Archive for June, 2013

This year’s Vivid festival has, as ever, brought Sydney alive with Art. We have had Kraftwerk and the parti-coloured Opera House, we have had Wagner-a-la-multimedia and Johnny Cupcakes.

But one of the most striking and jaw-dropping works presented under the Vivid umbrella must be ‘test pattern [No 5]’, a stunning installation by acclaimed Japanese audio-visual artist Ryoji Ikeda at Redfern’s Carriageworks.

test pattern no5

An ex-DJ and now Art multi-man, Ikeda is internationally renowned for creating spectacular sound and visual environments. The Carriageworks installation is an immersive audio-visual installation inspired by computer programming data which converts information into barcode and binary patterns.

Five visual projectors illuminate a floor screen measuring 30 metres long and 10 metres wide. People are allowed to walk across its surface, play with its ever changing black and white strobing patterns or just meditate in this new, ultra-aescetic, entirely non-natural world.

Its vast size and suggestion of infinity in reminiscent of the work of Yayoi Kusama, another contemporary Japanese visionary who makes strange new worlds for us to inhabit (and which end up inhabiting us). But whereas Kusama’s work is childlike, colourful and sweet-natured, ‘test pattern [No 5]’ is the opposite – severe, restricted in colour and sound, square edged and machine-made.

Which is not to say that it is not beautiful – its very severity and mathematical precision has an icy attractiveness that is almost luminously spiritual. There is no vanity here.

But all this critic’s talk would be lost on the children who seem to love it and leap into its striped light-pool – the adults hang back until their eyes and their preconceptions adjust. Watching the kids run, slide, trying to catch the quicksilver stripes as they ripple by I realise that we, the viewers, are an integral part of ‘test pattern [No 5]’. Our interaction – soft-edged, human-scale, human-shaped – contrasts excitingly with the machine geometry of the work and its computer-perfect rhythms. It makes us beautiful and – in turn – we soften its geometry back to nature.


‘test pattern [No 5]’ Installation is showing at Carriageworks, Redfern until 1 July, 10am – 6pm daily, and entry is free.


Published June 2013 on


The first time I listened to Jen Cloher’s new record, In Blood Memory, I was in bed, awash on a sea of cheap red wine, rolling in that place between sleep and wake. I always thought it was the perfect place to listen to music – an uncritical space where intellect is irrelevant and feeling is all.

Sort of like the best rock and roll.

The second time I listened to In Blood Memory – thinking its beauty had seduced me on that first drunken listen while I wasn’t looking – was on a night train, rolling through the city. Once again, Cloher’s music took me away, the passing rail lights twinkling as if in a dream.

Jen Cloher

In Blood Memory is a collection of songs that seem to call from that primal place where the best music and art is made. Evanescent, ill-defined, dreamily visceral, cloudy. It is the hazy place of The Velvet UndergroundBitches Brew, one-chord blues, Mark Rothko’s blur-edged canvases.

It is also very very beautiful, with a beauty that is just beyond your grasp, and far far beyond language.

A song such as ‘Name In Lights’, the album’s second track, swings between angular rock and roll (with a nicely smacked-out ‘Wild Thing’ garage breakdown in the middle) and a frenzied ending, the band almost drowning Cloher’s “There’s nothing I can do” refrain in dervish-like intensity. This coda brings to mind that of the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” where a repeated pattern is slowly sand-blasted by howling synthesized wind until detail is eradicated down to white noise. Once again, the blurred shape.cloher2

The final track, ‘Hold My Hand’ has a similar curve, with an ominous thunderhead of an ending (with a raw-edged dissonant final chord) surprising after a coolly passionate song.

‘Kamikaze Origami’ and ‘David Bowie Eyes’ (“one is green and one is blue”) are Lou Reed country-rock gems. The latter has Cloher singing “She’s got David Bowie eyes” with the same downward inflection that Kim Carnes put on 1981’s “She’s Got Bette Davis Eyes”. Pop culture references abound throughout In Blood MemoryDarren Hanlon rubs denimed shoulders with YokoMeryl Streep breaks on through with The Lizard King. Cloher can’t help singing the word “changes” as “ch-ch-changes” on ‘Name In Lights’.

As wonderful as the songs are – and every one is wonderful – it is Jen Cloher’s voice and the band that elevate the album. She inhabits each song as only a songwriter can (think Paul Simon, Reed or Lennon), swaggering, aching (the luminous ‘Needs’), spitting over unwashed guitars (the Stonesy rolling ‘Toothless Tiger’). ‘Toothless Tiger’ shows her band as a band – a breathing many-armed beastie that lives a full life if only for 3:52. That the same band can also weave fresh-air country tapestries such as ‘Kamikaze Origami’ is nicely surprising.

In Blood Memory is a very beautiful album of great rock and roll. It puts Jen Cloher firmly to the forefront of Australian songwriters. If I hear a better Oz album this year I will be pretty bloody surprised.


Prior to publishing this review I asked Jen a handful of questions. Here are her responses:

TOP: It is four years since your last album, Hidden Hands. What was the spark that led to In Blood Memory?

Cloher: I’d been writing for a couple of years, doing all sorts of stuff. I spent some time co-writing and even recorded some duets, one with Kieran Ryan and another with Courtney Barnett. But I found co-writing strange, it was fun but it didn’t feel like I’d want to write a whole album that way. I guess I was trying to find something new to open up my songwriting. One day I picked up the guitar and started writing a song called ‘Mount Beauty’ and it felt different, there was something about it that felt new. That was the first single from the new album and opened the door to the rest of the album. It came very quickly after that, over about six months, then we headed straight into the studio and recorded the album in six days.

TOP: The band really sounds like a band – how do you as songwriter interact with your chosen musos? Benevolent despot or one of the guys?

Cloher: We recorded live in a big room with my band at Headgap Studios in Melbourne. They’re my closest friends and I see them pretty much everyday, so there isn’t too much that needs to be communicated. When you’re recording live you have to listen closely to each other and move as a whole. I love that feeling, of finding a great performance in the studio and committing it to tape.

TOP: There are references to a return to youth in several of the songs – ‘Make me feel like I’m seventeen/Listening to the Lizard King…’ or ‘I’ll pretend I’m younger…’  Do you feel your generation feels this more keenly than any previous generation?

Cloher: It’s hard to say. All I know is that I’m getting older, and when you get older you start to reflect on where you’ve come from. It’s strange because you never think you are going to get older and then all of a sudden you are. We live in a society where expectation is placed on your age. I see younger friends feeling like failures in their mid 20’s! It’s ridiculous how much emphasis we place on achieving certain things by a certain age, people are celebrated for being young and successful. But when it comes to art, who really cares how old you are? It’s the art that will stand the test of time.

TOP: Where do your songs come from?

Cloher: If I knew I’d go there all the time.

TOP: ‘Ch-ch-changes’, ‘David Bowie Eyes’, Yoko, Meryl Streep – Pop culture seems to be just under the skin of your songs. Does Pop culture inform your approach to writing?

Cloher: It’s strange but for some reason all of these pop culture references started to find their way into my songs. I guess I discovered how much I am influenced by what has gone before me. While I was writing the album I was reading Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids’ and Neil Young’s ‘Shaky’ – two artists with very different but equally intriguing journeys through rock n roll. I also name check Darren Hanlon in the song ‘Name In Lights’ because he’s a legend.

TOP: Your vocal delivery seems to carry a great deal of light and shade. You are a NIDA graduate – do you feel as if theatre work shapes how you deliver a song?

Cloher: Absolutely, it’s not a conscious decision I make when I write a song but songs are essentially stories, and a story is always going to end somewhere different to where it started. I love epic songs for that reason. After listening to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ or Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ you feel transformed. That’s the power and chemistry of music – the ability to communicate so much in such a sort amount of time.


Jen Cloher and her band launch In Blood Memory at Melbourne’s Vic at The Corner Hotel Friday 28 June. In Sydney the launch is at The Oxford Art Factory Friday 12 July.

Published June 2013 on


Walking in late, two minutes into the first number of US tenor icon Ernie Watts’ gig at VJ’s, I was blasted by four cats utterly grooving high. No warm-up for these men – it was straight into the blistering bop of ‘To The Point’, a Watts original from 2008. The power and hurtling momentum of the band hit me so hard I remained standing until they had finished.

This was going to be good.

Watts-the band

The auditorium of Chatswood’s VJ’s jazz venue was packed and every head was bobbing, riveted. Watts is en route to the glamour of the Brisbane Jazz Festival, but he and his band played as if this small room gig was their last on earth. Even when Watts led his men through the calmer waters of a Christof Saenger (piano) original, the electricity didn’t die off, it just glowed cooler.

After some wry (and elliptically droll) banter from Watts, the band played through the title track of his latest album ‘Oasis’ – an arrangement with a definite John Coltrane minarets-and-dunes vibe to it. In fact, Coltrane’s deep blue-brown shadow cast its shape over much of Watt’s music, tone and phrasing (those delicious phrase endings…) not least in moments such as his sparring duet with drummer Heinrich Cobberling during ‘To The Point’ – its firepower bringing to mind some of the famous Coltrane-Elvin Jones horn-drums rave-ups.

Watts-111But this is hardly surprising knowing Ernie Watts’ deep sense of the history of his music, Jazz. In a recent interview with the ABC’s Gerry Kosta, Watts spoke of the presence of jazz history in the playing of the Free Jazz virtuosi, something not immediately obvious in the wiry tangled skeins of their music. Watts himself seems a living repository of many voices now gone – and he speaks of them most eloquently through his horn.

Which is not to say, of course, his own horn’s voice is in any way derivative or pastiche – his balance of skyscraping technique and real blue soul exemplifies what is the true twin-gift of Jazz, albeit one heard too rarely. The band gave us a light-speed reading of the Parker-Gillespie 1945 be-bop head-spinner ‘Shaw ‘Nuff’ that proved the point, no argument (and at times threatened to go off the dial).

After a short interval (really, VJ’s?: only a gold coin donation for a glass of wine? You don’t know jazz fans…) the band was back with Coltrane’s ‘Crescent’ and The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’. The latter, as well as featuring a tasty 6/8 blowing middle section, showed the eclecticism that has taken Watts beyond the sometimes trad-Dad borders of Jazz into sessions with Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa (Watts plays ‘mystery horn’ on Zappa’s 1972 big band album The Grand Wazoo).Watts-Rudi Engel bass

This wider view of the music characterises the smart and eclectic arrangements that Watts puts before his quartet. Usually, a group this small plays only ‘head’ arrangements, groping and hoping for shape to evolve during performance. Watts’ group could – and did – certainly move freely through the ‘open’ sections of the tunes but there were also smartly considered ensemble sections – such as on the coolly swinging Keith Jarrett tune ‘No Lonely Nights’.

Encore was a lithe blues that featured a rolling bass solo from Rudi Engel before Watts returned to ‘converse’ individually with each player – bass, drums piano – to take the tune out. The conversation was bright, good-natured, sweet and hot – much like the conversation Ernie Watts had been having with the crowd at VJ’s all night. He really gave us the good word.

All pics: AlanS Photographics

Published June 2013 on

In all the arts – music and film especially – many sins can be forgiven if a work has heart. The Beatles’ chirpier songs, The Sound Of Music, most Country music, Sly Stallone’s original Rocky – all beloved by millions, and who cares why. They all have heart.

Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace and Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Traynor

Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace and Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Traynor

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Lovelace, screening as part of the 2013 Sydney Film Festival program, has a big heart. A simple story of the trials and tribulations of early 70s pornstar Linda Lovelace that doesn’t delve too deep beneath the skin of its characters, Lovelace pushes all the right emotional buttons – goodies, baddies, pain, suffering, triumph.

lovelace posterEx-US soap star Amanda Seyfried is nicely cast as the innocent Linda Boreman who is manoeuvered into acting in porn films by her slippery husband, Chuck Traynor – played with coked-up menace by Peter Sarsgaard. He finagles her a starring role in Deep Throat, where her cino-fellatio skills make it a massive hit – the “’Gone With The Wind’ of porn’. Pretty soon we see Hugh Hefner offering to make Linda (now Lovelace) a ‘real’ movie star.

That is the brief, meteoric version of her success. Andy Bellin’s script then doubles back and replays the story in finer detail – allowing the darker truths and violent pain behind the seemingly endless party to bleed through. (And this party has a great soundtrack – as in most films evoking the 70s, the music is almost as much a star as any of the leads).

But Linda Lovelace’s life was anything but a party. Shunned by her Catholic-hard mother – an unrecognisable Sharon Stone – bullied into degrading porn by Traynor, who beat her, terrorised her and pimped her out to ‘associates’ for hotel room gang-bangs, Lovelace suffered long and hard. In the short version, we see their wedding night as tender lovemaking; in the longer, later version we see this is only a prelude to Traynor violently sodomising her.

When she tries to escape to her parent’s house, her mother lectures her about obeying her husband and sends her back; when he beats her in the street, one of the policemen who pull up in a squad car asks her for her autograph before telling Traynor to take her home and ‘clean her up’; when she finally writes her memoirs (entitled Ordeal), the publisher makes her take a polygraph to see if she is telling the truth.

Sharon Stone

Sharon Stone

No one believes her; she doesn’t exist. It is a continuation of the idea that pornography is about power over the powerless. But because the movie is more about people than theory, the other idea here is that of survival.

Chloë Sevigny plays a jaded porn actress, Rebecca, who explains to the newbie Lovelace that after a few years she will need to develop other ‘skills’ in order to survive. Seeing the bruises on Linda’s thigh – black-and-blue fruits of Traynors’ beatings – she answers Linda’s limp excuse (‘I’m so clumsy’) with a knowing ‘Aren’t we all…’.

Chuck Traynor survives his own way, cruel and parasitic as it is. The Deep Throat filmmakers – played with oily, perma-tanned relish by Hank Azaria and Bobby Cannavale – survive their own way. Even the shady financier, Anthony Romano – Sex and The City’s Mr Big, Chris Noth – is a survivor. Although at different levels on its slippery slope, they are all scratching away at the same gold mountain to see what flakes off.

We can look at Lovelace and tut-tut about the objectification of women, and the whole dehumanising aspect of pornography in those Bad Olde Days. However, today, women’s heightened awareness of themselves and their potentialities seems to be countered by a gargantuan pornography industry that makes its 70s version look like a slightly goofy and almost adolescent Amateur Hour.

But that is not what Lovelace is about – the film chooses to leave these larger thoughts alone. The big beating heart of this movie is Linda’s story: one of survival. Linda Lovelace was one tough little nut that they didn’t crack and Lovelace tells her story beautifully.

Lovelace screens as part of the Sydney Film Festival, Saturday 15th June.

Published June 2013 on