★★★★½ Extraordinary world premiere shifts the boundaries of Surrealism game.

Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival
March 07, 2016

Four string players, two visual artists, twelve composers and a Lovecraftian entity walk into a collaboration. Historically the game of Surrealist poets and artists, for this version of Exquisite Corpse, Zephyr Quartet et al add music, composition and live performance to an ethereal set replete with swirling smoke and a tentacled Cthulhu-like creature.

Art created by Luku Kukuku and Jo Kerlogue is projected upstage as shades of Miro give way to amoeba, stars, skulls and monsters in minute detail. The raw and exposed vibratoless melody and rhythmic pizzicato marks the beginning of our wafting journey of discovery; or rather, our drift is the discovery.

The surrealist aspects of Exquisite Corpse are at work from the start; the visuals thick with symbolism, mythology and fantastic, nonsensical creations. The music, at times dissonant, expands into conversations where juxtaposing themes compete against each other, underpinned by graphic, mechanical and at times grotesques images. We expect it to grate, but somehow, each element amalgamates intriguingly.

Visually, there are times when the geometrical planes move, resulting in a dynamic shift in perception. Here, it’s perhaps slightly more challenging than the conceptual ‘drift’, but resoundingly achieves the surrealist’s goal of the element of surprise. Aurally, the same fascinating result is achieved by string scratching and amplifications delayed and reverberated.

There is nothing of the Chinese Whispers problem about this creation. Rather than the message becoming distorted by fragmentation, the genius of Zephyr’s risky undertaking is in their ability to unify this collaboration. There is a distinct lack of non sequitur. The progressions seem completely logical, and the piece achieves the mastery of creation without constraint. Despite composers being given only fragments from the previous writer to work from, there are recurring themes, both musically and artistically that serve to knit the piece not only into a comprehendible work, but one that strikes the perfect balance between tight control and total artistic freedom.

The long moments of cohesion and passion are dazzling; Zephyr Quartet’s phrasing and interpretation of the innate beauty contained within many of the themes makes this a deeply moving artistic triumph.

The intense and exhilarating finale, with bloody inferences on screen and interrogation-style red lights, reveals the aspects of Cosmicism hinted throughout. It’s a dramatically welcome peak, and leaves a palpable sense of awe hanging in the air, or perhaps it’s just the aroma of the new wine the exquisite corpse will drink.

The music and visuals not only naturally progress across tempos, genres and collaborators, but the lines between the beginning and ending of individual composers’ music are blurred, creating a whole corpse that is exquisitely greater than the sum of its individual parts.

If you’re left wondering how many surreal exquisite corpses it takes to change a light bulb, the answer is of course, a fish.