Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Arrival

By Thomas Connelly

The crowd gathered and chatted, looked at mobile phones, took photos and texted envious friends. Some sat on recently installed bleacher seats, some on giant hot pink bean bags, some stood in the centre of the hall surrounded on both sides. The rising din echoed off the hard walls and was at the same time muffled by the soft humid crowd. Phones flashing, children laughing. Out the open door the blue blue of the river. Warehouses along the waterfront and the low foothills retreating to infinity. And then the hushing anticipation as the musician took the stage and nodded here and there with their instruments warming up and calming nerves.

The Arrival on stage (
We were gathering to see a performance of Ben Walsh's Orkestra of the Underground scores Shaun Tan's The Arrival.

The lights fall and rise, eyes appear and fade away, rapid changes and snatches of folk music and other snippets of sound and sense swirl and build to a frenzy of faces and drums and horns and a take your breath away in a galloping pace. The music flows, images fade and now we see fearful children under covers. A clatter of drums, the wail of horns. Mystery and Menace. After the rapids, a slow cool eddy.

It is easy enough to make a hash of introducing electronic or found sounds into a piece such as this, but here I am happy to say that the various sounds included fit together smoothly. The gulls overhead and the waves splashing, the immigrant ship add to the soundscape, slowly fading away. At one point I look away to see the heaving river and can almost smell the salt air. Further into the maelstrom of emotions the hero of the book comes into the city with a discordant resonating click clack series of sounds. And looking out the window of his railroad flat window, a fractal wall looking the same from any dimension, one could sense his isolation. A feeling of alienation and vulnerability. A longing for return and reuniting.

As well as the images projected on screen the lighting and effects for this piece were all very supportive, and added to, rather than subtracted from or overwhelmed the primacy. Which in this case was the music of the story. Flashing red as things fell apart to wide spans of thin smoke glowing purple in the light, and the menace of blue as runaway children held hands amid the clatter of drums, the popping of hand slapping skins and wailing and crying of horns. All moved together as one relentless flow of music and art and technology and space and coincidence to tell a sparse tale which forced the individual observer to fill in gaps with their own life experience.

Shaun Tan is an Australian writer and illustrator, who is originally from Perth, Western Australia. In 2006 he produced The Arrival; a wordless story which in 2007 won the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards Book of the Year prize.

Apparently, it was by happy accident that Ben Walsh came across this evocative book. He is a composer and drummer who embraces diverse musical genres including jazz, electronica, Hip Hop and has made music for dance, circus and film. Urged on by Tan's silent, wordless images Walsh created a score for The Arrival. The performance was a well produced effort by obviously a great many people. All the various elements of sound, rhythm, image, light and motion worked seamlessly. To the outsider who is not privy to the minor errors introduced in any live performance, the production seem to flow flawlessly.

One of the key aspects of this performance was the inclusion of a series of illustrations from the book projected onto screens behind the Orkestra. These dreamy, lovely drawings of half forgotten times were filled with strange amphibian like creatures and indecipherable squiggles and markings meant to be the foreign language refugees must learn. Amphi being a Greek word, and having at the root of the word the idea of 'on both sides.' (According to my (online) Liddell & Scott Greek–English Lexicon.) Whether by another happy accident or prior planning these strange creatures in a single simple image encapsulated the real life of the immigrant. That is the fact of being caught between two worlds, being on both sides of a cultural divide. Even the venue had echoes of this idea of being between two worlds. The old passing into nothingness Hobart and the new Hobart coming into being.

Any criticism I could make would be only the quibbles of one with neither the talent nor the drive to make such an event happen. A wider range of instruments could have allowed more texture and nuance of emotion to come through. As the number of makers in the Orkestra was only a cricket team the emotional range was limited by the tonal range of the instruments. I admit to having a hard time even typing this as the piece worked so effectively, and opened another door of discussion in the topic of how we treat newcomers to our sun burnt land. So I will say that it is a shame that this piece is not performed more often. It would be a useful activity to film the concert for viewing on one of the sensible stations, either ABC or SBS, followed by discussion with various people involved in the immigration debate. For all the joyful, liberating power of music, speech is often required to fine tune the discussion. But again this is just my opinion, and opinions as we all know are like (insert rude or cheeky body part here), in that everyone has one. And I more than anyone understand that my opinion is just that, an opinion not a truth.

The Arrival was included in the MOFO 2013 program and performed at PW1 in Hobart. 

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