There are few – if any – local percussionists busier than Louise Devenish. Aside from stints with WASO (and who knows what other classically-geared ensembles), she constitutes a sixth of Decibel, half of The Sound Collectors; she steers the ship for Piñata Percussion, regularly joins forces with Melbourne’s Speak Percussion and the exhausting list goes on. Still, despite encountering Devenish’s playing anywhere and everywhere over the last few years, I’ve never caught her in an instance where she’s playing a concert all of her own, under her own name, performing a programme of entirely her own choosing. Until tonight. It’s a compelling prospect.
I hop off the bus outside the paella place – just enough time to sneak a middy at the Flying Scotsman, dally with the Attack From Mars pinball, and scoot up the Astor Theatre’s staircase. Through the turquoise art deco tunnels, there’s cosy a six-sided room with tiered rows of seats and a stage decked with skinned barrels, twinkling cymbals and shining gongs.
Given Devenish’s breadth of experience, ability and taste, presumably one of the harder parts of putting on a concert like this would be knowing how to narrow it down. What to include? In the end, she goes for composers who are (1) living, (2) Australian and (3), as you might imagine, writing boundary-pushing music for percussion – from there she’s selected a tight, diverse programme comprising five pieces.
Warren Burt’s Chromophone presents an array of scenes melting into each other: improvisations mirrored imperfectly in electronic reflections that bubble and warp, as the next live motif is conjured. Software algorithms splice phrases into unexpected lengths and structures, keeping the ear from settling into any sense of pattern, keeping you present. Devenish makes use of extended techniques (scrubbing and rubbing the bass drum skin, for example, to elicit gentle a gentle hiss or a low growl) – but it never sounds like these instruments are bring forced to make sounds they’d rather not. Instead, it feels like we’re being offered a glimpse into sounds that come naturally, eagerly even, but are rarely offered primetime coverage in a composition.
Exposiciones by Andrian Pertout sits in stark contrast: from curious experiments over phasing uncertainties, we now move onto adrenalised tintinabulations dancing frosty over a clockwork counterpoint. There’s a complex process underpinning this work’s unfolding: methodical divisions of octaves laid out across ratio-based polyrhythms. The Indonesian “Pélog” and “Sléndro” scales are being invoked too. It’s certainly not stuff my brain can digest as I listen, but the conceptual underpinnings add intrigue to the surface aesthetic, which – for what it’s worth – wouldn’t be out of place in a (good) Dario Argento soundtrack. And for all its scientific machinations, the piece never sounds clinical: it’s virtuosic, bright, great fun.
Devenish keeps moving round the stage, arriving at new stations equipped with new instruments. For Lindsay Vickery’s InterXection, she’s at the closest thing to a conventional drum kit, joined by Stuart James who is overseeing electronics processing for the concert. Devenish grips mallets and whips up dark, slow swells from the skins and cymbals; James follows the mallet-heads around with a microphone. He’s tailing the sound, half bent-over, like the archetypal press reporter, desperate for a scoop. What we hear are thick resonant textures: quiet percussion textures blown up and out through amplification and ring modulation. These textures are indistinct, soft-edged – though, paradoxically, the intimate contents of sound suddenly become clear. Storms of frequency. Trains pulling into stations and UFOs coming to land on your head. The piece is pleasantly singular, linear, as simultaneously complex and simple as waves at the beach, but in any case more urgent, more portentous.
Jame’s Hullick’s K(L)ING entails a score projected in piecemeal fashion onto the stage’s real screen, rendered in stark white-on-black. Above it, words and phrases flash at random: YES, NO, GO BACK, DIE, GET IN THE BATH, STAND UP, DO YOUR HOMEWORK, etc, and glitched-out TV newsreader samples play over the speakers. Within this somewhat grim and heady audiovisual environment, Devenish sets about realizing the score as it flashes past. Woodblock trill, crotale clang, a range of instruments I don’t even recognise, marshalled into utterances that are quick and skittish and precise. Are these interjections bursting out in defiance of the doomy, oppressive words onscreen and the babbling voices from the unseen TV? Or are all the elements conspiring into a shared cacophonous attack? It’s hard to say, but the piece and the performance make an indelible impression.
With Devenish pulling out all the stops, and quite rightly taking centre stage, Stuart James has been the quiet achiever this evening, handling the secondary but crucial task of electronics in the wing. But the final piece of the night is his, affording the modest composer some time in the limelight. It’s called Kinabuhi / Kamatayon and has been written for Balinese gamelan, which Devenish teaches at UWA. Laid out atop a long black tablecloth are a series of “reyong” and “tromping,” the “small bossed gongs” that the piece intends to explore over five short movements. Lifting her mallets almost before they’ve made contact, Louise daubs the air with sound. For a time she’ll be pattering across the golden surfaces, patterns compressing and expanding in time and space; then, running the mallet-stick around the inner lip of an inverted gong or extruding slow, warm metallic resonances that bloom in the air. Now these semi-abstract gestures are suddenly traded for a 4/4 emphasis and a tonal centre (it seems to be a minor key), see-sawing chimes forming a suspenseful ostinato that won’t let up. At this moment I discern traces of techno, of ambient electronica and Steve Reich, whether or not these evocations are intended or welcomed. And Devenish is playing with what look like batons now…James is processing the tinny tap-tap-tap, creating a stratum of filtered, squeaky squelchy echoes like rubber bats above us. Ultimately the piece consists of countless minimalist melodies rendered with a range of inflections, overlapping, repeating, jostling. The piece is said to reflect upon the sun, the moon, the tides, nature, breathing, life, death… but before I’ve been told this, I get some unarticulated sense of it. There’s something reverent and deep and pensive happening. If you blur your eyes it kind of looks like Devenish is playing a series of bright, amber candles. And it kind of sounds like she is too.
The concert is done, and it’s as if no time has passed – I’ve been in a weird reverie, engulfed by the pieces. Which is not to say they were long and soporific – on the contrary, most of these works were brief, and none of them felt drawn out – the concert overall felt uncommonly concise. What came across was Devenish’s desire to push the limits of your imagination, without merely assailing you with unconventionality. Each piece announces itself fairly modestly and takes you along for the journey, giving you good reason to follow. What’s more, every exploration offers a markedly different disposition, a different atmosphere and conceptual stimulus – the unifying factor is Devenish’s breathtakingly deft delivery, her artistic interpretation of the material, her sculptor-like attention to detail. The caricature of percussion playing posits it as crude, blocky, simplistic, ill-matched with the pursuit of nuance and lyricism. We already know this isn’t true, but Louise Devenish shows us just how untrue it is: hers is a percussion more akin to painting, fluid and textural, yet still rhythmic and bold and tactile. And for every colour that announces itself vividly and emphatically, there are a thousand chromatic shades being explored in between.