Cultural Comment

Eddie Perfect and Barrie Kosky – Nature and Sexuality Examined at Misanthropology

The planning for our Sydfest week was fairly complex and more expensive than in past years – usually all I ever did was haul a chair and food to the Symphony Under the Stars. This year, however, the timing of Misanthropology, midnight, forced us to look at staying in the city.  And so it happened.  A great thing too.  We ended staying two nights, so we could simply wobble back to the room after the Symphony Under the Stars.

It was a show that had at its heart the concept that we as human beings are not developing, evolving, moving forward.  Instead, we are wallowing in a cultural netherworld.  This argument was supported by songs like Eco Lodge (which I still have stuck in my head), songs about self-absorbed cyclists, the creepy concept of a father buying his daughter’s fake breasts and the concept of “stray” women being fair game for footballers in a song that held up Kerry-Anne Kennerley as a symbol of the cultural netherworld.

In Perfect’s argument, we are, as a society, confused about nature and sexuality and how we deal with them.  With nature, we seem to want to protect it, but we do that by transferring our overwhelming instinct to dominate nature – in every way possible.  In terms of sexuality, the elders of society – fathers, experienced TV personalities – are not dispensing wisdom; instead there are fathers telling their daughters that it is OK to be more sexually desirable through acquisition of artificial breasts and a female TV personality can water down talk of rape by saying that there are “stray” women looking for sex in the early hours of the morning.  Amongst the cutting satire and great singing, there is meat in Perfect’s social commentary.

My favourite moment, however, came with Perfect’s response to the type of cultural concepts being created by Barrie Kosky.  Its argument was that we as humans have now produced shows that require long commitment to view shows that are self-indulgent, pretentious and devoid of clear meaning to the gathered crowds.  And that is Kosky. Here is one example of a Kosky adventure, complete with men wearing dresses.  The highlight of the song for me was where we hear Perfect, as Kosky, declare that Europe loves him, as a way of justifying himself in the face of Australian criticism.  The song summed up for me just where Kosky sits in the context of Australian culture – as a self-promoting touchstone that attracts funding, praise and adulation for shows that have little to do with Australia or its people; a hostile force that has not but disdain for critics.

With that, Eddie Perfect neatly tied together a few threads of the Sydney Festival for me. His musical performance was excellent and he managed to, along with Paul Kelly, provide a picture of Australia that shows us that we are fairly laconic, lacking in pretention and willing to provide a slightly innocent, strongly moral look at the human experience.

And then, after the show, Eddie stuck around and had a drink with audience members who didn’t have to race home.  I can’t imagine John Malkovich or Barrie Kosky doing that.

Cultural Comment

Minto Live at the Sydney Festival

On a Wednesday night, I saw the much maligned Giacomo Variations.  I do understand why McCallum would be so scathing of the show.  Perhaps he should have instead gone to Minto to see Minto Live (or, as the locals would call it, Minno Live).  This event was an interesting and refreshing mix of locals and imported performers doing their thing on the streets of the much maligned suburb.  Tellingly, the streets where the performances occurred were the new, freshly redeveloped streets of the suburb.  We saw locals sing, dance and gain a sense of pride in their suburb.  As well as have an audience of between 300 – 400 see it.  Here’s three images I particularly liked.

One of the local dances
Ever wanted to dance in your front yard in front of hundreds?
Turn on the car radio and dance in the street like this family.

They showed just why this event was a winner – people really appreciated the effort the locals had made in preparing their dances and connected on a personal level with the concept of freely expressing yourself in front of a crowd.  The next picture is of an indigenous local who wanted her dance to cleanse the area of the heartache associated with death and domestic violence from the past.

Cleansing the area of its heartache.

I was walking next to the performer of the cleansing dance, who was very excited about having completed her dance, feeling joy and affirmation for their lives from the gathered crowd – affirmation I don’t think she’ll forget.  I saw this performance the night after spending nearly $100 to barely hear John Malkovich speaking above an orchestra.  The contrast was stark.  Malkovich, by contrast with these dancers, didn’t like giving interviews or interacting with Sydney on any level.

The other performance, by Ten, asked the crowd to think about their cultural heritage and used paint and dancing to do that.  It was a challenge for a number of children present to maintain interest during the talking elements – but for the most part, it was engaging, funny and it resonated with the culturally diverse group of locals and visitors. Mixing cultural heritage with the St. George Cross was a very interesting concept.

Part of the Ten performance

This was the Sydney Festival as it should be, in some respects.  It went out into the community, collaborated with locals and produced a very enjoyable, free event.  I hope there is one of these collaborations every year.  It is as far from European costume foolery and Eddie Perfect’s sharp social commentary as you can get – but it was still a nice night out.  I’ll end this blog with a picture that summed up the spirit of Minto Live for me.

Taking the knitting circle outside.
Classical Music Cultural Comment

Colm Mac Con Iomaire – Irish Music Goes Global

The last concert in our Sydney Festival extravaganza was a concert by Irish musician Colm Mac Con Iomaire with gathered musician “friends” as he put it.  And you can believe they are friends.  Colm is so low key, humble and understated that you could believe that they enjoy cups of tea and the occasional beer together.  I had no idea about the music before walking in, except that he was Irish and liked to mix things up.  His type of music, I discovered, shows what can happen if you combine a detailed and sophisticated understanding of Irish culture with a knowledge of how to use music technology and a willingness to absorb other cultural elements.

I had expected the sort of Irish music everyone hears when you see any Irish program or documentary about Ireland.  Jigs.  Lots of tin whistles and bodhrans,  Chieftains style – or perhaps what we consider “traditional” Irish music (check out “Paul Keating” in the video!).  However, it wasn’t in terms of style.  His is modern Irish music that has matured and changed in contact with the world outside Ireland. Colm was very particular about telling us where the musicians in the group came from, as if to tell us about their cultural background and how that might inform the music.  The same went for his introductions of the songs, where the influences were discussed.  He reflected at one point about an Eastern Europeans writing music in Ireland, and vice versa being a great thing, which it is, symbol of the blending of global boundaries to create new musical voices.

His music also makes extensive use of technology, where he recorded his violin (though, probably more accurate to call it a fiddle) playing a particular loop while he placed other layers on top – but wasn’t afraid to start again if he stuffed up, showing his desire to provide the best sound for the audience.  It gave a more haunting and rich quality to the music being made.   It also added an element of the type of repetitive looping that was heard earlier in the week with Philip Glass.  Except this time, it wasn’t there to show the mechanistic nature of modern society, more as a way of driving the music forward, provide a framework over which the melodies sang their links to Ireland and the Irish people.

Ultimately, while this music had influences from various cultures, especially bluegrass from the USA, it softly spoke about Ireland, its history and its people in musical forms. Colm’s love of Irish Gaelic could be seen in the way he spoke the soft phrases from the language in his introductions, as well as in reading poetry by Michael Hartnett and the softness could be heard in the music and the gentle way it wandered.  In that, Colm had much in common with Paul Kelly – he is telling the story of his people in just writing about them – except in a more abstract fashion.  It was a lovely sorbet after the massive feast of sounds we had been enjoying.

Talking of that feast, there will be blogs this week about other events from the Sydney Festival – Minto Live, Eddie Perfect and the Symphony in the Domain.  Hope you enjoy them and get something out of them.



Cultural Comment

From New York to St. Kilda – Philip Glass and Paul Kelly at the City Recital Hall

We went to vastly different musical experiences at the City Recital Hall as a part of the Sydney Festival this week. Philip Glass and Paul Kelly. Both were sold out, both had adoring, appreciative audiences and both told rich stories about the cultures of their respective places.

Paul Kelly is an artist I haven’t paid anywhere near enough attention to over the years. I bought a collection of his over 10 years ago and was dimly aware of his better known songs. This is due mostly to an outer suburban life where you don’t hear much outside the “hits”. My partner, though, has been a very enthusiastic fan for a long time. So, for her, the evening of Kelly where he wandered through his catalogue from F to L was a night of rapt reacquaintance with the songs, without the presence of bogans demanding he play more “hits”. For me, it was a discovery of a whole type of storytelling I had never knew existed.

As Kelly gave short, but rich accounts of the background of the songs and then sang them in with the unassuming air of a musician who is in the prime of his career, sure of the tone he is setting with his audience. There was a spellbinding bond between a musician and his/her audience that you experience every so often in a concert hall – Stephen Hough, the English pianist comes to mind. As the night wended its way along, I could also see an emerging image of the variety of what it is to be Australian. I’m pretty sure that was never Kelly’s intention, but It struck me that he has been quietly assembling the Australian story simply by writing about it.

And all this in a setting that we haven’t normally associated with a so-called “popular” artist, the City Recital Hall, which is a far cry from the many venues Kelly would have played before now. But there, the focus was on him and he left a lasting impression.

I contrast this with Philip Glass, for whom the Recital Hall would be a familiar setting. He brought an isolated New York feel to the festival, playing in his own bubble, resembling more a machine that we were there to observe, rather than a musical event with which we could participate. No less special or remarkable than the Kelly performance – just very different. Glass brought a view of his world that highlighted how mechanical the city can be, driving incessantly and with relentless intensity. I know there are many New Yorks, from what I have been told, but Glass brought us one of them. While I understand that world and often feel isolated in the mechanistic and cold Sydney, I found myself more drawn to the warmth of Kelly. I look forward to listening to the A to Z recordings.