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Reviews/Music/Perth Festival

Apocalyptic music strikes a chord

19 February 2021

Rachael Dease’s Hymns for End Times couldn’t be more timely for Perth audiences, writes Rosalind Appleby

‘Hymns for End Times’, Perth Festival, Rachael Dease, West Australian Symphony Orchestra and Voyces ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 18 February, 2021 ·

Last year, Perth composer and singer Rachael Dease wrote some songs about facing the existential threats of climate change, bushfires and a pandemic. She’s a prolific artist who composes sound design for theatre, cabaret and alternative rock, but this time her songs manifested as Hymns for End Times, her first solo album.

As with all great art, Dease’s songs also tell a universal story, through the expansive vocabulary of music. On Thursday night, her story was retold in a new way, with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO) and Voyces choir stretching the dimensions of the songs even further as part of a Perth Festival commission.

For the audience, with still-raw memories of Perth’s recent lockdown and the Wooroloo bushfire, there was a sense of recognition that here, clearly, was our story.

The curtain rose on an apocalyptic stage set (designed by Bruce McKinven) with Dease sitting in front of the orchestra and choir and scrunched newspaper littering the stage. Barren tree branches stretched skeletal arms down from the fly loft and Mick Rippon’s sepia-toned lighting added a film noir atmosphere.

Dease’s voice, deep, low and keening, was the centrepiece of the songs, a series of vignettes both bleak and soothing as she responded to imagined disasters. She wrote the songs as she was nursing her newborn son, giving them a sense of both the epic and the intimate. I couldn’t make out much of the lyrics; like the rest of the music her voice had intense clarity but also vague haziness, raw intimacy but also a cool aloofness, a melancholic darkness but also moments of golden splendour.

Perhaps the greatest wonder was how the original sound design from Dease’s album was recreated by the live acoustic instruments. The album’s sliding pitches and swirling electronic hazes, and even the nostalgic scratches and hisses that evoke listening to an old LP, were ingeniously arranged by composers Alice Humphries, Mia Brine and Kathy Potter for orchestra and choir. The WASO string section repeated Dease’s melodic fragments and slid in indistinct clusters around her voice. There were mutters and rumbles from the wind section and the percussion softened and filled the gaps with all manner of eerie sounds. The Voyces choir members sang mostly open vowels, their pure tones and immaculate blend lacing a human warmth and connection around Dease’s lonely solo voice.

The concert culminated with Dease singing from the rear of the stage, in a song of soaring hopefulness. Photo: Dan Grant

The ensemble was directed with assurance by Brine from a grand piano, the strings of which had been modified with felt so the sound was metallic and muted. As Brine played the slow steady rhythms that propelled the songs along there was a sense of a funeral march, or a baby being rocked, or perhaps steady breathing.

The concert culminated with Dease leading the entire ensemble in a mantra of soaring hopefulness. And then she was gone, exiting to the rear of the stage, and all that was left was the icy chill of scraping strings and a sparse instrumental mutter like a final leaf fluttering to the ground.

I am grateful the Perth Festival responded to the moment when Dease’s album was released last year, empowering this local team of world-class musicians and theatre makers so that we could witness our story being told with such magnitude and beauty.

Pictured top: Rachael Dease sits before musicians from the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in ‘Hymns for End Times’. Photo: Dan Grant

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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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