8 November 2022
Mutual entanglements in collaboration: a journey in Cosmic Time
© Jared Underwood
How long does it take for light to cross a proton? Or for unstable particles to decay?1 Cosmic time is a concept that inspires deep thinking about the universe and our place within its vastness. Time intervals can be infinitesimally small or unimaginably large, observed across billions of years through eras and epochs. As part of The Boom International Festival of Percussion, Cosmic Time (6 October 2022, Seymour Centre) is a work that skilfully wrangles with the immensity of this concept. Percussionist/director Louise Devenish, composer Amanda Cole, and visual artist Michaela Gleave have created an immersive encounter connecting us to our ancient cosmological past, featuring performers Kaylie Melville, Leah Scholes, Niki Johnson and Louise Devenish. At 40-minutes in duration, the work is condensed into anthropogenetic frames of reference, forcing the audience to surrender to the astonishing magnitudes of its sonic variabilities.
The unique staging of the work had audience experience front of mind. Four percussion setups were positioned on the outer edge of the stage in a square formation, with the audience in the middle on beanbags, as if comfortably cocooning them with their luminescent soundscapes. By breaking down the hierarchy of audience/performance, the act of listening also formed part of the spectacle, with the audience being active, present participants in the work. The advantage of this setup was that it engendered a communal atmosphere; a sense that the audience are temporarily locked away from the world, together enjoying the privilege of this rare experience.
The collaboration itself was similarly decentralised. Cosmic Time was co-created between Gleave, Cole, and Devenish. Interestingly, their roles were not separate, but was a non-hierarchical cross-over of disciplines. Barad's concept of 'intra-action' helps to understand this further, where the distinct agencies of the three artists seem to emerge out of and through their relationality, as a form of mutual entanglement.2
This entanglement patterned throughout the work. For instance, the lighting was a hazy glow with subtle changing colours: blues, reds, yellows etc. that crossfaded between movements. There was also an entanglement of the listening experience. Closing one's eyes meant that the listener could engage in acousmatic listening. By not knowing the cause of each sound, this allowed one to imagine the material, the action, and the spatial location. The performers also created the illusion of movement through the density of instrumentation and fluctuations of sound intensities.
The performers wore distinctive costumes, which given the theme of the piece, evoked exploding stars, dark matter, a chemical molecule, or cosmic dust. The visual artist Gleave said the performers were spirits of the multiverse, functioning almost as shaman's cloaks that were based on four concepts of time: biological (black builders' plastic), cyclical (white tyvek paper), big bang/singularity (silver foil), and quantum (cream chiffon). Devenish by far had the most eye-catching, crystal-like costume (silver foil), that, together with the struck percussion became co-expressive for the first half of the set. An effect that unexpectedly abstracts causal relations and our neurogestural perception.3
The performers had an impressive array of metallic objects: bells, triangles, chimes, gongs, crotales, aluminium tubes, and bowls to name a few. Each section flowed into one another, leading the audience on a path to relish in its instrumental complexity and flexible ontology. The piece was non-geometrical and had a relational approach to temporality as if making a statement about the nature of empty space-time e.g., the differences between the structure of an observer's perception and the actual structure of physical space.4
Further reflections reveal Cosmic Time's richness and complexity, especially when considering the diverse subject matter that includes cosmology, bio-/chemical physics, mysticism, and consciousness, within the framework of instrumental theatre. For example, the work started with a single strike of the chau gong, which acted as a reference point for when the universe emerged from a singularity. The 10-billion degree 'cosmic soup' that occurred seconds after, was symbolised in the music as a deep oscillating hum, gently and empathetically floating across time. It is as if Cole had placed a microphone in space and captured the primordial sound of the cosmic rumble.
Succeeding the hum was a sound bath of slow irregular bell tones of orbiting resonances and complementing spectra. Around halfway, the bells became colotomic; a cyclic structure found in gamelan music with higher bells struck faster and lower bells struck slower, perhaps like planets at different orbital speeds, or a representation of time dilation: a phenomena in which the passage of time is slower for fast-moving objects relative to stationary objects5 (see Figure 1.). The interpunctuating tinging of metal resonances spiralled around the audience as if we were a celestial body with elliptically cycling moons.
At one point the bells stopped, replaced with fast airy brushing sounds at different rates and densities - an intensely focused kaleidoscope of textures, framed within a chemical cosmology context. This transitioned to a collection of 'off the lattice' pulses6 across distinctive material in independent time. Starting with the hammering of low drums and slowly transitioning to higher pitched woodblock. This was a section about biological time which used a tempo matrix based on animal heart rates assigned to different instrumentality. For instance, a fast tremolo on woodblock was the heart rate of etruscan shrew, a desert mouse at 1500 bpm. But there were many synchronous connections one could make at this tempo and at others.
Bowed percussion concluded the piece, purifying the space, and soothing the audience into homeostasis. The theme of the last section was the esoteric, which was fitting as bells and gongs have a long association with the esoteric, as does cosmologies of the universe. Science itself is 'reality' after all, but that doesn't mean that it can't be intoxicatingly hallucinogenic. Cosmic Time manages to meet the science halfway, fusing the esoterics of scientific realities with the esoterics of art. It merges theoretical physics, avant-garde percussion7, and a forward-thinking spiritual cosmology - mystical, radiant, and brilliantly alchemistic.
1 Rugh, & Zinkernagel, H. (2009). On the physical basis of cosmic time. Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, 40(1), p. 20 & p.25. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsb.2008.06.001
2 Barad. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway : quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Duke University Press. Cited in: Rhodes, Heidi Ann, "Affect and Critique: Negative Dialectics and Massumi's Politics of Affect" (2019). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 1685.
3 McNeill, David. (2005). Gesture and Thought, University of Chicago Press, ProQuest Ebook Central. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uwsau/detail.action?docID=408298
4 Fernandez, J. M., & Farell, B. (2009). Is perceptual space inherently non-Euclidean?. Journal of mathematical psychology, 53(2), 86-91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jmp.2008.12.006
5 Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, August 13). Time dilation. Wikipedia. Retrieved October 22, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_dilation
6 Or maybe because there were so many lattices that it was perceived as being 'off the lattice'.
7 Devenish uses the term 'post-instrumental' to explain her work. see: Devenish, L. (2021). Instrumental infrastructure, instrumental sculpture and instrumental scores: A post-instrumental practice. Music and Practice, 9. https://doi.org/10.32063/0906
© Australian Music Centre (2022) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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Dr Daniel Portelli is an artist-academic who works as a sessional lecturer in music composition at Western Sydney University (WSU) and the University of New England (UNE). He is a Badugulang Fellow, and an Associate Fellow with the Advanced Higher Education Academy. Recent publications include Leonardo Music Journal, ADSR Zine, and the Journal of Embodied Research. He is an alumnus of the Centre for Research in New Music at the University of Huddersfield (UK), where he was awarded a PhD in composition. He is also a peer assessor for the Australia Council for the Arts, working as an Industry Advisor for experimental, contemporary classical music, and the cross-disciplinary arts.
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