Tag Archives: The Usefulness of Art

WELCOME TO COUNTRY

Adam Simmons and Vikram Iyengar

Adam Simmons and Vikram Iyengar in The Calling.

REVIEW

The Calling — Adam Simmons, Concert 4 in The Usefulness of Art series, 7.30pm 4 May 2018, fortyfive downstairs

Coming to a performance without baggage is impossible, just as leaving that behind when writing a review can’t be done. But one way to judge any work of art is surely to ask whether and where it has taken us; down which paths, if any, has it prompted us to explore.

I came to The Calling having watched all except one of Adam Simmons’ short, explanatory videos prefacing this concert he describes as being “in four parts, with little bits in between”. As these videos explain, in this work he— with significant help from his Creative Music Ensemble and the Afrolankan Drumming System duo — explores themes of identity and belonging by drawing on his first visit to his mother’s homeland, Sri Lanka.

My parents were not born overseas. But I can identify a little with Simmons’ search for identity — he was born in Chelsea and grew up in a mix of Ballarat, Upwey and Westall before making Melbourne his home; I was born in Bairnsdale and grew up in Clayton, Orbost, Berwick and Horsham before moving to the city. It is quite a different experience from living only in one place. You tear up roots and move on, from security briefly fashioned to its absence.

Simmons clearly felt a more profound absence that drew him to Sri Lanka in 2016, a connection that he felt drawn to make with part of his cultural heritage.

The most affecting part of these prefatory videos, I felt, came in Simmons’ account of his experience at the temple in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Amid the populous bustle and noise of this place where people queued to see the site of the tooth of Buddha, he found a connection with his mother’s birthplace — a gentle smile that conveyed love, acceptance and welcome.

That experience inspired Part 4 of The Calling, entitled Connection: The Tooth of Buddha.

It resonated with me before I heard the music. Many years back when visiting that temple in Kandy I had a totally different, yet moving experience. Early on a still, cool morning, I wandered in those spaces free of people, absorbing the place in a kind of meditative exploration. My reverie then was broken only when a resident monk offered me a leaf-wrapped packet of sticky rice. The warmth and kindness of that simple act has remained with me.

There is not so much of a quietly meditative nature in the performance of The Calling. This work bristles with percussive variety, conveying the vibrancy, life and vitality found often in Sri Lanka.

Three transitional interludes employ imaginatively different approaches to bring train journeys into sharp relief, conveying via sounds and visuals the urgency of getting somewhere, the insistent patterns of wheels in motion, resonant whistles wailing into the distance and the colour and busyness of passenger interactions.

Of the four main compositional offerings, three offer a richly percussive mix of energy and intensity — the rhythms of life writ large. In the opening piece, The Calling, Ray Pereira (djembe, conga, dundun) and Kanchana Karuntaratna (gata bera, thammattama) provide a virtuosic spectacle that varies in tempo and intensity, competition and congruence. These two musicians who form The Afro-Lankan Drumming System are serious and exuberant as they converse via their instruments, displaying lightness and rapidity, dexterity and finesse. It is hard not to be mesmerised.

Eventually Niko Schauble and Hugh Harvey add their drums to the mix before wailing horns build the feel of a street parade or the madness of traffic. It develops into an occasionally discordant melee of resplendent mayhem.

In Part 3, Living: The Dance of Kottu Roti, an array of instruments combines to convey an unsettling but glorious cacophony of hammering, knocking and tinkling —bustle and chatter, colour and movement. So much is happening that we can only let it wash over us like a carnival, tasting and savouring flavours and smells.

Part 4 brings us to that Kandi temple, drums and cymbals signalling drama, helped by horns. On soprano saxophone, Simmons becomes the focus in a riveting solo, grabbing deep gasps of air to power sighs, wails and sonorous, almost plaintive notes. It is as if making a connection to deep cultural roots is not easy. It may require effort, perhaps anguish.

Gradually we become aware that only one instrument is playing, that the mayhem has subsided. A dancer, Vikram Iyengar, moves slowly and purposefully among the musicians to connect with and ultimately support Simmons in his soliloquy. Yet this is a relationship of mutuality — the player and the dancer lean on, and gain support from, each other. Almost too starkly lit, it is a most powerful image.

Three sharp drum beats bring us back to what must be the crowded, noise-filled temple.

The only portion of this work that offers a less frenetic perspective is Part 2 – Place: The Pearl. Here Nat Grant and Carmen Chan on vibes draw us deep into the landscape, into ancient history and into the luxuriant humidity of a fecund rainforest. Eventually a slow melody delivered by the horns takes on a hymn-like feel, solemn and a little wistful. Deep notes draw us to the earth. There is a feeling that we are touching the heart of this land.

The strongest image of The Calling, for me, was that of Simmons supported wholly by Iyengar, symbolising his finding of a connection. The richest listening experience I found in Part 2, when place was tangible.

It is impossible, and unnecessary, to compare The Calling with other concerts in The Usefulness of Art series. But this work of art well and truly passed the test of taking us somewhere, of prompting exploration.

A few days after the performance I was reading Khaleed Hosseini’s novel And the Mountains Echoed. A remark by one of the characters seemed to fit Simmons’ mission:
“You are lucky to know where you came from. It is important to know this, to know your roots. … If not, your own life seems unreal to you. Like a puzzle. Like you have missed the beginning of a story …”

In The Calling, Adam Simmons shows that he found a significant part of his story. Yet, as he said while introducing the performance, it is worth asking how the treatment of disconnected people who have come to this nation may have been affected by our own displacements.

ROGER MITCHELL

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ART AWAKENS EMPATHY

Adam Simmons

Adam Simmons during Travelling Tales

REVIEW

Travelling Tales, The Usefulness of Art concert 3, Adam Simmons with Arcko Symphonic Ensemble, 3pm December 10, 2017 at fortyfive downstairs

The collection of thoughts, inspirations and observations that inspired compositions in the third concert in Adam Simmons’ series collectively titled The Usefulness of Art would have been familiar to anyone who has spent time travelling.

These included the sense of adventure as we set out to explore the unknown, the opportunities to gain cultural and historic insights, the intensity of all-night experiences that extended until dawn, the rewards and risks of getting off the beaten track and the pleasure of tasting bread fresh from a bakery after a night of solving the world’s problems.

But Simmons’ inspirations also invited us to reflect on less positive but still powerful experiences encountered in the world. The program notes for his piece Threnody, a lament, refer to mourning for travellers who are on the road out of necessity rather than for pleasure. For me, this recalled one deeply affecting night spent talking with tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka as they tearfully farewelled families forcibly being repatriated to the south of India the next day.

Threnody was, for me, the most affecting piece in concert 3. It began with sonorous, plaintive strings under red lighting, Simmons standing behind the Arcko players, but not contributing. Then, as he moved forward, his tenor sax began a sour, rasping and agonising cry over the drone of strings that continued until the piece died away. It felt full of suffering and loss.

In this series of concerts Simmons has drawn deeply on Auguste Rodin’s view of the usefulness of the artist, including his declaration: “I call useful all that gives us happiness.”

Threnody felt like a reminder that at times it is important that we are not happy, having had our empathy awakened by the situation of others, able to feel compassion and to be motivated by anger to action.

Reflecting on this since hearing Travelling Tales, I’ve been reminded of how important the artists – painters, poets, musicians – were in motivating change in Iran before the fall of the Shah. The usefulness art was palpably evident then.

Of course the other eight pieces in concert 3 had quite a different flavour.

On the evening after this afternoon recital I recall telling a friend that this concert differed from the previous two in the TUoA series because Simmons was playing solos, with improvisations, while Arcko players acted as a unit playing from musical scores and under the baton of conductor Timothy Phillips. Viewed in that way Simmons was the star of the show, so to speak, and Arcko Symphonic Ensemble the skilled backing band.

But that view was wrong and does not do justice to the interaction between ensemble and soloist. Certainly Adam Simmons’ contributions stood out in this performance — I have never heard him play more evocatively — but it was the unity of the ensemble with soloist that delivered in spades. Everything Simmons created on bass clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones was delivered into a soundscape created by Arcko players with subtlety and verve.

This unity of soloist with ensemble was evident from the opening piece, Beginnings, when Simmons’ light and air-filled musings on soprano sax – his notes wandering freely to give a taste of journeys ahead – were perfectly complemented by a slow undercurrent of strings. And in A Single Step Arcko players contributed drama and built intensity with sharply repetitive patterns as a contrast to soft, deep tenor sax notes and later muted explorations. The strings acted as a subtle drone in A Nod to the Old World, swelling and receding beneath the serenity of floating notes from bass clarinet.

In The City that Never Sleeps Arcko players awaken us to work collaboratively with Simmons in creating a wonderful complexity, soloist and strings taking different paths and varying intensity to build the busyness. And in Living by Numbers the symphonic strength and agility of Arcko was on show as Simmons on soprano sax perfectly captured the disturbing mood of adventure, risk-taking, daring and danger. In A Song for Sharing, ensemble and tenor sax did exactly that, working a melody into a round with strings seemingly egging on the soloist. Strings and soprano sax embraced fondly in the closing Warm Croissants.

The one solo piece in this concert, Milosc, was a sublime demonstration of how expressive a saxophone can be, notes at times soaring and flaring, then fragile.

Adam Simmons has said that each of these TUoA concerts will develop from what has gone before in the series. They have been so different that we await with great expectations the two yet to come. It has always seemed unfortunate and unnecessary that an artist feels the need to prove the usefulness of art. That’s a given. Travelling Tales has demonstrated how powerfully affecting art can be.

ROGER MITCHELL

A few images from the night:

A WINDOW ON OUR RAISON D’ÊTRE

 

The Usefulness of Art, Concert 2

The Usefulness of Art, Concert 2: Final moment

REVIEW

The Usefulness of Art, Concert 2, performed by the Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble at fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, August 24, 2017

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since this opening night performance, but vivid recollections remain. I recall thinking as the music faded to silence and a single spotlight played on a suspended “cloud”, that once again Adam Simmons and his crew had demonstrated the power and value of art.

Mundane matters — a computer failure and the need to find a replacement before packing for an imminent flight to Canada — brought me down the many stairs of this wonderful, hidden away venue in an unsettled state of mind.

Yet the sense of excitement and expectation engendered by the colourful Concert 1 of this series, with its streamers, balloons and joie de vivre, was heightened on this occasion by the imaginative set — devised by Diokno Pasilan and Christine Crawshaw — with suspended chairs and clumps of fluffy clouds.

Adam Simmons has recently written about his long preoccupation with Auguste Rodin’s views on The Usefulness of the Artist.

Rodin’s definition of the artist as “the man who takes pleasure in what he does” is immediately appealing — artists in all trades forming part of “an admirable society”. As someone who has come to love beekeeping — not just for the acquisition of honey, but for the deep pleasure it brings — I can identify closely with this concept.

But Rodin’s view is much more expansive than individual fulfilment: “I call useful all that gives us happiness.” And over many years Simmons — an energetic, creative and inspiring multi-instrumentalist and composer — has delved deeply into what art can offer.

“Beyond the more utilitarian nature of art being for economic or personal development, it is also how art can build community,” Adam Simmons has written. “Through performances with my ensembles … I have seen firsthand how music and art can bring disparate people together in shared and transformative experiences. Social connectedness has been identified as an important factor for health and wellbeing. I believe art is fundamental in helping us communicate and connect which other.

Simmons continues: “Artistic expression manages to convey understanding and insight via means other than language. The things that make art so powerful in this regard are the intangibles – the way it helps inspire, question, empathise and unite us, helping create stronger communities. I think that’s useful!”

That unity and sense of community is what has lingered in my mind so long after this second concert in a series of five that will stretch into 2018. The sense of fun and joy was still evident among the ensemble members, although the set and costumes conveyed a darker mood. As collective voices joined Pete Lawler’s distinctive and arresting solo vocals at the culmination of this concert, drawing the audience into their harmonic spell, I felt that we were indeed united and there was much power and benefit in that.

With any offering inspired by Adam Simmons there is going to be more than merely music. But additional elements — in this case the darkly Gothic costumes by Christine Crawshaw — are always beautifully integrated. As Simmons breathed gently and circularly into his bass clarinet to begin the Creative Music Ensemble’s journey through music originally conceived to highlight qualities that art engenders — acceptance, empathy, generosity, compassion and faith — we were enfolded in a sense of mystery.

The pieces, named for those qualities, were familiar. Origami’s album The Usefulness of Art was released in 2013. But this rendition, with 13 ensemble members (unfortunately some others were unavailable on opening night), was dramatically different. Simmons has assembled this ensemble with care and utilises their skills imaginatively. Each piece segued into the next in gradual transformations, swelling and receding as Simmons conducted from within, directing the gestation.

This was very much an ensemble work rather than an airing of solos, but there were highlights. Diokno Pasilan on gamelan instruments, Niko Schauble and Hugh Harvey on drums, Peter Lawler on a hand drum and Nat Grant on Marimba provided a rich feast of varied percussion that was at times an underlay and at others more prominent.

Most effective and affecting duos came from Paul Simmons (sax) and Gemma Horbury (trumpet), and Bryn Hills (trombone) with Adam Simmons (bass clarinet). Miranda Hill, with and without bow, was a ball of creative energy on double bass. David Brown, on guitar, not unexpectedly made deft and entirely apposite interventions. Cara Taber and Gideon Brazil on reeds enjoyed making great lamentations. Peter Lawler made fiendishly superb contributions on his mini synth and left a lingering impact with vocals that called to mind the Korean p’ansori singer Bae Il Dong.

This performance lasted 50 minutes, yet it seemed to flash past. Clearly the musicians enjoyed their outing greatly, yet there was a sombre feel in the music that went beyond the mood created by set and costumes. I felt this concert invited the audience to become deeply immersed in the work of creativity and, ultimately, to join in a shared experience.

Art had indeed opened a window on our raison d’être, as Rodin might have put it.

ROGER MITCHELL

Here’s a gallery of images from opening night: