★★★½☆ Music and storytelling combine in a performance that brings narrative archetypes to life.

City Recital Hall, Sydney
June 3, 2017

“There lived a humble rice farmer who set out to find justice.” The words appear on a screen above the stage as percussionist Claire Edwardes wrings supernatural timbres from a bowed waterphone. Low slides from Freya Schack-Arnott’s cello mingle with glittering percussion in the ambient introduction to Seven Stories, a collaboration between Sydney new music group Ensemble Offspring, writer and director Hilary Bell, seven composers, and Melbourne film-maker Sarah-Jane Woulahan at City Recital Hall as part of Vivid Sydney.

Seven Stories draws on the ideas presented by Christopher Booker in his 2004 book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, in which Booker outlines archetypal plotlines, referred to in this performance as: The Quest, Overcoming the Darkness, Rags to Riches, Fatal Flaw, Comedy of Errors, Journey and Transformation.

Part of Ensemble Offspring’s year of championing female composers, the performance is constructed as a collaborative, modular composition, with each story-line brought to life by a different composer and augmented by Bell’s text and Woulahan’s visuals.

Golden egg shakers, tossed and caught in a ceremonial procession, are a visual and musical symbol of the goal in Caitlin Yeo’s Quest. The screen and TV composer’s work, accompanied by images of a female protagonist – all of the stories are told from a female perspective – is bright and tonal. The music builds to a surging, adventure-film-soundtrack vamping against celestial imagery, the dancer onscreen searching and reaching out against clear, wordless vocals from soprano Jane Sheldon.

Singer-songwriter Jodi Phillis – co-front woman of the Australian band The Clouds – took inspiration from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline for her Overcoming the Darkness, opening with an innocent melody similar in mood to that of the pastoral “Shire theme” from Howard Shore’s soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings film series. Footage of expansive mountain-scapes and blooming flowers give way to images of aurora borealis as the music takes a darker turn, Sheldon’s detached vocal lines pushing into what feels like the upper limits of her range and ominous drums evoking a sense of increasing menace before a denouement in which Sheldon’s vocals become full and luminous.

Images of clock gears and ticking numbers accompany Rags to Riches, by screen composer and member of The Go-Betweens Amanda Brown. Percussionist Bree van Reyk and Claire Edwardes on glockenspiel and marimba introduce darker string lines as the protagonist’s writhing choreography fills the screen. Jason Noble delivers some wildly dancing bass clarinet lines before plaintive broken chords from Sally Whitwell at the piano accompany sung text from Sheldon and whirling images of clouds and waves.

Whitwell’s own work, Fatal Flaw is the most dramatic on the programme, describing an inexorable fall or unavoidable tragedy with Sheldon’s haunting vocals and building textures punctuated by gripping syncopations and slithering clarinet and violin lines, the music accompanied by increasingly fraught images, including the famous footage of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse of 1940. Whitwell’s music is also the most complex on the programme, using breath and vocal percussion from Edwardes, rich harmonics from the cello and wailing effects from the bass clarinet’s high register.

Ensemble Offspring’s Bree van Reyk takes the mood in a completely different direction with her contribution to the programme, Comedy of Errors. Sheldon dons tails to conduct the band (comically frustrated with their intransigence and slapstick page-turning in the performance of a repeated interrupted cadence) before leading the ensemble in a chorus of wolf whistles that are soon picked up as motifs on the instruments – while the motif seems an easy fit for the elastic capabilities of instruments like clarinet and strings, Whitwell proves surprisingly adept at drawing saucy whistles from the keys of the piano. Honking horns and colourful, popping toy guns are given a similar musical treatment before the work culminates in what Van Reyk dubs A Miniature Double Concerto for Woodblocks, Woodblock Understudy/Soprano and Small Ensemble, which sees Edwardes take centre-stage. Edwardes’ brilliance as a percussionist means the woodblock concerto is as stunningly virtuosic as it is humorous, the soloist throwing the occasional notes to her understudy – an enthusiastic Sheldon – in the wings.

Journey, by film and TV composer Kyls Burtland, is a driving work – the visuals full of speed and momentum, landscapes streaming past – with echoes of Michael Nyman or Steve Reich. In the busyness of the music the balance was a little out, leaving Sheldon’s lyrics slightly muffled, but the piece had a sense of charging energy and motion.

Sheldon’s own composition, Transformation, capped off the programme with a glittering soundscape featuring guttural bass-clarinet effects and ethereal sounds from the waterphone, the protagonist on screen floating in the heavens, her transformation effected by swirls of bright colour and light. The work comes to a close in hissing breath and delicate shimmers.

Ensemble Offspring delivered their performances with verve, and while there were a few small intonation issues early on, the musicians demonstrated an energetic felxibility and chameleon-like ease in crossing styles and genres.

Seven Stories presented an interesting selection of music by some of today’s leading composers in a variety of genres, but as a means of storytelling, some works were more successful than others and there was a slight disconnect between the works that were inspired by stories or ideas and works that told a story. Whitwell’s Fatal Flaw was particularly compelling, the composer making deft use of the narrative structure of the Tragedy archetype to guide the musical development of her work and while Bree van Reyk’s Comedy of Errors was much lighter in tone, it was the music and its performance that told the story rather than accompanied it.

Bell’s text was a subtle binding force. While not a narrative in itself, it pulled the seven works together and her impressionistic splashes of storytelling gave Seven Stories an overall cohesion without – as per her brief – drawing focus from the music. Similarly, Woulahan’s visuals served as atmospheric accompaniment rather than focus – Seven Stories wasn’t a film screening with a live orchestra playing the soundtrack. So it was the compositions that took the reigns, driving the narrative forward, that really made this a fascinating exploration of music and story-telling.


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