Friday, 9 November 2018

While You Sleep - Music Review

What: While You Sleep
When: 7 - 18 November 2018
Where: Main Hall, Arts House
Devised and AV by: Sal Cooper
Composed by: Kate Neal
Directed by: Daniel Schlusser
Performed by: Jacob Abela, Phoebe Green, Isabel Hede, Zachary Johnston, Katherine Philp
Isabel Hede, Zachary Johnston, and Katherine Philp - photo by Bryony Jackson
Kicking off the new contemporary art series at Arts House, 'Mere Mortals' is the musical performance While You Sleep. Created by long time creative duo Sal Cooper (video artist) and Kate Neale (composer), While You Sleep explores connections between the musical form of fugue and the psychological condition known as a 'fugue state'.

Perhaps not the first time these two etymological sisters have been conjoined in art, there is definitely a certain natural pairing. The root of the word fugue translates to 'to flee' or 'to chase'.

The musical form is a three structure composition. It begins with an exposition which states at least one musical subject, usually played out by a single instrument (in this piece it is a piano played by Abela), the melody is then repeated - or chased - by other instruments (the string quartet). The second section is called the development and in this section the instruments flee into episodes, returning to the subject but playing with form and tempo of the subject before heading off to other episodes. The third movement or coda can be a recapitulation which restates the original subject and in this case takes us on another development. Playing with our minds a little bit, Neal gives us a false recapitulation at the end of the development before giving us the real one.

The psychological state of fugue involves a dissociative episode in which a person may lose their sense of identity, memories of their lives, and they tend to run away or go on some sort of journey or trip. The fugue state is characterised as being short term - at most only lasting a few months - at which point memory returns and the person can return to their lives. The synergies with the musical form include the person living their life (the exposition), the loss of memory and excursion (the development), and the return to self (the recapitulation).

What makes While You Sleep exceptionally theatrical is the interlink with Cooper's video art articulation of the fugue form, and the release of the musicians from their music stands and each other through the development. The string quartet take off, careening around the stage on office chairs, creating shapes and patterns mirroring the work in the video art, combining, dispersing, and recombining in groupings of loss and recovering just as the music is also dispersing in episodes and recombining in restatements of the subject.

One of my favourite moments is when Abela, freed from the keyboard, looks up at a line drawing which has materialised on one of the three screens. The drawing is of Philp (the cellist). As the drawing was created the quartet had been revisiting the subject melody. Abela reaches up and starts pulling and the drawing starts unravelling. Simultaneously the quartet play the music backwards. It is a moment of incredible synergy with all that is happening in While You Sleep.

At a certain point Cooper shows us 'The Valley of Lost Things' as stop animation. The Valley of Lost Things is a place we are told about in the epic poem Orlando Furioso written by Ariosto in 1714. Frank L. Baum also leads his characters there in Merryland (a mythical land adjacent to Oz published in 1901). The Valley Of Lost Things is the place lost items live unless or until they are found.

Cooper references the Baum story throughout with the recurring image of the toy hurdy gurdy and the link to the psychological is Orlando's rediscovering his wits when he is on the moon. On a more personal note one of my favourites in Cooper's Valley is the hills hoist of lost socks...

You might be wondering at this point what any of this has to do with the 'Mere Mortals' theme of death? To make this connection (and Cooper makes it with the pick up truck also in her Valley of Lost Things) you need to read the New Yorker article 'When Things Go Missing' by Katherine Schultz. In this essay Schultz examines the use of the word loss in the context of her father's death. I will leave you to read that yourself and draw your conclusions.

In my opinion Cooper, Neal, and the director, Schlusser have done a magical job of drawing all of these conceptual strands together to create a wonderful performance. While You Sleep is engaging, beautiful and intriguing both sensorially and intellectually. They revel in the playground of Surrealism as the subjects arc in counterpoints.

The musicians are virtuosic in their playing. I was absolutely mind blown at how well they connected musically whilst being asked to motor around the space, work without their scores, and stay in tempo entering and retreating without 'skipping a beat'. They were brilliant. The lighting design is perfect as well, but it is not credited in the program so I can't tell you who did it unfortunately.

Cooper and Neal have been working on this idea for a long time now. Neal first presented at least the seeds of the music in the 2017 Sydney Symphony Orchestra presentation of The Valley Of Lost Things. The outcome, While You Sleep has been well worth the wait and its Surrealistic presentation is a perfect compliment to the ideas it, and the 'Mere Mortals' series, are exploring.

5 Stars

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