The Goethe Institut in Colombo was the venue for the first phase of the three-day “Music Matters Festival 2016”. The “concert” or more particularly, presentation, was in the modest space of the Goethe Hall, and happened to draw an equally modest number of aficionados. The term, ‘experimental’ has been employed in offering a categorical definition [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Stirring the same pot?


The Goethe Institut in Colombo was the venue for the first phase of the three-day “Music Matters Festival 2016”. The “concert” or more particularly, presentation, was in the modest space of the Goethe Hall, and happened to draw an equally modest number of aficionados.

The term, ‘experimental’ has been employed in offering a categorical definition for its rationale. The featured players were from Germany, New Zealand and Sri Lanka. All, with their arsenal of instruments, wares and electronics, pushed the ‘envelope’ in creating, shaping and sculpting an ambient experience, more as ‘sound artistes’ than players travelling the path of musical composition, though, the ‘creation’ was of a spontaneous process derived from the spirit of improvisation. The moment and the space, influenced the soundscape’s confluence and direction.

Bassist Sebastian Gramss extracted manifold responses, vibrations, protestations, and sensations on his instrument using arco and also pizzicato, and stopping the strings in innovative ways, including his chin in generating harmonics and pulses. At times using two bows in eliciting extraordinary sounds, quite at variance with the traditional broad and sonorous tonality and nuance associated with the bass-viol.

Also from Berlin was Miako Klein who played two woodwind instruments, recorders which are not familiar to most, in fact, I have not personally been acquainted with the contra-bass recorder. But she began with a baritone recorder. Her performance was in conjunction with the electromagnetic pulse and tone generation by the avowedly “only Lankan sound artiste” Isuru Kumarasinghe. The recorders were necessarily amplified using a microphone. Isuru was at his laptop and effects console connected to an amp. Miako also creates an ambient music or a series of controlled tones employing un-customary techniques both in breathing, exhalation and execution imposed on the finger-holes. At first, waves of ‘electronic noise’ established the soundscape for the meandering subtle tones of the recorder. Progressively, the intensity of the waves turned to pulses and subtle distortions, which yielded contrasting dissonance with the long tones (notes) from the recorder, at times ethereal, even as Miako displayed her mastery of circular breathing.

Her second venture was with the unusually configured woodwind, the contra-bass recorder. The tone elicited from that recorder is almost subterranean and near inaudible. Her execution in the improv-space was similar in approach as her first departure. Isuru at his console responded, as well as creatively intervening upon the sublime ‘rumble’ emanating from her woodwind.

Misha Marks, a New Zealander resident in Mexico sculpted a different set of sound verities, generated from an amplified prepared-guitar (Spanish), yards of slim PVC ribbons and violin bow (or was it a bass-viol bow?), clockwork drummer-boy toys wound and released on cue, and also a tenor horn (not exactly a euphonium) on which he used both the usual cup mouthpiece as well as attaching a saxophone reed mouthpiece. Some unusual tonal effects were derived from wood stops and also eight inch nail-wire pieces fitted under the strings. Water poured in a tiny receptacle fixed atop the drummer-boy toys was used to alter the notes emanating from the clockwork thing banging on the metal receptacle…..the visual sense was that of observing an alchemist at his craft. Pulse, rhythm nor tune was conspicuously present through the exercise, but a multilayering of sounds and subsets of sound impulses was the resultant. The tenor horn was not used for anymore than generating a flatulent insistence in the background, while the prepared-guitar remained the focal tone-point. [It was evident Mr. Marks is not a virtuoso horn player]. The audience was invited to ‘feel’ the experience and not necessarily be entertained by the ‘song’.

There was a further ‘excursion in sound’ with Isuru teaming with another manipulator of the electronics, delays, distortions, pulses, feedback and a host of other effects. But this time, their computers were also linked to two “log” electric guitars, which they stroked, strummed, hit, plucked and handled in different ways. The quiet entry with drones and hums along with random chords on the guitars, in time yielding high decibels shrieks and intensities along with computer generated cyclic thuds and moans, which all filled the room and the ears of the few that remained in the room. In time, either from exhaustion or boredom, the performance faded away in a sort of coda. One had the idea that they played at the same time but ‘separately’; there was no clear evidence that they had a common direction in their flow, nor patterned playing (which anyway is anathema in Improv).

A factor, which I could not help but confront, was the possible sterility in a tendency that persists, where they continue to experiment within a milieu that is hardly novel. One would expect that by now the sturm und drang would have coerced the genre to another level, one that is not a remnant pegged to the significant movements of the 20th century. In reality, Colombo has been exposed to these same elements quite a while ago, while I’d grant that the present manifestation includes far more of the non-acoustic devices and assistance from electromagnetic manipulations than would have been heard when Alaine Kremski (piano & Tibetan gongs and bowls), Holger Mantey (piano) and Rohan de Saram(cello) with Rajesh Mehta(hybrid trumpet with mutes, and other tubes, rattles and pipes) introduced and shared their take on this genre of Improv, a decade ago.

It was likely more than a decade ago that Duo Hussong/Svoboda brought their “Anarchic Harmonies” to Colombo, and delivered their workings of the ‘platforms’ for public performance from John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, which were adapted to their chosen vehicles, trombone and piano accordion.

Therein is my surprise, that a seeming stultifying is prevalent without a momentum toward the achievement of surprise and advancement beyond ‘experiment’. It seems a very long while has elapsed since the seminal ‘insurrections’ affected by Hindemith, Webern and Berg, in turn, yielding a whole range of change from the likes of Edgard Varese , Xenakis and several others. Peter Brotzman, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton and the late Eric Dolphy brought to bear their manipulations of sound, keys, scales, chords, rhythm, melody, tone and altered approaches to instrumental attack, fifty years ago! All of this begs the question ‘why do aspiring musicians still stir the old experimental pot looking for the plot that would aspire to deliver the sensations to the next phase of accomplishment?’ Also ‘why would Lanka’s men and women feel impelled to delve back in the same groove the European luminaries crafted, while an indigenous lode lurks beneath our very feet?’

- Arun Dias Bandaranaike

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