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7 January 2010

Electrofringe 2009

Newcastle // NSW // 01.-05.10.2009

Rosy Parlane (New Zealand) Image: Rosy Parlane (New Zealand)  
© Torunn Higgins

Electrofringe is one of a number of independent festivals that converge under the banner of This Is Not Art. It's held each spring in Newcastle, the historic coastal mining town two hours north of Sydney, and for four days this otherwise reserved city is overrun by free-thinking artists of all persuasion.

This year, after promising to do so for years, I finally made it along. My colleague Stephen Adams and I loaded the ABC van with recording gear and set out on a rainy highway. Our mission was to cover as much in this wet and overcast weekend as humanly possible, and to broadcast the results live on air in New Music Up Late.

Electrofringe is a very active affair that springs proudly from its grass-roots base. Nearly every event is free, and most artists present talks or workshops alongside their gigs. The result is as much a participatory conference as a festival. Whilst such idealism is laudable, I imagine that the festival's correspondingly microscopic budget could be easily lifted by even a modest donation at each event. Without a doubt the quality and breadth of the art itself is well worth it.

Directing this year's festival were Somaya Langley and Daniel Green, both practising sound artists with strong curatorial backgrounds. As usual the festival was headed by key international acts - among them ILIOS (Greece), Rosy Parlane (New Zealand) and Giles Aubry (Switzerland) - alongside a diverse Australian contingent, including Pimmon, Ensemble Offspring, Tom Hall, Bum Creek, and many more.

Our first stop upon arrival was The Lock Up, a historic police station now converted into a gallery, museum and cultural centre. I had in fact been an artist in residence here just two months prior. Within two dark cells sat two very contrasting sound installations. The first - Bass Masseuse by Guillaume Potard - featured a single large armchair carefully wrapped in cloth. I relaxed into it and pressed various buttons on a keypad to my right. This triggered a series of low frequencies reverberating throughout different parts of the chair, drawing my attention to each of my limbs and torso in turn. Whilst mostly 'pure' in its conception, one of the presets featured the deep bass grooves of the late Michael Jackson's oeuvre. It felt strange to be surging with energy at this man's work whilst sitting completely still.

The other installation was Planes by Swiss artist Giles Aubry. It was also set in a dark cell and featured a number of aircraft recordings Giles had made throughout Europe. Presented simply and without garnish, one could feel immersed in the raw, elemental power. We had heard Giles performing a live set a week earlier in Perth for the Totally Huge New Music Festival, the quality of the recordings attracting a palpable sense of admiration from the many sound artists present.

The first major highlight for me sat somewhat left of centre for this mostly electronic festival. It was a contemporary classical offering from Ensemble Offspring at the Newcastle Conservatorium. This was a 'classic' Ensemble Offspring type of program: at its core, a key work from the avant-garde canon (in this case Stockhausen's Kontakte for piano, percussion and electronics), alongside new compositions for the group and the work of a guest collaborator.

The guest artist in this instance was one of Australia's leading electronic musicians, Pimmon (AKA Paul Gough, host of Quiet Space on ABC Radio National). His work is deeply considered, balancing edgy detail with lush resonance. As such, it has found a predictably strong international following. His basic approach is to find simple loops from obscure sources - old pop songs, for instance, on out-of-print LPs - and to bury them beneath torrents of thick feedback and noise. The result is haunting, romantic and, to me, completely engaging. This is complemented by his driven and, at times, mildly demonic stage presence, a rare visage for a laptop artist.

Whilst hearing a rare live performance of one of Stockhausen's more influential works was undeniably exciting, I must admit that the idea of it appealed more to me than the actual experience. For me, this was music of its time, somewhat overshadowed by later, more visceral approaches to electroacoustics by other composers. I often feel that, in Stockhausen's early music, the power of the central idea is diluted by excessively fine detail and an over-reliance on Darmstadt rhetoric. Having said that, the performance by Bernadette Balkus, Claire Edwardes and Bob Scott was impassioned, engaged and highly memorable. They are to be lauded for revitalising this music for a newer generation, the group's sell-out concert at the Sydney Opera House the night before being evidence of a hunger for such bold and meaty programming.

Connecting the two halves of the concert was an improvisation between Pimmon and members of the Ensemble. This was an extremely sensitive, fine display from artists who had only just begun such work a few short years earlier with improviser Jim Denley.

The next morning we attended two artist talks. The first of these was with Greek sound artist ILIOS whose intense demeanour seemed to match the dark character of his work. Within a dark auditorium, we came to learn of the many masks and conceits he creates. This was followed by a seemingly hesitant yet equally engaging Rosy Parlane. This New Zealand artist has become well-known for his deeply textured releases through UK label Touch, and in this session he took us through a single piece, line by line, on the computer, explaining how he put it all together. This apparently basic tutorial was in fact one of my other highlights of the entire weekend; it demystified the creative process for me whilst heightening my awe for the alchemy in the final sounding result.

Our short trip to Newcastle culminated in our first ever live program from Electrofringe. The ABC studios were, handily, just metres from the booming Cambridge Hotel, which for two nights became the throbbing festival hub. The proximity meant that key artists could simply stroll up to visit us on air, chatting and performing live as required, before rejoining the ongoing party.

The first of our two main guests was Christian Haines, a thoughtful and inventive artist from Adelaide whose works largely played with key works from the electroacoustic canon (such as Alvin Lucier's I Am Sitting In A Room). The final highlight for me, however, was an exclusive studio set from Brisbane-based Tom Hall. My first introduction to Tom was through the deliberately provocative and visceral performance art he presented as an undergraduate at the Australian National University in Canberra. His more recent work is no less visceral, yet far more refined. In fact, his 25-minute set on air was so finely wrought - and some parts so quiet - that a good many of our transmitters around the country shut down, unable to fully capture the breadth of his vision.

At one point the telephone flashed madly. It was Radio Master Control in Sydney. The panicked operator pointed out that instead of our regular program we were only getting 'some sort of intense signal'. When I pointed out that in fact what she was hearing was a live set from Tom Hall she paused before declaring 'but .. this is not art!' The perfect epiphany for the perfect closer, as our rain-soaked weekend came to an end.

Further links

Electrofringe (www.electrofringe.net/)
Utopia reconsidered - article By Dan Mackinlay on RealTime Arts

Julian Day is a Sydney-based sound and visual artist based in Sydney. He is also known as the presenter of ABC Classic FM's New Music Up Late program, among others. He recently received the British Council's Realize Your Dream award and will spend part of 2010 in London pursuing large-scale projects such as Super Critical Mass for 100 identical instruments. He also directs the organ ensemble An Infinity Room which will tour the UK later this year.


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Thank you for your assessment of the event.

Hi Julian.

Thank you for your thorough assessment of the event.

Will you be playing various recordings for folk to listen to?

Best wishes.