Open Frame: some thoughts

Last night I trekked over to Carriageworks to catch Open Frame, part of ambient/experimental label Room40’s 15th birthday celebrations. Earlier in the day I’d been replaying a little Half-Life 2 and walking from the car park to the venue I was reminded exactly how much the place looks like Ravenholm. You know, where we don’t go any more, largely because of terrifying headcrabs.

Headcrabs or socialites? Which is worse?

Carriageworks or Ravenholm? I wonder.

Anyway, I had to dodge a number of blinged-up people heading to a Crown do two bays over – I’m not certain there’s been that many spike heels there in a while – but finally found myself in a large room full of like-minded (and statistically speaking, most likely bearded) sound enthusiasts. A screen was set up in the front of the room, and a variety of chairs and benches were already pretty filled, so it was a great turnout. I found a seat, clutching the one-eye-coloured glasses I’d been given at the door. A bunch of speakers stood around the room – I later discovered this was an eight-channel setup.

Room40‘s Lawrence English opened with a brief chat about the evening, his hat rendering him distinctly much more vengeful preacher than his recorded work would have you believe. The first two pieces would be conducted one immediately following the other, with the first occurring in absolute darkness.

The first piece was a world premiere. Jim O’Rourke, sick of being asked to tour Australia – he’s lived in Japan for some years now, and is loath to leave – sent a new work, Diffusion, for English to wrangle. Aside from English and O’Rourke, nobody else had heard the piece, which paid tribute to the latter’s interest in musique concrète. O’Rourke provided the piece, while English manned the controls.

I like musique concrète but often find it difficult to describe. This piece featured a bunch of elements which could be considered common to the genre: a feeling of location, shifts in volume (which given the speaker oomph was sizeable this evening), as well as the feeling of uncertainty, both in terms of form and experience.

The title of the work made me think of sunlight, and of water. Both those elements came across, through the squelches and volume spikes. I felt the summer of Japan – cicadas and dripping water – assert itself very keenly, before things took a more cosmic turn, before returning to earth with what sounded like blown-out water drips. I can’t trace an arc through the work too well, but it felt as if we began at maximum focus on a sort of musical Google Earth before zooming all the way out, only to end up exactly where we began.

(Without hearing the original piece, it’s difficult for me to say how much of what we heard was due to the presentation, and how much was the unadorned source. I’d certainly like to A/B both versions someday – here’s hoping O’Rourke releases it sometime… maybe on Room40?)

A mid-room digital projector started running and filmmaker Makino Takashi began his performance. Called Space Noise 2015, the piece comprised the digital projection (with analogue film loops overlaid, combining to form a 3D image when viewed through the filter of the glasses offered at the door) and an ambient noise track.

I couldn’t tell how much of what was happening was chance, or how much was pre-prepared. But the sound was exactly the sort of thing I liked – whooshing, emphatic sounds, occasionally intercut with what sounded like deep organ chords. The beginning sounded like subway trains, perhaps recorded in Tokyo. A feeling of mechanical confinement began the piece, but this gave way to more natural impressions – waves, snow, wind – before moving towards the infinite, the celestial.

The images on screen seemed to change as the track continued, moving from Pollock-styled randomness to cresting waves, to swirling snow to a wall of ejaculate. The imagery married with the sound, but also seemed influenced by it, with a distinct feeling of life communicated through the three-dimensional dots which danced around the space.

(Well, the space I could see around the head of the tallest man in the world, who had chosen to sit in front of me, that is.)

Makino Takashi’s piece was a real journey. I felt transported in a narrative sense, though I also felt as if I hadn’t moved, that the journey was meditative and internal. It left me deeply impressed, and wanting to experience it again. It was like a sort of less chthonic Lustmord, and though both that artist and this one aim for space, Space Noise 2015 conveyed interstellar compassion, rather than the death of life on a cold star.

After the interval, Chris Abrahams and Louise Curham performed. Abrahams played his rigorously energetic – though ambient – piano while Curham kept busy working four projectors. The projectors beamed textural loops onto Carriageworks’ walls, sometimes identifiable, sometimes looking like leader film, or offcuts. I didn’t really get a sense of narrative, which I guess is the point of texture, and I couldn’t really pick a link between what was showing (and occasionally sticking) and what Abrahams was playing.

It sounded as if there was occasional tweaking of the piano’s reverb, though it could also be an aspect of Abrahams’ style – through differences in what each hand plays, a feeling of phasing is heard, and though it’s incredibly busy, there’s a feeling of tremolo, of fewer notes. It was certainly another example of the pianist’s idiosyncratic style – but I couldn’t get into it this evening. The projections didn’t seem to mesh with the audio, and I felt the piece circled for a little too long, draining rather than delighting.

William Basinski performs.

William Basinski performs.

William Basinski had the best speech of the evening. After an admiring English introduction (I would say exactly the same laudatory statements, because Basinski is a stone-cold fucking genius) the sound artist talked about how great Carriageworks was, how it was going to take some time for him to get his loops-and-laptop setup to where he needed it, how this gig was one where he could do what he really wanted to do (as opposed to an Opera House slot opening for Antony and the Johnsons), how difficult it was to follow the preceding acts, that we should probably prepare to go to sleep during his piece, before concluding with “Love ya! Buh-bye!”. Completely endearing, as if most people in the room weren’t already ardent fans.

Behind him, a glittering body of water was projected, the dancing reflections of night light an excellent accompaniment to the minimal, feeding-back loops of the music. The piece Basinski played was called The Deluge, which is essentially a live version of recent release Cascade, though the variations are down to the performer’s feelings on the evening.

The problem for me in seeing Basinski do his thing is that the albums are already favourites. I was thrilled to be able to see him perform, but the music is such aural cinema (and his physical movement is not enormous – it’s considered and economical, though it is understood that this is not a genre where you’re going to see Who-style windmills over the tape players) that once I got over the initial feeling that OH MY GOD THIS IS HAPPENING IN FRONT OF ME AND IT SOUNDS LIKE IT DOES ON THE ALBUM I found my enjoyment was curtailed a little by having to share it with a bunch of punters.

Don’t get me wrong – it was great to hear this stuff played live. The technical act of making this all come together, the role chance plays in it, the skill required to create this sound-world – all of those are enviable executions. For me, I just felt that surrendering some of the hermetic privacy of the enjoyment of the pieces at home detracted from my overall enjoyment. I completely accept this is down to the listener, not the performer, however.

I left Carriageworks deeply happy I’d come. There were some misfires on the bill, but I had been able to see a living legend of the sound art genre, and had discovered a new favourite, all while celebrating the persistence of a local label chock-full of audio gems.

That’s a pretty good night.

(This post was written as part of my daily 750words practice, and is probably less structured than a review review.)

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