Demonstrations on theme: radical approaches to contemporary classical multicultural music performance practice

1.30-2.00 Tessa Miller (soprano) and Rosalind Halton (performing on Adelaide-built harpsichord) (30') western European early music/authenticity/instrument-maker specialists

2.05-2.25 Dang-Thao Nguen (Vietnamese composer and multi-instrumentalist in traditional and contemporary performance) and Gerrard Menzel (tabla) (20') non-western music composer/performers

2.30-2.50 Alex Carpenter (non-conventional music instrument maker/performer/composer specialist) and Music of Transparent Means: Zoe Barry (cello), Alex Carpenter (keyboard, bowed guitar), Luke Harrald (bowed guitars) (20') live electroacoustic improvisation ensemble

2.55-3.00 Question Time (5')

[Extract of Symposium program. For full program details, please click here.]

Transcript of talk given by Alex Carpenter at the Nexus CCMM Symposium, Adelaide

Claudio Pompili (Chair): We now move onto Alex Carpenter and the Music of Transparent Means ensemble. Alex Carpenter is interested in perception of sound and the possibility of a broader musical consciousness. His compositions have utilized non-tempered tuning systems, improvisation, long duration, tuned wineglasses, and prepared instruments. In 2002, Alex founded Music of Transparent Means, a ever-changing performance ensemble that has featured as many as 21 players at one time. This has given Alex the opportunity to implement and develop different experimental approaches. And I attended a [Music of Transparent Means] concert a couple of weeks ago, and found it an incredibly wonderful and refreshing experience, and Alex very kindly has managed to bring along a few players today, and to perform for us.

Alex Carpenter: Thank you. Before we present the piece, I thought I'd just talk a bit about my response to the topic of radical approaches to music performance practice. And I find this a really interesting topic, because I'm hugely interested in what you might call "radical perception." Generally, when we think about the radical, or radicalism, we think of "radical creation," that is to say: radicalism in relation to the creative act. But radical creation doesn't always result in radical perception, and this is what I want to talk about.

There is a great desire, perhaps, among composers to be seen as doing something new, to manipulate sound in completely new ways, to make a totally unique statement. But none of this is any guarantee of a new musical perception. There is a danger when we talk about being radical that we only take it as far as "the artist" or "the artwork," and forget that these things are never ends in themselves but media which facilitate perception. The event of perception is something quite separate from the creative act, because it receives not only the artistic/human input, but also (if we allow it) the more fundamental/non-human phenomena: sound, vibration, energy, and the like.

Radical literally means "relating to the most important features of something" (its origin is the Latin radicalis which means "of roots"). The radical perception I'm interested in is one that dares to move beyond the work, and beyond the human artist, toward sound itself -- that is, a perception which dares to approach sound on its own terms. But what does this mean? It means being open to receive sound as it is, irrespective of the creative forms and systems we habitually perceive and interpret it through. Importantly, this does not mean an absence of creative forms and systems, it simply means listeners must be given the chance to hear beyond them, that is, to shift and deepen their own perception over time. It also means the artist (as facilitator of this perception) cannot "take over" with his or her own radicalism, but must instead maintain a certain transparency to the inherent radicalism in sound.

Sound forms part of that sphere of being which is bigger and perhaps more significant than that of the human: its languages, its "truths," its rational formulations of reality. The acute (and possibly sudden) realisation or awareness of this is what I mean by "radical perception." It is not an all-together comfortable awareness, but perhaps more akin to witnessing lightning: awe-inspiring, and even slightly frightening -- a reminder of a more-than-human world, which leaves us gazing in wonder, at a loss for words.

I call it "radical" not because it results in new forms, systems, or definitions, but because, in a time where meanings and definitions are everything, it dares to acknowledge the indefinable. Not simply to revise the definition, but to realise there are no adequate definitions for most of what we genuinely experience.

But what exactly is the composer's role in bringing about such a perception (since perception must always remain the responsibility of the listener)? The answer is encouragement. The composer is powerless to literally cause radical perception directly, but there are still certain things a composer can do to encourage radical perception. And this is essentially what informs my approach to composition.

The whole process must begin with the acknowledgement that the human brain craves rational meaning, and is inclined to create it even in situations where rational meaning is absent. Thus, even though sound in itself is shapeless and non-human, the brain's inclination is still to shape and control it, and to see it in terms of human meaning. But I believe this is very much an initial inclination only -- a knee-jerk reaction, which the brain can and will overcome if it is given sufficient time and space to do so. So extended time plays a vital role in the encouragement of radical perception.

Another way I try to encourage radical perception is by gradually reducing composed information (such as melody) to near absence. This is in contrast to a more traditional approach that treats composed information as material for creative development. Overt development is avoided simply because it keeps the brain continually focused on the level of human input, interpreting and processing each new "composed" event as it occurs. My approach is rather to gradually feed the brain less and less composed information, until it is left with little choice but to move beyond even expecting it, and perhaps then to begin exploring the deeper, more fundamental, recesses of sound.

Another means of encouraging radical perception is high volume. This is important, because the louder the volume is, the more audible the interaction of sound waves becomes. That is to say, through a framework set-up by the composer, sound itself creates its own rhythm, its own harmony, and its own melody, which, given adequate volume, we are actually able to perceive.

In general terms (if I can sum up in one final sentence), it is hoped that through this particular approach, listeners might be able to hear not just how the musician speaks through sound, but also how sound speaks through the musician. This is radical perception.

Emerging Like An Infant From The House Of Truth [audio sample from this performance]

Zoe Barry - amplified cello
Alex Carpenter - keyboard, samples, bowed guitar
Luke Harrald - bowed guitars