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New audiences for new instruments

Clinton Green, The Instrument Builders Project

Dale Gorfinkel, Lotek Exercise Machine, 2014 Dale Gorfinkel, Lotek Exercise Machine, 2014
photo courtesy Instrument Builders Project
Despite usual appearances, it is not written in stone that new music and associated instruments must always be impenetrable to all but a learned few. The responses of curiosity and delight that the Instrument Builders Project inspired in visitors of all ages and backgrounds should give pause to anyone despairing about a lack of audiences for experimental music. This exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, and the ongoing project itself, demonstrated that new approaches to instruments, sound and music can reach out to new audiences; not to mention bridge cultural divides between two neighbouring countries.

This was the first time the project had been presented in Australia (two previous iterations have taken place in Indonesia), hosting a number of Indonesian artists in residency alongside their Australian contemporaries. Their works explored recurring themes of site-specific instruments that interact with environmental and meteorological phenomena (exemplified by Michael Candy, Pia van Gelder and Andreas Siagian’s Mountain Operated Synthesiser) and the reclaiming of junk as musical material (as in Dylan Martorell’s use of robotic percussion on discarded tin canisters in Drum Plough, and Peter Blamey’s quietly humming Motherboard Tree).

Visitors to the exhibition were encouraged to play and interact with the instruments; many displaying “Please DO touch” signs. This created a relaxed and playful atmosphere for all ages (kids love to play with things that make funny noises). On a more subtle level, it demonstrated the power of a non-traditional instrument to break down the barriers and cultural baggage associated with an object like a violin or piano. We had no hesitation in climbing inside Dale Gorfinkel’s wonderful Lotek Exercise Machine and stomping on foot pumps connected to an array of horns via tentacles of irrigation hose. It’s hard to imagine the same musically untrained visitors taking to a violin with similar gleeful abandon.

The exhibition also hosted an onsite workshop where the resident artists worked on new instruments. The workshop opened its doors to the public several times throughout the exhibition and artists demonstrated their works-in-progress. Some of these instruments rivalled works in the main exhibition in terms of musicality and sheer fun, such as Lintang Raddittya’s Spinningfields, where many light-hearted moments were spent with spinning tops on an amplified aluminium platform, straddling the divide between game and instrument. Gorfinkel, emerging as the star of the exhibition, had several other exquisite pieces in the workshop space, most notably Nada Laut: As Above So Below, a piece made in collaboration with Siagian where a number of conch shells were suspended over vibraphone bars. A fan coaxed the resonating shells to swing like pendulums over the bars, creating pulses of delicate resonances and harmonics. Each shell had been painstakingly matched with a different bar to achieve the most sympathetic match of resonance and frequency. The resulting timbre of the instrument was flute-like, with the underlying hum of a vibraphone conjuring images of sea and wind.

Lintang Radittya and Andreas Siagian at MPavilion Lintang Radittya and Andreas Siagian at MPavilion
photo courtesy Instrument Builders Project
Along with Gorfinkel’s Lotek Exercise Machine, Tintin Wulia’s Odong Dangding Prototype attracted the most attention. A modified Indonesian pedicab, its roof was mounted with a bamboo angklung (tuned percussive bamboo pipes) that were struck by pedal-powered beaters. With the vehicle immobilised on blocks throughout the exhibition, we were able to climb in and pedal away to activate the percussive action above. The Odong came into its own at the culmination of the exhibition when it was released from the confines of the gallery and driven down the footpath of Flinders Street at the head of a procession of onlookers to the Federation Bells. The Odong stopped several times to allow different people a turn at pedalling (I was lucky enough to be one of them). Clarinettist, Aviva Endean, perched on the front of the Odong playing sunny melodies that perfectly matched the carefree mood of the Sunday joyride. At Federation Bells, the Odong’s wireless network capability was activated, triggering the bells to ring as it neared.

The Instrument Builders Project continues to construct and maintain lasting ties between artists in Australia and Indonesia, two countries with shaky diplomatic relations in recent times. That such relationships endure while politicians squabble points to the quiet importance of the cultural ties that endeavours like The Instrument Builders Project propagate. Along with mass appeal evident at this exhibition, such strengths show one possible way forward for art practices like experimental music. There is not much difference between the obscure and the delightful after all.

The Instrument Builders Project, curators: Kristi Monfries, Joel Stern, NGV Australia, Federation Square, Melbourne, Nov 1-23, 2014

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 43

© Clinton Green; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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