MIBEM – Off the beaten track

June 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, March 27, 2008.

Jerome Noetinger

Jerome Noetinger.

Following years of conservative Australian programming, this week’s inaugural Melbourne International Biennale of Exploratory Music aims to put the far reaches of sound on the musical map, writes Dan Rule.

Brendan Walls can’t remember much, but for the crowd screaming and cowering and running from the front of the stage – a clatter of cymbals and wires and stage equipment falling and smashing around them.

“It was a really, really frightening gig,” sighs the 34-year-old of the fateful 2006 show at tiny Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, venue Bar Open.

“I was actually scared,” he says. “And the audience, they were bloody terrified.”

It would be fair to conclude that most musicians would be hoping to garner a reaction other than mass panicked terror while performing on stage, but there’s a hint of pride in the Sydney sound-artist’s account. He stifles laughter when he recalls his towering, self-built rig – a clamorous hotchpotch of cymbals strung up on stage-long lengths of wire – collapsing into the front three rows of the crowd; he giggles guiltily at the health and safety predicament.

“I’m not into controlled environments,” says Walls, known for writing and producing the critically acclaimed Set experimental music series for ABC TV in 2006. “I’ve used the engine bays of six-cylinder cars, trees, cymbals, telephone books, woks, ordinary instruments but treated in a different way and often amplified to almost grotesque proportions.

“It’s about exploring the correlation between gesture and object and sound,” he continues. “We’re taught to hate our bodies in this culture, but my work is about reconnecting mind and body, cause and effect.”

Walls will unleash his distinctly physical brand of dangerous cacophony in collaboration with similarly embodied American sound-artist Daniel Menche at the Corner Hotel in Richmond on Tuesday night. He is just one of the 50-plus Australian and international artists to perform at the inaugural Melbourne International Biennale of Exploratory Music, which opened last night at the Tote and will take place across various inner-Melbourne venues such as the Corner, the Toff in Town and the ABC Iwaki Auditorium until Wednesday.

Billed as an “exploration of new musical possibilities”, the event encompasses forms as divergent as Walls’ and Menche’s noise explorations, improvisation, composition, electronica, free jazz, contemporary classical and digitised audio-visual works. It’s far from your average music festival.

But for one of the festival’s two artistic directors, Anthony Pateras (the other being the absent Robin Fox), this sense of departure is MIBEM’s precise raison d’etre. In the context of a lineage of inherently conservative Australian music programming, the 28-year-old describes the biennale as a much-needed platform for “the current Zeitgeist” of avant-garde, boundary-defying music and sound to be heard.

“At the moment, Melbourne underground and experimental music is in a pretty amazing place,” says Pateras, an internationally recognised contemporary composer and experimental musician. “Yet, the vast majority of programming in the major arts festivals or orchestras or music festivals just doesn’t even look at it.

“We’re lucky to even get an early 20th-century work in an established musical organisation.”

He has a point. Take a glance at the MSO’s current season – or the Melbourne Festival’s recent music programs for that matter – and you’ll hardly be struck by their engagement with the contemporary, let alone the avant-garde. Much of the MSO’s roster reads like a well-thumbed classic: Wagner, Handel, Mahler, Brahms and Tchaikovsky each take pride of place.

MIBEM’s curatorship, on the other hand, defines itself via its commitment to the progressive. Experimental Sydney vocalist Amanda Stewart, legendary Rotterdam jazz and noise-rock improviser Lukas Simonis, Amsterdam pianist and electronic musician Cor Fuhler, cult Sydney group Menstruation Sisters and Melbourne grindcore/free-jazz quartet Embers will each fill prominent spaces on the bill.

According to Pateras, he and Fox’s artistic direction lies in the concept of new language. “What we’re trying to do is capture this particular moment in time,” he says. “Experimental or exploratory music is by definition always changing, because the directions that these artists explore or experiment with will ultimately become forms or genres, so therefore the boundaries need to be smashed again.

“What unites all these people is the fundamental love of sound and exploration. Whatever music they play or whatever medium they use, they’re always trying to get something else out of it that hasn’t been done before.”

For example, French musique-concrete artist Jerome Noetinger – who plays his first solo performance tomorrow night at the Toff in Town – uses an antiquated Revox B-77 reel-to-reel tape machine to record and process analog loops in real time; the novelty is that he begins each performance with no prerecorded sound. “I create by manipulating different kinds of microphones, and sometimes I’m just taking the sound from the actual machine itself,” he explains. “I play with the sound from the engine or the sound from the loop running, or play with the right and left channel to create a kind of echo or feedback.”

For Noetinger, the thrill is about transforming something that is usually considered an accident or audio artefact into music. “The sound of the recording process itself is what I want to give to the audience,” he says.

Celebrated Berlin electro-acoustic composer Kirsten Reese (performing tonight at the Iwaki Auditorium), on the other hand, will create sound worlds from everyday found objects, such as rocks, old bottles and rusted cans.

“It’s about this action of taking a very simple, mundane object and creating something with it, and then putting it back having illuminated these qualities that you wouldn’t usually associate with it,” she says.

BUT does this notion of foraging one’s way through such sonic territories necessarily constitute worthy art, or translate to listenable music for that matter? Or does MIBEM more likely represent the well-meaning but underdeveloped wanderings of a bumptious Melbourne fringe? The traditionalists among us might argue that such material has remained absent from major festivals for good reason.

A self-described “refugee from the classical world”, Melbourne electro-acoustic musician and installation artist Natasha Anderson is quick to snuff the assertion. An esteemed performer throughout Europe and Japan, she points to the idea of the “classical cringe” as an unfortunate, distinctly Australian idea. “I think the big difference lies in the classical community, in that European classical orchestras will play much more modern and more contemporary stuff than Australian orchestras would dare to touch,” she says.

The 39-year-old will take her towering contrabass recorder and laptop set-up to the stage at MIBEM in collaboration with Noetinger and Amanda Stewart on Monday night at the Corner Hotel. “I think it’s important that people understand that there’s a whole spectrum. It’s not just the noise boys,” she laughs. “It’s not just some minority, underground thing.”

Her suggestion carries weight. While Australian experimental artists such as Anderson, Pateras, Fox and others such as Oren Ambarchi and Thomas Meadowcroft are barely recognised by music programmers on their own shores, they spend much of their year headlining highly regarded shows and festivals in Europe and Asia.

In a sense, the arrangement suits Pateras and an event like MIBEM just fine. “I think the really important thing about the biennale is that the curators, Robin and I, are both practitioners,” he says.

“We’re not just arts administrators buying products from markets; we go on the road and meet people and play together.”

And as he’s come to realise, there’s more musical explorers out there, even in Australia, than one might predict. “Last year I was playing what was considered an experimental work with a chamber orchestra, and I had this octogenarian come up to me after the gig.

“I thought he was going to chastise me for being so loud and so noisy, and then he said to me, ‘Well, you know, that was great, but this prepared piano and computer stuff is a bit old hat isn’t it?”‘ he laughs.

“And you know what? He was absolutely right.”

www.mibem.net

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