Bow Gamelan Ensemble: Great Noises that Fill the Air

Morgan Quaintance enjoys the artist sound collective as an enthralling reminder of the experimental alternative to cultural conservatism

W0B performing <em>Nalemag 2</em> for ‘Great Noises that Fill the Air’

W0B performing Nalemag 2 for ‘Great Noises that Fill the Air’

From free festivals to informal commerce, diverse social interactions and the colourful behaviour of what Jane Jacobs called ‘public characters’, the health of a city is measured in the variance and dynamism of its streetlife. Distinct from the sanitised civic ideal espoused by the likes of US conservative politician Rudy Giuliani, it is the fertile and very public chaos of the metropolis that produces vitality, fosters creativity and gives rise to neighbourhoods that police themselves. But as urban development for the wealthy transforms cities worldwide, the variance of life’s rich pageant is being replaced with a bland existential uniformity facilitating one thing only: consumption.

It is the same with contemporary art. The sector is almost entirely captured by private finance, while the production, display and evaluation of art is awash with conservative conformity or outmoded ‘transgression’. But it wasn’t always so. ‘Great Noises that Fill the Air’, the arresting retrospective of artist and experimental music collective Bow Gamelan Ensemble (BGE), arrives like a rousing dispatch from another time. Theirs was a period in which the city and the sector were rough and ready places, locations where three artists could erect, play and set off vast constructions of scrap metal, glass and pyrotechnics, and audiences were willing to stand in the wind, rain and cold to see it.

Displayed across the stairwells, galleries and transitional spaces of Dundee’s Cooper Gallery, the exhibition eschews the trappings of a document-heavy, traditional retrospective. Though a conventional chronological hang could easily begin with profiles of BGE’s well-known members – performance artist Anne Bean (Interview AM398), sculptor Richard Wilson and musician Paul Burwell – ‘Great Noises’ opts for an immersive mix of video, kinetic sculpture and More Bang for Your Buck, 2018, an installation of the group’s self-made instruments left over from their opening night performance. I arrived that evening just as the final peals of Nalemag 2, 2018 – a newly composed and choreographed piece played by Bean, Wilson and six students enlisted from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design – were ringing out. I spoke to two students afterwards, Calum Ingram and Conor Gray, who described participating in the work as ‘the best thing [they’d] ever done’. Their wide-eyed wonder and enthusiasm was mirrored in the faces of audience members left dazed and praising BGE’s ‘thrilling’ mix of sound and light. ‘Did you hear the sound they got by firing those blow torches through the tubes?’ a man exclaimed to a friend, ‘it sounded like the beginning of the world.’

Between Cooper Gallery’s first and second level is a large floor-to-ceiling video projection of past BGE performances. Clips of Bean, Wilson and Burwell emerging from billows of smoke, setting off fireworks, banging metal drums filled with fire and navigating huge modular structures of their instruments fill the unlit stairwell with flashes of light. They create a strobing effect reminiscent of the darkened BGE performances that are usually punctuated by luminous eruptions of cascading sparks, flying rockets or naked flames. Amidst a dispersed array of monitors on the second floor is an emotive video by Bean, an affecting meditation on collaboration and collectivity that had its debut at Cooper in 2010. Also shown as part of a three-day exhibition that year at Matt’s Gallery commemorating the death of Paul Burwell (1949-2007 – Obituary AM304), Self Portrait. Who Of?, 2010, is a montage of archival and recent footage of Burwell and Bean, edited together so that the two are engaged in a kind of dialogue across time.

In interpretative and critical texts written on BGE, the search for art-historical antecedents usually reaches back to Russian composer Arseny Avraamov’s ‘Symphony of Sirens’ or to Luigi Russolo – in-house musicologist for the proto-fascist Italian Futurists and author of The Art of Noises. BGE’s use of unpitched non-traditional instruments and performances in civic open air spaces like Rainham in east London naturally lend themselves to comparisons with the aforementioned pair. In their newly commissioned kinetic sound and light installation Bow Lines, 2018, one of the many music-stand-like constructions featuring archival photographs, documents and cassette tapes collected since the group’s inception in 1983 carries images of Avraamov’s performance and Russolo among his ‘Intonarumori’ noise instruments. However, a more apt precursor would be the work and instrument construction of Harry Partch, an American composer with a distinctly progressive, anti-establishment approach to music, tuning, performance and collaboration. It is, after all, the countercultural possibilities of BGE’s work that offer a vital alternative to our standardised present.

Commentators generally assign music a distinctly democratic participatory status apart from all other art forms, crediting the existence of some innate prelinguistic understanding of it with the supposed ease of its reception. Appreciation and critical appraisal of sound is said to be ‘natural’, automatic and instinctually enacted by everyone. The reality is this pseudo universality has developed over time as a result of the sheer uniformity of popular music. For at least the past hundred years human beings have largely been listening to the same lyrical themes, the same melodic and harmonic structures and the exact same time signature of 4/4 rhythm, over and over again. The work of BGE, in all its atemporal, arhythmic, atonal glory exists as a challenge to such compositional standardisation, and to the regulation of bodies in urban spaces soundtracked and animated by the chrononormativity of 4/4 music. ‘Great Noises that Fill the Air’, then, is a comprehensive and engrossing retrospective of not only a unique artist collective, but of a city and a set of attitudes that have virtually disappeared. How did we let that transformation happen? The question rang like a struck bell in my mind as I walked slowly through Cooper’s interior. It echoed out and into the streets of Dundee, lined with the same chain stores homogenising every regional city in the UK. It echoed through the streets of central London when I returned to a West End of tourists, floating Yodas and cold-shouldered street homeless. And it continues to echo through the deathly galleries and institutions shamelessly presenting hierarchy, exclusivity and conservatism as culture in the UK’s capital. ‘Great Noises’ reminds us that an alternative is always within reach. All we have to do is seize it.

Bow Gamelan Ensemble’s ‘Great Noises that Fill the Air’ is at Cooper Gallery, Dundee, 27 October to 15 December 2018.

Morgan Quaintance is an artist and writer.

First published in Art Monthly 422: Dec-Jan 18-19.

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