The Seymour Centre’s York Theatre functions virtually in the round – the audience sit in a ring above the oval stage underneath a patch of red and amber globes. There are about 300 people seated in the raked auditorium; a mixture of older subscription members in summer dresses and shirts, and younger people who look like contemporary music fans. 

Chloe Kim, Simon Barker and The Earshift Orchestra in Disruption! The Voice of Drums at Sydney Festival. Photo © Yaya StemplerChloe Kim, Simon Barker and The Earshift Orchestra in Disruption! The Voice of Drums at Sydney Festival. Photo © Yaya Stempler

Three projection screens hang above the cluttered circle of the band, programmed with visuals by artists Paul Mosig and Rachel Peachey. There are seven band members joining bandleader Jeremy Rose in his group, The Earshift Orchestra. 

Tonight they play compositions arranged by Rose, who was inspired to write music to accompany drummer Simon Barker and Chloe Kim’s solo drum recordings. A sort of glow-up of the original, solo drum takes in band format. 

A Korean musician named Kim Seok Chul became an inspiration for Baker’s ongoing exploration of his drum set. Chul is an improviser whose techniques earned him the status of ’national treasure’ by the Korean government. Barker’s pursuit of Chul is the subject of a documentary called Intangible Asset No. 82, and Barker’s collaboration with a number of Korean musicians turned into ongoing work with Chloe Kim, the second drummer featured in tonight’s performance. Barker and his Korean protégé are the centre piece around which Disruption! revolves, and thus sit facing one another at the front of the stage.

Keyboards sit in a stack atop a grand piano played by Freedman Jazz Fellowship winner Novac Manojlovic. An electric bass station with an additional kick drum manned by young bassist Jacques Emery sits next to 2019 Jan Rutherford memorial award-winner Hilary Geddes, who will play electric guitar and 12 string. Modular synth player Ben Carey crouches behind an office cubicle piled with tech. The horns – trumpet player Thomas Avgenicos and saxophonist Jeremy Rose – sit at the darkened centre of the circle.

Chloe Kim, Simon Barker and The Earshift Orchestra in Disruption! The Voice of Drums at Sydney Festival. Photo © Yaya StemplerChloe Kim, Simon Barker and The Earshift Orchestra in Disruption! The Voice of Drums at Sydney Festival. Photo © Yaya Stempler

As the music begins, a martial drumbeat on floor toms and open snare lights up the projection screens behind the band. Bright flashes and sparks flame out while drummer Barker plays Asian-sounding percussion on the rims of his kit, supported by Geddes’ Telecaster played high to sound like a koto or a violin. Some clashing saxophone intervals from Rose round out a strange atmosphere before the band pulls back to refocus on Barker playing a clattering series of drum fills. 

The projections turn into a cluster of black and white cells, then into black and white footage of the recent Black Lives Matter protests and marches throughout the US. The piece ends on a horn phrase, and then we are unsure whether to applaud before the next song begins. 

The second work has a noir-ish feel. Geddes pulls some dark chords and shimmering delay over the shuffling snare. The mood is muted, the stage lit in aqua greens and blues. The projections behind the band look like space, planets, a road at night seen from the side of a moving car. The percussion waterfall continues, and comes to a stop. 

Chloe Kim in Disruption! The Voice of Drums at Sydney Festival. Photo © Yaya Stempler

The majority of the show has been atmospheric thus far, so it’s shocking to hear the eight-piece band explode into a dramatic, African-sounding beat. The band is swinging and now it sounds Latin, like pumping carnival music. There’s a whistle and incessant firebrand energy. 

The protest footage is back, playing off the sweaty intensity of the groove. Cop cars in the heat shimmer, protestors walk in slow motion. A huge synth line snakes over a swung beat, heavy with percussion. The two drummers are working hard, syncopated. 

It feels like we’re watching a manic Mardi Gras in the streets of Miami. Next, a thrilling duo solo turns into hits played by Rose and Kim brings the song crashing to a close. Rhythmically searing, this piece felt alive and was the high point of the set for me. 

The next work has a dreamier start. Long scraping sub-harmonic sounds from the synthesiser player Ben Carey add to a lovely warped, aquatic-sounding organ part from the keyboard player Manojlovic. The horns start a hazy, swung walkdown that keeps going, weirder and more off kilter by the second, before resolving into yet another drum break. 

Horns rejoin while the drums become more hip hop, more martial again. Kim sets up a ride cymbal rhythm while Geddes plays her distorted Fender Telecaster like a radio – the signal tuning in and out of range. 

On the projector a woman dances, holding two long sticks, and a dotted pattern suggesting Indigenous painting traditions strobes behind the beat. Another drum solo plays out between the two, ending in protest sounds and chants. There are some nice black and white photos, and the intensity of the atmosphere rises as the stage is bathed in red light. 

Geddes and the keyboard player decorate the skittering drums and a synth drone with mournful, abstract shapes. Rose and Thomas’ horns shift in the gloom, and the feeling is that things must be drawing to a close. 

The last section of the performance really begins to drag. There is just too little form and structure, too few straight bits of time, too little orchestral togetherness for the audience to continue to pay really close attention. While the audience is being polite, the show has lost our interest by the beginning of the last third. Worse, the protest footage feels a little tacked on, though I’m sure the artist’s intentions were pure. The footage, while beautiful, adds an obvious, stifling sentiment to a show that teeters on becoming indulgent and a bit corny.

And yet, there is more footage of protestors massed at picket lines, filmed by drones above. The horns lead the way out while Emery grounds the rhythm section with an occasional, well-placed bass note. Rose and trumpet player Avgenicos follow invisible cues from the drummers, playing a series of show-closing hits. The audience gets to its feet slowly, and moves into the heat of the foyer.

Supported by the City of Sydney

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