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online e-dition june 26: aurora 2012

alternate hearings

gail priest: clocks & clouds, greg schiemer, aurora festival

Gail Priest is a sound artist, curator and writer. In 2009 she edited and contributed to the book Experimental Music: audio explorations in Australia (UNSW Press) and is the Associate Editor/Online Producer for RealTime.

Meru bars, Clocks and Clouds Meru bars, Clocks and Clouds
photo Gail Priest

clocks and clouds, terrains, winds and currents
For this concert, Clocks and Clouds consisted of Kraig Grady, Terumi Narushima and Finn Ryan performing a 40-minute work by Grady, Terrains, Winds and Currents (2012). He takes inspiration from the microtonal master of the 20th century, Harry Partch, writing music for alternative tunings performed on instruments of his own devising.

Grady composed this work for his two Meta-Slendro Vibraphones, a Meta-Slendro Harmonium (a slendro implies an Indonesian pentatonic scale) and the most intriguing of all, the Meru Bars—PVC conduit of different lengths, placed vertically and topped with thick metal bars suspended on elastic. The objects are equally musical and sculptural and, at a distance, their faux marble paintwork makes them reminiscent of ancient objects of ritual. Grady has in fact created a whole meta-culture around his instruments and tunings, suggesting that this is the musical legacy of a place called Anaphoria. (His commitment to the idea is such that you find yourself Googling to see if it’s a real island!)

With Grady and Ryan on the Meru Bars the sound is immediately captivating. The bars produce a deep boom with soft attack and long decay. As the metal slabs vibrate on their elastic chords it’s easy to visualise the waveforms emanating from them, the air displaced in big swooping arches pushing out across the room.

Then the vibraphones are introduced, their bright and brassy timbre filling the upper spectrum. Grady and Ryan play complicated, repetitious rhythmic sequences, creating melodic cycles that are overwhelmed by their resonances. The tones beginning to shimmer, glancing off each other and the architecture of the room. They have to play hard and fast to keep the tones aloft and the frequencies colliding.

Terumi Narushima, Kraig Grady, Clocks and Clouds Terumi Narushima, Kraig Grady, Clocks and Clouds
photo Corrie Ancone
Underpinning this vibrancy is Terumi Narushima on the Meta-Slendro Harmonium, the notes produced by manually pumping air through the reeds with a foot pedal. In the upper and lower registers these long nasal drones serve to offset the harmonics of the vibraphones, comingling to thicken and agitate the mix. However in the middle register the timbre of the instrument stands too much on its own, its closely tuned notes sounding thin and whiny. Nerushima’s playing is not at fault, rather it made me realise how my acceptance of alternate tunings is timbre-dependent.

The shifts between sections of Terrains, Winds and Currents were subtle, yet somehow by its conclusion, it seemed as though vast territory had been traversed. Overall it was a mesmerising piece creating such a dazzling array of acoustic resonances as to completely obliterate the competing sound of the roaring crowd and violent smack downs from the Rock & Roll Wrestling Tournament that was taking place simultaneously in the foyer of Casula Powerhouse. While the tone of the competing events was markedly different, perhaps both audiences were similarly transported into fantastical realms.

greg schiemer, pocket gamelan: mobile voices

Greg Schiemer, Pocket Gamelan, Tate Britain Gallery, 2011 Greg Schiemer, Pocket Gamelan, Tate Britain Gallery, 2011
photo Don Boustead
Greg Schiemer has also been inspired by Harry Partch, but while Clocks and Clouds’ explorations are acoustic Schiemer employs the wonders of technology, though in curiously analogue ways. He composes using computer-mediated systems but the delivery is via mobile phones, placed in little pouches connected to strings, which are calmly swung in circles around the performers' bodies. The resulting Doppler effect adds more microtones and, in combination with the room resonances, diffuses the sound through the space. For this concert he worked with Janys Hayes, Lotte Latukefu and drama students from the University of Wollongong to perform his pieces.

Schiemer presented two of his Mandala works. The first, Mandala 7 (2008) uses 12 phones deployed by six performers. The piece works with a 35-note scale based around the Combination Product Sets (CPS) system discovered by Erv Wilson (a leading Mexican/American microtuning specialist) which allows for harmonic cohesion without the formation of a central tone. The 18-minute piece has a quiet insistence with small crescendos and shifting tensions. The delicate electronic drones harmonically bind in one moment then slip away to become supporting and secondary in the next. While the music remains elusive it is strangely calming.

Mandela 6 (2007) uses a scale attributed to Al Farabi, an 8th Century Persian theorist. While in Mandala 7 the performers have to activate the sounds, here the phones are synced via Bluetooth, essentially playing themselves. The performers become the delivery mechanism, a sentient sound system. This work based on a seven-tone diatonic scale offers more rhythmic and melodic material, creating a lovely polyphonic complexity.

In Butterfly Dekany (2012) for four iPhones the performers move around the room. It is the most spacious of pieces and the changing directionality adds a greater three-dimensionality to the sound. Working with Janys Hayes, Schiemer has found just the right performance mode for the performers where the neutral, task-based focus allows for the subtlest hint of ritual to emerge without overstatement. It made me daydream about an alternate world where this was the normal way of performing/presenting music.

Greg Scheimer (far right) and Pocket Gamelan team, Campbelltown Arts Centre Greg Scheimer (far right) and Pocket Gamelan team, Campbelltown Arts Centre
photo John Humphreys

An interesting addition to break up the electronically generated sounds was Sacris Solemniis 2 (2009) performed by mezzo-soprano Lotte Latukefu, a female chorus and four iPhones. Based on a hymn by St Thomas Aquinas using a diatonic scale, the harmonic slippages are deceptive, at first seeming familiar yet shifting at moments to more challenging harmonies offset by the electronic tones on the phones.

It’s tempting to want to walk around these works to experience their shifting complexities from different perspectives but, the danger of twirling phones aside, the very delicate nature of the music could be so easily shattered by any extraneous movements and careless shuffling. In Greg Schiemer’s introduction to the concert he described the listening experience to be akin to “sitting inside the instrument,” an effect he definitely achieved. Pocket Gamelan: mobile voices was a deeply meditative, immersive and memorable experience.

Aurora Festival of Living Music: Clocks and Clouds, Terrains, Winds and Currents, composer Kraig Grady, performers Terumi Narushima, Finn Ryan, Casula Powerhouse, May 5; Pocket Gamelan: mobile voices, composer Greg Schiemer, dramaturg Janys Hayes, mezzo-soprano Lotte Latukefu, performers Damon Bartlett, Justin Clarke, Claire Fenwicke, Samara Gardener, Rebecca Hurd, Sara Kahn, Rebekah Robertson, Billie Scott, Laryssa Sutherton, Kirstie Willoughby; Campbelltown Arts Centre, May 13;

Greg Schiemer has recently been appointed Artistic Curator of the 2014 Aurora Festival of Living Music.

Gail Priest is a sound artist, curator and writer. In 2009 she edited and contributed to the book Experimental Music: audio explorations in Australia (UNSW Press) and is the Associate Editor/Online Producer for RealTime.

RealTime issue #109 June-July 2012 pg. web

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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