Speculative fiction, new music and flutes will come together in a performance at the Melbourne Fringe Festival.

Cabinet of Oddities is an extravaganza of new Australian speculative fiction, new music and unusual flutes. The brain-spawn of writer Laura Goodin and her husband, composer Houston Dunleavy, the concert was first staged at the Conflux Speculative Fiction Convention in Canberra in 2015 and will be coming to the Melbourne Fringe Festival in September.

Peter Sheridan and just some of the space-age flutes he’ll be using in The Cabinet of Oddities, photo © Lucia Ondrusova

The idea took root as a melding of its creators’ two vocations. “I read Laura’s story The Monster Tarantella,” explains Dunleavy, “and I immediately heard it in the tradition of sprechstimme, as realised by Liszt, who wrote a number of works for narrator and piano. This led to Schoenberg’s works like Pierrot Lunaire and A Survivor from Warsaw. However, The Monster Tarantella was nowhere near as grim! And instead of a piano, we thought a contrabass or subcontrabass flute would provide the appropriate instrument-partner to the story.”

From this beginning, the idea for a larger project was born. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if we had a whole suite of pieces like this: science-fiction and fantasy stories with new music,’” says Goodin. “Then Houston mentioned to me that the Australian Flute Festival would be in Canberra at the same time as the Conflux convention, and we gave each other meaningful looks.

“We ended up with four of Australia’s finest flutists, all of whom were keen on the concept,” she says, “And I thought, rather than write all the stories myself, it would be terrific to pair some of Australia’s best science-fiction and writers with some of its best composers!”

What is it about the flute that lends it to speculative fiction? “The flute is a versatile, flexible, agile, and colourful instrument,” says Dunleavy. “In the hands of great players, it’s expressive and exciting. This is qualification enough. You can build a myriad of sound worlds in the same way that good science-fiction and fantasy writers build worlds for their stories.”

The Cabinet of Oddities Piper © Kathleen Jennings

Goodin drew on her connections to handpick a group of writers for the project, including New York Times bestselling author Sean Williams, World Fantasy Award winner Robert Shearman and Nebula winner Jack Dann. “I approached writers whose work I loved and who I knew would be fun for the composers to work with,” says Goodin. “One of the most fun things about being in the arts is that you get to work with people who have superpowers. We knew these writers and composers would come up with amazing things, and they did not disappoint.”

The brief given to the writers and composers was broad: “We merely introduced them to each other with an email and urged them to work together to produce a single piece that combined music and story,” explains Goodin. “We described the instrumentation – four players, a range of flutes – and just said, ‘Ready… go!’”

“It was a case of serendipity in some ways,” says Dunleavy. “We didn’t think, ‘Oh, that story will suit that composer.’ The composers who participated were all good collaborative musicians. They could adapt their style to suit the stories they were given. Very often the composer and writer never actually met in person, and all collaboration was done over the Internet,” he adds. “In fact, even the players lived in three different cities and didn’t get together to rehearse until the night before.”

The flute players brought in for the project were Melanie Walters, Melissa Coleman, myself (Angus McPherson) and Peter Sheridan – a specialist in low flutes. Sheridan’s largest instrument – the subcontrabass flute – looks like it comes out of science-fiction, with space-age black piping and keys the size of dinner plates. “The glorious weirdness of the low flutes introduces an unreality that I find extremely intriguing,” says Goodin, “and highly suited to science fiction and fantasy.”

A still from Kathleen Jennings’ animation accompanying Houston Dunleavy’s Skimming. © 2015 Kathleen Jennings. Used by permission.

It is not just strange flutes that add to the visual spectacle of the performance. Goodin and Dunleavy recruited award-winning Brisbane-based illustrator Kathleen Jennings to create an animation to accompany a composition by Dunleavy for solo piccolo. “We were thinking about what multimedia aspects we could add to the project,” explains Goodin. “I’ve been an admirer of Kathleen’s art for many years, and her sense of whimsy and artistic adventure made her a natural for the project. Her illustrations for Houston’s piece Skimming were gorgeous and not at all what I was expecting, which is, of course, the point.”

First performed at the Novatel in Canberra, this September will see Cabinet of Oddities presented at the Australian Institute of Music in Melbourne with the addition of a new work by New Zealand composer Sam van Betuw. “Because we’re moving into a concert hall, we’ll have sound and lighting that were not available in Canberra, as well as a purpose-built performance space,” says Dunleavy. “This will be the first Melbourne Fringe performance at the Melbourne campus of the Australian Institute of Music.”

Where will the idea go from here? “I would love to do a series of these concerts, bringing in more writers, composers, and visual artists,” says Goodin. “I’d like to hear different instruments and what we could do when we mixed the instruments up,” says Dunleavy. “I’ll always have a special fondness for including flutes in future concerts, but adding more colours through the addition of new instruments, electronics, multimedia, interactive elements, sculpture, dance – pretty much anything artistic could be done here.”

The Cabinet of Oddities is at the Australian Institute of Music, Melbourne, September 23 and 24 as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival