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30 June 2020

Sonic beacons in the pandemic age

New music for physically distant musicians

Lulu Liu (pipa) performing <em>Hectic Jacaranda</em> by Damien Ricketson Image: Lulu Liu (pipa) performing Hectic Jacaranda by Damien Ricketson  

Damien Ricketson's 'Hectic Resonance' series grew from his interest in composing for spatially separated musicians, with the first pieces performed in 2019. The rest of the world has since caught up. [Updates since publication: Hectic Ras El Hanout - recorded by Jason Noble and Diana Springford on clarinis, homemade reed instruments by Linsey Pollak, on Youtube; Hectic Hyacinth for toy piano and glockenspiel, recorded by Aura Go and Louise Devenish, on Youtube; Hectic Paprica for two voices - recorded by mezzosoprano Jenny Duck-Chong, on Youtube.]

Musicians are like sympathetic strings. Even when separated, one can easily be called into vibration by the distant touch of another.

Books will be written about the creative ways in which musicians responded to the coronavirus pandemic that has thus far muted live music through much of 2020. The life blood of the performing arts was abruptly severed by the shutdown, but musicians have proven themselves inventive, resourceful and anything but silent, despite the comparative political indifference. Music created during this period will be inscribed with references to the pandemic and, as with the arts more generally, it will enable the community to process and reflect upon this extraordinary time.

While much music-making is intrinsically social - from the community choir to the garage band - the forced imposition of distance between both artists and audiences, as well as between musicians themselves, has hit hard. With artists and audiences stuck in their homes during extended lockdowns, all have had to overcome their constricted physical presence by expanding their digital presence.

Performers have been quick to adapt. Live streams, from raw loungeroom performances to empty concert theatres, have proven surprisingly effective. I have been positively impressed at how the virtual intimacy of being with the performer, in real time, has compensated (somewhat) for the loss of acoustic quality and social buzz of a night out. Others have turned their attention to recording. The Zoom split-screen video is now a visual aesthetic unto itself. And while some performers have sought solace in the music of the past - solo Bach and the image of a lonely musician channelling the weight of the world has filled my newsfeed - others have seen the peculiar environment as an opportunity for something new.

While many musicians will be happy to say goodbye to video streaming with its jittery latency, some have tried to see the digital shortcomings not as a poor substitute for live performance but a unique medium that opens up different ways of music-making. Or, at least, reorienting attention to types of music-making that aren't always at the centre. Damian Barbeler's ongoing HiberNATION Festival, for example, not only encourages artists to embrace a lo-fi aesthetic but also turns our audience focus, like voyeurs at the window, to the experimentation and process of music-making, not just polished results. Meanwhile, Ensemble Onsombl has been premiering works, especially composed for Zoom, where the video-streaming platform is incorporated as an intrinsic aspect of the musical fabric. Others have flipped isolation on its head by reaching out for more virtual collaboration. Once you get out of the mind-frame of thinking of an ensemble as defined by who you can get in the same room, why wouldn't you think global? Some of my favourite pandemic 'events' have been the multinational participatory happenings from vast 'Tuning Meditations' based on the work of Pauline Oliveros to Clocked Out's 84 Pianos - Pandemic Edition featuring simultaneous performances from pianists around Australia and the world.

Composers have also responded to the rich metaphors and restrictive rules of social distancing in the conceptualisation of new work that reflects upon living with Covid-19. Colleague Matthew Shlomowitz's Music For Cohabiters project is a growing collection of short pieces, written on request and given as gifts for households forced into lockdown together. Featuring mixed ages from toddlers to retirees, mixed musical abilities from non-musicians to professionals, and some pretty wild instrumental combinations, Matthew's work is more of a sociological response. As one of the near 50 participating households to date, I can attest the project was very much about exploring family dynamics through a musical objective (check this page to explore all pieces completed so far as part of this project).

Damien Ricketson: Hectic Jacaranda (2019) for pipa (Lulu Liu) and guitar (Vladimir Gorbach).

'Hectic Resonance' is my own small creative response to social distancing. Linking some of my existing artistic interests to the sudden and unusual pandemic environment, the project is a family of short compositions for two physically distant musicians.

In 2019 I started a long-term project about connection and distance. One of my varied responses to the theme was using spatially separated musicians. Originally this was intended for live performance where the musicians would perform from either side of an audience. However, the concept can be taken further in the online domain to include musicians who aren't even in the same room. Or even in the same city, or country. Another feature of these works is that the musicians' notes never 'meet'. That is, if they perform their rhythms accurately, the resulting music forms an unrelenting stream of interlocking attacks that never touch one another. In order to perform the work, the musicians need to entrain to a click track (or a video score) rather than the physicality of performing in close proximity. Just as our everyday social interactions went online, the musicians in these works are on their own but their sense of connectedness is mediated via technology.

Damien Ricketson: Hectic Cumin (2020) performed by Loretta Palmeiro
(soprano saxophone) and Nathan Henshaw (bass saxophone)

An open-scored concept, three versions of the work, Hectic Peppermint (for two microtonally tuned pipas), Hectic Cinnamon (for two percussion) and Hectic Jacaranda (for pipa and guitar) were performed live in spatialised configurations in 2019. The works may have stopped there had it not been for the ensuing pandemic in which the project acquired new and unexpected resonances. With 'distance' at the conceptual heart of the work, and the practical aspect of two musicians coordinating via click track rather than the physicality of ensemble-playing, the work is peculiarly compatible with social-distancing orders and well suited for stitching together from home recordings made by musicians in lockdown.

Following the release of a video of Hectic Jacaranda, performed by pipa player Lulu Liu and guitarist Vladimir Gorbach, at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, I received a dozen requests for new versions of the same idea from couped-up musicians who were no longer able to perform together. Now I have a fast-growing family of 'Hectic' works.

Each new iteration is unique and idiomatic with regards to pitch and duration. However, the spatialised interlocking rhythms remain similar. The works have been scored in different ways from conventional notation to animated tablature (more akin to the video game Guitar Hero - see the video score for Hectic Cinnamon) to traditional pipa notation. Each new realisation earns its own botanical name - Hectic ?? - chosen by the performers. I have recently received two new versions: Hectic Cumin, recorded in isolation separately by Loretta Palmeiro on soprano sax and Nathan Henshaw on bass sax, and Hectic Caraway, recorded, similarly in isolation, by UK-based Roderick Chadwick and Mark Knoop on prepared pianos.

Damien Ricketson: Hectic Caraway (2020) performed by Roderick Chadwick
and Mark Knoop (prepared pianos).

I am expecting another half-dozen recordings in the coming months for a variety of instrumentations from voice and violin to steelpans, custom-made reed instruments and more. I am more than happy to discuss ideas for new realisations, including versions for 4 or 8 musicians, or for amateur and/or school-age performers. Despite the imposition of isolation, I imagine the growing collection as a dialogue between distant musicians pinging out like sonar beacons, sounding one another as sympathetic strings, and providing us with some bearings until we find stable ground.

'Hectic Resonance' is just one of countless creative projects in Australia and around the world that have been stimulated or found meaning during the corona pandemic. I look forward to discovering more Covid-arts as the vast breadth and depth of imaginative responses come to the fore.

Despite the toll on the music community, art has always been born out of, and borne witness to, crises. The work of our musicians in culturally capturing the present has helped make our communities more resilient in difficult times and collectively connected us when asked to be distant. And while we wait for our clubs and concert halls to fill once again, perhaps some new creative models may stick and signal future directions for the evolution of musical practice in the years to come.

> Damien Ricketson - AMC profile - see also Curious Noise.


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