At what point does an artwork cease to be the province exclusively of its creator? That was the key question in the air last weekend at Carriageworks, a former rail yard converted into a veritable arts-venue multiplex. From that simple premise, the Sydney Festival enlisted both local and visiting artists in a series of 70-minute multilingual, multidisciplinary debates.
In theatre, the boundaries were fairly obvious. Othello, c’est qui (“Othello, who’s that”), a co-production from Germany and Ivory Coast, featured actor Frank Edmond Yao deconstructing the famous Moor fully in keeping with the play’s emotional arc while using barely any of Shakespeare’s words. In music, however, the answers were less clear-cut.
Symphony from the Sydney-based physical theatre troupe Legs on the Wall began as a call for solo musicians to reconceive Beethoven’s symphonies for their respective instruments. Guitarist Stefan Gregory, the first artist on the company’s list, chose the Seventh, which more or less defined the resulting piece.
Under Gregory’s fingers – and reverb levels – the electric guitar approached full symphonic grandiosity, though more by mimicking orchestral sounds than by reconceiving them. Despite Brian Eno and Queen guitarist Brian May lurking in the shadows, Beethoven remained in the spotlight. Crisp playing made it a bit easier to hear the Seventh as “the apotheosis of the dance”, as Wagner famously dubbed the piece, but in general Gregory’s performance hewed close to Beethoven’s conception, which conveys comparably little self-importance and much overt playfulness.
That also pretty much described director Patrick Nolan’s visual conception, in which four performers shared the dance floor with two dozen giant boxes serving variously as set, props and odd-sized screens for Andrew Wholley’s projections. The boxes, constantly dragged in numerous positions across the stage, at their most kinetic resembled nothing so much as a giant game of Tetris.
A much different experience came in Ligeti Morphed, in which the Sydney-based Ensemble Offspring, together with electric guitarist Oren Ambarchi and turntablist Martin Ng, used scores by the late Hungarian composer mostly as a point of departure. Particularly in Continuum (a harpsichord piece performed here on two marimbas) and After Atmospheres (Ligeti’s landmark orchestral work rewritten for two violins and percussionist), lack of devotion to the score’s letter did little to hurt the spirit.
For music so conscious of texture and timbre, such liberties could be tantamount to heresy, but rarely has music been reconceived so reverently. Artistic director (and percussionist) Claire Edwardes devoted so much attention to the music’s pulse that the performance never lacked heart.