Friday March 16/Saturday March 17
The Mechanical Ballet refers to the dance between human musical abilities – both in a playing and composing sense – and the “mechatronics” of pre-programmed devices; machines that strike, thud, bow, pluck and rasp. It’s as if we’re in Tom Waits’ basement, upright player-pianos, gongs and various drums and all manner of circuitry and gadgetry.
The Stroma collective, augmented by pianists by Stephen De Pledge and Sarah Watkins lead us through a program that pits brand new works by locals from Victoria University’s School of Music with famous pieces from heavyweight international composers Steve Reich and George Antheil.
First up is David Downes’ Superflux, a short burst of electro-mechanical percussion. A custom-built robotic drumkit – acoustic drums arranged just so with electronics and programming playing the Aphex Twin-like breakbeats and washes of synths bubbling underneath.
It leads into Drumming, a famous piece by minimalist composer Steve Reich. This masterclass in rhythmic phasing is performed by the Stroma quartet, members adding and subtracting themselves throughout the piece as sticks bounce across bongo drums falling in and out of sync with one another. For this perofrmance there are doubled parts for robot drummers too. It’s hypnotic, mesmeric. The concentration from the players is palpable. A deep trance falls across the venue.
Mo Zareei’s Rasping Music arrives next, influenced by Reich (and his Clapping Music in particular). Here we have another version of phasing, this time there’s no human interaction, it’s four custom-built “Raspers” which trigger strobe lighting in accompaniment. Again, Aphex Twin’s drill’n’bass and industrial passages are channeled.
Michael Norris’ Tidal Flow is next with Stroma playing bowed metal, submerged cymbals and cowbells; with the four members standing at individual work stations to prepare and perform their parts of this composition it’s like Kraftwerk meets Strike.
Bridget Johnson’s Pas de Quatre is next – a true mechanical ballet this, as the piece of sound-design requires mechantronic loudspeakers. The speakers, on turntables, dolly and dance, the sound moving within and around the movement of the speakers. It fades and dances as the speakers bow and rock and swing.
After the interval it’s to Steve Reich again for his Piano Phase. Here the two pianists (Watkins and De Pledge) sit across from one another and lock into a deceptively simple ostinato. From there they take turns breaking out, moving in and away from the mantra-like melody. The tempo subtly shifts, the break-outs become auxiliary textures to the main. It’s essentially what Reich would perfect with this Drumming composition; the pianists here are amazing, there’s fire and ice in their feel and approach. Watkins is a study in concentration, De Pledge is more zen – it’s riveting to see their dance, amazing to take this in.
The closing piece is Geroge Antheil’s Ballet Mecanique from 1924. Here the shock of the new is in full flight, a dada-ist piece featuring the full ensemble (both pianists and Stroma) as well as pre-programmed piano-players and percussion, three propellers an a siren. It’s like the classic Warner Bros. cartoon music that Carl Stalling made. You can see the influence on (and from) Edgard Varese and what informed some of Frank Zappa’s “classical” works too. It’s a lively, frenetic closer, bringing the program full circle.
There was so much to take in – and it was all wonderful. The Reich pieces stood out, but the local compositions were brilliant. The playing was flawless. And then there was the head-scratch of just how much work went into this underneath, the programming, the layering, the syncing, the rehearsing. It was brilliant. Stunning works. A real festival highlight.
You can support Off The Tracks via PressPatron