A composer’s epic cartography of an unknown landscape celebrates winter’s longest night.

Nick Tsiavos is one of Australia’s most enigmatic musicians who doubles as an architect of sound. He fuses ancient sacred chant with otherworldly avant-garde techniques to create performances that enthral and challenge. For Tasmania’s DARK MOFO festival he will invite listeners to join him on an extraordinary 14.5-hour journey titled Immersion. It will be an epic cartography of an unknown landscape.

Tsiavos is a Melbourne-based composer and double bassist renowned for his explorative performances that open new sound worlds. “Part of my work is the idea that art can be transformative. This experience is not just something that you consume and walk away from, but something that actually stays with you and changes you,” Tsiavos explains. His music embraces the metaphysical by speaking directly to the soul.   

Tsiavos studied classical double bass at the Victorian College of the Arts before studying with Dr. Bertram Turetzky and then François Rabbath in Paris. Reflecting on the development of his unconventional style, Tsiavos recalls his childhood visits to the Greek Orthodox Church. “I think the rediscovery of that richness started feeding into the work I was doing,” he says.

Tsiavos combines the texturally rich sacred chant of his childhood with elements of jazz, post-rock and new music. It allows him to narrate the ongoing, and sometimes anarchic, journey of sound. “The phrase that stuck in my head was the one explaining how a frame acts upon a painting, and to have these two texts actually work against each other,” Tsiavos comments. “That was my entry point. How do I take the chant, which is absolutely beautiful music by itself, into the now? How do I engage with it in a way that isn’t just bringing some dusty old music out in a museum context and saying, ‘look, how quaint and exotic’? It’s about how that music of such potency works on the musicians themselves.”

Immersion is Tsiavos’ latest and grandest adventure into the unknown. It draws on his earlier work Liminal, a piece that embraces the very definition of its title by exploring the point of movement from one phase to another. “The idea of Liminal was crossing that threshold,” Tsiavos explains. “Finding the energy you need to let go, and then pass through that liminal stage that alters you. This is something similar, but a bit larger.”

The concept of Immersion arose during a discussion between Tsiavos and Leigh Carmichael, the Creative Director of DARK MOFO, regarding a possible performance all the way through the winter solstice. The longest night of the year is a celebration of anarchy, energy, and the line between the dark and the weird. It is the perfect opportunity for others to accompany Tsiavos on this journey exploring his philosophy. “The idea of what occurs during that crossing of the threshold is one of the important undercurrents in all our work. The musicians will be furiously performing to try and get people over the threshold with them.”

Writing a 14.5-hour piece has been a challenge, and Tsiavos has even had to change the way he composes. “Talking to the musicians, half of them don’t know what they’ll be like at 3.30 in the morning,’ Tsiavos laughs. “So I’m modifying how I write so that what they have to read is much more easily understood, quickly, and then they can respond.”

Joining him on stage will be six musicians, some of whom have worked with Tsiavos for 30 years or more. Together, they will develop what Tsiavos describes as “architecture across space” by exploring the transcendent beauty within the complexities of modern art music. “They’re brilliant musicians, but they also have big ears. They listen really intently and try to see sculptural shapes within the architecture. They’re aware that at one level there is a mystery about what happens in a performance when everything is not fixed.”

These improvisational elements create a sense of instability that allows the piece to continually evolve. Although the work is written for traditional instruments – soprano voice, woodwinds, percussion, accordion and double bass – Tsiavos reinvents them by exploring their sonic possibilities. “When people hear percussion they immediately think rhythm. I tend instead to hear texture and timbre. I use these sounds because they are able to disrupt the air as the voice sails through it, and it’s a lovely effect,” Tsiavos explains. Challenging the way we hear percussion will be Peter Neville, Leah Scholes and Matthias Schack-Arnott, who are all members of Australia’s innovative ensemble, Speak Percussion.

How will the musicians play for nearly 15 hours? The answer lies in clever use of instrumentation. Adam Simmons will add the contrasting tones of various woodwind instruments, whilst Deborah Kayser’s ethereal soprano vocals will soar over the sound of Anthony Schulz’s accordion. “Schulz creates another layer, another language,” Tsiavos elaborates. “And the fact that he’s got a squeezebox, he can just squeeze and honk it and we can all take a break!”

The performance will take place in the Peacock Theatre, an intimate space built into natural Tasmanian rock. The venue itself is symbolic of primitive nature reconstructed through a prism of modernism, similar to the overall effect of Immersion. Tsiavos invites listeners to venture into this unique space and open their ears to a new way of listening. “Most people that come to my gigs come up and say they didn’t know what to expect, but they were so glad to be there. They genuinely seem to have had some amazing sort of inner response to it. It is basically about a renewal of those more primal elements. Hopefully people won’t be there texting while we’re playing. Hopefully they’ll let go and just say, ‘I’m here for this journey.’”

Immersion will be performed from 4.46pm on Sunday 21 June to 7.42am on Monday 22 June at the Peacock Theatre in Salamanca. Entry is free.