In the mix

Keith Gallasch at Voice Jam & Videotape, Adelaide Festival

This is a strange experience; not weird, not wild, but odd. The odd opportunity to see one video several times and to read it differently (or not) each time because its soundtrack changes, each video voiced in a new way. I say voice, because voice, sung and spoken, is pivotal in this performance. Onstage three female singers, sometimes four, synch into spare soundtracks, adding to instrumental and/or vocal lines, or going it on their impressive own. As a music concert it’s mostly great, and gets better as it goes.

Often we don’t ‘hear’ soundtracks (even when moved by them), unless they’re as obtuse as the Titanic’s or packed with favorite tunes, unless we’re soundtrack addicts. In Voice Jam & Videotape image and music are almost in equal partnership. “Almost” because it’s the films in this performance which are repeated, not the musical compositions. Each video enjoys the benefit of two or three accompaniments. Although this is a Contemporary Music Events’ gig, it’s still a matter of music servicing the videos. (CME has produced a show where you sit in a cinema and listen to music without film.) Kosky tries to keep the balance by placing his singers next to the screen. By the last screening, I know what I’m inclined to look at.

Tyrone Landau, Rae Marcellino, Elena Kats-Chernin and Deborah Conway have created compositions that warrant multiple hearings. This could not be said of the viewing of most of the videos. Elena Kats-Chernin’s score for Judy Horacek’s animated The Thinkers, about The Stolen Children, was exemplary, matching this artist’s whimsical style with a musical cartoon language just serious enough to sustain the message. It markedly improved my still limited appreciation of the video, amplifying its moments of magic—especially the images of flight. David Bridie’s score for the same video, including the voice of Paul Keating, while politically pertinent, laboured the point, making the cartoon curiously twee, not up to the weight of the soundtrack. Deborah Conway’s composition for Lawrence Johnston’s Night, a Sydney Opera House reverie built from close ups of roof-shell details (tiles, edges etc.), added an aural density and a sense of the architectural space dealt with—many voices inside the Opera House, spare visual detail on the outside. Conway appeared (discreetly in the dark) adding her own voice to the multitude, the musical quality not dissimilar from that she helped create in the marvellous soundtrack for Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books.

The one video that worked for me and that worked at me with the help of its composers, was Donna Swann’s dis-family-function. I’m usually not fond of narrative short films, but the almost silent movie, family-movie innocence of the work with its blunt edits and nervy close-ups (and none of these over-played), is engaging and I was more than happy to watch it twice. A gathering for a birthday party for an ageing mother starts from several points until the characters converge for a backyard party and the giving of gifts. Landau’s reading is relatively dark, male voice and piano, other male voices added, finally joined by the live voices of the onstage women singers. There’s something faintly disturbing about the score, a kind of restrained (almost Brittenish) poignancy, an inevitable unravelling of feeling and never a literal response. The onscreen image of the mother sinking into herself after the giving of gifts (dog bookends, dog statue, dog pictures, a real new dog—in the presence of her elderly-barely-willing-to-budge old dog) is sad. Rae Marcellino’s score is just as good, but much closer to what I imagine the videomaker might have had in mind. Its opening, rapid lines of “ma ma ma” immediately signals a lighter, everyday mood, and you don’t go looking for the video’s simple seriousness, that just hits you later. But in the choral work, as in the Landau, there’s something oddly holy generated as we watch these strangers—the mother, the dog, the son with his Indian girlfriend, the gay couple, and the young parents with baby, lolling in the sunlight, the near-but-never-to-be drama past.

Voice Jam & Videotape, curated by Barrie Kosky for Contemporary Music Events, Mercury Theatre, Adelaide, March 6 – 8; Salvation Army Temple, Melbourne, March 13 – 15

RealTime issue #24 April-May 1998 pg. 46

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

1 April 1998