Tura New Music is a Perth arts presence that, hopefully, needs no introduction these days. Ascendant since 1987, the organization is near-synonymous with boundary-shoving, conceptually-driven sound as it exists in Western Australia. And if its year-round calendar of programming is a perpetual experimental prom, then the Totally Huge New Music Festival is surely both belle and beau of the ball, spanning ten days and nights and engaging all forms of media. We’re rolling up tonight, by UWA’s tennis courts and gymnasium, to enter the Calloway Auditorium, for the finale of this year’s Totally Huge stretch.
We find positions in the almost-chockfull grandstand seating. Seemingly at the helm of proceedings is Sydney-based percussion hero CLAIRE EDWARDES, who fields between-piece-spiel duties and kick-starts the concert in solo mode.
She’s playing a piece called “In,” composed by UWA stalwart CHRISTOPHER TONKIN back in in 2005 while he was studying at Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris. Comprising bass drum, electronics, and some fascinating percussive interventions (like thumbing a coarsely-bristled brush under a highly sensitive microphone), it’s both minimal and expansive. Mallets rub against wooden drum rims, and the slight textural scratch is blown up in proportion, warped through filters and announced through hefty speakers. The drum skin itself, when struck, has its more subtle harmonic resonances captured by the electronics which Tonkin himself is controlling, stage left: these swell and linger, becoming dark, symphonic beds of frequency.
MAGNUS LINDBERG’s “Ablauf” (for clarinet and two bass drums) is described by Edwardes as being “at the extreme ends of the decibel spectrum.” Presumably this isn’t quite the case scientifically, but it’s certainly true in a colloquial sense, with ASHLEY SMITH’s clarinet blaring its first notes in fortissimo squawks that reveal the tone’s spectral components through sheer intensity, later dipping into near-inaudible flutters. Flanking him are Edwardes and LOUISE DEVENISH, each on a bass drum, booming periodically, either in synch or in subtle phase. The piece detours into hysterical woodwind intensity and, eventually, bizarre paroxysmal vocalisations, the latter verging on accidental parody of experimental music – I mean, it’s intense and strange in a way that’s either scary, or funny, or both. If it’s funny, that’s no indictment: subverting norms, introducing incongruities, these things belong to the realms of both comedy and creative radicalism.
DAMIEN RICKETSON’s ‘Time Alone,’ is delivered by Edwardes solo again, though it was originally written for a larger work called The Secret Noise and featured live dance plus an immersive darkness-and-pillows environment. Still, it hardly feels lacking: indeed it’s an apt opportunity for the sound element to be considered in and of itself. Minimalistic vibraphone phrases are the name of the game: notes leap slowly from the void and resonate brightly in the room. There a sense that maybe these “melodies” – which are removed from the conventional logic of melody, albeit sometimes implying a tonal centre – may have aleatoric origins. There’s no obvious trajectory, no clear shape, but eventually more elements do fade in: allusions to morse code, and an abstract ambience that contextualizes the floating pitch/timbre meditations we’ve heard thus far.
Ashley Smith returns to deliver NICO MUHLY’s “It Goes Without Saying.” Here, we get clarinet motifs bouncing around like corn kernels popping in a frying pan – meanwhile, a burgeoning backdrop of mallet percussion, tape noise, further clarinet (forming harmonies and drones), rattling bells what sounds like handclaps.
MICHAEL SMETANIN’s ‘Finger Funk’ is a duo on one marimba, performed by Edwardes and Devenish. Doing away with mallets, the the piece calls for a blister-inducing, scarcely believable, nimble pattering of fingers on hard wood. Their one concession is an eraser bound to each thumb (apparently bruising became a genuine concern). Given the unconventions constraints, the result is still remarkably nuanced and quote-unquote “musical,” with deft dynamic arcs and flawless modulations across chords and scalic runs. The main outcome of the fingers-only rule is an overall dramatic drop in volume, which makes for a beautifully delicate, ear-craning experience; the side-effect of two performers sharing a marimba is that it becomes a sort of strange dance, occasioned by logistics, but ultimately serving expression: hands weave and overlap on the keys, forming a decidedly unique spectacle.
The concert wraps up with GYORGY LYGETY’s ‘Continuum’ from 1968 – originally written for harpsichord, and adapted by Edwardes and Devenish for marimba and vibraphone (each takes a “hand” from the original score.” It’s an onslaught for the listening faculties: rapid clusters of notes, buzzing wildly like a dense cloud of bees, occasionally diffusing into looser formations, before gathering together again. If you think that sounds a bit purple, rest assured that Lygeti’s own metaphor for the piece was arguably even stranger: “I thought to myself, what about composing a piece that would be a paradoxically continuous sound […] but that would have to consist of innumerable thin slices of salami?” I didn’t hear salami, but I heard a remarkably singular composition, reimagined and expertly delivered by two masters of the percussive craft.
Before ‘Continuum,’ Edwardes (as mouthpiece of the concert) took the opportunity to encourage everybody in attendance to educate themselves about the Brandis Office’s recent reappraisal of arts funding, the sanctioning of ‘elite’ arts, and the potentially devastating consequences for small organizations and innovative individual practitioners. I’ve heard people – indeed, people who claim to support the arts – take a populist view to the arts funding debate, claiming that projects with broad public appeal should indeed reap the entirety of taxpayer support, while niche outings should be expected to keep themselves afloat. This is a big conversation, a conversation beyond the scope of this review. But if there’s one thing that tonight affirms, it’s the (frankly obvious) fact that the most compelling and engaging work is not always that which reaches the most ears. Tura may be well-established in the arts community, but it’s not within the purview of the average radio listener. New sounds, new forms, new artistic risks construct new potential realities, and expand our imaginations. Such ventures are not always comfortable or instantly digestible, but they are crucial. And they’re ideas that need more proliferation, not more marginalization; more support, not less; and more celebration, because the fringe experiments of now are significant in themselves – before we even consider that they invent the thrilling possibilities of the future.