Composer distils unanswered questions

WASO. Picture: Toni Wilkinson

Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea
WA Symphony Orchestra
4 stars
Perth Concert Hall


Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea: a Symphony for Perth is a failure. It evinces no real understanding of and affection for the city. Even from a literal or programmatic standpoint, there is little in it that is identifiably and uniquely "Perth".

At least that's one possible way of looking at Saturday night's centrepiece of the Perth International Arts Festival finale. However, it's not mine.

First of all, art is not entertainment - though it can be entertaining. Its job is not to comfort and reaffirm; it is to disturb and to render unfamiliar so we can perceive the world anew and reach a deeper understanding of it and ourselves in the process. Tough love, if you like.

Framed in those terms, and especially when as convincingly realised as it was here by WASO under the baton of Carolyn Kuan, Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea is a success. This world premiere was even more successful thanks to the first half of the program being devoted to music for a medium whose raison d'etre is, ironically, entertainment: video games.

Watching sequences from the richly imagined worlds of the Unchartered and Bioshock series, as well as the "neo-noir" classic Grim Fandango and indie success Journey projected above the orchestra, one can certainly see its potential as a serious artform.

Sadly, and despite WASO and Kuan's skilled advocacy, the music by Greg Edmonson, Garry Schyman, Peter McConnell and Austin Wintory came across as workmanlike and derivative.

But the dreamlike game images succeeded where the music failed, creating a space conducive to Tod Machover's familiar-yet-strange soundscapes in this third of his "city symphonies" after Toronto and Edinburgh.

Described by Machover as conveying "Perth's dramatic geography, the simultaneous complexity and calm I have found there, and the enormous sense of potential and 'unanswered questions' that the city and region suggest," Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea is the result of a collaboration between the composer, musicians and the WA public, including schoolchildren, who contributed recorded sounds, electronically composed music and improvisations.

Unfolding as a "musical journey" through "real and imagined soundscapes" it combines the sounds of flies, birds, waves and the hubbub of the city with "Hyperscore" compositions by young students and written and improvised orchestral material.

It succeeds because Machover is not only an imaginative composer; he is also an empathic collaborator and dreamer who is able to perceive that the process, in the growth of a city as much as the growth of an individual, is as important as the end result.