The grand push and pull of dark matter

Keith Gallasch

Christian Eggen, Dark Matter

Christian Eggen, Dark Matter

Christian Eggen, Dark Matter

As a guest of Brisbane’s ELISION at the world premiere of Dark Matter I offer the following not as a review, but as personal and descriptive account of the work and the feelings and thoughts it provoked. The work is the joint creation of the ELISION ensemble and the Norwegian CIKADA ensemble, their conductor Christian Eggen, and the primary collaborators, British composer Richard Barrett and Norwegian visual artist Per Inge Bjørlo working with Daryl Buckley, the artistic Director of ELISION.
Dark Matter is a massive and mysterious work. It embraces its audience and eludes it, unites and divides it, hectors and seduces it. It solves nothing, it opens up everything. This is the dialectic you ride for 75 minutes if you have the patience and the stamina, or the will to surrender. I wrestled and played with Dark Matter over 2 performances, worried at and relished it. Treasured its intelligence and its stark beauty.

Installations come in all sizes. This was a huge one, a performative installation in the Brisbane Powerhouse’s large theatre, the seating removed, the space a concert hall, an unfamiliar church, a panopticon, at the very least all of these. On entering you don’t know where to place yourself. This is something like a concert hall: there are musical instruments at one end, seats of a kind at the other, but each is a sculpted space. The musical terrain is of platforms, a brightly lit box and a tank behind a glass wall, all at various elevations: the audience plane is flat but on it are metal cages, benches and tubular stools, short and sharp-edged. Glaring lights on tall stands assail us as we seek out seats. Some of the seats in the cages (evoking miners’ lifts) face away from the musicians. Between a row of stools on one side and benches on another, a metal sheet is lined with truncated cones topped with glass disks. It looks dangerous, an object for contemplation, as is the whole space for the duration of the performance.

Not a note has been played, but the performance has already begun as the audience enter and transform and become the installation. They move about, selecting seats on which they place the industrial cloth handed them as they enter. The light is too bright, they change seats. Or they stay and, choosing only to listen, tie on the masks they find on their seats. Or they sit to find themselves facing a small metal-cased monitor on a stand on which they or their fellow audience members appear. They are watched as they watch. Visual artist Per Inge Bjørlo has divided the audience from itself.

Bjørlo has transformed concert hall into gallery, given a listening audience objects, screens and other people to contemplate. The objects might be made from industrial detritus but they appear honed and burnished. Harsh quartz halogen light scatters through wire mesh and heavy grilles, fusing the whole into one architecture. But its wholeness is racked with interference, a scientific phenomenon that Per Inge Bjørlo sees his own art sharing with composer Richard Barrett’s. This is an installation that interrupts the view, compels the audience to mask, or seek out new spaces, to sit amidst the musicians, or stand or lie anywhere, to hear the play of electronics from very different vantage points. The audience can choose to visually and aurally compose its response to Dark Matter, to the push and pull of invisible material.

In the very centre of the floor, dominating the space, is a tall, circular platform, its base a metre and half tower of metal grille through which scatters white light. Above a stool, a score, small loudspeakers facing in: the conductor’s pulpit, the centre of this panopticon. Already in the austerity of the materials, the dazzling purity of the light, an audience atomised into contemplative individuals, there’s a sense of church, an unfamiliar one, not holy, not home to dogma (as Barrett ever stresses), but mysterious, enquiring, as art should be. Barrett in a program note refers to Dark Matter as a “cosmological oratorio”, and given the range of his sources and inspirations from various creation myths through arcane Renaissance thinkers and doers to Samuel Beckett’s painfully optimistic but entropic vision, it’s apt.

Even before we hear a note of music (which confirms and changes everything), another association constellates round the design. The metallic austerity, the light, suggest laboratory, or reactor. And when the music commences, as Barrett says, Christian Eggen becomes a conductor in more senses than one. Composer and visual artist visited a particle accelerator in Switzerland as part of their preparation. Bjørlo imbues the space with the stark beauty of a Protestant church and an industrial ugliness suggesting danger—an aesthetic we have embraced since at least the early 20th century and in which Nature has no easy place.

Behind the conductor and in a large cage of their own (ironies abound) sit composer Barrett and sound engineer Michael Hewes, outputting the electronic and amplified sounds that dialogue and aurally dance with and challenge the acoustic instruments before them. In the major electronic passages it is fascinating to watch Barrett leaning over his small cluster of pads and keyboards, fingers flying, hands hovering, striking. The sounds generated and meeting with those of the acoustic instruments build another space in and about the installation often beyond description, often beyond the sometimes too familiar cosmic sci-fi sounds of electronics. Like the installation and its evocations, individual and collective sounds, phrases and passages and whole movements have a rare sonic purity, found also in Deborah Kayser’s soprano meditations or her adroitly spare reading of Beckett, and even in the rapidly articulated (mock shamanistic was it?) wordless litany from contrabass clarinettist Carl Rossman.

It is however the questing voice of the electric guitar that tests the prevailing tone of chaos constantly if barely ordered. It is here that the composer—the artist as analogous to the scientist, as Barrett would like to see him/her—takes us somewhere very different. Curiously, in the entropic finale to the work, after all else has faded in a sustained, sublime reverie, and the last words of Beckett’s Sounds have left us, the electric guitar alone sings on, but it is fading, being faded, until the plug is pulled, leaving only the faint plucking of a near soundless instrument. Barrett, in a dialogue with Buckley in the printed program puts it more precisely:

…6 superimposed guitar parts…create a chaotic and meaningless tangle of notes against which the live guitar struggles aggressively but is ultimately defeated, first in its attempt to make sense of things and finally in its attempt to make any sound at all, as its amplification is withdrawn, turning it from the loudest instrument in the ensemble to the quietest.
For a complex musical work, in which like jazz you can lose yourself, lose track, find your way again, Barrett’s Dark Matter is lucidly constructed, canonical, interpolated with these astonishing electric guitar passages (transmissions) from Daryl Buckley, which progress from delicate harmonics to huge chordal shifts and dense buzzings and burrings (that seem to evoke but avoid the idiom of jazz and rock greats) and apocalyptic hymnings that nothing else in the work approaches, and nor should it. Fittingly the guitarist sits at the highest point of the ensemble atop a metal platform mounted on what appears to be a huge abstract concrete foot pointing into the space; behind the guitarist a screen fills the vast theatre wall, a single light radiating nova-like across it.

Barrett describes Dark Matter as modular, as unfinished. This first version will be augmented with new passages and re-shaped in future versions. I’ll be keen to hear how they work, whether this art as investigation will continue to take the same shape it does now: creation and its instabilities; erudite investigations, beautiful orderings, cosmic imaginings; the word and its end; musical entropy. The passage from the Big Bang or Lucretian Chaos or Creation to Entropy or the Day of Judgement or various brands of static Eternity is an all too familiar macro-narrative. Umberto Eco has mused, “..what if the story of the big bang were a tale as fantastic as the gnostic account that insisted the universe was generated by the lapsus of a clumsy demiurge?” Of course, Dark Matter’s rich complexities and artistic illogic defy such broad patterning moment by dramatic moment.

Whatever thoughts (and anxieties) Dark Matter gives rise to, the work is already a deeply memorable one for me. It was a pleasure to see a work on such a scale, of such beauty, with such a range of invention and skilful realisation emanating from a long and sustained international collaboration.

This report on Dark Matter is part of a RealTime-ELISION ensemble joint venture. At the invitation of ELISION, Keith Gallasch travelled to Brisbane to see 2 performances of the work and participated in a public forum in which he and musicologist Richard Toop interviewed composer Richard Barrett. The performance of Dark Matter was recorded for radio by the ABC. We hope to soon reproduce the printed program’s Richard Barrett-Daryl Buckley dialogue on our website.

Dark Matter, ELISION and CIKADA ensembles in association with the Brisbane Powerhouse, composer Richard Barrett, visual artist Per Inge Bjørlo, conductor Christian Eggen, sound engineer Michael Hewes; Brisbane Powerhouse, Nov 16-18

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 36

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

1 December 2001