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4 April 2022

Two Peas in a Pod: Throat Pleats

Two Peas in a Pod: Throat Pleats
© Monisha Chippada

Solomon Frank is an improviser and a composer. Niki Johnson is a contemporary percussionist and an interdisciplinary artist. Together, they are Throat Pleats.

Solomon Frank

Niki and I met at university and our collaboration was forced upon us when double bassist Clayton Thomas paired us together for a Now Now gig in 2018. We bonded over our shared spirit of exploration and musical playfulness.

My background is as a composer, well ─ I actually don't write much music of my own, mostly I receive emails from the future from people or entities who have some desire or need for their music to be heard in the twenty-first century. I think of my music as "dystopian nostalgia for the present"; it reflects upon art music's precarious place in a world dictated by corporate technocrats, TikTok algorithms, and celebrity deification. In my practice, I'm interested in science fiction, humour, narrative framing of art music. Additionally, I research animals and music, exploring interspecies musical collaboration as means to question the human uniqueness of musicality and creativity.

As an improvising clarinettist, my practice expands upon the clarinet. I replace parts of the instrument with other objects: homemade aluminium and plastic reeds, hoses, balloons, vacuum cleaners, watering cans and condoms.

The clarinet has, for as long as I remember, been embedded into who I am, so much so that the two things I was bullied for in high school were being gay and playing the clarinet. I see my approach to clarinet as a queering of the clarinet, an embrace of my identity as clarinet gaybo. While I do still love playing classical clarinet, I explore alternative techniques, where the "correct" way to play the instrument is given little regard and I allow myself to indulge in my own sonic fantasies: animal squeals, resonant croaks and farts. The way I play is informed more by gesture than conventional conceptions of pitch or rhythm.

In Throat Pleats, Niki and I strip the clarinet down to its fundamental mechanism: the reed hitting the mouthpiece, this being a percussive action. This led us to experiment with lateral ways to activate the reed: using garden hoses and plastic reeds, sucking air through the rear end of the tube (the clarinet's bum) and using vacuum cleaners to vibrate the reeds.

I've always been obsessed with bums, farts and poo and this has embodied itself in the music I make, in a kind of sonic grotesque. Similarly, the objects Throat Pleats uses are actual junk, scavenged from roadside garbage heaps and op-shops. In a world on the edge of climate collapse, the DIY music we are making is correspondingly alarming: guttural gurgles, shrieking squawks and pounding percussion strikes.

I see a Throat Pleats performance as occurring in the distant future in a world populated by devolved (or hyper evolved) humanesque beings. Using artefacts scavenged from the Western musical canon (clarinets and percussion instruments), these two creatures engage in a series of elaborate courting rituals, choreographed powerplays and displays of queer kinship. I see Throat Pleats as existing at the intersection of sacred and silly, where laughter masks a discomfort at the realisation of our own animal natures. We present a performance framed as art music but enacted as a post-human courtship display. Throat Pleats blurs disciplinary lines. Although we are primarily musicians, the works we create force us to engage with performance art and theatre practice. Throat Pleats allows me to explore unashamedly queer, silly, sexy, yucky clarinet that parodies and celebrates the Western classical superstructure.

Niki and I are close friends. We have a queer kinship, similarly united by our ill fit within the existing classical music structure. I value Niki's explorative mind and her willingness to indulge in ideas that risk failure but mostly I appreciate her tolerance of fart sounds in our music.

Niki Johnson

I distinctly remember the first time I met Solomon Frank. He was walking towards me outside our university and I complimented his shoes. He responded with a hilariously honest and intimate description of why they were in fact deeply uncomfortable shoes, leaving me in a state of mild shock and laughter. And thus, I decided I wanted to be friends with Solomon Frank. My next fondest memory of Solomon Frank was the moment he shaved off his moustache backstage at his graduation composition recital.

I am trained as a classical percussionist and working with Solomon in various different formats (the improvisation ensemble Ensemble Onsomble, performing Solomon's compositions, and of course, Throat Pleats) is a gateway for me into freeing improvisation and experimental musical performance. Working with Solomon is refreshing, creative, and exciting. With performativity, theatricality, and cheeky intimacy forming the basis of our collaboration.

Throat Pleats is a creative and intimate experience. Throat Pleats is not only a musical duo, but daily activities that Solomon and I do together. Most often, Throat Pleats is visiting our favourite café, At Neutral.

When Throat Pleats makes music, we explore animalistic rituals, power dynamics, and physical comedy. We actively choreograph performative works that break away from conventional concert performance, dipping into theatre and intergalactic fanfiction. Through costume, and choreography, we create an environment where the audience can interact, laugh, and be shocked by the curious world we create, one that reflects and rejects the human narrative.

As a percussionist outside of Throat Pleats, I am a composer-performer and researcher performing contemporary classical repertoire, improvisation, and performance art. I have recently started collaborations with designers and sculptors to create new artworks involving sonic activations of sculpture-as-percussion-instruments.

I draw from a lot of different aspects of my training to inform my approach to Throat Pleats. Throat Pleats is, in a lot of ways, a direct rejection of the 'right and wrong' way to do things in orchestral music. It was a constant source of confusion and challenge for me to perform orchestral music 'correctly' - and I often got in trouble for taking liberties or not playing 'accurately' enough. Throat Pleats values different things to the orchestra, and actively rejects rigidity and blandness. 'Right' in the Throat Pleats board room is not a matter of replicating exact pitches and rhythms composed by someone else - 'right' is music and gesture that embodies playfulness, spontaneity, freshness, non-reproducible-ness, drama, confusion, and friendship.

Solomon and I are close friends. We have a queer kinship, similarly united by our ill fit within the existing classical music structure. I value Solomon's explorative mind and his willingness to indulge in ideas that risk failure, however my tolerance of fart sounds in our music is often tested.

Throat Pleats will perform in Ensemble Offspring's Sizzle | Beat on 10 April 2022 at The Great Club, Marrickville.

Solomon Frank is an improviser and a composer. Niki Johnson is a contemporary percussionist and an interdisciplinary artist. Together, they are Throat Pleats.


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