In search of the ecstatic at Supersense
Sophia Brous assembled another magnificently eclectic program for her festival’s second outing
When news first broke in 2015 that Sophia Brous was curating an inaugural Festival of the Ecstatic, my initial thought was: that’s an interesting gauntlet to throw down to the stoic gig-goers of Melbourne. Can one achieve euphoria with one’s arms folded?
But then Brous is a prodigious, cross-disciplinary talent with a black book of reverie merchants and no apparent self-destructive streak to sabotage it all. That 2015 Supersense bill, which included a commissioned work from John Cale and a concert dedicated to the music of Brian Eno, topped even All Tomorrow’s Parties in its mind-expanding music programming. Her back catalogue of collaborations includes 2015’s In Dreams: David Lynch Revisited – the memory of which still reverberates through me now – and a project with the BBC Concert Orchestra. She was the program director of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival by the age of 22 and curator of music at Adelaide Festival a few years later.
Supersense is resolutely her baby, and it’s back. The festival is held over three days (18–20 August) in the bowels of the Arts Centre Melbourne; a labyrinth of corridors connect the State Theatre, Playhouse and Fairfax Studio. Digestive noises are pumped through the vents, which seems appropriate when we’re destined to explore our inner space.
The neurotheological explanation of ecstasy is that activity decreases in the frontal lobes and increases in the thalamus, which regulates arousal and awareness. Everything but the source of interest drops away. That’s a big call – but then so is the call coming from the State Theatre rehearsal room. Ánde Somby, the Master Yoiker of Norway, is harmonic singing, in long, undulating streams. As legend has it, Arctic elves gave yoiks to the indigenous Sámi people of northern Scandinavia, and each yoik channels an animal, a person or a place. The vocal technique been adapted by some Norwegian metal bands, but Somby (who’s also an associate professor at the University of Tromsø) delivers it in its purest form. Between throaty performances, he amiably describes the sounds of a magpie walking on different kinds of snow, or a reindeer descending a mountain, and then lets his larynx mimic the scene.
Demonstrating vocal prowess of a very different nature is Brous herself, in the stunning song cycle Lullaby Movement. Her studies at the New England Conservatory in Boston took in Persian music, microtonal composition and contemporary improvisation, and the adeptness with which she flits between styles now is startling. Lullaby Movement was created with Brits Leo Abrahams (who’s worked with Eno and Grace Jones) and David Coulter (the musical director of In Dreams), who provide musical saw, guitar and percussion. It covers 25 languages and was derived from visits to refugee workshops in Sydney, Berlin and Calais, where Brous learned the lullabies that brought comfort to dispossessed people. The emotion she summons needs no interpretation.
Also attuned to healing are the Master Musicians of Jajouka. The Jbala Sufi trance musicians from a village in northern Morocco have long collaborated with rock musicians, beginning with Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka, and yet their leader, Bachir Attar, kicks off proceedings with “We don’t want to be famous, we want to share this music with you.” The goat-god Pan presides over the Jajouka region, and it seems local goats gladly laid down their lives to make the percussion instruments. The music itself is set around counterpoint rhythms, drones, and call and response chants, evoking spiralling dust storms, hazy horizons and … is that … hooves? The elicitations to dance aren’t taken up by all, but those that do have their imaginations catered to.
Melbourne’s long-lost expat JG Thirlwell defected to London at 18 and later to New York. There, he collaborated with the most subversive of playmates, including Lydia Lunch and Richard Kern. As if to reinforce that message, a projection of a nocturnal journey along the Long Island Expressway plays behind him, the time-lapse cinematography and lack of context providing an unnerving sense of disconnection. The electro-acoustic performance Cholera Nocebo is devoid of the rage and paranoia that fuelled Thirlwell’s best-known work as Foetus (in the 1980s and ’90s, he finely diced and spliced hundreds of genres, from industrial to surf, to make a sample-laden stew way ahead of its time), but it takes just as many abrupt turns. His instruments – piano, autoharp, laptop, various paraphernalia – are split to surround-sound speakers around the Playhouse, so that there’s ominous crackling to the left of the audience, a bass frequency that seems to breathe to its right, and, above all that, an electronic heartbeat. After a career of autocratic studio tinkering, it now seems Thirlwell is now the ghost in his own machine.
Next up, The Dream Machine. The titular contraption is a stroboscopic flicker device, designed in the 1960s, which agitates the optic nerve and buggers with the brain’s electric oscillations. The uncultured concertgoer might just mistake it for the humble strobe; indeed, one nearby woman sighs and pulls her coat over her head. This original commission features the Master Musicians of Jajouka, New York guitarist Dave Harrington and harpist Zeena Parkins, looping their melodies into thick texture. On vocals there’s Brous again, not so much singing as making soft, guttural utterances. The effect is of being in a hypnagogic state, until the intensity dramatically builds, as if to mimic an unquiet mind. The rapidly shifting moods seem to instruct my own meandering thoughts. No wonder most of the audience takes this one lying down.
Never has a band worn its heart so resolutely on its sleeve as Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O. This fluctuating Japanese unit has titles like ‘Crystal Rainbow Pyramid, ‘Pussy Head Man from Outer Space’ and ‘Recurring Dream and Apocalypse of Darkness’. They’re the band that should be jamming as the End of Days plays out. In front of a backdrop of fairly prosaic trippy projections they loop hardcore psychedelic riffs, designed to facilitate a journey inwards. The relentlessness of it should be an endurance test for the wizards of rhythm section, but seemingly not. Stoic elder Higashi Hiroshi – with flowing white hair and beard – is pure being in front of his Roland and a theremin. Frequently he stares into heavens, as if inspecting the guttering.
There’s so much more to Supersense – too much to fit into one itinerary – such as supergroup Exo-Tech, some Pussy Riot Theatre, and a headline slot from Spiritualized with the Australian Art Orchestra and the Consort of Melbourne. There’s even a festival within a festival, Overground, which is essentially members of the bill matched up for mini-jams.
My experience closes with the ecstatic music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda. The audience members are instructed to remove their shoes and sit on the white-clad stage of the State Theatre, at which point a white backdrop falls behind us, giving the effect of sitting in a white box. The Sai Anantam Ashram singers file in, dressed in coloured robes and radiantly glamorous, for a concert dedicated to the memory of Alice Coltrane. The jazz pianist turned her talents to devotional songs after the death of her husband, John, and became the swamini (spiritual director) of an ashram near Malibu. Her music found wider popularity earlier this year when a compilation was released through David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, and now the mix of Hindu devotional music and Hammond-powered gospel is uplifting audiences everywhere. Tonight, with the vocals disappointingly muted in the mix, people don’t rise to their feet until the final song. My epiphany fails to launch, but then whether an audience member experiences euphoria and transformation or simply a sense of profundity really hinges on their own powers of self-transcendence. For this participant, the joy of Supersense has not been so much about letting go as going with the flow on a journey of discovery.
Jenny Valentish is a journalist and novelist. Her first non-fiction book, Woman of Substances, was recently published by Black Inc.