Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Trio play out of their skins

Review: University of Western Australia & Tura New Music, Armadillo ·
University of Western Australia, 16 July ·
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ·

A percussion trio led by American Robyn Schulkowsky has performed one of the concerts of the year as part of the international Gender Diversity in Music and Art Conference at the University of West Australia.

The Australian premiere of Schulkowsky’s 30-year-old work Armadillo is the first of three evening performances over the four-day conference  this week, in addition to a wide range of academic discussions about historic female artists, contemporary queer music, and feminist sound art.

Two more concerts round out the conference performance program at the the UWA Conservatorium of Music, presented by UWA and Tura New Music. Decibel new music ensemble, led by Cat Hope, offers a survey of compositions by contemporary Australian female composers as part of its 10th anniversary (Decibel 10 at 10) on July 18. Queensland percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson closes the conference with a performance in the UWA Tropical Garden on July 19.

Schulkowsky is a veteran of the US and German experimental scene, having worked with Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman, and many others, principally in the role of performer/interpreter. In devising Armadillo, she was inspired partly by Mayan calendrical cycles and numerological groupings.

As performed by Schulkowsky with Tomlinson and UWA head of percussion Louise Devenish, Armadillo is a mercurial, endlessly surprising work. Small, semi-detached rhythmical items rest within other inconsistent, larger groupings, which intermittently break out, or cause the piece to morph in time signature and/or sonic texture.

Although peppered with extended, cumulative agitations of the cymbals and tam-tam (or gong), it is first and foremost a piece for drums. It is amazing the amount of sonic variation that Schulkowsky, especially, coaxes from these instruments as the piece develops in time.

There is a brief passage of Brazilian batucada-style drumming, with sharply-attacked bongos leading, but this is soon dispersed into a more effervescent set of motifs. Steve Reich’s highly repetitive, minimalist drumming is evoked when the three performers settle into a groove which feels like it could last all night. But on the whole, the shimmering effects and phasing so loved of Reich is absent here.

Armadillo is therefore more properly called a work which at times settles into a minimalistic lockstep, as rhythmic patterns are lovingly repeated. The highly asymmetric time signatures required Schulkowsky in particular to, very comfortably it seemed, pump out one rhythm with her foot on the cymbal hi-hat pedal, and an entirely different one with her sticks in her hands on the toms. This puts Armadillo ultimately within another musical and stylistic space to Reich or Latin percussion, although Schulkowsky is clearly influenced by both.

Another striking element of the performance is the rise and fall of intensity which is modulated through how the drums are approached. Schulkowsky and her collaborators however often combine a strike to the drum with a kind of dampening or pressing effect. When performing as a trilogy, the usual mode is to come together for several minutes, then one performer drops away, the others continue, and then the first returns before another drops out. In this turn taking, volume and textural density rise and fall. One needs a careful ear to attend to the very subtle layering of material.

Schulkowsky definitely loves her instruments. I have never seen a performer with such a deft touch on the skins of the drums. While Tomlinson and Devenish are also superb, Schulkowsky all but strokes her instruments. She bashes, coaxes, rubs, caresses and finger-thunks these items. As she rocks gently back and forth, or looks off in absorption upwards and to one side, we in the audience also move to another place with her; a place of objects, surfaces, drum-skins, and musical sublimity.

This was one of the most extravagantly wonderful and awe-inspiring Perth concerts of the last few years: please bring Schulkowsky back!

The Gender Diversity in Music and Art Conference ends on July 19.

Pictured at top: Vanessa Tomlinson, Robyn Schulkowsky and Louise Devenish. Photo by Tristen Parr.

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Male dancers playing hopscotch outside
Children, Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Bite-sized intro, out-sized delight

Awesome Festival review: Simon Tedeschi, Pianist and Prankster and Awesome Festival opening weekend ·
Octagon Theatre, 28 October ·
Review: Rosalind Appleby ·

What has 88 keys but no locks? A piano!

Simon Tedeschi playing the piano
No shortage of jokes: Simon Tedeschi

There is no shortage of jokes and funny stories when Simon Tedeschi is around. The world-class pianist arrived on stage at the Octagon theatre in pyjama pants and formal coattails, and it was clear his aptly titled children’s show Pianist and Prankster show was going to be a fabulous start to the Awesome Festival.

The Awesome Festival opened on Friday at the University of Western Australia offering a bite-sized introduction to the children’s festival that will continue to unfold at the Perth Cultural Centre for the next fifteen days. The program includes more than 30 different dance, theatre, music and arts activities for children.

Tedeschi has played for Luciano Pavarotti and the Queen but he also knows how to read kids and his show is a boisterous blend of classic piano repertoire and stories from his childhood. Mozart’s Twelve Variations in C was recognised with delight by my 5 year old –  “It’s Twinkle Twinkle played really, really fast”. Other lesser-known pieces come with a story: Melinda’s Mini March is the piece that first inspired him to learn piano, and a Chopin Mazurka pays tribute to his Polish Grandmother.

Tedeschi first performed at the opera house at age eight and has often been called a child prodigy. In this show he traces his precocious skills to his daily practice (often nine hours a day) and the family and teachers who supported him along the way: the principal who bought a grand piano so Tedeschi could practise at school and the classroom teacher who made a pile of cushions so he could sleep during class.

There is no hint of elitism. Instead Tedeschi engages in the type of bragging primary school children love:

“You know what I’m really bad at? Maths. And remembering things!” Cue a story about going to school with shorts on backwards.

There’s a dreamy version of Schumann’s Traumerei, and Chopin’s One Minute Waltz, played ridiculously fast (in 35 seconds to be precise). And then, the finish (my seven year old’s favourite stunt), where Tedeschi lies on the piano stool and plays the piano upside down.

It’s a revealing and also inspiring glimpse into the life of a person whose delight in music is incredibly contagious.

Meanwhile, outside in the sun, the Octagon Theatre was surrounded with stalls and vendors creating a buzzing festival vibe. We tried a drumming session and enjoyed the frivolity of the El Presidente entourage, as bashful and delighted children were crowned and paraded around in a carriage. And we got caught up in the street theatre as the delightful Swiss dance duo Game Theory used chalk to literally draw bystanders into their game of hopscotch. Chalk dust went everywhere as the antics and dance moves unfolded around us. “Don’t worry mum, its organic and washable and bio-everything,” the dancers assured me.

It was a fun introduction to the immense program of events about to explode at the Perth Cultural Centre. Awesome Festival has something for everyone and should definitely be on your holiday list.

Pianist and Prankster plays the Octogon Theatre 29 September, 10.30am and 12.30pm.

Read a review of Pianist and Prankster by junior critic Ollie Haluszkiewicz
(age 13).

Awesome Festival runs until October 12, at Perth Cultural Centre, with opening events at UWA until September 29. 

Get the lowdown on the Awesome Festival from its Artistic Director Jenny Simpson.

Pictured top: Swiss dance duo Game Theory, who will be playing Perth Cultural Centre next week, 2-7 October.

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Man splashing in pool
Music, News, Opera, Performing arts, Reviews

Semi-submersible opera a success

Review: Lost and Found Opera, Charpentier’s Actéon ·
UWA Aquatic Centre, 12 September ·
Review by Rosalind Appleby ·

“Strip off,” cries Diana, “Strip off, we’re safe here.” The Greek goddess and her nymphs descend into the pool, jewels glittering against wet skin, their voices ringing sweet and clear across the water to the audience sitting poolside on tiered chairs.

Lost and Found Opera’s latest production of Charpentier’s 17th century miniature French opera Actéon is set in the University of Western Australia’s aquatic centre. It could only happen in Australia and only with Lost and Found who specialise in performing rare operas in found spaces. Perth audiences have come to expect provocative entertainment and world class music making from this company and Actéon didn’t disappoint.

The Greek tragedy, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, recounts how the hunter Actéon accidentally discovered Diana bathing with her attendants and was turned by the goddess into a stag to be ravaged by his hunting hounds. In this production Actéon and his hounds are university students carousing after a fancy dress ball. Part way through the orchestral overture they enter the pool area over a wall, carrying a stag head stolen from the dean’s office.

Performers at side of pool
Russell Harcourt as Acteon (carrying stag) and his pack of hounds. Photo: Daniel James Grant

The overture is performed by a seven piece ensemble, next to the pool. Artistic Director Chris van Tuinen led from a keyboard and his arrangements take extensive liberties with Baroque tradition. The arrival of the inebriated lads signals a change from pastoral flute and harpsichord to swinging saxophone, piano and drum kit. It is seamless (thanks to Tuinen’s clever arrangements and Charpentier’s flexible basso continuo score) and adds to the merry abandon of Actéon and his pack.

More traditional Baroque orchestration is restored for the arrival of Diana and her nymphs, who spend the majority of the 40 minute opera in the water as they recline, stroll and sing with elegant refinement.

The medium of water as a platform for staging theatre has been exploited to wonderful effect by director Brendan Hanson. The water makes it easy for characters to literally sink into the background or stand on underwater platforms to deliver a solo, and the natural amplification of the water meant the 25 metre enclosed pool area sounded surprisingly intimate. Then there was the mid-aria splashing from Actéon which continued until he was satisfied the front row of the audience (clad in ponchos) were adequately wet.

The most ingenuous use of the water is as a vehicle for dance. Charpentier’s opera was based on Lully’s tragedie en musique form where the ballet numbers were considered as important as the singing. In this production the dancers are represented by synchronised swimmers (from SynchroWA) whose long limbs and graceful patterns were a more than satisfying substitute. The swimmers also function as lighting operators, using their waterproof torches and coloured floating globes to illuminate different areas of the pool at the appropriate moments.

Globes floating in water
A picturesque scene: Diana’s attendants prepare for bathing in ‘Acteon’. Photo: Daniel James Grant.

It is a picturesque scene for Diana to bathe and it is clear the goddess, sung with regal warmth by mezzo soprano Ashlyn Tymms, trusts the privacy and beauty of the glowing pool. She and her attendants bathe topless and their sense of violation when Actéon arrives was expressed with visceral anger by Caitlin Cassidy as Juno. Actéon was sung with clarion brightness and shapely phrases by Russell Harcourt. His haute-contre (high voice) tenor with its (to modern ears) unusually high pitch reinforced a naive, self-indulgent characterisation. The chorus was sourced from Voyces chorale and their resplendent voices added much musical richness.

The production posed a few challenges: the vast space between the male chorus and the music ensemble created timing issues, though these were skilfully resolved each time by Tuinen at the keyboard. The English libretto was often difficult to understand and the final revenge scene wasn’t clear either; the pack of ‘hounds’ seemed to both honour and ravage Actéon as they held a funeral procession then proceeded to whip and sexually harass his body. It seemed hypocritical for Diana to mete out sexual harassment as a punishment for Actéon’s voyeurism. What was clear was the tragic impact of sexual harassment, whether delivered by accident or revenge. It is no accident that Lost and Found has staged this opera in the wake of #metoo and, as always, their message was powerfully enriched by the medium.

Actéon‘s sold out season closes September 15. 

Pictured top: Russell Harcourt, as Actéon. Photos: Daniel James Grant.

This review was first published on Noted and is published with kind permission from Rosalind Appleby.

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Title: Disembodied Cuisine Installation Artists: The Tissue Culture & Art (Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr & Guy Ben-Ary) Medium: mix Date: 2003 Photography: Axel Heise
Installation, Mixed media, News, Visual arts

A peek inside the lab

A monstrous arts event is about to take place in Perth. Named “Unhallowed Arts”, it’s timed to celebrate the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and features exhibitions and events that explore that seminal text’s influence on contemporary life and culture.

While Frankenstein’s laboratory may be fiction, behind the monstrosity that is “Unhallowed Arts” is a real lab, SymbioticA. Curious, Nina Levy got in touch with Symbiotica’s director, Oron Catts, to find out more.

Nestled deep in the heart of the School of Human Sciences building at the University of Western Australia (UWA) is a laboratory with a difference. Make your way up to the second floor, past the fridges storing biological material, and you’ll find the home of SymbioticA, an artistic research laboratory in a biological sciences department. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms then you’re about to have your mind opened. Rather than viewing science and the arts as mutually exclusive disciplines, SymbioticA is predicated on the idea that the two are inextricably linked.

“We are interested in the concept of life and how our relationship to that concept is changing and shifting,” explains SymbioticA’s director, Oron Catts. “So it makes sense for us to park ourselves in the biological science department, where the most radical shifts in dealing with the idea of life, and life in general, are happening. Our research scope ranges from the molecular to the ecological but with a keen interest in contemporary biotechnological ways of engaging with life. What makes us really special is that we have our own research lab, a level two biological lab, specifically for artistic research.” For the non-scientists amongst us, according to Wikipedia, “level 2” refers to the level of precautions that need to be taken in order to ensure that dangerous biological agents remain contained within the lab.

Wow.

In addition to enabling artists and researchers to engage in wet biology practices, SymbioticA also hosts residents, workshops, exhibitions and conferences. Based at UWA since 2000, SymbioticA was founded by Catts and Dr Ionat Zurr, now the academic co-ordinator. As Catts explains, from the beginning SymbioticA has been concerned with the idea that the rapidly developing field of biotechnology, which allows biological and genetic materials to be manipulated, needs the input of artists as well as scientists.

“The main reason SymbioticA got started was this interest in the idea that biology is becoming more and more of an engineering pursuit and [that] life [is becoming] the raw material for human wants and needs,” he elaborates. “We felt it was really important for artists to also start to use the living biological materials … if other professions are allowed to do it, it’s particularly important for artists to explore this area because we need to make sense of what it means to treat life in such a way.

“We try to be non-prescriptive … We’re not trying to tell [our residents and students] how to think about these issues, we’re trying to make them aware of those issues and trying to find different strategies to open up those questions to the wider community and get them involved in the awareness that something very, very strange is happening to life and that we shouldn’t leave those decisions about we’re doing [solely] to scientists, business people and engineers.”

As the name suggests, SymbioticA is founded on the idea that there is a symbiotic relationship between science and the arts – “the capital S stands for science and the capital A for arts,” says Catts – but he is anxious to emphasise that it’s not about outcomes or benefits for either field. He is wary of what he refers to as “the innovation paradigm.” He elaborates, “That’s the neoliberal idea that we always have to come up with gadgets and innovations to justify our existence. We try not to revert to that rhetoric because we believe that there’s way more important things to think about than just short-term profits… in most cases, they’re not even benefits.” Instead, he says, SymbioticA is engaged in a “critique of life science.”

This was the first attempt to use tissue engineering for meat production without the need to slaughter animals.
‘Tissue Engineered Steak No.1’, 2000, A study for “Disembodied Cuisine” by the Tissue Culture & Art (Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr & Guy Ben-Ary). Medium: Pre-Natal sheep skeletal muscle and degradable PGA polymer scaffold. This was the first attempt to use tissue engineering for meat production without the need to slaughter animals.

That said, SymbioticA has been involved in some exciting scientific developments, continues Catts. “We have quite a few scientific applications that have come out of SymbioticA … because the nature of the questions we ask can generate new knowledge, just by engaging with queries that artists have around the materiality of living systems and what can be done to them. We are credited, for example, with being the first place that was growing meat in the lab, and growing leather. We did that very early in the game. We have an artist here, Guy Ben Ary, who is also one of the technicians and is doing a lot of work with neuroscience and stem cell research and he has worked very closely with scientists to develop new ways of doing things.

“But first and foremost, we focus on the idea that we are living in a time when life is going through major transformations and there is a need for a wide variety of approaches in dealing with [the questions that arise as a result]. We represent one approach, which is experiential … we train the artists in techniques, so that they’re not looking over the shoulder of scientists, they’re actually working in the lab, with the materials and they gain a very intimate understanding of the field which allows them to be much more informed about the possibilities. This is another issue we have at the moment – the meat is a prime example, it’s being hailed as something that might save the world, but we see it as a symptom of the ailments of the world, rather than solving the [world’s] problems.”

It’s unsurprising, then, to learn that in spite of keeping a relatively low profile at home, SymbioticA has an international reputation. That low profile at home is about to change, however. Throughout September and October SymbioticA will be revealing itself on a monstrous scale, with “Unhallowed Arts”, a collection of arts events at various venues in Perth and Fremantle. The title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to comparisons that have been made between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his creature, and the SymbioticA artists working in their lab. Initially unwanted, the group has decided to embrace the comparison. It’s timely, as 2018 is the bicentenary of the publication of Shelley’s gothic novel.

The initial idea for “Unhallowed Arts” was to hold a conference, says Catts, but with overwhelming interest, it quickly developed into a much larger scale event, with exhibitions at the Art Gallery of WA, the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Old Customs House (Fremantle), UWA’s Cullity Gallery and Paper Mountain, and a film program at the State Library, in addition to “Quite Frankly”, the conference being held at UWA.

One of these exhibitions is developed by Catts and Zurr as part of their Tissue Culture and Art Project. Intriguingly entitled “Biomess”, it is curated by the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s Curator of Contemporary Design and International Art, Robert Cook, and opens at AGWA, September 8. As the name suggests, the exhibition looks at what Catts describes as “the messiness of biology”.

“Biomess” started with Catts and Zurr approaching curators at the WA Museum. “We asked them if they have any specimens in their collection of organisms that defy a sense of self or body or reproduction,” says Catts. “We were starting to thinking about it around the time of the same-sex marriage plebiscite, when conservatives would use [arguments] like, it’s not natural to engage in particular sexual relationships. When you look at the way living biological systems deal with [sexual relationships], there is such a variety, so many organisms that change their gender in their lifetime, organisms that reproduce in different ways. One example, which unfortunately we don’t have in our show, is a bird that has two variants of the male, where one male looks like a female. The [female-looking male] gets the male-male to mount them. When they do so they transfer the sperm into the male-male and then that bird mounts the female. So the manly male is the vehicle for the feminised male to transfer its sperm into the female.”

While that example won’t be seen, there are plenty of fascinating specimens that will be part of the exhibition, says Catts. “An amazing example is that there’s a beetle where the male started to fall in love with a specific beer bottle, to such an extent that they lost interest in females and were only mounting the bottles. Biologists went to the brewery and asked them to change the design of the beer bottle because there was a risk that the beetle would go extinct from fetishizing the bottle.

“We have a marsupial that the males, when they reach sexual maturity, they stop everything and just procreate until they die of exhaustion.

“There are other organisms that are hermaphrodites, there’s fish that change their gender from female to male. There’s only one dominant male, so if that male disappears or dies, one of the females in the group becomes male.”

While that sounds fascinating enough, there’s another twist. “We’ve commissioned the designers who build the luxury display cases for David Jones to build display cases for the specimens. The idea is that when you enter the gallery you’re not sure if you’re in art museum, a natural history museum or a luxury shop,” elaborates Catts. “That will be contrasted with an incubator that we’re designing here. We’ll have living organisms there: snails, slugs…” he pauses to throw the question to taxidermist Teori Shannon, “What else will we have?”

“Stick insects, these pink sea cucumbers, some starfish… we’ve got these snails that can grow bigger than a tennis ball. They’re really nice,” replies Shannon.

“And then we’ll have lab-grown life,” continues Catts. “We are working with what’s called the hybridomas. As early as the late 1960s scientists found a way to fuse cells from different organisms to grow together and become one new organism … it’s a lifeform which can only exist within the confines of a lab, but defies any form of classification. You have human/mouse hybridomas, you have mouse/horse hybridomas, some of them have three different organisms.”

Listening to Catts talk I feel like I’ve slipped into some kind of futuristic sci-fi fantasy film set… except that I know that I am sitting in the Biological Sciences building at UWA. At the point where arts and science intersect it seems that anything is possible.

Catch Biomess at the Art Gallery of WA, September 8 – December 3. Find out more about that exhibition and the rest of the “Unhallowed Arts” program at https://unhallowedarts.org/

Pictured top: Disembodied Cuisine Installation, by the Tissue Culture & Art (Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr & Guy Ben-Ary), medium: mix, 2003. Photo: Axel Heise.

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