Guest post by Miriam Zolin
Thanks to the AAO for permission to observe the preparation for this concert and to use the photos, which were taken by Tobias Titz. Check out his website and portfolio.
I don’t really know what I expected.
At Stonnington Jazz one year, I was asked to announce the Andrea Keller Quartet. Before the gig I went up into the green room to see if there was anything special I needed to say. Somehow I timed my visit perfectly to be able to observe the discussion that happened before the quartet went on stage. Andrea was working with notated music and while improvisation would be happening within the pieces, there was a framework and as the composer she walked the musicians through that. All the musicians were involved, and the conversation resulted in a shared understanding of who would do what, and when.
That was my only experience of what is discussed before a gig.
And tonight’s Hard Core On The Fly was nothing like that.
I arrived on time at 7:30 on 14 August as instructed. Some musicians were already there, and the rest arrived soon afterwards. Anthony Burr was assembling his bass clarinet; Scott Tinkler lounging in a chair in front of the stage, keeping his trumpet warm by blowing into it and his head warm with a beanie. Erkki Veltheim had taken his violin out of its case; Ren Walters arrived with two guitars – on of which he set up flat on a music stand; Dave Beck brought his drums in and set up the kit; Jenny Barnes brought two blocks of chocolate and checked her microphone. Some discussion about where everybody would stand, hugs all ’round, a genuine sense of camaraderie. Some of these musicians had played together before; toured together and shared more than music (there was talk of a bottle of gin, depleted on a recent evening). Anthony Burr is an Australian based in California so he’d had less contact with the others in the group, but still, there was an ease.
None of it looked like a gig, yet
Doors were due to open at 8:30 and casually things came together. They have done this so many times that the preamble comes naturally. Bennetts Lane is a place they know and understand.
‘Let’s see how we all sound to each other,’ said Scott, and in a blink, everybody was on stage.
This smooth and unheralded suggestion was the start. Each musician made the sounds they needed, requesting level changes on the foldbacks. For a bar or two what had seemed to be merely a group of friends coalesced into a band. So this was it. We went into the green room to wait until it was time.
The green room is not green
Forget what you may have imagined about the room behind the stage where musicians make themselves comfortable and get ready for a gig. This one, at least, is a fairly stark space – part utility room, part holding pen. In here, I wondered what magic I would hear. My Zoom recorder was on and I captured nearly an hour of preparation.
‘This is the question – is it time for a drink?’
‘How long were you in Italy for?’
‘Finnish national anthem.’
‘What did you have for dinner?’
‘He’s getting better every day. In rehabilitation’.
‘Piece of chocolate anyone?’
‘A vegetable curry puff and a banana.’
‘Four classes a week.’
‘He got a fever in Hawaii and screamed all the way to Australia.’
‘The sugar’s not doing it; I think I need to do some pushups.’
‘Three classes a week.’
And most of the time I didn’t know if the real preparation was just about to happen.
At one stage both Dave and Ren were out of the room. Ren had come straight from teaching and needed to find something to eat before playing. Dave was doing something with the drums. Scott suggested, laughing, that maybe those two should start the night off but that nobody should tell them that. Hilarious.
In that room, something was being woven, but it wasn’t something that can be accurately recorded on a Zoom, or written in a guest post.
As I left the room before they went on stage, I wondered out loud if all the real stuff would happen as soon as I shut the door behind me. Straightfaced, with laughter creeping out the edges, they all agreed that that is exactly what would happen.
The first set
Hilariously (the others told them, or did they guess?) – Dave and Ren begin the set, an eery rhythmic conversation with guitar and drums.
Wires, space, plucking … Anthony steps up with little pops that join in. They brainstorm. And out of the desert night small creatures emerge, shy at first but growing bolder. Jenny’s voice grows and fills the space.
Scott and Anthony in and out of playful badinage then Erkki joins in.
I hear Gypsy violin and a Moroccan subtext to the countless crying. I hear suspense. Exuberance. Revelation in Scott’s trumpet.
Harangue. Jenny is getting forceful. There is a point to be made there Anthony comes in and yes she is distracted and these two voices are perfect together.
Then the violin calls. Ren and Scott step back. Erkki in the corner is poised, then speaks.
And suddenly we are down the mines. There are dark spaces, loops – crackling loops. Grated, granular.
And it ends, somewhere.
I leave them alone in the set break and write in my notebook ‘They make more of their own collective and individual history every time they do this.’ When I read it back the next day I wonder what the hell I was thinking.
Sunday morning suburbs with a magpie; Jenny as birdsong. This something compelling in this birdsong – something urgent. We’re restless now and there’s a crackle in the ether. I had no idea that violin and bass clarinet would sound so well together. And there he goes; there’s that line of Scott’s.
Hear it run.
They come back to this. A kind of dance that is a journey; that flows like a river. Scott and Jenny, Dave and Erkki, Anthony and Scott, Ren and Dave, Dave and everyone. What gets me is the way they stop. They stop together. There is a mystery in that.
What Jenny does with wordless language is exactly what I was talking about last week. She is a bridge between music and human language. The sounds of speaking but none of the meaning and yet meaning is not completely absent; it’s just accessible differently, and it taps into different ways of thinking. Tonight there is no small talk, though some of her sounds are tiny chirrups. Jenny and Anthony paint for a moment; her voice and his bass clarinet singing the same song and then Scott with trumpet again; the wit.
Through it all is space and desert strung wire, open skies, the sound of a fox crying, a momentary suspense. This is like the soundtrack to Nick Cave’s The Proposition. I hear those spaces come to life.
The banter in the back room was witty and there was laughter and some more serious subject matter, but this conversation going on right now is elevated beyond that. I have no idea how they feel about it, and I’m trying so hard to be an observer that maybe I’m reading things in that don’t exist – but there you have it; this is what I saw.
And in my notebook I say, ‘This writing about music suddenly seems unnatural. Why is it that the music I love can only be articulated in terms of forests, spaces, rivers, deserts? Am I using landscape to help me write about the unwritable?’
It probably doesn’t matter, because I’ll keep listening and trying to write about it. And thankfully, they’ll keep making music.
Personnel (14 August)
Scott Tinkler – trumpet
Anthony Burr – clarinet
Erkki Veltheim – violin
Ren Walters – guitar
Dave Beck – drums
Jenny Barnes – vocals
Hard Core On The Fly in August
Hear Hard Core On The Fly in Melbourne and Perth this August.
21 August at Bennetts Lane (Melbourne)
28 August at Bennetts Lane (Melbourne)
28 August at Ellington Jazz Club (Perth)
Read the first instalment of Hard core fly on the wall