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What is music?

Limits and leaps

Greg Hooper

Werner Dafeldecker Werner Dafeldecker
photo Lawrence English
An early gig and packed out. Three performances on the one bill, all of them involving improvisation with a more or less traditional instrument used as a noise source–outside conventional playing technique. Performance danger, music at the threshold of organisation and perception.

Opening the show is Clayton Thomas, a double bass player working in Sydney who co-runs the NOW now improvisation festival. He comes on stage very down home, says ‘this is the first time I’ve ever entered to applause’–this really is a surprisingly large and enthusiastic audience. On the floor stage front is a double bass lying on its side, bubble wrap stuck under the strings. There’s a few bits and pieces on a mat, a bell, paper clips etc, a couple of bows: normal size and chubby. Thomas whips out the chubby bow and starts playing the leg of the bass, slowly builds up to a rhythm and drone. There’s some new sounds for old, quiet bits and loud bits, but no particular structure emerges. Every so often I hear something that I wish was played by an ensemble in a more organised arrangement. Some good textural moments, but the general effect is of a Foley artist picking up and putting down the quirky tools of the trade, setting up for the next effect.

Annette Krebs and Andrea Neumann enter next to the sound of mains hum–techs confer for about 10 minutes but the hum remains, disconcerting to performers who move subtle textures in and out of silence. Krebs performs sitting down, her flat down guitar scraped, squeezed, coaxed and fanned with various preparations. Neumann stands to play a purpose built ‘inside piano’–dump the walnut case, just use the strings, resonance board and metal frame. Together they use mixer feedback, contact mics and amplification to extract the tiniest of sounds and draw out sympathetic resonances–flabby strings cry out for some of the other guy’s action. Noises crawl in with no physical analog, but sounding as if they should. Krebs and Neumann spatialise the sound across 4 speakers, but I don’t notice it that much.

Werner Dafeldecker studied double bass at the Konservatorium in Vienna. He comes to the front of the stage and gently bows the bass. Scratchy harmonics, ultra quiet, working in, out, and against the CD backing track. Dafeldecker has an assured technique, confident and musical. His restrained set of gestures creates a delicate music for intensely personal, focussed listening. But I’ve never known a concert for so many creaking bumshifts and people stomping about. Perhaps next time they could announce "Please turn off all mobiles. If you haven’t been to the toilet please go now."

After the concert Michael Graeve, a sound/visual artist from Melbourne, set up an installation in the middle of the Powerhouse’s open concrete performance platform. Working mainly with old record players and speakers — veneer on chipboard, sunrooms circa 1970–Graeve likes to plonk his machines down so they work their sounds in space and volume. Tonight they are in a circle with Graeve in the middle, adjusting things. No records, just the players playing themselves, a bit of rubber matting, an aluminium platter. Microphonic feedback from the needle being stuck close to the speakers and the gain shoved up high. Most people stand back, give the guy some room, but some wander in pretty close to see as well as hear. Working this way is a bit unpredictable–within the general boundaries of bump and grind noise music — but one can overstate the possibilities for novelty: harmonic progressions aren’t going to suddenly dominate proceedings.

Noise/experimental/microsound improvisation has a long enough history to have developed its own clichés. Crackles, hisses, sub-sub groans, picking things up and putting them down. Soft and slow, loud and busy: the formal structures to organise the sound stream are still in short supply. Sometimes it’s a bit like the one-man-band thing: tootling that whistle, plinking that banjo, crashing those cymbals, pumping the footpedal for a bass drum thump. Except nowdays it’s shaving a whale in a cardboard box and every time you hit the footpedal it vomits. Not everything works, exploration is not yet exhausted. The most successful performances, Dafeldecker in particular, bring the audience into the sound like a lens and listening is transformed into a series of exclusive moments where sounds fill perception with detail and meaning.

What is Music?, Michael Graeve, Clayton Thomas, Werner Dafeldecker, Annette Krebs and Andrea Neumann, Brisbane Powerhouse, Feb 6

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 46

© Greg Hooper; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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