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Maelstrom & meditation

Angus McPherson: Sydney Festival, Exit Ceremonies

Simon James Phillips, Exit Ceremonies Simon James Phillips, Exit Ceremonies
photo Jamie Williams
An enormous blast rings out in Verbruggen Hall. Organ, strings and percussion fire off a shattering chord: a short roar that repeats again and again, becoming a deliberate march of inexorable force. Trumpet is added to the multi-layered blasts, which don’t give any sign of stopping. As the onslaught continues, it triggers shifts in perception. Shapes and patterns are audible in the dense cacophony. Pitches and tones seem to echo and resonate longer in the sonic afterglow of each explosion; they stretch and contract, creating the illusion that the pulse is moving faster and slower.

Exit Ceremonies, presented by the Australian Art Orchestra and Ensemble Offspring as part of the 2016 Sydney Festival, harnesses the ritualistic power of the organ in premieres by Australian composers Austin Buckett and Simon James Phillips. Buckett’s Aisles is built of episodes, diverse periods of repetitious textures that develop from the formidable beating of the opening figure. The introductory section is brought to a close by Sonya Holowell’s clear soprano. The explosions abruptly cease, replaced by her chant “On a soun-ding bo-dy,” one syllable per beat on a single note.

She’s cut off by a powerful, seething wall of noise. As the shock subsides and the ear adjusts, repeating patterns become audible in the writhing. Rumbling percussion and trumpet ornaments settle the music (in the listener’s ear) into a short repeating cell, which evolves periodically at a signal from Claire Edwardes, who leads from the bass drum. Episodes of disorienting loudness alternate with quieter reprieves. White noise bursts out of speakers, the experience akin to sensory deprivation, and subsonic throbbing shudders through the audience. An unsettling organ cadenza bends and stutters, the notes drooping like the abandoned drone of a bagpipe. Buckett’s complex deluge of noise and extreme volume is confronting but also fascinating, an immersive experiential adventure.

Peter Knight, Sonya Holowell, Exit Ceremonies Peter Knight, Sonya Holowell, Exit Ceremonies
photo Jamie Williams courtesy Sydney Festival, 2016
Turntablist Martin Ng stands alone at the beginning of Simon James Phillips’ Flaw decorating silence with sparse beeps and slides, twists and whorls of electronic scratching interspersed with pauses. The other musicians solemnly assemble on stage. Layers build imperceptibly from the silence. A soft hum permeates the air, quiet static or rain comes through speakers surrounding the audience. Edwardes drags her fingers across the skin of the bass drum while bows slide quietly against strings. Peter Knight blows air through his trumpet into a microphone, adding wind to the rain. Ng intrudes periodically with brief, chaotic solos. A sustained organ note emerges from the fog. Holowell intones pure prayer-like syllables. Flaw builds agonisingly slowly, pitches accumulating until the organ’s low register can be felt physically and the bass drum is a continuous booming roll. Phillips presides over all, exalted above the ensemble at the organ’s console. At the high water mark, Ng’s turntable cracks and bellows like thunder, full of aggression even as the storm begins to recede. The crescendo is reversed, fading into dripping electronics and Sonya Holowell’s breath through the microphone.

Exit Ceremonies was a hypnotic exploration of sound, time and perception. The changing patterns of Buckett’s Aisles drew the audience into a spellbinding maelstrom of sonic discovery. Although the turntable seemed superfluous at times, Phillips’ meditative Flaw traced a compelling rise and fall, blurring the passage of time.

Exit Ceremonies will be performed on 6 February in Melbourne Town Hall with a newly commissioned work, Swings, by leading American composer Alvin Lucier.

Sydney Festival, Exit Ceremonies, The Australian Art Orchestra and Ensemble Offspring, Verbrugghen Hall, 23 Jan

RealTime issue #131 Feb-March 2016 pg. web

© Angus McPherson; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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