TOTALLY HUGE NEW MUSIC FESTIVAL: SONIC CELEBRATION @ PAKENHAM ST. ART SPACE, FREMANTLE
Pakenham Street is dark, cold and silent – no signs of life worth mentioning. It could just as well be midnight as eight o’clock. A faint murmur of activity spills into the air from Moore’s art gallery on the neighbouring street, but apart from that, I’m not sensing any kind of nearby gathering, let alone one that warrants the name “Sonic Celebration.”
I continue to follow the footpath, dripping in and out of streetlamp glow, until I spy the four letters I needed to see: PSAS. The Packenham Street Art Space sits unassumingly on a dim corner, its simple sign the only thing announcing it to the world. Through a window I spy a green door, a poster for Macbeth, bundles of rope; bottles and jars of paint and glue and anonymous coloured liquid; a battered old violin case, and a lifelike donkey’s head mask. These are irrelevant, but nevertheless promising items.
The tiny entrance foyer, hemmed in tightly by stairwells and leering walls, is occupied by a desk and three welcoming individuals. A lamp sprays pale light across the shadowy alcove, and I inch down a narrow corridor, ducking under a low doorframe and around a corner to enter the main space. In contrast to the cramped entrance nook, this is a majestic room: wooden ceiling beams and rows of pillars sprawling through a warehouse-like cavity.
Scattered about the middle section of the space are speakers, though they look more like cybotronic mushrooms: translucent white material, like gauze or perhaps baking paper, is stretched across their up-facing cone, and beneath each membrane glows a cluster of small blue-white lights. This is the statis-mode of a new audiovisual experiment by KYNAN TAN & ANDREW BROOKS (or, collectively, the duo TE) and it soon erupts into an enthralling frenzy of light, movement and incidental sound. As subsonic or otherwise inaudible frequency are pumped at high volume into the speakers, the LED lights within bounce around like corn kernels popping. Seeing this occuring across ten or so speakers in a dark warehouse is enjoyable enough, but the real thrill comes from the thoroughly musical execution: this is basically a light and percussion work, and as a multitude of tempos and rhythms are pumped into the various speakers, we experience a dense and dizzying array of rattles and pops. It’s like watching fireworks, if the fireworks were programmed by a free jazz ensemble. Dipping into a surprising breadth of dynamic ranges, the performance reaches an intense climax, and finally returns to stillness, leaving us – freshly spellbound – to return to our tables and chairs.
Returning serve is percussion duo CLOCKED OUT, on stage this time, its members VANESSA TOMLINSON and ERIK GRISWOLD surrounded by toy pianos, melodicas, woodblocks, glockenspiels, floor toms, gongs (or is it a tamtam? sorry experts, I can never remember which is which) – and more. Their sound, generally juxtaposing two to four distinct percussive motifs, is seemingly chaotic yet – undoubtedly – intricately composed and rigorously rehearsed. Throughout, the performance straddles the boundary between percussive/melodic anarchy and tempo-anchored, mellifluous order. It’s a compelling tension, delivered with poise, nuance, and an ideal ratio of hard work and exuberant play.
Next comes DAVID TOOP – an English musician whose reputation in the leftfield music world precedes him. A former member of the new-wave group The Flying Lizards, he’s since carved out a space in a whole heap of fields, including as a journalist (writing for FACE and The Wire), an author (crucial texts “Rap Attack” and “Oceans of Sound” flowed from Toop’s pen), a solo artist, sound artist, and prolific collaborator (with Brian Eno, among many others). His set this evening is a fairly contemplative, ambling, but by no means toothless half-hour of classic experimentalism. There’s awkward acoustic guitar detritus (recalling John Zorn’s “Book Of Heads” guitar etudes), pre-recorded nature sounds, leaves rustling on a snare drum; as well as flute, e-bowed electric guitar, guitar played with a mallet, plus digitally-wrought glitch noise and bass resonance. It transforms slowly, at the pace of moving clouds; the soundscape changes and shifts, but often imperceptibly. It’s patient, grandiose, “zoomed-in” stuff.
Soon we’re privy to a first-time collaboration between Japanese musician/composer HACO and the New South Welsh analogue-tinkerer NATHAN THOMPSON. While that’s a promising combination, it takes me a while to warm up to this set: it feels hard to latch onto, disjointed and lacking any kind of real focus. I’m not bothered by the lack of pitch or rhythm in their noise explorations, more that they seem hesitant to dive fully into any sonic idea, instead introducing industrial-cum-domestic clangs, whirrs at rustles seemingly at random. But about half-way through it really picks up, to my ears, adding a continuous fan-belt type drone which anchors the loose collage, finally coalescing the whole thing into genuine texture. Haco adds some far-out, inhuman sounding vocals, and before long the warped noise sculpture resembles the hubbub of some kind of arcane workshop, where harmonic howls, hums and sparking electricity sit side-by-side on the airwaves.
Closing out the night is a piece by composer and visual artist CATHERINE SCHIEVE. Her work, ‘Experience of Marfa,’ comes off as the night’s most “composed” and consciously choreographed, even if it contains implicit elements of chance and freeform sound interplay. Inspired by an experience in the Marfa region of the Texan desert, the piece begins with a seated choir, arranged in a semicircle; two piano accordions, and slow, slippery electronic resonances performed live on the laptop. Bundles of long sticks, leaves and stones are dispersed inside the semicircle of performers, who stare blankly into the audience – along with the invocation of some non-specific experience in the desert, the whole thing takes on a quasi-mystical, ritualistic air. The laptop textures flow and shimmer, blending and seeping into the two toothier piano accordion drones; the choir bleeds through, various voices coming to the fore intermittently. Altogether, it’s a discordant, shimmering mass of sound – not moving forward in time, so much as just forever morphing within an abstract void. There’s a giddy, woozy feeling to it – like vertigo, or holding your breath underwater, or staring into the sun, or being consumed by the jarring forcefield of a UFO. Eventually we hear the sounds of a gong, handheld bells, a bundle of shaking keys, and disembodied sounds of clunking wood and screams – there’s a distinct druggy vibe emerging, like the trip is taking a turn for the worse. At last, the sounds thin out and only the familiar sounds of wind and running water remain. Catherine lifts one of the bundles of sticks above her head. Other choir members, including local new music maestro CAT HOPE, follow suit. Eventually the nature sounds fade out, and only the infinitesimal sounds of these twig-bundles rustling remain. Their wrists freeze, and so do the twigs. Now their is only silence, the sticks raised higher. After nearly 40 minutes of hypnotic, hallucinogenic drone, the lights fade, bodies become silhouettes, the sticks return to the ground, and there is silence. It’s a piece I can’t claim to fully understand, but, like some of life’s more affecting moments, its sensory and atmospheric qualities penetrate deeply and transcend logical concerns.
And as the lights fade back up, a wash of vivid red and blue, so ends the Sonic Celebration – a fitting and bountiful conclusion to a Tura’s performance program within the Totally Huge New Music Festival for 2013. On a dark, seemingly silent street, I stumbled upon a cornucopia of thought-provoking, mind-altering concoctions comprising sound and light. I can’t help but think of it as a beautiful microcosm of Tura New Music, and the experimental music scene itself; even when things seem empty and quiet, there’s a wealth of amazing experiences right around the corner. You just have to know where to look.