Cultural play & interplay

Chris Reid: Music

Dear John, M.O.V.E Theatre

Dear John, M.O.V.E Theatre

Dear John, M.O.V.E Theatre

This year’s OzAsia Festival music program included two highly innovative and absorbing musical performances: Taiwan’s M.O.V.E. Theatre produced a homage to John Cage that involved dance, light displays, technological gadgetry and audience participation as well as sound, and the Australian Art Orchestra combined with musicians and performers from Sichuan to create a unique and hypnotic musical form.

M.O.V.E Theatre, Dear John

Ten minutes before M.O.V.E. Theatre’s performance commences, we’re let into Nexus Cabaret to find a darkened room with many curious spotlit objects spread around the empty space. The only sound is of water dripping from an electronically controlled container hanging beneath the ceiling, into a beaker on a wooden crate, a meditative sound that heightens our awareness. More crates are scattered around the room and dozens of tiny coloured lights glow in the dark. What really catches the imagination is the guts of a dismantled piano, mounted in a timber frame with lengths of twine attached to the hammers and extending across the room where they are stitched to a jacket hanging mid-air. There are suspended metal and bamboo wind chimes with dangling strings; as we wander around the space we brush against them, accidentally making sounds. On stage, more wooden crates form a bench covered with what looks like science-lab apparatus.

The performance commences when a dancer puts on the hanging jacket and activates the piano hammers by dancing. This is prepared piano modified to an extreme level, not just with Cagean screws and bits of rubber—the piano is completely re-imagined. The dancer and a percussionist then compete at the piano, the percussionist playing the strings and the wooden frame with mallets while the dancer simultaneously scrapes objects over the piano strings and even throws herself onto the strings to dampen the sound. The audience crowds around this spectacle as they might at a cock-fight.

As the performance unfolds, the dancer moves from apparatus to apparatus, drawing the audience with her. At an array of light bulbs, she invites a child audience member to join her in rapidly switching the lights on and off, creating a spontaneous dance of light. In another corner she dances on a platform inside a cube outlined by beams of light. The sound of a mechanically rotated rain-stick is occasionally heard, lights flash and electronic and acoustic sounds emanate from around the room without warning. The percussionist uses mallets to play the resonant metal staircase at the rear of the space, using the architecture as instrument. The dancer performs with a lit bulb and then plays a tiny concertina taken from another crate. Dear John playfully explores the intersection of sound, movement, light, technology and audience, and the meditative sound of dripping water closes the performance.

Afterwards, there’s a Q&A session with the director, performers and audience discussing the work’s concept in depth. There can be no better homage to Cage than to extend his experimental approach. After the Q&A, we’re invited to play with the equipment ourselves, breaking down the final barrier between performer and audience and encouraging our own experimentation.

Water Pushes Sand

Water Pushes Sand

Water Pushes Sand

Australian Art Orchestra, Water Pushes Sand

The Australian Art Orchestra’s concert opens dramatically as two percussionists on stage play gongs heralding a procession of the wind players and an actor entering from the rear of the auditorium. Fusing jazz with traditional Chinese musical forms and instrumentation, the ensemble is led by pianist and composer Erik Griswold, who arranged the 10 pieces, and comprises five AAO performers on piano, percussion, trumpet, saxes and contrabass, four Sichuan musicians playing gongs, the double-reed suona, the banhu, bamboo flutes and the gu zheng, and charismatic actor-vocalist Zheng Sheng Li.

The music is characterised by driving jazz rhythms, but the sensibility is imbued with traditional Chinese flavours by the instrumentation and the melodic lines based on traditional songs using the pentatonic scale. The bamboo flute makes a perfect jazz instrument and even the suona, with its high-pitched, reedy sound, blends into the ensemble. In one piece, the sax player and the suona player face off in a musical duel that reaches a thrilling climax. In the final work, entitled Changing Faces, Zheng Sheng Li in costume virtuosically performs bian lian, the magically quick changing of masks worn by actors in traditional Sichuan opera.

While the artists perform, there are videos of street scenes in Chengdu. In introducing the pieces, Griswold tells stories of the city, including that of a 300-year-old laneway that is being redeveloped. The final video is of the beautiful Anshun Bridge that crosses the Jin River in Chengdu. The concert ends as it began, the performers departing in a noisy, clanging procession.

Griswold and percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson’s regular visits to Sichuan have resulted in a highly appealing musical form. The performers revel in taking their music in new directions. The performance would work well in cabaret or a club—the traditional concert format seems too formal for such compelling music. As well as being accessible and fun, the form enlivens both cultures. Griswold speaks of the blurring lines between Chinese and Australian culture, and the music typifies this burgeoning hybridity.

These concerts exemplify the OzAsia Festival, which has grown in scale, complexity, interest and reach over recent years and whose influence is building cultural recognition and respect.

2015 OzAsia Festival Music Program: M.O.V.E. Theatre, Dear John, Nexus Cabaret, 2 Oct; Australian Art Orchestra, Water Pushes Sand, Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, 3 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 6

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 December 2015