There is a nondescript “flatiron” building at the bottom of Riley Street, Woolloomooloo next to the PCYC. It is an uninviting building which until recently didn’t even carry signage to alert passers by to its purpose. Since 2014 it has been the home of First Draft an artist run creative space with a thirty-year history around Sydney.
Last night your correspondent wandered down for a glass of wine, a free sausage and some performance art. It was a fascinating evening. The prompt was an email indicating one Geoffrey Gartner would be performing Dick Higgins’ Danger Music. Gartner I knew from his work playing contemporary cello. But, at the risk of eliciting contemptuous eye rolling from students of the contemporary, it must be admitted Dick Higgins was not known. Nor the other names and words your correspondent learned last night: Fluxus, George Maciunus, “intermedia”. John Cage? Of course! Everybody has heard of John Cage, but the “Fluxists”, students of Cage formed their own movement which questioned the meaning of music. A glimpse of their approach was delivered in five separate elements plus two displays put on by Liquid Architecture, an organisation for artists working with sound.
The night’s first element was a performance of Dick Higgins’ Lecture Number 4. In this Gartner presented his prepared text, miming and delivering the emotional content through expressive movement, facial expression and timing. Thus, unless the audience member could read lips, the experience was one of a very pure interaction between presenter and individual audience member, each of whom clearly responded in very different ways depending on their own interpretation. At one level it was like being profoundly deaf: with intellectual and didactic content removed, the experience was unsettling. Was it mime without a storyline, or something more sinister? At another level it made your correspondent think of the work of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions which suggests an interesting link between musical performance and oratory. A musician is as much an orator as a barrister or politician, having to sway the audience as much by communicating appropriate emotional content as with inspiring words and music. As referenced in an earlier blog Renaissance orators were taught a special language of the body (stance, hands, feet) along with the tonal qualities and facial expressions necessary to deliver great emotional impact. Here, however, the words and music were absent, demanding even greater skills of the orator. Geoffrey Gartner’s performance was exquisitely crafted. There was not a sound except for occasional laughter (humour was probably not intended). But the audience was entranced. Was there some influence here from John Cage? Perhaps. Higgins was a member of Cage’s experimental composition class in 1969.
It is instructive to read some of the unheard words to get some context for the evening. Gartner had written “Danger Music focuses on words; it focuses on the voice… The good voice. The bad voice. Your voice. My voice, issuing from me as it speaks to me, doubling back to be heard by me – both me and always beyond me. When we lose the voice and set it upon words, we make a space for listening, between the deed and the attention: a place that’s dangerous, where sound might smuggle itself in.”
The second element was delivered by Tasmanian sound artist Andrew Harper. Standing in a circle of found objects (portable radios, speakers and the like linked by amplifier) Harper developed a sound aura, starting with his own non verbal sounds then adding, element by element, additional pieces, religious texts recorded on the radios, which slowly built in intensity to a Tower of Babel like conclusion. The raucous whole was the antithesis of the preceding work, while still addressing the context of the voice as music in a different frame.
Element three brought Geoffrey Gartner back, still in white tie and tails, to search, again silently, for something hidden. Eventually a colourful guitar was found in the rafters. Placed on a plinth, various hammers were selected to “play” the guitar. This was not a violent deconstruction: only strings were stroked by hammer claws and then broken. The stroking sounds were soft and belied the violent nature of hammers, while breaking strings brought occasional intensity. Eventually an exploration inside the guitar produced a notice, a work title, tying the wordless process to the written word.
During intermission audience members were invited to participate in the execution of two works. One, a bowl of cheese squares and a pile of fresh eggs enable participants to don plastic gloves and experience the sound and feel of smashing eggs on the table. While acknowledging there may be music and emotion in this sort of madman’s kitchen, your correspondent was left bemused. The second work, Danger Music Number 12, however, presented a clearer opportunity to create with large score sheets and felt pens available to produce silent text scores in the manner of each “composer” individually.
The penultimate element was a monologue about smoke. Standing in a smoky room with a small smoke generator emitting puffs at the whim of the speaker, it seemed as if the intent was to unsettle, perhaps even to invoke fear. It worked less well than the other elements and the link to Fluxus was difficult to identify.
Finally Gartner, in a performance of great intensity, descended a flight of stairs, filling a narrow stairwell with wordless noise. Was it the howling of a madman? The descent of the demented into hell? Or simply another soundscape? Music to a devil’s ears perhaps, but whatever the audience took from the performance it was clearly unsettling and reactions were very individual: amazement, embarrassed laughter, compassion, fear. Indeed that stairwell was, for a few moments “a place that’s dangerous.”
Your correspondent exited into the cold night air determined to learn more of these Fluxists and their non-music.