Music, New Music
ReR MEGACORP ReR JR11. Box set (3 audio CDs, a data disc and a booklet)
Reviewed by Michael Hannan, April 25th, 2014
Jon Rose’s approach to music making can be simply characterised as in-your-face. His manic style of violin improvisation and his collage approach to musical texture often make his music confrontational. Despite the shock element there is also a strong conservative philosophy underlying much of Rose’s work. Most of the tracks on Disc 1 in this collection, for example, were the outcome of a project to document elements of Australian DIY music-making traditions. Essentially Rose’s concept was to make field recordings of forgotten or obscure musicians and to write music around these recordings. Here we have a disparate collection of collected sonic objects including a rehearsal of the Broken Hill Barrier Industrial Union Band, a virtuosic stockwhip performer, a department store pianist, a man who can hum and whistle simultaneously in counterpoint, the Ntaria Aboriginal Ladies Choir, an auctioneer, a gumleaf duo, a chainsaw ensemble and a ‘singing’ dingo called Dinky.
Rose’s accompanying textures demonstrate a large range of styles from circus music to musical modernism. Some of the overlays work better than others. The old-fashioned swing band sound works nicely with the department store pianism, the string orchestra dissonances jar with the Aboriginal singing, Dinky is made to sound like he is trading licks with the violin and piano, the orchestra grooves well with the auctioneer, but it unrealistically and unfairly overpowers the chainsaws. These aren’t the only saws involved here. Rose’s orchestra forms a bowed saw quartet which sounds in some places like the gentle humming of bees and in other places it hurt my ears, even at low volume. This was hard to fathom because the recording is not technically distorted.
Still on Disc 1, we come to a work called Internal Combustion, essentially a concerto for improvising violinist and fully-notated orchestra. It’s a unique idea and is the first of the pieces in the package that has a wall-of-sound edge to it, mostly modernist in orchestral technique with contrasting wild fiddle impro.
Internal Combustion is in marked contrast to the next piece, Syd and George, a radiophonic work in which former National Park administrator Syd Curtis describes his 20-year relationship with an Albert’s Lyrebird he has named George. Syd talks lovingly about all George’s behaviours, focusing on his singing and displays. The astounding variety of the bird’s calls are interspersed with Syd’s narrative and with soundtrack cues, composed and played for string quartet by Rose. The string music is sometimes commenting on the birdcalls and sometimes on Syd’s verbal inflections. Like the lyrebird’s extensive repertoire of expert mimicry of other birds, loud alarm whistles, thin squeaks, sharp trills, low growls, rasping and churring noises and Dinky-like howling, Rose has assembled a compendium of string sounds and textures, expertly played, recorded and synchronised. The droll humour of Syd’s drawl is reflected in the quirky string ensemble composition.
Disc 2 opens with Charlie’s Whiskers, musical palindromes for small string orchestra, piano, electronics, and saw, written in honour of Charles Ives. Again the approach is modernist, and the work engages the listener to try to recognise the palindromes.
We then move back into sonic collage territory with Talking Back to Media, for media grabs, 10 improvising musicians, poet and sound artist. Critiquing talk-back radio, these excerpts from a longer work remind one of Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (for 12 radios), Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète pieces and Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy album. Some of the text is hard to hear, making it difficult to assess the effectiveness of the text-music interactions.
By contrast, Digger Music involves the electronic ‘sonification’ of the physical motion of a Kobelco front-end hoe excavator, combined with the sounds of the machine itself and a ‘violin obligato’ by Rose. This aural concoction would in my view be a more rewarding listening experience without the violin, which distracts from the Kobelco sounds and sonifications.
As a ‘bonus track’ on Disc 2 (as if we need any bonuses at this point of our journey), Rose does a slow free-rhythm improvisation on ‘The Bird’, a tenor violin made by Sydney-based luthier, Harry Vatiliotis. This focuses on the notes and harmonics of G, A flat and A, and on the intervallic relationships between them. The performance explores the timbral variety available from various technique of playing single notes and open chord double stops. I must say I prefer this reflective side of Rose’s fiddle improvisation practice to his usual maximal approach.
Disc 3 begins with Sphere, another effective sound collage piece with live and electronic sources. The recording contains some excellent performances by The Song Company and Hollis Taylor (violin).
Garage Fence is a work for bowed portable (and transportable) fence, commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. For this recording there are some very unique sounds and textures made by Jon Rose and Hollis Taylor, the world experts of this unique performance practice. Incidentally, Kronos leader, David Harrington, gives a moving testimonial about Jon Rose’s place in the violin cosmos on page 26 of the booklet.
Several tracks focus on Rose’s interest in high tech. Hyper explores the use of the MIDI controller bow where ‘improvised rogue counterpoint in two, three and four parts in real time’ is possible for a bowed stringed instrument player. Palimp4 involves clever electronic effects processing of the combination of rapid vocal iterations of a champion auctioneer with both active and static violin textures.
Disc 4 (a data disc, which can be played by QuickTime player), contains a variety of short movies, some more engaging than others. My picks are the sequence of ingenious pursuit bicycle instruments invented by Rose, and Rose’s astounding performance using two double-bass bows on the Strzelecki Track fence.
Within the space of a thousand words it is hard to do justice to a large body of work like this. This box set package is essential listening and viewing for anyone interested in experimental approaches to music making, and an excellent introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the genre.