“There’s an obsessive quality to Lynch’s aesthetic that I share,” Canadian composer and turntablist Nicole Lizée told me in an interview earlier this month. “His films are in one way very grounded in reality (the characters and scenarios could very well exist) but they steadily become twisted and distorted until you’re not sure what you’re seeing or experiencing.” It is this obsessive quality that stands out in Sex, Lynch and Video Games, a concert showcasing Lizée’s work at the Sydney Festival.

Lizée’s David Lynch Études open with a scene from the director’s 1990 film Wild at Heart playing on a screen above the stage. “Peanut, I’m thinking of breaking parole and taking you out to sunny California,” says Sailor, before Lula’s frenzied dancing on the bed provides a driving, thundering beat and the camera pans in again and again. The footage repeats in uneven loops as the piano soloist – Canadian Eve Egoyan – couples precisely with the film material.

Nicole Lizée and the Australian Art Orchestra perform 8-Bit Urbex, all photos by Prudence Upton

The David Lynch Études are part of an ongoing body of work Lizée has titled The Criterion Collection. She has already created Études on the work of directors Kubrick and Tarantino, while Zubin Kanga gave the Australian premiere of her Hitchcock Études in October last year. As in the Hitchcock Études, the Lynch Études focus on a series of scenes from the director’s work, teasing apart sounds and visuals in an obsessive deconstruction of significant moments and scenes. Lizée writes in her programme notes, “If I want the sound of an oboe I’ll use an oboe – but if I want the sound of Naomi Watts’s shivering exhalations in Mullholland Drive then I will use exactly that.” Her approach to the visual material is similarly exact, the screen focusing on minute twitches of facial expression or quirks of lighting.

There is also humour in this obsessiveness. Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) in Lynch’s Twin Peaks, singing the nonsense song Mairzy Doats – already creepy in its silliness – is twisted even further in Lizée’s hands, becoming more grotesque. Against all this, Egoyan fills out writhing piano motifs and repeating musical fragments that sync – thanks to her virtuosic reflexes, a click-track, and Lizée’s careful design – perfectly with the film excerpts, pianist and video becoming equal partners in a disorienting duet.

Similar techniques pervade 8-Bit Urbex – commissioned by the Australian Art Orchestra for last year’s Metropolis New Music Festival in Melbourne – the AAO accompanying a video and soundscape taken not from films, but from video games. Exploring depictions of urban landscapes in ’80s video games, 8-Bit Urbex harvests sounds such as the brutal ‘rail placement’ sound in the original Sim City game orm the glittering 8-bit sounds of racing games and platformers. The sonic landscape is augmented by live instruments as pixelated footage is teased apart. The ensemble gives the music a depth beyond that of the retro video game sounds, structural percussion driving the music. The whining burble of trumpets played into buckets of water blends effectively with the electronic textures, smudging the lines between digital and organic sounds.

Marting Ng and Nicole Lizée duet at the turntables

Turntablist (and cardiologist) Martin Ng joins Lizée onstage for an improvised turntable duet – Ng producing bass-like percussive effects while Lizée conjures pitched, melodic material drawn again from video game soundtracks – before the Australian Art Orchestra returns to the stage for Volume 2 of Karappo Okesutura. In this work karaoke music provides the source material. Gian Slater joining the ensemble to sing along with Lizée’s erratically behaving karaoke machine. ’80s hits like Whip It and Endless Love – with fragmented music videos and stuttering lyrics – are distorted and warped. Tempos slow precipitously, the tracks skipping and jolting, as Slater deftly rides the karaoke equivalent of a mechanical bull.

Hearing a whole concert devoted to the work of a single composer offers a unique opportunity to gain a deeper insight into their output, and despite some lengthy stage changes which hamper the show’s momentum, it’s possible to trace threads that run through Lizée’s compositions.

Karappo Okesutura

Similar motifs appear through all three works in Sex, Lynch and Video Games. Each work includes footage of a small, printed still from the source material placed on a tongue, to be ingested like an LSD blotter or Communion sacrament. Paintbrushes dribble liquid over the screen and the image of a toy TV set recurs.

I found myself pulled into the minutiae of sounds and images that played out, familiar scenes distorted and transformed to create new musical experiences. There is a relentlessness to Lizée’s music that makes the journey intense and disorienting, even exhausting, when absorbed in one sitting – but the experience is ultimately rewarding.

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