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Exhilarating and absurd

Review: GreyWing Ensemble, ‘Text’ ⋅
The Sewing Room, October 8 ⋅
Review by Eduardo Cossio ⋅

Local ensemble GreyWing are known for performing works that mix environmental sounds with acoustic instrumentation. Their penchant for the extra musical was taken one step further on ‘Text’, a concert presented as part of Tura’s Soup Nights at the Sewing Room. In what might be their most diverse program yet, the pieces explored spoken language as accompaniment for absurdist actions, problematising meanings and emphasizing the allusive qualities of text.

Moving to the other side of you by the French-Australian composer Emmanuelle Zagoria created fluid connections between instrumental performance, choreography, and the voice. The musicians seemed absorbed in their own private conversations as they gathered around a microphone for statements such as ‘Would like to come over?… Maybe I should leave…’. These were delivered in a self-conscious and fidgety manner, evoking a heightened psychological state. Voices overlapped as the ensemble took to their instruments matching their speech to jagged rhythms. A folk-influenced drone by guitarist Jameson Feakes brought momentary calm but it was soon disrupted by a waltz in the style of the French chanson. The sentimental melody was one of the many non sequiturs thrown at the ensemble, each of which was artfully integrated into the dark tenor of the work. The last section was particularly affecting, the musicians gathered again around a microphone to utter laconic statements until they stood together in silence. Moving to the other side of you proved an ambitious work whose changes of mood succeeded in maniacal fashion.

Wheels of a spoke by the local composer Annika Moses paid homage to the sounds and sights of Hyde Park. GreyWing started with sustained tones played at low volume. Guest musician Ben Green rubbed styrofoam on a snare, making creaking noises akin to the sound of tree branches sagging. The austere textures are characteristic of the Wandelweiser aesthetic, a compositional outlook Moses has engaged with in recent years. Yet, her knack for quirky interpolations was evident in the chiming figures Catherine Ashley played on harp. These were followed by playful trade-offs among the ensemble that brought a fairy-tale quality to the music. In the final section Moses joined them on stage to read a series of impressions of Hyde Park. The easy-going work had a variety of attractive textures and demonstrated Moses’ astute handling of the ensemble’s resources.

The concert by GreyWing ensemble focused on spoken word. Photo Tristan Parr

The pieces by Brisbane composers Erik Griswold and Vanessa Tomlinson were in the form of text scores, a format favoured by Fluxus artists during the sixties. Just like in a Fluxus piece, Griswold and Tomlinson favoured intuition and whimsy, as well as a more personal engagement with sound. In Erik Griswold’s Starts of Ours, a series of performance instructions were read by Catherine Ashley and readily enacted by percussionist Ben Greene. A variety of metallic objects were made to chime and rattle against the surface of a bass drum. It was interesting to hear the instructions before seeing them realized. Ashley and Greene seemed like the characters of a Samuel Beckett play, caught up in trivial actions and strange power dynamics. Yet, Greene’s performance emphasized the materiality of the objects, and highlighted the translation of meaning between composer, the score, performer, and audiences.

Taking a more conceptual route, Vanessa Tomlinson’s Nostalgia (Perth) is ‘a preparation for improvisation’ where performers received cards with text written on them: ‘Listen to the sound of urgency’ or ‘Listen to the sound of your father’s voice’ served to prompt the player’s imagination. Although GreyWing are adept improvisers, they had a hesitant start and only half-way through the performance they achieved a cohesive flow of subdued timbres.

Kirsten Smith performing with GreyWing ensemble.

The performance-installations of Dutch composer Cathy Van Eck treat speakers and microphones as musical instruments. In Song #3, a work for solo performer and electronics, Kirsten Smith wore a large cardboard mask with a small speaker attached in front of her mouth. By varying the distance between microphone and the speaker, a feedback signal was further processed by Lindsay Vickery on laptop. Harsh plosives created a gibberish language whereby semantic meaning was abandoned in favour of vocal effects. Song #3 brought a sort of cognitive dissonance in the listener; while Smith moved her hands and arms in a declamatory, opera style, the resulting sounds had a degraded quality. The human voice was also disembodied, being hidden behind a mask and obscured by effects. This fascinating work subverted performance expectations and created an ambiguous context that was eerie and quaint.

Although hardly known in Perth, the work of Irish composer Jennifer Walshe is widely performed across Europe. Walshe belongs to a generation of composers mixing mass-media tropes with a high modernist outlook. He Was She Was started with recordings of distant traffic. An unnerving atmosphere settled in as Vickery whispered gossipy statements into a mic, Jameson Feakes snapped sticks and threw them on the floor, and Ashley blew matches repeatedly. All of these while Green and Smith played quiet textures on their instruments. Yet, the ensemble’s sounds and actions did not interact; rather, the piece unfolded as a series of events co-existing in tense relationship with each other. GreyWing were engrossing in this work of instrumental theatre and convincingly channelled its rarefied atmosphere.

Closing the concert was a new work by Vickery. His predilection for found objects as sources of constraint and possibility informed t o r b u a m m p a. Words from the inauguration speeches of Obama and Trump were put in alphabetical order to create a backing track. GreyWing played over it in twists and spurts; elongating Trump’s drawl or adding hip-hop phrasing to Obama’s assertions. It was a tightly orchestrated work whose contrasting passages evoked a mixture of mischief and despair over the state of US politics. A flurry of growling lines played in unison by guitarist Jameson Feakes and Vickery on bass clarinet was particularly memorable. Although Vickery has used ‘speech-melody’ before (the technique of matching words to instrumental sounds), t o r b u a m m p a might be his most accomplished work in that style.

‘Text’ showcased GreyWing’s ambition and versatility; but most importantly, did so by bringing some of their loosest, most invigorating playing yet.

Picture top: Members of GreyWing ensemble explore spoken language as accompaniment for absurdist actions. Image supplied.

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