Alister Spence and Paul Grabowsky

Alister Spence and Paul Grabowsky in ElectroACOUSTIC, ACOUSTICelectro

‘It seemed as if they were hunters and collectors, fossicking and ferreting, gathering and creating, building and engineering, coaxing and tweaking.’


ElectroACOUSTIC, ACOUSTICElectro, Australian Art Orchestra, Bennetts Lane Jazz Club, 1 August 2013

Paul Grabowsky was at the piano, but not at the helm for this exploration of meeting points between acoustic and electronic music. This was the first outing curated by the AAO’s recently appointed artistic director Peter Knight, so we were curious to know what would eventuate.

Knight is a trumpeter, composer and sound artist who has gained international acclaim for his integration of jazz, world music, and experimental traditions. He likes to experiment with instruments such as the trumpet, guitar and saxophone, combined with new technologies.

For the third year in a row the AAO has a month’s residency at Bennetts Lane, in this case presenting four Thursday concerts with guest collaborators forming different quintets. The opening night featured Alister Spence on keyboard, vibes and assorted electronic devices, Tony Hicks on reeds, Joe Talia on drums and percussion, Grabowsky on piano (slightly prepared, I think) and Knight on trumpet, laptop and assorted electronic devices.

“The music we will make will be provocative, evocative, visceral then calming, but always richly textural,” Knight said in publicising the concert. “In Melbourne we have one of the most distinctive improvised music scenes in the world and I hope that everyone with a spirit of musical adventure will come out to listen to some of its finest exponents.”

Alister Spence

Alister Spence

So how did the first outing play out? Well, apart from the curator momentarily fearing that he was having a stroke when struck by the red focus beam of a camera (mea culpa, mea culpa), everything went according to the presumably fairly fluid plan. I thought the second set worked best, but both delivered what Knight had envisaged.

In the opening set Spence devoted some time to nurturing, coaxing and fine-tuning his sounds, produced variously by keyboard, a tiny mallet stick and what appeared to be a brush with metal bristles, plus the assorted devices that added distortion and looping patterns. Grabowsky contributed piano string pluckings, spiky notes, runs and some delightful helter skelter. Hicks produced clarinet croaks and rasps, Talia some wavering, high-pitched sounds with his bow on a cymbal edge.

Spence would tap the vibes and work on the effects; Hicks produced a very long note, almost certainly achieved with circular breathing. The collective sounds built a lot of intensity before taking a slow slide towards quiescence, punctuated by sporadic attacks and underpinned by growls, tunnel and funnel sounds. In these instances I love the sense of pleasurable abatement that follows what has become, over time, a little oppressive.

Tony Hicks, Joe Talia and Peter Knight

Tony Hicks, Joe Talia and Peter Knight

The soundscape created in this performance was carefully crafted, with the smallest elements being significant to the whole. Talia’s feather-light taps and Spence’s bell shakings were examples.

Spence conjured recurring “depth” sounds that called to mind scenes from 1960s TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, set in a submarine. Grabowsky played chord, chord, chord insistently, then began splashing them about as if he was having summer fun with a garden hose. On tenor sax, Hicks rasped his way in as Grabowsky speeded up his input. Tension mounted. Talia was light and rapid with his sticks before a soaring, high vibrato from Hicks smoothed out the freneticism. Grabowsky tapped low notes. Spence was busily tweaking as Hicks reached a crescendo. Then the beast quietened. The remaining sounds had the feel of breathing.

Spence contributed chimes, then a burst of loudness, as if there was still the threat of a breakout that could not be controlled. Before quiet gradually descended at the set’s end, I reflected on the way the members of this ensemble were working. It seemed as if they were hunters and collectors, fossicking and ferreting, gathering and creating, building and engineering, coaxing and tweaking.

Tony Hicks and Peter Knight

Tony Hicks and Peter Knight

As mentioned, the second set seemed more engrossing. The group was focused, attentive as Hicks opened by delivering air into silence with a very small sax (perhaps a sopranino). The tiny sound was embellished by a muffled patter as pads opened and closed. It was an example of how important it is to be in a venue where patrons listen, rather than chat.

Talia displayed superb lightness of touch and fluidity as he added sprinklings of bell-like and feathery stick sounds. His sticks moved faster and faster, but delicately, until one flew off somewhere. From Knight’s horn and laptop came nasally snorting and rattling, at first animal-like and then techno chomping and static, as if there was a cyber monster gobbling a feast. Then came a bark, a squawk.

Spence introduced vibrato with sustains on the keyboard then tapped the vibes to conjure the feel of pedal steel guitar notes ringing, chiming and hanging suspended. As Grabowsky dabbled on the piano strings, Knight, Hicks and Talia began crinkling paper. This had to be planned. Unless by chance they each decided to screw up a shopping list at the one time. It was unexpectedly effective.

Paul Grabowsky and Alister Spence

Paul Grabowsky and Alister Spence

Weird bird sounds and whooshes, some more undersea echoes and some mass tweeting (not using Twitter) created an eerie feel that was restful, contemplative. I mused on our need to liken every sound to something familiar, and how we could otherwise describe them. Or is describing missing the point, since we should just hear?

Grabowsky produced chords that seemed flat in profile, separated and somehow distorted. They descended like spikes of hot rain, some heavy, some light. They seemed to drop randomly, splotches of sound. Hicks played a piccolo or tin whistle, Knight blew across his horn mouthpiece. Buried in the bowels of the piano, Grabowsky conjured up a storm. There was metallic clatter from Talia’s sticks. It became frenetic. Volumes grew. Hicks was on soprano sax. There was thunder — was it the work of Spence or Grabowsky?

This was reminiscent of a climax during a Necks concert. Was it meaningful discourse or clamorous discord? Who knew? Who cared? From the keyboard came gobble and chatter, from Talia’s drum kit emphatic statements. Knight actually began to play his trumpet. Hicks switched to clarinet. Spence poured in runs of notes. Everyone was going at it.

Before the inevitable dying back came “voices” from Spence, lots of chatter from the ensemble. Then it was over. The electro had encountered the acoustic, the acoustic had taken on the electro. They had met, challenged, teased and perhaps even had their way with each other. And, particularly in this second set, we had been carried into the fiery consummation and beyond.


PICTURE GALLERY: Click HERE for larger images.

AAO performances this month will feature:

Thursday 8 August
Scott Tinkler (trumpet)
Judith Hamann (cello)
Ren Walters (guitar/tape loops)
Peter Knight (trumpet/laptop/amplifier)
David Tolley (bass/laptop)

Thursday 15 August
Joe Talia (drums/Revox)
Peter Knight (trumpet/laptop/amplifier)
Jon Smeathers (saxophone/laptop)
Dale Gorfinkel (prepared vibraphone/devices)
Adrian Sherriff (bass trombone/electronics)

Thursday 22 August
Georgie Darvidis (voice)
Peter Knight (trumpet/laptop/amplifier)
Stephen Magnusson (guitar/pedals)
Scott Tinkler (trumpet)
Paul Grabowsky (piano)
Dale Gorfinkel (prepared vibraphone/devices)

Tickets are available from Bennetts Lane Jazz Club

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