Abandon Sight Ye Who Enter Here

Keith Armstrong on Inferno

Dante Alighhiere’s The Inferno is a remarkably visual work that records the poet’s imagined pilgrimage into the vortex of the damned, phrased in 100 Cantos of 1292-style vernacular Italian poetry. It is the first work of the Divine Comedy trilogy, written after he had been exiled, a victim of the political chaos and corruption of medieval Florence. Hence it paints a vivid picture of Dante’s yearning for the earthly triumph of human potential in an era of deep injustice, corruption and unfettered greed. It’s not surprising then that such a subversive, political allegory still holds much currency today.

It was this model of symbolic retribution that inspired composer John Rodgers to create this modernist, sonic epic for Australia’s national contemporary music ensemble, ELISION. Appropriately they chose to present The Inferno as an installation, placing numerous performers throughout the abysses of Brisbane Powerhouse’s main theatre with grand-scale video projections (by Judith Wright) at each end of their netherworld.

Throughout most of his journey down through the Circles of Hell, the pilgrim Dante had the benefit of the poet Virgil as his personal guide. However, despite such unfettered access to the “voice of reason” even Dante ultimately required further assistance in navigating those deeply complex terrains (provided by Beatrice,symbol of Divine Love).

Anyone who takes on a work like The Inferno is nothing if not ambitious. While attempts at direct illustration are undoubtedly futile, plenty of well-signed guide posts are required to avoid audiences feeling like lost souls groping to “see” horrors in the darkness, such as the Vale of Suicides, the marsh of the Styx or Cocytus, the frozen centre of Hell. Rodgers describes in Real Time 36 (‘Sacred Geometry’, p. 43), how he went about structuring an “architectural” spectrum for audiences, visualising “each instrument’s sound world” as “a microcosm of Hell.” Tactics he employed included electronically generated drones, extreme degrees of distortion and the construction of complex arrays of “multiphonics.’ These were skilfully produced by ELISION’s manipulations of instruments as diverse as slack-stringed violoncellos, bowed polystyrene boxes and water damped Cretales, and, impressively, a flute and oboe cast from ice leading to an audio-visual meltdown. However Rodgers admits in the same article that “most” audiences would miss his numerous Dante-inspired “details”, yet still remain satisfied by a work that does “not need to have any relationship to Dante’s poem”.

Whilst Rodger’s composition offered a generous viscerality it lacked the deep visual sensibilities of Dante’s words. Hence I looked to Judith Wright’s accompanying video text for my guidance, given its significant placement and physical magnitude. Subtly timed interactions of sound and image have undeniable power within new media performance allowing audiences to vividly ‘picture’ for themselves. However with the visuals provided I frequently struggled to conjure up Dante’s incendiary visions of corrupt contemporaries, tortures beyond the pale or indeed much of his imagined geographies.

Suffering therefore from a disorientating blindness, I gratefully alighted upon Murray Kane’s poetic essay in the accompanying program: “‘ How will I recognise Styx’, I asked? ‘Sullen Strings choking on fumes of spite’, he replied matter of factly”.

Inferno, Elision Contemporary Music Ensemble, Brisbane Powerhouse, July 5-7

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. web

© Keith Armstrong; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2002