Vanessa Tomlinson describes her approach to improvisation as “resultant based rather than intention based.”
She responds to what she finds in front of her. She’s interested in materiality and in the ‘information’ contained in materials. She investigates this information through sounding materials and she presents her findings ‘in sound’. I tell her I think she’s a phenomenologist: she upends our assumptions, makes us hear things differently, compels us to think about what we are hearing.
“For me a vibraphone is just another collection of objects. I try not to treat it with any more or less respect than any other set of objects. It’s as if its a collection of pitches, it just happens to be an equally tempered set of pitches and that produces a set of associations for me.”
This ‘collection of objects’ is also the vessel for so much of the recent history of western music. Thirty seven bars of aluminium alloy that are fixed in pitch and tuned to the 12 identical intervals of the equal tempered scale, that offer limited timbral variation and a fairly limited dynamic range.
As Vanessa begins to play she allows resonances to gather before cutting them off with the pedal. She circles chromatically and the bars release their rich overtones. She’s hearing the way these overtones - the result of natural physics - rub against the ‘man made’ intervals of equal temperament. I’m hearing something that sounds really cool; I’m hearing oblique references to 20th century composition and jazz.
I guess it’s presumptuous of me to imagine what Vanessa might be hearing or thinking about as she plays, but perhaps my speculation makes sense in the context of the longer form of this work.
The piece begins like a love letter to the vibraphone, a celebration of all that it can do that other instruments can’t. It is beautiful, sensual, and rooted in the language of 20th century music. It is somehow known, but also brings the frisson of the new - a sense of wonder and discovery. As it develops - and without physically changing the vibraphone in any way - Vanessa gently starts to melt the world she has created by introducing sounds that draw our ear to the tension I alluded to earlier between natural harmonics and equal temperament.
Suddenly the sound of a bowl unsettles our assumptions about the vibraphone, its sense of stability and ‘knownness’ opens up. We hear into the cracks, we start to hear it as something else. A collection of objects perhaps? We begin to hear it as Vanessa is hearing it.
This is phenomenology.
Please listen right to the end…
Solo Series #4
Performance: Vanessa Tomlinson vanessatomlinson.com
Audio and Video producer: Leo Dale wefostudios.com
Photography: Sarah Walker sarahwalkerphotos.com
Text: Peter Knight, Artistic Director
Sound: Vanessa Tomlinson vanessatomlinson.com
The Solo Series program is supported by Creative Victoria.
READ MORE about the Solo Series here, including a reflection from Artistic Director Peter Knight on past, present and future of the AAO: aao.com.au/#/solo-series-vanessa-tomlinson/