The NOW Now right now – Day four. (festival review)

Unfortunately for me, day four is my last day at the NOW Now Festival. I have to put out a huge round of thanks to the organizers,  Andrew Brooks, Jeremy Tatar, Laura Altman, Rishin Singh and Sam Pettigrew for a truly amazing festival. Fortunately the events I went to were all well attended so I am hoping they made a little cash to lace their coffers for the year. I know this sort of thing is an enormous amount of work, so from this corner of the listening world, I want to thank the NOW Now committee for all their hard work.


I was able to attend the Saturday night show as my final one.  I got to all six sets however, and had a wonderful time sitting in my little corner doing my best to be a dedicated listener.

Set one was the amazing Jon Hunter, seen above playing a guitar far more conventionally than when I was able to see him perform. Initially he scared us all by re-arranging the furniture so that he was located in the center of the room and we sat around him. Somehow we managed to overcome our fears and relax and enjoy the performance anyway.  Jon held two guitars facing each other and tapping the back of the necks of each, allowed the sounds to bounce off each other and work their way through the electronics. At times he would allow the guitars to touch, sometimes rubbing them against each other, sometimes playing one with the neck and strings of the other. The sound was amazing.  Beautifully resonant and echoey; stunningly alive. There was none of the harshness or feedback clutter one would expect.  The sound was loud but lilting and easy to hear. In a way the guitars sounded like tolling bells at times. What I found particularly interesting about this performance is often in experimental music, melody is rejected in favor of a freer feeling toward sound and improvisation, however with Hunter’s dancing guitars the melody took over so that nothing else existed.  With the strings sliding against each other, sounds like a violin filled the room at times, accompanied by a beautiful resonance that echoed over and over. The melody is repeatedly embraced and distorted without losing its character. The sound never descended into identifiable “song” territory, but it seemed Hunter would allow the melody to emerge, as if it were there, lurking in the strings all along, and all he had to do was get the musician out-of-the-way. It seemed at times the guitars were singing to each other, or speaking in their own lilting language. A wonderful set.


Set two saw a group called Whirlpool get together.  This is a quartet consisting of: Kraig Grady (marimba and bass meru bars) *Wollongong* Finn Ryan (marimba) Chris Abrahams (harmonium) and Jim Denley (winds). With a pedigree like this, I knew I was in for something special.  I”m not a jazz reviewer, so I can’t begin to comment on the complexity of what I heard from these amazing performers.  I’ve seen Chris Abrahams with The Necks, and I’ve seen Jim Denley perform before, but I had never had the pleasure of hearing Finn Ryan (apparently quite a regular on the jazz circuit around Sydney so I will have to add that into my regular rotation) and the amazing Kraig Grady was new to me also.


Abraham’s beautiful harmonium anchored and held the sound, as the two marimba’s flirted and flitted in a frenzied passion, falling occasionally into melody, working to offset each other including differences.  Denley’s sax – always a beautiful sound, breathed in and out of listening consciousness, sometimes muted against his knee and other times lurching and reaching into the musical space. The harmonium often sat in discordant partnership (what a beautiful sound it produces for experimental music) with the sax while the center stage battle was always waged between the two marimbas. Eventually the sound whispered back leaving us with the humming chords of the harmonium and then a stunned silence.


Following that extraordinary set was Ben Byrne  (data tapes) and Sam Pettigrew (bass & laptop) with a stunning little set that worked out to be something very different from what had previously set the tone for the evening. I’ve heard Ben Byrne before, and I have a strong fondness for the datasettes sound. It’s a stunning squiggle of a noise filled with squeaks and whistles that always sound like a mad scramble to wreck the tape they’re printed on. Sam had a double bass laid on the ground with his electronics set up at the top, connecting and not connecting through various sounds. Both these musicians I have listened to and reviewed, so it was a matter of sitting back and enjoying what I knew I would be right up my alley. Ben’s dattasettes came through first with their Mr Squiggle of a sound, while the bass would boom in at various moments, providing a sensual and deep counterpoint to the frenzied data tapes. This music was richly amplified, filling every corner of the room.  Against the rumbling potency of the bass, the data tapes sounded strangely melodic and beautiful, as they rushed and rumbled around my insides. The music was relentless, raising the hearts pulse and captivating everyone who could hear it. Soon Sam took to plucking the bass, placing his hand regularly against the strings to allow for the immediacy of the sound and a removal of resonance.  This matched the data tapes perfectly the squirmed against the sound of the bass, like an industrial voice singing to a single note of a tune. We had planes overhead at one point in the performance, welcome sounds that added to the relentless heart thumps of the bass and the writing kiss of the datasettes. Several moments of silence were broken with Sam’s adding of discordant 80’s musak. It felt like an enormous nothing, searching for an electronic everything. The bass sounded liquid as thought it were pouring and spilling into the space made clear and clean by the data tapes. This sound – the two working against each other and with each other at the same time, plus the additions of Sam’s electronics would wind around each other rising and rising into the other listening space where the sound takes over the body and immersion is possoible.  Close to this nirvana point, Sam brought in his jingle sound to snatch heaven away from us, and leave us fading and falling into the reality of the room. A set that ends with a closing respect paid to silence.

Set four was the gorgeously sublime Crys Cole.  I’ve added a you tube link in above of Crys playing with the great Keith Rowe and Oren Ambarchi to give you an idea of the stunning sounds set up on her electronics board.  This was a delicate, breathtaking sound, a combination of her voice and long finger scratches over her amplified surfaces. This was a performance designed to engage deep listening and have the listener use their ears to locate themselves and their body within the space of the room. That is, the listening requires an openness that allows for every sound around, particularly the sound of one’s own breathing and the sound of ones own listening. Her fingertips would produce a delicate crackle and soft whoosh of a sound that had to be listened for, which lead to feeling the sound within. The sound, when listened to deeply, gave the sense of complete openness, as if one were free from a coffin or escaping from a closed off environment.  The harder I found myself engaging with the light delicate sounds that had to be tasted, seen, felt as well as heard, the more I found myself opening up to a broader sound scape, something larger than I had before I listened. The breathless anticipating falls away, as Cole invokes the silence and all its noise, inviting the listener to participate in brief moment of fingertip touch with the alternative. Alternative to what?  Well, whatever you brought in with you.


Set five was completely different again. Clayton Thomas in the bass guitar, Steve Heather on the drums, Cor Fuhler with a guitar in his hand this time and (the amazing)  Michael Sheridan on guitar also.  What a line-up! These guys just leap in with Heathers “junk yard trash” drums crashing in on the polite space set up by Crys Cole. This jazz set was garage, punk and thrash infused, creating a unique and thrilling blend of adrenalin rush and what looked like a hell-of-a-lot of red bull. All the musicians faced Hunter as if he were the epicenter – which he was, but Fuhler and Sheridan kept their own strengths in their corners with Sheridan using alternatives to plucks and fingers such as (what looked like) piano wire and his own set of drumsticks to thrash out a different kind of sound on his sturdy guitar and Fuhler beating against his instrument with his hands. The end result was a unreleting mish-mash of jazz improv, Clayton Thomas up the back holding on to the decorum of keeping everyone in check with his relentless, perfectly timed beats. For some reason I wrote “beatnik” several times in my frantic notes as I listened – so lord knows where that energy came from. This was a stunning set, an exciting contrast to the merimba / harmonium / sax quartet we’d heard only an hour or so before.


The final set of the night was a large band of laptop wielding electronic sound wizards called Electronic Resonance Korps. The names of the participants were read but a little too fast and I was unable to get all the names. This was a fantastic way to close off the evening and the festival for me. A wonderful fullerton-whitman-esque dedication to electronic sound that moved around the room as each musician was placed in different spots around and behind us listeners. These were the familiar sounds to me of the pops and whistles and joys of electronic sound, each computer contributing to an overall score, the music moving dramatically around the room. I would have preferred to be sitting closer to the middle of the room, and i daresay some of the movement was lost on me, but the sound was still beautiful and one of my very favorite types of noise.

And so ended the festival for me. AS I said in the opening paragraph, I want to thank the organisers, the musicians, the red rattler and all the people involved that made this such a wonderful listening experience.

Oh – and my apologies for the poor quality of the photographs – but that’s me.