jazz and improvised music


Monday 11 April 2011

John Clare dropped in on some of the highly successful Now Now Festival through January.

Monday Jan 24 @ People’s Republic Of Australia

The People’s Republic is a secret venue whose name has an odd association. It is unlikely that anyone in the Now Now network of improvisors would be aware that the Bra Boys were once known as The People’s Republican Army Of Maroubra. This is true and far too complicated to explain here. Hurry on.

I set out on foot to the secret venue and another aspect of Sydney’s beautiful inner west opens in the late afternoon. This is a private address, part of a complex of spaces converted brilliantly from a number of small factories and warehouses. We are a long way from the Bra and in a very different place to the secret venues of the inner city. I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore. This is affluent bohemia. There are a number of Rennie Mackintosh chairs here, or something quite close – close also to Ford Maddox Brown – and I am at last in a position to report that these classics, with their tall, straight and narrow, many-runged backs, are very comfortable. On my right is a cream inner brick wall pierced by 10 small square windows up near the peak of the steeply pitched roof, plus two rectangular ones, narrow, horizontal and smaller still. A composition. In a larger space beyond, polished wood bookshelves climb the wall, on which original paintings hang – rather impressive ones. On the floor beside me on my left there are two carp in a low shallow pool with both Zen-like and classical Greek features. High up through a window on the wall to my left wall I can see succulents in pots on a sort of patio against the blue late afternoon sky.

I am not a chap to envy affluence. In fact I enjoy it vicariously, even though I have reached that dark time in a man’s life when he knows that he will never win the lottery. While not envious, I can be a little uncomfortable. But everyone, needless to say was very very Now Now and nice. The sound is superb. The first performance took place far across the conjoined spaces, diagonally, on a small raised area, and seeing an empty lounge chair I went there. Gerard Crewdson (NZ), slideshow + cornet. Also narration and trombone as it turns out.

Paced in interludes by the periodic ringing of a kind of chanting bowl, and accompanied by hand drawn slides, Crewdson told a fanciful, ingenious, often frightening, sometimes darkly funny and ever-changing creation story dominated by the authority figures of English philosophers Burke and Locke. On a table beside the ringing bowl were the cornet and trombone. Eschewing or disguising any hint of virtuosity, Crewdson played interludes on these instruments that were quite loud, raw, and often lachrymose. It reminded me a little of the performer in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita who moved through a fashionable gathering playing a sad trumpet melody followed mysteriously by a number of balloons – musically that is: Fellini’s figure was a sort of Harlequin or Pierrot as I recall, while Crewdson is a tallish bluff figure dressed on the occasion in somewhat industrial black shirt and trousers with sturdy boots. He is a sturdy, sincere man with a distinct presence that is not very Now Now. I liked him. Rather long, this performance sustained our attention quite powerfully until the end. Here, in very condensed form is my take on Crewdson’s parable. The nature of creation stories, myths and theories is heavily influenced by the prevailing forms of authority and the philosophies behind them, which are in turn influenced by earlier beliefs, which are in turn…..

As Crewdson finished this ensemble set up to his left: Rosalind Hall (Melb.), saxophone, Joseph Derrick and Laura Altman (Sydney), trumpet and clarinet respectively. I heard this from one of the Mackintosh chairs. There seemed to be an understanding that no sound would be pushed or moulded to create the harmonic recipe of a conventional note. A conversation of sine waves and partials ensued, full of splinters and thin peeps and squeeks of radio static; then everything was suddenly overblown, burbling and multiphonic, yet increasing very little in volume. Laura Altman in one interlude sheathed her clarinet in a tube of what looked like silver foil. Derrick ran his mouthpiece round the bell of the trumpet, activating the standing waves or eigentones in ringing arcs that reminded me of Japan, where I lived for six months across the creek from a Shingon temple. A tutti later occurred with everyone blowing full, even overblowing, yet simultaneously impeding or obstructing their notes. This built to a kind of restricted rage, like a maritime crescendo far across the water.

This music of predominantly small sounds was most satisfying, and at one point it prompted me to study the fish down beside me, just when one made a sudden U turn and broke the water startlingly with its tail.

Finally, Hollis Taylor (violin + field recordings). Taylor took the floor with her instrument and triggered a considerable array of birdsong which she had recorded, sometimes immitating them up to a point, sometimes playing variations and sometimes simply playing short motifs that at times resembled snippets from Bartok’s night music interludes. Hollis Taylor didn’t look very Now Now either. My point here is that I have unfairly generalised. Passing trucks, voices from a sale yard and other sounds caught perhaps inadvertently by the bird song collector were interesting and sometimes startlingly loud, replacing a great deal of air on the highway. The first of these was greeted with a radiant smile from Taylor, as if to signal or acknowledge irony. But nobody laughed, and indeed these sounds were far more interesting than they were funny.

That was that for the night. I left and made my way to Parramatta Road in the dark, thinking to catch a bus back instead of walking. I walked anyway because all the buses were Pre-Paid only. What the hell is this?

Wednesday 26 @Serial Space

Aemon Webb + Jon Watts (AV Electronics). If you’ve read much of what I write on this site, and billions do throughout the intergalactic web in a parallel universe, you will know that I am familiar with Serial Space. This is less affluent bohemia. Webb and Watts got down on the floor and carefully manipulated their equipment. Initially a static pattern – or really a series of horizontal bands – began to vibrate on the wall. Then they began to march downward and return like a test pattern refusing to be stabilised. The sound at first consisted of morse code-like percussive patterns of three then four alternating; then six and so on, then a Gene Krupa-like tom tom pattern, further rhythmic changes and modulations, while a power whine mounted and fell. Jagged interjections were seemingly created by playing with the electrical connections. Very loud jags flooded the wall projection with light and illuminated several rows of deeply attentive young faces. Two young chaps sitting on the floor – one reaching around one raised knee – staring downward, concentrating, only their hands moving (sometimes not often). Yet it held our attention. At this point I had to leave because some people were coming to my place to see me.

Friday 28 @The Red Rattler

The Red Rattler Theatre across the road from the Marrickville Bowling Club was something else again. Aeroplanes, small and gigantic, flaps lowered, seemed to scrape the parapet, appearing both as apparitions and as ridiculously heavy physical things to appear there suddenly in mid air, flying clear and settling imperceptibly toward Kingsford Smith airport. My ecstatic reactions surprised the gathering Now Nows far more than did the planes themselves. Yes, yes aeroplanes. Now, now, settle down. Aeroplanes. So what? Also they burn a great deal of fuel. I began to feel a bit silly. Sorry, sorry, I just love planes (I would pay premium rent to live under this flight path). Sillier still when I began explaining the principle of lift, which was slightly misunderstood and no doubt quickly forgotten. There is an odd coincidence here. I had a ride on Jim Denley’s very heavy bike. It seemed a cumbersome beast after my racing machine, but I managed a U turn on the street. Jim had just ridden it out to Maroubra, had a swim and ridden back. I missed one performance inside. No I didn’t. The programme I have before me is wrong. For me the night began with an improvisation ensemble that included (from memory) Laura Altman, clarinet, Monica Brooks, piano accordion, Gerard Crewdson, trombone, Dale Gorfinkel, trumpet. They set up a cyclic relay pattern of punctuations and exclamations, then moved into a maze of interactions. Like all successful free improvisation, it was constantly changing but compositional, as each player reacted singly or collectively to the web of sound. Most intriguing was Gorfinkel’s trumpet – the instrument itself and the sounds he produced. The instrument seemed to have had an accident and, having been bandaged back together ended up appreciably longer. A propellor spun humorously above it, powered by a tiny fan motor. At first I thought that a piece of white toast had been attached to the rotors, but when these were deliberately slowed or stopped against various projections the toast revealed itself as an irregular shape made, it appeared, of styrofoam.. Long plastic tubes trailed from the instrument and Gorfinkel blew the end of one of these in lieu of a mouthpiece. I won’t attempt to describe the sounds that issued. This was fantastic stuff.

Next: Noel Meek (NZ), voice, Rory Brown, bass, Alex Masso, drums, who created a violently energised idiom that at times combined something like free jazz and something like heavy metal. Meek’s roaring, screaming harangue sometimes switched to remoteness, like Aborigines chanting in the distance. Once again I noted the use of inbreathing, which I thought I had discovered decades ago while improvising with Roger Frampton. Wherever this came from, Meek had developed more control over the freak high notes that were possible with this technique than I ever did. Meek’s big muscular legs seemed part of the performance.

This was satisfying stuff, and so was The Thing: Mats Gustafsson (saxes) – SWE – Ingebright H. Flaten (double bass) – NOR – Paal Nilssen-Love (drums) – NOR – which was likewise a roaring cataract of energy, coming to us care of the Goethe Institute. It is tempting to call this free jazz, but the use of barging, repeating logs of sound often moved the idiom into another area, perhaps influenced by rock and heavy metal.

Next I heard Magda Mayas (piano) – BERLIN – Laura Altman (clarinet) & Monica Brooks (accordion). By then I was very tired (I was 70 last year and had been riding each day in the heat).

Now Now is a network of mostly younger and well educated people. I like their enthusiasm, their attentitiveness and good nature. I will never feel entirely comfortable in their company (maybe you can’t take the Bra out of the old boy) but I am very glad that they exist.