Motion in stillness

Matthew Lorenzon: Totally Huge New Music Festival, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang

Gentle steps with an open mouth, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang, Perth iMprov Collective, with Elena Tory-Henderson’s installation Big Yellow

Gentle steps with an open mouth, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang, Perth iMprov Collective, with Elena Tory-Henderson’s installation Big Yellow

Gentle steps with an open mouth, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang, Perth iMprov Collective, with Elena Tory-Henderson’s installation Big Yellow

The Totally Huge New Music Festival teamed up with The Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts to host Melbourne-based vocal artist Alice Hui-Sheng Chang. Chang led Perth’s own iMprovisation Collective in a performance around PICA’s black box space before performing a solo concert in the venue’s dedicated concert venue. Both performances were remarkable for their utter commitment and control.

There is a fine line in group improvisation between blending in so much that nothing happens and standing out so much that you become the (perhaps unwanted) focus of the performance. It is to Chang and the iMprovisation Collective’s credit that they were able to control extreme dynamic variations while retaining a sense of unity in the ensemble. The performers began spaced around the first floor balcony that surrounds the central PICA gallery space. I was situated on the ground floor next to Elena Tory-Henderson’s sweeping sculpture Big Yellow. Big Yellow consists of dozens of strips of yellow, unmoulded blister-pack plastic delicately suspended in a broad curve from one balcony of the gallery to another. Part of me was disappointed that Johannes Sistermanns, after his festival-opening concert exploring the tensile strength of clingwrap, was not able to take part in the performance.

The improvisation began with some descending “whoops,” cough-like sounds and kookaburra laughter. As the ensemble passed these sounds in a circle around the balcony, the atmosphere morphed from pointillistic cascades to immense, organ-like chords. The ensemble moved fairly quickly into a bout of blood-curdling shouting. This was a nice touch, avoiding the slow build of many improvisations. The battle cry shouting and screaming resounded very well in the gallery, wrapping the audience in a blanket of bravery. Once downstairs, the ensemble lay, walked and stood around the space, passing sounds to each other more free form and decentralised. Some delicate “sh” and “ch” sounds combined with humming, microtonal beating and the odd violent warbling. The ensemble finished their improvisation lined up in two rows beneath Big Yellow, turning occasionally to send a “whoop” or a shout bouncing around the balconies.

Gentle steps with an open mouth, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang, Perth iMprov Collective, with Elena Tory-Henderson’s installation Big Yellow

Gentle steps with an open mouth, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang, Perth iMprov Collective, with Elena Tory-Henderson’s installation Big Yellow

Gentle steps with an open mouth, Alice Hui-Sheng Chang, Perth iMprov Collective, with Elena Tory-Henderson’s installation Big Yellow

After a short interval, the audience moved into PICA’s black box for Chang’s solo vocal performance. Her vocal explorations originate in the basic principle of breath escaping the body. Between her first barely audible exhalation and her last high-pitched hum, Chang modulates this current of air in striking and unearthly ways. The concert’s staging reflected this simple and elegant performance practice. Black curtains surrounded a stage with a single, broad spotlight and a microphone in the middle of the room.

After several meditative moments, Chang steps up to the microphone and breathes gently, building to a quavering hum. She steps away from the microphone as muffled, squeaking laughter emerges into a deafening nasal tone. This tone becomes the basis for an extended improvisation including a crackling, disintegrating sound like “vocal fry,” but in a much higher register. Chang moves about the space so as to project sound into every corner of the room, even the space under the audience’s seating. She then explores more dynamic, mobile tones, including sounds like a chortling pigeon and a baby crying.

As I Ieave PICA, I sense Big Yellow sweeping silently through the gallery, implying motion in its stillness. Chang and the Perth iMprovisation Collective brought another form of motion to the gallery for a short while, exerting control at the extremes of vocal practice.

26 May 2015