James Webb et al. at the Wits Theatre
by Andrew Smith
Pre-eminent South African sound-artist James Webb curated and participated in NewMusicSA's second Unyazi festival, 'Fear of the Known'. The festival comprised five concerts, three symposia and several lectures celebrating and showcasing sound-artists and experimental musicians from several different countries. Webb, whose career as an experimental sound artist has brought him into contact with the likes of musical legend Brian Eno, opened the Johannesburg show at the Wits Theatre with a collaborative performance with fellow sound-innovator, Lawrence English.
The concepts of temporality, form and aesthetics, usually critical to the appreciation of music, took a back seat as Webb focused instead on the experience of listening within a space. His decision to subtitle the second Unyazi festival a 'Festival of extreme listening' rather than simply a 'Music Festival' was a part of this. Drawing the listener away from the lofty Western ideas of temporality, form and aesthetics, Webb focused on the spatialisation of sound, placing emphasis on the listener rather than the piece of music. Within this framework, the work presented was successful. However the surround-sound element of the pieces was only apparent to listeners sitting in the centre rows. Better speaker placement would have enhanced the work considerably for listeners in the wings.
Lawrence English and James Webb played first, followed by Asmus Tietchens and Sudden Infant. After a short interval, Eric La Casa and Phillip Samartzis played their set, and the concert was concluded by Marc Behrens. The opening performance by Webb and English presented ambiguous, electronically manipulated sounds that can only be likened to the clicking of beetles and the patter of rain, whilst an ever-present thrum of rushing wind and water gradually intensified to a thundering crescendo. This strange, elemental landscape of sound, where an extended door's creak became the buzz of an electric saw, and the crackling of flames could gently be replaced by the lapping of water, was indeed the portal to the otherworldly realm of which the listeners briefly became a part.
This improvisational work initiated the hurricane-like structure of the concert, in keeping with the festival's name ('unyazi' translates as 'lightning'). The concert was presented in five parts as a progression from the abstract to the explicit and back. It began and ended with very abstract compositions, which framed more recognisably musical works, presenting, in the eye of the storm, an assault of the intimate - the performance by Joke Lanz, a.k.a. Sudden Infant. This structure served to highlight the theme of the concert - the centralisation of the listener and participation in the listening experience. Whilst the other artists remained comfortably anonymous, their sounds gently manipulating the listening experience, Lanz's work immediately turned the exhibition on its head, by shifting focus back onto the artist, suddenly again decentralising the listener, giving prominence to the author and emphasising the dialectic of the concert in its absence.
Lanz's piece blurred the distinctions between body and technology, sound-maker and instrument. His equipment consisted of two pre-amp mixer boards, three distortion pedals, a small, naked microphone, and his own body, highlighted in a single spotlight on the stage. A metronomic beat played through the P.A. while he pressed the microphone to himself to amplify various sounds he was making with his body and voice. He distorted these sounds with the pedals to produce an unearthly cacophony of private body-sounds, amplified a hundredfold and made musical. All the while, as the tempo and time of the simple rhythm changed, one became more aware of the artist's physical dialogue with the music.
The artist blended seamlessly with his technology to produce something of weird beauty that was at once captivating and alienating to the listener, who was forced into the man's inner space and held fast until the end. Despite its divergence from the rest of the work in the line-up, this performance was perhaps the most potent in that its focus was clearly delineated within a context - that of the human body. The other works were somewhat introspectively focused within the context of sound or music as a language, or the presentation of more general themes.
Although much of the concert was wholly improvisational, all of the works seemed to have definite compositional or musical arrangement. There was nothing tuneful about the sounds issuing forth from the speakers (there was no rhythm or melody to speak of outside of Lanz's simple beat) but there was nonetheless a distinctly musical structure to the pieces performed. This was particularly so in the collaborations between Phillip Samartzis and Eric LaCasa, and Webb and English. Where one might expect a light, melodic texture, the artists played a soft, snapping hum or watery fizz; where one expected a crescendo, they played a cacophony of rushing and clicking. The tones of the various field recordings were discreetly musical, each echoing a different vocalisation in found sound - the bellow of an air-conditioner, the murmur of a machine-head or the chatter of insects.
When one considers the set-up of the venue in which this concert took place, its divergence from conventional symphonic orchestration becomes immediately apparent. With the exception of Lanz, all of the artists sat in front of computer screens at a desk amongst the audience, remaining virtually immobile, stressing their anonymity. Particularly with the collaborative pieces, it was impossible to tell which of the artists was creating what sound in the vast circumfusion of noise. The pieces became mythic explorations of the mind for the listener, completely divorced from authorship and ultimately the music itself.
The work presented at Unyazi 2 highlighted the difficulty of breaking away from the established norms of musical aesthetics. The inherent abstractness of sound, even with the familiar elements of melody and rhythm, is often difficult to engage critically. In their absence the work seemed simply to reject classification. However, the invasive power of this work to invoke an emotional response in its audience was staggering, and where it succeeded was in its ability to maneuver the listener's thought process - Webb and his fellows offer evocations of imagination where most static visual art and even video art fail in their explicitness.
Andrew Smith is artist and writer based in Pretoria
Opened: March 16
WITS Downstairs Theatre,