Seeing is not believing

Gretchen Miller

At the beginning of Toru Takemitsu’s work, Stanza II for amplified harp and tape, Marshall McGuire stopped to retune his harp. The simple gesture of standing, quietly checking, plucking, and moving on to the next strings held a quiet kind of physicality and inherent theatre, that had the potential to serve as a source of inspiration for the mixed media content of the 3 concerts I attended in September, as part of the Sydney Spring Festival.

That work was a festival highlight. The tape track of the Takemitsu, written/recorded in 1971, was exciting and rich. Something in it grabbed the imagination and flung it up into the air. The harp (both treated in realtime and appearing on tape) sounded as if it had been left alone in a dusty corner of a city warehouse where the daily movements of the sun across its strings and frame, and the shifting humidity of a decade’s seasons, had caused it to disintegrate…popping to itself, the wood creaks, the strings sound brittle, a bat flying past brushes the strings and they shimmer and flick apart. This was organic and dark music, almost vocal, as the harp cried out its fracturing. We heard the city outside the windows, and voices, briefly, as they peered into the room—though they didn’t seem to see the pieces of the harp in the corner.

This work came at the end of the Twentieth Century Harp concert, featuring a selection of favourites from renowned contemporary harpist Marshall McGuire. Also a delight during that concert was Berio’s Sequenza II—always a pleasure to hear the recognisable gestures of a Berio Sequenza, of which he wrote several, for various solo instruments. Kaija Saariaho’s Fall also had electronic elements, echoing from the corners of the room, flirting briefly with the lower registers of the instrument—I never knew a harp could growl. And McGuire playing Franco Donatoni’s Marches at times created a physical effect—a swoon of harp swirls made the back of my head tingle as with the first draw on a cigarette and, there again, a pleasurable exploration of the colours of the instrument’s lower registers.

The video projections throughout the concert, by Nicole Lee, worked reasonably well with the Takemitsu—images of a dark-eyed and serious young man moving through a cityscape. We’d seen him earlier throughout the concert, turning in slow motion to face us.

At the Colin Bright evening, The Wild Boys, I enjoyed the playful and ironic Stalin, with the recorded voice of Jas H Duke working itself into hysteria, crying out the name of the Russian dictator like a child for his mother, or a lover for his partner. And given that it was just a week after the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York, and consequent Australian government posturing, the re-presentation of Amanda Stewart’s 1988 Bicentenial work work, N.aim, was horrifyingly prescient. Stewart’s presence in the audience, reminded us how welcome a live performance would have been.

The recordings introduced the artist to the listener before Bright manipulated them. They also added a much needed change of texture through the concert, as I found The Wild Boys, Ratsinkafka and There Ain’t No Harps in Hell, Angel too long, too loud, and too didactic. Musically they were all bombardment, with little tonal variety. And call me old-fashioned, but there’s something odd and frustrating about hearing great musicians (Sandy Evans, Marjery Smith, Synergy Percussion et al) on tape in a concert. The one live appearance from Marshall McGuire for There Ain’t No Harps in Hell, Angel was a disappointment—outdated and predictable in its references. AC/DC with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus? Give me a break.

Towards the end of the festival, Delia Silvan’s program, Night Vision, was musically enjoyable, with exquisite performances. Roger Woodward’s 2 Chopin Nocturnes were like a caress, McGuire pensive and perfect in Ludovico Einaudi’s Stanza and From Where?, and cellist David Pereira played Carl Vine’s work with tape, Inner World, with precision and appropriately withheld emotion.

But the dance didn’t work for me. Delia Silvan is a fine dancer and her first attempt at choreography was sometimes pretty, but overall somewhat clichéd in its subject matter—women and darkness—and its choreography. Meanwhile the music inevitably becomes secondary—an emotional support team for the main game. An odd thing in a music festival.

For this concert, as with the other 2, I found the imposition of other elements upon the music exactly that—an imposition. Looking for points of integration of purpose in each I could find very few—what did manifest for a moment in Lee’s video work, and that of Dean Edwards during the Colin Bright concert, was soon evaporated by monotonous repetition.

Watching digitally rendered red dots split and multiply I wondered at their function. Similarly I ended up averting my eyes from the repeated replays of Lee walking up a beach. Can someone tell me the point of using digitally made landscapes through which the viewer is rushed ever onwards, as if in a video game (Edwards). A comment on the sterility of the way we interpret the world around us, or the mindlessness of video games…or are the images themselves sterile, with no connection to the psyche of the audience, nor the artist? Abstract images appeared throughout the Bright concert, combined with more immediately graspable, repeated images—newspaper clippings, drawings of Stalin, dollar signs, Aboriginal children, the Greenpeace web address. So does the repetition indicate that the music is all the same? Or that the issues are? Either way, if you can say it once why say it again, and again?

These 3 concerts demonstrated the fundamental problem of contemporary music’s continuing disconnection from contemporary performance practice. Musicians are prone to repeating, in their ignorance, the practices of awkward, early days of collaboration. If Sydney Spring is to stake a claim in this worthwhile territory, then the organisers should think about adding a specialist curator to its artistic team to help realise its admirable intentions. Otherwise, keep it simple and stick to the music.

12th Sydney Spring International Festival of New Music: The Wild Boys, Colin Bright, Sept 18; Twentieth Century Harp, Sept 20; Night Vision, Sept 22, The Studio, Sydney Opera House

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 35

© Gretchen Miller; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2001