Musical artefacts

2 June 2019

Review: Intercurrent Ensemble, ‘Walkman Antiquarian’ ⋅
UWA Callaway Auditorium, 27 May ⋅
Review by Eduardo Cossio ⋅

Developments in technology brought new performance tools for musicians in the 20th century: transistor radios, turntables, and voltage-controlled synthesizers made their way into concert programs. At the same time, the rapid pace of technology rendered many of these artefacts obsolete. Walkman Antiquarian, by Perth ensemble Intercurrent, presented a program of works featuring bygone-era devices along with modern equipment in a concert that evoked themes of nostalgia and discovery.

John Cage’s Credo in US is a piece for prepared piano and found objects. Tin cans, a buzzer, a radio and turntable are used to create a performance full of non sequiturs. The original version from 1942 starts with a phonograph playing a classical music excerpt (Cage suggested something by Dvořák, Beethoven, Sibelius or Shostakovich). Intercurrent’s version had Ashley Smith cueing pre-recorded samples from a mixer. Bombastic orchestral music was heard in the loudspeakers and then cut short by the loud clanking of tin cans played by Louise Devenish and Jackson Vickery. Emily Green-Armytage followed suit with repeated phrases on the prepared piano, adding melodic contours to the clangorous racket. It was a wild ride of free-roaming sounds and musical passages. In a solo section, Green-Armytage played a teasing melody reminiscent of Western films; at another, a radio emitted topical news regarding the recent election. Intercurrent’s conciliatory approach bound these elements together but the anarchic spirit of John Cage was missing. It would have been interesting to see more engagement with the randomness of the radio (only one station was used), or having not just one, but several orchestral excerpts play during the piece. Perhaps more stress on the aleatoric elements within the composition would have brought about the ‘unknown outcomes’ Cage sought in his work.

Two new premieres by local composers followed. Intimate Distance by Olivia Bettina Davies pits acoustic sounds against a backing track of faint, whistle-like harmonics. Bass clarinettist Ashley Smith played pinched tones in the upper register; his playing was strained, as if wanting to match the roughness of the audio track. Devenish bowed on the marimba eliciting whispering noises and pianist Green-Armytage provided dry, scattered sounds akin to drops of rain. The handling of the material was nuanced, creating a sense of motion that brought different instruments to the fore and then receded them into the background.

Composer Lachlan Skipworth’s reworking of Beata Viscera, by the 12th century polyphonist Perotin, is a response to the recent burning of Notre Dame Cathedral. An audio track of crowds singing hymns during the incident was slowed down and further processed; Smith, Devenish, and Green-Armytage played alongside these sombre vocalizations. Perotin’s modal canticle was repeated over and over in long sighing phrases. Skipworth’s writing is austere and spacious, with a looseness that feels comforting.

Franco Donatoni’s Soft 1 and 2 for solo bass clarinet was a departure from the general theme of the concert; rather, it is part of Ashley Smith’s ongoing investigation into the works of this Italian composer. Donatoni is an interesting figure in 20th century music; early in his career he aligned himself with the ultra-rationalist composers at Darmstadt (Bruno Maderna, Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen), and was later influenced by the chance operations of John Cage; an about-face in the polarized milieu of the fifties. Donatoni’s career was marred by depressive episodes and stretches of almost no activity, but he wrote profusely in his later years; Soft 1 & 2 belongs to this period. Smith’s performance had a thespian quality, he seemed to channel an inward, brusque character absorbed in a monologue. There were hiccupping figures followed by silence, and low caressing tones contrasted with high-pitched assertions. It was a thoughtful performance that broadened the scope of the concert. While some pieces in the program flirted with more experimental approaches, Soft 1 & 2 sat firmly within the tough, virtuoso tradition of the European avant-garde.

But the core of the concert was Walkman Antiquarian, a work by the Australian-born Berlin-based composer Thomas Meadowcroft. The piece juxtaposes acoustic instrumentation (piano and a wide array of percussion instruments) alongside degraded audio samples. There was something Cagean in the realization as Jackson Vickery and Devenish explored and manipulated a variety of objects: they poured beads on pulsating speaker cones; in a rotating turntable there were bowls, paper and wood from which they obtained glitch sounds; a glass of water was emptied, and at some point, a tree branch was used as a shaker. On one side of the stage, Green-Armytage played broken chords that evoked the coolness of minimalism and post-rock, the restrained figures  intertwined with noise textures triggered by Smith on a keyboard. The ensemble brought a sense of discovery, of being caught up in the creative process. It was a satisfying conclusion to a concert whose well-considered program was carried out with great deftness.

Pictured top: L-R: Emily Green-Armytage, Ashley Smith, Louise Devenish and Jackson Vickery. Photo Olivia Davies.

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Author —
Eduardo Cossio

Eduardo Cossio is a musician active in the Perth experimental music scene. He is a presenter on Difficult Listening (RTRFM), his music reviews appear on Realtime Arts and Cool Perth Nights and he runs Outcome Unknown, a concert series of exploratory music. At the playground he would try and get some percussive sounds happening.

Past Articles

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