BIFEM: Defunensemble, O Book of Returns

The audience arrives for Defunensemble's O Book of Returns. Photo by Marty Williams
The audience arrives for Defunensemble’s O Book of Returns. Photo by Marty Williams

Review by Simon Eales

Helsinki-based Defunensemble presents a uniquely immersive experience in their debut Australian show. The audience for their Saturday night performance of Peter Ablinger’s Book of Returns (1985-2015) and Kimmi Kuokkala’s O (2011) join the performers onstage. Our backs to the house curtain, we sit beneath hanging cans, profiles and fly-bars; between legs, fly-rope and wings; lit by the low-voltage blue glow usually reserved for the stage-crew’s safe passage. It’s a remarkable atmosphere. With the Ulumbarra Theatre’s glistening newness, we’re lodged in the cockpit of some auricular sputnik.

Nowhere is this feeling clearer than in the distortional insistency of Kuokkala’s work. Before it begins, guitarist Sami Klemola—who shines in the group’s second program, All Finnish, the following afternoon—tells us that Kuokkala is known as the ‘shaman of Jyväskylä.’ Located in the lake district of central Finland, and identified as the country’s version of Athens for its cultural and educational distinction, Jyväskylä has its own mood which seems manifest in O. Klemola adds that Kuokkala’s work uses minimalism to create an atmosphere ‘of a certain kind.’ Such indeterminacy seems part of the seductive effect.

Lily-Marlene Puusepp works the top end of her harp in restrained but mesmerising rotations, accompanying Emil Holmström’s structural piano work. She rocks the instrument gently, hypnotically back and forth, letting grace notes drift into the realms of other instruments. Hanna Kinnunen switches between flute and bass flute, triggering a shift from tantalising revelation to calm. Her easy voyage through lower registers alongside clarinetist Mikko Raasakka’s stint on bass saxophone lends the piece its emotional resonance: affirmation and mystery carefully bundled together.

Markus Hohti’s performance on the cello, however, furnishes the piece with its dynamism. He takes frenetic escapades below the bridge, tearing hair off his bow. Arms in agitation, his over-bowing fills the piece with crunchy texture. It’s as if he’s plugged into a loop pedal, such are the driving waves of energy. One lasting image is of Hohti leaning into extended and aggressive spiccatto sections while Raasakka, sitting opposite, offers long and sonorous—almost doleful—counterpoint.

 Although there is no visual projection involved, O seems filmic. My mind conjures images of a scarily alien, but actually innocuous, leviathan floating and rolling through the air above. I imagine that we view it from strange angles and that the electronically generated, muffled public announcement-style sounds we hear are the inhabitants of this being speaking to us. This conjured vision is not the product of pure delusion; digital effects are a strong presence throughout. They distort the analogue instrumentation and add visceral chimes, gongs and the sound of a sword being swiftly drawn from a scabbard.

Peter Ablinger’s Book of Returns is presented first and primes us for this shamanic journey through its overtly metrical composition. It’s billed as a long-form work entirely constituted of 40-second cells of sound. The players arrange themselves in a line before us, and watch a small electronic timer behind us like hawks. In the first movement, they play individually until, when 40 seconds is up, they abruptly stop. Another player begins and does the same. When the musical baton is returned, the player picks up exactly where they left off. One of these modules involves Puusepp, not touching her harp, reciting very large numbers in hushed Polish. Another is Kinnunen reading a German philosophical tract. The effect is of a deconstructed soundscape in which multiple layers of sonic sense are created and seem to persist in unison, despite their sequential arrangement in time.

This is only the start of the fascinating formal games. Another module consists of silence. We all simply wait for the nominated duration to finish. We then get an extended section—it seems like longer than the other units—of the sounds of a city street scene. We learn afterwards that the group had placed microphones outside the theatre doors and were beaming the sounds of Bendigo into the theatre for us, live. Other elements drawing attention to the performance’s own theatricality expand the text into physical space and appeal to other senses: Hohti’s slaptick engagement with a retro tape deck, a pretend curtain call, Holmström’s strained vocal scale, and a geometrical animation projected on the scrim. Not for the first time at BIFEM, compositional experiments become fertile soil for an intensely arresting audience experience.

One senses that Book of Returns could continue developing and distorting for another twenty years and only benefit. In fact, the immediacy of its resistance to its own form almost demands that such an evolution take place. Putting these two works together seems destined, too. Ablinger’s work suggests that when form breaks, another form will always take its place. Kuokkala’s takes those breaks and provides a more sensual second option: a deeply connective shamanic journey, to which we all have access.

O Book of Returns
BIFEM 2015
Ulumbarra Theatre
5 September 2015
Simon Eales

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