Supersense #2: Overground

Lewis Ingham experiences the Arts Centre Melbourne event



Supersense: Festival of the Ecstatic
Arts Centre Melbourne, 20 August 


What’d you miss?

  • A festival within a festival
  • Percussion objects and robotic arms
  • The venue completely transformed


The final day of Supersense: Festival of the Ecstatic sees Melbourne bathed in bright sunshine, a nice contrast from the wintry weather on opening night. I’m returning to Arts Centre Melbourne one more time this weekend. This time, to see the many foyers inside the arts centre turned into performance spaces for Overground: A Festival within a Festival.

Overground was first staged at the 2010 Melbourne International Jazz Festival, with the premise of the event being to present numerous first time collaborations between leading contemporary musicians from Australia and overseas. The likeliness of each collaboration at Overground being a once-off occurrence adds a great sense of anticipation to each performance, and the 2017 reincarnation of this event offers plenty to see across the day.

My Overground initiation begins in the Playhouse Circle Foyer watching Deborah Kayser (voice), Peter Knight (trumpet), Matthias Schack-Arnott (percussion), and Cleek Schrey (hardanger d’amore) explore new sonic territories.

Schack-Arnott scrapes a cymbal across the skin of a bass drum, using the overhead microphone to create rising swells from the resonating cymbal. Kayser and Schrey form a fascinating duo, the vocalist at times magnificently imitating the different grainy timbres produced by Schrey’s hardanger d’amore – a unique five-string violin with a number of sympathetic strings. Knight presses a CD with a contact microphone attached against the bell of his trumpet as he plays, producing subtle ghostly textures which seep below the other musicians in the group.

Allowing cacophony to reign

I am particularly drawn to Schack-Arnott and Knight throughout the performance. The percussionist goes from scraping a polystyrene block across the skin of his bass drum to precisely configuring a number of small hand cymbals across the drum’s skin so that they clink against one other as he strikes them. Schack-Arnott’s consideration for allowing cacophony to reign, as well as rein in cacophony, is the driving force behind the group; but the subtleties in Knight’s trumpet experimentations give a beautiful intricacy to the performance. Now pressing the CD against a mute inserted into his trumpet, Knight creates a faint buzzing sound which blends into the soundscape of extended vocal and bowing techniques of Kayser and Schrey.

I move on from the first Overground collaboration I witness, taking myself into the crowded Fairfax Foyer where I hear new sounds emanating from a stage set up beneath a staircase. Manoeuvring myself through the crowd I catch sight of three of the performers: Laura Altman (clarinet), Freya Schack-Arnott (cello), and Nick Tsiavos (double bass). However, I cannot see the percussionist who is producing the hypnotising gong and drum phrases which beautifully underlie the tones of the cello and double bass.

The lightness of Altman’s clarinet distinguishes itself against the string duo as I change my viewing position to the staircase. Looking down onto the stage, I still can’t see the percussionist, but soon realise this is because a collection of robotic arms are responsible for hitting the various percussion objects occupying half the stage. This percussion set-up is rigged by Dylan Martorell, who I now see emerging from behind the massive table of electronic hardware that is controlling the array of robotic arms. 

Shifting to the dark State Theatre Rehearsal Room, I listen as electronic musicians Ying-Li Hooi, Kane Ikin, and Marcus Whale fill the space with ambient electronic soundscapes. It’s amazing how their fingertips, effortlessly controlling the various devices in front of them, can produce such dense clouds of noise. Against the collection of distorted drones and swelling tones, Laurence Pike offers sparse rhythms from behind his drum kit. Occasionally Pike bangs out a constant beat, but for much of the performance he compliments the trio of electronic musicians by adding a sensitive drum layer to the mix.

You are drawn closer and closer to the snare drum, intrigued by the playfulness of the instrument’s design and the child who happily continues to place objects upon the drum

I unexpectedly stumble across Robbie Avenaim’s beautifully simple performance as I walk back through the Fairfax Foyer. On the stage sits a single snare drum. A mechanised arm hovers above the drum, gripping a thin wooden rod that rapidly flicks up and down. An unknown child, positioned on their knees next to the snare, is placing various objects (small cymbals, marbles, and wooden blocks) onto the skin of the drum. The wooden rod hits these objects with rapid strokes, providing an unpredictable mix of metallic and woody sounds. As the performance evolves, you are drawn closer and closer to the snare drum, intrigued by the playfulness of the instrument’s design and the child who happily continues to place objects upon the drum.

After standing to watch all the performances so far, I curl up on the steps of the Playhouse Stalls Foyer as Clayton Thomas’ bow ricochets off the strings behind the bridge of his double bass. This marks the intense start of the collaboration between the double bassist, Sophia Brous (voice), Oliver Coates (cello), and Zeena Parkins (harp).

Against Thomas’ sonic exploration, Parkins plucks her harp and Coates works through a progression of double stops. Brous offers a light muttering and murmuring under the texture of strings, her voice a soft and beautiful rhythmic flurry against the harsher sounds produced by the double bass and harp.

Parkins and Thomas take to their instruments with many different objects throughout the performance. Thomas grasps a wooden rod from his back pocket and inserts it between the strings of his double bass, slightly muting the sound of the instrument and opening up new timbral possibilities. Parkins doesn’t even need the strings of her harp to explore new sounds, the harpist pressing a stiff brush against the body of her instrument, the sound of the bristles producing a crushed sound as Parkins grinds them into the wood of the harp.

Parkins even breaks a string at one point. I almost half expect her to use the lame string hanging off her instrument to create more unique sounds. In the end, she causally removes the string from her harp whilst Brous continues her beautiful light cooing and Coates performs quadruple stops with an odd loosely-strung bow that allows him to bow all four strings at once.

I wonder if I’ll ever be able to view the venue in the same way again

Pale sunshine greets me on St Kilda Road as I exit the venue, my completed Overground, and Supersense, experience leaving me thoughtful and inspired. After seeing how Supersense transformed the Arts Centre Melbourne into myriad performance spaces, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to view the venue in the same way again. The festival forcing me to reconsider how I perceive the entire arts centre precinct highlights just how immersive and experiential Supersense can be. I hope this event, and the Overground component of this festival, continues to grace Melbourne’s calendar in the years to come.

Images supplied. Credit: Mark Gambino.

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