sat 22/06/2024

theartsdesk at Tectonics Festival, Adelaide | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at Tectonics Festival, Adelaide

theartsdesk at Tectonics Festival, Adelaide

Globetrotting musical pioneers alight in Adelaide

Challenging definitions of performance spaceTony Lewis

The Tectonics festival concept began in Iceland, 2012, created by the Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov. Although, loosely speaking, it’s concerned with a modern classical programme, there’s a peculiar aspect to Volkov’s orientation that lends a special quality.

Much of his chosen music is devoted to environmental shaping, stasis, ambience, stately processes, repetition, and a general questioning, if not confrontation, of the accepted staging stance, and sometimes volume, of a performance. Volkov’s players and composers are frequently interested in jazz, rock, electronic and improvised sounds, even if these elements might ostensibly be draped under a new-music cloak.

Tectonics is following an increasing trend of being a festival that travels, manifesting itself in major cities around the globe. Weekenders in Reykjavik and Glasgow follow in April and May, but this year’s first Tectonics has just concluded in Adelaide, and is prime amongst this Australian city’s multitude of year-round arts festivals: Volkov first curated Tectonics in Adelaidet two years ago.

Held over two days in the Town Hall, this weekender is a relatively intimate affair, with a bigger audience gathered for the first day’s Adelaide Symphony Orchestra programme. The second day weeded out any suspect mainstreamers, distilling into a smaller gathering seemingly set on going the distance in terms of volume heights and general nonchalance of development. Even so, the music is so diverse that there were walk-outs at several points, but often followed by returns. The extended nature of the second day allowed a pleasing sense that performances could be dipped into, doors open for wandering, darkness masking any social pressures.

From Sydney, Splinter Orchestra (main picture) is a sprawling collective of improvisers, immediately creating a subversive stir as they infiltrated the ground floor foyer, mingling with the new arrivals. These gradually started to coalesce around some of the temporary groupings, as players alighted on each other for brief conversations, before roaming off to other partners, or simply standing alone, exploring a personal corner of reverberation. The piece is named Air Hockey, but surely has few "rules", secure in the instant composition abilities of its interpreters. Flautist and reedsman Jim Denley is the father figure, and one of Australia’s leading improvisers, with a reputation already well-travelled. His team of followers are mostly of a younger generation, already articulate in their mixed languages.

Tectonics FestivalA vocalist, guitarist, alto saxophonist and Denley on flute gang up to surround a pair of girls on a wall seat, giving them a private concert. An electronicist with a shoulder-slung boom box blows burbling bass tones, as the Splinterers drift inside the upstairs concert hall, herding the audience to their seats. Such environmental practices are not new, but the Splinter crew possess a naturalness that makes them a desired part of the ambience, without the self-conscious jocularity-cum-rebelliousness often found within the hardcore classical camp. There’s a short line-up around the perimeter of the stalls, giving the piece a concluding tether for the imminent on-stage programme. The large candelabra bulbs dim to announce the beginning of the "conventional" stage-inhabiting part of the evening. Overly bright lighting is largely shunned during the weekend, making a positive change for the presentation of new music.

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra commissioned Taiwanese composer Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh’s In Talentum of Light, building a swarming, billowing mass, with tiny tinkling details developing a lyrical interlude, pausing for reflection before the drama returns. Timpani and small bells surge, with bowed glass tones, all reminiscent of Tan Dun’s soundworld.

Chicagoan Jim O’Rourke is largely known for his alternative rock activities, but his Come Back Soon flings open fresh portals, beginning with bassoon and bass clarinet, soon joined by strings and horns, making a pastoral prance that we might not have expected from this composer. Woodblocks and chimes decorate a low storm-rumble, followed by spring capering, with pointed punctuations in its spaced glades.

The Splinter Orchestra play Microphony from "another room", the hall plunged into blue-light almost-darkness whilst the piece is heavily amplified over the speaker stacks. At this precise point, your scribe’s quill dried up, and it was only the need for a rapid replacement that drove him outside, in search of fresh ink. Here, it’s discovered that the Splinterers had elected to situate themselves, cross-legged on the carpet, immediately in front of the hall’s doors, miked-up to be fed back inside. A few of the crowd have also made this discovery, and are instructed to keep quiet by the ushers. This introduces an element of complete absurdity, given the high assualt-levels inside the hall.

One of the festival’s peaks was reached during Austrian composer Klaus Lang’s ‘the moon in a moonless sky’

It makes for quite a radical change of perspective, shunting the ears between the two experiences, revealing existences totally at odds with each other. This is the only gig where a deserting of the hall might signify an appreciation of the performance. Interior metal clankings, industrial-scale ratcheting, so monumental inside, so softly rattling when heard outside the doors, in acoustic, generational form, discovering how flute, saxophone, clarinet, guitar, bass, harmonium and tiny percussion can produce such forcefully altered sounds via the mixing desk. The staff are visibly panicked, not knowing how they should deal with the milling punters, now that the situation is malleable.

The second day opened with The Trading Routes: The MoGao Caves, New York sampler and composer David Shea performing his own piece, joined by two members of Speak Percussion and Mindy Meng Wang on guzheng, a large Chinese zither. Shea dices up audio and video elements, combining a galloping drum thunder with throat singing and prayer bowl humming, spinning a successful narrative that’s one of the weekend’s most accessible works, at least in terms of following a linear storytelling curve.

Splinter reappear as a quintet, actually on the formal stage this time. Their TQM4M1 being a pact between high freak-wencies, eventually becoming so sparse that it finishes. Then, TQM4F1 for another quintet permutation (a pair of alto saxophones, piano, electronics and percussion, with a turn on a pair of long, thin plastic tubes, didgeridoo-style), emanating and folding up ghostly tones.

Veteran New York electro-visual shaper Phill Niblock’s new piece featured French bassoonist Dafne Vicente-Sandoval, although equal prominence is given to strikingly magnified petal-images, zoomed-in for purple and green glories. A pure-toned fanfare introduces, then the fulsome layers pounce out, one strand sounding like a voice, as Niblock alters acoustic purity, ending up with an electronic feel, even if he isn’t actually using any effects, but instead toying with natural matter, re-configured via audio-perversion.

Tectonics FestivalOne of the festival’s peaks was reached during Austrian composer Klaus Lang’s the moon in a moonless sky, as interpreted by Speak Percussion, who arrange themselves in four corners, this extremely sparse, meditational music barely registering in the darkness, as each player bows softly, whining sensitively, chiming a single tubular bell, caressing a hammer dulcimer, softly touching a big gong, carefully gliding across to second table-stations that hold a range of glass goblets, poured with varying amounts of water. The audience is complicit, the work becomes trance with a different kind of intensity, a hushed pause before every rationed gesture.

An attempt was made to enter the clubzone, as Fjorn Butler’s electro-gear is wheeled into the middle of the chair-cleared space, riding a riser. Known as Papaphilia, she clouds the air with dark bass billows, and Volkov, then Splinter, make valiant attempts to stage-manage some punter-dancing, but this all seems a touch forced, as her Disciplined Monad pulse is only vague, and the elements are clouded up into a stodge, not traversing the hall’s acoustics very lightly.

Climax duties fell on guitarists Oren Ambarchi and Tetuzi Akiyama, but even though they both resourcefully wrangle some diverting sounds out of their axes (tabled litter of wrenching effects and bottleneck psychedelic blues fuzz respectively), the pair never grapple with the edge of nervy aggression that they need. Even if some of the Tectonics experiments might fall flat, that’s still valuable for chancing something untoward, and besides, the majority of these many unfamiliar strategies usually produce an arresting response, intimately connected as they are with listening closely to the inherent character of sound, choosing what to limn and what to dim.

Even if some of the Tectonics experiments might fall flat, that’s still valuable for chancing something untoward

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