★★★★★ Experimental violinist Jon Rose creates a terrifying performance that brings his museum of instruments to life.

Carriageworks, Sydney
October 28, 2016

A gritty buzzing came from the centre of the room, where a violin, expanded with machinery, produced a discordant, random-sounding music. The Data Violin – a robotic instrument that turns information from Wall Street into sound – was the centre-piece of experimental violinist Jon Rose’s Music for a Time of Dysfunction – Part 1.

The Data Violin intermittently whirred to life and fell silent. Sometimes it sustained tones from one or both of its strings and at other times frantic activity from the mechanical hooks that lined each side of the instrument threw out virtuosic flurries of distortion-heavy notes, the tone not unlike that of an overdriven electric guitar. Beneath the more violent sounds of the Data Violin, a softer tinkling of piano came from behind the audience – a player-piano performing a transcription of the sounds heard on a walk around the busy gaming room of the Sahara Casino in Las Vegas. The instruments are part of The Rosenburg Museum – Rose’s personal collection of violins and violinalia, which includes everything from bizarre instruments and images of violins, to home-made creations, toy violins and violin-shaped scotch bottles).

Jon Rose’s Data Violin on display in Berlin

Rose took the stage to make an adjustment at the Data Violin and queue Julia Reidy on electric guitar – a staccato repeated note – before taking his place at a strung, electric, wooden two-by-four that served as bass and percussion. Rose and the other instrumentalists – an expanded 10-piece Ensemble Offspring – surrounded the audience, the performance taking place across space as well as time. Plunged into darkness, machines whirred to life – automaton musicians augmenting the live ensemble – clicking and tapping coming from all directions as standing lamps flashed on and off, snaring the audience’s attention and splintering it across the space. No matter where in the room you sat, there was no way to take it all in.

A string quartet played from a platform, shooting harmonics and slides, while percussionist Claire Edwardes bowed an instrument consisting of a large metal frame strung with different kinds of fence wire – a product of Rose’s investigation of the sonic qualities of fences across Australia. Edwardes produced shining harmonics, brittle, scouring barbed-wire sounds and guttural low notes from the amplified instrument, crisp pops and echoing thunder as she bounced the bow on the wires. Pianist Zubin Kanga drew ethereal sounds from a decrepit junkyard organ.

Experimental violinist Jon Rose

The click of the standing lamps became part of the bewildering sonic and visual environment, rapidly spotlighting musical gestures – a sensory overload of flashing sound and activity that fuelled a swiftly rising anxiety. It became impossible to parse which sounds where human and which mechanical or electronic, the museum transformed into a kind of mad, haunted-house.

Reidy put down her electric guitar to mount a pedal-bike-turned-instrument that produced a textured rattling until she hit a button that filled out the sound with amplification and roiling pitches, her legs pumping the pedals. Electronic distortion and static spurted out of speakers, angry buzzes as if the flashing lamps were shorting out, the machines catching fire. Rose warped sickening lawn-mower pitches by adjusting the strings of his two-by-four.

Tonal figures from the string quartet permeated the onslaught, the sound-world disintegrating. The quartet’s music became lush, almost romantic, against cooling-engine ticks, like a record player that is somehow still playing, weakly, in a bombed out city.

Rose packed an enormous amount of sensation into a performance that clocked in at a little over 20 minutes. This was not a comfortable experience, but it was intensely vivid and engaging, with a frightening, economic lighting design consisting almost entirely of standing lamps. Music for a Time of Dysfunction – Part 1 was a masterful curation of chaos, highlighting the alarming experience – which is part of, but veiled in everyday life – of being held in thrall to complex systems we cannot fully grasp.

Jon Rose’s The Rosenburg Museum is at Carriageworks as part of the Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art until November 6. Music for a Time of Dysfunction – Part 1 plays until October 30, Music for a Time of Dysfunction – Part 2 plays November 2-5.