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5 February 2024

Conditions of Growth

Conditions of Growth Image: Conditions of Growth  
© Edify Media

Conditions of Growth is a new interdisciplinary performance work that blends exquisite chamber music with immersive textural soundscapes, projected generative animations and bespoke lighting design. Developed and premiered in 2023, the work was presented at the Holmes à Court Gallery by Ad Lib Collective and a team of collaborators including Sohan Ariel Hayes, a media artist who specialises in large scale projection art, Nick Stark, electronics and software designer, pianist Alex Raineri, lighting designer Alex Spartalis from GSD and high school students from All Saints and Wesley Colleges.

Conditions of Growth Development. Image: Andrew Clarke
Conditions of Growth. Image: Andrew Clarke.

This article is an insight into the collaborative process behind this work and what it looks like to bring something of this nature together.

In my creative practice I have become increasingly interested in work that offers audiences space for contemplation - a moment of suspension from their lives, just long enough to glimpse at a fresh perspective when they return. I am fascinated by the natural environment, and much of my previous work has been about finding concrete ways to impart information or urgency around conservation and sustainability to audiences and communities. For this project, I wanted to take a step back from that and create a world where big questions were posed, but no clear answers were offered - where space was given to drift and dream and then return again to the real world.

Sohan Ariel Hayes and I had previously worked together on Porcelain, a public art work that told the story of the old porcelain factory in Subiaco, WA. Sohan's rich tapestry of projections filled a panel of the new apartment buildings on the site and our music was part pre-recorded and part performed live to bring the process of sifting, shaping, firing and decorating fine china to life.

Conditions of Growth was an opportunity for us to deepen our collaborative relationship and explore the world of sensor driven animation and lighting. We wanted to play with the connection between sound and light and what would happen when they became linked in performance. To do this we worked with electronic and software designer Nick Stark who built a system of sensor driven LED lights that sat within flowerpots and were triggered when the players struck the pots with yarn mallets.

Nick Stark Ad Lib chip Image: Nick Stark
Bespoke circuit boards for sensor drive LED lights designed by Nick Stark. Image: Nick Stark.

As a percussionist and composer my love of flowerpots as instruments comes from a surprisingly rich history of performance practice with these unusual objects. Frederick Rzewski's To The Earth was written in 1985 and since then, more contemporary composers including Elliot Cole and Caroline Shaw have brought the flowerpot into their works. For me, flowerpots are an instrument for all, a way of bringing communities together to create a joyful sound. I wrote Ochre as an instruction-based score with a series of activities and patterns that the players engage with to create a sound world that shifts from bell-like tolling, to scraping and taping on the terracotta surface of the pots.

Flowerpot with light. Image: Andrew Clarke
Flowerpot with light. Image: Andrew Clarke.

Making connections with the community and, particularly, young people has been a really exciting part of this creative project. During the two development periods, we worked with high school students and community members to refine the sonic architecture of the work. It was through experimentation that we made the decision to limit ourselves to twelve players. Each holding a flowerpot and a mallet, the performers were choreographed to move amongst the audience in different formations while playing shifting rhythmic patterns alternating with textural gestures. At times the performers formed a full circle behind the audience - who were seated in the round - and at others they were in the center facing outwards into the darkened space towards the audience. As the pots were struck their LEDs would light up, illuminating the players faces briefly before falling into darkness again. While at times the players' gestures would trigger the lights in the pots through the sensors, at other times, the LEDs would be programmed to conduct a section of the work and direct the players to move or strike the pots in certain ways. This shifting relationship between the light leading and following the sound was intentional, as a way of blurring the lines between these different worlds.

Conditions of Growth team photo. Image: Andrew Clarke
Conditions of Growth creative team with Year 9 and Year 12 Wesley College students who performed in the work. Image by Andrew Clarke from the development period at The Hive, Wesley College.

Ochre framed a performance of Maurice Ravel's Mirrors Suite arranged for piano and percussion by John Rotar. Pianist Alex Raineri joined me to perform two movements, Valley of the Bells and Boat on the Ocean. Sohan used the lush, sweeping gestures in the music to map rich layers of LiDAR projections of the south west landscape in WA, bringing the audience on a visual and sonic journey through the bush with us as the music and light rose and fell around them.

Coming out of the Ravel was an extended improvisation of mine on a set of crystal bowls that were lit from below, casting fractured rainbows of light into the darkness. This work morphed slowly back into the second half of Ochre where the twelve players holding small pitched bells struck them while walking amongst the audience. The rhythms were at first a cluster of delicate random chimes that very gradually converged on a single pulse and intensified in volume. This was inspired by Pauline Oliveros' Sonic Meditations and the work of Graeme Leak. As the sweet birdlike chiming sounds reached their climax blending imperceptibly into unison with a crescendo, the players suddenly struck and swung their bells to create a doppler effect while they moved throughout the audience before leaving the performance space. As the bell sounds drifted into silence, hundreds of iridescent glowing objects drifted down the giant LED screens like petals, leaves or seeds falling towards the ground to begin the cycle of growth again.

We performed the work twice in September 2023 and were grateful to receive some generous feedback from audience members:

"I felt like I was inside a wind chime at times last night, I felt the layering of simple devices into multifaceted layers beautifully mirrored the complexity of the world we live in, and the moments of stillness and quiet amongst gave pause for reflection of the interconnectedness of everything."

"I loved this show. Artful and inventive, surprising and visually stunningly with utterly beautiful music at its core. I found the experience meditative, with the sounds bleeding into physical sensations as the players moved through the audience. The show is well-paced, allowing time to drop deeply into each moment, before shifting to the next offering, just in time to re-engage the mind and spark delight."

"When you all walked away into the darkness and the sound went with you, I wanted to call out, I wanted you to play the whole thing again. The subtlety and the quiet, insistent energy of it seemed to reach inside me ….you may just have rearranged my cells."

This work has taken on a life of its own, entwining this new collaborative practice of sound and light that Sohan and I have developed. We're looking forward to the next stage.

At the beginning of our development process we began with the questions: As individuals, as a community and as a part of the natural world, what are the conditions we need to grow? Does the notion of infinite economic expansion serve us well? Does it work for our natural environment?

We considered how nature requires specific conditions of climate, nutrients, water, sunlight and time. Nature is not something to be rushed, but a process that takes time. We wanted to create a work that would give audiences a moment to pause and be reminded that we are part of nature and to consider what growth means for them while immersing their minds and bodies in a world of shifting textural sounds, colours and lights.

You can read an ArtsHub review of the piece here.

Conditions of Growth - Performance Highlights from Thea Rossen on Vimeo.

This work was supported by Janet Holmes à Court, Australian National Academy of Music, The Hive @ Wesley College, All Saints College, and the Minderoo Foundation as well as generous private donors who joined our Australian Cultural Fund campaign.

Conditions of Growth is created by percussionist/composer Thea Rossen and media artist Sohan Ariel Hayes.

Piano: Alex Raineri
Electronics design: Nick Stark
Lighting Design: Alex Spartalis GSD
Videography: Andrew Clarke

Percussionist and composer Thea Rossen has built an artistic practice that spans genres and connects audiences around big issues that matter. An ANAM graduate and renowned solo and chamber performer, Rossen’s workshops, concerts and creative collaborations combine rigorous musicianship with seamless artistic presentation and strong outreach and education outcomes. Director of Ad Lib Collective, Thea’s work has been presented by WASO, MSO, Sydney Opera House, Musica Viva Australia, Perth Festival and Tura New Music.


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