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Reviews/Music/Perth Festival

Aesoteric: left-field sounds rise from underground

1 March 2022

Aesoteric brings a varied listening experience to a Perth Festival audience, offering a glimpse into Perth’s diverse music subcultures, writes Eduardo Cossio

Aesoteric, Perth Festival ·
Hackett Hall, WA Museum Boola Bardip, 25 February 2022 ·

From the late 1990s up until 2007, Aesoteric was one of Perth’s premier nights for left-field electronica and ambient music. Since its relaunch at the WA Museum Boola Bardip it has continued with the eclectic programming it was known for, while also introducing a broader audience to Perth’s underground music. 

This year’s version was presented in conjunction with Perth Festival and featured live visuals in the form of lighting by Beam Hacker and projections by Steve Berrick over Otto, the famed skeleton of the blue whale that is a fixture of Hackett Hall.

The first act was Maitland Schnaars who delivered a set of poems accompanied by James Webb on yidaki and Belle Collie on cello. The instruments weaved throbbing pulses around Schanaars’ precise, sonorous voice. His poetry came from a place of discomfort. Themes of identity and alienation were expounded with increasing vehemence with lines spoken in Noongar to stirring effect.

Schnaars’ repeated refrains seemed to go beyond language, as if words were useless in conveying his deep sense of alienation. The pairing of yidaki and cello was a potent one; Webb’s wealth of articulations and Collie’s supple responses became a taut counterpart to the poet’s direct style.

Indigenous man in colourful Aboriginal design shirt plays didgeridoo
James Webb accompanied Maitland Schnaars on yidaki. Photo: Adrian Thomson

If Schnaars’ poetry was about despair at the state of the world, Sophia Lewis offered a retreat into inner moods with an ambient set that harked back to the chill-out rooms of early club culture. The electronic producer added live vocals to the reverb-drenched, soft-focus soundscape she had prepared specially for the event. Crisp piano melodies and glitch material brought a level of tension to the otherwise delicate music. The sensorium-like ambience was further enhanced by the responsive glow of lights around the space.

Michael Terren’s recent work has included releases of avant-garde electronic music along with keyboard performances that consciously embrace a kitsch, adult contemporary aesthetic. For Aesoteric, he reverted to his training as a classical musician for a ruminative set on the grand piano. The long-breathed melodies he spun had a spectacular and cinematic feel while also evincing a concern for tone-colour. A build-up of chord clusters and rhythmical figures were left to decay as their ghost-like sonorities rose up. The music, however, never stirred away from its consonant pull.

Terren’s set was interesting in that he used Romantic-era tropes to strip the piano of that same artifice, highlighting at times the instrument’s mechanical design and the idiosyncrasies of tone that lie beneath the music’s surface.

Two men sit at a table with laptops. next to them is a woman playing a floor harp with its strings illuminated in pink
Lovefear and Mike Midnight on laptops and Michelle Smith on harp. Photo: Adrian Thomson

Concluding the night was the trio of Mike Midnight, Lovefear and Michelle Smith who presented a tour de force performance featuring evolving synth pads, musique concrète techniques, and Smith’s virtuosity on the harp. The musicians, well-known in the club and jazz music scenes, exuded intent and confidence even in the most languorous sections. Drawing upon popular music of the past 30 years, their set plundered well-known vocal samples and overlaid them with muted beats and lush synth pads. Working in browser-like manner behind their laptops, Mike Midnight and Lovefear never settled down in one section for too long. Sharp transitions led to improvisations on harp or to electronic collages obscured by glitches and faded washes. The trio’s evocations of dream-like states and media saturation were done with great dexterity.

Given the high calibre of the acts, it was disappointing to hear people talking during Lewis’ set. Perhaps making use of an MC to invite the crowd into the work of the artists could help better engage the audience and avoid such problems. 

That aside, the concert offered a varied listening experience as each act pointed toward their own niche within Perth’s underground. Aesoteric’s programming creates much needed interactions between left-field musical cultures, and this is good news for artists and punters alike.

Pictured top: Otto, the blue whale skeleton, looms over the performers and audience in Hackett Hall. Photo by Adrian Thomson

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Author —
Eduardo Cossio

Eduardo Cossio is a musician active in the Perth experimental music scene. He is a presenter on Difficult Listening (RTRFM), his music reviews appear on Realtime Arts and Cool Perth Nights and he runs Outcome Unknown, a concert series of exploratory music. At the playground he would try and get some percussive sounds happening.

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