Music, News, Reviews

A tactile sound world

Review: Louise Devenish, ‘Sheets of Sound’ ⋅
Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, June 28 ⋅
Review by Eduardo Cossio ⋅

“Sheets of sound” is how jazz critic Ira Glitter described the brisk, muscular playing of John Coltrane in the late fifties. Taking a literal, but also contrasting approach, Sheets of Sounds by Louise Devenish explored the sonic properties of paper, metal and plastic in ways that were tactile and visually sculptural. Three new commissions brought together the different strands of her practice in recent years; namely, electro-acoustic music, new instrument designs, and the intersection of performance art with theatre.

Percipience: After Kaul by Devenish and Decibel New Music Ensemble colleague, Stuart James, made use of the “overtone triangle”; a set-up developed by the German percussionist Matthias Kaul. Three triangles hung from a metal frame with wires connected to Styrofoam balls that amplified their sounds. A sort of etude on metallic timbres, the techniques used made the triangles vibrate, modulate, and decay in singing-like undulations throughout the structure. There were echoes of gamelan in the insistent beating patterns and dissonant overtones, while the meter-less sections brought attention to the delicate drones in the electronic backing. Percipience created a whimsical world for an often-overlooked instrument, and the piece’s title seemed apt for a work where the artist’s personality is key to its realisation.

During his tenure with Speak Percussion, Melbourne composer Matthias Schack-Arnott became known for developing percussive instruments of striking visual design. In the tradition of Harry Partch, the 20th century maverick whose creations demanded novel playing techniques, Shack-Arnott’s motorized instruments pit the performer against a mechanical flow of energy. Catacomb Body Double is for two amplified bass drums as well as a myriad of objects including glass, knives, and cymbals. The work is inspired by Catholic iconography around the exhumation of early Christian martyrs. Devenish brushed two knives against the drum skins, creating a wash of effects reminiscent of magnetic tape played backwards. Different objects were placed on the drum’s surface and their quick succession built up the kinetic energy of the piece: glasses, bells and wooden frames were made to rattle and rub against the skins, evoking the excavation-like imagery of the work. Arresting for its visuals and for Devenish’s gestural playing, the piece did lose some its impact towards the end when the material became a tad predictable due to its repetition.

Permeating through the pores of shifting planes by the Pittsburgh-based composer, Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh, is a performance-installation whereby physical gesture is as important as the resulting sounds. Large sheets of metal and paper hung from the ceiling, reflecting the dim lights in the room.  Sitting on the floor, Devenish started by pouring rice on hard surfaces, creating swells of hushed and minute sounds. The tactile gestures were then transferred to the creasing of paper and the beating of metal sheets with various mallets. Devenish’s knack for duration, pace, and mood made these simple actions fascinating to follow.

The piece was a rare opportunity to see the ever-consummate Devenish explore a more intimate approach to performance; the focus was not on traditional notions of musical virtuosity  but on the humanity of the performer, their body, and the space they inhabit. The technically accomplished piece also featured a set of speakers that made the paper sheets vibrate, while electronic tones modulated in coarse timbres or slowed down to soft pulses. Devenish’s performance felt generous; it seemed to draw audiences into the quiet dramaturgy of the work’s unfolding.

Sheets of Sound represented an assertion of Devenish’s artistic interests and work ethic. The relationships she has developed with these composers, all of them present for the premieres, spoke of an approach to music making that is collaborative and relational. It followed then that the performances conveyed some of that fluidity and openness to the audience.

Pictured top: Louise Devenish Performs “Permeating Through the Pores of Shifting Planes” by Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh.  Photo by Nik Babic.

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