Solo Series - 25th Anniversary AAO
To mark the Australian Art Orchestra’s 25th anniversary, we're presenting the Solo Series: a monthly video release that puts the spotlight on one of the twelve selected members from our pool of incredible AAO collaborators. In July we feature turntablist Martin Ng, along with liner notes by AAO Artistic Director Peter Knight.
Solo Series #7 - Martin Ng (watch video here) - turntables
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“Well for me, personally what I think enriches the audience most is if you seek to exact a calculated disappointment.” Martin Ng.
Recently I shared a meal with before a gig with Martin Ng and Matthew McGuigan from the Hospital Hill label. I’d been thinking about how to approach writing liner notes to accompany Martin’s exquisite performance for this Solo Series and so I flicked on my voice recorder. When I listened back I realised everything I needed was expressed in the conversation we shared. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
I asked Martin about the antecedents for the work he creates:
Martin - So for the solo work for the AAO, it comes from a particular view I have of my own music creation. Which is that, in a particular way, I am referencing a body of music that I have deep affinity with, like 3rd century Chinese classical music, Tibetan temple music, Korean traditional music like p’ansori, and I see that as my heritage.
Peter - Your cultural or musical heritage?
Martin - Well, it resonates with me but I also see it as my cultural heritage, I’m Chinese and I find that 3rd century or Three Kingdoms Chinese music, with its space and rhythm… in a way all those regions like Japanese or Korean music of that time or Chinese music have that use of space, and they have that kind of emphasis, not so much on rhythm, but using time as drama. And that the spaces in-between the events are just as important as the events. And actually in that piece dealing with a very limited sound world, but drawing deep within it. I think from that work is a long journey in that philosophy of drawing from that tradition.
But you know, when you listen to something like a koto player, and they have that flexibility in the notes they can get with that instrument. I actually think that, interestingly, with a turntable you can do that in the way the old masters did with those instruments. You achieve a different sound, but you can get at that intent. It’s just trying to further that sound language and idea that is ancient but with a set of instruments that are contemporary.
Peter - Wow. I would never have imagined that your answer to that question would have been 3rd century Chinese music and Japanese music, but it makes total sense, and so it’s a really nice process of learning.
Matthew - Yeah, see I would have thought maybe you’d say like Derek Bailey mixed with early 20th century electronic music.
Peter - Exactly, and I thought you’d be also talking about music concrète…
Martin - And I think that when I say that and then you think about it from what you saw [on the video] you can understand that it’s true, the tradition.
Matthew - Like a little two part, like a string instrument and a voice do a little thing, then there’s bass, then they do another little thing.
Peter - And also when I was watching the video I was noticing how often this one motif would come back, you would just keep bringing it back, and back, and back, and when you talk about it in terms of those musics it’s kind of like… it really makes sense.
Martin - I think it’s an unusual take on the way a DJ approaches turntables, I’ve never even heard of a DJ or a turntable player [approach turntables in this way].
Peter - Are you a DJ?
Matthew - When I’m describing you as a DJ, there’s something that feels wrong about that. I describe you as a turntablist.
Martin - So yeah I’m not sure I’ve heard any turntablists aspire to want to achieve that in their practice, but for a long time now, maybe for years, I’ve been trying to hone that idea.
Peter - And so what were you doing before that? When you would’ve called yourself a DJ? Before you started to hone that idea, what were you doing?
Martin - Well I was always trying to fight against the idea of a DJ’s practice being limited by the record box or what [records] you brought. It was always a response that was just innate in me.
Matthew - Did you have an idea that was creative? A thing you wanted to get across… And the turntables were an outlet?
Martin - No, I just happened to be the guy that listened to a lot of records, who was then DJing in a lot of high school parties and clubs. And then when I was in the club, I just got really bored, and I thought I’m just like a conveyer belt of beat syncing, and this is absolutely mind numbingly insanely boring, but actually if you look at the instruments it’s incredibly fascinating. I mean I was DJing in the 80s right, the mid 80s, and so instead of having two turntables I’d have three turntables and then instead of beat mixing like two techno records you’d have like one techno record on the right, and then you’d beat mix like an Egyptian tambourine record, solo, just hard left, and then in the middle you might manually spin like a Miles Davis trumpet solo or some weird thing like that. That’s essentially DJing. But that initially was like how I got bored of the idea of playing it as a DJ. And actually I said, “Fuck that”. Well actually it wasn’t my idea, it was then people who came to gigs that then said “Well actually you’re really interesting, maybe you should play in my band.” So people asking me to play in their band led to me then taking the decks out of that context and then playing in bands.
Peter - And so do you want people to actually feel anything in particular when they listen to your music? Are you trying to evoke something in particular?
Matthew - Because it seems like going from being like that regular DJ where the whole point is about the audience, then you’re slowly turning into fuck the audience. And are you now back to try to make something for the audience?
Martin - No, I don’t think so. Well for me, personally what I think enriches the audience most is if you seek to exact a calculated disappointment for them.
Peter and Matthew - [laughs].
Matthew - That’s beautiful.
Martin - I think that what I just said about the whole Chinese music history and things, I mean that’s very personal. When the AAO asked me to do this, this solo, I thought look, I should represent myself, my craft, and my particular view of music that I stand for, which is part of my craft. But the solo piece gets at many things that are interesting… As an improviser, I don’t like narrative anymore, I think narrative is disappointing. In succumbing to narrative you are not disappointing the audience.
Peter - You are disappointing yourself by not disappointing the audience?
Martin - Narrative is the circus trick of improvisation.
Matthew - Like the Golden Mean climax, then fade out.
Peter - That’s what you’re defining as narrative? Basically you are defining narrative as tension and release?
Martin - Yes, or the expected conventional drama of a musical piece. Like I think that experimental improvisation or Western improvisational practice has an expected dynamic. And I think that having spent the first half of my career embracing it, I think for me anyway one way forward is calculated disappointment.
AAO’s 25th Anniversary
This year the Australian Art Orchestra celebrates its 25th anniversary. I remember when the group was formed and the impact it had on me as an aspiring jazz musician - the first show I heard at The Continental in Prahran in Melbourne, with 20 of the most talented musicians on the scene. Bristling energy, barely tamed. It was exciting, and it reconfigured the idea I had for what a jazz musician could aspire to. There followed collaborations with musicians from Indonesia, Arnhem Land, and India, and performances of music written by the most challenging contemporary western composers. It was a long way from what I had experienced as a music student, and opened in my mind a world of possibility that was expansive and exciting and that was directly connected to the here and now.
The Australian Art Orchestra changed things for me, and I think it changed things for a lot of musicians and listeners. The vision of its founding artistic director, Paul Grabowsky, recognised that we live in a place of abundance and as ‘jazz’ musicians and artists that we need to respond to what’s around us rather than look primarily to America and Europe for inspiration. A quarter of a century on, I believe that vision is perhaps more relevant than ever.
In 2013 I was appointed the Orchestra’s second artistic director and have since tried to carry on this vision in my own way. The group certainly sounds very different now, and there are new faces, but I believe there is a thread we have woven through each of our projects that traces back to those first performances of Ringing the Bell Backwards in Melbourne in 1994.
This history is important. Understanding where we have come from as a group is crucial to building a vibrant future. As we celebrate 25 years we want to look forward while at the same time reaffirming our commitment to a set of core values that are centred on deep music practice and community building, and that also give space for the kind of individual creativity that made the first performance of the Orchestra I heard at The Continental in 1994 so exciting.
This individuality and anarchic spirit is somewhat at odds with a more traditional idea of an Orchestra, which is generally associated with blend and seamless integration. But this is a contradiction that the Australian Art Orchestra has always embraced, and it’s one of the things that sets this strange and wonderful organism apart from other musical groups. It’s also the defining aspect that I have focussed on to celebrate this 25th anniversary.
Each of the musicians we work with is an improviser, but more than that each has a highly refined, idiosyncratic, and personal language on their instrument. When we come together as a group, these voices are the starting point for our sound. The composers we commission listen to recordings made by our musicians to inform their compositional processes, and when we rehearse we spend time improvising together and workshopping ideas towards the creation of a collective language.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of this ‘orchestra of individuals’ we have chosen 12 musicians from our large pool of players to record solo improvisations that will form a portrait of the Australian Art Orchestra in 2019. Each of these recordings will also be captured on in high resolution video by innovative Melbourne company, Digital Pill. These videos will be released monthly with an accompanying photographic portrait by Sarah Walker, and a written response to the music.
Peter Knight, Artistic Director