The Reflection Tour is a unique proposition. Drawing together musicians from across Australia, the Tura New Music project has spent the last few weeks travelling the continent’s North, from Darwin through the Kimberley and the Pilbara. Along the way there have been local community collaborations, evolving compositions, dumb jokes, strange tales, golf course concerts, long red roads and moments of newfound musical chemistry. Tonight, in UWA’s Octagon theatre, we witness the travelling troupe cross the finish line.
Like that classic of art/pop staging Stop Making Sense, tonight’s many-splendoured concert starts with just one performer on stage and no frills. Here’s Mt. Isa’s WILLIAM BARTON, seated behind a didgeridoo. Holding a drumstick he taps his instrument arrhythmically; moves as if to begin playing; then pulls back and leans into the microphone. “G’day!” comes his voice.
Back at the waxy mouthpiece, Barton begins mustering a low, rich drone, undulating excitedly. His approach is fascinating, building up intensity and locking into grooves – accented by barks, finger-flicks and stick-taps – before spinning out into abstract syncopations or unexpected textures. It’s a solo performance that seems to oscillate between traditional and innovatory, often dissolving the distinction between the two.
Soon Barton is joined by TRISTAN PARR (cello) and ERRKI VELTHEIM (violin) performing Parr’s piece ‘Strati.’ The piece is a kind of ever-expanding organism, with each iteration incorporating live recordings from the last. The genesis of the performance, however, is a score that Parr’s created by editing satellite photos of the Reflection Tour concert locations. These reworked images are fed into a digital graphic-score reader developed by Decibel (of which Parr is a member). The result is an eerie, hazy and thoroughly captivating soundscape driven along by colourful gestures on an atonal backdrop.
Out of nowhere comes a remarkable, complex and flowing solo piece called ‘New Digs,’ courtesy of guitarist STEPHEN MAGNUSSON. The man’s a bit of a legend across jazz, pop and other contemporary guitar spheres – listening to him play all by himself, filling the sonic space with such ornate musicality, really beggars belief. He’s a fiendish virtuoso and he makes no attempt to hide it, but he doesn’t wave it in your face obnoxiously either. Magnusson just says what needs to be said through the guitar, and does it with a poetic attention to detail.
All of this is very compelling and beautiful but the tone so far has been largely austere, with a sense of distance between audience and performers. This all changes when the delightful STEPHEN PIGRAM joins the crew on stage, spinning hilarious yarns and leading the band in buoyant renditions of his brilliantly crafted songs. We hear the gently chugging ‘Nothing Really Matters,’ the darkly funny ‘Crocodile River,’ the Calypso-styled ‘Moonlight’ – all brimming with beguiling melody and masterful lyricism. These songs – more than capable of standing up with guitar and voice – are taken up a notch and given a cinematic sonic richness thanks to the Narli ensemble (to which has been added the excellent RON REEVES on percussion).
Perhaps the night’s emotional high comes when this core group of performers are joined by yet another Stephen – STEPHEN ‘BAAMBA’ ALBERT from up Broome way. Baamba is a veteran storyteller, musician and performer – his years of experience manifest here in the form of a magical charisma and presence. We get the charming tri-lingual pearl diver’s song “Selamat Tingal,” and a cheeky, spirited version of Cole Porter’s ‘Begin the Beguine.’ Baamba peppers his exposition with riveting tales from his childhood and beyond; it’s a heartwarming digression. Another musical guest joins, and this time it’s the man responsible for the tour itself: TOS MAHONEY. Tos is the artistic director of Tura New Music, and many (myself included) are mostly familiar with him as the man who introduces a bunch of left-field performances in Perth. Tonight we get to hear another side of Tos: his admirable skill on the flute, which is conveyed through both jazzy melodic injections during songs, and through a curious pared-back improv session with didgeridoo and percussion (he calls it “perfludge” – a hybrid percussion-flute-didge beast).
There’s Veltheim’s ‘Silence of A Falling Star,’ a wandering ambient work reflecting on the North-west stargazing experience. Its textures don’t quite manage to coalesce into anything immersive or placid, which they seem to want to – but Pigram “playing” the wireless radio (attempting to find country music) is a wonderful feature, and in its offbeat incongruity it somehow glues the whole soundscape together. On previous performances in the tour, this work has literally been delivered under the stars, and I’d love to hear it again with a bright speckled dome above me for full effect.
We wrap up with an exhilarating, groove-heavy full band piece by Barton, and an all-in encore by way of Pigram’s hymnal anthem ‘Saltwater Cowboy.’ The standing ovation that follows says it all, really. It’s not often that a concert offers a genuine sense of open-minded eclecticism – drawing from innumerable traditions, combined with a multi-generational collaboration of cultural exchange and sonic alchemy. Even rarer is to hear something like that with this much skill, attention to visuals and performance, slick production and – more than anything – incredible heart and merriment. It’s no hyperbole to say that the Reflections tour exemplifies what’s great about music. I feel incredibly lucky to’ve witnessed the culmination of its 2015 lap.