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HiberNATION: Festival of the lo-fi

Bringing experimental music back from its winter slumber.

The weird and wonderful experimental music scene of Sydney depends upon its reciprocal relationship with an audience. It often finds bastion in intimate, secluded venues — a small bar off an Inner West side street, a university recital hall littered with alarming program notes, or a church after dark.

In a live setting, improvisational performers thrive on the energy they build with the audience. The music that emerges wraps itself around this relationship like an epiphyte — the performers listen and respond to each other, finely tuning the music in response to the character of the particular room.  Each of these pieces becomes a performer’s interpretation of the space around them — of how many people make up the audience, how they respond to the music, the mood of the venue, the weather outside. The music, as a result, becomes unrepeatable, a sacred and highly individualised experience.

In lockdown, without these spaces, experimental music has been left out in the cold. 

The Sydney-based online festival HiberNATION aims to carve out space for experimental music online. Its first season, which spanned 2020’s lockdown, has been nominated for an APRA Award for Excellence in Experimental Music. On August 6th the festival will  re-emerge for a second season, to free the experimental music scene from its paralysis.

The festival was founded by Sydney composer and Conservatorium staff member Damian Barbeler, with postgrad research student Liam Mulligan as co-curator. At its core, HiberNATION encourages a ‘failure-as-an-option’ approach to the process of its hosted art. As a ‘festival of the lo-fi’, it gives artists both local and international a platform to workshop and try out new and strange methods of making music, right from their very own homes. It also hosts a variety of one-off events. Last year, the  Noise Massive lineup and Care Package series, saw composers give musical material to Ensemble Offspring to perform, which became standout features of Sydney’s otherwise-static art music scene.

Watching a composer at work fosters the same sense of intimacy as a live setting. You look directly into the artist’s creative spaces. Here, audience interaction takes on a new form. Artists often encourage viewers to send them questions or suggestions. This, alongside its newfound online accessibility can connect viewers to a genre that is mostly alienated from mainstream appeal.

Mulligan’s Response livestreams revive the sacred sense of live music that felt so lost under lockdown. Mulligan’s streams take the collaborative experimental music-making above and beyond what you can usually catch at your local bar. His audience actively influences the music by messaging him their favourite lines of poetry, ideas for small sketches, or letters of the alphabet to fill in a Hangman. Liam’s verbal responses to these submissions are picked up and echoed through a metronome app and form the basis of the music.

Really, every featured stream is a revel of innovation. In one of his episodes of Damian Makes Noise, Barbeler demonstrates his homemade ‘piano bees’ — two metal wires spiralling around a motor. When placed inside the piano, they scrape the strings and spit out rattling, eerie chords. It’s striking to hear.

Even though it’s just begun, season two of HiberNATION brims with promise. The festival curation team has expanded to include emerging composers Siân Lindsay and Dahyo Lloyd;  both hosts of their own streams in its first season and innovators in the Sydney art music scene.

This year, the team have set their sights beyond experimental music. Season two features visual artists and writers alongside musicians, and encourages the production of collaborative multimedia-focused art. The new An Art in an Hour series follows Lloyd and a selected artist as they create a product together over an hour. Another series, Blind Collaborations, takes the opposite approach —  it gives two creators time to individually respond to a given prompt, then blindly melds their final work together to deliver a wild and amusing end product.

HiberNATION is perhaps the first project to make space for the raw artistic processes that could very well fail — and in a public manner. Its boldly conceptual approach to art and highly thoughtful use of its online medium is groundbreaking irregardless of its end product; in a way that possibly reaches beyond the capability of live, in-person experimental music. And when one of these experimental art pieces does work, it’s bound to be amazing.

HiberNATION kicks off on August 6 at