1 August 2022
Art, Nature, and the Language of Alluvial Gold
© Edify Media
As the human relationship with the environment evolves into the 21st century, so to do the artistic languages we evoke to understand it. These emergent languages are often tinged with urgency-a necessary aesthetic response to the existential threat of climate change. At other times, these languages are solemn-the merger of art and worship, due reverence paid to the ubiquity the natural world and its many unknowns. Inevitably, these languages are complex, renouncing any easy answer to the question of our role in nature's blueprint. My most favourite works of art and nature are irreducible and elegantly holistic, a foil to the discrete and transparent languages of science.
Alluvial Gold is one such work. A performance-installation by percussionist Louise Devenish, composer Stuart James, and visual artist Erin Coates, it is a fine example of Australian eco-artistry. Originally premiered at the 2021 Perth Festival, this work recently returned to Perth's Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) and was presented by Tura New Music. A rhapsodic tribute to the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River), it is at once a work of music and of sculpture, film, even drama. Devenish, the sole human body onstage, skilfully handles bespoke percussion 'instruments' crafted by Coates. Oyster shells collide with the resonant skin of the bass drum, and dolphin bones extend the shining ribcage of the vibraphone: humanity is absorbed by the river ecology. James' sound design ebbs and flows with the natural rhythm of the water, and Coates' film offers us a glimpse of life under the waves.
It would be a disservice to this work, however, to try and understand its message by way of disciplinary categories. To isolate Devenish's performance practice from Coates' visual arts practice, and, further, from James' compositional practice would be to dilute the power of the work. Alluvial Gold is best understood holistically-a remarkable aesthetic achievement that can only have come about by compassionate collaboration. The three lead creatives evidently share an intimate understanding of each other's craft. Their friendship somehow manifests in the presentation of this work; the score is characterised by a sonic empathy, and the performance by an embodied care ethic. I came away from the show with a new understanding of good custodianship for the natural world. Our personal ecology, and the compassion we afford to our loved ones, must necessarily extend to the environment.
There is urgency in Alluvial Gold. In the third movement, 'The Cascades', Devenish negotiates the vibraphone and a series of ceramic bowls with virtuosic speed. The music is driving and turbulent, tense with drama yet free-flowing like white-water over a waterfall. The fury of this passage serves as a sonic reminder of the living legacy of colonialism, with reference to the Swan River Settlement, whereby native shellfish reefs were excavated and used for the city's infrastructure. Fragments of fossils and shells can be found in limestone around Perth as a result of this excavation: where humanity leaks into the river, the river spills over in return. The forward momentum of 'The Cascades' activates forward momentum in the audience: an urge for future-oriented, sustainable practices.
The form of Alluvial Gold waxes and wanes, and where there is urgency there is also solemnity. Ritualistic encounters with the bass-drum, which occur at the beginning and end of the work, lend a cyclic quality to Alluvial Gold. In these moments, Devenish casts a spell over the audience, leant over the great surface of the drum, coaxing whispers and murmurs from her assortment of river bric-a-brac. All the while, the sunken texture of Coates' underwater videography suspends us in time, and lends a viscosity to Devenish's movement as she navigates the performance space. Towards the end of the work, Devenish pauses in front of a curtain of oyster shells, activating hidden sensors, and triggering a wave of river noise which washes through the audience. The effect is gently sublime, almost inexplicable-the illusion of excellent sound design.
Of course, there is abundant complexity in Alluvial
Gold, whereby humanity and the environment collide and
merge. This work leans into ambiguity: field recordings taken at
the Derbal Yerrigan are fluidly integrated with James' original
composition, and the divide between electronic and acoustic sound
is often unclear. Similarly, Coates' sculpture derives from found
river objects, which are re-animated in performance as percussion
instruments. This is not just art about nature, rather
art that is nature-one and the same.
Alluvial Gold continues an ancient artistic investigation into the cultural significance of the natural world, and the natural significance of culture. The new, interdisciplinary languages developed by Devenish, James, and Coates make this work viscerally contemporary. As the global community navigates the immense challenges of climate change (and the prospect of these challenges worsening exponentially in years to come), the significance of complex and evocative works of eco-artistry becomes increasingly clear. Alluvial Gold shows us shining nuggets of optimism in the murky depths.
© Australian Music Centre (2022) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Kate Milligan is a Perth-born composer, conductor, and researcher. She has written for The ANAM Set, the Summers Night Project, Decibel New Music Ensemble, and the Perth Orchestra Project, amongst others. As a conductor, Kate is a regular guest with the Perth Symphony Orchestra (PSO), having been appointed as the inaugural Conducting Fellow for 2020-21.
Kate is currently completing an MA at the Royal College of Art, London, with the generous support of the Schenberg Music Fellowship and the Ian Potter Cultural Trust. She holds a MMus (musicology) and a BAHons (composition) from the University of Western Australia.
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