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17 June 2008

The Sound Lounge

Abrahams, Cooper, AustraLYSIS Electroband // NSW // 04.04.08

Chris Abrahams Image: Chris Abrahams  

It's still too soon for the dim downstairs den of The Sound Lounge, in the bowels of the Seymour Centre, to have collected the history and the tales of the Side On Cafe, the old Parramatta Road haunt of SIMA (Sydney Improvised Music Association). On the upside, it’s very nice to be able to see what’s happening up on the stage from more than just the first few tables.

Mind you, the AustraLYSIS Electroband is more a feast for the ears than the eyes, the experimental trio producing detailed soundscapes that challenge the listener to pay close attention to subtle variations and intuitive shifts in direction. Comprising a piano (Roger Dean), saxophone (Sandy Evans) and laptop (Greg White), the sounds produced cover a vast spectrum – computer-manipulated scapes that build upon, then outstrip, their acoustic beginnings.

In the process, each instrument is an enabler, a co-conspirator and, at times, a combatant. While plenty of traditional piano and saxophone sounds (if not traditional manners of playing) soon appear in the mix, sampled piano notes and saxophone lines emerge as sleigh bells, jangling keys, rattling bones and chattering teeth. In the confined Sound Lounge space, the original piano and saxophone notes tussle for attention – both against each other and their own remnants, echoes of their prior enunciations coming back to haunt them, then finally, triumphantly, usurping them, squeezing them out all together so all that remains is the fallout, a mere ghost parodying their former thrust and parry.

In the opening piece the piano is taut, elastic, stripped of sustain and bravado. Early on it is leading, pushing the way forward, but the point arrives where it is overtaken by its own rippling wake and left fruitlessly chasing its own twisted tail. Both the saxophone and piano are left responding to their own ideas thrown right back at them by White’s laptop manipulations, not necessarily languishing but certainly thrashing about in their own backwash, deferring, a staccato echo of notes cast out into the sea, left to sink or swim. Eventually the struggle proves fruitless and they are forced out entirely, the laptop-hatched sounds enveloping the room in a roaring nightscape, warring crickets and truck-sized mosquitoes assailing our senses. After building up to a near-deafening storm, this wall of sound dwindles away almost sheepishly, as though it realised it had overstepped the boundary in its overt enthusiasm.

The piano and saxophone each tinkled back in tentatively, working together now, borrowing from the same simple set of note clusters. A new space had been established, an uneasy calm that for the rest of the set we knew was always contingent, always at risk.

The second piece began with a quasi-bossa nova beat from Dean’s Kurzweil synthesiser, picked up by the laptop and tuned down, providing a rich bass into which Evans’s indefatigable saxophone could sink, matching the low and punchy strain with a syncopated response.

The next work was lower-key, a rumbling saxophone suggesting detachment and loss; low mournful moans beneath skittering, schizophrenic samples. The saxophone was being shadowed, once again, by its own self, but this time more slowly, creepily, stalked moment by moment until finally overtaken and pre-empted. But – unlike in the first piece – it had learnt a trick or two. This time Evans was changing tack and fighting back, sliding up the scale faster than the echoes could keep up.

The following piece explored an untethered tangent, triggered piano samples leading into discordant randomness, to which some bright jazz chords and heavily reverbed, thunderous riffs were appended. Frenetic flurries and thick chords flew thick and fast, with White playing the mad professor role with relish.

The final work, though short, was perhaps the most effective and complete, Evans’s glissandi something we could follow and take comfort in, a haven from the more off-the-wall unpredictability that defined the majority of the set.

AustraLYSIS Electroband aren’t afraid to risk everything in pursuit of that charged moment that improvisation can offer. What keeps them from falling into the traps that catch so many is – alongside Dean’s easy touch on the piano and Evans’s mastery on the saxophone – the rhythmic backbone that gives the whole enterprise its movement. It’s the narrative that makes the digressions all the more rewarding, the glue that keeps it all from falling into a spectacular mess of corrupted harmonics and disparate wanderings.

If AustraLYSIS were the toddlers in the sandpit conjuring up precarious sandcastles purely for the glee of stomping on them, Chris Abrahams and Mike Cooper were the wise grandfathers sitting at the nearby table, quietly playing chess and keeping an eye on their more boisterous charges.

Abrahams opened the set with a single note, left to decay until all traces of its existence were gone – one wondered if it had simply been imagined, whether they had even begun at all. But they had, and this minimal offering primed us – after the hyperactivity that preceded them – for tuning our listening to the smallest details, the subtlest of shifts and gradations.

While billed as a guitarist, the UK's Cooper is perhaps more accurately described for the purposes of this particular collaboration as a pedaller. His two guitars laying on the table before him, he would peel off notes with the purpose of then treating them through his pedals, a bank of different effects backmasking, warping and deforming the notes into all new contortions.

Abrahams was concentrating on the high end of the keyboard, conjuring memories of winter rain on window panes. It was mesmerising watching those long, agile fingers that never tire, never stumble, a spider whose each leg knows not what the other is doing, yet somehow gets where it needs to without tripping. Abrahams shows that so much can be said in the span of a single hand, and while there were hints of the trembling, looping runs that feature with The Necks, there was also enough of a deviation into other techniques that it was quite set apart.

A highlight of the evening appeared near the middle of the set when a single, fractured chord was incessantly rung out, dancing on the grave of its own dead air, building into something far greater than it should – and perhaps would in lesser hands.

Cooper and Abrahams were both droning away, a pulsing spark jumping back and forth between the two, when suddenly the guitar dropped out completely and Abrahams’s inexhaustible piano line held sway. He was remorselessly tapping each note into submission, making it bend under his will into whole new shapes and sounds.

Throughout the performance Abrahams held the anchor role, playing with patience and insight and a seeming sixth sense for where Cooper might be heading next. Having seen him many times with The Necks but also in other formats, playing Now Now shows and in other combinations, Abrahams always seems to lift whoever he is accompanying. Sometimes this means he carries them, at others they raise to his level.

Mike Cooper was more than a match, bringing half a century of guitar experience to the pairing. He was playing mostly with a slide, but not often sliding – using the metallic touch to excite the pedals into action. In a bright Hawaiian shirt, his sound was not all that far removed from the same isolated islands, but sometimes the clipped slides sent it into sitar territory, in terms of both sound and patterns – the bass notes from the piano taking the part of the tabla.

And then, as discretely and with as little fanfare as the set had begun, it was over. These two elder statesmen of improvisation, having shown how it can work and having explored a tiny yet sufficient corner of what they can do, were sated – their work here was done.

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Ben Millar is a Sydney-based journalist, writer and photographer. He works as a journalist and editor for a stable of community newspapers.


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