Brno’s Exposition of New Music

Charlie Cockey

[May 2002.]

The Brno International Music Festival’s Fifteenth Exposition of New Music got off to a rocky start tonight, but now I have learned the reason why.

I’ll pass over what was presented as the first act after the opening (a “happening” I didn’t attend), and focus instead on what was supposed to be given. The no-show group was the Kojetinsky Industrial Philharmonic (Kojetinská industriální filharmonie). It turns out that this group is part of a rehab program (if I understood correctly — I was given this information in Czech) and earlier today, somewhere in Moravia, the car containing all their music (and, I’m not clear on this, perhaps all their instruments as well) was stolen. So no show, sad on all points.

The venue itself is a terrific thing — a huge factory complex from the early 1800’s that made such marvelous monstrosities of the industrial revolution as steam turbines, now fallen into total disuse and abandoned, bedecked with graffiti; mere brick shells, giant wood and steel beams and girders with triangular reinforcement struts apparently added almost at random; remnants of wires, fixtures and conduits in arcane, archaic configurations, snaking who knows where for god knows what purpose.

After the substitution for the no-shows there was one more act, which, though it had some overlong pieces, was really quite interesting. Petra Dubach and Mario van Horrik, a duo from Holland, played five works — the first and third being overextended electric-guitar drones. Admittedly they achieved some intriguing effects, through a combination of extreme miking and various methods of playing. In the first (almost 20 minutes long) they did manage, amidst all the other odd sounds coming from the amps, to create what seemed a ghostly woman’s voice nestled among more prickly sounds. In the second guitar item (third on the program) they were scratching the strings near the pickups with perhaps knives, generating various rhythmic and audio patterns — not without interest, but not as arresting as it was long.

In between, however, was a wonderful contrast and respite from the monotony of the drones. Seated at either end of a shortish rectangular table, with a stiff posture somehow reminiscent of American Gothic, they sat in front of two small metal boxes, each with a very short crank-handle and a loop of something like paper, perhaps two or three inches wide, that extended from tabletop nearly to the floor. Ms Dubach very subtly counted off a beat, and they began. Cranking the handles. The boxes turned out to be music boxes, miked from the tabletop (which made an effective resonator). They cranked each at a different speed — she with a more irregular pattern. Somehow the lighting and the gentle absurdity of what they were doing made them look like figures in some postmodern Vermeer. And the music, particularly after the guitar drones, was wonderfully sweet and friendly. Not logical, and certainly it didn’t go anywhere in particular (I sensed that the music boxes had limited range and scale), but very nice. From time to time I caught Ms Dubach breaking into a helpless smile, and I have to admit I found myself smiling a good deal of the time as well.

After their second guitar drone came the night’s wonder piece. On the stage was a large tubular metal frame perhaps ten feet high. Hanging from this, connected by some sort of elastic cords perhaps two or three feet long, depended two long metallic bars — about four inches wide, perhaps 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick, and as much as five or so feet long. Petra Dubach had loosed her hair — long, roseate blonde — and with one hand she took it and stretched it across her metal band. The most amazing sounds emanated: Her hair, acting as a loosely strung bow, coaxed great whorreling sounds from the metal. After a while van Horrick began running his fingers down the thin edges of his bar — lightly, slowly, repeatedly— and a series of high-pitched shimmerings joined Petra’s low-humming hair-tones. They played with these tones a while, letting the sounds interact, building beat and interference patterns, and then Petra kissed her metal. Or at least that’s what it appeared she was doing. In fact, she must have been keening very gently on a quiet high note, and singing directly onto the metal, because I cannot categorize the sounds, beyond saying they were truly eerie and definitely what one would be tempted to name “ethereal.” When van Horrick joined in with a lower, male-pitched tone, the corruscations of sound as the various pitches and tones collided was like an astounding audial moiré pattern. Then, softly at first but growing louder and more insistent, each of them started tapping on the side of their bands with narrow metal rods, creating a hard-edged counterpoint to the rounder-toned singing of the bars. As they clanged on the sides, the elastics that held the bars allowed them to bounce, thus varying the pitch and patterns along with the visual bobbing. With one last clang on the sides of the bars, they stepped back and let the sound ease into silence. The thing was finished, complete.

Their finale, which I didn’t stay to hear, was a whimsical effort that had them and audience members tootling into plastic fish partly filled with water. Not wanting to spoil the effect of the singing metal bars, I beat a hasty retreat.

The festival continues for four more days, featuring such performers as Jeff Beer, a percussionist who was severely injured when one of his musical creations collapsed on him, and hasn’t performed in Brno since; as well as Brno’s own Dan Dlouhy, of DAMA DAMA — a percussionist known not only for his huge collection of instruments but for those he’s devised himself. He’ll be playing with Hans Karsten Raecke, who creates his own wind instruments — I’ve seen photos, and some of them look like lunatic serpentines. Closing night features the Prague Mondschein Orchestra in Peter Graham’s Subida and Louis Andriessen’s De Staat. Apart from the fact that the ensemble is really good, this should be an outstanding venue for this bit of hyper-insistent minimalism. I’m looking forward to it.