Ernie Althoff - The postcards series
reviewed by John JenkinsPerformer, composer and graphic artist Ernie Althoff holds a special affection for many who have engaged with experimental music in Australia. A designer of unique sound environments and music making machines, his installations are like graphic essays in lateral thinking. His means are often exceedingly simple, but what he does with them is extraordinary. Many pieces have been shown in galleries throughout Australia.
In his talk, the composer discussed his "search for intriguing sonorities and challenging contexts in which to place them", with specific reference to his Postcards series (published in the US journal Experimental Musical Instruments), which presented 13 separate plans for his machines and musical ideas, each in a unique graphic form.
Some of the Postcards pieces have been realised, and others have been the basis of constructions, that "somehow cropped up later, and then simply gelled".
The card for Gold, Frankincense and Myrrrrh (1995) is typical, in that it provides a diagram, showing how simple objects can be linked together to produce an intricate tissue of sounds.
"I like to use standard household objects," says Althoff. "They are affordable, and easily available. It's all part of my low-tech and user-friendly approach."
Feedback in the Wind (1999) is another postcard (graphic score) with a diagram showing how to construct a simple sound machine. If the machine is constructed according to directions, the piece is thereby simultaneously 'composed', 'played' and 'realised'. Feedback in the Wind relies on random wind power, with 20 or so tiny machines to be set up in an open field. In each, the wind blows a sail mounted to a small pendulum, which tips over at a point of balance, and stretches or relaxes a mono-filament line connecting two small speakers wired to a cassette player. Random wind swirls produce ever-changing feedback patterns between pairs of connected speakers, as the signal catches or drops off.
"I am fascinated that speakers are microphones, and microphones are speakers," he says. "I also like to think my audience is free and not confined, with every member free to simply wander around, and enjoy the space, sounds and machines from all sorts of visual and acoustic vantage points, as they like. This is very different to the concert hall. It also opens up many interesting spaces for me, both indoors and outdoors."
In many Althoff works, "small sounds are set out over a wide area," so there is a horizontal distribution of timbres and sonorities. It is a base level that relies on the listener's own close and subtle attention.
Running Hot and Cold (1996) is an ingenious machine that uses melting ice to produce sounds, when water droplets are distributed by a turntable device onto the face of a hot electric iron. There is a charming pun in Running Hot and Cold, too, about the redefined function of steam irons - a playful deflation of our normal expectation of machines, which can be found throughout Althoff's work. His 'assembly lines' are not 'productive', in the conventional sense. Or are they? They may not make widgets: but, instead, produce units of experience, units of sonic attention, time to listen and to ponder – small-scale and low-tech industrial vibes, fabrics and textures of sonorities. Althoff says: "I regard these assemblies as little compositions in their own right, because of their completeness within themselves."
Among kindred spirits and people producing sympathetic or inspiring work, Althoff names the Japanese artist Mineko Grimmer, who worked for a while with John Cage. Then there's the Mauricio Kagel piece Zwei-Mann-Orchester (1973), in which just two people play many instruments. Also people around the 'windworld' website, based in the US. "It makes me feel I'm working in parallel with people I respect, from a larger world community," he says.
After the Listening (1998) was "a response to sound sculptures in a group show". There were several pieces in one space, with sounds 'leaking' between one work and the next. Althoff's postcard shows diagrams of various headgear and helmets fitted with cones, listening horns, novel stethoscopes, listening tubes and earpieces. These "filter" sounds to achieve "extreme auditory focus". The gentle humour is not without its point. "It really is about our listening capability, focus, and the process of listening," he says.
"I have ideas for various mobile and travelling devices, and kinetic/sonic machines – both large and small-scale ones – in my 'ideas book'. Most have not been realised – well, not yet," he says.
Titles of pieces in the Postcards series are very suggestive, and readers can use their imagination. They include The Drumbone (1997), an electric-motor-and-beater powered tube-drum, in which "the harmonic content of the tube is altered with a slider." Also, The Electric Friction Tube Set (1996), a set of multi-length resonant tubes producing sounds via electric motors that rotate knurled beaters inserted into the array. Hydraulics for Musical Glasses (1998) is a rotating platform with glasses filled with liquid, into which masses are lowered to produce pitch changes. A Steve Reich Machine (1997) is a complex mobile of microphones blown by fans and suspended above feedback-producing loudspeakers.
Finally, The Knee Jerk Reaction (1996) is Althoff's nod to folk and blues players, buskers and street performers. He says: "The inspiration for this piece is the one-man band." The postcard diagram shows a seated horn player. Mounted on his knees is a balance-lever and pendulum device, to which beaters, striking gongs and other instruments, may be attached.
"A large part of my work is pure experimentation. I like to keep things in a manageable scale. To set a problem that isn't going to run away from me. I want the result to be user-friendly. And I want all the bits to fit easily into a station wagon! I am always looking forward to the next idea. That's the exciting and creative challenge."
© 2004 John Jenkins and NMA Publications.