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Melbourne Festival

The voice in and beyond history

Jonathan Marshall: Jude Walton, No Hope, No Reason

Dan Witton, Grant Smith, Jeanne Van de Velde, Cosmonaut Dan Witton, Grant Smith, Jeanne Van de Velde, Cosmonaut
photo Lisa Tomasetti
Robyn Archer’s superb showcase of new music theatre forms for her final Melbourne Festival more than fulfilled its brief to explore various permutations of the voice in performance. Jude Walton’s No Hope, No Reason, for example, consisted of a series of distinct vignettes collectively bringing together prose poetry, unaccompanied sung poetry (recalling Renaissance devotional music), operatic recital (complete with 3 singers in dinner suits and ball gowns) and postmodern studio dance (with focussed, variously trained dancers in loose fitting garb). The music’s religious associations were echoed by the high ceiling and hushed atmospherics of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.

Walton’s style was an aestheticised pedestrianism, of essentially conventional motifs in terms of movement, speech, thought, allusion, music and singing, presented with a gentle yet densely meditated poise which rendered them attractively evocative. Vocally, No Hope replayed the contradictory relationship between profane banalities and divine aesthetics. Terrestrial voices can approach those of angels, but they cannot replicate them since humans remain immured in daily realities of flesh and love. “You think...I don’t care...about I care about...shit”, the singers pronounced, juxtaposing their heavenly vocal technique with the abject dross of life.

Each performer’s presentation was similarly characterised by the counter-posed suppleness of body and speech with content suggesting tense anxiety and unease. These impressions lay like sharp prickles within a silken fabric of text and image. Ian de Gruchy’s projections of richly coloured petals, droplets and clouds were cast over such textual pronunciations as “singing you a blood red if I were bleeding.” By sketching such parallels between form and content, and by aligning these dualities according to a profound, affective ambivalence, Walton produced a seductive, meditative performance, layering a nostalgia for certainty and contentment upon a resolutely contemporary perspective. In the final passage, one character related that she felt her emotions had been “sullied...sanitised, homogenised, brutalised”, but she retained a compulsion to speak these thoughts, implying that by reciting such imperfections, she could transcend them.

In contrast to No Hope’s poetry, Mikel Rouse’s Failing Kansas explored the limits of recitative and sprechstimme—singing based upon conversational language. Rouse’s topic was the 1959 Southern US murder case which was the subject of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Rouse’s treatment produced a profoundly American musical, mixing national tropes such as jazz, be-bop and Beat poetry, vernacular speech and advertising slogans. Also in the mix were the road trip as a form of cultural imagining, the “American Gothic” ambience of suburban Pentecostal speech, and US socio-racial anxieties regarding the causes of crime.

Musically, Failing Kansas was not notable for its originality, with Rouse’s deft score melding popular musics and American minimalism in a similar vein to Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass and others. It was, however, distinguished by its virtuosic realisation through vocal and visual dramaturgy. Rouse sang the main part live to the recorded accompaniment of electronic organ and other instruments, supporting a dense weaving of multiple recorded and real-time vocal lines. His precise, scat-like intonation rippled through his body between punctuations of live and recorded harmonica, digits dancing at his side as though fingering an impossible instrument.

Failing Kansas resembled an abstract, imagistic, internal mental diary. The piece opened with the sound of flash bulbs, suggesting both holiday snaps and journalistic crime photography. Cliff Baldwin’s accompanying projected montage moved from portraits rich in ambiguities (were they personal mementos, forensic documents, or something else?) to American roadside hoardings, suggesting a muddled affective world in which turns of phrase like “Amazing Offer” or promises of wealth through consumption became hopelessly entangled with the bloody “perfect score” committed by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Rouse’s multiple vocalisations harmonised and came together to suggest moments of ecstasy or suspended happiness, as signified by text about flights of parrots or an idyll spent in a Edenic garden with a companion who may have been Smith’s lover, or conversely Hickock himself (whose serpentine temptations led Smith to sin). Rouse’s voices then became split, dispersed or self-interrupted when these joys decayed and a chaos of thoughts and interlocutors crowded into Smith’s brain along with his darker memories. Failing Kansas superbly represented the American dream turned nightmare.

David Chesworth’s long awaited opera Cosmonaut is musically and instrumentally close to his early compositions and tape-loop work in its use of samples alongside mixed percussion, organ and brass. This slightly dated musical ambience of insistent pounds, atonal rises and crescendos, and radiophonic atmospheres supported by pedal steel is nevertheless consistent with the content, which resonates with Cold War anxieties. The narrative revolves around cosmonaut Viktor Klebnikov, stranded on a Soviet spacecraft while revolution brews on Moscow’s streets, war threatens in Yugoslavia and the Eastern Bloc becomes unstable and fluid.

Though Viktor is implicitly and silently embodied by Grant Smith, he remains an elusive figure, his pre-recorded radio transmissions providing the only direct evidence of his being. Like the media reports of events in the East, Viktor’s vocal presence is both highly tangible in its textured, distorted amplification over the speakers, while also distant, disembodied and uncertain, a mediated personality both of his time and outside of it, stranded beyond the major rotational axes of planetary temporality. It is time to which his terrestrial contact, Angela, appeals in order to free him.

Angela is an amateur mathematician, a chic student in a tartan miniskirt with platinum locks, whose embodiment similarly moves between physical uncertainty and vocal reification. Performer Mel Gray provides an elongated, twitching, hunched, scribbling frame which is literally echoed by 2 non-speaking bodies on either side of her, while her vocal flights of fancy, her screams, high notes, sustained cries and tentative songs to Viktor amplify her presence throughout the space. Chesworth’s instrumental form here is not greatly different from that of his earlier works, but his attention to the voice, to its limits and to its almost scarified, papillary textures and broken rhythms, represents the culmination of techniques he developed in Lacuna (1992) and The Two Executioners (1994).

Real time video projection from a webcam over Angela’s desk, or from underneath its cluttered glass-top (covered with hieroglyphic calculations and speculations), further divide and spread her vocally explosive, fragmentary character beyond normal space. Though such visual effects are not new, director David Pledger’s devotion to symmetry and to a triadic/dyadic, pyramidal stage construction render them superlative. The entire stage structure is bounded above, to the sides, and below by strips of video, dividing the construction into a complex cameral chamber for the sustained projection of image and sound.

At the apex is Smith, variously representing a playful, tenor media-presenter, the mission control director, and Viktor’s uncertain, unlit body; below him Angela obsessively fidgets at her desk; and below her move her two flanking avatars. The final stage level is occupied by Angela’s parents, 2 gorgeously sympathetic, falsetto caricatures (Dan Witton and Jeanne Van de Velde), who literally blend into their armchairs as they rest before the television set. These are not the duped fools of conventional media criticism, since the couple are strongly engaged by the virtual conflicts before them. They are nevertheless ultimately unmotivated by such distant performances, remaining well-informed but unable to conceive of a strategy to resolve their feelings of sympathy and alienation.

Only Angela offers an answer. According to e=mc2, the abolition of time will abolish space—and so history and the very idea of a media event—thus liberating Viktor and collapsing the separation between his capsule and Angela’s home. Angela’s mathematical solution constitutes an ecstatic, hysterical sublimation to the crowd and the historic voices carried upon the airwaves, such that Moscow, Yugoslavia, the past, the present, the spacecraft and all of identity should fold in upon themselves, generating a single, infinitely complex mass. The historicity of Chesworth’s score is therefore eminently appropriate for a work located at the end of History. Sadly, Angela’s computations have remained a dream, the earth’s rotation bringing us back to new cold warrior presidents and repressed, clamorous crowds.

No Hope, No Reason, director/choreographer, Jude Walton, composer Hartley Newnham, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, October 7-10; Failing Kansas, director/performer Mikel Rouse, Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, Melbourne, October 7-10; Wax Sound Media and Danceworks, Cosmonaut: An opera in four orbits, director David Pledger, librettist Tony MacGregor, music David Chesworth, Merlyn, Malthouse, October 20-23

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 37

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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