GIG: boat music, a new work by Adam Simmons, performed at Quartetthaus, Melbourne on Saturday 15 September 2012
Adam Simmons, David Brown, Annabel Warmington, Howard Cairns


Unexpected, like a spacecraft: Quartetthaus, Melbourne

It was intriguing. It was mysterious. It was hard to find.

The concept was intriguing — four musicians performing on a sculpture entitled “boat music”, a sequel of sorts to Adam Simmons‘ recent exhibition at Catherine Asquith Gallery and inspired by his concerns about the plight of refugees and the absence of compassion towards them by many in our community. The performance was a mystery — would they play instruments or be in a boat? The venue was hard to find — described as “part design installation, part architecture and part music”, ANAM (Australian National Academy of Music) Quartetthaus is a special listening place developed for the 2011 Melbourne Festival. It is also moveable, so its appearance on a vacant block of land in Melbourne’s arts precinct was sudden and unexpected.

The setting for boat music

Tents and a caravan provide the setting for boat music

The setting was surreal. A few tents, a caravan and a few cars populated the surprisingly vacant prime real estate beside the Australian Ballet School, on the wall of which was projected some sepia images that, it turned out, had no connection to the performances in Quartetthaus. Around makeshift tables in the gathering dusk were scattered a few metal bins with smouldering and smoking fires to warm waiting patrons.

Enclosed by a wire fence was the invitingly lit timber structure, suggestive of a packing case, lit from within and sitting lightly like a space craft on the land, illuminating the green of weeds beneath. It felt as if, at any moment, with appropriate noise from within, it may lift off and soar into the heavens.

boat music

boat music

It was chilly waiting to get in, but cosy and comforting within the space, which seemed wholly constructed of warmly hued, light timber. It was like a wooden version of the Spiegeltent. Two rows of seats surrounded the circular stage, on which there were four stools. The ceiling resembled a huge wooden ceiling fan.

In centre stage stood a tower of timber boxes that could conceivably have held paper — in trays or out trays, perhaps?

The performance began like a meditation, the four stools occupied by the four musicians, sans instruments, who sat quietly without moving. Before them rose the irregular stack of boxes, connected by loops of flat, wide tape. Nothing was happening. Nothing seemed about to happen.

boat music

boat music

In time there was movement. At some point the four — I came to see them variously as custodians, facilitators, public servants or operatives of the state — arose from their chairs and began to tend the tower. About the same time it became apparent that, ever so slightly, the scene was changing in another way. The stage was silently, but inexorably on the move, beginning a slow rotation that would take the duration of the performance — about 50 minutes — to complete.

boat music

David Brown at work in boat music

In near darkness, lit sporadically as they moved, the four tended the tower, moving without haste to push and pull, slide and drag the tape to keep a process going. But to what end? Would there be an end?

boat music

Inexorable: The process continues in boat music

The “paper” tape was being propelled by Adam Simmons winding the tiny handle of a music box, but for a while there was no sound. The loops of tape needed constant attention. The focus of the four operatives was intense. No excess of tape was allowed, because that would lead to deprivation elsewhere. The tape could not propel itself. It had to be coaxed, cajoled, given impetus. It had to be shuffled, nudged, nurtured. The process was the focus. The end, if there was one, was not apparent, not important.

In time, notes emerged from the music box — slow notes delivered as Simmons turned the tiny handle. It became mesmeric. It became a meditation. The process and the music merged. It was the preoccupation of the four on stage. It became our preoccupation in the audience.

boat music

Annabel Warmington in boat music

All sorts of things came to mind while this process continued — the enormity of the refugee problem worldwide; the seemingly endless processes that form a big part of that problem; the trauma, heartache and loss experienced at a personal level by the individuals and families involved, rather than much removed as a problem of numbers (of boat people, of votes); the waiting; the hopelessness; the paper shuffling; the time spent getting nowhere; the devotion to process that becomes the end in itself.

boat music

Moving down: David Brown at work in boat music

In our pursuits we are often told that process is important, rather than ends. But what if the process becomes the focus and the ends appear endlessly unattainable? What if the process becomes unendurable, if it puts lives on hold?

boat music

End in sight: Adam Simmons in boat music

Eventually, and unexpectedly despite its logical inevitability, an end to the tape emerges. At the top of the tower, David Brown has less to do. The process moves down the structure.

The pushing and sliding and shuffling and pulling becomes the focus of fewer operatives. In the end, there is only Adam Simmons turning the handle slowly as the tape completes its journey. The music and the process stop. The stage stops turning.

We have turned full circle. We are back where we started.


Ausjazz blog was a guest of Adam Simmons at this ANAM performance.

3 responses to “BOAT MUSIC — A JOURNEY TO WHERE?

  1. Thanks Roger – nice to learn a little of the audience perspective – it was a very different one to the performers!

    And may I admit that despite its “logical inevitability,” the emergence of an end to the tape was completely unintentional!! The plan had been for the loop to be continuous, for the winding of the mechanism to stop while the paper shuffling continued, slowing down the activity to a point of rest again… so it was meant to be even more full circle! but the sticky tape broke at one point, so it became necessary to adjust, improvise if you like, and take a different journey to what had been planned… I had considered performing the work with a non-continuous strip but had decided against it because it became a finite piece. I wanted to present the piece as part of a “story” without an obvious start or end point. But things change and I enjoyed the challenge it presented to the performers in dealing with the situation that unexpectedly arose!

    And may I pay tribute to Dave, Annabel and Howie for their trust in me and for their contributions – in some ways it was a simple gig, but they were each chosen for the way they approach their different areas of expertise with a high level of care and commitment, and this integrity helped make the performance work.

    Kind thanks!

  2. Thanks for the enlightenment on the unintentional end, Adam! I can definitely see the logic of the continuous loop and the story without an obvious beginning or ending. As always, musicians can improvise in ways not always apparent to an audience.
    Equally, audience members must do their own improvising of meanings based on the baggage they bring along.
    I would be interested in the performers’ perspective, if you or the others would like to provide that.
    Of course, the perspectives of audience members may have varied widely.
    The level of care and commitment by the performers was evident. Great work.

  3. Well, from some of the conversations I’ve had with other audience members, I believe there were a number of similar observations and responses to yours, Roger. Not all the same, but definitely contemplation, meditative, peaceful and concern for teetering towers!

    For myself, it was an intense and focused performance, full of much more activity than I had actually envisaged. There was the tension in wondering when and who would begin, trying to feel the energy in the room focus in on the silence, while at the same time listening to the passing traffic from City Rd filter into the aural space. There was some activity in the audience, which was not disconcerting for me, as I felt that through the waiting at the beginning, it would allow time for us to all find a place of focus… not always easy to do!

    Many of the themes, images, thoughts that were brought up in your experience, Roger, have been things that informed the work’s structure or that I have since thought about as a result of my building it and then trying to understand it myself. But for the playing of the sculpture I concentrated more on just the performance of it. Certainly things did come to my mind about the underlying concepts of the work during the performance, but I was mostly focused on just the “technique” of the performance. But the level of concentration to keep the paper moving, while winding the mechanism, trying to ensure no particular area was too tight or too slack, as well as avoiding the whole thing tumbling down, required great vigilance! In addition there was the stamina required – mental and physical – to be in unusual postures, doing repetitive movements and ensuring one didn’t lose focus.

    And then the paper join starting to come apart added a level of anxiety – or shall I suggest energy! – to the performance as the question arose as to what it would mean, how would it be fixed, do we need to do something. It did certainly strike me that it maybe reflected a refugee’s journey taking an unexpected, unwanted turn. As I said previously, I had considered a finite length but apart from wanting it to not have a definite end point, I also didn’t want to have what could be seen as an “empty” or “negative” ending, where the finish comes as an inevitability, that there is no more sound to come, a possible end of the line, maybe a tragic ending or death. But… it was the direction it took… and from a performance point of view the challenge then came in trying to coordinate it to finish at the planned time, as well as hope the other performers would change their personal journeys through the piece without being too confused. But I had no concerns in that department as one, I trust their ability to adapt, and two, they all know me well enough to have put up with things changing!

    So… this is some of what I felt through the performance.

    A couple of other comments… one thing about improvising is that it is always interesting when it is not clear what is composed and what is improvised… playing a jazz standard with a head and then solos, that’s one thing… it is about how the improvising works… but for a piece like this or for my solo work, for example, I want to present strong ideas that might be composed or might be improvised, but that there is a focus and clear intent at all times… even if sometimes it might veer off at any time, but only because a new direction is to be followed… not just a wandering, wondering meandering… Mozart is said to have been able to conceive of an entire work in his mind before putting pen to paper – what is that, if not improvising or spontaneous composition?? One takes a little time to put on paper, the other way can just come out in real time…
    So, we may have gone a different direction to what was planned, but I was hoping that the change would not be perceived as such.

    Also… audience and their baggage… yep, I’m happy for that – I guess I’ve been heavily influenced in this thinking by what I read many year’s ago of Glass/Wilson’s “Einstein on the Beach,” about it being an experience that people could come in and out of as they chose and create their own meanings out of what they saw, irrespective of what had inspired the creators. I know I often critique things and look more closer and see it is usually a reflection on myself in some way or another. I don’t and can’t expect anyone to think and feel the same as me, but I hope that I can create environments/experiences that might provoke some thought, some feeling, a response that might otherwise not have occurred. I’ve had some great conversations with people who have not liked what I’ve done, but have wanted to understand either why I do it, or why they have reacted in that way, in an effort to enrich understanding, rather than just dismiss something… and I’ve tried to deal with my own baggage at similar times also. Its not easy!!

    Ahhh… enough from me, I’m sure! Thanks for the invite to offer these thoughts… I hope I haven’t outstayed my welcome! 🙂

    Kindly yours!

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