‘Weird shit par excellence’: Harriet Cunningham on Rắn Cạp Đuôi’s performance Re:Sounding
Back in the day when I worked for the Australian Music Centre, we tussled with genre. How can we describe this music? How do we answer the “what’s it like?” question? Is this work “classical”, or “alt-classical”, or “free jazz”? Is it “experimental” or, maybe, “non-linear granular electronic darkness”?
My favourite term was “Weird Shit”. It didn’t play well as a formal category for use in the library or shop, but everyone knew exactly what it meant. For me “weird shit” was a more visceral version of Laurie Anderson’s mock-solemn invocation of “Difficult Music”: a useful catch all which avoided the whole dancing-about-architecture trap of describing music in words, but gave the prospective listener a heads-up: open your ears, discard your expectations, see what happens.
The experimental Vietnamese band Rắn Cạp Đuôi, who featured in last night’s iteration of the Re:sounding project, sits squarely in the weird shit space.
Backing up a little… Re:sounding is a multi-faceted project exploring the Đông Sơn drum, central to Vietnamese culture, put together by Australian artists James Nguyen and Victoria Pham. Nguyen and Pham have sat with the intricately-decorated Đông Sơn drum, considered it from many angles, let it resonate. Their response encompasses research, sound experimentation and performance.
All three elements are realised as a digital experience as part of BLEED – the Biennial Live Event in the Everyday Digital festival from Arts House and Campbelltown Arts Centre. Last week’s livestream brought together all three.
First up, the story of Au Co, the mountain fairy of Vietnam’s creation myth. Nguyen and Pham told the story using a vaguely naïve, vaguely punk aesthetic of dream-like images displayed on what looks like a vintage overhead projector.
It was piquant, nostalgic; although the nostalgia was more for the tattered remnants of Vietnamese culture passed down through family memories, rather than for a clean cut origin story. The frogsong and paddy fields of Vietnam dreaming returned at the end of the livestream, which culminated in percussionist Salina Myat performing Victoria Pham’s solo work Bronze Echoes on the Don San.
The real event, however, was the filmed performance from Rắn Cạp Đuôi, a 46 minute extended improvisation “like water which nurtures all things without knowing”. The Rắn Cạp Đuôi line-up here is heavily metallic: drums and bass plus two guitars, lots of pedals, extension chords everywhere, feedback welcome.
The three guitarists play with heads bowed, hunched over fingerboards, studiously avoiding any obvious signs of communication. The drummer is more extrovert, the physicality of whacking those pots and pans bringing a wild energy to an otherwise bleak wall of sound. The concentration, the commitment, the sheer stamina of these guys is at once impressive and abusive, a kind of ritual noise-making where different riffs vie against each other like magnets, pulling the music one way and another. A roving videographer adds to the trippy, immersive blast.
Though it makes me feel old to say it, I didn’t much enjoy Rắn Cạp Đuôi’s thing. In fact, it was nice when it stopped. But that’s the thing about difficult music. You’ve got to sit through it so you can experience the flood of questions that follow. Like how their music relates, reflects, replaces the traditional sound of the Đông Sơn. Like how Vietnamese culture – any culture – is so much more nuanced and multi-layered than any one version of the story of Au Co. Like how listening to a wall of noise for an extended period evokes feelings of claustrophobia, anger and transcendence.
Maybe I did get something out of it after all. Weird shit par excellence.
Re:sounding, composed by Rắn Cạp Đuôi and Victoria Pham. Lead artists: James Nguyen and Victoria Pham. Performed (separately) by Salina Myat, Adam Cooper-Standbury and Hamish Upton. Presented by Arts House, City of Melbourne and Campbelltown Arts Centre as part of BLEED 2020. Live streamed performance July 23, online until August 30.