8 Hits Plus featuring Vanessa Tomlinson and Erik Griswold @ WAAPA, Wednesday April 5
The music auditorium, indoors, adjacent to the pond. I plant myself in a prime position, the middle stalls - gazing zero degrees at the piano and a table dotted with household objects.
Local composer Lindsay Vickery walks on stage to a disco sequence of flashing coloured LEDs, a weirdly fitting entrance for the new-music veteran. He briefly introduces the concert, then it’s over to Vanessa Tomlinson - who explains that we’re not going to receive “8 Hits” either in the sense of eight percussive impacts nor eight popular pieces. But it all sounds appealing anyway.
Tomlinson begins the concert with an extra piece not listed in the programme. Here, a long cord is looped around a table leg so as to form the equivalent of two long skipping ropes which are alternatively flicked, their wavy undulations creating pitter-patter whippings along the floor. The visual is initially more striking than the sound, but soon enough the subtle sonics begin to dominate your field of attention, and you can almost feel the sensory priorities shifting across your head. The lengths of cord flail and flare, at times (and semi-incidentally, it seems) slapping books and paper scattered across the ground. The piece hones in on a tender ambiguity between contrived, or musical, sound - and the sounds that we might consider the secondary detritus of another activity. Here, however, the ostensible “primary” activity is so arbitrary as to be self-effacing, redirecting our attention and leading to a surprising aesthetic encounter.
Up next is Erik Griswold with Bliss, parts 1-3 (2016). The contrast here is smilingly pronounced: these miniatures for prepared piano are nothing if not deliberate, discernibly tonal, rooted in the western art music canon. This isn’t to say they’re conventional, however. Griswold hammers the keys in a dense, geometric fashion recalling 20th century greats like Glass and Reich, but the prepared piano’s idiosyncrasies more readily bring to mind african percussion sounds like the mbira, or a crank-driven music box stuck on endless loop.
Tomlinson returns for her own composition Still and Moving Paper (2014) which reprises the strategy of foregrounding seemingly incidental sound. First, she draws two circles, side by side, one with each hand, on a piece of paper. The humble pencil lead becomes a kind of stylus, and the paper a neutral surface upon which to simultaneously input visual content and extract sound. The intensity, pitch and dynamic of the percussive drawings rely, in any given moment, on the speed and pressure of the inscribing hands. And while this may all sound quite straightforward on paper - the simplicity ultimately becomes utterly engrossing. Soon enough, you’re acutely aware that while anyone could run pencils over paper, this is an iteration of that mundane act delivered with a keen musical sensitivity, and thus a rare, weird kind of treat. Another part of the piece involves both destroying and sharing a page of a book: reading aloud its first sentence, tearing it in half, reading what remains and repeating the process until only choked vowels and consonants remain. It’s distinctly funny, but also haunting, a visceral portrayal of the disintegration of meaning and communication.
Lindsay Vickery’s Lyrebird (2014) channels its titular fowl by using as its score a spectrogram image of a field recording, encouraging a kind of synaesthetic emulation. The field recording changes from performance to performance, meaning that the piece is “site specific” but (usually) specific to a site that’s elsewhere. Tonight, Tomlinson uses audio from flooded locations in Queensland (captured by Leah Barclay), a way of collapsing the tremendous distance between coasts. What’s fascinating about this piece performed is not that the live elements sound the same as the field recording; inevitably they can’t, with Tomlinson using bowls, bottles and other makeshift percussion against a backdrop of diverse environmental sounds. Rather it’s the uncanny synchronicities that arise from common dynamic and timbral shifts, two seemingly disparate soundscapes moving in step and suddenly becoming something poignantly sculpted.
This is followed by the arresting Self Accusation (2014) by Kate Neal, in which Tomlinson whispers or barks verbal phrases into a headset mic, and accompanies them with variably wild, beatless gestures on an augmented drum kit. True to the title, the spoken word component is full of incriminations against the speaker, often delivered in fast clusters and punctuated by a silent scratch of the head. Drawing on Peter Handke’s 1960’s “speaking pieces” designed to jolt theatre audiences, the piece reminds me more personally of the semi-ironic self-loathing often present in post-punk and no wave; the delivery is deadpan and the music intense, ultimately coalescing into something that feels politically charged. The piece, it feels, twitches in an ambivalent space between the genuine critique of one’s past, and a sardonic mocking of a culture that encourages endless self-reproof.
8 Hits Plus concludes with Erik Griswold’s noted concerto A Wolfe in the Mangroves (2007) which brings together the prepared piano approach of Bliss and (in this instance) the multifaceted talents of local percussion group Clocked Out, and Tomlinson herself. Drawing on incidental rhythms from everyday life and focusing alternately on timbral qualities, evocative layerings and dense tessellations of rapid-fire rhythm, it’s quite a remarkable piece. For my money, the harmonic content here often feels a little neglected, and can begin to sound pedestrian when the aurally compelling prepared piano is traded for dinkier options like glockenspiel and melodica. The best moments, though, are entirely triumphant. Metronomic, elastic, intimate and booming.
Even reflecting on it now a week later, 8 Hits Plus gives me a real sense of excitement. Rather than borrowing established aesthetics of experimental music, its manoeuvres are experiments in the truest sense, from the searching, playful mimicry of Lyrebird to the stylistic collaging of Wolfe. Nothing on the programme fits readily into a genre, but it’s all delivered with a poise and technical vocabulary that owes a lot to musical tradition. In the concert’s best moments, there’s a sense of both awkwardness and wonder - in which comfortable forms and approaches are eroded or discarded, and new possibilities emerge: raw, squinting at the light, shiny and emboldened.