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10 December 2009

Rosemary Joy - System Building

System Building Image: System Building  
© Yatzek - Aphids

With the production of Rosemary Joy's System Building, the wonderfully protean entity that is Aphids has re-affirmed its position as a leading light in new and thought-provoking art. System Buildingis a marvellous installation, starring percussionists Diego Espinosa and Eugene Ughetti. It was created for performance in four specific venues, in Berlin, Groningen in the Netherlands, Melbourne and Sydney. After recent performances in the Salon of the Melbourne Recital Centre it has finally made its way to Sydney for one evening of sold-out shows at Carriageworks. Shows, plural? Yes, each performance is only fifteen minutes long.

The artist/composer of System Building, Rosemary Joy, has collaborated with Aphids director, David Young on many projects over the years. Melbourne-based Joy is a sculptor who combines her love for hand-crafted instruments with the world of experimental percussion. Her ideas have reached an apotheosis with System Building, which explores the intermedium between architecture, sculpture and percussion.

The design of the instruments played by the two percussionists is inspired by the actual venues in which the work is performed. They are actually playing on scale-models of buildings. The 56-meter water tower where the work was performed in Groningen becomes a pile of wooden blocks, 40 centimetres high. Easily identifiable amongst the four models are the tram-shed roofs of Carriageworks, as well as the distinctive honeycomb facade of the Melbourne Recital Centre. Indeed, the work is a simultaneous interpretation of the visual and acoustic properties of each of the performance spaces.

The model/instrument hybrids were constructed by Joy with contemporary furniture maker, Adam Stewart. The four models are primarily constructed from African rosewood, used for its beautiful grain and exemplary reverberant quality.

The performance starts outside the hall, with the usher taking tickets and then leading the fifteen audience members on a short tour of the building. To help establish a sense of rapport with the space itself, the audience is guided through the back corridors of the cavernous Carriageworks venue and into the performance space, a vast hall. Save for the well-lit performers' table, which is located a long way away against the far wall, Richard Vabre's lighting envelops the hall in darkness.

Looking like a couple of sleek, black-clad magicians, the percussionists stand behind a very long, narrow table which is covered in blue felt. The fifteen chairs are pulled up extremely close to the table top - you could touch the models. The whole thing feels like a very special private concert, and the delightfully intimate performance scenario is made all the more so by the beaming faces of Diego Espinosa and Eugene Ughetti. Such affable chaps!

The performance itself takes the form of a controlled improvisation in which the two percussionists gradually deconstruct, then reassemble the models, playing the various parts the entire time. The gradual dismantling of the miniature structures reveals their complexity, comprising myriad parts, filled with holes, secret compartments, and sliding panels. All these constituent parts are utilised to create sound: blowing across the apertures of the blocks, hitting one against another, rubbing, scraping.

Every conceivable combination of material and surface is used in the production of sound, no matter how soft or fleeting. The percussionists probe the myriad ridges, indentations and corrugations with their fingertips in what is equal parts exploration and performance.

It all happens within an atmosphere of hushed reverence, the dynamic never straying beyond sotto voce. In such a remarkably quiet environment, Cageian notions of silence inevitably spring to mind - one becomes painfully aware of the unceasing hum of the lighting, the rumble of a neighbour's stomach.

By the half-way point the table looks like an exploded Flux-box, and is strewn with blocks of wood, tiny pipes and bits of Plexiglas. The percussionists then employ a selection of metal and wooden knitting needles to elicit a whole new palette of sounds. Constantly tinkering and tapping, they slowly begin a reconstruction process, combining parts from the different models to create new structures. Child's play! The two performances I witnessed had radically different outcomes.

This was quite unlike any other percussion performance I had experienced: no indulgent tirades of volume and rhythm here, just the gentlest of scrapes and taps. It was enthralling stuff, and Espinosa and Ughetti performed with consummate skill, each sleight of hand becoming an integral part of the sonic experience itself. The audience watched it all with quiet fascination, the kids were rapt.

Throughout the entire proceedings the two performers exuded a wonderful, warm generosity of spirit, and made one as an audience member feel wholly included as a part of the installation. It's weirdly charming watching someone playing a miniature version of the very building in which you are sitting at that very moment.

With its short running time, System Buildingwas a pleasant change from so much of today's contemporary music programming, where it is fashionable to stuff as much challenging music into an evening as possible. How refreshing it was to emerge from a new music performance with viscera intact! The Berliners really took to it, lapping up twenty-five shows in a matter of days.

With System Building, Rosemary Joy has created an original and thought-provoking work which can be enjoyed on many levels. AsI was sitting outside the hall waiting for the next show, a small boy emerged from a performance exclaiming, 'that was fun!' I heartily concurred. However, truly appreciating the sophisticated conceits of System Building requires an engagement of the intellect, a reappraisal of the senses. This was not just music for the ears and eyes, but for the mind as well, and I ruminated on the experience for days.

Event details

Aphids: System Building by Rosemary Joy
Performers: Eugene Ughetti and Diego Espinosa
New Music Network concert series
Carriageworks, Sydney,
23 November 2009
Event details - AMC Calendar

Further links

Aphids (www.aphids.net/)
'Rosemary Joy and the sound world in miniature' - interview on Resonate

Subjects discussed by this article:

Geoffrey Gartner is a freelance cellist, conductor and writer living in Sydney. He is a passionate advocate of the Fluxus ethos.


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