25 November 2015

Review: hear|say: round and round

hear|say: round and round

Performers: Helen Medlyn, Amy Jansen, Andrew Uren, Ben Hoadley, Callum Blackmore, Alex Taylor, Hayden Sinclair, Joe Harrop, James Fry

Composers/Artists: Eve de Castro-Robinson, Ben Hoadley, Marina Abramović, Vera Wyse Munro, Nam June Paik, Chris Watson, Alex Taylor, Samuel Holloway, Graham Brazier, Douglas Lilburn

Sunday 22 November, Tim Melville Gallery, Auckland

Review by Sarah Ballard and Jonathan Mandeno

The social media buzz that preceded the inaugural concert of Auckland’s newest artistic venture, hear|say generated significant mystique and interest with a series of suggestive images.  The concert, the brainchild of composers Eve de Castro-Robinson and Alex Taylor, took place in the Tim Melville Gallery in Newton.  The minimalist white-washed walls of the warehouse sparsely decorated with photography by Roberta Thornley provided an evocative, yet unobtrusive backdrop to the varied offerings of the concert.  And varied it was, with a meeting of minds between music, visuals, and performance art.

The concert opened with verve and vigour as Helen Medlyn swaggered on in town crier getup to deliver the introduction and housekeeping with wit and panto theatrics.  A fun-filled whimsy which set the mood well for the more camp elements of the concert, yet felt at odds with the more experimental and ritualistic items.

First was one such item, Eve de Castro-Robinson’s whorl for bass drum, one of the composer’s several short intimate pieces involving focussed gesture and objects.  Performer Amy Jansen poised like a warrior in front of the bass drum, drawing bold circles over the skin which slowly spiralled outwards, the sound gently rumbling beneath the pencil.  There was a certain tension in these quietest of sounds, in part with the knowledge of the volume the bass drum is capable of, and the repetitive fluctuations in motion with each orbit of the pencil.  It was a piece in which sound, movement and visuals were inextricably bound.

Ben Hoadley and Andrew Uren, two of Auckland’s woodwind heavyweights, took on Hoadley’s own Manaia IV.  A hugely expansive piece, it threatened idea overload at times, yet each idea seemed like a logical progression from the last.  There was an organic synergy developed between the instruments.  Uren’s attention to the subtleties of the bass clarinet’s dynamic range connected with the expressive virtuosity of Hoadley’s bassoon, raucous clarinet ululations contrasted with bassoon arabesques.  It seemed virtually every relationship under the sun was explored through the performers’ shapeshifting.

Marina Abramović, the “grandmother of performance art” was given her dues in a rendition of her confrontational vocal collaboration with Ulay, AAA – AAA. Performers Amy Jansen and Callum Blackmore began by eyeballing each other from opposite ends of the space.  They emitted guttural roars, disturbing in nature, at once pained, threatening, possibly orgasmic.  Almost imperceptibly at first, Jansen drew closer with rising pitch until they were pressed together nose-to-nose in a spittle-slinging, vein-popping, screaming climax.  Such performance required two performers of equal presence and intensity, and Jansen and Blackmore were more than up to the task. However despite the quality of performance, the idea that we were watching a reenactment of an intensely personal expression between Abramović and Ulay did not sit so well.  The inevitable knowledge of this meant that the piece lost some of its original impulsive purity over to artifice.  

Composer-musicologist Celeste Oram presented an archaeological restoration of forgotten New Zealand silver:  One Vera Wyse Munro, apparently a pioneer of experimental music with a fantastically peculiar past, and rather extraordinarily lost to the mists of time.  The performance of the remarkable Skywave Symphony began long before we assembled in the gallery.  Allegedly scored for 100 radios tuned to different frequencies from around the country, today’s social media-connected audience members were asked to download a track from a range of radio static recordings.  This gently roiling static formed a backdrop which enveloped white tones and insectoid scrabblings from violin and offstage bass clarinet.  Eventually this gave over to fragments of radio tunings from a dedicated radio chorus, bringing us forth to snatches of recognition from our current reality.  Regardless of whether or not this modern rendition had any serious connection with 1940s sonotopographies of Te Anau or Portobello, the earthy soundscape of the piece was very effective.

If being ushered behind a safety line and the butcher’s block of a table didn’t tip off the audience to the coming trauma of Korean-American Nam June Paik’s One, there would have little doubt left as performer Joe Harrop entered, reverently cradling a violin like an infant.  Divinely bathed in rays from the skylights, the violin began the inexorable journey towards its fate as Harrop raised it high above his head in painfully slow motion.  Like the final two bars of The Rite of Spring, time held its breath, and the world hung in the balance.  Then a swift axe-stroke and an explosion of wood, and the sacrifice was complete with almost business-like efficiency.

Alliteration abounded in the next series of works.  Both the title and the programme note “Tasty!” of Chris Watson’s Mandible for bass clarinet drew attention to the mechanical manipulations of Andrew Uren’s mouth as he navigated a smorgasbord of tongue-slaps, multiphonics, subtones, and flutter-tonguings, the latter sometimes breaking free from the mouthpiece as cheek-quivering purrs.  With its technical sheen and a free-jazz-like spirit, this was a virtuosic piece in a very fundamental sense.

There was more mandible to be found in co-director Alex Taylor’s poem Man alive. With notebook in hand as a prop and zebra-skin pants, Taylor recited his word-play with witty efficacy, sometimes rattling off salvos of rapid-fire man-words, sometimes chewing over a particularly choice phrase.

Samuel Holloway’s Malleus had a much more severe tone.  Three clarinets performed a single melismatic line, the texture ruptured by tiny fluctuations in tempo and intonation, provoking a somewhat unnerving reaction.  In fact, true to the work’s title, these disturbances began to have a very physical effect on the inner ear.  As the trio’s languid trajectory continued towards a high-register forte, the nauseating ringing in the ears brought the piece to an almost unbearable apex, yet it was a deft and ingenious execution of the piece’s goal.

Alex Taylor then returned with a cover of recently departed kiwi legend Graham Brazier’s Blue Lady.  Taylor’s lilting baritone was rich with nuance, and the innocent tinkling of his accompanying toy piano provided a spectral juxtaposition to the world-weary lyrics.  His choice to finish with a throat-singing drone appeared a bit of a non sequitur at first, yet became illuminating when Joe Harrop entered and the drone became a tonic backdrop to a solo violin rendition of Douglas Lilburn’s Canzonetta No.1.  Though this year has been inundated with Lilburn tributes, being his centenary, the simple purity of the violin melody was the exact release the concert needed at its end.

It was also a thoughtful and creative gesture to link two of New Zealand’s disparate musical luminaries to close with, and was symbolic of what hear|say appears to stand for; a breaking down of programmatic borders, and an all-encompassing celebration of diverse musical and artistic expression.  The structure of the concert itself was very well-considered, with a satisfyingly natural flow between items, and a consideration of tension and release as a macro-level parameter.  If this debut is anything to go by, then we eagerly look forward to future ventures from hear|say.