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17 June 2022

Australian Award Winners - Music Theatre NOW, Rotterdam, May 2022

Jenny Barnes in Dybbuks Image: Jenny Barnes in Dybbuks  
© Pia Johnson

Following on from the success of The Howling Girls by Damien Ricketson at Music Theatre NOW's last event in 2018 two Australian works, Dybbuks and Pendulum, have been selected as prize-winners in this new round of an international competition that involved their presentation during Rotterdam's annual festival, now renamed O. Festival for Opera. Music. Theatre. This biennial four-day event takes place within the longer framework of the festival, drawing a vast and diverse public in its wake and providing a platform of recognition for the artists and producers involved. An internationally renowned jury is invited to select up to ten works that reflect a theme arising from all the many submissions, in this case a lean towards communal experience and a type of macro expression. At the same time the most important criteria remains that of expansion both in terms of music theatre's definition and its representation by world-wide parameters.

This year the jury comprised five members: Du Yun (Composer/Performer, Shanghai Conservatory of Music), Marlene Le Roux (Artscape Theatre, Capetown), Pamela Lopez (Director of Programming and Audiences, Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center, Santiago), Paola Prestini (Composer/Artistic Director, New York), and Rainer Simon (Komische Oper, Berlin). Music Theatre NOW was established in 2008 as part of the International Theatre Institute to support new developments in this inter-disciplinary art form, maintain an archive of productions and conduct an exchange program for emerging artists.

Within this framework, Australian artists Samara Hersch and Matthias Schack-Arnott were awarded respectively MTN 2021 Winner and MTN 2021 Special Nomination consisting of a residency program by the City of Munich.

Dybbuks (Yiddish, meaning 'to cling'1) was conceived and directed by Samara with composition and sound design by Max Lyandvert and produced by the Melbourne-based company Chamber Made, in 2018. It re-examines Yiddish mythology from a feminist perspective, involving a community choir, live musicians, a singer and a dancer, all of whom evoke an atmosphere of catharsis in a process of exorcism that awakens the dead. It gives voice to women in their evocation of song, emphasizing Ashkenazi Jewish culture and ritual and not shying away from female nudism in its facilitation between music theatre and community.

Image: Jenny Barnes in Dybbuks (2018) © Pia Johnson

The work was selected by the jury for its innovative treatment of a traditional fable that remained at the same time thoroughly provocative in its performance. During a discussion session entitled 'Otherness' together with jury member Marlene Le Roux these two factors became a focus for highlighting the importance of addressing both past and present contained within the heritage of different socio-cultural practices. Indeed Samara's interest lies very much in seeking new forms of traditional ritual that break taboos.

Artistic Director and CEO of Chamber Made Tamara Saulwick also took an active role in the production as sound dramaturge. As an accomplished performance-maker, director and dramaturge, Tamara Saulwick took on the role during the early development of Dybbuks in conjunction with Paul Jackson as lighting designer and dramaturge. Working closely with composer Max Lyandvert, she introduced live musicians into the performance, opening out the work's structure to include music and sound as driving forces within the narrative. Coming from a background of cross-disciplinary work she was able to facilitate an overlapping of boundaries between each art form, where shifts of perspective and terminologies are needed. As a result, both the physical presence of a community choir and musician-performers interacting with the narrative onstage contribute to a strong musical argument throughout the piece. A key element whilst developing the work was to examine its structure as a tryptic of text, body, music, finding entry points within each section. The question remained of how to stage exorcism, of being with the dead. It looked towards the use of a disembodied text using biblical and contemporary sources that combined, for example, with the Jewish tradition of the Mikva, or ritual bath that sheds impunity and 'death' from the female body. The choir intoned a Khaddish, or song for the dead, invoking grief, memory, holocaust.

Dybbuks Trailer from Chamber Made.

Such an historic theme attracted in its turn a diverse Australian audience during its Chamber Made production. The local Jewish community, contemporary performing artists and the music/dance community all brought their receptive energy into the space. Indeed the work succeeded in creating a good relationship with the local Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora. Staged in the round, it involved audience members through a mutual proximity both to each other and to events unfolding in front of them. Many had a strong relation to the myth of the subject matter, many needed to talk afterwards within the performance space itself. A certain presence of energy could be felt during the process of transformation that occurred throughout and remained as a consequence of this. Dybbuks ended with the community choir in a personal song, sung from a place of integrity, held and expressed in the body. The Yiddish tradition of both language and song were present as a continuation, a way of keeping a memory of the dead alive.

During my interview with Tamara she talked about the powerful presence of soloist Jenny Barnes' voice that seemed to lead the choir at a certain moment:

"There's Jenny Barnes, who has an incredible extended vocal technique, and she does this kind of channelling, really like there's another being coming through her, and it's this guttural summoning. She put a lot of energy into that space and she becomes almost the conductor of that choir; she makes sound and they repeat her sound, so as well as the beautiful image of the Mikya which is turned into a grave where the stones are laid on top, there are these visual cultural references. But also what she and the musicians energetically put into the space is really full."

Samara went on to explain how such moments of intense improvisatory incantation were structured dramaturgically:

"Around that there were 'markers' because they really went somewhere. Even as you say it I'm remembering as it was really a kind of conjuring that she [Jenny] was allowing in giving them permission to go because she's there, she can take herself there, and it is quite extraordinary. But then I think everybody in the audience is empathetically going there as well because it's quite disturbing. It's unusual to see women make sound like this, but really also to see a group of women really expressing their pain or expressing a kind of grave for a disturbance, and it's incredibly empowering. But I think then the choir brought us back to where we started through this particular song 'Donna, donna' that a lot of people are familiar with because I think it was made popular in the sixties. But it's very much a song that's familiar and therefore collects us again."

Composer and percussionist Matthias Schack-Arnott was selected by Music Theatre NOW for a special nomination in his co-creation of Pendulum together with choreographer Lucy Guerin. It involves a field of suspended bells activated by seven performers within an elaborate tapestry of electro-acoustic sound and light:

PENDULUM by Lucy Guerin Inc and Matthias Schack-Arnott (Trailer) from Lucy Guerin Inc.

As a result of this prize, Matthias is currently in residence for three months at Villa Waldberta in the Alps surrounding Munich, an artist program offered by the City of Munich in collaboration with Meta Theater. In June, he will give a performance there and present his approach to electro-acoustic music. It will combine the unique acoustic properties of metal, wood, ceramic and skin, together with a secondary activated layer of electronic material. Within this change of context offered by an alpine setting his artistic work has taken on an expansive dimension, allowing him to explore new solo work as well as develop a touring version of Pendulum together with Lucy Guerin, who visited for a short time. This will involve two dancers and pendulums in a reduced performance format. Matthias is currently working on a solo percussion piece that will remain essentially portable for travelling to venues, as well as revisiting two works that involve spinning objects: Everywhen and Horology.

The context for Pendulum's creation developed from an idea that Matthias proposed to Lucy Guerin as he began constructing a swinging electro-acoustic 'bell' instrument. Out of a process of two weeks' work with choreographer and dancers came the opportunity to respond to an artist program selection call by Rising Festival, Melbourne. This took the form of a commissioned project first performed at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2021.

The term 'Music Theatre' has a different meaning in Europe to that of Australia, where, not unlike the U.S. or Britain, its connotation leans towards musicals and the Broadway tradition. Matthias offers an expanded notion in his perspective, one that embraces a dramaturgy of sound within his work. His compositions are highly structured around an improvisational process that stems from an intuitive basis. There are durational markers within each piece, often synchronized with lighting cues, kinetic behaviour or musical ideas. By means of text and video he documents specific physical modes of engagement throughout, thus creating a hybrid archive of the work. Traditionally, for a submission to MT NOW's competition only a video and a description of the work are required. For Matthias score writing is an element that would demand too much fixation for working with dancers, for example, where immediacy and flexibility are essentially during a creative process.

Matthias described in detail the sonic functioning of Pendulum:

"It's a 43.1 channel piece, so it's quite intricate because each of the pendulums consists of a temple bowl within which there is a speaker as well. There's also a robotic tapper in each of the bowls that can strike the bell as it's moving, and then there's also a light and a sensor at the top of the line that sends data back to my computer music software that can be used to shape different musical parameters of the sound that's coming out. So you can imagine if the pendulum is swinging the data forms a kind of a wave. It reaches a peak at the base of the swing and then goes back down or vice versa. And so then you can use that to control the amplitude of the sound at any given point or the pitch or a shift in a filter or something like that. So the sound that's coming out of the speaker is being very much shaped by the pendulum's movement."

During a short presentation of work at the Theater Rotterdam, Matthias presented an impressive series of three works that demonstrated the different contexts for which they were conceived. Firstly, Everywhen, the solo piece involving cyclic motion in sound as percussive chimes move in a circle and the player remains in the middle. This was followed by Groundswell, a piece of public art constructed in a Melbourne square. It invites participants to move - individually or collaboratively - across a platform that tilts under their collective weight. This sets in motion thousands of metal balls that create oceanic waves of sound. The motion is disrupted by periodic swells of powerful low vibration.

Finally, Pendulum, the performance installation that demonstrates an inter-connectedness of sound and movement whereby a mass of sonic patterns combines with the visceral movement generated by dancers.

Image: Pendulum (2021) © Sarah Walker

The fact that two prestigious awards were given this year to Australian artists working within extended notions of new music theatre reflects the tremendous variety of creative work growing out of inter-disciplinary collaboration in the country. Perhaps it indicates a sense of freedom within which to experiment, one unhampered by the burden of tradition issuing from European sources where the genre developed. That said a number of other countries such as South Africa and Ukraine, included as prize-winners this year, also arrived successfully at re-defining its components. As such it seems possible to retain an emphasis on music and sound as playing a dominant role, pursuing its own dramaturgical argument within a staged, online or interactive performance. Terms such as Archaeological Opera, Dance Opera or Opera and Fashion indicate the enormous range of works chosen, all attempting to a greater or lesser extent to integrate music and sound into a highly complex medium where image can often take centre-stage in a battle of hierarchies. What is needed is a lateral basis on which to work, so that each component is involved from the very beginning of a process. It demands an attitude of openness, an ability to trust, a willingness to share creative ideas, and relative knowledge of other disciplines on the part of the artists concerned, so that a work is allowed to take unexpected and surprising directions.

The next MT NOW competition will be held in 2023 and is open to world premieres performed since July 2021. Submissions will be appraised by a new jury and emphasis is, as always, on new developments in the art form

Read more about Music Theatre NOW.

Independent composer/performer/researcher Dr. Caroline Wilkins completed a practice-based PhD in Sound Theatre at Brunel University, London in 2012. She comes from a background of new music performance, composition and theatre, and has worked extensively on solo and collaborative productions involving these. Her particular interest lies in exploring new forms within the field of inter-medial sound theatre. 


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