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Gian Slater and Invenio reviewed in Real Time Arts

Gian Slater's new work, 'Us and Others' for the acclaimed vocal ensemble Invenio reviewed in Real Time Arts Magazine by Matthew Lorenzon. Read the review below, and see Invenio perform in May with Barney McAll's 'Graft' project as part of the 2012 Stonnington Jazz Festival.

Textures of Togetherness
Matthew Lorenzon: Gian Slater’s "Us & Others"

EIGHTEEN SINGERS SIT ON THEIR KNEES IN FOUR CIRCLES, HEADS TOUCHING THE GROUND. THE GROUPS ARE COLOUR-CODED BLUE, RED, YELLOW AND GREEN, COMPLETE WITH TOUCHES OF FACE PAINT. AT THE BACK OF THE STAGE A MARIMBA PLAYER DRESSED IN BLACK BEGINS AN ARPEGGIATED CHORD PROGRESSION. A VIBRAPHONE PLAYER JOINS IN WITH A LILTING MELODY. THE SINGERS BEGIN A SIGHING HARMONY, MUFFLED BY THE FLOOR.

As the vocal intrusion grows louder the singers lift their heads, increasing the clarity of the sparkling, close chords. The song fills the room as the choristers break away from their groupings. Words are heard: “Now we are alone when we are together.”

Already the stakes of Gian Slater’s Us & Others are evident. The four groups of mixed voices break with standard groupings, shifting the focus away from gendered tone colour to extended vocal timbres. Instead of singing at us in a line, the singers move about the space producing surround-sound effects. The text warns us not to take the “togetherness” (to use Percy Grainger’s way of putting it) suggested by harmony for granted, but to consider the loneliness in paradise.

By combining voices of different types on the same line, Slater is able to produce a homogeneous, almost synthesised texture. The layering of the parts in lush jazz-inspired chord progressions almost sounds like one person singing over themselves. If Slater’s grouping did not smooth out the timbral profile of the choir then the vocal talent of the singers did, each performer thoroughly owning his or her individual part.

Unencumbered by timbral differentiation, the ear was free to enjoy the singers’ movement around the space in lines and groups. After the blossoming sound world of the opening the choreography was more subdued. Hand gestures would muffle voices or swaying would bring out certain harmonies over others. The concert concluded with a return to facing the floor, this time in one large group with performers each ‘wibbling’ their tongues (making a small ‘o’ with the lips, vocalising and passing the tongue quickly back and forth over the opening). The sonic effects of Slater’s spatialisations were particularly evident in the middle of the front row, though some found that the effect was lost further back.

It was unusual to see Speak Percussion accompanying the Invenio Singers from the back of the stage, though each performer was given the chance to exhibit their prowess in small improvisatory numbers performed by the four colour groups. At one point, four singers sit in a circle cooing “nininini” at different speeds, giving the sense of balls bouncing to a stop or springing to life while Matthias Schack-Arnott plays bowls on a snare drum, tuning the snare to coax a pulsing rattle from the interference of the vessels. At another point an ode to solitude and freedom in the middle of a field is sung to Dan Richardson’s accompaniment of dried beans sizzling and spinning around an upturned ride cymbal. Eugene Ughetti expertly handles a foot pump during a chorus of breaths and Peter Neville rocks a talking drum amid a group scat. At all times there was a feeling of freedom within restraint as each individual navigated the sound palette carefully chosen by Slater to give the sense of micro-cultures surviving within larger social units.

There is a book to be written about the relationship between musical texture (the arrangement of simultaneous voices) and social organisation. With the performers standing side by side and singing through megaphones at the audience, Slater raises the criticism that despite technological synchronicity we are otherwise isolated from each other. From then on the diagnosis is fairly positive: happy little groups improvising before joining together for choreographed moments of harmonic splendour. It was more an exploration of musical ensemble than social togetherness. The question remains: why are musical metaphors for social organisation interesting? What can they tell us that we could not have known otherwise?

Perhaps the connection between music and society is not to be found in their formal similarity, but in their technological links to each other. Slater is not just a conductor-composer but a composer-sound engineer, using real breath and meat to produce tape-era special effects. Or perhaps even effects of the digital age. Is not the layering of semi-improvised voices a product of today’s cheap and accessible recording equipment? The technology that gave rise to Björk’s Medulla and Camille’s Le Fil? If so, then Us & Others, with its focus on the physicality of music-making, is a work of togetherness-making, the establishment of a community of enjoyment that encompasses not only 18 incredibly talented singers and four virtuosic percussionists, but the audience that leaves humming their tunes.

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