Perth Festival review: Soft Soft Loud, Procession ⋅
Fremantle Arts Centre, March 2 ⋅
Review by Eduardo Cossio ⋅
Soft Soft Loud’s cross-genre contribution to the Perth Festival this year was Procession, a collaboration between American composers Hanna Benn and Deantoni Parks which premiered in the US in September. The artists have a notable list of collaborators under their belts; Parks has toured with The Mars Volta, and Hanna Benn’s arrangements appear on indie-rock albums by Son Lux and Fleet Foxes. Loosely inspired by ceremonial music traditions, Procession grew out of mantras by Benn woven with uplifting numbers to create an expansive R&B suite. In the program notes Benn stated Procession was about the power of the human voice to connect with listeners. For Parks, it was about aligning the core elements of improvisation, notation, hybrid instrumentation and sampling.
The performance starts in the garden of the Fremantle Arts Centre where the sounds of cymbals, bells, and chimes bring an incantatory mood to the proceedings. Members of the ensemble direct the audience into the building while playing these instruments sparingly. As we march down the corridors, a melismatic female voice along with the lilt of a rhythm section is heard outside, and by time we reach the inner courtyard the band is already locked into a celebratory, jazz-inflected groove.
Vocalist-composer Benn is on one side of the stage sitting behind a rack of synthesizers, opposite her is Parks who bends over the drum kit with an air of absorption. Both musicians take on conducting roles within the ensemble but whereas Benn conducts with dance-like movements, Parks maintains a focused demeanour. Centre stage is a cast of local and interstate musicians including Perth composer Brett Smith on saxophones.
Parks approaches the drum kit as though it were tuned percussion using the pads and controllers around him to trigger samples and bass lines. His drumming is full of off-kilter turns that seem to subvert the music’s direction. But overall the tone for Procession is reassuring and the music, as Benn states, ‘singable’. Strings drift in and out with sighing phrases and the wind section plays responsorial lines that complement Benn’s coaxing vocals. An interlude for clarinet and strings slows down the pace with their unhurried criss-crossing of lines but suddenly these are drowned by a swell of guitar distortion. After a pause, the strings and clarinet make a comeback but now they are pitted against energetic R&B rhythms. There is much to like in the music and execution, however the material in the second half becomes episodic and lacks some of the initial urgency. The concert concludes with a drum solo by Parks that is an impressive amalgamation of drumming, sampling and synthesisers. Yet, it feels odd to end the song-cycle with a solo feature.
Works with a program do not need to be didactic or obvious but as soon as an artist attaches concepts to a piece, audiences will try to find a correlation. Concepts can either enrich or distract from the listening experience and the latter was the case for me. in the program Procession was billed as ‘a celebration of people and place through a re-imagining of ceremonial music.’ ‘Procession’, ‘place’ and ‘ceremony’ are words loaded with cultural significance and it felt underwhelming not seeing a deeper engagement with the themes put forward by the program. Likewise, stressing the use of music technology felt a tad redundant as it had a supportive (rather than exploratory) role, just like most music we hear today.
However, aside from the confusing way it was framed, the musicianship and musicality of the artists made Procession an engaging work.