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the shame of growing old gracefully

gail priest: what is music? sydney



Spinning Doppler - Miles Van Dorssen on 12seconds.tv

The wild child of alternative music culture, What is Music? has been running on an almost annual basis for 15 years. So now that it’s in its teens, is WIM? wilder, or are festival years like dog years making it more than middle aged? In 2009, I think the answer may depend on where you experienced it and how far you and the festival go back.

When WIM? began in 1994 festival founders Robbie Avenaim and Oren Ambarchi both lived in Sydney so the festival had a strong focus here, expanding to Melbourne in 1997 and subsequently touring to Perth and Brisbane some years. As a whole, the festival has become smaller (the large scale manifestations of 2002-5 being unsustainable). Also over the last few years Avenaim, the now sole director, has spent more time in Melbourne so this leg of What is Music? has become the centrepiece, in 2009 offering five events across a range of venues.

For the last two years the main gig for Sydney has consisted of one very long concert at CarriageWorks. (In 2008 there was also a sideshow featuring Avenaim’s band Wog at a smaller venue.) The 2009 Sydney event offered 11 acts over six hours, including a performance and installation in the foyer. Particular highlights for this year were from the improv duos of Jim Denley (saxophone) and Clayton Thomas (double bass), and, in their Germ Studies pairing, Clare Cooper (guzheng) and Chris Abrahams (DX7). Both Cooper and Thomas live in Berlin, so it was exciting to hear them play again and witness their growth as artists as well as the development of the other ongoing collaborative relationships. It was also good to hear Jon Rose perform without the fences, kites or bicycles that he’s recently been manipulating. Instead it was just Rose with violin, laptop and magic interactive bow filling the space with cascading notes and energetic gesture, reminding me of the first time I saw him perform—at the REV festival in 2002.

Brendan Walls perhaps came closest to the older WIM? anarchic spirit with his upturned table of chipped cymbals and broken electronics which created a thunderous apocalypse to accompany a relentless video of riot clashes—at turns shocking and naïve in the representation of good, evil and chaos. David Shea also utilised video featuring a cut-up of the cut-up work of Canadian filmmaker Authur Lipsett. Showing Lipsett’s original film, Very Nice, Very Nice, was a bold move as it allowed us to decide for ourselves whether the collage really needed re-collaging. Although an interesting structural or anti-structural exercise, Lipsett’s version is already concise and thought provoking. I’m not sure Shea added much, besides length, in his re-interpretation.

Miles van Dorssen’s sound sculptures have been features of several What is Music? festivals, and his magnificent Feuerwasser (reviewed in RT85) is hard to top. This year his work was less of a visual spectacle but offered a much stronger sonic focus using spinning horns and speakers to fill the foyer with a rich dopplering drone that even mesmerised some of the punters waiting for the amateur dance concert at the other end of CarriageWorks. Another foyer attraction was Richard Allen’s Egg, a cocoon hanging from a pyramid of piping and intended for inhabitation by an audience member. When swung it triggered an ambient soundscape (with some help from a guitarist). Unfortunately the interval was quite short, and as the evening started bizarrely punctually for a sound gig, there was never much hanging around in the foyer for audience members to engage with it.
Suicidal Variation, WIM? festival, Sydney 2009 Suicidal Variation, WIM? festival, Sydney 2009
The international acts, Anna Zaradny, Robert Piotrowicz (both from Poland) and John Wiese (US) appreared in the final half of the evening. Unfortunately, there is not much detail I can impart as by now each act was so excruciatingly loud that ears had to be blocked in order to stay in the room (and I have to admit I could no longer stay by part-way into John Wiese’s performance). It’s not that I have a problem with loud noise—used structurally, viscerally and/or politically it can be incredibly affecting in a way that makes sense of the music. But here the master level was just so goddamned loud that all intricacies of the works were lost. While Wiese is a self-confessed ‘sonic-extremist’ both Polish artists were actually described in the program notes as “not-so harsh”, even “hypnotising” and “massaging”, however the volume and brutal mixing totally blocked the audience from entering and engaging with the sound. Basically, with fingers in your ears, all artists sound pretty much the same Admittedly the video from Korean duo Suicidal Variation was engaging, offering an intriguing clash of narrative and noise—the kind that is meant to be loud to have a visceral effect—but by then I was already shredded by the sound system so there was no sense of contrast. Avenaim is hoping to bring the duo out for the next festival.

The end of year time slot might bear some blame, but it also seems that the programming consisted of what is now standard festival fare, with no real surprises. Along with the significant lack of engagement with younger artists in the Sydney scene this took its toll on attendance and the overall vibe of What is Music? Sydney. It is also really worth reconsidering the epic one night gig format that the Sydney leg has become. While inclusion in the CarriageWorks program provides profile for the event, the fact that it must then be compressed into one night not only makes it hard to create the momentum of a festival, but it’s a really difficult ask of a listener to concentrate in formal concert mode to four acts in a row, over two unrelenting hours and that’s just the first half. And what is it like for the artists? I’d much prefer a series of smaller, varied events, as programmed in Melbourne, to get my What is Music? festival fix. But then again Arts Victoria actually invests in the Melbourne event.

Nonetheless, keeping the festival going is no mean feat and, of course, the nature of the event is going to change as the culture does. Perhaps Sydney with its troubled funding climate and venue challenges means the What is Music? is growing old respectably here, while the Melbourne manifestation continues to age disgracefully, maintaining the vividness, boldness and wild spirit that Avenaim (and Ambarchi) have fought hard to bring to the fore of experimental music over the last 15 years.

Ben Byrne will review What is Music? Melbourne in RealTime 95 Feb-March

See the What is Music Archive Highlight bringing together RealTime’s coverage of What is Music? since 2002.


What is Music? Sydney, director Robbie Avenaim, CarriageWorks, Dec 12 2009

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 pg.

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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