If you hang around psychologists or people who like to drop fancy terms, sooner or later they talk about “cognitive dissonance.” Y’know, the state of simultaneously holding inconsistent beliefs or attitudes; espousing one thing and doing the opposite. That sort of thing. Usually cognitive dissonance is described as discomfort, though I reckon (and maybe I’m wrong by definition, eh, ask a psychologist) that it can feel really nice. The woozy double-magnet pull of two apparent truths; conflicting ideas jostling each other down a corridor one-idea-wide.
So it goes when you find yourself at a music conservatorium graduation recital, with long-term behavioural training saying “I must be reserved, still and respectful in this context,” while irresistible beats, vibrant lights, whirring images and intoxicating melodies zap your mind into saying “I must be wild and move rhythmically in this context.” Tonight, I keep catching myself laughing, cheers-ing schooners, swaying to the complex grooves, before feeling a jolt of propriety urging me to hone in and get serious: this is a recital after all, mate.
But if, as an audience member, it takes me a while to reconcile what I perceive to be two worlds, it seems our performers tonight have done so long ago. The sets on offer are a far cry from the stuffy, coldly conceptual fare a cynic might expect from a prestigious modern composition school. But nor is this your garden-variety electronica/experimental night at The Bakery. This is a warm Tuesday evening in November and everything either side of it is undoubtedly something else.
I arrive just in time to collect individual flyers from the graduating composers before TIM CLUETT rises onto the stage. He’s joined by a small cast of musical mates: Louis-Ferrie Harvey (drum kit), Rosie Taylor (percussion) and Michael Terren (keys, electronics). Together the four of them ease into the set’s first half: a twenty-minute, four-part piece called “Reawakening.” It shudders to life like an ancient robot remembering its programming – moving powerfully but erratically from one glitchy, dizzy beat to the next. Envision the most careening moments from a Thom Yorke, FlyLo or Modeselektor track, get a live band to perform it and have the rhythms drunkenly expand and contract in perfect unison; this is the approximate sound of the opening, titular section. This bleeds into the sliding, textural “Piranhas Sensing Blood” and onto the alternately jazzy, warped and throbbings explorations of “Sound Founder/If You Break It You Buy It” and “Heiau.” Tim’s compositions are intricate, adventurous, dense and fiercely unpretentious; the challenging, unconventional elements (which are prevalent) never come at the expense of more epicurean concerns like groove, harmony and mood. Persistent, zig-zagging shakers and seedpod percussion from Taylor provide a textured rhythmic glue atop Cluett’s beats and Harvey’s hits; Terren remains admirably restrained, mostly piping in with mellow, sporadic chords to establish tonal shifts. The second half of the set sees only Cluett and Terren onstage, with Cluett’s contemporary beatmaking proclivities coming to the fore. While not as arrestingly original as “Reawakening,” these tunes are more readily digestible on the dance floor and retain an air of experimentation and microscopic attention to detail.
Next up is Katie Campbell, aka CATLIPS, who’s been appearing plenty at local shows both in a solo electronica capacity and as a member of KUčKA. Her performance tonight is unique as far as composition recitals go, I believe: no written scores, no extra musicians to realise the pieces. It demonstrates a brave departure from institutional convention and – notably – a whole-hearted embrace of solo dance music production as a compositional form, both by the composer and the academy. To me that’s totally cool, and remarkable in a subtle way – it speaks volumes about where things are at and where they’re headed. Katie appears behind the trestle table, relaxed and focused, holographic silver shoulder decals glinting in the polychrome light. She arrives with “Dialects” which, after five heady minutes, moves into new single “Kamimbla,” all shuffling along with nonchalant abandon. What follows is a sanguine, flowing set of eight pieces mostly rooted in the house, techno and future garage traditions, but ultimately far more concerned with honest explorations of sounds and rhythms than playing to genre ideals. Katie pops and locks as she summons each new crunchy snare, pitch-shifted vocal sample and warm undulating bassline; strange and wonderful visuals accompany every track, pitting pop culture references, patterns and text against warped special effects in perfect rhythmic synchronicity. The audiovisual whole is greater than the sum of its parts, affording the performance an aesthetic thread and an enjoyable – if absurd – visual narrative, where mirror-image psychedelic video game rollercoasters meet fried eggs, tropical islands, gangsta iconography and Windows default desktops. Under the mentorship of AV wunderkind Kynan Tan, Katie has stepped up the immersive quality of her performance and we must hope it’s an avenue she keeps delving into.
Finally it’s HENRY GILLETT, whose performance – comprising roughly five segments – sits in stark contrast to the previous two, and steers us into dark, nightmarish waters. I wrote about an HG set not long ago (at Village Oblivia X), but tonight’s bears little (if any) resemblance; the former channelled classic, upbeat techno, while Gillett’s recital sits firmly in the noise and experimental camp. “Tribal Doctrines” alludes to traditional African music and music concrete while occupying its own claustrophobic realm; “Noise Interludes 1-5,” with their cannibalistic cycles of improvised feedback, push the boundaries of what might be considered musical sound (and I mean that as a compliment). “Salvations,” “Silent Altercation” and “Migrant” take us on a dark, glacial journey through the nether regions of the imagination: while much “dark” music simply adopts a surface aesthetic of grimness, this is genuinely terrifying. The visuals projected alongside the black-clad Gillett don’t do much to cheer you up; footage from the grainy black-and-white film “Begotten” (1990) treats us to images of a bandaged “god” dimemboweling himself with a straight-razor to give birth to “mother earth” who emerges from his corpse – and then things start to get creepy. As the performance unfurls, Gillett takes an unhurried approach to manipulating atonal textures, punctuated by occasional rhythms, underpinned by shadowy drones. Although his work is haunting, sinister, and sometimes hard on the ear, it’d be wrong to describe it as gratuitously confrontational. This is stuff that holds up a mirror to the dark corners of your soul: contemporary surrealism at its best.
And so three immensely talented young composers say RIP to their WAAPA lives – for now, if not forever. Their choice of title for the event lends a cheeky wink of irreverence to proceedings, but the wink shrinks in comparison to their evident respect for their academic mentors: the likes of Stuart James, Lindsay Vickery and Kynan Tan who are all present this evening and who receive heartfelt thanks as performances come to a close. As institutions like WAAPA increasingly encourage work like this – work which feels new, exciting, important, relevant – the sense of cognitive dissonance, the line between what is perceived as DIY or underground and what’s formalized or highbrow, will continue to dissolve. Just as a band like, say, Badbadnotgood has capitalized on its conservatorium training to make genuinely compelling music, so too are these three incredibly well-equipped with their synthesis of natural talent and academic rigour. Seeing what they all do next is going to be a tremendous amount of fun.