Composer metamorphosis

Keith Gallasch

Deborah Kayser

Deborah Kayser

David Young is a composer and co-artistic director of Melbourne-based and world roaming Aphids. Around composer and company a world of collaborations constellate. The Libra Ensemble are premiering Young’s song cycle Thousands of Bundled Straw for the 2005 Melbourne International Arts Festival. Shortly after comes a showing of Origami, the working title of a new BalletLab work in collaboration with BURO Architects who are designing the huge folding set under instructions from the origami-inspired artist Matt Gardiner (whom Young worked with on Oribotics) and with graphics by 3deep design. Young is working with Jethro Woodward and Eugene Ughetti of Speak Percussion on the sound score, partly electronic and partly live and using graphic notation informed by Gardiner’s work.

When Young says ‘graphic’, he means that the instrumentalists respond to non-musical notation as in Skin Quartet where the instrumentalists follow instructions on how to musically interpret skin tones or tattoos in photographic images. This multimedia string quartet performance recently appeared in the Time Based Art festival (curated by Melbourne Festival’s Kristy Edmunds) in Portland, Oregon, before going on to Les Bains::Connective Festival in Brussels (where Aphids was in residence in 2004), and Johannesburg.

In November, Aphids, will present Gardiner’s new version of Oribotics as an installation at the Asialink Centre with Young again writing music with Jethro Woodward and Eugene Ughetti. Aphids co-artistic director Rosemary Joy is creating new percussion instruments for the show.

Young sees this set of shifting collaborations within and beyond Aphids as organic, “like a theatre or music ensemble, but not all musicians. The sense of an emerging ensemble is a new thing, an evolution of Aphids. It’s like a new species, but I don’t know what it is.”

In December, at the Big West Festival (in Melbourne’s western suburbs) Speak Percussion will present Ughetti solo in Raising the Rattle, a performance of works he’s commissioned from 4 Australian composers, along with elements of Oribotics.

At the end of the year, says Young, “we’re doing the creative development of our next work, which is Nasu [The Eggplant Project], a Belgian/Japanese/Australian collaboration with 3 composers and 3 musicians.” Beyond that, Young is thinking about a new work based on his “fascination with people being so obsessed with space and yet not knowing anything about deep sea life. It’s almost like psychological denial, a blind spot. I want to do a performance at the bottom of a diving pool with an audience in the water.”

Hybrid life

Unlike other new music ensembles, when I think of Aphids, it’s not music that springs to mind, but strange hybrids of installation, sculpture, video, puppetry, song and sound art. The key, says Young, is the artists: “It’s the people and it’s definitely the fact that we’re not bound by an artform or a format even. That completely opens up the possibility of plugging into different venues and presentation formats, adding different artists. It gives us the freedom. And this is something I discovered with the puppetry trilogy, A Quarrelling Pair, about myself (RT64, p38). While essentially most of the people involved were thinking about it as a theatre show, I was very committed to the fact that I didn’t know what it was going to be. It could have ended up being a radio play or a publication or an installation event, or cabaret. I was committed to suspending judgement. And that’s just because I’ve been allowed to do that through the body of work we’ve been creating.”

Process and duration

In that case, sufficient time for development appears to be critical to Aphids’ success. “Yes”, says Young, “it seems that everything we do takes years. And that’s not necessarily through choice. It’s partly pragmatic. These things take a long time to get together. There’s the underground stream that bubbles to the surface every now and again but it’s always running there underneath. Another metaphor is of plates spinning in a circus act. You give one plate a bit of a spin, run to another as it starts to wobble, and sometimes a plate crashes.” One image of nature, one of artifice and risk: “I can’t settle on one or the other. It is a bit of both. I often talk about nurturing and supporting and tilling the soil. And, of course, Aphids—it’s such an organic, garden-y kind of thing…Certainly that’s what appealed to me about being involved as artistic director of Next Wave. It wasn’t my work but I was collaborating through a nurturing, curatorial role. That happens in Aphids a lot.”

Life cycles

Growth is central to the Aphids vision: “You have an idea, you gradually develop it and collaborate, have some workshops, and maybe you make some experimental tests until eventually you create and present a work. Then it’s documented and kind of solidifies. And the intention has always been that it would then live on in some other form. And that might just be the documentation, a publication, the recording or whatever. But it also might be the tour or the re-mount. And that has happened with works in the past but in a much slower way. Ricefields (1998) was one of our first works that toured. But it took 18 months after its first presentation at La Mama before it went to France and Japan and around Australia. What’s happening now is that cycle is not just faster but a bit more robust and it’s gaining momentum. So that gives us a different kind of fuel. It just gives us different areas of activity, generates more work and more opportunities and more ideas.

Rosemary Joy and I are the kind of engine room. We share the administrative, management/production type things. But also in a way we pin down the activities and events that happen. A lot of the strategy of making these artistic processes unfold happens within that context. But then we also have our formal committee. There are 6 people on that. All of them have been involved from pretty much day one across the decade. They’re the sounding board and the foundation of Aphids. Then, of course, there’s Cynthia Troup who provides a critical perspective and research as well as literary and performing skills. There’s an intellectual rigour which she provides which pushes the work.

Thousands of Bundled Straw

The song cycle has had a long evolution: “I started writing it 10 years ago, just after Aphids started up. I was in Japan at the Temple of the Healing Eyes on Lake Shinji-ko in Far West Japan. There’s a myth about a fisherman who finds a statue of Buddha floating in the water. It appears to him in a dream and tells him if he throws himself off a cliff, his blind mother’s eyes will be opened. So he gets up the next day, wraps bundles of straw around himself, jumps off the cliff and he survives, his mother’s eyes are opened and he founds the temple. You can still visit it. The story goes that he put the statue of Buddha in a box within a box within a box in an altar in a temple. It’s revealed every one hundred years.

“In a way, the song cycle is like that, architecturally—boxes within boxes. But at the heart of it there’s the leap of faith. You’re never going to see the weight of meaning or significance that is within, but you have to believe in it, otherwise it can’t be there.

“I remember writing the first song, which is actually in the fifth part of the cycle. There are 7 parts. The fifth part has 7 songs for voice and guitar, which are written for soprano Deborah Kayser and guitarist Geoffrey Morris. And I remember writing the first one in this fishing village just near the temple and very clearly writing it for Deborah and Geoff. Both have performed in all sorts of projects that I’ve worked on and have been significant collaborators in my artistic career. Deborah was the first person to perform my music in public.”

Ten years on, it seemed to Young, “pretty amazing to be literally writing the last few notes—it’s a very tactile thing—and thinking, oh yes, that’ll be Deborah. The whole work will be performed with a major movement at the end which is completely new. There’s something about how the song cycle documents history, not just my own, and what I’ve been interested in, but actually all these other encounters, these influences I’ve had along the way. For example, the text comes in part from a tourist brochure, so there’s a bit of Japlish—hence the title which doesn’t quite make sense—although you don’t notice, which I quite like. There are also fragments of Calvino. When I was living in Italy that gave me cause to connect particularly with a lot of Calvino’s writing. And Georges Perec is another influence; the idea behind his book Life: A User’s Manual is pretty much what is going on in the third movement, the frozen moment that you then explore in time. So yes, geography and literature and, then, individuals. And there are different movements that have been performed in different parts of the world.

Thousands of Bundled Straw is a 54 minute, formally notated concert work, perhaps the last of this kind of work that Young will write: “what I’m interested in has moved. Traditional notation is so inadequate for what I’m trying to do.”

As a song cycle 10 years in evolution comes to fruition, and as Skin Quartet takes him around the world, David Young and Aphids move into new cycles, with Oribotics, Speak Percussion, and, soon, the creative development of Nasu [The Eggplant Project]. Young explains that it’s “a collaboration between 3 composers: Keiko Harada from Japan, George Van Dam from Belgium and myself, with 3 musicians—Natasha Anderson from Australia, Yasutaka Hemmi the violinist we continue to work with, and Yutaka Oya who’s a pianist based in Brussels. For this project, Rosemary Joy is making, especially for Yutaka, a toy piano but one that is preparable and re-tunable. So that happens in December. Then we’ll present it in the 3 countries sometime in the next 5 years.”

Libra Ensemble, Thousands of Bundled Straw, composer David Young, soprano Deborah Kayser, Melbourne International Arts Festival, Iwaki Auditorium, ABC Southbank Centre, Oct 18, www.melbournefestival.com.au

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 41

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

1 October 2005
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