Broken Polyphonies

Re:port on Small Black Box #24


Small Black Box #24 Sunday 25 May 2003, 7-10PM 
Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Theatre Space 
Brisbane Australia 


Daryl Buckley (electric guitar and digital effects) with Michael Hewes (digital processing)
Alan Nguyen (laptop) 
Andrew Kettle with Helen Kettle (performance art) 


Daryl Buckley with Michael Hewes -- performing Richard Barrett’s composition “Transmissions”. 

...tight, claustrophobic, gnawing hyper-gestures for electric guitar, foot pedals, controller boxers, feet, fingers, hands, eyes, score, you name it...
...flashes of brilliance, flickerings of feeling...
...radically controlled and contorted performance by Buckley...

Alan Nguyen 

...energetic, ambient, atmospheric, pulsating, undulating, rich and raw - a fantasy of micro-drones...
...multi-layered hypnotic and ear-jarring beauty...
...a bold, soothing statement of glitches, buzzes, tones and audio scars...

Andrew Kettle with Helen Kettle -- performing Andrew Kettle’s “Sol’s Violin” (appearing on a fully-blacked out stage in blacks, with glow-in-the-dark symbols of the planets and other solar entities). 

...a stripped-back super-quiet haunting ritual of cosmic proportions...
...an almost still-motion piece that held the audience in captive attention...
...a fitting second-anniversary present to Small Black Box from the original instigator himself, Kettle...
...cold sono-scientific calculations based on the movements of the planets, turned into cool performance art...

The night ended with an emotive speech by Kettle thanking various SBB workers and audience for their support and encouragement of the last two years. 


The night made me think about polyphony and monophony. And how all the pieces had a type of in-built polyphony which came out as monophony. Paradoxically, the more polyphonic, the more it moved to monophony. 

In the Barrett composition, electric guitarist Daryl Buckley is interpreting a visually polyphonic score via a bodily polyphony that borders on hyper-virtuosic, performed upon a polyphonic instrument (ie, the guitar can play more than one line at once), and is putting the guitar sounds through a polyphony of digital processing and effects units, and has extra electronic sounds played by sound-technician Michael Hewes added to the mix!... So I was imagining that the sounds we heard would be hyper-polyphonic, but it turned out rather the opposite. Indeed, there were many different sonic gestures/sonorities/textures in succession (juxtaposition) but not at the same time (superimposition). Certainly Barrett’s work is the antithesis of drone music – drone music being a major trait of the noise/sound art scene – and is instead far closer to the modernist flow of short gestural material (like Berio's sequenzas, Donatoni's early solos, Ferneyhough's “Unity Capsule” for flute). Something Barrett fully intends – he is definitely not a groover. 

Next up we had Alan Nguyen perform on laptop (behind a table so we could not see him at all) calling up multi-layers of short glitchy, pulsy pre-records. A polyphonic hypnotic sound mass ensured, but it was abruptly and unexpectedly interrupted half­way through by a wall of white noise. After the initial audio shock, it struck me that white noise, whilst apparently all frequencies at once, is actually a very monophonic sound - not multi-layered but one layer. Here again, dense polyphony comes out as monophony. 

And lastly Kettle’s performance work was another example of hyper-polyphony leading to monophony. A precursor to his IMA installation (opening Thursday 31 July 2003) this is a data-mapping work transferring orbital data from solar bodies (such as angle and position in sky, and time of rise and fall of planets) into various sonic parameters (such as frequency, amplitude, fundamental pitch, overtones). Not a linear polyphony (many distinct lines at once) but a parametric polyphony (many distinct parameters of the one audio strand at once). And the effect was a slow, ever-shifting monophonic sounding sine-wave-like drone – the orbits of all the planets reduced to a single narrow audio band. Typical Kettle in terms of its quirky performance elements and drone-like elements (think back to his “Drone 9” and “Turing Test” performances in the late 1990s). 

I wonder whether the opposite is also true, that a form of ultra monophony might lead to perceived polyphony? 

This aside, congratulations Small Black Box on two years of innovative, curious and tantalising events that has supported and fostered a growing local and national community of musicians and sound artists. 

REP (archetypal performance indicators): 

Three archetypal modes of visual performance activity… 

a. seen making the sounds (Buckley) 
b. not seen making the sound (Nguyen) 
c. seen doing something else beside making the sound (Kettle) 

Three archetypal modes of generating electronic sounds… 

a. making it on the spot (Buckley) 
b. calling up pre-made sounds in a live fashion (Nguyen) 
c. playing pre-made sounds (Kettle)