Composer Damien Ricketson’s performance piece The Secret Noise sets out to explore 'music that has been deliberately kept from public ears. From forbidden airs to censored songs, retracted tunes and intimate odes intended for just one listener'. Whilst these influences may well be present in the composition, it would take a trained eye and ear to pick them out. Never-the-less, the performance had moments of arresting beauty, and the musicianship was stellar throughout.
The Secret Noise is performed by Sydney-based Ensemble Offspring, lead by Claire Edwardes. Though the core ensemble is usually formed of six musicians, The Secret Noisefeatures just three ensemble musicians, the performer-composer, two dancers and an actor/vocalist. The ethos of collaboration at the heart of Ensemble Offspring’s practice is clear here – this group of seven cohere well and performance elements are for the most part well integrated with musical elements.
The piece begins with some very serious colouring in. Each audience member adds colour and flourish to an individualised doodle handed to them upon arrival. Thereafter, the doodle is used variously as a score by individual performers in small, private tents, each demonstrating a different instrument or mode of improvised performance. For me, this was where the piece flourished – though this section did not require the same virtuosity from its performers that they would display later on, the intimacy and strangeness of these inexplicable rituals was, at times, spell-binding.
Once participants had had the opportunity to wander around to a few of these little tents, something more akin to a traditional performance began – audience seated silently in rows; performers playing music from more traditional scores. A great frustration of this section was to do with visibility. The ensemble had clearly put a great amount of consideration into the visual spectacle of their work; yet anyone behind the second row couldn’t see most of what was being presented. It sounds like a quibbling matter, but it isn’t. The visual, abstract performance element was something that could have set this piece apart from a lot of its new music contemporaries – only I couldn’t see most of it.
What I could see had some beautifully crafted moments – all of the musicians are the real deal, and use their instruments with a conscious, bodily presence; and performers Narelle Benjamin, Katherine Cogill and Katia Molino were hypnotic. Ultimately, though, the sections of the composition felt more like disconnected vignettes than movements, with little to give context to what we were seeing and hearing.
In a piece whose compositional inspiration was that which the public cannot hear, I would have liked a more thorough exploration of boundaries and barriers to sound – what can the audience not hear? What permission do we have to be there? How can we earn access to these sounds? Whilst the music was accomplished and at times beautiful, the underscoring philosophies and interests of the music were, for me, not well-enough carried through in the piece’s realisation.
The Secret Noise
Performed by Ensemble Offspring
Concept and Composition: Damien Ricketson
Director: Carlos Gomes
Dancers: Narelle Benjamin, Katherine Cogill Actor: Katia Molino
Clarinet: Jason Noble
Percussion: Claire Edwardes, Bree van Reyk
Lighting Designer: Fausto Brusamolino
Melbourne Festival – Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
14-15 October 2016