Scattered Experiments: Louise Devenish & James Hullick

Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre

Scattered Experiments is the second instalment in the Scale Variable series run by Tura New Music. The concert saw percussionist Louise Devenish present three new works commissioned to Australian composers, concluding with a solo piece performed by composer James Hullick.
“Tone Being” by Cat Hope is a work for Tam-tam and sub woofer that continues her explorations of low frequencies as aural and structural elements in composition. There was a feeling of spontaneity in the way Devenish approached the piece, as if it was her intuition and not the score what guided the realisation. Physical movement, the trajectory of lines and pressure served to elicit a wide variety of timbres: scrapes for a harsh chirring, brushes for a whispering hush and rubber mallets for vocal-like phrases born out of friction against the metal. At intervals during the piece, low frequencies sounded from the subwoofer, spreading across the room like a tremor that the audience felt on limbs and chest. Throughout the performance, Devenish established a restrained tension between the physicality of lines and the elusive rumble of low frequencies.  

Kate Moore’s “Coral Speak, for vibraphone, music boxes and electronics” is an ode and a lament to the Great Barrier Reef that began with rippling chords evoking the exotic underwater landscape, there was a Baroque-like unfolding in the steady quavers that slow down at the end of each phrase, and the sustain pedal created a haze of echoes that followed the music with slight dissonances. But in contrast to the lush first movement, the second movement was characterised by bleakness. The vibraphone bars were dampened and their dryness reinforced by a recording of crisp shell-like sounds, even the way Devenish stood facing the audience once the piece was over had an air of resignation about it.

James Hullick’s “Instrument of the Galactic Interior, for double bass and animated score”, places the double bass in a multi-media setting; the instrument was prepared with triangles, sticks and chains hanging over its soundboard like toys on a crib. An animated score was projected featuring celestial bodies courtesy of artist Milica Stanojlovic (aka ZZAA), and an accompanying track played granular and spectral figures along with more melodic synth lines. Unfortunately the track’s loud mix and overwhelming visuals robbed attention from Devenish, whose approach to the acoustic instrument was subtle. Perhaps giving the performer more control in interacting with the images and recorded sounds would have changed things. 

Whereas the works of Hope and Moore featured a cogent series of events, Hullick’s “Scatterman” presented a non-linear narrative tied by his solo performance as a delusional artist going through a personal and family crisis. The audience followed Hullick as he talked to himself, gesticulating and staggering around a couch or playing a prepared piano while opening one beer can after another. Before launching into a drunken rendition of Arlen’s “Over The Rainbow”, he addressed the audience to talk about the dead of his mother: “here in Brisbane, at Subiaco beach where she was taken by a crocodile”. The uncouth antics are contrasted by candid images of his family and an undertone of failure pervades the character’s indulgences.  According to the composer, “Scatterman is not a show or a composition”, it is concerned with the self-defeating idea of seeking the perfect life: being the perfect husband, mother, child, society or artist.  

As distancing as his performance might seem, Hullick’s kept the engagement with a well-timed use of sounds, visuals and a strangely heartfelt portrayal of a lost man. It brought to mind the attitude of Fluxus artists who consciously avoided an entertaining or edifying component to their works, rather they sought to bring a stimulus in the audience. The piece certainly invites for reflection on topics such as gender, self-awareness, the composer – audience relationship and artists battling the cultural cringe.

Scattered Experiments was valuable in presenting works that broaden the concert experience and where composer and performer are willing to break away from their traditional roles, inviting the audience to be part of a more equal and open dialogue.