30 January 2009
NOWnow festival 2009
Blue Mountains // NSW // 16.-18.01.2009
What is the effect of four vocalists screaming into microphones for twenty minutes? Well, you get a headache. You also discover a sudden appreciation of tintinnabuli, or just anything soft.
Some might say aggressive improvisation is a sign the Australian experimental music scene is still thriving. But in another sense it’s a hint that we haven’t moved on since the reactionary self-expression of the 1970s. The fact that the three day NOWnow Festival presented screaming vocalists alongside extremely soft, introverted improvisation is probably the best sign of a healthy scene. After all, it’s the dark clouds together with the sunshine that make the most striking sunset.
NOWnow stands apart in Australia for its focus on improvised experimental music. The change in leadership and location over the past eight years means the festival is still of its time. People laughed when organisers moved the festival from Sydney to the Blue Mountains, but in its second year at Wentworth Falls audience numbers were up, with over a hundred people at each concert and a friendly festival atmosphere. Poets, musicians, arts students and locals absorbed every concert with determined interest.
The eclectic line-up of contributors ranged from local bohemians to overseas headliners, with virtuosic performances of jazz, noise, performance theatre and electronica, on instruments as diverse as the banjo and ancient Chinese harp. Perhaps the only hole in the program was the absence of sound installations.
Interestingly, the instrumental performances far outweighed the amount of electronically generated music, contrary to the predictions made a decade ago by computer enthusiasts who prophesied that instrumental performers would soon be outdated. The large number of instrumentalists involved could be a legacy of the festival's original organisers, Clare Cooper and Clayton Thomas, who perform on stringed instruments. But it also reflects the swing in attitudes worldwide, with electronic and instrumental music now comfortably rubbing shoulders as they pull the experimental bandwagon into the 21st century.
The festival opened on Friday night at the Wentworth Falls School of Arts with a guitar-themed bracket of improvisations. Each group was allocated thirty minutes to improvise, and the range of performances included the white noise of James Heighway, who spent more time twiddling knobs on his equipment than touching the strings of his guitar, to the delicate percussive textures of Clare Cooper on the guzheng, and the jazz-oriented riffs of duo Adam Sussman and Martin Kirkwood.
The weekend continued along the same lines, with a series of improvisations featuring trumpeters, pianists and clarinettists who, in the course of their thirty minutes, managed to avoid playing even one 'normal' unprepared note, instead filling the space with scratches, squawks and pops derived creatively from their instruments. German pianist Magda Mayas proved most interesting, conjuring a poetic sound world by using intricate percussive techniques on the strings. Her prepared piano moaned, whistled, sighed and sang in an ego-less performance that was deeply expressive.
Pianist and composer Anthony Pateras took listeners in another direction with his bombastic piano solos that used fist chords and repetitive cluster chords to create tremendous waves of sound. His personal investment in exploring light and shade is what brought beauty into this chaotic performance.
Audiovisual duo Helmet Head magnified the detail of found objects by projecting them on a screen, accompanied by rather static electronic music. Theatrically the performance was entertaining, but thematically a little shallow.
The old-school Loop Orchestra displayed the turntable art they have been creating for 27 years, but the most interesting electronic music came from audiovisual group Botborg, who used raw electronic signals to create intense sound-colour synaesthesia. The colours and pulsing patterns projected on the wall created an expressionist movie landscape, inextricably linked to the scratches and wails of the electronic music. Unfortunately the performance was cut short by technical problems.
To state the obvious, experimental music is useless unless it is pushing boundaries. Did the festival achieve this? The coming together of traditions is what spawns new things – look at the history of jazz – and this proved the case over the weekend, with the most interesting innovations happening in the crossover realm.
American banjo player Eugene Chadbourne explored the underbelly of US country music with his political lyrics, quartertone dissonances and virtuosic solos. In his hands, the stereotypical arpeggio figures of the banjo became a relentless assault on the ear, with an intensity balanced by Chadbourne’s rather irreverent experimentation with different plectrums (using everything from balloons to vibrators).
The collective of roughly twenty artists known as the Splinter Orchestra mesmerised a Sunday-afternoon audience with their delicately textured Feldmanesque improvisations. The ensemble included four double basses, assorted winds, three computers, several brass and a percussion section featuring a garden hose. Most noticeable was the way the players listened and allowed space for each other. Their attentiveness rubbed off on the audience, who sat in absorbed silence for several minutes after the whistles, chatters and rumbles had died away.
East met electronic in a wildly creative quartet featuring Clayton Thomas (bass), Clare Cooper (guzheng), Robin Fox (computer) and Martin Ng (turntable). Thomas produced industrial-style noises using a car licence plate and metal rods inserted between strings, while Cooper applied drumsticks and bow on the guzheng with soft intensity. Their sounds were looped and manipulated by Fox, while Ng destroyed several heads on his turntable with his scratches and feedback squeals. It was a unique sound world that grabbed and didn’t release the listener until the last note faded.
Moments like these reassure that experimental music in Australia is alive and well, and indebted to festivals like NOWnow where the art form is recharged.
A note of caution: sometimes this area of music practice attempts to maintain the stigma of being marginalised where it no longer exists and it does them no favours. As a newcomer from the West Coast it was easy to spot exclusivity; holding gigs in rural venues two hours from Sydney might keep costs down but organisers need to work harder to make venues accessible and to avoid self-ghettoising.
© Australian Music Centre (2009) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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Rosalind Appleby is a Perth-based music critic. She writes for The West Australian and hosts the program Difficult Listening on the Perth radio station RTR FM. She has been involved in the WA music scene both as a journalist and as a performer.
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Ross Chambers - NOWnow
The free vocals were of a level which I believe (as a once film sound editor) to be damaging to one's hearing; not so good if you hope to hear--say-- the whispering sax of Rosalind Hall later I hope that the disconnected Cannon plugs causing Botborg's troubles weren't a result of the folk who wandered in and out constantly. Grumbling over! Sincere thanks to all creating this fascinating programme, I learnt something and enjoyed most. I hope that you maintain the Blue Mountains venue because it seemed to be just the right size and feel. Even the basso continuo from the trucks passing on the highway outside worked on occasion. Regards - Ross