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Experience of Marfa - Two Views

On June 1 & 2, Catherine Schieve and I, in collaboration with John McCaughey, Joan Pollock, The Astra Choir, the Astra Improvising Choir, and sound engineer Michael Hewes presented a large concert/event at The Meat Market Arts Centre in North Melbourne.  As part of that performance, we presented a large piece, "Experience of Marfa" for 8 channel electronics, choir, improvising choir, sruti boxes, gongs and home-made instruments.  After the performance, I asked Matthew Lorenzon, who was a member of the choir (and who writes reviews for Real Time Magazine) to write about the experience of the piece from inside of it; and Walter Billeter, poet and translator, to write about it from the point of view of the audience member.  Here are their reviews.  Many thanks to both of them for responding so nicely to my requests.  Thanks, guys! Here's their responses, which I hope you'll find interesting.

The Lights of Marfa

Matthew Lorenzon

The remarkable thing about Burt and Schieve’s piece is that while its concept is most manifest in the experience of the performer, achieving a satisfying musical effect for the audience required the choir to adopt a different set of priorities. The piece is based on the experience of watching the night sky for lights, including the glimpses, half-glimpses and willed glimpses invented by the searching mind. To this end Burt and Schieve create an environment of shifting chords in different tunings projected by eight speakers and a choir of thirty-odd improvisers. The choir are the watchers, trying to sustain the tones projected out of four speakers in front of them. The effort required to discern these microtonally-tuned chords and sing them against a different set of chords creates an atmosphere of watchful alertness, at least for the performers.

The effect was initially more of a complex drone than a texture of emerging and fading entities like those in Schieve’s Marfa paintings. We needed to create a more dynamic texture where the audience became the watchers, where they could latch on to a chord and listen to it fade away or transform in the surrounding web of sound. To this end we tried to coalesce with our neighbours, swelling and fading certain chords. Through this shift in priorities from the imitation of the speakers to ensemble singing we no longer became the watchers, but the painters of the sonic texture that, hopefully, convoked the audience as watchful sentinels.

As veterans of Melbourne’s experimental and New Music scenes, half of Astra spent the seventies humming, chanting and otherwise vocalising in formation. The other half has been attending concerts since then and is entirely familiar with duration experiences, improvisation and the extended phonetic range of the vocal organ. It is remarkable, then, that the choir can be so slow to warm up to semi-improvised repertoire. Stuck between the composers and the audience, however, it seemed that the piece confused its process with its effect, as though if the piece were made with rapt attention, then the audience would repay the composer-performers in kind.

 Walter Billeter: The View from Outside

All in all, I think this was a great concert, a genuinely soul-feeding experience.

Space, the creation of space, seems to be an instrumental part in both pieces. In Warren's Elegy it takes on entropic character. Beginning with a chord high in the middle of the choir, there is a suggestion of a dome; more appear to the sides of the initial chord, here, there... some fading images of the first, others associations. The pattern spreads further and further, the dome flattening all the while. Although there are more of these chords, the space they occupy feels forever sparser, ending  in the flat expanse of an immense horizon. There's an emptiness pervading all of this, a sense of loss.

 It is against this horizon the sound of Catherine's Experience of Marfa environment is built. Given by the introductory description of the origin of the piece, a sense of expectation is there from the beginning. There's no sparseness here, rather the space is constructed by a fabric of rich sounds, drones and rhythmic patterns of incredible intensity spreading out into the distance and to the sides. The horizontal expanse of the space gradually pushes upwards to create a vault filled with sound. Even without taking account of the whole installation the listening experience of this piece was overwhelming.


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