“How was the concert?”
“Great. Really interesting. It wasn’t really a concert. More an installation.”
“I thought an installation didn’t have a beginning and an end.”
“I said sort of an installation. Sort of. But it’s also a structured improvisation.”
“Mm, no. Not really. Well. Yes. But no.”
My husband sighs patiently. We have a lot of these conversations.
When I worked at the Australian Music Centre we struggled with the need to classify music every day. As a library dedicated to collecting and promoting art music, a big part of our job was in connecting music with people, art with audiences. We used to approach this, like good librarians, by categorising works or making a new sound less unfamiliar by way of comparison or analogy.
But that involves translating music into words, always a dangerous proposition. You either ring fence it within a genre, or describe it in terms of what it is not, call it ‘unclassifiable’. The artist hates the first. The audience hates the second.
Eventually I came up with a category called ‘Weird Shit’ to overcome this double bind . Everyone I tried it out on knew what I meant. Sadly, it was deemed not entirely appropriate. Let’s face it, it’s not appropriate. But what I was trying to convey was the kind of music that you have to approach without preconceptions. Where you open your ears and let the artist do their thing.
That’s what Sydney Festival asked us to do with Long String Instrument, an *insert word here* by artist Ellen Fullman and cellist Theresa Wong. The long string instrument is just that, 31 strings made of different materials, strung at different tensions between two sounding boxes 25 metres apart. In the middle of these strings Fullman paces backwards and forwards, using resin-dusted fingers to set the strings vibrating. On a macro level the only thing you can see moving is her feet, in a silent moonwalk. Look closer, however, and you could imagine seeing strings blurring at they vibrate, and wire tuners bobbing and flexing as she goes past. The instrument is tuned to resonate with the cello, so that the two stringed instruments can duet. But after a while it becomes an all enveloping sound world.
The whole experience is mesmerising. It’s also by turns soporific, claustrophobic and seemingly random. There is clearly a plan, but if you’re hoping to make sense of the rippling overtones, to read the organisation of the sound, you’re doing it wrong. The patterns are there. They must be. They’re sound waves, after all. But the waves are layered upon each other, bouncing off the walls of the Town Hall, enveloping the audience. It’s a visual and aural sensation.
On Friday night the Long Stringed Instrument was preceded by an improvisation by Chris Abrahams (of The Necks) at the Sydney Town Hall’s pipe organ. It’s hard not to imagine the tiny figure sitting at the keyboard in front of this fantasy palace of Victorian tubing as an evil mastermind. I mean, you’re controlling an instrument as big as a building. Bigger than some buildings. Abrahams wasn’t there, however, as a Cameron Carpenter style virtuoso. He was there to play. Not to wow or entertain. To experiment, to poke and prod and make something new. He made his way through the different stops and registers at a leisurely pace, stopping so we could savour the particular tang of a chord. When he finally set the massive 64 foot pipe going it sounded like a jet plane taking off. Again, sounds bending and crushing against each other, beats and distortions and walls vibrating in sympathy.
“So it was a time-based structured sound installation improvisation.”
I shrug unhelpfully. “Kinda.”
“Yep. Actually, no. It was real time inventing.”
“Hmm. Real Time Inventing. RTI. Sounds cool.”
RTI? I dunno. All I know is that the Long String Instrument and the Long Pipe Instrument experience was visceral, spatial, and beautiful.
Long String Instrument (USA)
Saturday January 14 (6pm), with Okkyung Lee (Korea)
Sydney Town Hall, for Sydney Festival
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