The Australian Art Orchestra with Brett Thompson
Atlas, Herbal, Ritual
The Melbourne Recital Centre
14 July, 2014
Atlas, Herbal, Ritual is a tripartite, durational work that coerces and betrays the audience into different modes of listening. the first part consists of subtly-constructed sounds held together by intense silences. The Australian Art Orchestra provided Thompson with an accomplished ensemble, including several composers in their own rights, who sat and stood motionless around Thompson’s laptop and monitors. Once the audience focused in on the stillness of the ensemble, one became aware of the way silence framed the occasional shuffles from the players. A barely perceptible patch of static momentarily fills the void before disappearing. Gradually, scraping and blowing on trumpets and percussion instruments provide a new layer of sonic activity. Thompson plays on the audibility of gestures. Peter Knight’s use of a CD as a trumpet mute produced a breathy, rattling effect, while James Rushford’s bowing of the side of his viola was more of a visual treat. I like to think of this opening sequence as a sort of overture or frame for what is to come, a sensitisation of the audience to the level of activity at which the first half (though, for all the audience knows, the entire concert) operates. Eventually, the disparate sounds are combined to form new colours, then taken apart one-by-one to reveal their constituent parts. The most effective of these moments seemed to be when the hard, rattling sound of a bowed cymbal gave way to reveal a high trumpet tone, which was then removed to reveal a pure electronic tone.
A performative (or ritualistic) interlude provided some pathos and comic relief. Each member of the ensemble approached a microphone in the center of the stage, told an autobiographical story, usually an uncomfortable one, and proceeded to squeeze and drink the juice of a lemon. I quite liked the one about someone telling their friends at school they found a character on The Nanny hot. But which one was it?
In a wonderful betrayal of the close-listening trust built with the audience, the second half of the concert was loud and messy. One audience member, much distressed by this turn of events, ran out of the Salon. A slide used on the electric guitar lent a gritty, post-rock feel to the proceedings as the ensemble blared and crashed away. Thompson is one of the few composers in Australia drawing on German minimalism to develop daringly sparse and durational works. That said, more development is possible. Whether loud or soft, the regularity with which each idea passed over into the next produced a sense of predictability and monotony. I, for one, would liked to have heard the remarkable colour-building and deconstruction of the first half explored more fully and over different durations.