Non-Standard Constructions

Jon Rose
State Of Play
UK ReR Megacorp JR08 2 x CD (2021)

Not only a sound artist, but an instrument builder and author, Australian violin enthusiast Jon Anthony Rose thoughtfully provides us with a two-disc one-stop smorgasbord of well chosen examples of his practice. This fantastic catalogue is made even more enjoyable for the listener when augmented by this amazing video produced under the auspices of his Rosenberg Museum he’s put up on YouTube called “10 Violins”; wherein he demonstrates the possibilities afforded by various non-standard violin builds, occasionally augmented by what sounds like real-time computer processing of some kind. I don’t know what he’s using, but whatever it is it sounds fantastic, and I urge you to check it out.

The title State Of Play could refer to this material being considered as an overview of Rose’s achievements on violin and violin-hybrid instruments to date, or simply a document of his performance methodology. It’s a massive slice of Rose, that’s for sure. Now in his 70th year, Rose is known for working in, as Kurt Gottschalk puts it: “…video, text, performance, exhibition, installation and a methodical, almost maniacal, collecting of sources…Rose has been, and continues to be, a forward-thinking innovator who feels no particular debt to the reasonable…” I can’t argue with that. As an introduction to his work, Rose’s admirable resolve, ability, resourcefulness and imagination is beautifully put on display here.

Disc One is subtitled “duo improvisations” and features the alto saxophone of Jim Denley, Freya Schack-Arnott on the Nykelharpa – a keyed violin, the national musical instrument of Sweden Clayton Thomas on double bass and Robbie Avenaim on percussion, EMS and SARPS powered automatic strings, while the second disc is a selection of recordings from recent solo projects. My highlights of the first disc are “As It Is”, featuring Jim Denley on alto saxophone, which is particularly engaging with its fizzing energy; the almost human vocal quality of “Asian Centuries”, again with Denley on alto, and the wheezing hurdygurdyism of “Northlandia” thanks to the Nykelharpa of Freya Schack-Arnott. The second disc contains live ensemble recordings all involving or centring around Rose’s inventions. Like the late Cor Fuhler (inventor of the Keyolin) who is featured here on “Music In A Time Of Dysfunction 1”, one of Rose’s strengths is as an instrument builder and the sounds of his constructions, some simple like The Thai Pumpkin Soup One String Violin, others complex like El Lubricado – an electrically powered oildrum-based update on HurdyGurdy technology – are all here to be enjoyed. Elsewhere, there is a one-necked double violin, or what appears to be a 12 string viola fitted with a cut-down guitar neck, charmingly named “The Cluster Fuck”.

Most fascinating for me – both musically and conceptually – is the second piece “Singing Up the Harbour Bridge” which is a work for Sydney Australia’s famous bridge and a choir. The recording presented here is a “simulacrum” constructed from contact-mic recordings of the bridge – oscillations caused by traffic and Aeolian effects, noises caused by changes in temperature, mechanical rhythms from vehicles passing over certain sections of the bridge and “the whoosh of the traffic itself” – made by Rose himself and choral parts sung by The Song Company: conductor Andrew Pitts, Susannah Lawergren, Anna Fraser, Hannah Fraser, Richard Black, Mark Donelly and Andrew O’Connor. Rose’s original intention in terms of a real-world performance of the piece involved an idea that the audio components would be “conducted” via sensor strips installed on the roads with the resulting data (rate and numbers of vehicles) informing the character of the piece. So far, Rose has been unable to find a festival willing to commit to this complex, but potentially spectacular project. Which is a shame.

What Rose is doing here – what makes his work so essential – is that through his process of experimentation, design and craftsmanship, he presents us with the concept of the limitless possibilities of music. Indeed, Gottschalk considers Rose an “…interdisciplinary artist…[who] makes work about music, indeed often makes music about music…” and as such transcends those usual labels like “composer”, “instrument builder”, “sound artist”, “violinist” and so forth. I’ll say it again – if you’re not already familiar with Rose’s work, and I think you should be, this is a great place to start.

Chris Cutler’s RER MegaCorp have done a swell job on this package. The gatefold sleeve contains a built-in 42 page full-colour booklet. Music journalist Kurt Gottschalk contributes comprehensive writings on each of the pieces, including URLs for further reading, and an essay entitled States Of Rose. Plus there are lots of colour images of Rose’s instruments and constructions, all listed neatly at the back of the booklet. Altogether a fascinating overview of Rose’s current activities.