The Art of Improvisation Extra: MONA FOMA, Part 1 of 4

Today I want to take an in depth look at my recent experience at the MONA FOMA festival in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, where I was the artist in residence. There is a 6-part series about my day to day exploits on my other blog, The Way of the Gong™. I wasn't sure where to post that, there or here, but the other blog won out for inconsequential reasons. You might want to check that series out first before you continue here. The MOFO blogs.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Now back to the fest: In the course of 3 days (Fri-Sun), I performed 8 times, all of these performances were improvised to a great extent. The festival was mostly held at a fantastic museum, MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), with some performances at various venues back in Hobart proper. I played at 5 different venues, each with its own acoustics, which affected how I played. So let's look at my performances based on the rooms I played in.

The Barrel Room
 A most interesting venue.

When I first saw my schedule for the fest, I thought The Barrel Room was just a name for a room. I was able go to the museum the day before the fest to scout it out, and little did I know, it was an actual room filled with large barrels of aging wine! The museum is surrounded by vinyards and they make and sell their own house wines. They also make and sell a house beer. How hip is that?

My first impression of the room is that it was very much a concrete bunker. The room was a large, rectangular shape, with all flat concrete surfaces. As you can see in the photos, it is lined with racks filled with very large, round wine barrels. Initially I was worried about the sound being very much an echo chamber. Fortunately, the wood of the barrels soaked up a lot of sound, and their round shape acted like studio baffles, in that it minimized the straight reflecting surfaces. The result was a rather crisp, slightly resonant sound. The climate controlled room was also very cold and damp, with mist sprayers, which they turned off for the performances.

My set up, L-R, back row: 36" Iron Gamelan, 32" Symphonic (top), 30" Planet Earth Platonic (bottom), 32" Planet Saturn (top),
24" Moon Synodic (bottom). Front: 24" Sound Creation #3 Moon and 24" Symphonic.

To avoid dragging heavy and expensive gear halfway across the globe, I only brought a suitcase of small Gongs, bells, woodblock, shakers, and a kalimba, plus all my mallets. Gongs were provided for me by Paiste and the festival's curator, Brian Ritchie, who has a nice collection. Other percussion (bass drum, China cymbals, etc,) was provided by the festival to my specs. For the 2 sessions here, which were to be more Gong Meditations, I used only the large Gongs and a few small percussion items.

So the interesting thing for me was to play unfamiliar Gongs that I had just met, in an unfamiliar room where I had only managed to hear part of the percussion set by Ensemble Offspring, who played before me. This is really where listening to things is most important. When I started playing, I was listening to the Gongs, both their sounds and how they responded to my playing, and also listening to how the room responded to the Gongs. My first priority was to not overplay the room, especially because the audience was within a few feet of my set up. So I listened, listened, and listened. The first 10 or 15 minutes I was feeling out the room and the sound, not to mention the Gongs themselves!

One of the first things I found was that the Gamelan Gong seemed to resonate at the frequency of the room. When I struck it, the deep bass note seemed to come from everywhere! It was astounding. I didn't have to hit it very hard either. It also had a nice series of beats that faded out after 6 or 7 notes. To a lesser extent, both of the 32" Gongs also resonated to the room. They were also very close in tuning to each other, but off enough that when I struck them together, or in an alternating rhythm, they created a very strong beat pattern the resonated deeply. The result was, that I could find a sticking rhythm that kept a nice steady series of beats, and created a fantastic ostinato pattern that resonated the whole room. I worked this, creating a nice trance-like affect that I could punctuate with other Gongs. This was truly an example of playing the room.

I did a lot of other things, using different mallets and techniques, as well as using some bells and other instruments, but it was the deep resonance of the 3 large Gongs that I found most exciting to play. This was the case of finding a perfect room for the music I was playing. I wish I could've recorded in there alone.

The Brooke Street Pier

 The corner stage at Brooke Street Pier
 Floor percussion in the hot sun
 Bass drum with Cup Chimes

This was the only off site performance I did. The Pier is where the museum ferry docks. It's a very long, modern building with large glass windows on all sides, and various vendor stalls inside. The stage was set up in the front corner, by the entrance, visible to the outside. The performances there were a sort of sampler of what was happening at the Museum 12 miles away.

After playing in the cool, damp Barrel Room, the Pier was another thing altogether. The afternoon sun came blazing through the glass, leaving me feeling like I was playing in an oven (it's mid-summer down there). Even though the large windows could be slid open, there was little breeze to come in and cool things off. So I sweated and fried in the sun. And the black wooden floor was hot. When I stepped off the rug and onto the wood floor in my stocking feet, it burned.

The other big difference I had to deal with is that it was a very noisy terminal, with people coming and going, making a lot of their own noise in the background. Even with the large plates of glass around me, the sound was rather dry. One listen to things told me just to play and make the best of it. Between the noise and the heat, I found it increasingly difficult to focus as my set went on.

My set up included a horizontal bass drum, all my small Gongs and floor percussion, and 4 large Gongs. Now as it often goes for big festivals that have to serve a large variety of musicians, I filled out my technical needs and we discussed over e-mail what sort of instruments the festival could provide for me to use. As a drummer/percussionist, unless you play in one of the biggest selling rock bands, you end up using borrowed and hired gear. It's economics. And since I traveled by myself (no entourage for me), the less I had to personally carry, the better.

In my own personal set up back home, I play a 10"x26" bass drum with a single-ply head, set up horizontally as a sound table. I like to put small Gongs, cymbals, bells, cup chimes, etc. on the head and use the drum as a resonator. I also like to play it with sticks/mallets/hands. So what was available for me to use was a 16"x22" rock bass drum with a pinstripe batter head (the front head was single-ply, but with a port hole in it, so not usable)—see the photo above. The drum was also heavily muffled: great for rock drum set use, not so great for what I wanted to do. 

What's an enthusiastic percussionist going to do? You make the best of it and play the drum, doing what you can with it. Besides, I love a challenge. So playing in the hot sun, on strange gear, in a noisy ferry terminal, was a challenge that I accepted. Overall, I played variations on some of my compositions, and improvised like crazy. The coolest part of all this is you really get to see how much you have your shit together. You also learn a lot of new things while experimenting and basically going crazy with your instruments. So in the midst of all this, I discovered some new sounds, some new ideas, and had a fantastic time doing what I love to do.

End of set, I'm soaked through my clothes and exhausted from the heat. I pack up and talk to a few people there. Some good comments and I feel like I did the best I could under the circumstances. The crew took my gear back to the museum for tomorrow's performances, and I walked the 3 blocks back to my hotel to take a very long, cool, shower. End of day 1, 2 more to go…

~ MB


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