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Vicky Browne, Calling Occupants (detail) Vicky Browne, Calling Occupants (detail)
photo mr. snow
While there is a healthy cross-pollination of acoustic and digital audio experimentations in Australia evidenced by the annual NOW Now festival, some events like have always had more of a digitised aura about them. So it is a pleasant surprise that caleb.k’s sequel to the Typhoon series (see RT 70 p47) is Mistral—2 nights of performances and an exhibition of completely unamplified, solo, sonic explorations.

The exhibition component was particularly engaging. Vicky Browne’s works spoke loudest by being, for the most part silent. In Calling Occupants, she has created a series of objects that take the shape of modern sound playing devices made from surprising materials. Cassettes and radios are roughly chiselled out of wood; iPods cast in plaster; headphones are knitted; a record player and accompanying collection fabricated from cardboard. One contraption utilising the mechanism of a meat grinder and a paper cone actually emits a tiny sound, but only if you crank the handle. Drawing it all together are records crafted from copper, felt and spirals of tiny twigs. Perhaps it is the care of the crafting, the charmingly clunky results and their insistent silence that make this work so satisfying. These normally slick and shiny fetish objects are stripped back to basics and forced to face their imminent obsolescence. Browne’s arrangement is nicely mirrored by New Zealand artist Phil Dadson’s 33rpm UV/R#2 (rock records)—a circle of treated cardboard discs (Dobson spectrophotometer recording discs normally used for geological measurements) that have been subjected to rock-rubbings, creating a variety of markings perhaps alluding to the materiality of sound and its textures and Dadson’s continuing ecological explorations.

Special guest Ernie Althoff (see RT 70, p46) offered both a sculptural work and a live performance. Althoff’s materials are basic: wood, metal, glass, plastic. He creates relations between the materials setting them in motion either through his own actions or in the use of small motors in order to create a shifting sonic percussive landscape underpinned by a humming drone. He prowls slowly around his creations, activating and adjusting items: pinning sound making mobiles to his trousers, twirling string through the air, stretching wires. While the performance is meticulous, chance—or the uncontrollable pull of gravity—plays a major role. This is also evident in his simple yet elegant installation Aleatory Pentaphonic over 5 Part Canon which relies in part on the random intersection of a wooden pendulum with 5 aluminium tubes rotating on a turntable. This interplay between chance and control is beautifully encapsulated in his performance when he throws tuned metal rods on the floor as though casting the I-Ching. It is unusual in the current sound culture, to see such attention to gesture, but this is the Althoff magic. A cross between backyard inventor, puppet master and shaman he coaxes objects and raw materials to release their sounds, and in doing so allows us to contemplate the essence of things.

Althoff’s influence on other artists is evident in the installation and performance of Robbie Avenaim. Off-kilter motors manipulated by footswitches agitate the branches of a small uprooted tree. This in turn activates the percussion assemblages strung from it—a drum skin with bottle tops, a kalimba in a gourd struck by a spasmodically leaping drumstick. His beautifully paced performance incorporated this sculpture to create a haunting set of extended percussion explorations accompanied by the gentle rustling of leaves.

While the series was unamplified, it was by no means un-mechanised. All the performers with the exception of Clayton Thomas utilised small devices to activate vibrations. The ultimate example was the intriguing invention of Matt Hoare. A row of motorised fans with little flashing lights are individually tuned and programmed into sequence creating a surprisingly quiet and quaint geek music box. Arek Gulbenkoglu used 2 ebows (battery operated devices that magnetically activate guitar strings) on a prepared acoustic guitar creating super quiet noise music of shifting drones and vibrations. Dale Gorfinkel undertook a thorough exploration of the mysterious vibraphone. Utilising its own vibrating mechanics and other motorised devices he elicits pure tones and pulsing drones augmented by ringing melodic lines and quiet rattles to create a wondrously rich, ever developing, dreamy landscape.

However the highlight for me was the completely unelectrified, totally human-powered effort of Clayton Thomas on double bass. Employing a repetitive, aggressive bowing technique for over 20 minutes, Thomas released extraordinary harmonic overtones from his instrument and from the room itself. He gradually works up the tones and releases them, allowing them to sing gloriously pure, then he transforms them, shifting the pitch or splitting them in 2. Underneath pulsing rhythms, jaw harp twangs emerge creating mesmerising rythmic effects. The essence of this piece lies in the intensity and athleticism of the physical action and the fluidity and shifting beauty of the sustained sounds.

Accompanying Mistral in Artspace’s other gallery is Alex Davies’ new installation Flutter which while amplified, never rises above a whisper. Based on the game of Chinese Whispers it uses 16 speakers in a circle, to track the progression of phrases—urban myths, news snippets, biblical quotes. Even after taking part as one of the whisperers (along with half of the rest of the arts scene in Sydney) I am amazed how grossly distorted the messages become, phrases such as “A farm littered with landmines...” morphing into “a farmer eaten by the AIDS alliance”. Or my personal favourite: “A lie can travel around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” becoming “A lie can travel around the world in a striped shirt!” The work offers both amusing and disturbing evidence of our tenuous control over aural language, and how easily myth is perpetuated. While based on a simple premise, its technical execution is complicated as each voice is recorded and replayed on its own channel—that’s 16-channels of hours of material to edit. However what is most appealing about Flutter is the way it works as a composition. Underpinned by an unobtrusive, yet sustaining sparse piano line, the voices ebb and flow, with rushes of whispers rising, threatening to overwhelm, only to subside again into another round of bizarre mishearings/mispeakings. Flutter is a visceral and satisfying experience.

Mistral, curated by caleb.k; Alex Davies, Flutter; Artspace, May 12-27

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 39

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

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