Although tales are sparely told in Hilary Bell’s poems-cum-lyrics, Ensemble Offspring’s Seven Stories is not a venture into literal storytelling. Each layer of this multimedia concert — instrumental, vocal, poetic and projected — is impressionistic and synched, to varying degrees (or not), with the others. Bell’s fairytales are tautly imagistic, the video metaphorical rather than narratively illustrative, the singing frequently wordless and the scoring, for all of its occasional brilliance, has on first hearing a certain minimalist sameness and aetherial waft.

The notion propounded by Christopher Brooker in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004) that there are only seven story types is contestable, and certainly inadequate for dealing with many creation myths, especially non-Western ones. Good to see, then, Caitlin Yeo’s “Quest” commence with golden egg shakers in the prelude to a musical journey from restlessness to resolution, soprano Jane Sheldon soaring wordlessly. She speaks Bell’s quest story, which is completed in “Transformation,” the last work in the program. On a large screen suspended above the performers, a young (uncredited) woman, robed, almost on all fours, rises in Sarah-Jane Woulahan’s video to dance before a huge Sun and Moon, her body swirling and multiplying. She spins before a roiling rainbow-tinted ocean and a massive eclipse before returning to the ground, earthed, I guess. Woulahan’s video has a life of its own, suggesting inner turmoil and aspiration envisaged on a cosmological scale.

Jodi Phillis’s “Overcoming The Darkness” opens jauntily, colour-saturated flowers bursting open on the screen and Sheldon vocalising joy until a vast green forest is spookily rendered in negative, the music grim and a close-up revealing the girl’s feet pushing forward, we imagine with purpose. The music sweetens, there is new green, the screen fills with spores in flight and mushrooms sprouting fulsomely. Bell’s relatively long poem slips in and out of aural and melodic grasp. Her words are not surtitled and the high soprano singing sometimes elides consonants. I follow the poem in the dark of the auditorium and find that, at its end, music, video and text share a corresponding sense of release.

Claire Edwardes, Ensemble Offspring, photo Heidrun Löhr

The visual imagery for Amanda Brown’s “Rags To Riches” is built around the cold inevitability of time passing: there are clocks antique and elderly digital, the woman swaying in snow. The mood darkens via marimba and glockenspiel and accelerates into an aggressive Reichian dance, ocean waves tumbling, bass clarinet roaring until soprano notes float over a soft, faltering piano, incidentally apt for the poem’s ending in which riches come at another’s expense: “As for the woman hiding beneath them /Her black hair matted, her white teeth worn down /She would be cast back into the sea.” The lines recall those of “Quest” — “Each year would rob her/ Of her black hair /White teeth /Power.”

Sally Whitwell’s “Fatal Flaw” is focused, she writes in her program note, on “the inexorable,” and it is fully felt. In the poem, a mother’s pride enrages a childless goddess who locks the woman in a case, tosses her into the sea and murders her children. We see a vast red landscape, a snowbound forest, a heaving ocean viewed through a ship’s window, a cyclone, a collapsing bridge and a distant NASA view of the Earth. The clarinet is shrill, violin forceful, drumming emphatic, but out of a sense of overbearing danger emerges a fully formed, plangent song — from the cello —before a return to anxiety. A seismograph shudders, an iceberg breaks up, the lone young woman lost amid images, Jason Noble on his feet, his bass clarinet at its most powerful. Sheldon vocalises, lava pours. It’s visual overkill, but sounds wonderful, the melody memorable, the score deeply textured.

In a sudden departure from the norm, we leave Woulahan’s video world for Bree Van Reyk’s “Comedy Of Errors.” There is no young woman, no buffeting cosmos. Sheldon turns conductor for a work, its parts detailed on the screen: “Repetiton, Interruption, Overstatement” etc. Page-turning becomes hyper-emphatic, the whole ensemble whistles with the clarinettist who then, refusing to obey the conductor, hangs onto a breathtakingly long note. The second section evokes slapstick, the ensemble awash with honking horns and an inconclusive knock-knock joke. The third section is a brilliantly persuasive Miniature Double Concerto for Woodblocks executed by Claire Edwardes with Sheldon in reserve for the odd knock-on. “Comedy Of Errors” functions as a kind of entr’acte, a relief from the gloom and high drama of the initial pieces. But the absence of the video subject is unsettling; no restorative release for her of the kind comedy offers.

Seven Stories, Ensemble Offspring, photo Heidrun Löhr

Kyls Burtland’s propulsive “Journey” is paired with Bell’s sketch of a woman warrior who helps a pauper, leaving herself without money, so she and her horse set off to trick a giant out of his gold. On the screen, the Sun looms, railway tracks course by, the ensemble rumbles with dense minimalist intensity, lightning branches across the sky. The girl merges with the cosmos.

For her own piece, “Transformation,” Jane Sheldon writes that she “tried to achieve a sense of ecstatic suspension.” The woman in Bell’s poem having found the lover lost in “Quest,” “his hands bound in seaweed,” cannot embrace him and turns into a golden-scaled fish. The oceanic “expansive, seemingly uniform space quivering with quiet activity and possibility” that Sheldon generates laterally corresponds with the screen image in which rare close-ups of the young woman, suspended horizontally, reveal hands gently shaking, then feet and head as dazzling balls of light hover over and move through her, or as the poem has it: “her entire body gleamed with golden scales /catching the light every time she flicked her tail.” Refracted light drifts by like swathes of gathered silk and singer and ensemble quiver with shimmering rustlings and enduring vibrations. And again, the young woman achieves transcendence.

For all its many pleasures Seven Stories was not altogether satisfying: too much reliance on wordless singing instead of sufficiently committing to Bell’s poems, a critical absence of surtitles, and video art that was at times hyperbolic and its images and dancing sometimes generic. Sally Whitwell’s “Fatal Flaw” proved to be the most compelling of the works; the others certainly warranted further hearings (I’m looking forward to the ABC radio broadcast). Bree Van Reyk’s “Comedy of Errors,” if disengaged with the video layer of Seven Stories, wickedly broke through its otherwise sombre mood and Ensemble Offspring played with their usual commitment, flair and easy sense of theatricality.

City Recital Hall, Ensemble Offspring & Creative Music Fund, Seven Stories, composers Amanda Brown, Kyls Burtland, Jodi Phillis, Bree van Reyk, Jane Sheldon, Sally Whitwell, Caitlin Yeo, visuals Sarah-Jane Woulahan, text Hilary Bell; Ensemble Offspring: percussion Claire Edwardes, Bree van Reyk, clarinet Jason Noble, piano Sally Whitwell, violin Veronique Serret, soprano Jane Sheldon, cello Freya Schack-Arnott; City Recital Hall, Sydney, 3 June

Top image credit: Jane Sheldon, Seven Stories, photo Heidrun Löhr