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Experimental music festival hits new heights

In January 2023, the 14th annual SoundOut festival of Improvisational and Experimental Music was held at the Drill Hall Gallery. This review of the opening night by Rob Kennedy was originally published on CBR CityNews.

KICKING off the musical year, SoundOut is back for 2023 and this time it looks like it’s the biggest festival of experimental and improvised music ever.

First up were Noisefloor, consisting of Jamie Gifford, bandoneon, Jamie Lambert, guitar, Rhys Butler, alto sax, Festival Director Richard Johnson, sax, Rory Villegas, trumpet and Tom Fell, saxophones.

A bowed electric guitar can make the spookiest sound. Along with the saxes, trumpet and bandoneon, the eclectic, atmospheric combination of natural and supernatural sounds were created by manipulating their instruments with a wide variety of techniques and individual methods.

Just like jazz players, the performers know when to come in and take the lead and when to drop out, letting another fill the space. Instinctively, they know when to speed up, slow down, and when to crescendo and fall away. 

This music was composed in the mind, through the ear of what is happening around the sonic caldron they created in the Drill Hall Gallery. A fine opening set.

The duo Whistle Biter, consisting of Dave Brown, electric guitar and Hermione Johnson, prepared piano. Brown’s four-string wide-body guitar made a gorgeous sound. Johnson’s prepared piano and its almost toy piano-like ambience created a haunting ethereal combination of sounds that would have been at home in a horror movie; most effective. 

But when the pair flew into action with pounding clusters on the piano and the guitars screeching over the top, the experience was overwhelming. The volume of sound earth-shattering. 

Khabat Abas from Iraq on cello, Jon Rose, violin, Mark Cauvin, double bass, and Nikki Heywood, a voice, text, performance artist got together on stage to produce a jumping, bouncy, free performance work where each offered an individual statement that blended well.

They broke this set into four parts where one player led and others responded, creating highly original content. Abas had the last part, and her deep growling cello led a fascinating work with flourishes of high violin from Rose, which pleased immensely. All works were held together by Heywood and her amazing ability to combine spoken word, singing and whispers in one phrase. 

Peter Knight, on trumpet, revox and electronics, gave a solo performance that almost defied description. Beginning by sitting among the audience and playing an almost inaudible sound on his trumpet, so high even above harmonics, an odd, almost silent whistle came out before he produced multi-phonic notes combined with alternate breath articulations.

Then on to his electronics as he played the trumpet, which he looped through his setup multiple times on different notes, making an ambient wall of sound.

Gemma Horbury: trumpet. Photo: Peter Hislop.

Carmen Chan Schoenborn, vibraphone, piano, Gemma Horbury, trumpet, Joe Talia, drums, Samuel Pankhurst on double bass followed. The sound of a plastic bag being crinkled opened this set. This was part performance piece, with Horbury placing flowers into the bell of her trumpet and later destroying the flowers, plus speaking about what seemed to be the effects of Australia Day on Aboriginal people.

It was surreal, by far the most experimental work. It crossed a wide combination of tone colours, dynamics and rhythms as free improvisation took over. This was something to see and hear.

The night ended with Clinton Green, electronics, Dale Gorfinkel, invented instruments, Brian McNamara, invented electronic instruments, and Peter Farrar electronics and objects.

This excellent cross-section of artists and music proved that free improvisation, experimental music and free jazz are going strong in Australia and around the world.

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.