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It is 40 years since Mauricio Kagel wrote his absurdist instrumental music piece Dressur (1977). The work for three percussionists compares the extreme demands of modernist composers to horse dressage (from which the piece derives its name) and includes a complex series of synchronised musical and stage directions which the musicians are required to perform.
Dressur has become a work of iconic status, attracting percussionists with the technical challenge of the virtuosic writing, the theatrical challenge of carrying out instructions while remaining emotionally detached and the often delightful rhythmic patterns created from entirely wooden instrumentation.
Leah Scholes in Kate Neal's Never Tilt Your Chair. Photo © Sarah Walker
It is surprising it has taken this long for Dressur to be performed in Australia, an oversight rectified by the collaborative efforts of Tura New Music and the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. A sold-out crowd packed into PICA over two nights to hear leading theatre-music percussionists Louise Devenish, Leah Scholes and Vanessa Tomlinson give the Australian premiere.
There was never any doubt that Devenish and Scholes (The Sound Collectors duo) and Tomlinson (Clocked Out) had the pedigree required. From the bubbling energy of the opening marimba riff to the salsa clog dance, the three demonstrated not just technical proficiency but also a mastery of deadpan comic delivery. In this performance the political polemic was less important than the seamless blend of sounds and gestures. The theatrical gestures were relatively subtle allowing the piece to flow with stream-of-consciousness detachment. The seemingly random explorations (cracking nuts mid-performance, playing marimba with nose at keyboard level, stomping around with wind chimes tossed over the shoulder) drew shouts of laughter from the audience. Kagel captures with a Mr Bean-like earnestness the ludicrous snobbery of percussionists who stroke weird objects with such seriousness. At the same time there were also virtuosic marimba solos, the intricate sounds of various gourds and the warm naturalness of an all-wooden sound world.
It was programming genius to pair Kagel’s iconic work with a commission by a composer who represents current Australian explorations into instrumental theatre. Kate Neal incorporates extra-musical parameters of gesture, design, light and choreography into her scores with the idea that music is to be enjoyed by all the senses.
In her work Never Tilt Your Chair the three percussionists sat at a table percussing on formal dinnerware and a collection of 100 pieces of cutlery. The performers flaunted dinner table etiquette by tilting their chairs, licking knives, using serrated blades on crystal and tapping an enormous range of sounds from pieces of cutlery.
Lighting was used to direct attention to different instruments, particularly helpful for a section of the piece where a tinkling could be heard although none of the percussionists were moving. A spotlight drew attention to a chandelier above the stage hung with cutlery and gently vibrating. It was a breathtaking moment watching the tiny movement associated with the shimmering sound.
Three racks of suspended cutlery provided keyboards of pitches for the performers who drew bell-like pedal notes from flat-bladed knives, gong effects from ladles and bell-like chimes from teaspoons. The precision of the performers was especially impressive here given the perpetual motion of the swinging instruments. Neal’s ear for the intricate and her eye for flair created a surprisingly complex metallic sound world that was a satisfying contrast to Kagel’s Dressur.