BY ANGUS MCPHERSON
Red Rattler Theatre, Marrickville, 29 March 2015
A quote from John Cage was taped to a marimba at Marrickville’s Red Rattler Theatre, the new venue for Ensemble Offspring’s annual Sizzle: “Be open to whatever comes next”. Here, the pageantry and ritual of Ensemble Offspring’s The Secret Noise met the picnic atmosphere of a relaxed afternoon barbeque.
Cage’s 1967 ‘Musicircus’ formed the first half of Sizzle. ‘Musicircus’ is an event that involves a number of different musicians or groups performing simultaneously in the same space. Players in fluorescent blue and pink wigs littered the converted warehouse of the cabaret-themed Red Rattler while audience members wandered through with drinks in hand or lounged in red velvet armchairs. The concept of ‘Musicircus’ means that each member of the audience can curate their own musical experience; walking in any given direction will turn the volume down on one performance and up on another.
Fragments of Debussy, Berio and Clarke emanated from the flute of Jodie Rottle (one of Ensemble Offspring’s Hatched Academy musicians) before giving way to spoken word performances by Lamorna Nightingale and Jason Noble. The score on a toy piano was the Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’, though I never heard that song in any recognisable form. Small children picked up slide whistles or rang tiny bells and everywhere was the sound of rattling dice, players using Cagean chance operations to dictate their performances. A sausage sizzle and Red Rattler’s bar fulfilled Cage’s suggestion, in an interview, that ‘Musicircus’ should always include food and drink. The Red Rattler’s house beer, Rats Piss [sic], was quite pleasant despite the unsavoury name and absent apostrophe.
The intention of Sizzle is to break down the barriers between audiences and performers, and there were plenty of opportunities for audience members to interact – particularly the wide-eyed, uninhibited children who seemed to soak up the sonic atmosphere with fascination. In a room upstairs, a Twister mat was laid out on the floor, and the coloured drawings of both children and adults were performed on brightly coloured bells. Secret performance spaces were set up behind the stage, where, much like in Ensemble Offspring’s 2014 event The Secret Noise, audience members could be treated to a private performance or become performers themselves by playing on the Bebot – Robot Synth iPhone app. At one point, electronic sounds thickened the ambience; subtle changes, controlled by a laptop, were apparently influenced by a nearby chess game. ‘Musicircus’ left me wanting more; the hour seemed to be over quickly, and I would have liked more time to experience the immersive, fluctuating wash of sounds. On the other hand, Cage’s suggested five hours might have been a bit much.
The main stage performances kicked off with the high-energy ‘Action Music’, performed by four core members of Ensemble Offspring; Claire Edwardes on percussion, Lamorna Nightingale on flute, Bree van Reyk on drum kit and Jason Noble on clarinets. ‘Action Music’ is scored for any number or combination of instruments and was composed by Eric Griswold in 2013 for a collaboration between Ensemble Offspring and Clocked Out. Rhythms and gestures are specified, while pitches and techniques depend on the whim of the players. The performance was tight and exciting, the unison rhythms perfectly synchronised. It was a highlight of the afternoon, with the toy piano making another appearance in Edwardes’ capable hands.
The first of Ensemble Offspring’s guest artists for the event was Jess Green’s Construct Explode project. Green describes the group’s style as a ‘bit of rock, bit of pop, bit of jazz and boom!’ but there was also a mesmerising touch of minimalism in the repeated accompaniment figures, aided by loop-pedal, which made it feel like a logical progression from ‘Musicircus’. In addition to Alyx Dennison on vocals/synths and Cameron Haas on bass, the group also included two of Ensemble Offspring’s members, Bree van Reyk on drums as well as Jason Noble on bass clarinet and ‘pepa’, a nasal sounding clarinet-like instrument made from an ox’s horn.
The audience was treated to a completely different sound-world with 10 Guitar Project, an orchestra of ten electric guitars and drum kit. The laidback, garage-jam stage presence of the ensemble belied their nuanced (even delicate, at times) sound. Performing works by composer and ensemble leader David Reaston, they bookended ‘Beep’ and two movements of ‘Tacet Suite’ between the lighter ‘81-89′, which draws musical material from 1980s cartoon themes, and ‘Rock School’, a satirical piece performed using only open chords – the first chords one learns when starting on the guitar.
Sizzle offered a challenging, vibrant exploration of sounds and music in a fun, relaxed atmosphere. The format, which allowed the audience members to choose their own level of involvement, enticed the listeners to engage and interact with the music – a very different experience to being ‘force-fed’ in a concert hall! Sizzle left the audience not only open, but looking forward to whatever comes next from Ensemble Offspring.