Lines of Flight opened with a rendition of John Cage’s silent 4’ 33”, both an empty space to symbolise what we’ve lost and the epitome of the idea that any sound can constitute music. This would be the first time the audience were reminded of this idea, but not the last.
Later that evening we watched Melbourne’s Is there a hotline? somehow turn an array of musical toys into a surreal nightmare. It was exhilarating. We sat frozen as a pure expression of improvised trauma played out in front of us via flails, whistles, and other unidentified objects. There was no discernible rhythm, no melody, nor did there need to be.
Survivors of the 90s experimental scene A Handful of Dust dialed it up past eleven the following evening, forcing the audience to focus on subtleties within the hellstorm of distorted guitar, violin, and drum noise which became our world. Eventually our entire thoughts and being became one with the vibrations of the molecules we were standing in.
In both these performances structured elements would have only served as a distraction. Music at its extremes can seem meaningless, but all forms of self-expression have meaning, even if not deliberate. Concertgoers riding the free bus out to Port Chalmers for the Friday show for example were treated to a distorted rendition of Beach Boys blaring over the malfunctional speaker system. Incidental sure, but it conveyed a story about a weary bus and its tired bones.
Some context for those unaware: Lines of Flight is New Zealand’s longest running experimental music festival, occurring approximately biennially since the year 2000, and this year marked it’s eleventh iteration. Twenty artists played across four performances this year, including some legends of the scene like members of quietly important bands Dadamah and The Dead C, but also some fresh talent which may be looked back on the same way in a few decades.
It’s an epic and important undertaking. The fact that it ran so smoothly is a testament to the skill and dedication of those who made it happen, chiefly Peter Porteous and Peter Stapleton, but also Forbes Williams who made sure everything always sounded excellent despite drastically varying instrumentation and dynamics, and many others behind the scenes.
I found the difference between the seated Thursday show at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and the mostly standing Friday event at Port Chalmers Pioneer Hall fascinating. The performance/audience relationship is so subtle and delicate that even something as small as the relative height difference between the two can greatly influence the expectations of both groups.
The seated show encouraged dissection and reflection, which made Wellington’s UMU’s off-kilter randomized dance music feel a little out of place, like watching a science experiment. Experiencing a performance standing is more of a tactile, tangible experience for the audience, it brings the energy up and allows for a feedback loop between performer and audience.
Similarly it cannot be emphasised enough how much the lighting and projection added to the experience, especially the performances from Satori which utilised three slide projectors, focusing and defocusing and drawing the audience on a visual journey through various layers and textures to complement the audio journey.
Experimental music is about pushing the boundaries of what music is, and the results can be mind expanding. Sometimes I found myself questioning whether what I was experiencing was even music, and if not why not? And do I even care whether it is? This is what makes it exciting. This is music on the fringes.