Music / Notes & Observations / Notes from the choir

1. From the East to the West: Astra in Venice


By Nicholas M. Tolhurst

What if we gave a festival and no one came? The horror of any concert producer is that the big day arrives…no audience. Art choirs—that is to say choirs of serious purport essaying a diversity of solecisms in taste and invention—alas, are too used to outnumbering their audiences in Australia.


Palazzo Pisani, Venice

Leaving behind their committed and choir-outnumbering audiences in Melbourne, the Astra Choir went to perform in Venice, Friuli and Bucharest. At the invitation of Professore Riccardo Vaglini of the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello di Venezia, about 40 of us are ensconced around La Serenissima attempting to recover from jet lag while getting lost and battling a never-ending succession of bridges that look like left-over RKO sets from Top Hat and Gay Divorcee.  I have been on the lookout for peeling foil and the remnants of mirrored floors, but all that is left are the gondolas and more than a handful of singing gondolieri—Nigel Farquhar-Bennet’s immortal line: ‘more of those fucking gondolas’ tolling in my ears at every twist and turn.

And here we are, under the direction of John McCaughey, joining with Vaglini’s Conservatorio mob in presenting a festival. The Conservatorio itself is in the Palazzo Pisani, a literally crumbling baroque pile on the Grand Canal. Halfway through the week of our visit, some of the façade fell off and our usual entrance was blocked off.  There is probably a metaphor to be explored about our whole involvement in the festival, which it would be tiresome to explore. If there is one thing I have learnt in Venice, it is to let metaphors be.

The Collettivo Rituale is a band of Vaglini adherents, keeping the flame of the avant garde flickering 50 years after the event. Mind you, among the Astra Improvising Choir there are a few of us flickering well after the event ourselves, having ‘been there’ in the dying days of the avant garde in the 1970s, as students of the La Trobe University School of Music.  In those heady days, the likes of Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, the Fluxus Movement and John Cage were a living presence. Now they are historical ghosts, summoned by Vaglini and the Collettivo for Strade dell’Est, a festival of concerts and events on the theme of the orient meeting the occident.

As guests of the festival McCaughey devised a program for the Astra choir with works determined by text or location, e.g. Schumann’s Talismane: Gottes ist der Orient; Schoenberg’s Mond und Menschen (based on a Chinese poem); a reworking of Ligeti’s Bagatelle No 2 (originally for wind instruments) for choir by Australia’s Julian Yu using a Chinese poem; and even a Brahms Canon Zu Rauch, based on a playful text by Al Hariri of Basra and translated by Rückert. The interplay between these works is complex and multi-layered, as one expects from McCaughey.  If ever a music program could be said to be meaningfully ‘curated’, the Astra touring program is in itself and in its collaborations, a superbly curated work. But in an age where people curate coffee … better abandon the word—it is lost to the language.

Amidst the written works, the Astra Improvising Choir intersperses sequences based on the Australian rainforest (humans do landscape); a Javanese song and Balinese rhythmic chant. I am highly skeptical of the art of improvisation outside of popular (and by now old hat) jazz structures, feeling that what I hear in public performances might best be restricted to the privacy of one’s own home.  As an original member of the La Trobe University Music School’s improvising course, under the direction of Joan Lawrence (now Pollock), and a hugely enthusiastic member, I was not surprised to be asked by Joan to join the Improvising Choir as part of the tour.

I was brought up to be a gentleman and, although by definition, gentlemen don’t define themselves, I have the working description of a gentleman as someone who (insert: plays viola, saxophone, or improvises vocally) but doesn’t. I have been known to play the viola and intend to still and yet, I found myself compelled by a gentlemanly urge to accept warmly Joan’s invitation.  And I’m bloody glad I did.

The Improvising Choir was already well honed in delivering sound (sic) performances by the time I joined them. I learnt my bird calls and frog and cricket noises and by the time we were spread up and down the majestic staircase of the Palazzo Pisano Conservatorio, suffusing the old baroque pile with a lush susurration (am I overdoing it here?) of coos and rustles and the occasional harsh crack of a gang gang or a hail of kookaburra calls, well, we knocked the socks off the audience walking up those stairs.  Our descending Javanese chant at the end of the ‘concert’ was sublime and gently erased some of the cultural grime from the old Palazzo (not meaning to be rude about Venetian culture here).

When I say ‘audience’ I mean a couple of people who had no role in the performance of the day and perhaps excluding a couple of partners of performers who came along for the ride. At the Conservatorio we were part of Vaglini’s Fluxus performances. What is Fluxus? I quote from Wikipedia


Palazzo Pisani, Venice

Fluxus—a name taken from a Latin word meaning “flow, flux” (noun); “flowing, fluid” (adj.)—is an international network of artists, composers and designers noted for blending different artistic media and disciplines in the 1960s.

Throw around the names I mentioned above and concepts of neo-Dada, performance art, multi-media and non-traditional locations and you have some idea of it. Some say it is all a terrible wank and there may be some justification.  On one level it is highly indulgent—the act of a stuffed toy being tied to your leg and being dragged up stairs is art?—and on another level it is, properly for a neo-Dada movement, a smack in the face.

It is also immense fun. Vaglini’s performance of Yoko Ono’s Laundry Piece (1963) involved him digging items out of his laundry basket and talking about the laundry and what he was doing. Because he took it seriously and because he’s also a bit of a charmer, it was a delight to be in on the moment. We forget that public performance is about performer and audience meeting each other as equally significant contributors to the event. We learnt this at La Trobe in the 1970s, working in direct succession from the artists of the 1960s. McCaughey has been fuelling the fire through his programming of Astra performances since and it was a fine thing to be part of lighting another candle in Venice, to help the flame burn among the young (and Rafaellian) Vaglini acolytes and the denizens of the Conservatorio.


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