BIFEM: soundinitiative, The Exhausted (1)

Fabienne Séveillac performs The Exhausted with soundinitiative. Photo by Marty Williams.
Fabienne Séveillac performs The Exhausted with soundinitiative. Photo by Marty Williams.

Review by Jaslyn Robertson

The première of Austrian composer Bernhard Lang’s new work ‘The Exhausted’ (‘L’Épuisé’) began without music, members of Paris-based ensemble Soundinitiative moving mechanically on stage, then off, then back on again, repeating the process for minutes. The entrance set the scene for the repetitive, robotic nature of the music set to text from an English translation of Gilles Deleuze’s essay on Samuel Beckett.

Mezzo-soprano Fabienne Séveillac leads us through the text staring eerily above the audience, repeating phrases accompanied or followed by a complementary musical idea, opening with ‘exhausted is a whole lot more than tired’. Walking backwards and forwards, standing and sitting at her desk, Séveillac’s movements reinforce the mechanical repetition of her vocal part. At times, the instrumentalists use this sort of repetitive movement as well, cleaning clarinets and checking the alignment of bows. Described as ‘part-concert, part-music theatre’, movement is a significant part of the work. In a particularly haunting moment Séveillac lies herself across the desk until her head falls over the edge and sings, torso and head upside-down, without breaking her forward gaze.

The highlights of the performance occurred when the instrumentalists of Soundinitiative had a chance to show off their abilities. The stirring passion of Joshua Hyde’s saxophone solo over the cacophony of the other musicians mesmirised the audience. Forceful blowing and tongue slaps pierced through the sound in the background and demanded attention. His natural movements added as much to the concert as the repetitive choreographed actions. Hyde’s slow walk towards the audience, eyes closed, engrossed in producing rips of sound, is an equally unforgettable image.

The music of ‘L’Épuisé’ never loses interest, listeners bombarded with fast and marked change with each new phrase. Sections of text, with their allocated musical ideas, are never repeated for more than a minute, most lasting only 20 seconds or less. The majority of Séveillac’s delivery of text lies on the spectrum of speaking, ranging from breathy whispers to loud, robotic instruction. In the rare moments of high register singing, the clarity of her voice rings through the audience accompanied by sparse textures, from the likes of piano, electronic keyboard and glockenspiel. Like searching through radio stations, the rapid change between styles, varied in texture and rhythm, caused the music to never become static. Some ideas were more effective than others. Jazz sections suggested a shared feeling between composer and performers for the idiom that was clear to the audience, unlike the brief diversion into a hip-hop beat which sounded out of place on the instruments available and beneath Séveillac’s voice.

Although entertaining, Lang’s attempt to translate Deleuze’s philosophical ideas into music was sometimes sacrificed in order to create a hyperactive atmosphere that never allowed the audience to look away. The competence of standout musicians saved the work by giving expression to the chaos. The eccentricity of ensemble members gave it life, Venturini at one point climbing atop his piano in a fit of ‘insanity’. Soundinitiative showed technical prowess and bravery in taking on a work that required precision and adaptability in every instrument, with the added challenge of choreography. I can’t imagine many other ensembles that could capture the wild energy of this piece without missing a beat.

The Exhausted
Bernhard Lang
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
6 September 2015
Jaslyn Robertson

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