Jeff Pressing Condiments spice a meal of miniatures, The Age, 2000

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Jeff Pressing Condiments spice a meal of miniatures, The Age, 2000

Condiments spice a meal of miniatures

Music
A Long Tale with Many Notes
DeFlocked String Quartet
RMIT Gallery, July 15
Review Jeff Pressing

An ancient artistic maxim declares that form follows function. This maxim came to mind last Saturday evening at the RMIT Gallery, where the DeFlocked String Quartet ran through some 30 sonic miniatures within a space whose walls were decorated with careful documentation of the cultural artifacts that had helped bring about that same music.

All the evening’s scores were displayed under glass, for example, next to collections of European kitsch, public manifestos and a Nam June Paik crucifix-shaped video installation.

The central theme, orchestrated by the cultural organisation Slave Pianos, was the Fluxus movement, a 20th-century anarchistic process of cultural deprogramming and deconstruction that mixed the profound, the profane, the mundane and the downright silly in shifting proportions, reaching notable prominence in a series of 1960s festivals.

Its roots were there for all to see, displayed in the exhibit Fluxus Family Tree by George Brecht: Dada, action painting, futurism, vaudeville, anti-art, the circus, the Happening, Theatre of the Ordinary, Experiments in Art and Technology, the contact microphone (making the inaudible audible), guerilla warfare against musical standards, and so much more.

On the evening, we were served a multi-course dinner of very short Fluxus entrees, with one main course. The pieces were predominantly written by visual artists and most of them fitted the mould of a setting-in-motion of parallel sonic processes, from which some kind of formal shape emerged. No sonata forms here, no development. Rather, short and whimsical testimonies of character.

For example, in several pieces, three members of the quartet engaged in serious counterpoint while the fourth acted as interloper, sawing away obsessively at an unrelated activity. In several others, (for example Hard Rubbish Drive, 1998, by Philip Edwards) the materials for each performer were executed at independent rates and allowed to meander or disintegrate. Glissandi and crisply executed extended techniques there were a-plenty.

A spirit of fun prevailed. In Philip Corner’s Carrot Chew Performance (1964), Hope Csutoros lurched towards musical communication despite several large carrots inserted between her violin strings. George Brecht’s Three Telephone Events (1961), kept interrupting. A centrally displayed fax machine churned out musical notation. In an excerpt from Allan Kaprow’s 7 Kinds of Sympathy (1975), violinist Daniel Stefanski and violist Jenny Thomas swapped instruments and taught each other what to play, as did Helen Mounteford (cello) and Csutoros. A pizzicato arrangement of John Lennon’s cri de coeur, The Ballad of John and Yoko (1969), surprised with its incongruously measured delicacy.

Despite other appealing diversions by Erik Satie (Le Tennis, 1914) and Marcel Duchamp, compositional substance was often thinly stretched, with one exception: the string quartet of George Maciunas and M.C. Ciurlionis. This larger and stylistically diverse work suggested how whimsy could coexist with deeper musical processes and was handled, as throughout the evening, with rock-solid musicianship by DeFlocked.

Finally, the performers exited, leaving food for their cats in bowls. A copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and a toy wooden robot looked on disapprovingly from a display case.