Monday, January 5, 2009

The Sounds of Science

In this month's issue of Time Out Amsterdam I wrote a piece on the city's experimental music scene and the international artists it attracts. Below is a video from concert series DNK Amsterdam featuring Paul Hubweber and DJ Sniff.

From: Time Out
Amsterdam’s musical underbelly is full of sonic surprises, but can Colin Delaney decipher the sounds from the silence?

There’s an old episode of The Muppet Show where guest Whoopi Goldberg plays pitch-perfect music by striking glass water bottles filled to different levels, explaining to Kermit she was taught by experimental musician Philip Glass—or ‘Fill up Glass’, as she pronounced it. Experimental music, like the joke, makes sense in performance, but it’s kind of lost in translation.
So for the new year I decided to push myself past the hook-laden melodies that soundtrack my everyday life and venture into Amsterdam’s experimental music world.
Compared to other music scenes in town, to say the experimental scene is bustling might be a stretch but Seamus Cater, co-founder of DNK Amsterdam, a weekly experimental concert series held Monday nights at the SMART Project Space, says the scene compares well on the world experimental stage while DNK is the city’s main live platform for artists to perform their work.
My visit to the SMART sees Dutch flutist/composer Antoine Beuger perform his classical minimalist piece ‘Meinong nonets, 2005’ comprising of quiet, intermittent drones from various instruments. Tonight they are Beuger’s flute and members from the DNK Ensemble on double bass, trombone, harmonica, cello, a second flute and a clarinet.
After 45 minutes of the musical equivalent of a staring competition and a solo from an inconsiderate audience-member’s polyphonic ringtone the only word I can muster is ‘intense’. So I ask for emotional guidance from Cater, harmonica player in the DNK Ensemble.
‘It depends how you’re feeling on the night,’ he says. ‘It could be anything from profoundly moving and relaxing to a prison sentence of extreme discomfort, both of which would have been a lift from the everyday. I haven’t played music where I was so conscious of my breath before. It was a very meditative work.’
The late John Cage coined the term ‘experimental music’ in 1955, defining it as music with an unforseen outcome. His famous piece, 4’33”, which consists of three movements of silence, is often held up as the quintessential example of the genre: not a single note is played by any instrument, but the time allotted for the piece, four minutes and 33 seconds, is filled by chance sounds from outside the performance area… likely to include someone yelling ‘get on with it’.
To continue down Cage’s silent path 54 years on wouldn’t be too experimental. DNK aims to demonstrate the limitless nature of music while nurturing the local scene through artists-in-residence at Amsterdam’s STEIM (Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music) and students of the Den Haag Royal Conservatory of Music’s Sonology Institute; both of which explore techniques and tools of electronic and art music.
DNK also host sound installations, international performers and open nights for locals who’ve been twiddling away in bedrooms.
‘Often we have performers who play found or self-made objects,’ says Cater.
Building home-made instruments to create leftfield music in studios they call ‘labs’, sonology students and the experimental scene may be deemed impenetrably nerdy by mainstream pop, the musical control that’s equally scientific: studied, calculated yet cultured in a petri dish.
However, as Cater says, ‘while the experimental often feeds the mainstream’ – scenes like DNK and artists like Cage, Glass, Yoko Ono and Velvet Underground’s John Cale feeding Kraftwerk, The Avalanches and Radiohead, in turn influencing chart toppers like Timbaland and Coldplay – ‘it doesn’t have to lose its original integrity or intention.’
Still, you wonder if they’ve ever let it all go to simply, ‘Blame It On The Boogie’. Whatever the answer, experimental music doesn’t translate on paper but makes sense with a beer in hand and equally inquisitive music fans eager to talk shop. Best to experience it yourself.

1 comment:

  1. Insightful article Mr Delaney, has me intrigued, and now motivated to explore the experimental music scene here in New York. Prolific with it's experimental visual expressions, I have no doubt I'll uncover some inspiring, if not challenging aural experiences. May have to venture into the experimental performance sector also, cheers to that!

    Rachael, Brooklyn, NY.