Sunday, 25 November 2018

Gothic - Music Review

What: Gothic
When: 25 November 2018
Where: Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
Arrangements by: Andree Greenwell
Performed by: Andree Greenwell, Andrea Keeble, Kylie Morrigan, Jessica O'Donoghue, Joshua Stilwell, David Trumpmanis, and Noella Yan
Set and lighting by: Neil Simpson
Sound by: Andree Greenwell and David Trumpmanis
AV design by: Michaela French
Sydney Ensemble - photo by Matthew Duchesne
Gothic is a song cycle created and presented by the award winning composer Andree Greenwell and is a musical journey through Gothic literature and storytelling (although it is billed as a journey through Gothicism in music). First presented at The Seymour Centre in 2015, Greenwell brought it to Melbourne for a single performance this weekend. If you missed it don't worry, the cycle is available on CD and you can watch the Sydney production on YouTube.

For those of you who don't know what the difference between a collection of songs and a song cycle is, the difference is generally the presence of a theme or throughline. A collection of songs is not necessarily a song cycle, but a song cycle is collection of songs. Confused? Don't worry, it probably doesn't matter so much now that we buy our music song by song digitally, and most live music presentations do tend to revolve around some sort of ideological or instrumental or temporal theme anyway. For those of you old enough to understand these words with which I write - your CDs as a whole are a collection, the way you group or catalogue them would be a cycle... sort of.

Greenwell is a composer whose work has leant quite strongly towards the macabre and, by default, the Gothic subculture. In this context the term Gothic refers to literary work which emerged in Europe in the late 18th century. Writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, and Mary Shelley are probably the most well-known forebears. Gothic fiction tended to lean into death and horror whilst writers such as Daphne du Maurier took the genre into the area of romance as well. In fact, Greenwell bookends this cycle (almost) with music she has composed to accompany Poe's writing, beginning with a hauntingly Celtic sounding 'Annabel Lee', and bringing the cycle towards its close with 'The Bells'.

For me, the three most exciting and intriguing songs were Greenwell compositions although the entire cycle includes an ecclectic collection ranging from opera to hymn to pop and beyond. 'Death at the Beach Motel', a song about the death of Brett Whitely, is intriguing and experimental with unexpected musical shifts and turns.

'Chosen', the song about the Fritzl family of Germany, was the chilling climax of this parabolic program. You remember the Fritzl story - the German woman who was locked in her father's basement for 19 years and had his children.. .Composed by Greenwell, with lyrics by Maryanne Lynch, 'Chosen' slips inside the mind of the oldest child in the moments before being found and climaxes with the bright sunlight searing her as the walls of her life long prison crumble before her eyes. This story has yet to be written, but the real life news gave us as much horror as any work of fiction ever could and this song brings it all back with an powerful image montage by French reminding us of the inauspicious house containing such pain and fear and torment.

Have I mention French's exquisite videography yet? Beginning in abstraction she brings us into real time gently, revealing substrata geology, grey clouds and diving birds and so on until we enter suburbia for 'Chosen'. Slowly, throughout the rest of the program she lets our minds take flight again as she reveals the divine. I probably shouldn't say this but for me French's work is what made the performance worth going to. As good as the music and musicians were, there was nothing performative about Greenwell's presentation. Everyone just sat or stood as required. The chamber quartet (Keeble, Morrigan, Stilwell, and Yan) seemed to get into the music but the singers and Trumpmanis were as stiff as mannequins.

Another wonderful success was the layering of sound effects over much of the music. 'The Birds' was a great triumph with an overlay of some of the movie soundtrack, a powerful score and impressively complementary lyrics by Hilary Bell. Greenwells cover of 'A Forest' was equally successful.

On a more negative note, 'Thriller' was a tragedy which should never be allowed to happen again. I cringed all the way through and I am pretty sure Michael Jackson did too. 'Wuthering Heights' was somewhat better. I didn't mind the arrangement generally but I did notice, in these two songs in particular, but the entire concert as well that Greenwell keeps a very stable (and to be honest a somewhat tedious) tempo throughout her arrangements. Thus, Bush's maelstrom became a light summer breeze. It had the unfortunate effect of taking all of the emotion out of the work and emotion is essential to the Gothic subculture. There is little that is haunting in rhythmically lapping waves.

Luckily a pacy and exciting 'Totentanz' lifted our energy to lead us into the final straight and it was a stroke of genius on Greenwell's part to finish with the musical number 'Falling' rather than another song. Angelo Badalamenti's theme brought us back into the present gently, keeping the ambience but quietly shaking our shoulders to wake us from this troubling dream we had been spellbound in.

Gothic is an intriguing collection of songs. It was marred a bit in this performance by a rock and roll mix rather than a classical mix. It only mattered because Greenwell is not the most perfect of vocalists and O'Donoghue seemed to be singing sharp throughout the performance. I think for the nature of the show I would have liked the instruments to sit more fully in the mix rather than being background so that they could play and intertwine with the voices. They could all haunt each other. There were rare moments of exciting congruency for example, when O'Donoghue and the violins met on a note.

Greenwell has created an an intriguing song cycle in Gothic and it is a great way for her to showcase and contextualise her compositions in the history of her art form. I wonder if there is any Australian Gothic fiction she could put her talents to work with? It would be nice to have some antipodean creations in this Euro-centric mix.

2 Stars

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