What's That Buzz?

Earlier this week, experimental musicians Vanessa Nimmo and Matt Rankin gave us a tour of the curious set-up that won them Best Music at the 2015 Melbourne Fringe for their show Old Tech, New Decks.

“We’d never written a full-length work together,” says Vanessa. “We hadn’t written anything together – we’d just played each other’s stuff. We’d performed stuff together but never written stuff together. So it was exciting to have it go so well, and have people like it so much.”

Fresh from their acclaimed Melbourne run, Old Tech, New Decks has moved into the second floor of nautical-themed bar Hains & Co, where they'll stick around til their final gig on the 25th of February.

There’s a lot of cool stuff around the place – I’m seeing monitors, games –

MR: Yeah, right here there’s some old DOS games, there’s an original Nintendo, there’s an Atari 2600 – those are for the audience interaction section, because audience members play the games for part of the piece. And then the other major things are the typewriters, which we do a duet on; and then there’s a bunch of old keyboards and synthesisers –

VN: – and a drum machine hiding at the back –

MR: – and we’ve got an old shellac record player at the back that’s a wind-up, so it’s fully acoustic. There’s a few other bits and pieces –

VN: – like a modern record player for playing old records on.

MR: Yeah, playing those shellac records on a normal LP player, that’s fun. And also this is a nautical themed bar, so we just had all of this stuff available to us – crates and barrels…

VN: Crates and barrels and bookshelves, which we didn’t bring, they were just in the room. And then I went to the Oxfam bookshop and bought the Idiot’s Guide to the Internet, and an old book on systems and things, just for entertaining set dressing.

MR: So we pilfered some stuff, and it’s actually lended some ambience.

“How does the audience participation work?” I ask.

“Like this,” says Matt, handing me a controller.

VN: These games here [gestures] – they only make noise when you jump, or shoot, or run into something, or die. So you can actually do a lot of running around without making noise in these – if someone’s really getting into the game, oddly it’ll be a quieter one; whereas when we had someone just jump the whole time, that made a really big soundscape sound. It’s a way to make it different and a way to be involved, I guess. The audience don’t have to play anything at a particular time or anything, it’s just – make some noise.

You’re not conducting the audience while they’re playing video games?

MR: Just coaxing them.

VN: Encouraging them to make noise, and giving them chocolate. Basically that’s it – it’s kinda fun and a bit different.

Wow, chocolate and video games –

VN: – and we’re air conditioned! What else could you want, really?

What do you think works about the show?

MR: In Melbourne, I think they liked the kookiness. We were in a very cramped venue, so it was very intimate, and I think they were on our side because they saw the whole thing was stuck together with sticky tape.

VN: And we were, like, reaching around each other to get to stuff.

MR: Got a lot of elbows to the side of the head.

So do you think it’s been ruined by having such a nice space here?

MR: [laughs] No, we just had to grow it a little, so it could fill the space.

VN: It’s longer, and there are more layers in places.

MR: We added the keyboards for Adelaide, the old synthesisers, and we added the Atari, and the lighting show. Because it’s a big empty space here, right – so what do you do with the blank walls?

VN: I think the intimacy of Melbourne worked, but what we’ve got here is more like inviting people into our lounge room. And that’s like – you can hear some quirky music, you can bring your drink in, you can hang out, and then afterwards it turns into a lounge room, it’s a game lounge. It’s kind of a different experience – people that saw it in Melbourne could see it again and enjoy it.

How did the idea for all this come about?

VN: I was playing a piano piece and thinking about how all the tech works, and then I was thinking about old tech, and the noises that old tech can make. So I called Matt, I thought he might be into it!

MR: She called me and said “I’ve got this idea, come do it”. Old technology in the form of a performance piece – it sounded cool! And then she sent me a list, a brain dump of all these nostalgic sounds, and it went from there.

VN: We tried to find the sounds, drove around to all these recycling places in Melbourne, and asked everybody we knew what they had. Everyone’s still sending me old tech, in my family – mostly old laptops, which aren’t that useful! I just have to get rid of them, because I’m the old tech repository now. But we kind of built it from there.

MR: It was hard to get our hands on stuff, because retro is very in right now. So a lot of it wasn’t exactly cheap. You can pick up old broken stuff cheaply –

VN: – very cheaply! But old stuff that works…

MR: Old stuff that works is pretty rare, actually.

Do you have anything that’s broken, but makes cool sounds anyway? Or is it all quite functional?

VN: Yeah, it’s all pretty functional. Although, I don’t think the telephone...

MR: The telephone doesn’t ring – so we make it ring using special effects. And the slide projector basically works, but it’s electrically unsound, so we can’t really use it.

VN: It didn’t pass test-and-tag – it’s too old – so we can’t turn it on. So it’s just sitting there looking pretty. The sounds are in the show, but we had to sample it. It’s funny, because it doesn’t pass test-and-tag, so you can’t plug it in in a show context, but my parents still use it at home when they’re looking at slides! So we just plugged it in, and made the sounds, and then just – yeah.

MR: Everything we couldn’t really integrate into the live performance, we sampled and now we play that using the drum machine. Like, a dot matrix printer – and things like the camera [gestures] where you can’t really get the microphone up loud enough without causing feedback, so we sampled that and then amplified it and amplified it.

What was the writing process like for this show?

MR: We improvised a lot with the sound sources to see what they could do. You know – what kind of sounds can you get out of a rotary dial telephone? Turns out you can get a lot of sounds out of a rotary dial telephone.

VN: Especially if you can amplify it, then they sound really cool!

MR: It’s got, like, the clicky bit when you first dial it [he says, clicking the dial right around to the number 9]. Then it’s got the grunge [he lets the dial spin back to zero]. And when that’s coming through 8 speakers, that can be pretty cool.

So, you know, we built some little demos, just to prove the concept, and some of them were more beat-based and some of them were more ambient. And then we kind of designed the piece from the outside in – we built a narrative with different time periods, and different types of nostalgia, and then we filled it in from there. That’s what my memory tells me – is that roughly what happened?

VN: Mostly I just remember coming around to your place and writing music, and then going and eating pork buns, and then writing some more music.

MR: It was pretty fun actually. The actual composition process took about four weeks.

VN: Oh – the actual composition. But we’d been collecting tech, and thinking about it, and experimenting for months before that. So it was like, the last push: “we’ve got all these ideas, we’ve got all this tech, so let’s put it all down on paper and see if we can actually play it”. The final week in the leadup to Melbourne was very much “can we actually play this now?”

MR: It is all meticulously scored. So you’ve had to learn how to play a rotary dial telephone?

MR: Yeah – essentially they’re all percussion instruments.

VN: And neither of us are actually percussionists! [laughs] We should have employed some percussionists, that would have been sensible.

MR: Every new movement that you have to do, you have to rehearse it – there’s even technique to playing a typewriter properly, so that it never jams, or goes outside the margins.

VN: At the start of the show, my typewriter has a live feed to that screen [gestures] so everyone can see what I’m typing – and that’s another level of performance stress, because as well as the rhythm, you’re imparting information that has to be right.

MR: Oh, and even though we’re both trained keyboard players, having one tiny keyboard with keys like that big [closes fingers to almost a pinch], and another keyboard like this [splays fingers wide] means it’s like you have to learn it all over again.

What changes night-to-night? Is it just the audience participation?

MR: Well, something new goes wrong every night.

VN: That’s true – there’s a different typo every night! The very opening section I get right every night, but then there’s a letter I have to type while I’m answering phones and doing other things. I always make some sort of error there, and that’s different every night.

MR: All of this stuff is scored, and for a lot of it we just have to obey the clock. We set individual timers, that are synchronised – but sometimes the timers go out of sync, which means that we go out of sync, and while the clock’s running, we have to resynchronise. And that’s a nightmare.

It sounds like it requires an incredible amount of technical proficiency – I imagine it’s just practice practice practice?

MR: Yeah, that’s right.

VN: Yeah – I mean Matt has designed all this stuff, and that’s a phenomenal thing to do. I understand how it works, but I couldn’t design it.

MR: When it does work, we just have to remember how to perform it, and that’s hard enough in itself. But when it breaks mid-performance, a whole different part of your brain is like…

VN: “What’s that buzz? Why is there a buzz?”

Old Tech, New Decks continues until February 25th, upstairs at Hains & Co.