Walshie’s Backyard

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Written by: Henry Vyhnal

“The MONA Festival of Music and Art (MOFO) is like a reality TV show where you must love art to survive. Tests abound but there are no contests.”

We embark on the ROMA – one of the flotilla of futuristic ferries that spirit the art elite to Walshie’s backyard – the Xanadu that is the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Berridale, Hobart. I feel a sense of adventure coming on. The Gilligan’s island theme starts playing in my head.

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,

A tale of a fateful trip

That started from this tropic port

Aboard this tiny ship.”

I looked around at my shipmates. Quite a motley crew. Bit of Melbourne black, bit of grey and pink hair. Not many cargo pants. The TV theme continued.

“With Gilligan

The Skipper too,

A millionaire and his wife,

A movie star

The professor and Mary Ann,

Here on Gilligan’s Isle.”

On my ROMA trip, you see all of the stereotypes mentioned in the Skipper’s passenger register plus a few others: coteries of fragranced arts femocrats; not particularly arty but very cuddly couples; passionately artistic wives with disinterested husbands and noisy kids; gay couples just out for a good time and a smattering of very earnest young arts practitioners – eager to have their own art enriched and inspired by what is to come. The expectation is palpable.

From the ROMA, MONA looks like an island. It’s not. It’s actually a small isthmus of land jutting out into the majestic Derwent River not far from the old Cadbury Chocolate factory in Glenorchy. The ROMA Captain takes the microphone and gives us a quick dissertation on the sights as they whizz past. Nyrstar, allegedly the most environmentally pristine zinc refinery in the world, perches on the shore line. Nyrstar harks back to a time when nobody thought refinery waste could destroy water bound flora and fauna forever. The amazing layered rock cliffs made one feel as though we were in the Kimberleys. Our voyage continues.

MONA, under the stewardship of David Walsh, pays attention to every detail including the ROMA crews. These aren’t a bunch of desultory Centrelink clients. Dressed in crisp grey monogrammed overalls, the crew looked like suburban mechanics but smelt and behaved like five star concierges. Multitasking their way through bar service, MONA/MOFO marketing, and passenger Occupational Health and Safety – their customer service was both inquiring and super friendly. As I settled into my early morning Tassie sparkling wine I googled MONA/MOFO supremo David Walsh. According to fellow Taswegian and arts lover Richard Flanagan in The Monthly:

“David Walsh first made global headlines in 2009, when he gambled on the life of Christian Boltanski, a French artist whose installations focus on death. Walsh was a mysterious figure even in his home, Tasmania, where, other than lurid rumours of a fortune made by gambling, little was known about him…

David Walsh

Walsh is explicit about what his museum is not: it’s not a rich man gratefully giving back to his community. It’s not an attempt at immortality, as he frankly admits his collection may be deemed worthless in another decade.”

As the ROMA ferry moored at the MONA jetty, the last vestige of the Gilligan’s island theme played out.

“So this is the tale about castaways,

They’re here for a long, long time,

They’ll have to make the best of things,

It’s an uphill climb.”

From the jetty, the happy patrons climb the ninety-nine steps to another world. To Walsh’s world where old and new collide in a kaleidoscope of colour, smell, music and movement. Here the Gilligan’s island analogy morphs into Citizen Kane’s pleasure dome where Charles Foster Kane roamed the world collecting tirelessly to stock his Xanadu. Walsh’s Xanadu is no less inspiring and no less idiosyncratic.

On the island and beneath, sparkly coloured face paint can be seen on normally ‘style free’ people. Think coloured sequins on Max Walker moustaches. Nimbin hipster tribe people share the grass with clutches of art grannies and little kids running around. Overseas art tourists try to look unimpressed with neo-Aussie arts ambience. Walsh, with his exuberant daughters, parks himself near the outdoor Main Stage bar, sipping Tassie beer in the sun. He can do what he wants. He’s got the best people working for him and it’s his backyard. Don’t come here if you don’t like what you see and hear. Over the three days almost 4000 people came and liked what they saw and heard.

On this, Trump’s inauguration day, art trumped Trump. Nobody talked about the Trumpster or the equally artless and concurrent Aussie Open. Only about last night’s DJ Z-Trip and the James Thurber light show.

The MONA Festival of Music and Art (MOFO) is like a reality TV show where you must love art to survive. Tests abound but there are no contests. The artworks are not labelled or annotated. If you wish to know more about what you see, you’ll need to understand how to use the ‘O’ device. It’s quite a challenge for non-technophiles, but the pay off is supreme: artwork info beamed at you as you gaze at it and for the price of your email address – a ‘breadcrumb’ trail of your visit so you can virtually revisit your favourite pieces from the comfort of your home computer and a nice red. In MONA, there are no losers – only winners.

The Ondes Martenot

While I attended for several hours each day for each of the three days, I did not see all of the musical performances. Nobody could. I came to MOFO specifically to see the early electronic instruments, particularly the Theremin and the Ondes Martenot – but I saw and heard a whole lot more.

Maurice Martenot plays his musical invention in 1949. Photo by Corbis

Both instruments were (and still are) ahead of their time but they have since been largely confined to a little known evolutionary backwater. Both instruments are analogue in their electronic design and have not succumbed to further development using digital technology. MOFO Director Brian Ritchie’s decision to use world-renowned performers to showcase these early electronic instruments elevated the experience considerably. To have the instruments presented in a glass box accompanied by scratchy ancient recordings of nerdy inventors giving the technical ‘tour’ instead would have been sacrilege.

The Theremin and Ondes Martenot were invented in 1928 – the same year as British inventor John Logie Baird broadcast the first transatlantic television signal from London to Hartsdale, New York and demonstrated the world’s first colour television transmission. It was the same year that Philo Farnsworth demonstrated the world’s first working all-electronic television system employing electronic scanning in both the pickup and display devices. Also in 1928, a Mickey Mouse cartoon became the first sound film and the first such film to be generally distributed. In 1928, the new marriage of music and electronics produced some inspired offspring.

MOFO attempts to graft a Music festival onto the jaw-dropping edifice of MONA. MONA is primarily a palace for the visual arts. Music seems a bit like an afterthought.

Brian Ritchie has compensated for this bravely. His programing has whisked audiences away from their proscenium arch obsession and blurred the line between music performance and ambient sound installation. Many of the MONA exhibits already have a soundscape/music accompaniment and in these exhibits, the sound component is always treated with the same respect as the visual. They really work well. The outdoor concerts worked better than the indoor sound/music events because they at least took the production requirements of live music seriously although audience comfort was challenged by limited seating and protection from the weather.

Music performances that suffered the most from adventurous music-visual art juxtaposition were those aligned with a conventional music performance format. Amplified, ambient and installational music seemed better suited to most outdoor venues. Indoors, many of the performances were acoustic and produced by low volume ‘installational’ instruments. While crowds were comfortable with wandering through rooms of visual art and spending short time grabs on things that attracted them, much of the music required ‘deep’ listening for extended periods of time to fully appreciate them. I found the constant hum of people talking and walking through music performances distracting and ultimately this detracted from some very interesting sonic experiences. Lying on a crowded stone floor for forty minutes to listen to an instrument that could barely be heard was not the best representation of quality cutting edge music and sound art.

The two performances that worked best for me were Nadia Ratsimandresy (Ondes Martenot) and Carolina Eyck (Theremin). I also really enjoyed cellist Okkyung Lee both as an unaccompanied soloist and as an ensemble member with Nadia.

Nadia Ratsimandresy, 2005. Image by Jacop Baboni-Schilligi

Nadia Ratsimandresy has been Professor of Ondes & Synthesizers at the Regional Conservatoire of Boulogne-Billancourt since January 2015. Her performance brought the quiet integrity of someone who knows her instrument intimately and wants to share her love of this rare bird of paradise with everyone. According to Wikipedia, the Ondes Martenot “is an early electronic musical instrument invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot. The original design was similar in sound to the Theremin. The sonic capabilities of the instrument were later expanded by the addition of timbral controls and switchable loudspeakers. The instrument’s eerie wavering notes are produced by varying the frequency of oscillation in vacuum tubes.”

The Ondes Martenot resembles a large keyboard with two mysterious looking boxes of levers and wires built on. One of the wires is connected to the thumb of the player and it allows her to ‘envelope’ the pitches. There must be some octave control because some of the range was technically ‘extra sonic’ to humans. In one piece, Nadia played notes so highly pitched that they became progressively invisible to the human ear. As they approached invisibility the final notes were sensed rather than heard. On the other end of the pitch spectrum, the low notes became guttural rasps disappearing until once again, they became sensed rather than heard. Nadia’s performance pushed the limits of the sound system without the sounds ever becoming hard to bear. The tonal qualities seemed to be very ‘sine wave’ based, which gave them a silky quality across the whole range. The Ondes Martenot seemed to be more of a modified keyboard rather than the crazy mix of wires and sockets in the Moog synthesizers that appeared in the late 1960’s. The monophonic Moogs added square and sawtooth wave forms as well as various shades of white and pink noise. Strangely these later perversions were not missed by me. I actually preferred the confines of the Ondes Martenot. Nadia’s intimate manipulation of the Ondes Martenot was beautifully captured by on stage cameras and displayed on a huge high resolution screen. This ‘stadium rock’ affectation was a masterstroke.

Later in her set, Nadia was joined by Okkyung Lee (cello) and Mindy Meng Wang (guzheng). The guzheng is a 2500 year old plucked zither like instrument similar to a Japanese koto. Mindy was dressed in traditional Chinese costume and she made a wonderful contrast with Nadia who is French but of North African heritage. They were joined by Okkyung Lee who is very much the modern New Yorker of Korean background. The combination of the Nefertiti like Nadia, the exquisitely Ming Dynastic Mindy and the gruff, Korean Amazon Okkyung provided a diorama of three modern women making collective music that spanned 2500 years as well as embracing an enormous spectrum of music technologies and timbres. Their ensemble pieces were magnificent improvisations of surprise and colour. Nadia tended to provide the canvas on which Okkyung and Mindy painted their impressionistic forays. Often Nadia was content to play an ostinato accompaniment. If she was playing a modern electronic instrument, it would be loops of notes that the instrument would then repeat ad infinitum. No such plugin exists on the Ondes Martenot. Nadia played every repetition with wonderful connection and grace.

Okkyung Lee. Image by Peter Gannushkin

Later that day I saw Okkyung Lee perform inside the MONA Void. The Void is where the wonderful ‘Word Waterfall’ is housed. A word is programmed into a computer which then manipulates a bank of water jets to form a word from the water as it falls 15 metres below to splash into a stone pool. To accommodate this permanent exhibit, the space is composed of polished stone floors and walls. MONA turns the waterfall off for the live performances but the Void still retains the resultant coldness and dampness. There is no demarked performance space so the audience gathers itself around the performers and sits on the floor ‘folk club style’ as best as it can. Great for earnest young hipsters, awful for oldies with sciatica. Okkyung arrived at the appointed time, pushed her way through the throng, sat down and started to play. There wasn’t a lot of a break between her initial tune up and the beginning of an improvisation that lasted the entire 30 minutes. Okkyung uses her cello to expound her ‘extended techniques (the stuff they don’t teach you in school)’. Her sonic palette is rich and diverse and her appetite for dissonance is admirable. She held my attention throughout and it was instructive to see at close quarters how she actually divined those brutal and beautiful textures from her cello. When she got up from her seat, I thought the performance was finished – but no. She kept playing while walking up the stairs next to the Void. Savouring the change in acoustic as she climbed, she managed to go all the way up and all the way down without interruption to her improvisation. I thought I had seen everything – until I saw that. Once completed, she spoke a short and polite goodbye and got up to go. Despite being a woman of few words, I saw her still with cello in hand talking animatedly to her audience when I passed again soon after. They wanted more.

Carolina Eyck’s Theremin tour de force took place in the Nolan Gallery. A vast stone room housing Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series. I had been to a couple of performances in this space the previous day and had not enjoyed its hardships or its acoustics. Fortunately, a friendly MONA person allowed me a spot overlooking the stage which is not normally available to the public. From there I was able to see Carolina and her fellow musicians Jennifer Marten-Smith (piano) and Midnight Oil’s guitarist Jim Moginie. Carolina has an evangelical presence with her Theremin performance and the wisdom of a master devotee in explaining its mysteries. In comparison to the steampunk qualities of the Ondes Martenot, the Theremin is extra terrestrial in its sound and its manipulation.

Carolina Eyck and Theremin

‘The Theremin … is an early electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact by the Thereminist (performer). It is named after the Westernized adaptation of its Russian inventor, Léon Theremin who patented the device in 1928. The instrument’s controlling section usually consists of two metal antennas that sense the relative position of the Thereminist’s hands and control oscillators for frequency with one hand, and amplitude (volume) with the other. The electric signals from the Theremin are amplified and sent to a loudspeaker.’ (Theremin Wikipedia)

Carolina showed us what the Theremin could do by taking her audience through a varied hour of music making. Occasionally she was accompanied by Jennifer and Jim. Jennifer provided the accompaniment for most of the conventional light classics and Jim played the pop, jazz and improvisational backgrounds. I had played much of the light classics so I knew what was supposed to happen musically. Prior to the performance, I had not appreciated how the Theremin produces pitch as distinct tones and semitones in the same way as a piano or wind instrument. Carolina gave a comprehensive technical explanation of how different pitches are produced and then demonstrated her virtuosity by playing Rimsky-Kosakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’ – a continuous cascade of chromatic runs played at breakneck speed. At the end of the performance, I still really couldn’t believe or fully understand what I was hearing and seeing. In the end, it didn’t matter that I didn’t understand, I only needed to believe. Carolina’s body language was more that of a dancer than a musician. Physically Carolina did not touch the instrument. The Theremin was being triggered by the movements of her hands and fingers and it was this characteristic that I found magical. It is no accident that the Theremin has been used in music and film to create representations of ‘distant planets’, ‘alien emotions’ and paranormal events. It is an extraordinarily ethereal instrument both in execution and in sound. I came away from Carolina’s performance believing even more that music is a magical, invisible force with the power to sway human emotion. (See the wonderful video in the WEBLINKS below.)

The final experience I would like to share with you was not included in the MOFO program but is fortunately on permanent display at MONA and to a more removed sense on the internet (see the link at the end of this article). Super Symmetry is the creation of ‘Ryoji Ikeda – a Japanese sound artist who lives and works in Paris. Ikeda’s music is concerned primarily with sound in a variety of “raw” states, such as sine tones and noise, often using frequencies at the edges of the range of human hearing.’ (Ryoji Ikeda – Wikipedia)

Ryogi Ikeda’s Supersymmetry

Super Symmetry is a large completely dark room lit only by two long banks of high definition computer monitors that face each other. The audience walks through the corridor they form in the same way as they would walk down the centre aisle of a vast cathedral. The screens are stimulated by streams of programming code that trigger monochromatic displays of shapes, numbers and words that pulse from one end of the banks to the other in sequence mirrored by each bank. The epic surround sound audio resembles the sonic sub terrain heard in submarine movies. Every second, the sonic ping, accompanied by a very deep hum and washes of high frequency noise pulse through the display like slow lightning. Totally digital in creation and broadcast, the sound is pure and cold as the depths of the deepest ocean. After a few minutes of this digital bombardment I felt strangely religious. As though I was a part of a wondrous ‘sacrament’. The certainty that another deep psychically soothing pulse was on its way as soon as the last one had passed through me produced a delicious feeling of certainty, connection and (oops!) addiction. Could Super Symmetry be the 21st Century’s answer to religious as well as atheist ecstasy? Check future apps. (See the video at the very bottom of this article.)

While waiting to enter the Virtual Reality installation ‘Atlas in Silico’, I spoke to a young MONA exhibition attendant. She was on a two-week school holiday stint at MONA. Although music was her first love, she relished the opportunity to be part of MONA and especially MOFO.  General duties at MONA took up her first week and MOFO duties and event preparation took up the second. She’d done the gig for a few years and was eager to become involved in the Arts in some way as a career. From her, I learnt that most of the audience came to MONA and MOFO from the eastern state capitals of Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane and internationally from USA, U.K. and Europe – particularly from France, Germany and Holland. Tasmanians are entitled to year round free entry but regrettably many do not take up the kind invitation. Festival fees, hospitality, accommodation and flights would make MOFO impossible for most Australians – even Tasmanians, so the audience I saw was not representative of the general Arts community. This was experiential tourism at the elite end – not that there is anything wrong with that. MONA provides ongoing employment in the arts for an army of people across many age groups and cultures. MOFO adds even more people and provides many young artists with a rich experience of how good it can get to work in the arts industry.

David Walsh has begun construction of a casino on the MONA site and this provides much debate as to whether gambling should support the arts. Arguably, it already does – since Walsh’s gambling-derived wealth is the main source of funding for MONA. With the MONA construction reputedly costing around $100 million and ongoings a similar amount per annum, Walsh cannot be expected to continue his extraordinary generosity indefinitely. Having a casino as a vital part of the site will assist him to sustain MONA (and MOFO) as well as provide an intriguing link between the arts, philanthropy, entertainment and gambling.

With future arts funding seen increasingly as the ‘elephant in the room’ by most political parties and tiers of Government and with existing Australian casinos only using industry favoured Australian and international mainstream musicians to accompany the noise of the slot machines, a casino operator with a passionate commitment to the arts may well be the only way the Arts can ‘lotto’ its way out of oblivion.

Walshie’s backyard – what a winner!


WEBLINKS

David Walsh

https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2013/february/1366597433/richard-flanagan/gambler

Gilligan’s Island Lyrics

http://www.lyricsondemand.com/tvthemes/gilligansislandlyrics.html

Carolina Eyck talking about the Theremin (Wonderful. – Ed.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJACNHHuGp0

Ondes Martenot

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2009/oct/12/ondes-martenot

Okkyung Lee

https://www.okkyunglee.info/about

Nadia Ratsimandresy

http://www.nadiaratsimandresy.com/biography/

Supersymmetry – Ryoji Ikeda

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