Organ and imagery shed mutual light on two very different worlds.

Sydney Town Hall
January 9, 2015

One of the beauties of festivals is their ability to turn up the unexpected and last night’s event at Sydney Town Hall was a perfect example. Darkness and Light is an artistic meeting of opposites in every sense. Sound and vision, black and white, life and death, movement and stasis, flood and drought, hopes and fears… The last applies to the audience as much as anything, many of whom one suspects had come for a visual ride in a fast machine only to find themselves sitting through an organ recital. There were several noisy walkers and stalkers, but those who stayed the course were rewarded with a contemplative experience whose sounds and imagery lingered long after the trudge home through the sultry Sydney night.

The concept is the brainchild of the multi-talented Belgian organist and composer Bernard Foccroulle, AD of the Aix Festival and all-round collaborative artist. In tandem with the inventive Australian artist Lynette Wallworth, renowned for her interactive video work, he has come up with a way of illustrating an essentially formal concert format. Wallworth’s enhancing and stimulating images prompted reflection, hardly ever pulled focus and certainly never detracted from the music at hand.

In her program note, Wallworth talks about the influence of cave paintings on the work, and in particular the trance state of the artist working within the cathedrals of nature. Darkness and Light is designed for the cathedrals of today and the generally glacial rate of change inherent in Wallworths sensitively chosen imagery, projected on two giant screens suspended in front of the giant pipes of the Town Hall organ, allowed the viewer-cum-listener plenty of opportunities for transcendental moments of pleasure (and occasionally pain).

Foccroulle’s eclectic program mixed a smattering of the Baroque (generally reflective pieces by Bach and the underrated Buxtehude) with some virtuosic masterpieces of the mid-to-late 20th century (Messiaen and the underplayed Jehan Alain) plus a couple of contemporary works by the Russian Sofia Gubaidulina, the Japanese Toshio Hosokawa and Foccroulle himself. Back lit in the centre of the visual picture, bending and snapping as he frantically manipulated his stops, the organist was a frequently compelling figure – the engineer at the heart of the machine as it were. His technique across a wide range of styles and emotions was faultless while his taste and imagination in devising an original and engaging aural canvas was worth the well-deserved applause itself. Wallworth’s choice of visuals ranged from the evocative Australian landscape through flashes of the industrial and incorporated a few stunning images courtesy of NASA.

One of Wallworth’s images to accompany De Grigny

I won’t attempt a blow-by-blow account of every felicitous melding of sound and vision but a few highlights should illustrate the point. Gubaidulina’s titular Hell und Dunkel (Darkness and Light) began with smoking, flaring, belching chimneys – the hideous, ultimate infernos of our age, I guess – perfectly matching the disturbing rumblings in the bass of the organ. The instrument’s subsequent demonic roarings involved Foccroulle utilising some fascinating and seldom heard combinations of organ stops. This substantial, and seemingly fiendishly tricky work concluded in a radiant visual sequence where Wallworth used a mirror-image effect to show two suns on each screen with slow-moving clouds travelling right to left creating mesmerising patterns that flickered in and out of the consciousness. My mind passed through reflections on Rorschach tests to thoughts of x-rays of the human skeleton but, and this was the beauty of Darkness and Light, I suspect other people saw other things.

Memorable moments included a hypnotic vision of rain gently pattering over the end of Foccroulle’s own engaging Kolorierte Flöten (Coloured Flutes), the deeply moving beauty of white barked trees in a flooded gully that accompanied Nicolas de Grigny’s Tierce en Taille like a living Monet (Fred Williams also sprang to mind), and birds flocking to a fence in the Communion movement from Messiaen’s mighty Messe de la Pentecôte (Pentecost Mass).

But for me, perhaps the most commanding image never moved at all. For Buxtehude’s concluding Passacaglia in D Minor, Wallworth chose a still of a road stretching off to infinity at that moment before dawn when one is first able to make out surrounding features after a drive through the blackness of a long night. It brought back powerful, personal memories of a trek across the Hay Plains, the endlessness of the never-to-be-reached horizon perfectly matching the relentless tread of the baroque passacaglia.

Darkness and Light may not be for the fainthearted – you need to be entirely up for an organ recital and don’t expect the spills and thrills of a Planetarium. There might also be more involving formats for the presentation – I’d have loved to have been flat on my back in the pitch dark. But give yourself to these two artists and your attention will be held for an unbroken 70 minutes – and it’s not that often one can say that.

Darkness and Light is a co-production between Palais des Beaux-Arts, Klarafestival, Festival de Pâques d’Aix-en-Provence, Southbank Centre, Philharmonie Luxembourg, Laeiszhalle Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, Sydney Festival, Concert- en congresgebouw de Doelen, and Karsten Witt Musik Management in association with Forma Arts.