Northchote Town Hall
26 February, 2014
“Attacca” will be familiar to musicians as the performance marking to move on to the next movement without pause. Melbourne’s newest contemporary music ensemble Cathexis took the direction as inspiration for an immersive performance experience combining music, lighting, sound design and stagecraft.
Entering the Northcote Town Hall’s West Wing performance space, the audience is surrounded by red light and swirling, pealing tones. Joe Talia’s sound design and Bronnwyn Pringle’s lighting provided continuity between the repertoire.
Joe Talia’s four-channel atmosphere reached a climax and abruptly cut out, at which point Peter de Jager launched into Michael Hersch’s Vanishing Pavilions #34. Thundering chords and descending runs alternated with serene counterpoint and a glistening, high melody.
While Hersch’s work rumbled away at one end of the room, the rest of the ensemble crept into a corner and prepared a swift volta into a bar of Valentin Silvestrov’s Trio for flute, celesta and trumpet. No sooner had they stopped than Matthias Schack-Arnott was starkly lit sitting on a balloon.
So began the most anticipated piece of the evening, Luke Paulding’s breath transmuted into words transmuted into breath, a piece based on sounds lifted from gay pornography. Schack-Arnott squeaked and popped balloons to the gentle moaning of an accompanying tape track. He then rubbed, shook and pummeled his array of unconventional percussion instruments as things heated up. The tape track was no match for the colour of the percussion setup, however, and interesting contrasts or correspondences failed to emerge. Considering that they can accompany some of the most sublime moments of our lives, it is remarkable how limited and monotonous the sounds of sex can be. It was perhaps for this reason that the most effective moments were those where the percussionist focused on one, repetitive sound, such as the opening solo or the squelching of a couple of plastic pigs in water at the end.
Cat Hope’s Black Disciples takes the symbol of the Chicago street gang Black Disciples, “III”, and turns it on its side to represent a polyphony of three voices. The work is haunting, with three low voices droning into microphones, their sometimes-distorting, saturated tones melding with the static of radios. Cloaked in hoodies and huddled in the dark, the work raises the issue of cultural appropriation that has recently re-risen (indeed it never went away) in the contemporary art world with an address by TextaQueen at Gertrude Contemporary Art Space. Further urgency is given to this topic by the fact that people in Australia will soon have the perfect right to appropriate whatever they want to whatever offensive ends they wish. The use of “primitivist,” African-American and orientalist musical tropes by white, western composers is as common and uninterrogated today as it was at the dawn of the twentieth century.
However, having cried “appropriation” at every opportunity ever since I learned the word, I now try to distinguish between engagement and appropriation. Learning is a process full of gauche mistakes and I would hate to see someone’s attempts to understand another culture stifled because of their unknowing misuse of that culture’s symbols. Musicians adopting another culture’s symbols need to make a few things clear: What do they think they are appropriating and how and why are they altering it? How do they think members of the appropriated culture would respond to the work? Hope’s borrowings are in fact minimal and, while offering her an inspiration, do not necessarily add to the audience’s enjoyment of the work. It seems to me that Hope adopts only the symbol “III” from the Black Disciples. The close-held microphones are taken from hip-hop culture more generally, though they produced a distinct musical effect, and the costuming and manner of presentation was probably an addition by Cathexis. Hope then transforms these appropriations through her own noise art aesthetic into a sort of metal/fantasy Gregorian chant, the effect of which is transfixing, whether one knows about the Black Disciples or not. As to the community’s response and the musician’s eventual edification, this would requires a dialogue that members of the appropriated cultures may prefer not to engage in. As TextaQueen points out, people of colour shouldn’t have to dish out this education for free.
Beat Furrer’s Presto for flute was a tour de force for Lina Andonovska, who stalked the score like a lioness. The mosaic patterns between the piano and flute, where the flute “filled in” the piano’s rests, were coordinated to produce a single, carefully-honed, variegated surface. The voices found their independence joyful abandon and Andonovska seemed to relish the opportunity to blast out a series of impossibly loud, long notes.
Cathexis contribute to a tendency in contemporary music for ensembles to adorn their performances with production values that create a sense of continuity and spectacle. While this is often welcome, I am not sure that a seamless performance is always a better one. Nor do the gravitas sound and lighting provide the desired continuity. This is ultimately a job for the concert’s curator in finding convincing links and contrasts between works, an excellent example of which was the unity in variety of the Elision Ensemble’s recent concert at Melba Hall.