 different points of origin in the main festival venue, PW1 - a converted wharf in Hobart's Salamanca area. (The first performance I attended was a free event at St Mary's Cathedral, where more than 20 people stood in the foyer for the hour long performance, quiet and fully engaged.)

In his statement about the festival, Ritchie says '…we have things that are, aren't, shouldn't be, resemble, dismantle, deconstruct and celebrate music'. Here is an overview of some of the performances of Australian music that I was able to attend.

Nick Tsiavos
Nick Tsiavos in Liminal.
Image © Megan Casey.
Liminal by Nick Tsiavos
(St Mary's Cathedral, Hobart - 15 January 2012)

Described as stand-up jazz bass, improvised and combined with Byzantine chants, this performance played to an overflowing house with a standing ovation.

With an ensemble combining Tsiavos on contrabass, Deborah Kayser's vocals, Adam Simmons on saxophone and clarinet, and Peter Neville and Eugene Ughetti on percussion, the performance used haunting improvisations that explored the lyrical capabilities of all instruments, including bowed vibraphone and cymbals that echoed the intensity of Kayser's vocals. From the sublime to almost frighteningly beautiful, the combination of Kayser's vocals with Tsiavos's bass was incredibly powerful, utilising the space and acoustics of St Mary's Cathedral to evoke ancient sacred motifs in a contemporary setting, combined with cross-cultural spiritual references through the use of various traditional gongs.

Badlands by David Chesworth
(David Chesworth Ensemble, Hobart - 15 January 2012)
David Chesworth (electronics) and Jeremy Alsop (bass)
David Chesworth (electronics) and Jeremy Alsop (bass).
Image © Megan Casey.

As artist in residence, David Chesworth presented a number of his musical personas at MONA FOMA, from the more tonal work of the David Chesworth Ensemble through to his sound installation with Sonia Leber.

In the performance of Badlands the David Chesworth Ensemble revisited works from the early 2000s and before. The Badlands Suite was inspired by the 1973 Malick film of the same name and the usage of Karl Orff's Schulwerk in the score. Using the melodies of Schulwerk as a compositional framework gave an almost classical 'canon' feeling to the suite, that was well received by the audience, but slight deviations from traditional classical harmony created an appropriately unsettling feeling for a composition that was inspired by a film about teenagers on a killing spree. After preparing the audience with a more 'conventional' work, the David Chesworth Ensemble went on to perform works from the more aurally challenging Music to see through, presenting a generally well balanced program that challenged audience perceptions of 'classical' without alienating.

Oceanography/Peron Station by David Chesworth
(CAST gallery, Hobart)

The two acoustic works, Oceanography and Peron Station, were placed in Hobart's intimate CAST gallery. In a darkened room, speakers were placed facing into the centre of the room, where MONA's signature beanbags were available for gallery visitors to relax and experience the two works, each of 15 minutes' duration.

Oceanography is a completely fictional sound world, composed by Chesworth electronically to evoke an underwater ecosystem, hauntingly familiar to anyone who has spent time immersing themselves in the array of sound created in a natural underwater environment.

In comparison, Peron Station was created entirely from natural sounds recorded at the former sheep station of the same name in the coastal bushland of Western Australia. Well placed in juxtaposition to Oceanography, Peron Station sounds almost artificial, even though all sounds were recorded in the natural environment, and features various birdcalls, beetle stridulations and naturally occurring blowholes in the region. Particularly interesting and aiding in creating the 'artificial' feel of the work are the calls of the Chiming Wedge-bill, that the artist states '…overlap and seem to phase in and out of synch with each other…' in almost minimalist motives.

Space-Shifter by Sonia Leber and David Chesworth
(Detached Gallery, Hobart)
Space-shifter installation by Chesworth and Leber
Space Shifter, Detached Gallery, Hobart.

Hobart's Detached Gallery, located inside the shell of a heritage-listed church, hosted Chesworth and Sonia Leber's Space Shifter sound installation, a '…a psychogeography of voice and space…using sound, vibration and metallic constructions'.

This installation featured an amazing array of extended vocal techniques from Deborah Kayser, Maria Lurighi, Jerzy Kozlowski and the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir. These were projected from 14 concealed speakers, as well as audio transducers within the panels of the installation objects themselves. According to the artists 'This is an encounter with the voice as an object in itself, where it has become detached from the unseen soundmakers' and certainly wandering in from a brightly lit Hobart street, through a darkened corridor into the installation itself, is very displacing and disturbing. The steel panels, placed throughout the space, create a feeling of being herded and approached unexpectedly from any direction by the disconnected voices, creating sounds which range from humourous through to dark and ominous.

The Barbarians, by Constantine Koukias, performed by IHOS
(world premiere, Hobart Town Hall - 18 January 2012)

Commissioned specifically by MONA for the festival, The Barbarians is the first installment of a new, multipartite opera by Greek-Tasmanian composer Constantine Koukias, for his performing arts company, IHOS. Based on the 1904 poem 'Waiting for the Barbarians', by Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, and performed in modern Greek with English translation, the opera examines themes of otherness, sensuality and patriotism.

The production employed interesting use of stage design to physically create a sense of otherness, with the set placed through the centre of the Hobart Town Hall. This divided the audience into two distinct groups, facing the stage from opposite sides of the room - were you on the side of the citizens or the barbarians? Lighting was used to create stark contrasts, from the flaming brazier used through much of the hour-long production, violently disturbed by laser lighting and strobe effects.

Musically, The Barbarians is quite sparse, featuring bass-baritone (Nicholas Dinopoulos) as the Poet and boy alto (Ayrton Rose) as the Poet-Youth, working musically in a question-and-answer style, echoing the structure of the original poem. The opera also utilises the traditional male chorus of Greek drama, but, working against convention, the Chorus Leader is female, portrayed by Athanasia Houndalas, haunting and eerie in her masked, lighted costume and resounding vocals, whilst the chorus is silent. The only other female in the drama is soprano (Grace Ovens), who appears most often as the voice on behalf of the Barbarian, portrayed by dancer (Christos Linou) who has no words, but instead speaks through movement. The ensemble combines violin, trumpet, bassoon, harpsichord, celeste and hammond organ and three performers on percussion, as well as prerecorded tapes, interjecting between more somber, contemplative vocals, adding yet another element of 'otherness' and dramatic contrast.

The audience was warned to leave the children at home, and The Barbarians was indeed visually confronting, with some digital projection sequences showing graphic film of animal slaughter, and the male chorus at one stage garbed in necklaces made of offal, dripping blood. The production also featured male nudity throughout in the form of the dancer, in itself an interesting presentation. Nudity has a historical connection with barbarism and crudity, particularly in a Western context, and yet Linou's nakedness allowed the audience to fully see the eloquence of the dancer's movement.

Deliberately enigmatic, The Barbarians allowed the audience to make its own interpretations of themes that are highly relevant to contemporary Australian society.

The Gilmour Ensemble performing the works of Russell Gilmour
(Princess Wharf 1 - 19 January 2012)
Gilmour Ensemble: Jabra Latham (saxophone), Zac Johnson (violin), Greg Woodwood (cello),
Ben Smart (percussion) performing Pink Chesterfield No.1 by Russell Gilmour in Hobart.

The Tasmania-based Gilmour Ensemble were a firm favourite of the audience, obviously familiar with their work in their home state. The ensemble perform the work of Tasmanian composer Russell Gilmour exclusively and are an interesting combination of violin, cello, saxophone and marimba. The ensemble state of the music unapologetically,'You won't find groundbreaking innovation here, but listen awhile, and the subtle Thelonious Monk-style rhythmic shifting effects and Russell's own unique polyphonic harmonic language will start to weave its magic'. This is certainly what you get, and the interplay between the violin and saxophone was particularly interesting. Their signature Pink Chesterfield works, named after the chesterfield owned by Gilmour, were an appropriate accompaniment to lounging on pink beanbags at Princess Wharf.

One 11 (refocused) by Lawrence English and Scott Morrison
(Princess Wharf 1 - 20 January 2012)
Preview of the Lawrence English/Scott Morrison live collaboration,
Princess Wharf 1, Hobart.

There were a number of tributes to John Cage (whose 100th anniversary is being celebrated in 2012), including this project by Lawrence English (Brisbane) and Scott Morrison (Sydney). This multimedia film and sound project paid homage to Cage's last work, his only major film One11.

Unfortunately the daytime performance wasn't ideal for the film, mainly monochromatically light-based and difficult to see inside the brightly lit venue, and English and Morrison's live sound accompaniment was somewhat lost on the enormous stage. Sound (and potentially visuals) were created by remote controls attached to their laptops, building ebbs and flows from a constant ambient sound wall. Live sampling of chimes and Tibetan singing bowls interjected more dynamic flow and climax.

While Rome Burns by Michaela Davies
(Princess Wharf 1- 20 January 2012)
While Rome Burns performed by Kirsten Morley, Mark Simpson, Michaela Davies
and Lea Spratt-Simpson, at Princess Wharf 1, Hobart. Video © Mondo and the artist.

In While Rome Burns, Sydney-based artist Michaela Davies converts seismic data into electrical impulses to create puppet-like responses in the performers of a string quartet. The performance was executed beautifully both from a visual and aural standpoint, with the flow of seismic activity projected on a white screen above the shadows of the performers. Seismic activity was converted into audio that provided an ominous background, as differences in the activity stimulated electrical impulses at different muscle points for each musician, producing a work that is then, in effect, composed by the seismic activity of the earth.

While Rome Burns crosses the musical and the scientific, and for Davies, who is also a practicing psychologist, the work '…questions assumptions about the role of the musician's agency in musical performance and provides a reflective look at both the utility of information and the lack of agency we have with respect to global systems. It also offers a unique way of making visible the fragility and intimacy of human relationships to areas of science that we often think of as being entirely outside ourselves.'

A physically demanding (at times bordering on violent) experience for the musicians, who are taped to their bows so that muscle spasms don't cause them to be thrown out during movement, While Rome Burns questions notions of control. Performers have no interaction with their instruments that isn't dictated by the seismic data, turning the quartet into a horrifyingly beautiful ensemble comprised of human marionettes.

Chris Abrahams, Sabine Vogel and David Watson: improvisations
(St. Mary's Cathedral - 22 January 2012)

The final performance of the festival was an improvised performance by Chris Abrahams on the organ of St. Mary's Cathedral with the German Sabine Vogel on flute. Abrahams and Vogel have been collaborating for nearly a decade. Utilising extended flute techniques, this was a meditative and contemplative performance, with a beautiful interplay of textures between flute and organ. The performance also featured Abrahams with New Zealand's David Watson on bagpipes, and also unexpected improvisation with MONA FOMA curator, Brian Ritchie on shakuhachi.

The acoustics of the cathedral space allowed Vogel to explore - in the words of the program - a flute language of 'discovering and producing the unheard…' The use of the acoustic space was also interesting, with performers at times interacting with Abrahams from the stage, at times with him in the organ gallery, or, in the case of Watson, walking up and down the cathedral aisle.

I would like to thank many of the artists for their time in providing additional information during and after the festival. I would also like to thank MONA FOMA for connecting me with some of the artists and arranging film and photography permission for some venues.

AMC resources

David Chesworth - AMC profile
Russell Gilmour - AMC profile
Constantine Koukias - AMC profile
AMC Calendar: The Way You Move Me - 2-channel video installation by David Chesworth and Sonia Leber at Fehily Contemporary, Collingwood, Victoria, 8-31 March

Further links

MONA FOMA http://mofo.net.au/
'The sweet music of art-driven Tasmania' - Gavin Findlay's article on MONA FOMA on RealTime (April/May 2012)
Nick Tsiavos - http://nicktsiavos.net/index.html
David Chesworth Ensemble www.waxsm.com.au/chesworth/ensemble.html
Oceanography/Peron Station - CAST gallery website
Space Shifter - Detached Gallery website
IHOS - The Barbarians www.ihosopera.com/repertoire/the-barbarians/
Gilmour Ensemble (Facebook) - https://www.facebook.com/GilmourEnsemble
Lawrence English - http://lawrenceenglish.com/
Scott Morrison - http://scottm.com.au/contact/
Michaela Davies - While Rome Burns - http://www.michaeladavies.net/look/while-rome-burns/
Chris Abrahams (The Necks) - http://www.thenecks.com/

Janine Marshman is the AMC's Online Business Manager. She has a background spanning business and marketing and the performing arts: she has a Master of Commerce, majoring in marketing, and a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in music performance, both completed at the University of Sydney.


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