Word dance: Nikki Heywood & Mark Cauvin, Broadcast into Oblivion

Keith Gallasch

In our RealTime review-writing workshops conducted around Australia and overseas for many years, we discouraged learner reviewers from evoking the weather experienced before or at a performance (“It was a warm, languid evening ideal for reflecting on the human condition”), save of course for extreme circumstances (“I was blown away, so was the show”). Broadcast into Oblivion, however, requires such a mention; an icey, unseasonal, bullying wind off Bondi Beach buffeted us into the Pavilion’s High Tide Room where doors and windows rattled as Nikki Heywood voiced her unsettling poetic text in a taut duet with experimental double bassist Mark Cauvin.

The weather and an ominous title looked to be grimly matched, however in a re-estimation of Creation and successive stages of despair about the wretched state of things, playfulness, irony and an existential frankness eventually lifted the spirits, like being hit with a fresh ozone charge as a storm of voices, words and strings hit home. Performing side by side with music stands and microphones, the artists had provided copies of the text with casual diagrams of moments of bass scoring.


Being in the making

Heywood’s opening foray, Part 1, is nothing short of ambitious, her voice a calculatedly tentative, squeaky soprano matched by Cauvin’s soft, scratching over the bass bridge, conjures bit by bit a pre-big bang state, “starting small,” comprising dust, specks. “[A] glimmer/ a shimmer” vibrates, the last note held long, and a lovely “waAaAve” dances forth. This is “when time was unthought,” without time, space or light before “a shock” (trailing a long k-k-k-k-k, the bass thumping) and a “a slingshot to infinity” (a high, long, falling squeal) generates an “impossibly large/ spread across a field of light and becoming,” the bass offering a first fully formed, satisfying chord as the cosmos begins to take shape.

In this formative phase, every word, every note is like a loose atom looking to combine, every syllable to rhyme and alliterate. A mass of “dots,” half-sung, double bass jazzily punctuating , “float … and accumulate … particles accelerate … elements coagulate/ rocks form and aggregate … systems … whole systems spray into form.” Elements tick, tickle, and throb, ooze and bubble orgasmically into a pronounced, cosmic sneeze — and comic relief. And “Air … breathed … itself … into … being” like song — gaseous, yellow, purple and green. Out of which comes life, from air sparked by “the rubbing and the throbbing,” yielding “the first bacteria/ the first beating heart/ of the mother/ the mater/ the martyr/ the matter/ the antimatter/” and — Heywood is amazed — “antipasti of the first meal that ate itself.” Creation as cannibalism. “And nothing,” she intones with a look of awe, pleasure and surprise as the plucked bass pronounces completion, “was ever …the same. ”


A great undoing

The world now made, Part 2 is an evocation of its undoing, including a litany of human destruction (of forests, delivered in a haunting high vibrato to tumbling bass notes) and our shared culpability (fighting over groceries in supermarket aisles), and with voice and bass stuttering out a desire to go back, to before all this. The tone is initially confiding, “You know … that’s why we’re here/ To begin again” (a project it seems), but mocking: “Talk (as they say) is cheap,/ like chips or sand or promises but …hey/ It’s all we humans have./ And this” (she demonstrates): “… this opposable thumb … this/ That is something/ That is something./ You must admit it. Admit it. O and a prefrontal cortex./ And fire.” Anger over the fate of lives — black, white and koala — and the wrecking of the humanities rises up through “blah… blah … blah” into a mocking yodelling. While Heywood doesn’t “want to sound cynical,” she does, surrendering to disgust and helplessness. What does the future offer — “armies of nanobots AI/ Mine the Moon/ Mine your data. Splice genes/ Move to Mars/ Split in…fin…ity./ Nyah…Non so …Che? …” and a blunt “I dunno.”


Speaking in tongues

Part 3 is at first delicate — Cauvin opening with eerie, rattling glides, Heywood standing on one leg — about how to be reasonable, “eternally elegant” when “there is no such thing as stillness.” Head swinging hair fast side to side, she foresees the Sun dimming (analogised with “cradling civilisation … like a dumpling … steaming hot”) and worlds shattering into “smithereens,” that word itself distorting, rendered utterly unstable. She advises, “Don’t panic,” fancifully imagining we’ll evasively render time “a lozenge we can suck/ All time in a sweet tablet/ capsule of chronology/ all the bitter lessons of history made sweet/ to soothe.” But a shock wave of stuttering angst and a climactic wailing take hold — “the heat stroke/ the pen stroke/ the lash stroke/the stroke of the second hand/ the minute hand/ the minute the miniature the minuscule the mama/ oh MAMA!!”

She can’t believe we humans will ever work together (to “begin again”): “We’ll all rant and speak in tongues.” She does silly tongues, briefly, but then turns dark visionary, intoning on a sweetly bowed descending scale “a garbled singing of angels/ golden haired angels/ as they descend the drainpipe/ Wiping their pale arses with wing feathers/ wiping away tears of acid regret/ wiping the ash of forest fires/ wringing their hands/ wringing their sodden robes from the floods.” She concludes with an elegantly phrased, almost operatic “Even pathos … even pathos” but grinds it down, growling “even pathos/ is pathetic.” Another sorry ending.


The wars

In Part 4 Heywood complains, “…we have spawned whole continents, whole nations of careless fools/ Whole schools of entitled man boys” but admits, “Contempt is contagious.” It’s too easy. She turns to prophecy, conjuring in witchy falsetto: “Caw caw caw/ Three crows sat upon a wall/ each bird an oracle,” asking “Is it that time again?” — for war, total war? Heywood and Cauvin lock together in a dark march: “A war on sense and the senses … On touch … On truth?/ on trees and insects” and above all on women: “Secret torture/ and pillage/ setting … women … alight.” Voice and bass cry. It’s all too much. After a droll “Stone the crows/ One …thing…at a time,” the bass sings a lingering sigh. Parts 2, 3 and 4 have yielded anger, sarcasm and despair barely leavened with bitter humour but revelling in wordplay and sonic thrills.


Begin again

Part 5 is contemplative, opening with “It’s complicated,/ So much air moving/ So many alternating currents, expanded realities,” which throw reality itself into doubt, yielding “a sense of blankness, an emptiness underneath.” Heywood and Cauvin softly intone images of a globalised, de-localised world, until finding, in the same, delicate suspended tone, sustenance in the simplicities of the everyday, “the sound of seabirds/ refracted light through the water in the glass jug,” “scratching of the pen, stillness of the woman/ my stillness,” and, with an unusual, striking and very welcome specificity, “sound of the car engine, my jaw slightly clenched/ fingers pressing into my temple/ flesh against elastic waistband/ and the sensation of bacteria moving in my gut.”

Finally, referencing the cosmological dot art of Yayoi Kusama, Heywood envisions a ladder (“the infinity net of Kusama stretches out/ back to the now and everything”) enabling a perspective with which we can “come back/ make it simpler” before we become ever stuck in ash. To reflect on the very nature of thinking: “Is this music thinking … what is thinking about thinking?” To go back to “trusting your gut/ trusting the unknown,” to finally, with the bass buzzing, gliding up, Heywood intones “just let go … let go … let go,” floating high into a sung “o” and, the bass now silent, descends lightly down into a sympathetic “you can always/ come back/ for more.”

Part 5 has been delivered with an aching inquisitiveness, sharing and elegiac in its sad sense of what we’ve lost and what might be regained; a quipped “without being a sentimental wanker” is the only note of self-deprecating levity in this moving finale. It’s not as if all the conjured disasters and their consequent anxieties have been erased by living mindfully in the moment — Heywood’s jaw is after all clenched, the fingers pressed into the temple — or that ‘trusting your gut’ is any kind of salve, let alone solution, but the consistent musical tone of Part 5 is curiously consoling, evolving a sense of easeful infinity that counters the aura of death that pervades much of the previous text and which is abetted by the work’s title.


The art of voice-reading

One of the special pleasures of Broadcast into Oblivion is that it exercises voice-reading. “Voice-reading is, ultimately, a form of empathy: we tune into what another person is thinking and feeling, not always successfully,” writes Annie Karp in The Human Voice, The Story of a Remarkable Talent, 2006, “the voice act(ing) as an exquisite psychic barometer to micro-shifts in feeling…” Heywood exploits our often unconscious sensitivities to pace, rhythm and breath, pushing her voice beyond expected pitch and tonal parameters, gliding, hovering on the edge of song, faltering, stuttering, gasping, tongue-tied, the drama underlined with understated facial expression and paralleled and amplified in Cauvin’s expressive bass playing. It can at times sound mad, like speaking in tongues: “the manic-depressive … speaking vigorously, with a wide pitch range, lots of glides and frequent emphases …” (Karp again). But so do bards, oracles, shamans and poets and singers of all kinds whom we treasure. As well, Heywood’s constant wordplay undoes the logic of language, dissociating signifier from signified, so that she can unsettle semantic stability, compelling us to reflect anew on the cliches of everyday social and political discourse in order to ask us how we are to cope with today’s constellating crises and renew our attention to language as she moves from anger and ironic detachment to immediately personal sensation. If we can’t connect with every word and thought of Heywood’s propulsive dramatic poem, we surrender to its “music and dance” (Karp), the sheer sound of its groping towards expression, its resistances (distancing, holding back) and its emotional overflows.

Broadcast into Oblivion is a grimly thrilling expression of today’s multiplying existential anxieties, delivered by Heywood and Cauvin with passion and wit, voice and double bass resonantly entwining, and offering more than a very rich aural experience. Heywood and Cauvin are onto something with a distinctive form that will grow in confidence and complexity with future iterations. As for the rather despairing title, I think the very receptive audience for this ‘broadcast’ certainly did not feel they could be equated with oblivion, let alone were they oblivious.


Kindred spirits

Broadcast into Oblivion immediately called to mind a small but significant number of Australian artists whose vocal performances “play with the boundaries between meaning and affect, between the voice and sound” (Ben Byrne, curator, Life Proof part 2, ABC Soundproof, 11 Dec 2015), often to considerable aesthetic and political effect. These are sometimes categorised as sound poets or language poets within the broader frame of performance poetry. They include major artists: sound poet Jas H Duke (1939-1992), poet and compositional linguist Chris Mann (1949-2018), poet, performer and visual artist Ania Walwicz (1951-2020), experimental sound poet Amanda Stewart, and vocalist and instrumentalist Carolyn Connors who sometimes forays into the language poet zone. Duke wrote songs, Mann and Stewart were part of Machine for Making Sense, and Walwicz performed with jazz artists Persons or Persons Unknown on one occasion that I know of. You’ll find performances by these artists on YouTube along with scattered writings about them online; and all are represented on CDs. These sound poets and their performance poet peers, including recent First Nations, Arabic-Australian artists and others, alongside extended vocal performers like Sonya Hollowell and Kate Brown, collectively warrant our attention.


New direction

Hoping that she might do more in this field, I asked Nikki Heywood if Broadcast into Oblivion indicated a new direction in her performance career and, if so, with a sense of working within a local tradition. She admitted to excitement about the form: “I’ve come around to this kind of spoken word/extended vocality in a circuitous way. Generating writing from often somatic/choreographic processes that we employ in Sydney’s Writing Dancing group, I realised that I was always hearing the words as I wrote … cadence, rhythm, attitude.

“Then working with Mark Cauvin, we looked at a huge range of graphic scores, from people like Cage of course and Cathy Berberian. Mark really encouraged me to work more with my writing and my voice and Broadcast grew from there. As a form and a practice it’s also more immediate, transportable and light on resources, compared to making larger scale performance work — which has become so difficult!

“I’m most emphatically a long term fan of Amanda Stewart and Chris Mann since the early days of Machine for Making Sense. They are both inspirational. I’ve always enjoyed the sprechgesang in classical works (as in Purcell’s Dido’s Lament) and then contemporary performers and composers such as Robert Ashley and of course Laurie Anderson. My son recently introduced me to a UK post punk band Dry Cleaning, whose vocalist Florence Shaw intones in a fabulously droll manner.”

Nikki Heywood

Nikki Heywood is an interdisciplinary artist who works across dance, performance, sound, writing and live art focused on embodiment & experiment since 1979. Informed by somatic & improvisational practice her body of work spans solo and group performance making that has toured to festivals and venues inter/nationally. Studying classical singing as well as extended vocal techniques and developing expanded experimental scores for voice and instrument, Heywood is interested in the voice as an energetic force through and of the body. She has also reviewed performance and dance for RealTime (see below).


Mark Cauvin

Mark Cauvin is a classically trained, experimental classical avant-garde double bassist performer, composer and improvisor. He composes music for double bass and electronics and video synthesis. He has worked with Chamber Made Opera, Decibel Ensemble, performing commissions by Cat Hope, David Young, Kasper Toeplitz and Maestro Fernando Grillo. His own multimedia work has been presented in the Netherlands and across Australia.


From the RealTime Archive

Nikki Heywood reviewed

Nikki Heywood variously as performer, writer, improviser, director, convenor and dramaturg:

Keith Gallasch: Nikki Heywood, Tony Osborne, Sound & Its Double, RealTime, April 2018

Jana Perkovic: The Wandering Life: Nomads, RealTime 90, April-May 2009

Matthew Clayfield: Sacred COW, The Quivering, 17 July 2007

Keith Gallasch: Across great divides, Sleeplessness 2003, RealTime 58, Dec-Jan 2003

Virginia Baxter: Inland Sea, RealTime 39, Oct-Nov, 2000

Keith Gallasch: The pleasure of another’s nightmare: A Room with no Air, RealTime 26, Aug-Sept, 1998

Keith Gallasch: Burn Sonata, RealTime 14, Aug-Sept 1996

Rachel Fensham, Sarah Miller: Jean/Lucretia, RealTime 11, Feb-March, 1996

Nikki Heywood and Keith Gallasch: Monstrous family show: a dialogue about Burn Sonata, RealTime 13, June-July 1996


Nikki Heywood, reviewer

Interchange Festival, The Start & the End of the Body, RealTime, 6 Dec, 2017

Geumhyung Jeong, Actualising fantasies, RealTime, 8 Nov, 2017

Homemade space travel, Route Dash Niner, Part II, RealTime, 25 Oct, 2017

Art at labour’s limits, Institute’s Still Life; Institute, RealTime, 8 Feb, 2017

Senses and causes: Spectra’s Imagined Touch, 1 Feb, 2017

Shifting the goalposts, interview, Martin del Amo, Champions, RealTime, 14 Dec, 2016

Rituals of another kind, River Lin, River Walk and Cleansing Service, RealTime, 16 Nov 2016

The aesthetics of kinetic impact: Tim Darbyshire, Stampede the Stampede, RealTime, 31 Aug, 2016

Eye to eye with the animal: Xavier le Roy, RealTime, 20 April 2016


Broadcast into Oblivion, text, vocals Nikki Heywood, double bass Mark Cauvin, High Tide Room, Bondi Pavilion; Sydney, 29 Sept, 2022

Top image credit: Nikki Heywood, Mark Cauvin, Broadcast into Oblivion, video still, video Sam James

6 February 2023