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Experimental music festival’s quiet, but sensational finale

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

Arts editor HELEN MUSA reports from the final sets of the weekend’s SoundOut experimental music festival. 

UNLIKE sturdy photographer Peter Hislop, who attended every session of the SoundOut experimental music festival over the weekend at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery, I popped in for just the last few sets.

“CityNews” music reviewer Rob Kennedy had already covered the opening of this challenging music event, which founder Richard Johnson has made an annual feature of the Canberra summer arts calendar.

Richard Johnson. Photo: Peter Hislop.

More power to him, for there is no other such event in Australia, exploring as it does the extremities of music. In the finale, for instance, participants not already on stage slowly emerged from the background to turn anything at hand into music a percussive instrument – even a standard lamp.

Let’s be frank, this is not easy music. It requires patience and concentration, although when the sound is ambient  it is possible to just sit back and let it wash over you,  as many dedicated SoundOut aficionados were clearly doing.

Nicki Heywood using her voice as a musical instrument. Photo: Peter Hislop.

The final two sets ran the gamut of possibilities. In the first, Nicki Heywood, using her voice as a musical instrument, mixed inarticulate utterances, growls and low-register sustained vocals with some suggestion of words. But double bass player Mark Cauvin pretty much stole the set, acting out the instrument with his whole body as Joe Talia’s drums kicked in dramatically. Later the ensemble presented a short encore, which was even more explosive.

The finale of SoundOut was an extraordinary performance, based around Clinton Green’s electronics, and a musical nod to the Australian lyrebird’s capacity for mimicry.

Green, Elizabeth Jigalin, Jamie Lambert and MP Hopkins recreated the glorious cacophonies of nature – the bubbling of creeks and sounds of insects – before the sound of chainsaws intruded.

Johnson watches as the whole SoundOut collective joins in for the finale. Photo: Peter Hislop.

Gradually the whole SoundOut collective joined in, creating effects on metal bowls around the room as  the sax players and violins came in, with Cauvin reprising his work on bass.

It all ended not with a bang but a whimper, with a voice intoning, “Hello baby, wanna kiss?”

It was a quiet, but sensational, finale to a festival we can be quite sure, rain hail or shine, will return this time next year.

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.