The Monthly music wrap: October 2017

By Anwen Crawford

The intriguing Tetsuya Umeda, a marriage-equality mixtape, new releases from raven and Kelela, and Burial’s ‘Untrue’ ten years on

Tetsuya Umeda. Image by Louis Lim

Last week I witnessed a performance at Sydney’s Carriageworks by Japanese artist Tetsuya Umeda that fruitfully and rather joyously blurred the lines between installation, sound art, live music and science experiment. Umeda’s piece was called Ringo (“Ringo means apple in Japanese,” read the artist’s statement, “but never mind it”), and it involved a miscellany of household objects – plastic water bottles, tin cans, a garbage bin, a glass container that looked like a fishbowl – scattered across the concrete floor in what looked like no particular order. The audience, also sat on the floor, peered on.

The performance began unobtrusively enough. Umeda hoisted one of the bottles into the air with a piece of string that had been hung over a high beam, and set it spinning, then shone a light upon it, so that shadows and the reflection of water in the bottle danced across the rear wall. A megaphone, also hung from the ceiling, swayed in turn. At first it was hard to discern any sound beyond the ambient noise of passing trains at the venue’s rear, but as time went on and Umeda continued to rig his objects – he attached a small hose to the water bottle, so that it dripped from on high into the glass bowl beneath, and he set the tin cans, variously filled with water and rice, to boil on a set of camp stoves – what occurred was more and more like a piece of music.

The rhythm of the dripping water, which was amplified by a contact microphone, was almost metronomic in its regularity. The boiling tin cans produced various tones that were in eerie harmony. A speaker cone, divorced from its speaker, rattled on the floor in a sort of sonic sympathy with a flickering light bulb that was immersed, in water, inside the glass bowl. (Don’t ask me the science of this: all I know is that when Umeda reached his hand inside the bowl I gasped, thinking he was about to electrocute himself, which he didn’t.) For some moments inside the dim, cavernous room, with all these elements in play, the objects seemed to come to life. It was part symphony, part enchantment, with Umeda as the sorcerer’s apprentice.

Umeda’s intriguing show was part of Sydney’s Liveworks festival of experimental art and performance. (He performs this week at The Substation in Melbourne.) It was co-presented by the long-running Brisbane independent label Room40, and this led me to reflect upon the necessity of small labels to the health of the musical ecosystem. Room40, run by musician and artist Lawrence English, has been responsible for many nights of rich and challenging experimental music performance across Australia over the years. One of the chief virtues of this live programming – not to mention the label’s own releases – has been to bring local audiences into contact with both local and international artists, fostering a democratic, community-minded, global outlook on contemporary music that still feels rare.

I think it can be easy to overlook, particularly online, the differences of economic scale and the degree of community attachment that distinguishes the big corporate labels from the small, independent ones. If the recorded output of all these labels is equally available to stream or buy, then who cares who releases it? But losing the small labels would be like losing the insects from our world (and apparently we are, at an alarming rate). They’re the ones who do the creative pollination, place by place, that allows everything and everyone else to go on functioning. It’s small labels that support the kind of artists who keep community radio stations on air and little venues lively. Perhaps, on occasion, one of those labels, or the artists they release, bursts into such noisy flower that the rest of the world notices, too. That can happen, but it scarcely matters if it doesn’t. Not everyone wants to be a millionaire.

And so to some of this month’s musical releases of note, all chosen to reflect the rich pickings of independent labels both here and overseas. Sydney-based musician and FBi community radio host Peter Hollo, who records under the name raven, has a new album, the night is dark, the night is silent, the night is bright, the night is loud, out through Art As Catharsis. Hollo’s primary instrument is cello, which he plays expansively, sometimes as a string instrument and at other times like percussion, looping the various sounds so that the album is full of darkly melancholic string melodies and assertive rhythms. Thirty Days of Yes: A Mixtape for Marriage Equality brings together an Arnott’s Assorted of musicians and genres – rock, folk, hip-hop and more – from local independent labels, including Chapter Music, Barely Dressed and Rice Is Nice. Some tracks – Twerps’ sweetly jangling ‘It’s Time’, Guy Blackman’s wry ‘Marriage’ – address the political debate directly. “You know I don’t believe in marriage,” sings Blackman. “But then again / What happens when I die?” All profits from sales of the compilation will go to the LGBTIQ youth organisations Minus18 and Twenty10.

Looking further afield, Kuwaiti musician Fatima Al Qadiri, whose work is musically adventurous and conceptually rigorous, releases her new EP, Shaneera, through the vital British independent label Hyperdub. These tracks twist “Arabic”-sounding folk melodies – or perhaps should that be faux melodies – into aggressive, glistening ropes of sound that approximate the attention-grabbing noise of video games; the EP’s title is a play on the Arabic word shanee’a, which, according to Al Qadiri, is queer slang for an “evil queen”. (The cover art sees her dressed accordingly.) Washington-born, Los Angeles-based singer Kelela has found a home for her debut album, Take Me Apart, on the long-running and always forward-looking British label Warp. The buzz around Kelela and her poised, digital R&B has been building for a few years now; 2015’s hypnotic ‘Rewind’ was a particular highlight. Take Me Apart departs a little from the club-friendly beats that distinguished Kelela’s earlier work, but multiplies and layers her voice to suggest all sorts of new spatial complexities. And, on that subject, critic Simon Reynolds takes a look back at one of the past decade’s most influential albums, Burial’s Untrue, released in 2007. (Full disclosure: I make a cameo appearance in Reynolds’ essay.) The impact of Untrue is hard to overstate; its sorrowful, ghostly combination of manipulated R&B voices and rave beats can be felt, as Reynolds writes, in contemporary pop ranging from The xx to Kanye West. The album was released on Hyperdub, which supports Burial’s music to this day.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

Tetsuya Umeda. Image by Louis Lim

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