BY MYLES OAKEY, CUTCOMMON YOUNG WRITER OF THE YEAR
Composer and guitarist Chris Perren has honed a compositional sound which he explores through a variety of ensembles for their sonic possibilities: solo works through Software of Seagulls; duos through the Artless Pursuit of Excellence; septets through Nonsemble; and other audiovisual works for chamber ensemble.
For indie-classical group Nonsemble – featuring piano quintet, guitar, and drums – Chris takes his compositional style and “squeezes it through” the unique chamber group. Nonsemble first formed in connection with Chris’s composition PhD at the University of Queensland under the supervision of Rob Davidson. Now, two albums and one EP later, Nonsemble are starting to “feel their age”, and maturity, as they take the time to revisit some older works alongside the new, and appreciate just how far they’ve come.
On September 2 at Brisbane’s Cupo, Nonsemble will double-headline with internationally acclaimed jazz trio Trichotomy, where they hope to show audiences that they share more in common than just the stage.
Chris talks to us about composing, curating, and Cupo.
This concert has been in the works for a while. What is it about the jazz trio Trichotomy and Nonsemble that you wanted to put together?
I’ve never really been a fan of jazz, to be honest. When I did my undergraduate music degree, I reached my peak with jazz and haven’t really been able to handle it ever since [laughs]. So I’ve just been disconnected with that world. But it was through work that I first came into contact with Trichotomy pianist Sean Foran. I got to know him and started listening to a lot more of his music. I was listening to his stuff and thinking: ‘This is pretty similar to what we do, actually’. So that opened me up to this whole new world of contemporary jazz and chamber ensembles, and where that’s going.
Jazz ensembles like Trichotomy are coming at the same sort of sound world but from a different angle: the chords they use; the cyclical time signatures; the moods they evoke – there’s a lot in common. For me, it was Sean’s approach that was most interesting. He played me a composition he’d written for small jazz ensemble and orchestral instruments. Before showing me the score, I expected pages and pages of detail notations, which it would’ve been for Nonsemble. But it was just a few pages of notes; just a sketch of chords and melodies and direction for improvisation. Yet, the sonic result sounded really cohesive to me. We’d ended up reaching the same sonic ground from two very different places. That was just so interesting for me to see, so I felt like that experience would be something valuable to share with audiences.
Nonsemble has done a lot with the successful Dots+Loops series, but this time you’re in the role of curator. What experience did you want to create for the audience?
My background has been putting on underground and DIY shows. And I’m into creating a fairly intimate environment where the audience can feel pretty comfortable; to feel like the musicians are on the same level as them and that, maybe, whoever is playing in the first set might end up sitting next to them during the second set – that sort of casual experience.
The venue Cupo looks to be a beautiful space. Tell us about it.
There’s no permanent stage, and it’s one level, so you can just walk in and put the stage wherever you like. When I used to run underground shows, about 10 years ago now, the organisers and venues were only just holding it together under the pressures of regulation that wanted to put an end to it. But Cupo have a great approach; they’re able to keep it relaxed, keep it DIY, they allow you to do whatever you like with the space, and at the same time they’re able run the business world – they have their thing together. There’s no fear of it folding tomorrow.
So, what’s on the cards for the Cupo gig?
We’re going to play two movements from our work Go Seigen vs Fujisawa Kuranosuke, a piece inspired by the movements within a famous match of Japanese Go; and also one or two movements from our debut release Practical Mechanics. When we pulled the Practical Mechanics scores out a rehearsal the other night, it reminded us that we’ve been around for a while now! It was cool to revisit the works and see how our style has changed and, for me, how much my perspective on composing and style has changed.
In what way do you feel like your style has changed, or in what way do you feel like you’ve progressed from, say, Practical Mechanics to Spaceship Earth to your latest work Fiberglass Forestry?
When I look at the Practical Mechanics scores, I see their strength in how bold they are, and how bold I was then. I wasn’t really steeped in the classical world, and so I didn’t have many of the anxieties that can come from that. I didn’t have to appeal to anyone or any ideal about what art music was supposed to be. I still try to avoid those feelings. But it’s hard; it creeps in. The weaknesses of those pieces, I guess, is that I had no idea about what I was doing with string instruments and chamber environments. When I look back at them, sometimes I think that I’d love to rewrite them; but I don’t think that’d be a good idea because they’re an interesting document of that that time. They have purity about them.
You’ve achieved high recognition for your audiovisual work, being invited to TEDx Brisbane, winning first prize in the AV Section at the MTAQ Composers’ Competition, as well as the Australian Music Centre Prize for an Ensemble work. I’ve experienced first-hand the synchronised visualisations in checking out your work Major League Geometry, and this changed how I interpreted your music. What has been your intent for the visual?
Initially, my hope was to visualise difficult patterns. I was writing a lot of music where there were these cyclical patterns, going out of line and coming back in again, which to me, on paper, looked so interesting. The music sounded great to me, but I also realised that for a listener who is not aware of those patterns and isn’t looking at the score, it might sound cool but also kind of random: a note here, a note there. It can be difficult to hear an underlying pattern to it all. That got me thinking about how I could translate those patterns into a visual representation to make it clear to the listener. I found theses mathematical patterns fascinating, and I felt that if the audience wasn’t getting it then they’re missing out on something.
What audiovisual work can people expect to see at Cupo?
What’s really great about the gig on September 2 is that our previous piano player Sam Mitchell is back in town from the United Kingdom, so we have two pianists. And on top of that we have use of Cupo’s projector. So we’re going to make the most of it by performing one of my works called Samurai Loops for two pianos and video. It’s really exciting.
I read in some of the gig promo that the drink prices are pretty good at Cupo! I was wondering, do you think music sounds better with a beer?[Laughs] I think by inviting the audience to have a beer, it changes the perception of the whole experience; not because alcohol is important or necessary, but because it’s a signifier of a more casual atmosphere – a place where you’re allowed to do more things than sit quietly and clap when you’re supposed to. It says to the audience: ‘You can come in here and do whatever you want’. And I definitely feel more relaxed as an audience member with that freedom.
Nonsemble will be performing in a double headline show with jazz trio Trichotomy at Brisbane’s Cupo in the Valley on September 2. Follow the links for more information about Nonsemble and Chris Perren.