BY LEWIS INGHAM
Between 8 and 9
Chengdu Teahouse Project
Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre, March 30
Use this colour to find a seat at the table. This is what I found written on the pink-coloured card I had just pulled from a sealed envelope. The envelope had been handed to me at the entrance of the Salon in the Melbourne Recital Centre and was the first of many new experiences to be had at Between 8 and 9.
Part of the inaugural Asia TOPA festival, Between 8 and 9 (Chengdu Teahouse Project) is a collaborative effort between Chamber Made Opera and China’s Sichuan Conservatory of Music. The 70-minute sound installation, if you could label it so simply, is the result of a multi-year collaboration and combines live performance, sound art, live sculpture and even a tea break to create a truly endearing event.
The Salon is completely transformed for the performance. Arranged symmetrically around the timber interior of the room are eight round tables, each with a Lazy Susan in its centre. My pink-coloured card leads me to a position at one of these eight tables; a subtle percussive electronic track permeates the space as I take my seat. I am one of eight people seated here, yet I notice that only seven of us are gazing with interest around the room. This eighth figure, sitting opposite me, has his eyes closed and a calm and purposeful demeanour exuding from him. His traditional Chinese costume gives it away.
My excitement grows: I’m sharing a table with one of the performers.
Heads turn as sheng player Wang Zheng-Ting on the table to my right begins to play. I can see smiles on the faces of those seated around this talented instrumentalist as they enjoy the close proximity they share with the performer. As the musicians on other tables begin to add their voices to the composition, the sound of audience members twisting and turning in their seats to view each performer unintentionally adds to the sonic elements of the work.
The performance progresses through a series of short musical sections followed by brief interludes in which the performers arrange a collection of magnetic rods and different blocks on the Lazy Susans in front of them. At times, this sculpture is an ambiguous shape jutting out at different angles; or a familiar shape, like a house with a garden.
Between 8 and 9 deviates between upbeat pentatonic melodies, traded phrases, spoken text, and complex drones. The pairing of erhu (Guo Si-Cen) and sheng against trumpet and pedal organ (Tim Humphrey and Madeleine Flynn respectively) provides an intriguing dialogue between East and West. Chinese vocalists Kang Yan-Long and Zhu Hui-Qian occasionally soar with full bodied phrases, offering theatricality to the performance by moving from their usual seated positions. Further adding to the musical experience are small speakers positioned on each table to whisk the amplified sounds of individual musicians across the room, distorting the spatial arrangement of the instruments for each individual listener.
Playing the main role in my favourite section of the performance is the Lazy Susan.
During this section, percussionist Wang Shuai moves around the room, inviting one audience member from each table to spin the Lazy Susan. Along with its sculpture, each of these rotating platforms has a single light positioned on its edge. As each begins spin, the overhead lights fade to nothing – and the lights on the rotating Lazy Susans flicker against the walls of the room. Each time the audience member spins or touched the platform, the performer at that table begins a phrase, sings a note or speaks a word. The effect of this across all eight tables in the space is meditative, mesmerising, and profoundly moving, showcasing how subtle audience interaction can so positively influence a performance.
This wonderful moment is contrasted by a sudden break in the performance, during which the performers leave the room only to return with trays of strong cups of tea for the audience to sip. Those performers who aren’t serving tea jam along raucously with accordion player Carolyn Connors, creating a unique Melbourne-meets-Chengdu Teahouse atmosphere.
Never have I experienced an event like Between 8 and 9. The performance sought to create an immersive experience and intimately share the performance space with a participating audience. This did not once come across as gimmicky or forced and the impact of the event from the handing out of the first sealed envelope to the moment we left our seats was truly unique and brilliant. An example of how new music can create highly engaging performance environments, I look forward to seeing more events in a similar vein to this from Chamber Made Opera in the future.
You can read more on the interesting background of Between 8 and 9 (Chengdu Teahouse Project) online.