St Andrews on The Terrace, Wellington | February 26
Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, Pakuranga | March 2
This improvised music concert offered the audience, including my own innocent ears, a taste of Berlin-based experimental pianist Magda Mayas together with prolific Australian drummer and percussionist Tony Buck, with whom Mayas enjoys an ongoing collaboration. Fresh from Sydney’s NOW now Festival of Spontaneous Music, the pair played to a small but receptive audience at St Andrew’s on The Terrace. The venue provided a surprisingly appropriate space for experimental music, free from the social connotations and background noise of a bar. Despite the religious images and associations, I found the church to provide a relatively blank canvas from which to receive these unusual and expressive sounds.
Wellingtonian musician and sound engineer Daniel Beban opened the show with an improvised solo guitar performance, in which he interacted with his instrument as if he were a loving and skillful carpenter. His music draws upon a tradition developed by English guitarist Derek Bailey, whose focus on sound, rather than style, defined the free improvisation movement of the 1960s. Beban demonstrates a highly unconventional approach to guitar playing in which a large spectrum of technical possibilities are made available. These include spontaneous re-tuning, creating amplified sound-washes by rubbing a drumstick over the strings and treating the instrument as a piece of percussion. He does, however, regularly interact with traditional playing techniques and sounds, such as strumming chords and occasionally drawing out discernable rhythms and grooves. His performance was full of grace and expression, along with a certain matter-of-factness; I could be forgiven for thinking this was the way guitars are normally played, if I had not experienced a lifetime of traditional guitaring. He consistently worked with, rather than against, the expressive possibilities inherent in the instrument, drawing from an emotionally mature palette of textures. The re-tunings, de-tunings, whoops, squeaks, pops, and echoes suggested a music in sync with the real-time fluctuations of the mood of the performer; a visceral, intuition-based approach that is adventurous but never arcane. In one strangely erotic move, Beban rubbed the sound hole of his guitar in a generous circular motion, akin to giving the instrument a tummy rub. Eventually, he made the instrument accompany itself, by playing thin, articulate twangs at the top of the fret board whilst simultaneously emitting deep washes of sound in the lower registers. As Beban is a multi-instrumentalist, I was left pondering on his apt choice of instrument, one ripe for liberation given the large history of conventional and normative playing associated with it.
Tony Buck is a member of the successful Australian experimental jazz trio The Necks, formed in the 1980s. He is also a member of various other small ensembles of international acclaim, and has collaborated with experimental artists including the Austrian musician Christian Fennesz, who creates drastically beautiful, multi-textured glitch works using notebook computers and guitars. The album Gold (2008, Creative Sources) represents one collaborative effort between Buck and Magda Mayas. Mayas is a groundbreaking and internationally acclaimed developer of “inside piano performance”, a term which refers to playing the strings inside the instrument.
It was Buck who took centre stage with his drum kit and a range of other percussion including miniature hand-held gongs, cymbals and a rattle. Mallets both hard and soft were interchanged as the direction of the music saw fit, and Buck’s drums were often played on their rims and sides rather than on the skin. Mayas contributed with an open grand piano, working with the strings as well as on the keys. Buck was more visually arresting, owing only to his position centre stage and the ability for the audience to witness his performance. Mayas appeared intriguingly secretive as she worked away at the inside of her piano with what could have been a range of mallets and other objects, as well as her fingers. Spare at first, the abstract soundscapes gradually filled into empty spaces to create a musical structure of increasing complexity, recalling the building and dismantling of an intricate architecture. Memorable moments included Buck’s use of eastern-sounding hand-held bronze cymbals, while Mayas explored the hollow, percussive quality of the highest keys on the piano; a serenely beautiful section of music that recalled a similar dialogue between pianist and percussionist in the third movement of Wellington-based composer John Psathas’s highly acclaimed View from Olympus: Double Concerto for percussion, piano and orchestra (2002). Listening to unplanned sounds generated completely out of the present moment provided an occasionally unsettling aural experience, and increasingly, storms of dark resonances and unexpectedly explosive percussive clatters summoned thoughts of the architectural devastation resulting from Christchurch’s recent earthquake. Daniel Beban’s performance provided a worthy microcosm of Mayas and Buck’s, lending a sense of continuity to an open-minded show of consistently impressive musical sensitivity.