The prospect of reviewing an eight-and-a-half hour festival, I’ll admit, is a bit of a daunting one. But when presented with the airtight Sunday program of the music box project’s (tmbj) weekend-long Cut Paste Play Festival, I couldn’t pin down a place to duck out for a quick break without missing something important.

Branded as “a festival of music outside the usual order of things”, Cut Paste Play had found an absolute dream home in Camperdown’s Church Street Studios. The more you look around , the more oddities make themselves apparent: a French horn chandelier; a contrabass clarinet serving as a lamp stand; Devil’s ivy streaming out of the bells of saxophones; a freakishly long flute mounted in the entryway. It rivalled the festival in quirk and charm.

Hamed Sadeghi was the first performer of the day, and the close-knit venue suited his set perfectly. He performed unamplified on tar, with hammer-ons so clean they barely registered. His set was one of two that tmbp purposed as a “double shot of audio coffee”, a way to ease into the day. 

The next shot was composer Amanda Cole, giving her first-ever public performance on the Lumatone, a MIDI controller crafted for microtonal performance. With her own bespoke scores breaking down a 48-note scale, the work offered a really off-kilter sound world. Some notes would snag on your ears, others would sound surprisingly natural. Performing one track with flautist Naomi Johnson and another with violist James Eccles, both grounded the works and pushed it further into alien tonal territory. Showing top-down projections of the instrument to show how Cole played it was a brilliant idea.

Clocked Out Duo performing at Cut Paste Play. Photo © CactusCan

Each performance was interspersed with an interlude, the first of which was between tmbp violinist Jane Aubourg and artist Anita Johnson, builders of what they affectionately call ‘The Instrument’ – a fascinating, 1.6m long violin with its neck and body joined by a crutch, using sitar strings tied to violin strings to scale its length.

Aubourg then performed a series of small, meditative works on The Instrument that leaned into its idiosyncrasies, with the aid of a loop pedal. When Aubourg to the small, looping melodic cells that opened one piece, you could hear the discrepancies in the instrument’s tuning over the course of it being played – a feature, not a bug, in this work.

A light lunch then gave opportunity for emerging composer Isabella Rahme to talk through her sound installation work that stood in the foyer of the building.  The work was almost uncomfortably site-specific, she revealed – a whispering speaker in the entrance was reciting the names of all ticket holders; a pair of headphones was a glitchy ‘mash-up’ of recordings of the artists that would play the festival. Drones were built out of instruments that were featured in the space.

Melbourne-based Ossicle Duo were the first out-of-state act on the day’s program. They delicately dove into the microtextures and tiniest changes of sound. Benjamin Anderson performed with a double-belled trombone and an impressive collection of mutes, while percussionist Hamish Upton underpinned it with a variety of textures – objects rattling around in a steel drum, a coconut brush on a tambourine, bells and the tones of a thin wooden stick.

Stephen Adams and Naomi Johnson. Photo © CactusCan

It was followed by what proved to be one of the day’s most surprising highlights for me – a ‘post-radio’ interview by Stephen Adams and Naomi Johnson, who both produce for ABC Classic FM. They presented a part avant-garde work and half-discussion, using a series of radios and pre-recorded tracks. It was one of the most thoughtfully-constructed and thought-provoking works of the festival. Musing on new music, Adams nailed it when he said it was “a fabulously slippery term”.

Then, tmbp took the stage. They performed five works –  four by its own members, three world premieres, and one Australian premiere. 

Though Aubourg had told me what to expect, I had no idea how to interpret it – as it turns out, it was absolutely literal. One world premiere, Titania, used Decibel’s ScorePlayer to musically imagine the chemical which helps in the removal of heavy metals. Another had the audience pick perfomance instructions out of chatterboxes.

Stick Snip Game, featuring avocados and pickles, had all the heart and sensibility of Cage’s Water Walk. Game rules were almost impossible to cipher, but, that’s the fun of it. The game board score, both projected and included in the program, does offer a few small clues, though it would have to see all the details in a larger version of it.

The final piece had tmbp join forces with an embroidery machine that was making the festival’s logo. What a fantastic musical find the rhythm of its needle and the melody of its machinery soared in a chamber setting.

Perhaps the biggest name on the lineup was Brisbane-based Clocked Out Duo; the mighty team of pianist Erik Griswold and percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson.

Tomlinson was using a warped, aged bass drum pulled from a corner of the studio. Weaving in processed, pre-recorded sound, melodica and the artificial sound of a MIDI synthesiser, the first work slowly unfurled. Griswold’s synthesised arpeggios were not let to fully realise, while Tomlinson used a stone to bend the pitch of a series of metal bowls. In the following tracks, parallels between Griswold’s prepared piano and Tomlison’s array of instruments make the ensemble larger than the sum of its parts. Performing to a choir of bubblewrap given to the audience,  they skating easily over changing meters. The gorgeous, mellow harmonies and strict rhythmic simpatico of the last piece was astounding, and the duo proved to be even more explosive than their recordings.

The Cut Paste Play Festival Orchestra performing Sticky. Photo © Sebastian Schmid.

The crown of Cut Paste Play was Sticky. Throughout the weekend-long festival, the audience was invited to write anything on a  sticky note, which the festival orchestra would then perform as a score. Some notes were instructive (LOUD), others worked like graphic notation (what does a prawn sound like? Now we know). Its descent into chaos was not quite immediate, but close to it. It was a silly, fun and community-minded way to end the festival.

A star rating is the wrong barometer to measure this by. Cut Paste Play was rough around the edges, but that’s entirely the point. It’s a powerful argument that there needs to be this kind of space for experimentation in Australia – low-stakes, exploratory, accessible, and one with a direct connection with its live audience. Almost every artist that took the stage on Sunday, established or emerging, was able to try something out for the first time and play out concepts unpolished. 

Perhaps most importantly, Cut Paste Play is a much-needed reminder to musicians and audiences alike, that music can just be fun. This is the ethos that floods every moment of Cut Paste Play, from the spirit of the performers to the audience, and what made the whole experience a joy.

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