Gary France and DRUMatiX

Column: Exhibitionist   |   Date Published: Wednesday, 28 April 10   |   Author: Naomi Milthorpe   |   7 years, 1 month ago

     Hear A Different Drummer

The ANU School of Music’s Gary France is talking through what possible ways Swedish percussionist Anders Åstrand could make an ice instrument. Within the space of thirty seconds, France – a percussion impresario and passionate performer – rattles off half-a-dozen options, from creating a sonorous ice guitar to carving out an ice bowl and covering it with a skin to make a drum. The mind, as they say, is boggling.

“He’s from Sweden!” laughs France. “If you live in the land of the midnight sun, that’s just what happens,”

“We’re not doing any of that here. This is not the land of ice.”

The possibilities for performance, as I soon discover, are in no way ruled out by the seeming improbability of the material. Besides ice, Åstrand has composed percussion works for fighter aircraft and tractors, as well as music for fire sculptures. 

Anders Åstrand (sadly without his ice sculptures) is coming to Canberra as part of the ANU School of Music’s Premier Concert series, “a special selection of concerts that have been chosen to showcase [the School of Music’s] staff, elite student performers, and featured guest artists,” France explains.

The series premiered in March, with a jazz double bill featuring performances from the inimitable Mike Price Trio and jazz quartet Vertical, and will continue throughout the year, providing opportunities for the ANU School of Music students to perform with world-class musicians. It also provides audiences with an affordable opportunity to access great music. At twenty bucks a pop for student tickets, it’s “a super accessible concert,” says France.

The next concert on May 5 will see France – Head of Percussion at the School of Music – leading the DRUMatiX percussion group as they perform a program of jazz, fusion and world music infused compositions for percussion with Åstrand and fellow percussion maestro Dave Samuels.

Samuels – one of the world’s leading vibraphone players and a mentor of France’s – has performed at jazz festivals around the world. Jazz enthusiasts will know him from his work with jazz supergroup Spyro Gyra, as well as his current, Grammy-winning jazz-Latin music ensemble, The Caribbean Jazz Project.

“I’m fans of both of these guys. I studied with Dave in 1977 […] so it’s a particular treat to have him here with us,”

France is particularly excited about the fantastic opportunity the performance will give ANU percussion students in DRUMatiX, who will act as “a percussion orchestra,” that will support the performances of Åstrand and Samuels. “The students are actually performing with these guys. They’re performing compositions that both of these guys have composed,”

On the issue of performance versus theory in artistic education, France is passionate and articulate.

“It’s extremely important. It’s quintessential. You can quote me on that. It’s quintessential for young musicians to interact musically with artists and educators who are examples of world’s best practice,”

France, a native of Syracuse, New York, originally came to Australia to teach at WAAPA in Perth, and has much to say about the role of performance in creative arts education.

“Students can improve dramatically when allowed the opportunity to interact in this way,”

“This is nothing new to Australia, as conservatoriums were established in Australia along this model. The ANU School of Music, formerly the Canberra School of Music, is an example of this research and performance practice-led teaching,”

“There’s no question that out of these elite training institutions come outstanding performers.”

The ANU is certainly producing outstanding performers – and performances. In the same month, France will perform in a concert at Llewellyn Hall celebrating the Bicentennial Year of the Argentine Republic, paying homage to Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera with a performance of Ginastera’s Cantata Para America Magica.

The Cantata is “a gigantic, monumental work for percussion, two grand pianos, a gigantic work, and I think only ever performed in Australia once,”

“[It’s an] absolutely amazing work,” says France. “The fact that we’re doing these two concerts in one month is unbelievable,”

Bringing world-class performances, with opportunities for students, performers, and audiences to catch a glimpse of excellence, is of paramount importance, says France – and, he suggests, it makes for a better experience of life all round, which is why he continues, enthusiastically and passionately, with the often “daunting” task of mammoth performances as well as teaching.

“We have to continue to do good deeds for our young people and our art […]. All those people who spend all their time complaining about the state of the world, if they actually spent some time doing something about it, we’d have a better world!”

Gary France and DRUMatiX will perform with Anders Åstrand and Dave Samuels at Llewellyn Hall as part of the ANU Premier Concert on Wed May 5 at 7.30pm. For info on the Premier Series head to Bookings through Ticketek.

Exhibitionist In Review King Lear:

Bell Shakespeare, directed by Marion Potts
The Playhouse, CTC, April 16 – May 1

Bell Shakespeare’s King Lear opens with the sound of a music box on a stage set with a revolving dais and opaque plastic curtains. It recalls a snow globe, and within that innocent, protected world, King Lear (John Bell) gathers with his daughters and his court to divide his kingdom.

The set is understated and functional. Lear asks his three daughters to declare their love for him as he allocates his fortune. Cordelia (Susan Prior), his youngest, refuses and he exiles her from his circle, quite literally, casting her off the platform onto the stage below.

The revolve is well used later as Lear, mistreated and defeated by his other daughters, finds himself and his Fool (Peter Caroll) whirling around in the storm that echoes Lear’s own turmoil and descent into madness. Percussionist Bree van Reyk is in her element here, performing the sounds of chaos live on stage. Outside the storm scene, van Reyk’s music is compelling but distracting. What she does is beautiful, and she’s hypnotic to watch – but I’d prefer her off stage, to keep focus on the actors.

Bell owns the stage as Lear, and has great energy with fellow stage veteran Caroll. Tim Walter’s emo villain bastard Edmund was fun and accessible, and I loved Peter Kowitz as the loyal Earl of Kent, who is exiled and rejoins Lear in disguise. George Banders was good as the nasty servant Oswald. He did glance at notes a few times, as he had stepped into the role at the last minute due to injury, but I thoroughly enjoyed his performance. Ditto for Yalin Ozucelik, who moved into the demanding role of Edgar, Edmund’s legitimately born but easily duped brother.

Bell Shakespeare commands high expectations. Though this performance fell short in places, it’s well worth a look and will only get better. Marion Potts’s direction is nuanced and the show is evocative. And of course, Bell alone is worth the price of the ticket. Rumour is he’s retiring from the stage after this role, so see him while you still can!

Musk: Musk See

Hardware, maths and arm wrestling. That’s what real men are made of.

Benjamin Forster, Robbie Karmel and TJ Phillipson are a group of local artists questioning and exploring what it is to be men in their exhibition Musk at M16 Artspace.

All three are well known about town for their tongue-in-cheek cultural appropriations and witty subversions of the art world. For Musk, the lads have collaborated on many of the works on show and are refusing to credit individual artworks with their maker. This over-arching anonymity means that the artists are released from the confines of self-representation, able instead to present bigger picture ideas and a common view. Despite this, the contributions of each artist are easily recognisable to fans of Forster, Karmel and Phillipson, who have been storming the local art scene for the past eighteen months.

No stereotype is spared and pop-culture references are peppered throughout.

Fans of TV’s first family The Simpsons will instantly recognise Spice Rack – After Homer, a perfect replica of Homer Simpson’s attempt to prove that he is manly enough to build things for Marge.

This persistent cliché of the Man As Builder is expressed in the plentiful references to hardware that appear in the show. The unmistakable influence of Ben Forster is evident as he nerds out in typical form with a selection of artworks that utilise custom computer programming. The Men I Look Up To series is portraits of Forster’s heroes, their likenesses mapped out by binary code in a patterned nuts and bolts motif.

Robbie Karmel (face obscured) appears in a row of gargantuan photographs on the adjoining wall. Resplendent in glittering tights and a peacock feather headdress he makes an eye-popping homage to ostentatious male beauty in the natural world. Nearby, a collection of rubber pool toys are intermittently inflated to attention by screaming leaf-blowers - those iconic suburban male playthings - before again withering out of shape in a suggestive though pathetic display.

The flexing and posturing continues with Arm Wrestle, a platform built for the very purpose including a camera to record and play back bouts for subsequent spectator’s viewing pleasure. This hotbed of competition becomes the central focus of the exhibition and represents a competitive streak that some would say is inherent to maleness.

An unmistakable self-deprecating humour occurs throughout the show. This larrikin approach particularly anchors the works in the realm of Australian male identity and creates a non-threatening environment into which more serious agendas are able to emerge.

Although Musk doesn’t attempt to make any hard hitting constructive commentary on the state of modern masculinity, it is a collection of highly entertaining works that antagonise further consideration of male identity.  It does only scratch the surface however, and maybe, in this case, bigger would be better.

Musk continues at M16 Artspace until May 2.

We Unfold: Unfold Stories

In late 2008, Raphael Bonachela was in his native Europe and working with composer Ezio Bosso, when he was offered the appointment of Artistic Director for the Sydney Dance Company. Bonachela didn't realise it then, but his work with Bosso at the time, and the ensuing rushed move to Australia to begin his new post, would become the major influence for Sydney Dance Company's new production We Unfold.

We Unfold is Bonachela's first as Artistic Director, and explores themes of fear, the unknown, discovery, and the emotions felt as we search for meaning in new experiences. For Bonachela, the production – and in particular his choice of Bosso's Symphony No. 1 – is a natural consequence of his experiences of recent years. "There are so many connections between my life, the production, and the music," Bonachela says. "It is my first piece as Artistic Director [of Sydney Dance Company], and it's Bosso's first symphony; I was moving across the world, across the oceans, and the title of the symphony is Oceans One."

As the title, We Unfold, suggests, the production looks to illustrate not how a particular person, but how everyone, in one way or another, opens themselves up and reveals themselves to each other. Whether this 'unfolding' is an act akin to a flower blossoming or conversely like an outburst of rage catalysed by a certain event, it is an experience which is deeply personal, but at the same time inevitably revealing to those around us. During rehearsal, Bonachela challenged the dancers' reluctance to open up to each other and to connect as much as possible with what they were attempting to convey. "When you're dealing with a choreographer like me, who's out there to open up a dialogue, there will always be hard and emotionally challenging moments for the dancers," he says. "My work is not a narrative, it is not pantomime, and it is not some Disney-like production. It is about everyday life and ordinary people. It is about feelings everyone can open up to. The dancers improvised to a lot of different ideas and a lot of different music to reach those genuine feelings. The production is not esoteric at all. It may sound like it isn't. That's not the sought of production I do."

Such improvisation may also been seen as the production evolves over numerous performances. Canberra will only be its second audience (after its Sydney debut), and its first chance to 'breath' and take on a greater life of its own. "After Canberra, we go to Venice, then to Shanghai, then keep going," says Bonachela. "We've already started changing things, but we just do what we feel is right and hope for success. For me, Canberra is exciting, as it's the beginning of the development."

We Unfold runs from May 5-8 at the Playhouse, CTC. Tickets $50/$43/$35.



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