One night with Lucas Abela

Last night I drove to Wagga to see and hear Lucas Abela, famous for his performances using broken glass.

I last saw him perform during 2006, when the last of the “unfamous” Unsound Festivals was held in the city.

(The more famous Unsound is the Polish version that began as a sister event inspired by activities in Wagga and the region, that then overshadowed the original by being invited to curate performances in New York and Adelaide.)

Abela offered to talk through his modular effects before the performance and he outlined some of how his process has developed over recent years.

Back in 2006 he was known as Justice Yeldham and I think he might’ve worn a mask, but I could be getting confused with the Judge Dredd-style characters evoked by the name.

He favoured large pieces of broken window glass as his instrument, which still uses a quality contact microphone to amplify.

As an aside it’s worth considering how few contact mics were available at the time, although I’d been introduced to them by Alan Lamb at the Unsound in 2004 and worked with him for performances in 2006 (and in turn shared his insights with local artists and musicians).

Abela’s performance back then was still a noisy event, largely characterised by distortion effects and sometimes culminated with broken glass (with the risk of blood loss being part of the drama).

He mentioned something that seemed to suggest that bloody performances were a thing of the past and, I guess it might be part of performing under his own name, as his noisy act has undergone a few changes.

During the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns, I’d watched on Facebook as Abela sold most of his guitar effects pedals and invested in establishing a modular rig.

He said he’d been resistant to modular “techno” until a friend had observed that he’d been trying to use the pedals like the wiry patch bay of synthesiser modules.

The chain saw his contact mic go into a pre-amp, which included a high-pass filter that reduced handling noise, then into a compressor and the first envelope filter (which included a low-pass filter to reduce hiss).

This envelope led into a series of delays, which broke the signal into different effects chains that included a few oscillators and further envelopes.

A key part of these parallel effects seemed to be a VCA that created a gate-like effect, accentuating percussive characters and further reducing the noise floor.

During the performance it was clear how much this new effects chain has elevated Abela’s sonic dynamics.

He sat barefoot on the Art Gallery’s lounge among the exhibition by Vic McEwan (which included a contact mic in the installation that I’d recommended to him ahead of his show in the same venue during 2012).

Abela swayed with the fluctuating delays and at times I imagined him as paddling on a dinghy into choppy waters.

The audience listened to a fluid-like improvisation that soared from low growls into cascading shrieks, with percussive interludes and surprising moments where multiple vocalisations crashed into each other and mutated with timbres.

It was wonderful to be washed over by the sound waves coming from the quadraphonic set-up and occasionally hearing the decay of notes within the acoustically bright environment of the main gallery.

When I first saw Abela perform I was more indifferent to noise as a genre of audio and now I feel as though the Unsound experiences and experimentation in my own practise has better equipped me to appreciate his art.

And it was interesting to reflect on how the influence of his visits to the city continues to reverberate.