Formed in 1996 Japanese improvisational quartet Marginal Consort reconnect only once a year to perform together without any prior discussion. The notion that one of these occasions could be in Melbourne seemed a little too good to be true, though thanks to the Melbourne International Jazz Festival (surely some of their most unexpected programming in recent years) and Room40 we all find ourselves in the grand hall of Newport’s Substation on a cold Melbourne night.
They’ve encamped in each of the four corners of the rectangular room, each with a table filled with all manner of weird and wonderful sonic items, and their own personal speakers. It exists somewhere between a soundclash and spacialisation, as the sounds they each create only emanates from this location.
Whilst it felt like a reunion for many of the heavy hitters of Melbourne’s experimental music scene (I saw people I haven’t seen for years), strangely enough most folks were seated on foam mats in the centre of the room, leaving latecomers (such as myself) to circle the room at the edges, to look at the strange implements on the table and make a mental date to return when our favourite item saw the light of day. Ok, abacus check, fishing rod, yep I wanna see what he does with that, strange sculpture with metal hanging off it – hell yeah.
Marginal Consort felt like super heroes – each with their own unique talents. One likes percussion and sampled voices, another is obsessed with DIY electronics and traditional stringed instruments, then there’s the experimental mad scientist with beakers of gurgling water and crazy self made spring instruments, whilst the remainder plays a fishing rod with a bow and finds rhythm in teacups. It was particularly strange wandering from station to station, attracted to a sound from the other side of the room. There was a real sense of wonderment as these middle aged men played with their truly ridiculous abundance of noise making items. Perhaps this is what a mid life crisis looks like for an experimental musician.
Beginning just after 7pm they played without a break for just over three hours, their sounds equally merged together unexpectedly, or felt entirely disparate without any sense of reason or coordination. Were they even listening to each other? Or just unquestionably pursuing their own sonic agenda without any notion or care for what was happening around them? It was clearly the latter, but within that you get the sense that there was some kind of divine belief or trust that the universe would deliver and the music would coalesce and make some kind of sense as a unified whole – which it did and didn’t.
Eventually as the more theatrical members plied their trade, some folks were coaxed from the middle of the room for a closer look, and it was here with a little more stepping room that you were able to become your own mixer. The guy banging his chair is too loud? Then move closer to the guy bouncing a blow up ball. Or are you getting sick of the guy shaking his abacus? Well take a few steps to the right and you can get closer to the woodwind guy playing PVC pipe. It was that kind of night.
It felt like a 1960’s sit-in, where the duration was as much the performance as the strange items they each played. At certain points I felt like I couldn’t take anymore, then a few moments later I’d be mesmirised, losing myself in the glorious absurdity of it all. Strangely enough it all coalesced about 20 minutes from the end – or at least it did from where I was standing. With some bowed strings and enveloping keys there was something near evangelical about the music, despite the clamour from the other side of the room, and it just sat on this moment, holding the warmth and beauty.
It was a fascinating night that left me with as many questions as answers. Why wont they listen to each other? Will they lose something by doing that? How do you find value in this kind of music? Is it about your love of one or more of their gestures? Or about those moments when the separate parts become the whole? Also if they only play once a year how could they be playing again next week in Sydney?