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Reviews/Multi-arts/Music/Perth Festival/Visual Art

A deep dive into the Derbarl Yerrigan

15 February 2021

Rosalind Appleby finds herself convincingly submerged in the flow of art, sound and video of Alluvial Gold, a brilliant introduction to Perth Festival.

Alluvial Gold, Perth Festival, Goolugatup Heathcote Gallery and Tura New Music ·
Goolugatup Heathcote, 13 February, 2021 ·

Percussion performances are often as much visual as aural experiences. Percussionist Louise Devenish and composer Stuart James have capitalised on this in Alluvial Gold, a performance installation created in collaboration with visual artist Erin Coates.

The work draws on the Derbarl Yerrigan/Swan River near the gallery as its inspiration, using percussion, sculpture, field recordings and film to take a deep dive into the river’s history and ecology.

Devenish was last year’s Performer of the Year at the APRA/AMCOS awards, James has a PhD in spatial audio, and Coates is a free-diver whose art explores underwater spaces. With the star-studded line-up and the river focus, Alluvial Gold was an evocative introduction to the Perth Festival theme of bilya, river.

Coates’s exhibition of sculptures, drawings and film opened last November (read Seesaw’s visual arts review) and it included a soundtrack recorded by Devenish and James, but there was a sense that some of her works in the exhibition only fully came into their own in the four live performances that concluded the exhibition. Her bronze dolphin rib sculptures became chimes that resonated at the same pitch as percussive bowls and crotales (antique cymbals). Clusters of shells became rattles, and an oyster-shell curtain worked like an enormous theremin, stimulated by light and physical proximity to release river sounds James had recorded upstream.

Moving between instruments, Devenish delivered the complicated patterns and precise coordination with calm elegance. She seemed completely embedded in the exhibition: the gold, bronze and cream hues of the instruments matched the golden cords and creamy oyster shells of works in the exhibition. Video footage of bubbling, stagnating water rippled over the walls, the instruments and Devenish herself, overlaying the performance with brown and green hues.

Louise Devenish creates aquatic sounds from shells suspended or played across a drum. Photo: Nik Babic

But the glue that really held it together was James’s compositional crafting. A series of pitches from his river recordings were replicated in sounds from the vibraphone, the dolphin skeleton, the pitched percussion and the electronics, moving seamlessly between these different sources. James’s live sampling of Devenish’s sounds created a kind of percussive doppelgänger that echoed like a ghostly duet. His electronic artistry stretched the sounds into ethereal and otherworldly extremes, heightening the emotional impact of the underwater journey.

And what a journey it was. Surround-sound speakers immersed the audience in an aquatic experience that grew from the sound of dripping water to a cascading torrent, brilliantly conveyed by rushes of vibraphone scales and flurries of bubbles. A soft brush or shells rattling on the skin of the bass drum were waves hissing and rumbling. A slow sink (those descending sine tones) to the bottom of the river took us into contact with crustaceans and a deep stillness. The sine tones morphing slowly up and down in pitch tugged eerily like a slow swell. My breathing slowed to match, and I could feel the heavy viscosity of the water on my shoulders. The pitch sequence returned, coaxed from the vibraphone with long strokes of a violin bow and sounding like a slow Gregorian chant.

And then, as if the tide was receding, the music retraced its steps, leading us back from the cascading torrent to the dripping water and the oyster shell from the beginning, releasing us with a final rush of anger and splendour. It was a demonstration of beautifully integrated artistry from three thoughtful and immensely skilled creators.

This was Devenish’s first performance in a year, having spent much of the past 12 months at Melbourne’s Monash University and in lockdown. Thankfully, the exhibition’s live performances went ahead despite the interruption of the Perth lockdown, providing an enthralling introduction to the Perth Festival for those lucky enough to get a restricted number of seats.

Pictured top: Louise Devenish on vibraphone and crotales among Erin Coates’s artworks in ‘Alluvial Gold’. Photo: Nik Babic

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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